Climb – Trotsky’s Folly Date(s) – January, 1995 Area/Range – Banks Lake, Eastern WA Approach Route – Devils Punch Bowl Area Ascent Route – Trotsky’s Folly Decent Route – Same Altitude – feet Elevation Gain – 40 feet Total Distance – N/A miles Maps/Guides – Desert Rock, page 116 Grade – I Class – WI 3 Pitches – 2 Weather – Snowing but warming enough to drop a lot of ice from above Climbing Partners – Tom Nicholas Climb Leaders – Les Profitt Number in Party – 2
Comments: Neat place, we wound up here after checking out the North face of Chair Peak and deciding there was too much avalanche hazard. We also drove to Frenchman’s Coulee, but the ice there wasn’t well formed.
So we drove all the way to Banks Lake to do a recon and a little climbing. We started up the slope to do the left side of Devil’s Punch Bowl, but a big chunk of ice cut loose as we were climbing up the slippery base. Tom managed to duck behind a boulder but I was trapped out on the slope and decided to play dodge ball with the huge chunks.
I avoided all but one chunk about the size of a basketball. It kept zigging and zagging and I wound up having to deflect it with my hand. It bent my hand way back the wrong way; it hurt for a while and then became very numb and worthless.
We decided that was a bad place to be and climbed/slid back down the slope and over to Trotsky’s Folly. The photos are dark as it was the middle of winter and it got dark early…but we still wanted to crank a few more ice moves.
This is a nice climb, too bad my hand was messed up. We climbed up to the right and tried to find a solid place to put up a top-rope from on top of the first pitch, but couldn’t find a good placement.
I decided to aid up the pitch and place some screws. I got up the pitch and we played around for a while, chipping, thunking and sticking front points all over the place.
Tom’s brand new Footfangs came apart and he lost a bolt. His foot was level with my head so he clipped off to a screw and I took off one of my crampons and attached it to his foot.
We climbed until it was too dark to see and then Tom tied off a sling around a small tree and jumped off the route when it became too funky to traverse. Sparks flew everywhere and I just hoped he didn’t bend my crampon all to hell.
A small frozen pool at the base provides a nice flat belay stance, but it wasn’t entirely frozen. All in all a good trip.
Coming back we were going to bivy back in the Chair peak area but it was real late by the time we got to the pass and Tom decided he would spring for a motel room in North Bend.
I got no sleep because of the “snoremeister”, but at least I was warm and dry. I watched the same music videos all night long. The next morning we headed back up to Snoqualmie Pass and decided to ski up to Chair Peak.
It was snowing heavily and we passed several fresh avalanche paths and heard the avalanche control explosions over on Cave Ridge.
Conditions were really primed for bad slides. We met a couple of guys that had just got some new ice tools and wanted to try them out on Chair. I tried to talk them out of it but they went on ahead.
I’m sure they got to the base of the climb and turned back. Oh well. We got some good turns in on the way back and had a great time.
This story was originally written as part of a climbing resume several years after the event to get credit for the Mountaineers, Mountaineering Orientated First Aid class (MOFA). A MOFA postmortem is included at the end.
Rick and I decided to give Mt. Baker a go on the last weekend in September, 1990. I had just purchased a brand new expedition tent, and wanted to test it out before the winter season hit. The weather forecast was for clear skies and no precipitation.
We started up early Saturday and made it up to the “Hogsback” just before noon. This is an area just below Heliotrope Ridge where most climbers set up base camp for the Coleman/Deming routes. Our intention was to set up basecamp, lay around, eat and get to bed early. We wanted to start off early Sunday morning, summit, and descend all the way down the mountain the same day.
I noticed as soon as we got to the base of the glacier that it was severely crevassed, and that the ice was bare right down to the hard blue glacier ice. I knew the glacier would be opened up this late in the season but it looked menacing. Route finding up the ridge looked pretty challenging, and very intense.
We went out and tested how our crampons would bite on the hard ice and found that we really had to kick them in to get a good purchase. Our ice axes barely scratched the surface. Good thing we had ice screws.
Self-arrest on ice that hard and steep is all but impossible. I spent most of the afternoon scouting the whole ridge with binoculars looking for a line that could be put together. I wanted to be sure I could navigate it in the dark so I spent a lot of time studying the glacier.
Another tent was set up nearby, and I figured that the owners were up climbing and should be back shortly if they had set out early. I wanted to see how they descended through the crevasse field so I was constantly watching for them to break over the ridge about 1500 feet up. I was beginning to worry a bit that they weren’t in sight yet, it doesn’t take all day to summit Baker, and the ice conditions were nasty.
A Canadian party of three climbers made it up to the basecamp area and set up their camp. We chatted a little and discussed the fact that we hadn’t seen the climbers from the mystery tent all day and were joking about hating to do a rescue up the nasty looking slope in the dark. The glacier looked funky enough that the Canadians weren’t sure if they were going to climb or not.
About 5:30 I was watching as three climbers popped into view over the high ridge. They were just little dots in the distance. I was watching them closely with the bino’s as they maneuvered through the shattered ice. I told Rick that I thought they were moving pretty fast over ice that hard.
The entire rope team was moving at the same time and hopping from block to block, no belays of any kind with a lot of slack rope between climbers. They looked like they were beat. I laughed and said that it looks like they smell the barn and wanted to get through the nasty stuff before the sun set.
As I was watching everything suddenly seemed to go into slow motion. The climber in the middle had slipped and was sliding down the mountain. I stopped breathing and every muscle in my body tensed as I watched him tumbling totally out of control. I was willing him to self-arrest, but as he slid faster the rope came taut and jerked the third climber off his feet, followed by the leader and they all went sliding down the glacier.
My stomach felt like someone had taken a full swing at it with a baseball bat. I couldn’t believe it was happening right before my eyes. I was waiting for them to self-arrest even though I knew there was no way in hell that they could on that ice. They slid for about 150 feet before they all disappeared from sight. They had all fallen into a crevasse.
Rick yelled “shit, I can’t believe they fell, what are we going to do”? I knew he wasn’t wild about going up the crevasse field to start with, let alone starting up just before dark.
I looked over at the Canadians and they were looking up at the slope also. I told Rick that we would wait a few minutes and see if the climbers would reappear. The Canadians came over and asked if we had seen the fall, they only knew that they had disappeared from sight. I told them what happened and we started making plans.
We decided to wait ten minutes for someone to appear, if they didn’t show we would start up after them. It was pretty tense because it was fall and the sun was rapidly descending.
About then a climber popped up and started pacing back and forth along the edge of the crevasse like a wild animal. I watched through the bino’s for him to signal or something. He seemed very preoccupied and disappeared again.
Soon two climbers were visible and we started hoping that they were all OK. The two climbers disappeared for awhile and we couldn’t tell what was happening up there.
I started dumping out my pack and collecting head lamps, clothing, foam pads, water, stove & pot, sleeping bags, first aid kit and food. I put my harness on and got the rope and climbing gear ready to go.
It soon became obvious that something was seriously wrong. The other two climbers hadn’t been seen for a few minutes and the third had not been seen at all. Then the two appeared again and started waving their arms at us. They both paced back and forth, stopping once in a while to talk and wave their arms again.
Then one of them started down the slope alone. We waved back at him and tried to make him stay put. He kept coming, staggering around crevasses and across ice bridges. He finally had to stop when he came to a huge crevasse about half way to us.
He dropped down on the ice and put his head in his hands. He quickly jumped back up and started yelling but we couldn’t hear what he was saying. He then collapsed back on the ice.
We finalized our plans with the Canadians while all this was going on. Rick and I were ready to go, so we would start up first and try to get to the upper group and help them.
Since this was before cell phones, one of the Canadians would get ready to run back down to the trailhead, several miles, drive out to a pay phone and call the sheriff for a rescue.
The other two Canadians would follow us up and help the fellow stranded in the middle of the slope back down to our camp. The Canadians had some signal flares that we would fire to start the runner down the trail if we decided that a rescue team had to be called in to help the missing climber.
Rick and I started up, picking our way through the broken ice fall as fast as we could. I was very concerned about making it all the way to the accident site before sunset.
I wasn’t even sure about being able to climb the slope at all, and now we were climbing with night coming on, up a route I would not have chosen if the climber hadn’t been stranded in the middle of the glacier.
I’m a strong hiker and I was charged with adrenaline, wanting to get up the slope as fast as possible. I was soon tugging at Rick, he couldn’t move any faster and was very apprehensive about going on.
He reminded me several times that it would serve no purpose to add another body or two to the rescue effort. I knew he was right, but I still felt like I was in control and within our technical ability… so far.
We made it to the lip of the crevasse directly across from the climber in the middle (Steve). He had gotten up as we got nearer and was again pacing back and forth in a nervous manner.
I yelled for him to sit down and wait for us to get to him. He appeared confused and disoriented. I could see blood on his face and he was holding his wrist. I eventually got him to sit down and stay put.
The crevasse was about 30 feet across and about 80 feet deep, with steep overhanging sides. The uphill lip of the crevasse was about 15 feet higher than the lower lip. The only way across or around was a knife-edge bridge that ended about three feet short of the other side. It started out about 3 feet wide and narrowed to a few inches. It was at a diagonal angle to the slope and about 30 feet long.
Rick came up and took one look at the bridge and said that I shouldn’t even try it. I tended to agree with him, but the guy on the other side was looking pretty crazed and I didn’t know what shape he was in.
It was getting darker and darker and I didn’t see any other possibility to get across. Rick got into a good stance and belayed me on a tight rope. It was a very spooky walk across the sliver of ice.
I got close to where the bridge ended and tried to talk to the injured climber. It was obvious that he was in a panic. He wasn’t talking coherently, blood was crusted from his nose and his face had cuts all over it. I tried to calm him down and I finally deciphered that the climber we hadn’t seen yet was in bad shape, wedged in the bottom of a crevasse with broken bones.
Steve turned out to be a very inexperienced climber and was feeling guilty about pulling the other two off. We took a few minutes to calm him down a bit and convince him that he needed to get down to basecamp and we needed to get up the glacier to help his friends.
I threw a loop of rope across to him and had him plant his axe pick as deep as he could, tie a knot, and clip it to the ice axe head. He was very confused and I had to go over it several times. He wasn’t sure how to tie the knot so I ended up pulling the rope back and tying the figure eight myself, and tossing it back.
His wrist was injured and he couldn’t seem to get a good swing with the other hand, so I had him chip a good stance into the ice with his axe to brace his feet and then plant the pick and lay on the axe in a self arrest position. This gave me enough confidence to get a pick in across the gap and step/hop up onto the upper lip using the rope for balance.
By this time the two Canadians had arrived. We fired the flare and the climber at base camp started off for the rescue call. He had a long way to go and wouldn’t make it all the way out before dark. Our signal flare meant that an evacuation with a litter was necessary, on a very nasty slope, with one climber in serious but unknown shape from a crevasse fall.
He was to tell the main rescue party that we had enough gear to keep the victim warm and enough first aid training to help anything but very severe injuries. Rick and I both had quite a bit of first aid training and Rick works at a hospital. We had no real idea what we would find at the bottom of the crevasse.
The two Canadians started setting up a Tyrolean traverse to help Steve across the huge crevasse. We determined that he had a broken wrist, broken nose, facial cuts, bumps and bruises and at least a minor concussion.
Rick and I continued up, now thinking that the injured climber might die from hypothermia before we even got there. Just as we got to the victim’s crevasse the sun disappeared behind the mountains. At least now we could just concentrate on the victim.
The rope leader (Reese) was unhurt except for minor bumps and bruises. It turned out he had been pulled into a different crevasse than the other two. He had set up a Z-pulley system while waiting for us to climb the slope.
The victim (Vince) had fallen about 25-30 feet into the narrow end of the crevasse. He was loosely wedged into the crevasse where it pinched together at the right side. A large ice block was wedged about 20 feet left of where he lay, forming a false bottom or shelf. The block was about 8 feet long and maybe 3-1/2 feet wide from wall to wall. The left side of the shelf dropped off again another 50 or 60 feet to the bottom, as did the right side of the shelf.
I looked over the edge and yelled down to the victim that he was indeed a lucky man, two of the greatest mountain climbing gods in the whole world had come to his rescue and that he would be out of that hole in no time (trying to ease his fears with a little humor and confidence).
No response from him. We used their rope to drop into the crevasse to the victim. I jumped up and down on the perch block to see if it could hold our weight, it seemed solid, so Rick came down.
I had to stem a crampon into either wall of the crevasse to climb out to the victim. He was still conscious, and in a lot of pain. His leg was twisted grossly back against the wall of the crevasse. He said his head and neck were really hurting and he couldn’t move his head.
They had used a few pieces of clothing and a small blue foam pad to try and block some of the cold, but his clothing was soaking wet from being pressed against the ice wall. They didn’t have any sleeping bags or heavier clothing.
He was shivering uncontrollably and moaning continuously in pain. I thought “great, we have to move this guy over to that block. One false move and we snap his neck and kill him instantly. If we don’t move him he dies of hypothermia and shock in no time.” He has already been laying on ice with water dripping on him for close to 2 hours with a broken leg and busted head.
We talk to Vince constantly, trying to gage his condition and reassure him that he’s going to be fine, just in a lot of pain while we move him. We lift and slide a sleeping pad under him and use it to support his weight as we move him to the block. There is very little room to maneuver in the narrow crevasse, and I have to stem my crampons on either wall of the crevasse and hold the broken leg with both hands as we move him. Rick has to immobilize the neck as much as possible while he stems as well. We used the small foam pad as a splint to support his neck as much as possible.
I told Vince that “this will really hurt but we have to move you”, and explain that he will be much more comfortable once we get him to the block. This took a while since we were in such awkward positions. He was in severe pain and screaming like hot nails were being pounded into him. I could feel the bones in his lower leg grinding and grating in my hands. I thought that every small move was going to snap this guy’s neck. I didn’t get a full breath the whole time we were moving him.
Finally we get him to the block. We slide a Thermarest pad plus the foam pad under him and slip a sleeping bag under him as well. Hoping not to compound the fracture, I didn’t want to move the broken leg too much so we left it in position. We cut his laces and took his boot off to allow us to monitor the temperature and blood flow of his foot.
My thermometer showed that he was already several degrees below normal. We checked the knot on his head and his eyes and thought he probably had a concussion as well. His face was also cut in a few places but nothing major. We loosened his harness and clothing and checked for signs of internal bleeding and other injuries. We were very afraid of moving his neck/spine, so we left any clothing that would have to be pulled or yanked to get it off.
We got our other sleeping bag on top of him and started our stove to heat water. This was quite an operation, because Vince was taking up almost all of the ice block perch. There was less than a foot of space beside his head and about the same at the base of his feet.
There was no room for our packs or other gear, so Reese lowered what we needed from the top of the crevasse. We filled several water bottles with hot water and put them in the sleeping bags. Soon there was steam rolling out of the sleeping bag when we checked his pulse and temp.
We told stupid jokes and silly stories continuously to keep the situation a little lighter, and keep him awake. His pupils were still dilated and we believed he had a concussion (he did in fact have a skull fracture). We fed him hot chocolate by emptying a Visine container and using it as an eyedropper so he didn’t have to sit up.
It was a long night at the bottom of that crevasse. Neither Rick or I could sit down, so we had to stand the entire time, yelling at Vince every so often so he wouldn’t pass out. He was in such misery that he was moaning stuff like “just let me die, I can’t stand this anymore, this night will never end” and on and on.
Then we would tell some awful story or have a farting contest, and tell him there was no way we would let him die with all the misery we were putting up with (you had to be there).
The glacier moaned and groaned and creaked and snapped, dripping water all around us. Every once in a while an explosive cracking sound would scare the crap out of us. It felt like the crevasse would snap shut any time, smashing us to greasy spots in the ice. The glacier seemed sinister and alive and determined to get the last laugh.
At the same time it was like being in a fairy world. The candles we had placed in the bubble pockets in the ice flickered and illuminated the clear, bubbly ice like a vast crystal palace, with the stars twinkling overhead through the narrow black slit above us. Our lack of sleep and fatigue from climbing had us punchy, and it was easy to imagine this giant hole swallowing us up and not spitting us out until years later.
Around 2:00 AM Reese yelled down from the edge of the crevasse that he saw lights down at base camp. The main rescue team had arrived and was gearing up to climb the glacier. It took them all night to climb what Rick and I climbed in an hour. We heard them clanking and yelling for hours as they slowly moved up, setting screws and belaying each other.
Finally, as the sun was coming up around 6:00 AM, they got to the crevasse. It was pretty odd when they got there as they totally ignored us at first. No one on the rescue team asked how we were doing, what shape the victim was in or anything for at least 10 minutes. Rick and I looked at each other and shrugged like WTF?
They looked down at us like we were some kind of side show and shuffled back and forth on the rim. They were busy up on top doing something and apparently none of them thought it important enough to talk to us. I will always remember the feeling of anticipation as they approached the crevasse and then the disappointment I felt when they ignored us. Not even a hello.
Rick and I just looked at each other like “what the hell are they doing up there?” I hope they have a better bedside manner when they reach a victim that hasn’t received assistance. If nothing else, I will always remember to give immediate assurance that I am there to help and ease the victims anxiety.
The paramedic finally got to the crevasse and leaned over and tried to figure out what was going on. He was the first one to say anything to us. There was little room in the crevasse so the team put some screws in up top and set up a rappel line. The paramedic then rappelled down right over the top of me. As he came over the overhanging lip an explosive crack rang out and I thought the whole edge was going to cave in. He moved over a bit and came down a bit more carefully. He got to the bottom and quickly quizzed us on what had occurred as he began checking the victim.
We explained what we had done and all other pertinent information. He checked Vince’s vitals and put a stabilizing collar around his neck. The only thing left to do was put Vince in the Stokes litter they had brought up and assembled.
First we had to straighten and set the broken leg so it would fit in the Stokes litter. The paramedic had me apply traction since I was at the foot end. I could feel the bones grating and grinding as I pulled back and slowly twisted the leg back around into its normal position. Rick held the leg steady as the paramedic maneuvered a wrap-around splint into position. Vince, understandably, was screaming bloody murder the whole time.
Meanwhile, the crew on top was rigging for a litter raise. We lifted Vince into the litter, strapped him down and then climbed out of the crevasse for the first time in over twelve hours. A big Navy rescue chopper from Whidbey Island flew in to do a cable lift right out of the crevasse, as the crevasse was in the middle of a very severe slope and couldn’t land.
The giant chopper nearly blew us off the mountain as it came in close to hover and maneuvered to pick up the litter. It slowly cranked the litter up out of the crevasse and then flew down to basecamp with Vince dangling and spinning below.
As the helicopter descended and began hovering over basecamp, my brand new Eureka Expedition tent was blown up into the air, bouncing around and nearly sucked up into the rotor until the Canadians ran over and finally snagged it. I just knew my beautiful, and expensive new tent was going to be shredded before we even had a chance to spend a night in it.
They eased Vince to the ground, moved him into the main cabin and picked up the other victim with the concussion and prepared to medivac them off the mountain.
As the chopper flew off, everything suddenly became very silent as the main rescue team had already begun descending with the tinkling of climbing gear and crunching of crampons on the hard ice.
We were left alone to pack our gear, looking back down the chaotic glacier to basecamp. My feet were frozen blocks from standing on bare ice all night. My Thermarest pad was punctured full of crampon holes from Rick standing on it all night, but at least his feet weren’t frozen. All our fuel, water and food was gone, and we were totally wiped.
We looked wistfully at the summit…the day had dawned beautiful, sunny and clear, a perfect summit day, but we were trashed after being up all night and the summit was not to be that day.
We picked our way carefully down a better route to basecamp and packed the rest of our gear…the new tent still un-slept in. As we made our way down the trail we started bumping into hikers coming up that wanted to know what was going on with all the rescue guys and excitement at the trailhead.
At first, still kind of jazzed up, we carefully told the tale to each group we bumped into, but finally, just wanting to get off the mountain, we just shrugged when asked and told people we didn’t know what was going on.
Looking back, I think my biggest disappointment was deciding to leave my camera and film at base camp to save some weight. With all the time we spent in the crevasse I would have had some killer photos with time exposures, the Navy chopper, cable rescue tent flying in the air and so on.
My second disappointment was that Vince, Steve and Reese never even said thanks or even acknowledged what we had done for them. I’d like to think if someone went to the efforts we did that I would at least buy them a beer and give a heartfelt thanks. Maybe they were embarrassed as they were real “Mountaineers” (this was before I took the course myself several years later), or perhaps they were just shell shocked the whole time.
We did get our names mentioned in the Bellingham Herald that quoted the “Rescue Team” saying “they did the guy a world of good by keeping him warm before the rescue party got there”. I know in another hour or less he would have been dead from shock and hypothermia and they would have been doing a body recovery.
Comments for MOFA Postmortem
Summary: I believe all three victims had gone through the Tacoma Mountaineers Basic course. I know that Reese and Vince did the course and had some level of climbing experience. Reese was leading the team and seemed to have the most experience, although Vince mentioned he had climbed some big mountains. Steve had the least experience, I believe Baker was his first major climb.
They all had minimal packs, presumably because the weather was very good that day. They had basic technical gear for climbing Baker, rope, axes, crampons, good boots, screws, etc., but they didn’t take a sleeping bag or full rain gear for the summit attempt. No stove & pot for melting additional water. First aid equipment was not even close to adequate. They did have one bivy sack that did nothing to insulate Vince from the ice. They couldn’t even get it around him in the position he was in. Vince was wearing cotton thermal underwear with a cotton T shirt. Reese had a vinyl poncho that he used for his night on the rim of the crevasse. None of them were prepared for an unplanned bivy on a mountain like Baker.
All of their water was gone when we got to them, so they were all probably dehydrated and very tired from their long day. Fatigue mixed with the desire to get back to base camp or just bad judgment forced them to move through the icefall without using belays or using good rope management. The inexperience of Steve was enough in itself to set up a belay of some kind over the tricky hard ice.
Once the accident occurred, panic seemed to set in and they weren’t quite sure what to do. They were in sight of camp the whole time but wasted quite a bit of time before signaling that they needed help. It was a major mistake to send or allow Steve to down-climb the heavily crevassed icefall alone and in his condition. He had already shown that he had trouble on the icefall.
MOFA 7 steps from the rescue party perspective:
Step 1) The situation was taken charge of twice; once at base camp by planning the course of action with the Canadians, and again at the crevasse site with the victims. There was no doubt that I was the one directing the actions of the rescue, and everyone responded with the best of their ability.
Step 2) Approaching the victims safely was a judgment call. I think it could be argued either way that the rescue party endangered itself while climbing the icefall. I felt I was in control and within my climbing abilities. Delaying climbing the icefall until morning or waiting for Mountain Rescue would have meant that Vince would have died from hypothermia. The false bottom in the crevasse could have dropped out, but it appeared to be stable for the moment.
Step 3) Emergency rescue was performed as well as could be expected. The victims were moved to safer environments so that additional first aid and comfort could be given. Steve was evacuated to base camp and Vince was relocated to the level area of the crevasse as soon as possible.
Step 4) Both victims were protected from further environmental hazards as much as possible. Steve in the relative comfort of base camp, and Vince with the foam pads and sleeping bags, along with hot water bottles. Both were constantly conscious and were warmer than the rescue party. Both victims were given reassurance and told exactly what was going on at all times.
Step 5) I assume the Canadians treated Steve at base camp. Our immediate need when I last saw him was to get him off the icefall. Once we had Vince on the shelf ledge we took precautions to keep his spine from being moved and didn’t allow him to move around. Although we loosened his harness and clothing to allow better circulation, we didn’t notice until morning that he may have been laying on his ice screw all night. We checked him for other injuries and tended his scrapes. The one thing I would do differently now is to go ahead and set the leg as soon as he was to the shelf. Although he only complained of pain when his leg was moved, he may have been a little more comfortable with his leg straight. I was afraid at that time of further injury and possibly compounding the fracture and having to deal with bleeding.
Step 6) Our planning was done fairly well. Everyone pitched in options and the best course of action was chosen. Everyone knew what was expected and carried it out great. In the crevasse we ensured that Vince was kept awake to guard against his concussion, he was checked regularly for a good pulse and that his injured foot was still warm enough. Water was heated at regular intervals so that we knew we could make it through the night with our fuel supply. We knew our only option was to keep Vince alive and comfortable until an evacuation team could get him off the mountain. We sent back the information that we knew. There was no way to know the extent of injuries and to wait until we climbed up and then sent someone back would have meant several hours delay and endangered us by night climbing down the icefall.
Step 7) The rescue party was uninjured, the victims lived, the plan worked great. If bad weather had dumped on us, I feel we still would have been OK, just more miserable.
Growing up in the small town of West Carrollton as free-range wildlings in the 60’s-70’s, it never occurred to me at the time how truly lucky we were to be able to wander around our neighborhood without fear or being subjected to the long parental leash of a cell phone, not to mention the seduction of video games. We weren’t as crazy as the Lord of the Flies, but we were left to our own devices and would be gone the entire day, coming back in time to avoid a spanking for missing supper and then head back out to play hide and seek or catch fireflies.
There were no hovering parents in my family…quite the contrary. Dad was always working and mom preferred us not to be underfoot. On a non-school day when the weather was nice or on summer vacation, we got chased out of the house and were on our own as soon as we woke up.
Breakfast? Get your own bowl, typically a recycled margarine tub and fill it with Trix, Apple Crisp or Cap’n Crunch after rummaging through the box to see if there was a prize.
The prize is how we picked out our cereal, as long as it was sweet we would eat it. Dinosaurs, super balls, glow in the dark stuff, submarines, you name it…prizes ruled! There were even records on the back of the box you could cut out and play on the old Close and Play. The Archies “Sugar Sugar” comes to mind.
Of course, the tooth-rotting amount of sugar already in the cereal was not nearly enough, so we emptied the sugar bowl into our Jethro Bodine size bowls (Beverly Hillbillies reference for y’all young-uns) to the point where it wouldn’t even dissolve, leaving big spoonfuls of milky sugar at the bottom as dessert.
With six kids, food in my family was done on a military scale. The main food groups us kids were in control of, beyond our morning cereal, were milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly and baloney and cheese…and it was always baloney, not bologna. And there was always a big basket of tomatoes for snacks once they started coming in from the garden.
Milk was delivered by an actual Borden milkman in glass bottles and left in a galvanized box on the front porch to keep it cool. 4 gallons of milk were delivered every couple of days, along with butter, cottage cheese, butter milk for dad and other assorted dairy products. Elsie the cow even made the glue we used at school!
When they came out with those 2.5 gallon plastic dispensers there were always at least 2 of them in the fridge. We helped keep dairy farms in business as dad still might have to pick up a gallon or 2 on his way home from work to tide us over.
The bread was typically whatever white bread was on sale the cheapest at Woody’s, but if we got Wonder Bread we thought we were farting through silk and would immediately sacrifice a piece slathered with peanut butter to the dog.
The peanut butter served as the glue to stick to the roof of the dog’s mouth, and the soft Wonder Bread made an almost impermeable barrier once compressed and licked by the dog, who would spend the next 15 minutes trying to lick through the bread shield to the delicious peanut butter hidden beneath. Cheap entertainment.
The peanut butter came in 5 lb plastic buckets, bought at least 2 at a time. These buckets then became cheap utility Tupperware. Arguments over whether the next bucket was going to be smooth or crunchy style were fought with the gusto of an MMA fight. Jellies, jams and preserves were made by mom and in a seemingly endless supply from our cellar pantry.
Apple, grape, strawberry and rhubarb were standard as we had those fruit trees and plants… maybe some peach, plum if dad picked up a few flats at a roadside stand. Wild blackberry, mulberry and raspberry depended on us kids getting out and picking peanut butter tubs full of them…usually paying dearly with days of suffering relentless chigger scratching.
Making a PB&J entailed slathering peanut butter on as thick as possible and dumping jelly out of the jar so it would ooze out of the bread every time you took a bite. You had to eat it like an ice cream sandwich…licking the sides after each bite.
There were no Ziplock bags in those days, you used a sheet of wax paper or foil to wrap it up or if you were lucky mom bought some of those new-fangled sandwich bags that you had to fold a flap back over the sandwich and pull the top of the bag inside out to form a loose seal. Which leaked if you fell in the creek. We ate a lot of soggy sandwiches.
Lunch meat was just baloney, and was named Oscar Mayer. Mom bought it by the cart load in the 1 lb packages and our family could decimate several packages a day like locusts.
Cheese (and I use the term loosely) was a box of Velveeta. Seriously, we thought that’s what cheese was for many years. At some point after Kraft invented the individually wrapped American Cheese slices, they became the standard, as it was not unusual for a kid to cut hunks of Velveeta an inch thick to put on a sandwich. After all, American Cheese is really just Velveeta squeezed thinly into a sheet of plastic, right?
You would slather that with yellow mustard and what we commonly called mayonnaise, but was actually Miracle Whip, a cheaper version of mayonnaise full of fructose, soybean oil, sugar and other nasties. I remember tasting Hellman’s for the first time and feeling cheated all those years…thanks for fooling us again mom!
Thus invigorated with a bowl of sugar fortified cereal and maybe a sandwich crammed in our pocket, we were good for a full day of exploration and adventure.
The first order of business was to try and sneak off without the younger kids noticing or receiving a mandate from mom to “watch you brothers and sisters”. This was not an easy task, the youngsters were on to us and stuck to us like white on rice. Sometimes we employed the “outrun them on our bikes” method until they gave up or simply tried to lull them into boredom, as if we weren’t going to do anything and then creep off. It really depended on how adventurous we felt, creek walking was open to anyone.
One of the first adventures I remember was exploring the new 3 story apartment building going up behind the house. What was formerly just an empty field, suddenly sprouted into a building site, with heavy equipment, excavation, framing and so on. As soon as the workers left for the day we would climb all over the bulldozers and trucks, checking out the construction and playing in the endless mud puddles.
We soon became a little braver and made friends during the work day with one of the construction guys. I can feel moms everywhere shuddering with the notion of “a friendly stranger”, but at least it seemed a bit more innocent in those days and the worker turned out to just be a friendly guy.
He would share bits of his lunch, sugar packets from his coffee breaks and so on. We would climb up and around everywhere in the 3 story building, watching the workers do their thing, fetching boards or tools or just getting in the way. No one seemed to care and OSHA had a low profile in those days.
But more typically, a good day of adventuring started in the nearest creek, which happened to be about 2 houses away if we cut through neighbor’s yards. We always cut through the neighbor’s yards. Fences, dogs and gates were just obstacles to be negotiated like we were on American Ninja.
Once in the creek we were in our natural element. We tried to stay clean and dry for about 5 minutes…until we saw our first crawdad or frog and all bets were off as we splashed right in after our prey. We would then wander up the middle of the creek, stopping to build a dam to make the water deeper and then wandering on, flipping rocks and poking in holes to see what was hidden away.
Down towards the old Kimberly- Clark paper mill, in the creek along Gibbons that ran in-between White Villa, there was a retention pond that settled out some of the solids before being discharged into the creek from a big pipe. You could tell what color paper they were making due to what color the creek water was that day. You could dig into a sand bank and see multiple layers of colors in the sand, like someone made a colorful cake. We thought it was cool at the time but who knows what chemicals we were wading around in.
In that part of Ohio limestone is the dominant geology, and it was so full of fossils that we became immune to the commonplace seafloor fossils, with seashells by the millions. Reading my fossil books, I was always on the prowl for a cool T-Rex tooth or mastodon tusk. It took a while to understand they did not walk around on the ancient seafloor of Ohio.
I really got into collecting rocks and minerals along with fossils. Pardon while I nerd out for a minute…I found brachiopods, crinoids, cephalopods, gastropods, cool horn corrals that I first imagined as dinosaur teeth, and eventually a trilobite or two.
I had boxes and boxes of all these rocks in my closet, many mounted and named on cardboard, in little sectioned boxes and just loose in bags. I still can’t help picking up cool rocks but I try to limit them to one or two per trip as a memento rather than trying to find one of everything possible. When we were selling off mom and dad’s house and cleaning it out, there was still a couple hundred pounds of rocks down in my old bedroom in the basement. I kept a few just for old times’ sake.
We also collected every form of fresh water critter found in southwest Ohio. Mom was into tropical fish for a while and had collected many fish tanks and paraphernalia of varying sizes. As her interest faded, we took control of the tanks and created terrariums and aquatic re-creations of the creeks and ponds, filled with frogs, toads, turtles, mud puppies, snails, tadpoles, crawdads, fresh water clams, hellgrammites and any other unusual insect larvae…everything but snakes. Oh, we caught them alright, but we had to hide them in the garage, as mom drew a hard line at snakes in the house. There may have been a death penalty involved.
As we wandered up the creeks, we often got side tracked by various woodlands around our area, many of which have been developed these days. One that hasn’t, was the woods right next to our elementary school, Harry Russell. I believe it was part of the school property and classes occasionally went up into the woods on field trips to study nature.
There was a house that had a long, private drive just off of Bishop Drive that wound to the top of the hill right next to the Russell woods. I used to remember the name of the folks that lived there, but it seems to elude me at the moment. In any case, as kids we of course placed a sinister reason for them living in their relative seclusion. They had to be rich and evil, as they had their own bridge across the creek and long driveway with acreage. Worst of all, they had no trespassing signs, the nerve!, so who knows what kind of sorcery went on in there and which were as good as a blinking neon sign saying “enter here”.
We would sneak up the drive, cautious for any sign of approaching cars or guards. We knew they had to have guards at such a house. We would dive and roll into the bushes at any indication of danger, which might be noise from a bird or cicada or just a giggle. I don’t think I ever saw any people, cars or activity of any kind from that house.
We would stealthily creep our way past the house, along old animal and kid trails, through what is today called Hintermeister Park (maybe the Hintermeister’s are the ones that owned the property and house?) at the top of Mayrose Drive, to enter the school woods proper. This woods was a playground for kids around the entire area, but we thought of it as our own. After all, when we first moved to our brand new house there were no other houses past the creek bridge on Primrose and they had just opened Harry Russell my first year there in first grade. We obviously had seniority.
It was a wonderful little woods filled with all kinds of possibilities for adventure. It was situated up the side of a hill, so it had gullies and ravines with little water courses to wander up. There were the more or less official trails through the woods, and then there were the “secret” trails…these were the more interesting ones of course.
They might take you to the edge of one of the ravines where kids had trimmed back the undergrowth to clear a path for swinging on a big vine out over the ravine.
There were a lot of wild grape vines in the woods so when one dried up or got ripped down a new one would be created somewhere else.
The trails would also lead to makeshift clubhouses, tree houses and secret clearings in the woods. You could tell the hangouts of the older kids by the stash of playboy’s, beer cans and cigarette butts littering the area.
We knew to tread cautiously in these places so we didn’t get into a turf war. That didn’t stop us from climbing tree houses and ransacking clubhouses for usable booty, that all seemed to be part of the game.
At the very top of the hill, along the property line, there was a fence enclosing a large meadow where the owners kept horses. The horses were always happy to see visitors and would come trotting over to say hi. In a little suburban town, this seemed like we were a world away in the country, in a place where we could call the horses, pet their heads and feed them grass or maybe even a carrot or apple if we had thought to bring them.
A couple of the creeks had steep dirt cliffs, where we became mountain climbers for the day. We had an old army rope of dad’s that we would coil up and use to act like Sir Edmund Hillary. The cliffs were eroding and dangerous as they were just clay and dirt, but that didn’t stop us from scaling them and getting into precarious situations where we were afraid to go up or back down.
This was made all the more exciting by throwing dirt clods at the person already in meltdown mode on the cliff to break them even further. I have no idea why we didn’t have more broken bones and injuries.
We didn’t limit ourselves to above ground either. When they were building out the then new Sherwood Forest development, they had built the sewer infrastructure but hadn’t yet built any houses. I thought this was a great opportunity for becoming cavers and exploring the subterranean.
The storm sewers were still clean and new, so we didn’t need to worry about nasty surprises like dead animals or people dumping nasties down the drains.
We would gather a collection of candles, matches, flashlights and string each time. We accessed them from an outfall pipe in the creek and would walk in as far as possible, then crawl on hands and knees, eventually traveling through even smaller pipes on our bellies with no way to turn around.
Claustrophobia was always in the back of our minds down in the black depths of the pipe, and we inched forward with a hopeful wish that there would be a manhole station at some point ahead where we could gather our courage and continue on or turn around.
I ended up mapping the entire system with drawings of the size of the pipe, where the manhole access points were and which ones made good clubhouses to stash candles and booty.
Occasionally a summer thunder storm would come up and begin flooding the pipes, but this again we didn’t really acknowledge as real danger, just heightening the adventure a bit more.
Over along the now buried creek under Liberty Lane next to White Villa, by a chigger filled raspberry patch, there was an old tree house notable for how high up in the tree it was and how rickety the steps were to climb to the top. When we “acquired” it, the past builders had, by all appearances abandoned it for some time. There was rotten wood, rusty nails, loose boards and so on. Maybe someone fell, or parents got wind of it and banished them from such a dangerous place, or maybe they just got older and pursued other interests, who knows.
In any case, we planted a flag and claimed it as our own. We began the rehabilitation by dragging more building material from dad’s stash of second hand lumber and banging in yet more rusty, bent nails into all of the many loose boards creating a ladder going up the tree trunk. Old school tree house ladders were just boards nailed onto the trunk. They loosened up regularly as the still living tree grew. We figured if 2 nails were good, 10 nails were great.
I recall there were a couple of places that had extended sections where you had to climb the tree, possibly to keep the squeamish from continuing to the top. This thing was easily 50-60 feet up in the tree…any fall would be a broken bone or worse. We continued adding nails, rails and new boards until we eventually lost interest as well, leaving it for other kids to discover.
As we all got older, adventures took us farther afield on our bikes, perhaps fishing at a pond or walking out on the dilapidated spillway on the Miami River. Eventually, I started hanging out more with my school buddies rather than my brothers and sisters and they had to create their own new adventures as I began stretching my teenage wings…but that is a different set of tales.
Adult orphan, senior orphan, next in line to die…these are some phrases and ideas I have run across the past few months that resonated or at least tickled my fancy enough to prompt some thoughts. First, I apologize to actual orphans that never had the support of your biological parents from a young age…I hope you found some love and support at some point in your life.
Second, this rumination started from seeing others in the family dealing with the passing of their parents and loved ones and me wanting to offer some hope that it gets better. I had thoughts on being, at least theoretically, the next one in my family to be in line to die…but as usual I meandered into a stream of consciousness over dealing with the death of parents, coping and getting through it all. This message has sat for several months with me wondering if I even wanted to publish it, as I am by no means a therapist or sage, and cannot even begin to imagine ever going to a therapist being as independent and bull-headed as I am. So, please think of this as entertainment with a smattering of hope if you are a member of the Dead Parents Club.
Senior Adult Orphan Reporting Sir!
My mother passed away in 2004, dad following her 2 years later in 2006. It seems to be the time in my life where friends, cousins and acquaintances all start working through the process of dealing with the loss of their own parents.
I have had some time to process my parent’s deaths over the last fifteen years, but memories still flood back all the time. I think you continue working things out until you give up the ghost yourself.
People that still have their parents may believe they understand the loss of a parent, but they really have no way to personally understand until it happens. They may offer you their sympathies and kindnesses for a few weeks or months, but after more time goes by they seem to just want you to get over it, which I think is human nature and I can’t blame them.
But you won’t get over it. Your parents are the ones that gave you life, your name, sustenance, really everything you needed until you developed into an individual that can exist on your own.
Initially, you are consumed with dealing with the mechanics of their deaths, especially after the last one passes and you have to deal with settling their estate (estate seems too grandiose a word for what my parents had remaining at the end of their lives). Things like selling the home you may have lived in all of your life, the months or even years dealing with lawyers, insurance companies and settling medical bills.
After the initial shock of their deaths, all of this bureaucratic stuff steals time away from the thoughts of your parents, yet the thoughts still manage to sneak through when you have a spare minute, or when prompted by a scene in a movie or even just a stupid Barry Manilow song (mom loved Barry). They come to you in your dreams, some dreams reassuring you everything is well, some leaving you wishing you had just another moment or two with them.
I hope you don’t have any unresolved issues that needed to be cleared up before they pass away, that has to make it even more difficult. I think I was in a pretty good place… I just want more info about specific points and places in time as documenting family history has become more important to me.
After a while, perhaps years, the sadness of their loss gradually loses its sharp edge and dulls a bit. But it always remains present, easily set off by the emotional booby traps of long standing family habits, rituals and certain words used by the family that have been there for a lifetime.
No matter how independent you are, and again, I am independent with a capitol “I”, the loss of the home you grew up in and all the “stuff” that surrounded you, stuff that felt like it was always there and filled with the memories they evoke, unanswered questions, not having them there for the milestones of your own family, all add to the chipping away of the solidity of your life and begin creating an enduring sense of loss. One at a time, maybe not such a big deal, but over time they just keep accumulating.
Unless you have been very unfortunate, your parents could always be counted on to be in your corner no matter what. I distinctly remember my mother telling me (many times) when I was a little feller and had gotten into trouble over something not even important enough to recall, “I will always be your mother and I will love you no matter what”. I think this is what she typically said after she busted my butt for some transgression. Dad’s wisdom was “if you wind up in jail, don’t call me to bail you out, but you’re still my son”.
Now, mom may have deemed it necessary to beat you within an inch of your life at the time but she still loved you and supported you no matter what…to give you a few bucks to help you pay rent. To send a box of food from home on a holiday when you are thousands of miles away. To give you a place to stay to get back on your feet and so many other things.
The list becomes endless over the years, but most of all, they were that lifeline to talk you in off the ledge when life seemed hopeless, or to be your biggest cheerleader to listen at the moments you feel most proud of your accomplishments. You knew they would be as proud or even prouder than you are. Then all of a sudden your cheerleaders have suddenly left the game…and are not coming back. You wonder who will ever care as much as they did. And the honest truth is, probably no one.
Now, when I was young I thought I was a being a good son to call home once a month, not counting holidays, so it was not unusual to build up a list of stuff to talk to mom about, and check the weather back in Ohio so I had something to talk to dad about…he was not a big conversationalist until he got older. So when they first died I can’t even count the number of times I would think “I need to call mom and dad to tell them…” and remember half way through my thought that they were not there to call anymore. That is a very lonely feeling.
The void that is created when they die is like a massive black hole…emotions and feelings get sucked right in and you can feel alone even with all your family, friends and loved ones still around you. It feels like nothing you do matters much anymore, that the forces that have always mattered the most and served as your compass through life are gone.
The compass needle starts swinging wildly (can’t help the compass metaphors, I was an Eagle Scout, Cavalry Scout, mountaineer and sailor, I like knowing where I am!). You aren’t sure if North still points North and even if it does, what direction should I go now?
It gradually dawned on me that “I have become the senior adult orphan of 5 other adult orphans.” I am the next one “in line” to die in my family if the rules of life were fair. They aren’t fair of course, and I actually hope that I am the next one up and that myself and all of my brothers and sisters have long and happy lives.
That is how life should play out. I’m really not one to get lost too deeply in an existential crisis, and the irony of my choice to write all this is not lost, I just hope to show that I stared this situation in the eye for a while and managed to climb over it as we all must, and do eventually. Your needs and your path will differ from mine, but it is a path we must all travel. Your route and mileage may vary.
At some point you have to do what every child has always had to do…go on living. You think back to how your parents reacted when their parents died (although I never knew my mother’s mom) and what they did. So you go on being the wise one for your children, giving meaning to your life by providing and sharing things that are important to you.
I do know that when your parents die you become part of “the club”. It’s not a club you want to be a part of, but eventually you will. It’s a club where you hopefully try to take care of the other club members a little more, even though your own loss, at times, can be as painful as it ever was. It’s a club where when a conversation comes up concerning parents passing away, members cast a knowing glance to other members without a need to explain.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to not let myself forget the stories that are important to me as well as to prompt other family to create their own stories. As the years pass it becomes harder to recall all the memories of them. The stories begin to fade a little more every year.
I scour the internet looking for stories, documents and connections to previous family members that all have stories to continue telling I don’t want them to be forgotten, and I want to create new stories, a record, that can be passed down so grand children don’t have to wonder what tragedy and suffering as well as joy great great grandmaw experienced building her big family.
I want future family to know that great grandad didn’t just serve his country from this year to that year…that there are many stories showing he was tough and brave, a hero in every sense of the word, not only the school bus driver and janitor that some know him as.
Hopefully you can get to the point, as I feel I have, where you can remember the good stuff and laugh at the bad stuff. Maybe you’ll write stories like I do, where you see holidays, birthdays or other milestones as a chance to remember and celebrate their part in your life. Or maybe you’ll be able to sit around with your friends and family telling the stories, laughing about how crazy it used to be without the stabs of pain.
I take after my father in the sense of being the strong, tough, silent, self-reliant type, not the kind of guy that plasters good thoughts of the day all over Facebook. But I am rather sentimental. I try to bring meaning by helping my friends and family when they need it or when they can just use a hand. By sharing the things I have found value in, whether it is discovering family stories, building or making things, fostering adventure in the mountains, sailing or simply sharing a good bottle of whiskey.
I try by remembering and telling the stories of my family, if for no other reason than some person down the line may be like me, looking at names and wondering “who were those people, what were they like?”
While I am not ready to hand the reins over to the next-in-line senior orphan yet, I have seen and done things I could never imagine as a young boy growing up in a tiny mid-western town named West Carrollton. I’m not done yet, I hope I have a few more good chapters to write. To quote Jimmy Buffet (there’s a Jimmy quote for everything), “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I’ve had a good life all the way…” You do the same.
The image above is from one of dad’s personal notebooks. It was what he expected of his men, and at least for a few years, his children. Growing up in my parent’s house in the 60’s and 70’s meant you were always surrounded by various artifacts and memories of their military service. My mother served as a Women’s Army Corp (WAC) nurse from 1954-1956. My father served for over twenty years and three wars, from 1943 WWII to the beginning of the build-up of the Vietnam War in 1966. This circumstance was pretty much taken for granted by us kids…didn’t everyone’s parents serve in the military? It had simply been the way things were since the day I was born.
For the older kids at least, it was part of our very being…watching dad go off to work every morning in uniform, constantly moving to a new place to live, in different states, even different countries, seemed normal. It did not feel unusual to follow dad around when he was training his troops, attend various military events, and finally to watch Walter Cronkite at dinner every single night to see if you might catch a glimpse of your father on the TV, even if it was just to look for his name on the list of casualties that scrolled by at the end of the newscast.
Mom would let us pull the TV cart over to the dinner table so we could eat while watching…a distinct change from when dad came home for dinner most of the time and the TV was turned off. We wanted to see him so bad, some kind of proof that he was OK, that we were positive we saw him a time or two in the news footage, especially if there were helicopters.
We had seen them flying over our house every day when we lived at Fort Benning and connected them directly to dad as that is where we last saw him before he went to Vietnam with the 1st Air Cav Division.
Connecting the dots to my mother being a soldier took a bit more imagination. Her service was over several years before I was even born. Serving three years, there were far fewer bits and bobs for her, and more hidden away. While dad was a world champion packrat of, well, everything, she was not a fan of anything “old”. She used to explain that having lived a good deal of the time with her grandmother, everything around her when she was growing up all was old.
She liked “new” and was determined to purge, or at least hide, the “old” stuff. This trait must skip back and forth every other generation, as I dearly love almost anything “old” with the implicit stories and history attached to any old items. The irony is that many of her then “new” belongings have now become old, cherished things. But hide it away she did, in old boxes, trunks and closets.
“Curiosity killed the cat” has been uttered by poets, playwrights and prognosticators through the generations…but cats have nothing on a Profitt child. Like a cat, the more trouble taken to hide something, the more effort we expended trying to get into it, and also like a cat, we may have lost a few lives, or at least a few layers of skin off our behinds, when we were discovered having found and messed around with them.
In the 60’s I remember jimmying the locks on an old green suitcase with stickers pasted on it from all over the place. This suitcase cost more today on Etsy as a “Vintage Samsonite” than a full set cost brand new in the 50’s.
Overpowered by the smell of mothballs, digging inside I found some knick-knacks and personal effects along with some olive drab woolen clothing…skirt, jacket, blouse, light-brown stockings, a cap and some shoes and a pair of old brown, over the ankle boots tied together. Well now. My mother wore combat boots.
The classic curse “Ah, your mama wears combat boots” from Bugs Bunny and the Little Rascal’s was no longer as funny as it used to be. Now it had a whole new meaning, and rather than used for belittling, it became something to be proud of. From then on if someone tossed that phrase at me on the playground, the retort would become, “that’s right, she did wear combat boots, what did your mom do”?
Now, I knew my mother had been a WAC nurse, there were several photos around the house and I had been patched-up with untold butterfly bandages, but holding the physical proof of her service in my hands was somehow more real.
Looking at the patches on the sleeve, I quickly identified the uniform to be the one in the classic set of photographs of her and dad from when they met at the Presidio of San Francisco. That feeling of confirmation and validation of knowledge that she “wasn’t always just a mom” was worth every layer of skin I lost on that venture. The stories were true!
Of course, dad had trunks and footlockers with decades of stuff everywhere. He didn’t have just one uniform, he had dozens of them. Fatigues, Class B khakis, Class A dress uniforms, cold weather gear, jungle gear, he had it all… field jackets, field caps, dress caps, garrison caps, belts, socks, skivvies, field pants, wool pants and shirts. I wore it for Halloween for years and it never got old. I wore it to school and camping and playing Army around the neighborhood.
It didn’t stop with clothing items everyone gets to keep, he had stuff you typically had to turn in (SFC Packrat at your service). There were steel helmets, helmet liners, web gear with ammo pouches and canteens, compasses, entrenching tools, ponchos, snap links and climbing rope, wet weather gear, camouflage stick, shelter halves, pole and pegs for a tent, cots, Mickey Mouse Boots for extreme cold, ammo cans, dud rockets and rifle training grenades, brass from cannons.
When we deep cleaned the house after he passed away we found a live, 40 year old CS grenade (extra strong tear gas). If that thing had rusted out or gone off it would have cleared the entire neighborhood.
He had bookshelves of Army training manuals for everything from building a field expedient latrine to Ranger training, mountain training and setting field expedient booby-traps. I had used the gear and read all the books many times before I joined the Army so I had a pretty good leg up on the other guys. Hell, I could have showed some of the instructors how to use the stuff.
One of the more unique items was a full crate of expended LAW rockets (Light Antitank Weapon)…they can only be fired once and then disposed of. I knew how to deploy and target an enemy vehicle by the time I was seven. We would take these very real rocket launchers out into the neighborhood and play army with them, fully outfitted in actual combat gear.
My brothers and I would be fully outfitted with real gear, camo’d faces, complete with antitank weapons…matched up against the neighborhood kids with a stick for a weapon. Can you imagine if someone’s kids were found running around like this today? SWAT would probably take out the squad of enemy midgets and ask questions later.
Along with all the militaria (an eBay word), much of which I still have, there were also dad’s war souvenirs. They held a special reverence as they had been brought back from the battlefield. Having been a GI myself, I now know these items could have been bought or traded from other GI’s, won in a card game or peddled by ambitious locals just as likely as dad gathering them off a fallen enemy soldier.
But as a kid, I was convinced they were pulled from the hands of a less able warrior than my father after honorable, heroic, hand to hand combat and taken as a trophy of war.
One of these items was a Japanese drafting set. It was cool because just to open it you had to find the secret button hidden on the side of the case. The case was covered with thin, black leather, with gold Japanese characters.
Opening the fitted case, you glanced over the mysterious contents…many bits and pieces that somehow fit together to make all kinds of odd devices. Silver plated, some had ivory handles and all had their special cutout place in the deep blue velvet lining. It just looked impressive even if you had no clue what they did.
Having watched every war movie I could find, I imagined a map maker or artilleryman hiding away in a cave HQ, plotting out American targets to be shelled that night as my dad heroically charged in single-handedly with his big Browning Automatic Rifle and wiped out the HQ, saving dozens of lives.
We were expressly forbidden to touch it for fear of losing parts, which of course made it that much more desirable. Over the years, pieces were lost, the case was broken and it was ultimately tossed. Kids can be such assholes.
Another favorite is a Japanese Naval Officer’s Sword. While not the more desired Samurai sword every GI wanted, it is impressive none the less.
The pommel, back strap, guard, and scabbard fittings are all brass with the traditional chrysanthemum flower decoration.
The handle is made of very rough ray skin for a good grip. The gray, shark skin scabbard is heavily lacquered so it is shiny.
The blade itself is extremely sharp, with what used to be called the “blood groove”, ostensibly there to allow blood to flow easier so the blade goes in and out easier.
Again, expressly off-limits to us kids, when mom and dad were gone we would get it out and marvel over the steel blood, imagining marks and tarnished spots to be where the sword had been used to kill or maim someone, leaving marks from the bone and blood.
Still in remarkably good condition for 75 years of abuse, it is only missing the tassel that used to hang from the handle. Mom or someone added an old tassel from a hamper we used to have to replace it, but I removed it as it felt like it somehow discredited the history of the sword. I never heard the story from dad how he came to acquire it.
There is also a silk Japanese flag…as a kid I again imagined the flag flying over a strategic enemy position, with dad and his squad as conquering heroes pulling the flag down and raising the stars and stripes in victory.
It is signed by all of the men that were in his unit back then, the C Company, 184th Regimental Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division.
A number of years ago when dad was still with us, I transcribed all of the names and tried to find each of them on-line, trying to connect dad with some old buddies. I spent a great deal of time looking, but this turned up no results, as most of them have probably passed on or simply have no internet footprint.
This style WWII flag is commonly known in collector circles as a “meatball” flag, as it only depicts the sun, rather than the rising sun flag, with its 16 rays surrounding the sun. The rising sun flag was the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army, if the sun is centered, and the war ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy if it was off center.
The Japanese call their country’s flag hinomaru, which translates literally to “sun’s circle”, referencing the red circle on a white field. When the hinomaru was signed, the Japanese characters were usually written vertically, and radiated outward from the edge of the red circle. This practice is referenced in the second term, yosegaki, meaning “collection of writing”. The phrase hinomaru-yosegaki can be interpreted as “Collection of writing around the red sun”, describing the appearance of the signed flag.
Dads’ flag also has some Japanese characters written on it. I have since discovered these flags are known as a Good Luck Flag, known as yosegaki hinomaru in the Japanese language.
It was a traditional gift for Japanese soldiers when they deployed during a Japanese military campaign of the Empire of Japan, but most notably during WWII. This national flag was given to a soldier and signed by friends and family, often with short messages wishing the soldier victory, safety, and good luck.
As children, we again added our own story to the flag. Every brown spot was a dried blood stain or mud from the battle field. Dad did say that he pulled the flag off a dead soldier, and had all his buddies sign it as they passed around their own flags to be signed. While this sounds rather morbid today, the war in the Pacific was horrific, fought against an enemy that seldom gave quarter or expected it in return. I am just glad my father survived to give me a place in this world.
There is also a camera, a German Zeiss Icon Iconta 520 camera made in the mid to late 30’s. The unique part about it is that it had a bullet shot completely through it.
Of all the items, this one created some of the more fanciful imagined stories. I’m sure you can think of a few of your own. “The guy was taking a picture at the time and the bullet went through the camera into his eye”, or “the photographer stuck the camera above his fox hole to take a picture and a sniper shot it out of his hand” and so on.
I would have loved to see the roll of film that was in the camera at the time, but I’m sure it was spoiled by the light of the bullet entry or turned over to the intel boys to try and get some information on the enemy.
Dad or someone tried to pound the aluminum from the bullet hole back in place…I can imagine the great scrounger trying to fix it so he could use it again. Zeiss did make the sharpest lenses for many years.
Finally, there is the Nambu Type 94 pistol. It was chambered in 8mm Nambu, which is an extinct and obsolete cartridge.
While the Nambu Type 14 was a sexy looking weapon that looked like a Japanese Luger, and every GI wanted to score, the Type 94 has been called the worst service pistol ever made.
It was a very crudely made pistol produced by Japan towards the end of the war, when they were pumping out the “last ditch weapons” as the US was closing in on the homeland.
It is extremely poor quality, as most late war Japanese weapons were, this one having very rough machine marks and poor tolerances. It was just as dangerous to the owner as the person it was pointed at. The reason for this is that it has an exposed sear bar on the side. If this sear gets touched, it fires the gun. Yup, if you touch the side of the gun, not the trigger, it will fire.
So, it could go off when holstered, handling it, dropping it, handing it to someone, etc. There are stories of Japanese officers handing the pistol over when “surrendering” and then pressing the sear bar to get off one last suicide shot. It is still known as a desirable collectible…as the worst service pistol ever made.
Moving to the Vietnam era, dad brought back a Montagnard spear tip. The Montagnards are the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where dad was stationed in the 1st Cav Division.
The term Montagnard means “people of the mountain” in French, and is a carryover from the French colonial period in Vietnam. Dad took a number of pictures of the Montagnards.
Originally inhabitants of the coastal areas of the region, they were driven to the uninhabited mountainous areas by invading Vietnamese and Cambodians beginning prior to the 9th century.
Having no love for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars, they were allies and trained by US Special Forces as guerilla fighters. They used spears, crossbows and other primitive weapons as well as move conventional firearms.
He also brought back a Viet Cong flag.
Here is a VC belt buckle. It used to have a black leather belt, but it long ago rotted away under the care of the Profitt children.
When we used it to play Army, the enemy forces got to wear it and as everyone knows, the VC popped up out of rice paddies and rivers so it was often wet and dried and left out in the yard to the point where the leather rotted. I don’t know how we all lived to adulthood other than they would have to kill us all and someone would notice 6 kids missing.
Here is a photo of dad with a photo captioned as “captured VC souvenirs”. I’m sure he thought about how he could get that bicycle back to the states somehow.
From the local shops around the An Khê, dad also sent back jackets for the boys and Vietnamese dresses for mom and Laurie.
I’m not sure if any of the dresses still exist, but here is dad wearing my mother’s dress in Vietnam.
As far as I know there is only one remaining jacket left. I outgrew it by about the 4th grade. He was actually there 65-66, but bought them in ’66 just before he left.
My favorites though, are the photographs he took in many of the places he went. They are rare in number compared to today with the endless selfies and photos of what we had for lunch enabled by cell phone cameras, so I cherish each one and take care to restore as many as I can to share with the family.
From WWII there are very few photos. Maybe a couple from Korean occupation after WWII along with a couple from R&R in Japan, quite a few from when he served in the Free Territory of Trieste for three years, a few more from the Korean War, and a number from Vietnam.
It amazes me that there are only these few remnants of their military careers, a good part of dad’s life really, but I am grateful for what remains. To me they are memories I have been surrounded with for 60 years and key aspects of who my parents were.
The one year anniversary of the death of my best bud Rick Baker has at last arrived. It was going to arrive no matter what, so I’ll deal with it. His passing was the impetus to begin the ramblings on this blog as we have so many adventures in life worth remembering, at least to me, and I believe many of his close friends as well. We all have our “Rick Stories” to tell, I hope you tell some of your own.
As I reflect on the stories I have posted so far, it started me thinking about the many I have yet to put words to. I jot disjointed thoughts and notes down as they come, prompted by anything and everything. At some point of critical mass, I gather the thoughts together and try to assemble them into something resembling the spirit they were lived at the time.
I have at least a half dozen efforts mostly written, gathering dust in various forms of meditation, percolation and rumination.I have another half dozen or more that are more of a trip report I used to do after each outing recording tidbits for future use as well as a brief summary of the trip. These need to be fleshed out into full stories, but the structure is there.
Most of them sit in story purgatory for a while because they are waiting to have photos added. I am an extremely visual person and believe they all must be gloriously embellished to bring the reader into the story. This means digging through folders and files of digital images, organizing and scanning and cleaning piles of many more slides and photos that haven’t yet been digitized.
Some stories rattle around in my head for weeks or months, trying to coax the memory to think back 40 some years to remember the details, funny bits or items that was particularly meaningful.
The writing then flows comparatively easily as my mind then meanders back and forth like an old river, reliving well remembered memories that help pull the less remembered ones to rise to the top to see daylight once again. I do like to let the stories simmer a while, as I have a dread that more memories will pop up later that absolutely have to be included for a complete story.
The photos allow me to stand once more behind the lens as I thought about taking the photo, composing and adjusting the camera to make the photo come out like I wanted to see it. I can feel the swamp heat in the air, smell the earthy scent of an old growth forest or the sterileness of a sharp crisp breeze on a glacier. I can hear Rick crack an old joke or something else not explicit in the photo.
As a story teller it does cause me some pain deciding the right image to help the story. Often it is a compromise as we didn’t all have a camera in our pocket constantly 30 years ago. It also causes much delight when the image fits my words or the image in my mind.
Of course, the stories would be fine with no pictures, maybe better, allowing the reader to fill their mind with their own images of what it might have been like. But they are not just stories for me. My tag line “Stories I Don’t Want to Forget” carries much weight with me. They are memories that for some reason have stuck in my craw and want to do them right. I know I have forgotten many more than I remember, and fear losing them altogether as I grow older.
Being my adventure partner for 45 years, Rick and I had our own style of re-telling a well-worn tale, especially when well lubricated with bourbon. Anyone who was around us for more than a minute was typically subjected to one or a dozen stories between shots of whiskey.
In my stories with him involved, I do try to include bits and pieces of his perspective, at least my interpretation of it, as he had his own way of doing and saying things that was uniquely “Rick”. A lot of this is from listening to him tell his version of our stories for so many years…we could tell a story together without missing a beat, often filling in for each other as a swig of whiskey was taken by the other to keep the cadence up.
We could keep up a repartee that probably drove many a prospective climbing partner on to other, less loquacious and dark humored prospects. We did this rather constantly when it was just the two of us, but introducing an audience, particularly someone that hadn’t heard our tales a thousand times, tended to turn the amp up to 11 (for you Spinal Tap fans).
While the pile of memories is rich with material including Rick, I have also tried to not make this blog about him alone. Including memories from family and other past adventures varies it up a bit and offers welcome breaks, it turns out to be emotionally exhausting reliving our past life, but rest assured, there will be many more tales of the shenanigans of our years together.
I wrote this story on Facebook a year ago and it showed up on my “Memories” this morning. It was just a quick little blip that popped into my head back then and I jotted it down for Facebook. I smiled over the memory then read through the old comments.
The post didn’t get much notice as posts go, 7 Likes and 6 Comments, but two of the comments were from my life-long buddy Rick. “Man, that looks like fun!” and “Those wool pants can take a beating!”. Very short and simple, but just the kind of thing that sets off a hundred memories.
He was referring to the photo at the top that shows Beckey on an easy flake doing a layback move. We had been on climbs like that many times. Each one flashed through my head and they were all fun indeed, even the nasty, chossy, dirt pile Beckey death routes no one had been on in years.
He knew that wool pants can take a beating because we had both worn them for many years before all the new-fangled synthetic stuff came out. I had given him a pair of my dad’s old wool Army pants back in high school and we both wore them until we got too old and fat, replaced by nice comfy fleece.
But the thing that stung was that it is coming up June 17th, the day he died a year ago. I’ve been reading his comments from the last ten years coming back from the past in those Facebook memories for the past year thinking “he was still with us a year ago”. I don’t know why a year is meaningful, but it is.
Maybe because it still seems like it was just yesterday. Maybe it’s simply a calendar year has an implied meaning. Or maybe because the memory is the first time it has popped up…we have had plenty of fun re-commenting on these old FB memories from 2, 5, 8 years ago, but his voice is now gone from them.
In a few days none of the comments will be “new” memories. Each would have been seen at least once before as a memory and repeated year after year like a scene in the “Ground Hog’s Day” movie. I suppose all very appropriate for the boy born on February 2nd.
In the early 90’s we stopped in to check out some routes in Squamish BC that were right next to a residential area overlooking the main highway. They were just beginning some home construction there and we figured we should bag the climbs before they closed it off from climbers.
We took the short walk over to the cliffs and were scoping the routes and noticed a group on a nice, classic looking crack. Most of them were young but there was an old dude on lead, dressed in long wool pants and a flannel shirt while everyone else was in shorts and t shirts.
The old dude would work his way up the crack with pretty good run-out and then do an odd layback that I can only describe as a “butt smear” so he could get a nut or stopper in. He was actually smearing the full length of the wool pants for added friction while he worked the stopper in. He could almost no hands it!
He turned to look down at us and I immediately saw it was Fred from his photos on his climbing guides. He must have been about 72 at the time. Here was our alpine messiah, whose words we poured over in his Cascade Alpine Guides to find some glimmer of how to find a route on some crazy “Beckey variation” doing a single pitch 5.6 fifty feet from a construction zone. Very surreal.
We immediately added the “Beckey Butt Smear” into our quiver of climbing moves…if it was good enough for the Master it was good enough for us. Photo (not mine) of the Legend on another climb, looks like up Icicle Creek in Leavenworth.