Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Getting ‘Set Up’

I've told my grandchildren who never lived in Minnesota about several adventures durning my teens in Alexandria. This is one of them.

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Anyone who is aware of weather would assume Minnesota has frozen lakes in the winter. That is most certainly true most of the time. Those frozen lakes gave 'gotta prove something' boys like me an early spring/late winter challenge.

Like every freeze, there is a thaw. The ice recedes toward the center of the lake. If I remember right, someone said something like, “Did you hear that so and so swam out to the shrinking ice at the end of ‘some’ month?”

No one seemed to remember who and exactly when, but someone added, “They do it every year,” to the conversation.

I’m sure I was looking for another level of early teen peer acceptance which led to my thinking about going with them to the edge of a lake with road access as soon as it was possible for receding ice.

One of the rules was that the participant couldn’t just walk to the edge of the ice – he or she had to swim and break off a chunk. And there had to be two witnesses.

Most of the lakes are in the final thawing process by April, but some years it’s earlier. I don’t remember my year, but it was probably 1951, the same as my first hearing about the alleged annual event. They drove me to one of the lakes that had public access and the ice was obviously receding.

On March 1st, I stripped to my Jockeys, walked into the water, and swam about 100 ft. to reach and break off a chunk of ice. When experts talk about the shock of cold water, I completely understand. Had the distance been more – well who knows.

Not one of the older boys wanted to tie the date, and I realized I’d been set up.

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Have fun! See me at Octogenarian Writer

Friday, December 17, 2021

Stu Dent's Story Continued

We had a basketball game last night and won. Some of the guys on varsity figured they should have Friday off, and it was only a half-day anyways. We had our JV game on Tuesday, but coach pulled me for the second half, and I got in the varsity game on Thursday for a few minutes. I figured that qualified me to hang out with the 8th graders at the mall. Nah! It was just like lunch. I discovered the 8th grade lunch groups were also 8th grade mall groups. I must admit that I wish I’d gone to school.

Well, having only a half-day on Friday meant having slightly longer periods one and two, cooks’ choice lunch, and the holiday assembly, unless of course you were assigned to in-school suspension. But even the two guys that were in ISS last year told me they got to stand by the gym door with the suspension room lady.

My first period is Ms. English’s history class. Two or three girls spent before and after school time under her direction since the Monday after Thanksgiving decorating the room. The room was wrapped with a happy holiday banner in the language of 27 countries with their flags displayed above the signs. I’m sure none of the ‘stan’ countries celebrate holidays this time of year. Bet they don’t just call them holidays when they have them either. Figurines in costumes of the countries were all topped with a Santa hat. The battle-ready Samurai was the most ludicrous to me. I asked about having a Christmas tree. She told me it might be offensive to some. I almost asked about a Nativity, but I knew better than get into it with her and dropped the subject. She gave out nuts and dried fruit wrapped in grape leaves tied with brown twine.

Second period is 6-7-8 PE. Mr. Shute gave varsity basketball players the option of a shoot around in the upstairs gym or just sit it out. I was scheduled to at least be on the bench for the evening game and chose to do a little shooting with the 8th graders. After a few minutes of not being passed a ball, I opted for the sit-out. No treats from the PE teacher.

I’m Mr. Angle’s student TA for basic math in third and am in his 8th grade Algebra class 4th. Mr. Angle was on leave since Monday so he and his family could be in Bethlehem on Christmas day. So last Friday he brought in cookies and fudge with walnut pieces his wife made. He said I should pass out the fudge to the basic math class after the quiz on Wednesday. Fourth could eat theirs during a PBS video about Pythagoras. I couldn’t find the fudge in his office – I think the sub took it. One of the eighth-grade girls said I took it. I like fudge, but walnuts give me sores on my tongue. The cookies were good.

Lunch was called ‘traditional holiday’ on the menu board. Being snarky of mind, I felt like asking the lunch lady for sufganiyot and latkes. I’ve had both at my family-friend’s home on Hanukkah. Sufganiyot is said ‘sufganiya’ and is like a jelly doughnut. Most people, I think, know about latkes. I didn’t want to get into a discussion about the definition of holiday. But she did smile and say, “Merry Christmas,” as she plopped jellied cranberry sauce next to the slice of dry turkey breast on the tray.

English is fifth period. Old England was Mrs. Dazayore’s room theme for Christmas decorations. She didn’t put Santa hats on any of the characters. Well, we just finished reading and writing an opinion paper on A Christmas Carol. One of the guys got screeched at for trying to turn in a download of a summary of the Dickens story from a web site. Mrs. who insists on being called Ms. Dazayore insists on personal opinion even if she doesn’t agree. I like that because it gives us a chance to explain why we believe something. Of course, ‘just because’ is never accepted. Someone said Ms. English was ticked when ‘Ms.’ Dazayore’s theme won the informal room decoration contest. Each of us got a small bag of English toffee bits.

Sixth period for me is music appreciation in the first semester and will be art in the second. Anyone in choir, orchestra, or band gets to skip art. I would like to skip art too, but Mr. Harp said, “Stu, I’ve never met anyone who is more tone deaf and devoid of rhythm as you.” His voice was never mean, but I know he is right. He does give me Cs for attendance and trying. That sort of makes up for me flat-out flunking the Recorder unit. Harp gave out 40% off cards he got from the music store at the mall.

Thursday, Coach Shute got the varsity team dismissed from their seventh period class. That was a usual for away games, but it was a home game. They always met on the stage in the cafetorium because the locker room was used by the last period girls PE class.

Well, that’s about it. I hope they make the day before winter/Christmas break an automatic excused absent, so I don’t have to find a way to get a note from my parents without telling a lie about hanging out at the mall. Well at least I have two weeks before the hammer falls. Or, do I?

Return to johnmorrisbenson blog

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

D B Cooper and Me

In 1971, I was a 35-year-old married student at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA, with three children. On the evening of November 23, I left our Student Village housing for a Boy Scout leaders meeting. I was approached by a man who appeared to be in his early 20s.

His asking for a ride to the bus station didn’t seem unusual to me. It was the eve of Thanksgiving break at the university, and hitching an in-town ride was a common student-to-student request any time of the year. Neither was it unusual that he wore brown cotton gloves and combat boots. November is cold in central Washington and web upper, military surplus combat boots were common footwear even for Vietnam war protesters on and off campus.

I was already tired from working a graveyard shift as a shelf stocker and checker at Zittings, an Ellensburg grocery store, and attending classes most of the day. The Greyhound station was only a little out of the way for me, but taking him there would make me only a few minutes late for my meeting. As we neared the traffic light controlled intersection near the bus station in my Chevy Nova, he told me to turn left. I told him that the station was straight ahead.

He displayed a Ruger .22 automatic pistol I recognized from having owned one several years before. I followed his directions to State Highway 821 South, locally known as ‘canyon road’ because it follows the Yakima River between basalt cliffs in the Umtanum Ridge Water Gap from Ellensburg to Yakima.

I glanced at him to get a complete description of him in my mind as I drove. Each time I looked, he told me, in authoritative tone, to keep my eyes on the road. When we approached Yakima, I plotted an escape, and told him that I was nearly out of gas. That was true, but I thought I could get to a well-lighted place with witnesses or help. He told me to keep going south on US-97 to Union Gap and stop at the cash station. I didn’t know the location. He gave me specific directions.

I hadn’t seen a cash station before, but as I remember it was a new concept being tested. The pumps were set up to take fives or ones and dispense gas after the deposit. I immediately planned to make a break if I saw an attendant, but there was none, and his pistol was displayed the entire time I was outside the car. I thought he was going to take the car after I put gas in the tank, but he didn’t.

He directed me back onto US-97 and I continued driving south on a road I’d not driven before. We approached the toll bridge crossing the Columbia River to Biggs Junction, OR, and I made a quick plan to jump out and get help from the attendant. As we neared the booth and I slowed my car, my unwelcome passenger hid the pistol under the military field jacket he wore.

The man at the booth was what I considered elderly, and there were no other cars stopped to pay a toll. I thought, for whatever reason, it wouldn’t make sense to endanger him too. In retrospect, if the man with the gun intended was to get rid of me, it would have been done on the isolated road we’d already traveled. He directed me onto Interstate-84 towards Portland. I developed another plan; I increased my speed hoping to get stopped by the Oregon State Patrol. But, as I gradually increased my speed, he told me to stay in the right-hand lane at the speed limit.

I’d never been in downtown Portland, but his directions were explicit. It wasn’t difficult by that time for me to realize that he knew exactly where he wanted to go and how to get there. I’ll not forget where he got out of my car and disappeared into the night – Fourth and Jackson.

I found a pay phone on the next block and called the Portland Police. A marked patrol car responded within minutes. The officer took my description of the abductor and said it fit many young men they commonly see in the area around Portland State University. Within a few minutes of his broadcasting a description on the radio, another patrol car brought someone for me to identify. Not him! Only the young man’s outer clothing matched. We left my Nova on the street and went to the station. I called my wife in Ellensburg, and she told me about the people out looking for me.

While I was making a written statement, another young man was brought into the station. Again, only the clothing matched. The interviewing officer told me I needed to make another report in Ellensburg since the incident started there, and he had already contacted the FBI.

An officer drove me back to my car. It wouldn’t start – dead battery – I’d left the lights on. They gave me a jump-start and directions to I-84. I’d been up for nearly 24 hours and was dead tired, but I didn’t have money for a motel. Rather than try to sleep in the car, I coffeed up and opted to make the 4-hour drive back to Ellensburg in the early morning of Thanksgiving Eve.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Cold War Story

August 1961 a Tense Marathon

This was published on August 14, 2021, in Vancouver’s The Columbian “Everyone has a Story” column.


This year is the 60th anniversary of the closing of the Soviet sector of Berlin and East German borders between the British, American, and French sectors of West Germany. The date brings back memories of August 13, 1961.

I’d been in Frankfurt, Germany, less than a month and at my Army Security Agency assignment as a communications center message controller for about three weeks. Routine message routing wasn’t boring nor was it exciting. Confidential and secret messages were almost routine, and their content gave me very little concern about my wellbeing or for the safety of my family in the States.

When message traffic indicated East German and Russian sources which we monitored in the region became progressively quiet starting about August 6, 1961, I started to feel some stress. I’d been schooled that more than one source of intelligence going quiet was a very good indicator that some planned event was about to happen.

A top-secret message came through my workstation saying our Berlin stations would be on covert alert starting the evening of August 11. No specific reason was in the message text. Covert alert meant all normal activities would be overt and routine if observable by the other side. But all would be ready to respond to full duty asap if full alert were called. Our Frankfurt unit wasn’t on alert, but conversations of the more experienced in the secure break room gave me uneasy feelings.

There was continuing tension between East and West authorities and military on both sides. But Saturday, August 12 was like any other summer weekend for most Berliners and Frankfurters going about their daily routines. British, French, and American soldiers were still ‘doing the town’ if not on duty. My morning was busy with personal things. I picked up my laundry at the post exchange and checked the reader board for approved apartments. My wife and two boys were scheduled to join me in two weeks.

Swing shift that Saturday started at 4 p.m. and I was told to expect an overlap to graveyard or a double shift. The graveyard shift communications controller was in sick bay and the day shift controller had been flown to Berlin that morning to strengthen that station’s staff. Another controller had been ordered from ASA Turkey for temporary duty at Frankfurt but probably would not arrive for several days. Our observers had communicated that Soviet and East German troops usually out and about in limited numbers were all restricted to barracks that night.

It was a little over an hour into my extended shift when I responded to the CRITIC message alarm on the teletype. A CRITIC is critical communication that must be relayed to higher authority within 10 minutes of receipt. The paper shot out the top: CRITIC – CODE-CODE-CODE – CRITIC. I remember the code words meaning border closing, but I believe it prudent to not tell them.

It was my first real CRITIC. My gut wound tight as I read the follow-up text from our observers in West Berlin. Routine check points between the Soviet sector and the west became fully armed guard stations with armored vehicle backup.

Simultaneously, our news monitoring section picked up a Reuters News Service dispatch from its Berlin correspondent Kellett-Long. His message alerted news agency teletypes around the world. “The East–West border was closed early today!”

We did a well-practiced routine and relayed the critical message from our Berlin station to the White House, Pentagon, and other vital national security entities.

Several follow-up CRITICs, including notification that Reuters had already published the border closing story worldwide, arrived within minutes. Then as Agency units and others went to full alert, the communications got more intense. I’d been on full alert before, but not with a long series of top-secret messages flying out of a teletype machine in front of me.

Frankfurt wasn’t too far from the GDR border where I imagined Russian tanks might be lining up as they were in Berlin. I had been at the Pentagon when Russian radio communications went silent just before they drove tanks into Hungary to quell the student uprising in 1956. But at that time the 4,500-mile distance made it like reading about the situation in the newspapers. This was different, the GDR border was about 45 miles away from Frankfurt.

Training and mission focused adrenalin didn’t completely remove initial thoughts about my wife and boys who were scheduled to arrive in September. They were still safe at home, and immediate intensity of the work drove those thoughts into the background.

My relief person arrived at 4 p.m. Wednesday and I went to the barracks. I was exhausted after 104 waking hours, 96 of those on duty. But sleep didn’t come immediately. Acid stomach from gallons of coffee and mentally reviewing what I’d been passing on kept me awake until after dark. It seems odd even to this day that I slept only about eight hours after my multi-shifts and didn’t have to be awakened by my alarm to go to a debriefing and my next regular shift.

With a full complement of controllers and related personnel in place, my physical tension from fatigue was relaxed but there were still underlying mental ‘what if’ issues. Communications, for the most part, returned my tensions to what they were prior to the border closing.

I considered having my wife and children’s travel to Germany cancelled, but I didn’t. My off-duty time became overtly relaxed after they joined me. But it was extremely frustrating to not be able to share my workday with my wife.

Sharing any detail of top-secret military work was strictly forbidden. Not being able to just talk about it gave me angst I’d not felt before. And it was many years before I could share any of my role in those mid-August events of 1961.

I’m thankful that August 13 is only an annual reminder of Cold War intensity, not the start of another hot war in Europe.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Getting ‘Set Up’

I've told my grandchildren who never lived in Minnesota about several adventures durning my teens in Alexandria. This is one of them. ...