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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions


By David G. Hanger


June 18, 2012

Memories are funny things in two separate directions, the one, of course, often caricatured, is the exaggeration and embellishment about events long past, distortion that evolves quickly to abstraction, if not pure fantasy; then, too, there is the other, that of memories so deeply etched they are formative, and never forgotten.  These two vignettes are from my past, and are of the latter category, so deeply etched they cannot be forgotten.  Any quotes are verbatim; the events occurred specifically as described, and there is no intent whatsoever at exaggeration on my part.

The Battle of Agafagumas

 The place itself is long gone.  About 1965 a massive typhoon hit the neighborhood that was Agafagumas, at which point all that remained was splinters, and the place was no more.  What it had been was a subdivision for Air Force officers and families with rank of captain to colonel.  The month was April, 1959, on the island of Guam.  I was nine years old and in the fourth grade.

Now Guam in 1959 was long 15 years of having been a major invasion site of the island-hopping campaign of World War II, and, along with Tinian and Saipan, had been the primary staging area for the B29 campaigns against Japan.  Harmon Village, down the road, another officer’s subdivision that has a brief mention in my story, was situated next to Harmon Field of World War II vintage, and Anderson Air Force Base had been Anderson Field during WWII.  In 1959 the WB50s that took off from the base hardly differed in appearance from the B29s of World War II vintage for the obvious reason that, despite the re-designation, they were basically upgrades of the original WWII plane.  The fighter squadrons were all Korean War vintage F86s.  The occasional B47 or F100 would stop by, but the older craft represented the permanent garrison.

I grew up with World War II bomber crews for the most part.  My playmates were their children.  I was one of their children.  This was a strange group of people, that is the first thing you must understand; and they lived in a fish bowl.  The number one wound these men had experienced was getting shot in the ass; flak was coming up at them.  An incredible number of them had survived the war by the unintentional expedient of being shot down and spending an average of more than a year in a prisoner of war camp.  There were buckets of survivors’ guilt all over the place.  Who occupied Agafagumas was the first evidence of that.  For it was a children’s paradise, and every day of the year the chirping of a myriad of bird species, of crickets and grasshoppers and all kinds of other things, was invariably overwhelmed by the endless chattering of literally hundreds of children.  They were making up for the lost of World War II in a big damned hurry. 

This in turn created technical problems, as in where do we house all these rug rats?  So in places like Agafagumas the walls had been blown out of duplexes and four-plexes to create one-plexes and duplexes, and an average family was five or six kids, a small family four kids, and there were eight to 12 kids per family with considerable frequency.  I grew up in a world of children, the DDT trucks coming through twice a week and hammering the jungle which thereby opened the boondocks to our play, and we made the most of it.  There were no snakes on Guam then, and none of us had a clue what a pervert was, nor were our parents in the least concerned.  So within a wide confine we were free to roam.

TV had just happened, you may recall; color was just coming out, but hadn’t hit Guam yet.  A few hours of TV each evening, cowboy shows and Peter Gunn, not much else.  “Maverick,” “Cheyenne,” “Rawhide,” were the hot shows of that year, as I recall.  Rowdy Yates was just beginning to be thought of as cool.  Records and their players were still monograph for the most part.

Stateside, I suppose, the boys played “Cowboys and Indians” as much as anything, but on Guam we lived on a battlefield, so on Guam we played “war” almost every day of the year.  When we weren’t playing “war,” we were the first “archaeologists” to study in detail the artifacts of war.  I do not exaggerate when I say I was lucky not to have been blown up a couple dozen times over at least; there was way too much ordnance still lying around. 

So we went to war movies with our soldier daddies, explored real battlefields in our spare time, and played at war the rest of the time; and this activity involved most of the boys aged seven to ten in both of the neighborhoods in which I lived on that rock.  The eleven- and twelve-year olds were filtering out, but there were still a few around, the primary interest for them being the fact they literally had platoons of willing volunteers following them through the boondocks.  These were neighborhood against neighborhood battles, all with toy guns, budda-budda, rat-a-tat-a-tat, you’re dead, no you’re dead all afternoon long.  On weekends on occasion the parents from Harmon Village would drive bunches of their kids over to Agafagumas, and for these giant battles there were even referees who decided who was dead.  We had lieutenants, and sergeants, and scouts, and all kinds of crazy crap. 

The mothers never complained.  They didn’t even need babysitters for all those little boys.  They just needed to chase ‘em out the door with a toy gun; see ya later.  Hey, we had great fun, never realizing how regimented our behavior was.   

No women worked.  The mothers stayed at home; many still did not know how to drive, it was once un-ladylike to do so;  and what they did while the rest of us were at school must remain forever a mystery (except to the mothers, of course), for there were no other witnesses.  All the men were at work for generally prescribed times, on a generally prescribed schedule, so dinner was at a generally prescribed time, followed by generally prescribed high balls or iced tea and a sit down to watch TV; and thus went by another day. 

I suppose it was paradise in a way.  These were all un-air conditioned one-story bungalows, with lots of screens, all the same gray GI color, but otherwise nice enough, a pleasant arrangement of loops, and Y’s, and cul-de-sacs that housed a few hundred people.  Lots of trees, mangoes, papayas, bread fruit trees, palm trees, of course; abundant shade around and between the houses.   80 degrees every day.

So the stage is set, more or less. 

It was April 1959.  The men went to work.  The mothers stayed home.  And the children went to school. 

On three or four buses to our new elementary school perhaps a half-dozen miles away.

 On these school buses a gang of 10- and 11-year olds, numbering about a dozen, had coalesced over the school year and instigated a reign of terror as monitors on the school buses.  As the school year had progressed this bunch had gotten nastier day by day, threatening, intimidating, hitting, stealing.  But there were a dozen of them.  What could we do?  We were just little kids.

Then one day in early April as we were coming back from school they hit on me.  The difference was I resisted.  I don’t remember how I resisted, but resist I did.  There were three or four buses, so there were at most three or four of these bullies on any one of the buses; and to my aid came a blonde, deeply tanned, crew cut eight-year old sparkplug named Tony Jacobs who was definitely a bit tougher than his age.  Reinforced, they disengaged with the word that once off the bus the whole gang was coming after me.  I was in deep doo-doo.

I think Tony Jacobs started it on the bus; it definitely was not my idea; but it was the most incredible enactment of a mobilization plan I have ever witnessed.  For Tony had made a simple and logical jump.  We had every seven- to nine-year old organized as a member of this squad or that for our daily games, only on this day it was not going to be a game.

In a matter of minutes, once we got off that bus, Tony had mobilized with leadership in place somewhere between 40 and 50 seven- to nine-year old boys, which he and I quickly assembled into three combat groups of about 15 kids each.  The toy guns had stayed at home.

Perhaps it is just one of those things meant to happen, I don’t know; but something near mystical happened here.  A group of seven- to nine-year old children was about to accomplish what armies since time immemorial consider the most difficult of all battlefield maneuvers, a coordinated attack by separated groups; and with complete success; recruited, organized, planned, and executed all in less than 15 minutes. 

The battlefield was not so much chosen, as it was just there; a knoll sloping upward on a curving Y, a hill shaded by perhaps half a dozen or so tall trees, lawn mowed, an open distance between houses of about 20 yards.  Both adjacent houses were long, stretched out one-story jobs, each facing outward 90 degrees from the other on the corner.  I lived in the one on the right, a duplex, on the far side, and Tony’s was the house on the left, a one-plex because there were at least eight kids in his family.  Along the far side of his was a high bamboo fence, and as you came around to the front the ground dipped with a concrete retaining wall about three feet high running almost to the front porch, a natural funnel all the way around to the front sidewalk.  There were plenty of hedges and gardens around to break things up.  We had played this ground frequently recently, and knew it well.  The first group was hidden on this far side pointed toward the sidewalk.

The second group was hidden behind Tony’s house, basically just leaning up against the wall, concealed by a hedge or two, in position to funnel in from behind and toward the left side of the knoll.  The third group we parked on the back side of my house, behind and facing the right side of the knoll.  All of this was done by a group of kids in a minute or two.  In each combat group were 15 or so miniature warriors, ready to go.

So there was just Tony and me on the back side of the knoll, where I had pretty much remained throughout all of this activity.  As it came together Tony kept deferring back to me, and while I do believe our two young minds combined had created this event about to occur, still it was Tony’s that was the generalship.  He was the key ingredient that made all this happen, there is no doubt in my mind about that.  Still we did plan together, and as that concluding moment got closer it was logical I would again become the center of attention because the bad guys were after me.  I was the bait, and it was reasonable I knew how to set off the trap. 

That established, all was necessary was the arrival of the bad guys, and the gods did provide with promptitude.  Just about the time I turned around from the right coming along the sidewalk toward me came a gaggle of nine or ten of them, followed a short distance back by the big twelve-year old brother of the ringleader of this bunch.   

The twelve-year old is an interesting study in contrasts.  He went to a different school, was not one of the bullies, and was thus allowed to elect to be a non-combatant.

But first we must go back to that moment when we got off the bus, for, of course, there were as many little girls got off that bus as boys, and they like the heralds of old had their role to play, too.  I was not there for that part, but it had to be something like this, “Mommy, Mommy, Johnny’s going with Jimmy to beat up the big boys.”  To which the skeptical response would have been somewhere between, “That’s nice, darling,” and, “Uh-huh.”  But somewhere some mother looking out the window might have caught some unusually furtive movements, all in one direction; and started getting curious.   The fur, so to speak, was already beginning to stir everywhere in that neighborhood; something in the wind.

That’s when I walked right out to the center of that knoll, looked down at all those peckerwoods, and said, “Hey, you guys looking for me.  Here I am.  Come get me,” the last literally in a sing-songy challenge that should have been a giveaway to anyone.  The twelve-year old turned and leaned up against a tree.  The rest conferred briefly, then came straight up that hill. 

I don’t remember giving a signal; I don’t think I did.  I think at the moment I actually thought they should have waited a few seconds longer, but from the left and the right they came in a rush, the last group funneling in a line up the sidewalk from behind, and closing the trap.  The older boys were tackled as they turned, pinned by five or six little hellions on each, and thoroughly whipped.  There were about 20 seven-year olds in our group, and they were the ones who dealt the most punishment.  Those little guys had been abused, and now they had their moment to collect dues; and they did.  In the end we had to let the twelve-year old help us peal off the last of these tenacious tykes.  The “bad guys” were no longer a terror to anyone as they lay crying on the ground, beaten and slightly bloody.

Our war whoops hadn’t gone far before the fur really did fly.  Here came the mothers, all of them.  A whole flock of little girls, too, dozens of them.  And, as you might imagine, the mothers got louder than that pack of little boys PDQ.  We were relegated to the sidelines, trapped by victory; as the true arbiters decided what all this was going to mean.  Nine or ten mothers were naturally enough fit to be tied that their kid had just got the bejesus stomped out of him by all the other kids in the neighborhood.  Extremists on the other side were already of the mind they had gotten what they deserved.  The little girls were chattering away in their group; the women were arguing very loudly; and 40 to 50 little boys had been told to shut up and stand there, which is pretty much what we did.

Into this melee walked the Colonel’s wife, a petite, dark-haired woman about 45, and imposed immediate and complete silence. 

She walked into the midst of the other women, and again the jabbering got quite loud, but subsided quickly into a murmuring that meandered on awhile.  Then one-by-one several of the little girls were summoned and questioned, and yes, it was quite clear, all those older boys had been mean for a long time to all the littler kids on the bus; girls, too.  Nine or ten of them had come up that sidewalk to beat up one younger boy.

The judgment already imposed was thus accepted as just, and the battle’s injured and their mothers left to attend to wounds and other injuries. 

But that, of course, was only the beginning.  For the little girls scattered to return with boxing gloves and bathroom scales, and we who had taken the law into our own hands were then compelled to weigh off and pound on each other for rounds precisely timed by the mothers, who basically weren’t satisfied until all of us bore at least some of the scars of battle.  I got a chipped tooth that I still have to this day. 

By the time the men came home dinner was on time, and the battle was apparently only briefly discussed.  The judgment of the Colonel’s wife was conclusive.

School authorities could not fail to notice the black eyes, the strange behavior on the playground, in the cafeteria, in the halls.  I remember being queried several times.  I reckon they figured out more or less what had happened, but no one really told them much.  It was our problem, and we had taken care of it.

There are bullies in every generation.  When outnumbered six to one, they aren’t bullies anymore.  In every generation somewhere you will also find another Tony Jacobs.  Keep him close.


NOVEMBER 22, 1963

I actually saw him two months earlier; September 20, thereabout, Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota.  He had come to town with quite the entourage, flown in about six helicopters the 20 miles to Grand Forks proper and the University of North Dakota where he gave a speech.  This was a special occasion for a place like Grand Forks, so school was out; and we had intentionally timed our arrival for when they were on their way back. 

So there we were, me and another 14-year old wandering down a row of giant hangars out at the base runway, following a wide yellow direction line that ran between the two rows of hangars and out of sight to the left around the corner of the hangar closest to the runway proper. 

Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, the loud noise of what we knew were multiple helicopters signaled the arrival of this entourage, all of whom landed just out of sight and then swung in line around that first hangar and followed the direction line down which we were walking to within about 20 feet of where we were, and then stopped; all five of them, in a neatly spaced column. 

Pierre Salinger jumped out of the first helicopter almost on top of us, followed in no particular order from the others by LBJ, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, a whole gaggle of others; it was like TV right there in front of us, except all in color.  Quite the experience, really, and not something that can ever happen today.

JFK came in on a much larger helicopter that landed a very short distance from Air Force One and the crowd that was behind the nearby barrier; he had a bad back, you will recall, so he didn’t like to walk too far.  But he took his time with the crowd, gave us plenty of time for us to see, then turned with a wave and a flourish as he boarded the plane.  He was deeply tanned with that dark auburn hair that comes only from being in the sun a lot.  He was a very good looking man.

A week or so later and it was back to Keesler Air Force Base for another training stint.  The old man had been stationed two-and-a-half years and more at Grand Forks Air Force Base.  I went to school there longer than anywhere else, bookended by the fifth grade and the ninth grade in Biloxi, Mississippi.  Now the giant computers housed in the SAGE bunkers were becoming obsolete.  In 1961 you could view a giant computer screen of every aircraft flying in North America, pinpointing the data for any single aircraft by using the “mouse” of the day, an odd contraption that looked something like a soldering gun.  These bunkers were 70 to 100 yards on a side, four or five stories above ground, two or three below ground; huge places; filled with nothing but banks and banks, and rows and rows, of large-reel tape recorders, of trays to the ceiling filled with the old vacuum tubes familiar to older TV viewers. 

My father along with numerous other officers and enlisted men had as their job replacing all the burned out vacuum tubes.  He hated computers his entire life.

About two-thirds of the Air Force officers would be on the line, the other one-third in training at any given time.  It was the old man’s cycle for upgrading.  I suppose they do pretty much the same today.

Things had changed in Biloxi between 1959 and 1963.  Our favorite root beer stand now sold root beer in cups; it used to be served in chilled glass mugs; and the billboard now read “Impeach Earl Warren.”  The McDonalds down the street proudly bragged, “Over one billion served.”

I went to two schools in ninth grade, both the older arrangement of seventh, eighth, and ninth graders all in junior high school; so it was Biloxi Junior High School I officially attended, though the distance between the high school and the junior high school was just a matter of several dozen yards; and I had classes in both buildings.  The ninth graders ate in the junior high school cafeteria.

Our school principal was a short, slightly stodgy little guy named Mr. Maddox.  He wore glasses, still had his hair, and was otherwise quite ordinary in appearance.  A bit jowly maybe.  He never struck me as being a bad guy, but twice a day the “Maddox” rant would go into several minutes of detail on the intercom (and occasionally in the auditorium) about how “we take care of our nigras down heah.”

I don’t know why he talked about it so much because there were no black students around to hear him anyway.  Biloxi was…..different….let’s say.  Separate facilities, bathroom, restaurant, etc.  A black person could not ride in the front seat with a white person.  If the white person was driving, the black person had to be in the back seat.  If the black person was driving, the white person had to be in the back seat.  Any failure in this regard and the black person went to jail.  I spent the better part of a year listening to platitudinous BS everyday about how all this racist crap was OK.

In those days remember there were no black people; there were Negroes.  And polite southern society had long since morphed that into “nigras,” as if somehow that made it all right.

That said the place surprised in many ways.  There were the two large school buildings, behind them about 350 yards of recreational fields about 75 yards deep, then a fence, a road, another fence, and the air force base.  There were convenient holes in both fences that we dependents used to slip onto the base, head for the rec halls to play pinball machines for awhile before heading home.  From a world of no black people to a world where every other person was black, and equally treated at that; just by crossing a street and slipping through a fence.

Oh, they were backward clods in their own way, I suppose, but that showed more in the local student body than in the teaching staff.  I surmise the teaching staff was considerably upgraded, influenced by the proximity of Keesler Air Force Base, and I remember most of them quite vividly.  The biology teacher was literally world class.  In 1964 her student’s science fair entries included a functioning computer that kicked your butt playing tic-tac-toe (very big stuff in 1964), and a one-person hover craft that actually worked.  One kid was doing pioneering work with lasers, and another kid came up with a map-making color combination that was later patented.  Several of these guys went with their projects to the New York World’s Fair.  Mrs. McCaughan was quite something.  My science fair project was a rocket that did not get off the ground, but somehow still got me an honorable mention.  I was pretty good with the guff even then. 

Civics, algebra, typing.  I can’t bring the English teacher into focus at all.  And the food; lunches in those days were a veritable heaven.  Hot food, best rolls I have ever eaten, anywhere.  When I got up to Ketchikan High School in 1965, the cafeteria food was so awful by comparison I never ate it once. 

It was the two regular coaches who were the racists on the faculty.  I made the mistake of being an air force brat on that football team, a team where your racist profile was literally determinative of how much you got to play.  A first-teamer on every high school and college football team I played on otherwise, I played one down.  They didn’t just lose every game; they scored one touchdown all season long.  Racist pedigree apparently makes you lousy in any number of different ways.  And they were even worse in basketball.

It had been a long Indian summer that fall, 80s often all the way through October; the rains I remember waited that year until December.  November was pleasant, but cooling.  It was partly cloudy that day.

At 12:35pm we were standing in line in the cafeteria lunch line; random conversations overlappping; and there was Rodney Payne, all 6’4” inches of his ignorant 17-year old hide still ensconced in ninth grade, tight end on this idiot football team; he looked quite lithe and athletic, but was actually rather clumsy, a foul meister in basketball rather than a player.  But he was big, and I did not yet weigh 140. 

And there was a girl, another brat, dark-haired, plain, a tiny thing hiding behind the crazy winged glasses the gals wore in those days.  She carried a purse about the size of a lunch box, and somewhat similar in shape. 

Mr. Maddox handled the moment quite well, even with panache.  He calmly, carefully announced over the school intercom that the President of the United States had just been shot.  No other information was available.  Prayers were in order.

Rodney Payne reared his head back, guffawed, then cackled loudly.  “Serves that nigger-lovin’ son of a bitch right,” he literally yelled to the room. 

The little girl flat clobbered him with that purse, then nailed him three more times in quick succession.  As he turned to strike her in response, I intervened, and so he turned his wrath on me.  About the time I expected to be unconscious on the floor the student teacher coach got squarely in between us and was none too polite with Rodney.  So he, of course, points at me, and advises me that I am toast the minute I leave the cafeteria.  Obviously, not the first time I had found myself in such a pickle.  There was this odd rule down there.  The coach’s and teachers’ authority extended as far as the front door.  Ass kickings on the playground were none of their business. 

I could not have taken much time to eat; perhaps had lost my appetite entirely, I don’t remember.  There was only 35 minutes between the first and second announcement.  However that played there came the moment when I had to walk out that door, and when I did there were at least 15 of them waiting for me, and any one of them, I thought, would have been plenty enough to do the job. 

So I got as tactical as one can get under the circumstances, and I turned and ran like hell.  There were 15 guys chasing me down over more than 300 yards of ground; a pain in the ass to run in loafers, I might add.  It seemed I ran forever, and there came a point when I could run no more.  I turned to take whatever came.  When I turned I realized for the first time there was only one guy still chasing me; I had outlasted all the rest.  I squared off facing him, and he stopped and stared at me from about ten feet away.  This was the quarterback on this pathetic football team; I thought he was a pretty tough guy. 

Then he did something to this very day I think was really strange.  He turned, looked around, and realized he was all alone.  It was just him and me.  He looked at me for a brief moment; then he turned and ran. 

If there’s a lesson there, I’ll leave it to you to figure out. 

For my part I have despised racism and racists ever since; nor have I ever forgotten that the foundational bedrock of the modern Republican Party, the Southern strategy, is Rodney Payne.

David G. Hanger
Ketchikan, AK

Published June 18, 2012



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