The Nation's Pulse

You Don’t Know Jack

He had no idea he helped make his the Greatest Generation.

By 8.10.06

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LYNDEN, Washington -- I never caught his name -- not all of it.

He gave it to me at the end, when he had got up to leave, but his speech was soft and tentative and lacked the confidence of a younger man.

He apologized several times for the verbal stumbling. Said he was getting so old that he still knows what to say but has a hard time remembering the words. I think he worries he won't even know what to say much longer. Maybe that's why he decided to talk to me.

His first name was Jack. That much I got. He was 84 and looked older, with glassy eyes and double chins that were made up of loose skin rather than fat. He had hearing aids in both ears and they did the trick. As long as you were clear and deliberate, he understood.

Old Jack introduced himself to me at the Nuthouse, my local watering hole of choice and my de facto office. Looking back, I guess you could say I started it. Jack was sitting one booth over, opposite his adult granddaughter and entirely obscured from my field of vision.

The girl was wondering aloud at the odd customs of this small town. She said the first time she'd come through Lynden, she was baffled that stores here rope off the beer on Sundays and refuse to sell it.

"It turns out it's a city ordinance," she said.

"Etc."

"Etc."

"Etc."

I normally mind my business around other patrons, especially ones from out of town, but I couldn't help myself. Local pride got the better of me.

"What do the guys do here if they're watching football and they want a beer on Sunday?" she asked Jack.

"They stock up the night before," I answered and returned to my book.

And then later:

Her: "Well what if you were mowing the lawn on Sunday and just really wanted a beer... I guess there probably isn't much mowing on Sunday."

Me: "Yeah, they frown on that here."

I looked down at my book and then looked up to find her companion standing there in faded blue slacks and a blue tee-shirt with suspenders. Said that he wanted to see the man who was "flirting with my granddaughter" and then, in his slow, folksy, deliberate manner that reminded me of my late Grandpa Bailey, he struck up a conversation.

JACK SAID THEY WERE GOING to stay with his oldest grown child, who lives in the area, before going up to his brother's place in B.C. He used to live in Washington before he retired back in the mid-'80s and then he moved "down South" with his wife, who passed away two years ago.

He'd lived with his sister since then, he said, presumably in that nebulous "down South." But he tries to get up to see his brother every so often, and his granddaughter was doing the driving.

The old man asked what I do for a living. When I told him that I write books, there was a certain look in his eyes and he asked if he could sit down.

"Sure," I said, not knowing what to expect.

"I was born in Canada," he began, "but I was always an American."

His parents moved to British Columbia during the '20s to find farming work but they had never given up their American citizenship. They scraped by but only just, and it was often difficult to feed six children.

Jack dropped out of school after the eighth grade because that was the point at which you had to start buying your books. Neither he nor his parents had any money for such luxuries. He didn't need an education to do farming, however, so he hired himself on to a few local farms making $30 a month -- "good money" -- driving a team of chained oxen to till the soil.

Canada, as an arm of the British Empire, was at war far before America, and the effort took a toll. Young Jack tired of people asking him why he wasn't doing his patriotic duty so he tried to volunteer for the Canadian army and was rebuffed, and then he decided to seek work in the U.S.

"I wasn't here more than a month when the Japanese made some trouble out on those islands," he said of Pearl Harbor. He was drafted more-or-less overnight.

During basic training at Fort Lewis, Jack was given a form to fill out. He should signal his preferred branch of service. "And I wrote 'none of 'em,'" he told me.

"Guys were falling all over themselves trying to get into the air force because that was considered the nicest place to be, and here I wrote 'none of 'em' and I end up there," he repeated, and chuckled.

Jack explained that at the start the army air corps -- later, the air force -- was primitive when he arrived on the scene. Defense contractors worked overtime to develop new planes and build them into a fleet that would help to win the war, and the brass did the best they could to train the new draftees. Jack went for training down in Oklahoma and the technical aptitude that he had from working on farms translated well into plane maintenance and management.

Only a few months after he had been conscripted into the service, he was sent to the Panama Canal, because of fears that Japan would try to bomb U.S. planes there. He was to keep the planes running well and help evacuate them if necessary.

At that point, the old man told me, he was making "$50 a month plus $50 overseas." By his standards, that was a king's ransom.

ONCE HIS TOUR IN PANAMA WAS OVER, Jack was recalled to the states and stayed here for a while, due to regulations about troop rotation. He was assigned to help manage troop transport planes and that eventually took him back into the international stage.

"I crossed the ocean six or seven times," he told me, the ocean being the Atlantic. "Had a few scrapes along the way, and picked up a few of what I call 'scratches,' but I got through okay."

By "scratches," he meant shrapnel. Jack told me two stories of when death got a little too close for comfort.

One time, one of the engines in a two engine prop-plane sputtered and blew out and they had to make an emergency landing. He illustrated the wobbling of the plane by holding his hand straight out and twisting it from side to side.

And the other time, his plane was picking up troops in Italy when enemy troops got a lock on their position: "I told everybody to strap down quick and told the pilot to get the hell out of there. There was a guy standing close to the door, so I yanked him in and we took off."

It was Jack's job to keep a flight manifest for funeral records, so he learned in the air that he had hauled a "decorated general" on board.

"He told me, 'That's the first time I've ever been manhandled by a sergeant.' I said, 'Well, that's the first time I've ever manhandled a general.'"

When Jack was to be discharged after four years, the general contacted him, said that the air corps had let too many people with Jack's expertise go, and asked if he'd be willing to help run U.S. operations in Canada.

Since that counted as "overseas pay"; and since Jack didn't have anything better lined up; and since, after all, he was born in Canada, he said he'd do it. He touched down north of the 49th to discover that there was no commanding officer to report to, because he was it.

The only serious snag that he ran into was that army brass tended to send a lot of high-ranking but incompetent "pencil pushers" his way, and they didn't want to take orders from a sergeant.

Jack told me that he called his general friend -- whose name he struggled but failed to remember -- and asked what he should do about it. The general sent him a bunch of decorations and told them to wear them at all times, and people fell into line.

"Of course, they took them away when they were discharging me," Jack said. Apparently they took a dim view of that very American notion, "promote thyself."

In the "young and dumb" department, Jack told me, "Something I didn't know is if you did things in the service that you weren't trained for, and you did them well, then they would write that on your discharge papers."

He continued, "If I would have taken those papers to Boeing, I could have got a job there no problem. I went there and I asked for a job but they said, 'We don't have time to train you.' I got a job working for the phone company instead, so that worked out alright."

Jack regretted this, he said, because, when he was going through his effects a few years back, he accidentally dropped a copy of his discharge papers. His accomplishments literally came tumbling out on the floor. So he picked them up and read them, and then he passed the story of his hot youth on to me.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.