Tales of an ancient mariner, and a dust bowl journey
by Mark McDermott STAFF WRITER – THURSDAY December 15, 2005, REPRINT BY PERMISSION EASY READER
One day during the summer of 1927, a four-year-old boy named Ralph Long made a decision that would determine the shape of his life. He decided to throw walnuts.
He and his 11-year-old brother Leon were alone on their family farm outside Greenfield, Missouri. Their parents and little sister had gone to town, a slow-going eight-mile journey that was dirt road half the way. Their clapboard home had no electricity and no running water. In the heat of the Midwestern summer, the boys spent a good deal of time sitting in the shade under the two black walnut trees in their front yard.
As kids do, Leon found a way to fight the boredom. He took an empty Sunshine crackers box, placed it upright, and proceeded to use it for walnut-throwing target practice. Most things his big brother did looked like a good idea to Ralph, so he picked up a walnut and walked to the other side of the box. Leon kept throwing. One of his throws skipped off the top of the box and nailed Ralph in his left eye, rupturing his retina. He was mostly blind in that eye thereafter.
Many events during his childhood would greatly impact Ralph’s later life, such as the dust storms that wrecked the family’s crops for two growing seasons in the early ‘30s and his parents’ decision to join the mass migration to California in 1936. But years later, as a man looking back at eight decades of life in order to record his memoirs for his family and friends, Ralph would linger over this incident.
“It may well,” he said, “have saved my life.”
A boy Ralph met as a freshman at Redondo Union High School in 1936 had a minor accident that would likewise deeply affect his life’s course.
Frank Oliver was 14 years old and riding his bicycle down a hill while carrying a large bag when he lost control and crashed, headfirst, to the street. He suffered a basal skull fracture, and was in bed for six weeks. He would recover everything but the hearing in his right ear. Afterwards, whenever he was hit hard by something – such as a wave while bodysurfing or a tackler while playing football – he would blank out for twenty seconds or so. Despite a few near drowning incidents, however, nothing could dampen Oliver’s sense of adventure. He would spend much of his subsequent life at sea.
If there was one thing that distinguished those who would come to be known as “the greatest generation,” it was their capacity for overcoming obstacles.
Oliver and Long were two of four old classmates and friends who stood together in the Sea Hawk Bowl at Redondo Union High School one day late last June, nearly 65 years to the day since they’d graduated. Thousands of alumni had gathered to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the school, but only five were present from the 275 who had graduated as the Class of 1940.
The four friends met as members of a scholastic society at RUHS. All except Oliver attended the University of California at Berkeley and were studying for finals together on a Sunday morning in December, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. One, Marx Ayres, threw a book at a fellow student who interrupted their study with the news, which he at first did not believe and later did not comprehend.
“Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?” Ayres asked.
Their lives were forever changed. All four went off to war. Ayres and James “Shook” Stewart both served aboard Navy submarines in the Pacific theater (see the Nov. 7 Easy Reader cover story). Long was in the meteorological service of US Army Air Corps in the European theater, and Oliver traversed the world as part of the U.S. Merchant Marine Service, a crucial but little recognized part of the war effort.
The ’40 four are among those who emerged from the Great Depression to defeat forces of despotism that threatened to overtake the globe and then created the most prosperous society in history. It is hard to overstate either accomplishment, but the latter is in some ways more unfathomable. Deep economic depressions were, after all, a fact of life prior to the long boom that began in 1950.
Economic historian Robert Sobel in his book The Great Boom attributed this achievement to the emphasis the generation placed on education. He described WWII vets as the “most educated generation in American history.” WWII vets used the GI Bill in large numbers to obtain higher education after the war; according to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, almost half of all WWII vets – 7.8 million –took advantage of the legislation. In 1947, war veterans made up 49 percent of U.S. college enrollment. This newly educated, confident, worldly, and energetic generation proceeded to create a standard of living the likes of which the world had never seen before.
The “Greatest Generation” is fading into history. WWII veterans are now passing at rate of 1,025 each day, according to VA statistics. More than 350,000 will die this year, compared to a total of 391,000 who died in battle during WWII itself. Only 3.5 million of the 16 million who served in that war are now living.
Those who remain have stories to tell, and few have stories that are more indicative of the life of an entire generation than the ’40 four from Redondo Union. While Stewart and Ayres served in the famed U.S. Navy submarine service – one of the so-called “hero services” because of its danger and dramatic role in winning the war in the Pacific – both Oliver and Long were forced to serve in somewhat less glamorous ways because of their respective impairments.
But because of this, both embarked on long international journeys that went beyond the war itself and enabled each to become eyewitnesses to some of key junctures in the history of the 20th century.
The ancient mariner
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain, as quoted at the outset of Frank Oliver’s autobiography, The Ancient Mariner’s Log.
Oliver is one of those people who knew all his life what he wanted to do. He caught the trade winds and didn’t stop exploring for the next fifty years.
“We lived on the other side of Beryl hill and my dad happened to be principal of Beryl school,” he remembered. “I’d drive to work with him every morning and heading west, at the top of the hill, I’d look out at Santa Monica Bay and there’d always be a ship on the horizon. I’d turn to Dad and say, ‘Well, it won’t be too long and I’ll be out there.’ It just seemed I always knew I wanted to go to sea.”
It wasn’t just the ocean but venture that called Oliver. The summer between his junior and senior years in high school, for instance, he had a notion to go exploring by rail. His parents, realizing they couldn’t stop him if they wanted to, gave him permission. He jumped a freight train and rode it to Portland, Oregon, and back, befriending immigrants, bodysurfing at stops along the coast, and – with the help of some protective hobos – escaping the amorous advances of a station manager in a small town in Northern California (“At the time, I was sixteen years old and had never heard of a homosexual,” he writes in his memoir. “Now, I appreciate those hobos were looking out for me.”).
His boyhood dream had always been to go to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., but he realized after his ear injury that he wouldn’t be able to pass the physical. He decided instead to apply to the California Maritime Academy in order to eventually join the Merchant Marine. He passed the physical for the CMA by dubious means. The examiner told him to stand sideways and hold a hand over his ear. He then walked twenty feet away and whispered a number. When it was time to test his right ear, Oliver slightly cupped his palm and was able to hear the number.
“Later on at sea, I always remember the captain of whatever ship I was on would soon learn that I could hear the fog horn before anyone else as I knew I was half-deaf and so I listened more intently,” Oliver writes.
Such was the beginning of a sea-going career that would take him into some of the most dangerous waters during WWII and would culminate four decades later when he became the U.S. Coast Guard Captain overseeing the Port of New York.
Oliver’s training began aboard the SS California State in San Francisco. He was still only 17 years old, and he remembers sleeping ‘tween decks on a thin mattress and pulling the covers over his head as he cried himself to sleep the first few nights away from home. The training normally would have taken three years, but when the war broke out it was shortened to 18 months. The next thing Oliver knew, he was in the South Pacific.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked near the end of the war that history would appreciate the role that the Merchant Marine played perhaps better than people at the time did.
“They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken,” President Roosevelt said in 1944. “As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant fleet’s record during this war.”
In what has frequently been called the greatest sealift in history, the US Merchant Marine delivered troops, ammunition, food, tanks, clothing, bombs, airplanes and fuel to every American war operation in the world. According to the War Shipping Administration, the USMM transported more than 7.3 million troops and 270 million long tons of cargo during WWII. At the war’s beginning, the USMM totaled only 55,000 mariners and 1,340 ships; by its end, there were 215,000 mariners and 4,221 ships.
They were the lifeblood of the military effort and were present at every invasion. As such, USMM ships were attacked vigorously by the Axis powers. According the USMM, 833 large ships were sunk during the war. One in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships died in the line of duty, a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all U.S. military branches of service (specific services suffered greater casualties, such as the one in four US Navy submariners who perished during the war). USMM casualties were kept secret during the war in an effort to keep the enemy’s successes hidden and keep attracting mariners to sea. In 1942, the year Oliver went to war, 33 ships were sunk each week.
Few people saw the full scope of the war more than an American mariner. Oliver took part in the invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines (his ship, the Monterey, was the first in Manila harbor after its liberation and took the survivors discovered at the infamous Santo Thomas prison camp back to the United States); he was in troop convoys – including one that included the Queen Mary, commandeered for military duty as many luxury liners were – that crossed the U-boat infested waters of the North Atlantic; he was aboard the Clarence Darrow – one of the hastily built, sturdy, square-hulled “Liberty ships” built for the war effort that were described by FDR as “dreadful looking objects – when it was attacked by a Japanese submarine en route from Bombay from Tasmania (an amphibious British warplane responded to their MAYDAY call from Sri Lanka and chased the submarine away with depth charges).
The Monterey once picked up 5,000 Italian prisoners of war who had served under Rommel (who had “surrendered to the British as soon as they could,” Oliver writes) from Bombay to Australia. The Italians, he said, were delighted when they learned where they were being taken and were essentially given the run of the ship – he paid one, a former barber, a pack of cigarettes every day for an expert shave. Meanwhile, they had also picked up six German submariners whose vessel had been sunk. The Germans were kept under 24-hour armed guard and were not even allowed on mess deck but were instead fed in their cabin.
“I guess we were afraid they would take over the ship,” Oliver wryly noted.
While FDR described the merchant marine as the “fourth arm of defense,” their discipline differed from that aboard US Navy ships. It was more in keeping with the age-old hierarchies honored by mariners from time immemorial, which is to say that boats were run strictly but had plenty of mischief and alcohol aboard. Oliver recalls one voyage from Tasmania to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn in which all the officers had been allowed to buy a case of scotch from a shipping agent. The captain disappeared in his cabin for ten days. “He was bombed,” Oliver said.
Oliver, meanwhile, slipped and fell while doing a sextant reading after drinking all day. He slid down a ladder two decks, “keeled over” and smashed his head on the steel boat deck. “In the end, we all made it to San Francisco safely – after finishing all our scotch,” he writes.
By the end of the war, at the tender yet grizzled age of 23, Oliver received command of his own ship, the SS Bret Harte, a freighter that ran between Galveston, Texas, and Hamburg, Germany, delivering wheat to starving Germans. He had already seen the world, and yet he was only at the beginning of his voyages.
Among the ’40 four, two grew up dirt poor.
Marx Ayres was the son of a Presbyterian minister who’d become radicalized while tending to members of his flock who were miners. His father, James Albert Ayres, was the son of a muleskinner from Deadwood, South Dakota. James had been a promising young theologian when he met his wife, Martha Outhout Ayres, a sculptor from Iowa who had attended the Art Institute of Chicago. But James Ayres reading of the Bible meant tending to the needs of his congregation and therefore going to their places of work to find out what those needs were. He was appalled at the working conditions he encountered, and his resultant agitation resulted in conflicts with church leadership.
“Stick to the bible,” he was admonished repeatedly. “I am sticking to the bible,” he replied.
He was bounced from one congregation to the next, leading the young family on a ragged journey to Arizona, then Utah (where James twice ran for the legislature as part of the Communist Party). Finally, he quit the church and moved to Colorado. Ayres was born in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains that lacked running water and electricity, and was named Marx because the nearest neighbor had loaned his father a copy of Das Kapital.
By the time they moved to California, five years after Marx’s birth in 1923, his father was more interested in organizing social change than establishing a career. At any rate there was little work for anybody following the stock market crash in 1929. His mother worked on various WPA projects and his father found occasional laboring jobs, but his real passion was politics. He was one of the leaders of protests in downtown Los Angeles aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
in the early 1930s that called for social security, a radical concept that was derided as socialism before FDR championed it later in the decade.
As his family struggled through the Depression, Marx found refuge at RUHS. He felt some unease because of his name and his father’s notoriety. The school had its own class divisions, particularly between “poor yaps” like himself from the farmyards of North Redondo and the kids from Palos Verdes who had “peacocks and horses and things like that,” Marx recalled. “I was always afraid someone would nail me.”
One of his closest friends was another poor kid nicknamed “Killer” – Ralph Long, who was so-called because he really liked to “stomp on people” on the football field, according to Ayres. Both kids came from families that were so poor that they occasionally relied on public assistance to get by. Long remembers as a junior in high school that the public assistance commissary was right across Diamond Street.
“I had to sneak in there while at school, trying to avoid somebody seeing me, to get some potatoes,” Long said.
Long had only arrived in the South Bay in January of 1936, the same year he began high school, after his family lost its farm in Missouri to debt. It was his family’s second stint in Redondo. They had actually moved there when he was only six months old back in 1923. His mother’s father, John “Popi” Thrall, followed the family to California and eventually convinced them to return to Missouri. Grandpa Thrall’s deal was this: he would give them a brand new 1925 Ford Model T for the return trip and then buy and outfit a 120-acre farm back near Greenfield.
As Long notes in his memoir, his parents, Ray and Mable Long, were “ill prepared to undertake the tasks assumed by them.” Ray had dropped out of school when he was in 3rd grade, Mable in 9th grade, and neither had any experience operating a farm. It might not have mattered, given the hard times that lay ahead for western Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The area would first be hit hard by the economic disaster of the Great Depression and then thoroughly devastated by the dust storms that followed.
Still, Long recalls his family’s eight years on the farm as “the adventure of a lifetime.” While conditions were primitive – no electricity, phone, or indoor plumbing (and not even an outhouse for the first few years) – the Longs adjusted happily to life in the country. They grew oats, corn, wheat, and a few melons, raised pigs and chickens (more than a 1,000 White Leghorn hens by their second year), and were provided milk by two dairy cows.
Ralph attended school a mile-and-a-half away in a little one-room schoolhouse called Blackberry Flats that was tucked in a forest clearing at a bend of Horse Creek. Seventy-five years later, he still fondly remembers the different treks he took to school, depending on the weather and his choice of play – the route by the apple orchards for a quick snack, for instance, or the route by the wild grapevines to play Tarzan.
A single teacher, Bea Harper, taught 12 to 16 students all the way from kindergarten to eighth grade, although depending on weather and sickness only two or three students might show up. When the teacher was sick, her husband Everett would substitute, generally by playing a game of hide and seek called “Run Sheep Run” in which he would try to find the students in the forest. Ralph’s father became a member of the local school board, with duties that included supervising the teacher and “…mowing the schoolyard weeds in September before school started, killing the copperhead snakes in and around the schoolhouse and removing the dead varmints and other debris from the school well.”
It was an unusually robust childhood. By the time Ralph was five, he knew how to shoot a .22 gauge rifle; at six, he learned how to hunt and his responsibilities included collecting the hens’ eggs and milking the two cows; at seven, he was given a 16-gauge shotgun and regularly supplied the family with quail, duck, and squirrel (at that age he also began taking part in the yearly hog butchering ritual, helping kill and cut up a 200 pound pig in a daylong bloody affair whose reward was “living high off the hog” with a rare meal of fried tenderloin that night); by the time he was eight, he was taught how to operate a riding plow, harnessing the family’s three horses – Dan, Toby, and Fred – and tilling the farm’s fields; at nine, he learned how to make good home brew with his brother Leon and while charged with filling the bottles decided to appoint himself chief tester (“It was not long until those repeated sips began to take effect and I was replaced as chief bottle filler by aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
my dad. I remember very little after being relieved of bottling duties…”); at ten, he played guitar and Leon mandolin while accompanying their neighbor Ralph Bledsoe (“…a reasonably talented musician” who played fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar) in providing music for square dances at neighboring farms, during which they would take “fiddler’s breaks” and hoist a jug of either “raisin or red grape wine.”
At 11, Ralph had his first paid job, riding horseback and herding 2,500 sheep all through the summer of 1933. He was paid 50 cents a day plus room and board and worked six days a week. He returned home a day before school resumed at Blackberry Flats, and ended up spending his entire summer’s wages on a mail order suit from Montgomery Ward. “I only wore it once and was ashamed to wear it again,” Long writes. “That’s the way with money, easy come, easy go!”
All the work and responsibility, Long said, generally robbed him of his childhood. But it also gave him a love of school. “…I enjoyed school at Blackberry Flat far more than I might otherwise have because it was the only time I was able to run and play and act like a child,” he noted in his memoirs. It was a love of school that would remain with him all his life.
During 1933 and 1934, the family planted 40 acres of corn and didn’t harvest a single ear. They were hit by drought and dust storms.
“Only two times dust storms rolled into Western Missouri,” Long said in an interview. “The first one was at noontime and it looked like a fog cloud coming in and then everything went dark as midnight. We closed all the doors and windows, but it seeped and seeped around all the cracks and everybody put wet towels or handkerchiefs over our faces…Aw, it was horrible.”
The family was already in financial trouble. His parents had mortgaged their house in order to buy a new car back in 1928 and had fallen behind on their payments. FDR saved the family from eviction in 1932 with a moratorium on farm foreclosures. But as the crops failed and the family fell further into debt, the Longs had to consider joining the mass migration to California. After Ralph and his sister Margie graduated from 8th grade at Blackberry Flats, they made their decision. Later that year, they sold the 120-acre farm, everything on it, and 13 acres of timber to the bank, netting enough money to buy new tires for their automobile and $200 in travel expenses.
Then they hit the road.