Three-Minute Memoir

April 2, 2017

The Boys of Summer, 1954

By Jim Sizemore

1954sketchbookI’m in my bedroom, lights out. It’s my mother’s third-floor apartment on Linden Avenue, two blocks south of North Avenue. Ernie Harwell’s words seem to float to me out of the glowing orange dial of my tabletop radio. The small fan next to it is set on high with scant effect in the humid heat. Ernie is telling me—play-by-play—that our new Baltimore Orioles are losing another game at Memorial Stadium. But that’s okay, at last we finally have a big league team. Thank goodness the radio is loud enough to muffle the voices of my mother and her new boyfriend, William “Wild Bill” Denton. They are in their bedroom arguing about money.

Ernie1Meanwhile, I peer out of my window at the couple across the street in their second floor apartment, rolling around on what appears to be a daybed. It can’t be a regular bed, because it’s low enough to fit just below the lip of the windowsill. They’re covered by a white sheet, out of which an occasional pale body-part juts. I guess they’re trying to catch what little cool air there is. My one wish is that if I watch long enough, the sheet will magically work its way off and slide to the floor. They must believe—like radio’s Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow—that they have “the power to cloud men’s minds,” making them all but invisible.

(Click images to enlarge.)

In the summer of 1954 I was sixteen, my seventeenth birthday due in early October. When I was twelve, after many years of violent conflict, my parents had separated. Over the next four years I was farmed out to various relatives in Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky—mostly my three half-sisters’ families. But now I wanted to control my own fate and had worked my way back to Baltimore to share my mother’s home. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It wasn’t long before I realized that “Mr. Denton,” as I called the small and wiry Wild Bill, was a problem. With regular construction work, he treated my mother and me pretty well. But a slack time in the building trades became an invitation to booze-ville for Mr. D. He needed my help with expenses, and seemed to resent me for it. I didn’t mind helping because I sold lots of newspapers out of a large green newsstand where North and Linden Avenues met—a dynamic corner with several streetcar and bus routes converging. I easily earned enough to help with food. At times I even managed part of the rent money. In fact, there were weeks when the only cash coming into the apartment was from my newspaper sales. I loved being able to help my mother financially. That summer—for the first time in my life—I felt like a grownup.

That said, I was edgy about our living arrangement. My mother was right back in a situation similar to the one we had experienced with my father, and once more I felt powerless to protect her. At some point, concern about the fights with Mr. Denton must have overcome what common sense I had, and I bought a large hunting knife, complete with scabbard. “Just in case.” One sweltering evening, during an extra-mean fight when he grabbed her—or at least grabbed at her—it all happened too fast for me to be sure—I wound up face to face with Wild Bill. It was all very confused; I was in some sort of frenetic daze. Mostly I remember forcing myself in between them, he and I spitting out blasts of profanity. Despite my bad case of the shakes, I somehow found the courage to pull my shirttail up to display the weapon, and at that the action slowed to a sweat-like trickle. Then my mother’s desperate pleas from the sidelines shut our little scene completely down.

The very next morning, my mother sat me down for The Talk. We quickly agreed it was time for a change—that I had to move on again. My only good option was the military, but since by law I was still a minor, she had to sign so I could enlist. And of course she did. My induction date was set for early October—all I needed do was to survive the rest of that summer.

On the nights my Baltimore O’s were far behind, I’d turn the radio off and go to sleep. Other times I’d leave it on, very low, and let Mr. Harwell’s southern-accented voice lull me to sleep. And there were those nights—the Orioles ahead or behind—when I was just too wound-up to nod off. BS bs-md-backstory-1127-p1.jpgThen, inspired by the drawings of the Morning Sun cartoonist, Jim Hartzell—especially his animated Oriole Bird sketches—I’d try to make up a cartoon about the game I’d just heard on the radio; the drama and frustration and elation of it all. I’m sure the images—the best of which I would eventually find the courage to send to Ernie Harwell—were crude and amateurish, little more than sketches, doodle-like. But I worked hard to make the ideas better than the visuals—and I hoped, funnier. Of course they were never near the professional quality of a Jim Hartzell cartoon. Up to then, my only art training had been finger-painting in elementary school. When I sent my first batch of “work” to Ernie Harwell, care of WCBM, I didn’t expect much. I certainly didn’t expect Ernie’s voice, a day or so later, saying my name on the radio. He praised my cartoon idea and even the drawing. I was shocked.

After I’d mailed in more drawings, Mr. Harwell shocked me again. Again he spoke to me by name and praised my work. But this time he also invited me to visit Memorial Stadium. He even gave me a phone number to call for my free pass to the game of my choice. Plus the biggest prize of all—a special pass that would get me into the broadcast booth. On the appointed day I remember being at the stadium, walking the steep ramp to the upper levels, running down the hallway to the broadcast booth. I knocked on the unmarked door and 57:typingwas admitted, out of breath and in an emotional fog. I know I spoke to Mr. Harwell, his partner Bailey Goss and a radio sound tech guy, but I don’t remember what anyone said. When the meeting was over—it seemed to have gone by so quickly—I do remember Mr. Harwell announcing to his radio audience: “This young man is going into the army in October, and I’m very proud of him, as we all should be.” Then, winking at me, he smartly saluted.

57:SFAirborn60+ years on I view the summer of 1954 as a mash-up of bad and good. Sure, I lost the dream of a fresh start with my mother, but on the other hand I learned that—to coin a cliché—growing up simply means moving on. And yes, the Orioles lost 100 games that first season, winning only 57. But, thanks to those O’s being there for me, and Mr. Harwell’s encouragement, and discovering the cartoon work of Jim Hartzell—plus moving on to three years of interesting military experiences—I gained a glimmer of several career possibilities. Even today I’m still on the path to—to what? Well, for one thing, I think I’m smart enough now to know that it’s always too soon to speculate about what may come next. The one thing I do know is that I’m really curious to discover what it may be.

Copyright © 2017, Jim Sizemore.
This is an edited re-post.
Thanks to Florence Newman for her expert help on this essay.

Remembering Brother Doug

May 4, 2016

dougleekoreaMy oldest brother, on the right in this picture, died in his sleep on Friday, April 29, 2016. He was 84. It was a peaceful passing. (My brother Lee is on the left in the photo.) After escaping our violent birth-family as a teenager, Doug was free to create a good life for himself, and he certainly made the best of that opportunity. Ironically, though, along with his three brothers—me included—his initial ticket to a “safer” and happier existence turned out to be a career in the military.

After his service in the army, Doug made a happy marriage that lasted for well over 50 years. His four children, two girls, two boys, turned out well. Doug was a happy man and had a great sense of humor. He was healthy right up to the end. And he was a lucky man, too, in other ways—lucky to be loved by his extended family and a wide range of friends, many of whom dated from his Korean War days in the 1950’s.

It’s not surprising that in many ways, with the exception of marriage, Brother Doug was a roll-model for me. He still is. Doug left this life the way I’d like to go—in bed, asleep, oblivious. A few days after I got the news of Doug’s death, this thought popped into my head: Except for the dreams we have nightly, I believe that deep and contented sleep is the ideal practice for a good death.


Three-Minute Memoir

September 29, 2013

My Long Journey to Korea

By Floyd Douglas Sizemore

DougLeeKoreaOn November 3rd, 1948, less than two months after my 17th birthday, I enlisted in the “new peacetime Army” at Fort Holabird, in Baltimore, Maryland. That “peacetime” part sounded pretty good. Being just a kid, I had no idea where Korea was—I doubt I’d even heard of it, and at the time I’m sure I couldn’t have quickly pointed to it on a world map—so it was not something to which I gave any thought, and I sure didn’t see a war coming around the corner.

The army, though, was exciting to me from the start. I grew up poor—my family never had much of anything—but right off the bat the military supplied me with all these new clothes: shirts, pants, shorts, t-shirts, boots—everything—even a pair of shiny black dress shoes. I also liked the food (my favorite was the creamed chipped beef on toast, a.k.a. “SOS”), but didn’t manage to gain weight, at least at first. During basic training we ran everywhere, so I actually lost weight, down from my enlistment weight of 110 pounds to 95. But after basic I quickly packed it all back on, and then some.

After finishing the eight weeks of basic training at Camp Pickett, Virginia, in January 1949, I was assigned to the 11th, AAA BN, at Fort Bliss, Texas, where I was trained on M19 Twin 40s mounted on a light tank, and the M16 Quad 50s mounted on a halftrack. In November 1949, the 11th AAA, and me with it, was relocated to Fort Lewis, Washington, to continue training. Up until then, my impression of military service had been formed, for the most part, from watching B-movies at neighborhood movie theaters, where I guess I got the idea that if you were smart enough, you could get away with a lot of stuff—like not saluting officers. I tested that theory several times and found myself walking extra guard duty around the Fort Lewis prison.

After a 15-day leave in January 1950, I was put on orders for Japan. Then, six months later, I was told to report to Camp Stoneman, California. I remember thinking that since I had already served over a year in the army, any tour of duty in Japan would be a short one. So I was in a pretty good mood when our Sergeant marched us to the front gate of Fort Lewis and used a lantern to flag down a passing train. I was surprised when the train actually stopped right outside the gate to pick us up. It was an overnight ride from Ft. Lewis, WA to Camp Stoneman, and I reported there on June 23. Then came the big surprise—North Korea invaded South Korea. Suddenly, things didn’t look so good, and to make matters worse, I would soon learn that Korea was just across the narrowest part of the Sea of Japan.

In early July 1950, we boarded a ship and sailed out of San Francisco Bay headed for Japan, or at least that’s what they told us. But instead, a few days later, we sailed into Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington. Later, we found out that they needed our ship to transport the 2nd Division directly to Korea, so we spent a week at sea making a huge circle—or was it an oval? Talk about “hurry up and wait.” In Seattle, they put us up in a naval barracks on Pier 91 for several days, organizing us into something that the army called “packets.” I was in packet 13.

At McChord airbase in Pierce County, Washington, we boarded C54s for Japan by way of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. We landed in Yokohama about three days later. After about a week, most of the men were assigned to the 24th and 25th Divisions in Korea. Some of us were sent to northern Honshu, Japan. We took a civilian-packed train overnight. After arriving at Camp Hargen around the first of August, I was assigned to B Battery, 865th AAA BN, located at Misawa airbase. I spent the remainder of 1950 in routine training.

KoreanWarMap1I was beginning to like Japan, thinking that my tour of duty would soon be up and I’d be on my way back to the States for discharge. Then came June 1951, and our outfit was put on alert for Korea.  Our equipment was upgraded, and on July 19, 1951, around midnight, we were loaded on an LST manned by a Japanese crew. There were crazy tides in the Sea of Japan, which accounted for using local crews who knew the area, and we spent six days on the water. We had to stand up to eat at a long metal table. Breakfast was hard-boiled eggs and we slept on cots on in hammocks. One night we hit some really rough weather with 30-40 mph winds. The next morning the seas were still choppy, and I remember watching a hard-boiled egg roll down one of those metal tables. Strange, the images that stick in your mind.

We arrived in Inchon, Korea on July 25, 1951, and the next day at Kimpo airbase, northwest of Seoul, to relieve the 50th AAA AW BN. All positions were occupied and by 0800 we went on alert. Our job at K14 was defense of the airfield. At first, we were issued live small arms ammo, but our commanding officer in B Battery took it away, saying, “I don’t want you guys acting like you think you’re John Wayne.” Each evening, around sunset, we were harassed by a pesky PO2 reconnaissance aircraft. Some clever guy gave the pilot the name, “Bed Check Charlie.” In August, “Operation Rat Trap,” an attempt to shoot Charlie down, was put into place. But as far as I know it never worked. By the time we scrambled and got to our gun positions, he was on his way back up North.

Once again, my mouth got me in a bit trouble when I complained about how ineffective operation “Rat Trap” turned out to be. The commanding officer, a captain, called me into his office and remarked on what he termed my “bad attitude.” As I recall, our little chat went something like this:

HE: Sizemore, you don’t like the way I run this outfit, do you?

ME: No sir.

HE: Well, would you prefer to go to the front instead?

ME: No Sir. I’m too close as it is. Send me to Pusan. (Pusan is in the southern part of Korea, close to Japan, and at that time was far from any of the action.)

HE: I’m sending you to D Battery. (That was on the other side of the airfield, still at Kimpo.)

In September 1951, I heard through the military grapevine that my brother Lee was in Korea, somewhere around Seoul, and I asked my sergeant for permission to go visit him. I failed to mention that I had no idea exactly where Lee was, and that I’d just have to trust to luck that I would find him. “Take off,” the sergeant said, “we’ll cover for you. All we’re doing is just setting around waiting for something to happen.” So I hitchhiked both ways, and asked around, but no luck. I told some of the guys if they ran into him, to let him know I was looking for him.

Two days later, back in D Battery, I was sitting on my gun position when I spotted a guy walking up the road toward me, and something in his gait looked familiar. Sure enough, it was brother Lee. We had a great reunion, including a lunch that I remember featured—of all things—“snowflake” potatoes. After lunch, as he was leaving, Lee told me he was scheduled to rotate home soon, and that he’d see me back in Baltimore. Then, only a few days later, he showed up again—this time with a surprise birthday gift (I turned 20 on September 13, 1951).

“I thought you were going home,” I said. Lee smiled. “I brought you a little present.” Then he pulled a 38-caliber revolver from the waistband under his shirt, and handed it to me. It was absolutely beautiful, with pearl handles, just like the one General Patton carried in WWII. I patted my 40mm and protested that I didn’t need a pistol, but he insisted. “For when you’re walking guard duty,” he said. “Just a little extra protection. You never know.” When we parted company that day, Lee’s last words to me were, “Take care of yourself.”

In early December 1951, our gun crew was moved to Outpost #4, nine miles northwest of Kimpo, on the Han River. We had a Marine artillery crew to our right. Our orders were to fire at anything that could be used as an observation post—houses, barns, even humps of high ground on the bank of the river. After about a week, we had turned the landscape and the village below our gun position into rubble. Then our outfit was relieved and we pulled back to Kimpo. Later, we had a great Christmas dinner, and then our biggest show came on New Years’ Day 1952, soon after we were again put on alert. Every gun position from Kimpo to Seoul was ordered to lay down blanketing fire for ten minutes in an attempt to “open up” the surrounding areas. It looked like the 4th of July, but it also seemed to me that the fireworks were called off almost as soon as they started. They never told us the results of all that firepower, if any.

In March 1952 I was assigned to the 1st Platoon Command Post and promoted to the rank of Corporal. After one year in Japan and eleven months in Korea, I had accumulated enough “points” to return to the States. In June 1952 I took a 14-day sea cruise—this time directly back home to Baltimore.

Copyright © 2013, Floyd Douglas Sizemore