Sunday, June 28, 2015

Men of Character

Uncle Charles Larson & author (1954) 
Men of Character
by Gregory E. Larson

          Preface: Every year, between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, I ponder the sacrifices of those who have served in the armed forces. It’s a time of year to look at our surroundings, breathe the summer air, and appreciate what we have.

          I’m a fortunate soul for having grown up around men of character. My role models were my dad, some uncles and friends of the family, and mentors who answered the call to serve during World War II. Did I understand the significance of their service or the harrowing situations they survived? No. I was a carefree kid from Kansas, spending time with my brothers and friends, with a limited view of the world. My siblings and I were the typical baby-boomers with a simple outlook on life: have fun and try not to get into too much trouble. In today’s American culture, where the idea of tight-knit families and neighborhoods seems a strange notion, I can look back now with real appreciation, and realize the impact of the love, nurture and guidance those men gave me. I feel truly blessed.
          Many of the men that I admired had stared death in the face during the war and they were literally glad to be alive. Somewhere in their darkest moments of battle, they held onto dreams of returning home to pursue a life of work and family. During the ’50s and ’60s they built on those dreams and made them real. The post-World War II economy was booming and folks were happy — happy the war was over and happy to be free to raise families in a great country.
          Over time, I saw different qualities in the men that I admired, including my dad. Partly by osmosis, and partly through conscious decisions, I attempted to emulate what I observed after spending time with my uncles and other men who were friends of my parents. In retrospect, I had a basketful of character traits to pick from, and what a basket it was!
          Uncle Charles (Charles “Shag” Larson, 1924 - 2014), my dad’s older brother, was a significant role model. He and my dad were very close. They grew up during the depression, in a family that struggled to stay out of poverty. They excelled in school, and both served in the war before going to college on the G.I. bill. For the first ten years of my life, our family and Charles’ family got together three or four times a year. This was not insignificant, because they lived in Albuquerque and we lived in Wichita. My dad and Uncle Charles always wanted to spend time together to fish or play golf.
          Charles was small in stature and soft-spoken. When he talked, people listened. He was a peaceful man, and happiest when sitting on a riverbank with his fishing pole propped up before him. Why did Charles and my dad want to be together? Dad was glad his brother was alive. In my adulthood, I learned of the war stories that he had kept quiet for so many years.
          Charles was an infantry soldier in the Army. During the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 he and his fellow soldiers were trapped in a concrete bunker in France. Cut off from the Allied Forces, they sat in the extreme cold for days, from one dark hour to the next with dwindling food and water. The Germans advanced and shelled the bunkers. Charles’ bunker was hit, and several men were killed instantly. In that moment, at age twenty-one, he became the ranking officer of the small band of survivors. The Germans shouted for them to open the bunker and exit. He had a split-second decision to make: Do they resist and die, or do they surrender and most probably be shot as they exit the bunker? Charles was the first to exit. Much to his surprise, the Germans didn’t shoot. Over the next two days they were marched fifty miles in the snow to the German prison camp Bad Orb. Many of the prisoners died of starvation or poor medical care during captivity. In April of 1945, when the allies liberated the camp, Charles weighed 85 lbs. and had to be carried to an ambulance. After he returned home from WWII, he signed up in the army reserves, and was sent to the Korean War, where he served as an officer.
          As a child, I always liked being with Uncle Charles. He always had a story or joke to tell, and he always looked out for me when we were fishing.
          Mr. Frazier, (Eugene “Gene” Frazier, 1922 - present), was another man I admired while growing up. The Frazier family was part of a large church class which included my parents. It was a very social group that supported each other as the families grew. There were many camping trips full of swimming, fishing, campfires, and exploring. Mr. Frazier was always prepared. His family would be first at the campsite, and as we arrived to set up our camp, he would provide assistance and encouragement, as well as plenty of fresh popcorn. I admired him for his creativity and resourcefulness, as well as his positive attitude. The evening campfires were always next to the Frazier’s campsite because Mr. Frazier had a supply of wood for the fire, and he refilled everyone’s bowl with  popcorn. My brothers and I became close friends with the Frazier kids. I still keep in touch with Val Frazier, in my longest-running friendship.
          I learned that Mr. Frazier had been a pilot in the Army Air Corps in the South Pacific during WWII. At twenty-one years old he was commander of a B-29 crew, in a bomber that had been designed and built in just a few months. Although it was designed with a pressurized cabin, the plane had a lot of quirks and flaws that required constant attention and maintenance. The pilot and the additional ten crew members had to know how to adjust and adapt the aircraft systems during their flights. The prospect of not returning had to rattle the minds of the crews each time they lifted into the air to fly low-level raids over Tokyo. Those who did survive had to cope with the knowledge that some of their fellow airmen in the other planes didn’t return from their missions.
B-29 (public domain image)
          The mentoring I received from men who served in WWII continued on through college and graduation. For my first architectural job, I was hired in Topeka, Kansas as an intern at the firm of Kiene and Bradley. Mr. Bradley, (Jack R. Bradley, Jr.), was a true professional and a born leader. When I first met him, I was shocked at the appearance of his face, which was disfigured and covered with skin grafts, but I observed a man whose focus and energy was channeled into running a high-quality design firm in downtown Topeka. Some employees told me that Mr. Bradley was a bomber crewman in WWII and had sustained his injuries and burns in a plane crash. He met client after client and brought in business to the firm as if his disabilities didn’t exist and the war had never occurred. He never talked about his war injuries and he went about each day with encouraging words and a smile on his face.
          After graduation, I was hired by a prominent architect, Sid Platt (Sidney S. “Sid” Platt, 1916-2012) in Wichita, Kansas. Sid had a commanding presence when he entered a room, standing over six feet tall, with curly hair, a Roman nose, jutting jaw and piercing blue eyes. He looked like he could have been an admiral in the navy, but he was a pilot and a Major in the Army Air Corps. During morning coffee, he shared some of his adventures in the war as a P-38 fighter pilot, flying sorties out of England and into Germany and continental Europe.

P-38 (public domain image)
          It was hard for me to picture big Sid squeezing into the small cockpit of a P-38, and I remember him telling us how cramped it was. He didn’t go into too much detail about the missions, but he said there was one time when he had to clean out his cockpit after returning to base from a dogfight and with the Germans. He had to burn his clothes and the seat cushion because he’d filled his pants during the heat of the battle.
          Sid was quite a people person, always working a room to make others feel at ease. He had a balance of creativity, honesty and work ethic. It seems as if it were yesterday . . . he'd pull into the parking garage in the morning in his tiny ’72 BMW, looking like a cramped fighter pilot. On our walk to coffee, if he saw my collar or back pocket unbuttoned, he’d stop to button it for me, then he’d poke me with his shoulder as we’d start walking and say, “Ya gotta look sharp!”
          My dad (Wallace E. “Wally” Larson, 1926-2007) entered the war in 1944, joining the Navy to become a signalman. He never saw combat, but he was assigned to a Merchant Marine ship, to receive and send orders for the captain. He told me his worst fear during the war occurred in San Francisco harbor when he received the Morse code message through the flashing beacons with orders for the captain to proceed the next day in a convoy to the South Pacific. Dad said he figured he would meet his fate somewhere along the way, because the supply ships were like floating buckets and were easy targets for the enemy. Lo, and behold, the next morning he received new information that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, and they were given orders to sit in the harbor for several days. He spent his remaining Navy days on the beaches of Hawaii, selling his cigarette rations and training for bantam-weight boxing matches to earn some additional cash.
          Dad’s middle name should have been Tough Guy. He was straight-laced but unafraid in any situation. After receiving an accounting degree in college, he went through FBI training and became a U.S. Treasury Agent. He was my A-number-one mentor for learning right from wrong. Early in our childhood he began to teach me and my siblings how to take care of ourselves and become productive members of society.
          One of the traits he passed on to me was how much he could see through simple observation. That must have been his law enforcement training. He also gave me advice on how to deal with stressful situations with influential people by telling me, “Greg, you have to remember they get up each morning and put on their pants just like you and me."
          He spent a lot of his free time taking us fishing, teaching us golf, and volunteering as our Scoutmaster. He never learned another language, but he knew Morse code backwards and forwards.

Wally Larson 1962 (author's dad)
          While I watch the Fourth of July fireworks this year, I’ll reflect on what these men did for me and for our country. I’ll remember growing up around them and understand they taught me so much without saying a word. It was their actions, these men of character, that showed me how to live.

          This link is to a video of Gene Frazier remembering the dangers of flying over Japan in the B-29 during WWII:

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Unusual Commute

Fast Old Guys
The Unusual Commute
by Gregory E. Larson
           A trip on the bicycle is a sensory experience. That’s why I’ve always felt so alive while pedaling down the road. Just the memory of various smells takes me back to strawberry fields in Wisconsin, or to minestrone and pasta flavors hovering in the stone alley ways of small villages in Italy. Over the years I’ve pedaled a swath past uncounted lemonade stands, delis, pubs and grocery stores. Did you ever drink an orangina or a gassosa when you were really thirsty? Powerful stuff.
          My longtime cycling buddy, George, asked me recently (for old time’s sake) to get up early and ride with him to where he works, something we did together once a week for ten years from the suburbs to Crown Center in Kansas City. Although I’m retired, I decided to do it for the exercise (and for old time’s sake), so I set the alarm for 5:20 AM.
          The body creaked and groaned while I pulled on my bike clothes and spooned down the bowl of maple-flavored instant oatmeal. I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” but once outside, I pedaled down the street and the world came alive.
          We saw each other’s flashing headlights at our designated Park where we blended together in the pre-dawn grayness, pedaling the familiar route. That’s when the memories came flooding back.
          As we picked up speed down a hill, George reminisced. “Remember the time I hit the rabbit in the dark on this stretch?” The vision came back from years ago, of the rabbit bounding out of nowhere, right into George’s wheel and flipped into the air, just missing me as I followed behind. Anything bigger than a twig on a bike tire at thirty miles-per-hour could spell disaster. This time we both stayed upright and continued on, letting nature take its course with whatever remained of the rabbit.
          Riding through Mission Hills brought back visions of foxes wandering the creek by the country club, and raccoons peering from storm inlets in the dark of the morning.
          As we rode through the Country Club Plaza, I thought of all those early December mornings when the Christmas lights illuminated the fog. In the eerie quiet it was a magical spectacle, one which we had to ourselves as we rode the empty streets.
          Weaving around the delivery trucks, I smelled the coffee as we passed Starbucks, then began the climb out of the Plaza towards St. Luke’s Hospital. In the old days, we rode past the main entry and the chapel on Broadway, stopping at the crosswalk for the doctors and nurses in their blue and white coats, where they walked to the entry of warm air that billowed out from the building — the draft giving us just a hint of the antiseptic interior beyond the doors.
          The route now curves around the hospital — the Broadway entrance shut off from traffic years ago. North of 43rd Street, George said, “You gotta see this . . . you’re not going to believe it.” My mouth gaped open as I looked at an empty field of grass next to a parking lot on the south side of Westport.
          “This is where the St. Luke’s Fitness and Rehab Center was!”
          “Yes, they tore it down. It’s gone.”
          For years, whenever I rode past the building, I thought of the pain and torture I endured inside when I went for rehab on a pulled hamstring. My leg winced every time I looked at the building. Now there’s just a field of grass. In the back of my mind I could hear the voice of the physical therapist as she rolled the muscle-massage machine next to the cot where I lay on my side.
          “Lie on your stomach and relax. I need to work over the damaged area with this massager.” She tried several settings but nothing seemed to stimulate the hamstring. Finally she announced, “I guess I’ll have to turn it up to the Russian setting.”
          “No way! Is there really a Russian setting?
          “Yep. Here it is.” She pointed to the dial and the final position on the far right, labelled Russian.
          “Okay. Have at it.” I buried my face in the pillow and grabbed the corners of the cot with a tight grip. She flipped the switch and I screamed a silent scream at the inner-most part of my being. I screamed and screamed. The only thing worse would have been if a robust Russian lady in a white coat had put all of her body weight into the massage. The memory seemed like a figment of my imagination as I rolled past the empty field where bricks, mortar, and therapists once filled the space.
          The dumpster odors from the alleys in Westport quickly flipped my mind back to reality. As we passed Kelly’s, the smell of stale beer filled the air as sunlight shafts began to peek over the treetops. We rolled on, through the Valentine neighborhoods with stately homes built in the ’20s, the houses now looking a bit tired.
          I said “good-bye” to George as he rode to his office building at 31st and Broadway, and I turned around for the solo trip home. We had a lot of good memories from our commutes. It was a time to visit, like riding in the car and sharing graduations, illnesses and proud father moments.
          I skipped the final stretch I used to take when I rode to work at Crown Center. The cresting of hospital hill was the strongest memory of all. Every time I topped out on Wyandotte St., the Liberty Memorial loomed in the sunrise and the city skyline twinkled before me, while the theme from Rocky played in my head. It was the finale, a cue that told me I would coast the rest of the way to work, knowing that after a hot shower, I’d stop by the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and a sticky bun — my reward for fifteen miles of exercise.
          This morning, though, my reward was reliving all those past rides through the city I love, winding my way home along the familiar streets.
          Thanks George, for the memories (and for old time’s sake).