Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Return of the Native

Hi everyone. Probably no one notices this blog any more, so I doubt if anyone will read this, but that’s okay because it will give me a chance to get warmed up again. That is if I can get back into the habit of writing. I still can’t continue with my WWII project because of a fatal computer crash, which seems to have destroyed my notes – my backup and main hard drive crashed at the same time. The notes represent months of work so I’m pretty bummed out about it. I have one last thing I’m going to try, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll probably give up. I just can’t bring myself to go through all that research again.

I have been inspired to write again though, by a writers’ conference sponsored by the Chickasaw Press. I was asked to do a presentation myself, and so had to think of what I learned during the process of writing and editing Wenonah’s Story. Even though my motivation for writing was to record the events of my mother’s life and to honor her memory, I did enjoy the process, and learned a lot.

The conference inspired me by reminding me of some of the tricks, no methods I learned to make my writing more forceful and interesting, and also I really enjoyed listening to the other presenters. One was a writer of “creative non-fiction,” Rilla Askew, a successful writer and a dynamic and interesting speaker. The other was Towana Spivey, former curator of the military history museum at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

In the past I have looked down my nose at writers of creative nonfiction. In the sample of those books I’ve read, I got the idea the author used the past to make up for a lack of imagination, distorting it in the process. Some even encouraged me to do Wenonah’s Story as fiction, but I refused, taking pride in being able to tell a story that was interesting without embellishment, a plot that made a riveting story, and was true at the same time.

But Rilla’s talk was all about creative writing, and expressing your feelings, and it got me to thinking. It’s important that someone reads what you write, so if you have to imagine some “alternate facts,” or fabricate a love story to grab the reader’s attention, maybe that’s not so bad, if it draws attention to an important time in history. Not everyone has a resource like my mother, who was not only an eyewitness to history, but also an eloquent story teller, and frankly I couldn’t have told her story any other way, because I have no imagination.

The other speaker, Towana Spivey, was a fascinating person to talk to, a fountain of knowledge about the history of the Southwest, in particular of the Native Americans, and of the military. What impressed me though was that he emphasized the same point as Rilla, the importance of engaging the reader, making your writing interesting. In his book he told the history of the region around Fort Sill from the perspective of a tree, a huge tree at Fort Sill, about 250 years old.

He said he avoided including too much detail in his writing, so that it wouldn’t be boring. In fact he tells forty or fifty stories in a book of only 80 pages, and includes lots of pictures. I got a copy. He doesn’t fudge the facts like Rilla, but he does what he needs to make his subject interesting.

So, now I’m humbled but inspired, and I’m going to try to restart my blog. I don’t know what I’ll write about, but hopefully, when a few of you begin to notice it, you’ll enjoy what I have to say.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Battle of Guadalcanal, Part II

Investigation into the events that took place on the night of Friday the 13th of November, 1942, in Lunga Bay revealed a much different story than the one told by my uncle Everett and his crew mates. They of course had no idea what was taking place on the bridge of the USS San Francisco, and in the confusion of darkness and battle they couldn’t have had a clear picture of what was happening between the many ships involved. The complete story may never be told. The battle was later described as “A barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out,” but the following is the best description I could find of the battle, from Richard Frank’s book, Guadalcanal.  

On Thursday, the day before the battle, the USS San Francisco steamed into Lunga Bay, escorting a convoy of transports carrying troops and supplies for the little marine base on Guadalcanal. My uncle, Everett Gunning, must have been a little anxious that day. The week before, the San Francisco had been chosen by Admiral Callaghan as his flagship, and Everett must have known they were expecting some action. There were many more warships in the harbor than was usual for a convoy escort.

Everett didn’t mention it in his accounts of the battle, but Japanese bombers attacked the convoy that afternoon. The task force commander, Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, was warned of the attack beforehand, so he was ready, as was a fighter squadron from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. There were no direct hits on American ships during the attack due to some clever maneuvering by the Admiral, but the USS San Francisco sustained damage when a Japanese bomber, shot down by one of the other ships, crashed on the deck, taking out one of the gun batteries. Twenty-three men were killed, and forty-five injured. Everett had been on the deck manning another gun battery at the time. He knew many of the men. He could easily have been one of those killed.

After the transports were unloaded they left the harbor, but the San Francisco and the other cruisers and destroyers remained. Something bigger was coming.

That something was the beginning of Admiral Yamamoto’s final push to take Guadalcanal. His plan was to bring in a large naval force during the night of November 12 – 13 to destroy Henderson Field with big bombs from his battleships. The bombing was to be followed by convoys of supplies and troops for the final push, supported by an aerial attack from his carriers.

As in the previous battles of Coral Sea and Midway, it was superior intelligence that saved the US from disaster. American cryptanalysts managed to crack a new Japanese code just in time to alert Admiral Halsey, commander of the South Pacific fleet, about plans for the Guadalcanal attack on November 8, leaving him five days to prepare. 

Even with advanced warning, Admiral Turner, responsible for defending Guadalcanal, didn’t have much to work with. He had no carriers to oppose Japan’s five, and his only two battleships were too far away to make it in time for the battle. He only had an assortment of cruisers and destroyers, none of which had guns big enough to pierce the armor of the Japanese battleships sent to bomb Henderson Field. To improve his odds, he sent his transports away unguarded, raising his tally of ships to 13, five cruisers and eight destroyers, but then he made what some consider a disastrous mistake. He retreated with his reserve forces, leaving in command Admiral Daniel Callaghan, an officer with no field experience, chosen over Admiral Norman Scott, the hero of the Battle of Cape Esperance, because of seniority. (see post of Jan. 30, 2016)

In preparing to meet the Japanese, Admiral Callaghan then proceeded to make two major mistakes. First, he chose the USS San Francisco, Everett’s ship, as his flagship. The San Francisco had not only sustained severe damage the day before, it had inferior quality radar equipment. Secondly, he failed to take advantage of  Admiral Scott’s leadership and experience, placing his ship, the USS Atlanta, in the line of battle directly in front of the San Francisco.  

The night of the planned bombardment, the American ships waited in Lunga Bay while the Japanese force steamed down the channel. The Japanese met with a thunderstorm early in the evening, and their commander, Adm. Hiroaki Abe, decided to abort the planned bombing. He was heading back toward the Japanese base at Rabaul, New Britain, around midnight, when the skies cleared and he decided to proceed with the planned bombing.

As a result of the change in orders, the cloudy skies and the darkness of night, Abe’s fleet then became disorganized. Standing at the helm of the battleship, Hiei, he lost track of the other ships’ positions, and most importantly, the destroyers ordered to sweep the harbor fell behind the main group of ships. Unaware of the presence of American ships, Abe ordered the big guns on his battleships to be loaded with shells intended for the bombing, instead of the armor piercing shells used for sinking cruisers. When he finally sighted the American force, it was too late to reload.

So the American fleet had an advantage going into the battle. The Japanese were caught by surprise, disorganized, and unprepared, but the inexperienced Callaghan failed to take advantage of his opportunity. As the Japanese ships approached, the images on his ship’s inferior radar equipment were confusing. He tried to communicate with the ships having better radar, but was unable to get a clear line of communication due to undisciplined chatter on the radio. Finally he ordered the column to make a 45 degree turn to starboard, probably intending to position his ships perpendicular to the advancing Japanese force, but instead he put them on a collision course.

What Everett and his shipmates believed to be a clever plan by the admiral to take the Japanese by surprise was actually a foolish mistake.

To be continued.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Part I

After the Battle of Cape Esperance (see post of Jan. 30, 2016), my uncle Everett’s ship, the USS San Francisco, returned to New Zealand to refuel, and with the exception of the near miss by a Japanese torpedo which hit the nearby USS Chester (see post of Feb. 27, 2016), Everett saw a little pause in the action. In his letters to my dad he mentioned that he had been promoted to Seaman First Class, and that he was frustrated because his girl friends hadn’t been writing. He wasn’t allowed to say much more.

Meanwhile, there was no letup in the action around Guadalcanal. Both sides considered the base there with its air strip, Henderson Field, essential to their success in the Pacific. The little contingent of US marines there had so far been able to defend Henderson Field against repeated Japanese attacks by land, air, and sea, but they were still vulnerable. Their little “Cactus Air Force” was up against aircraft from the Japanese’ main Pacific base at Rabaul, New Brittain, only a few hours away, and they faced almost nightly shelling from Japanese naval vessels. The Japanese troops on Guadalcanal were regularly resupplied by convoys of the “Tokyo Express” from Rabaul, while the American troops’ nearest base was over 1000 miles away at Noumea, New Caledonia.

The Japanese were confident that their naval superiority would eventually bring them victory. In spite of their brief setback at Cape Esperance, they had sunk the Hornet, one of the US’ two remaining aircraft carriers, in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (see post of Feb. 27, 2016), and badly damaged the other, the Enterprise. The Japanese planned to use this advantage to destroy the Cactus Air Force, leaving the marines undefended. The attack was set for Nov. 13, 1942, Friday the 13th.

What followed was known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, actually two battles, which took place over a three day period. Everett, on the USS San Francisco, was involved in the first, and he barely escaped with his life. 

I remember hearing the story of the battle as a child. It was told and retold by Everett and by my parents. It must have been the most remarkable experience of Everett’s career, even eclipsing Pearl Harbor. As I remember the story, Everett’s ship, the USS San Francisco, led a convoy of US vessels right through the middle of a group of Japanese warships, catching them by surprise. A terrific battle ensued, in which the bridge of the San Francisco was blown off. Everett was manning one of the big guns at the time, and the shell hit just as he bent over to pick up a sack of gunpowder. He said if he’d been standing, he would have been cut in half.

Most of the officers, including the ship’s captain and the Admiral commanding the task force, were killed, but in spite of that devastating loss, one of the junior officers took command, and directed the ship back into the battle to avoid signaling to the other ships a retreat.

Everett took great pride in the performance of the USS San Francisco at Guadalcanal, as did the rest of the crew. Here is a poem composed by one of Everett’s shipmates, Bill Petticrew.

“The Frisco Maru”

On July twenty first in forty two
Out of Pearl Harbor steamed the Frisco Maru.
Her crew was fit and ready to fight,
And the ship as a whole was a wonderful sight.
Four long months we sailed the foam,
Dreaming soon of going home.

Time after time the enemy was sought,
week after week and the Frisco still fought.
Then it come one dark filled night,
The biggest force the Maru had fought;
From both sides great missiles flew,
Full steam was commanded, we’re going thru and

Thru we went from both sides belched our guns;
The enemy knew he’d well been stung.
A hard left rudder and we went back,
Our guns trained hard for just one more crack;
Once more our guns belched forth with flame,
Straight and true was the Frisco’s aim.

The firing ceased - the battle was won,
The Frisco had set the rising sun;
In all the glory there’ll ever be,
March the men who died that we might be free;
They gave their lives for the stars and stripes,
That there would be no more of those darkfilled nights

In the heart of each man who fought by their side,
There’ll be a feeling of joy and of pride;
That each man who died will live anew
Forever in the glory of the red, white, and blue.

By Bill Petticrew. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Another Adventure in the Mountains

It’s been three years since I climbed a fourteener – a fourteen thousand foot mountain, and since I felt pretty good this summer, I decided to try one again. I’ve been trying to get ready for the last two months: walking the dog – I can’t run anymore because of my knees, and hiking in the mountains every week or two, at altitude, to get myself in shape and acclimated.

Climbing a fourteener is a challenge, especially as you get older. I’ve failed two out of my last four attempts, either out of sheer exhaustion or from muscle cramps, which have bothered me since I’ve gotten older, and then hiking all day at altitude is just a  grueling experience, even if you prepare for it. Your pack straps cut into your shoulders; your joints ache, and most of the time it’s boring – nothing but rocks and trees for hour after hour. But there’s something about climbing a big mountain that makes it all worthwhile. The sense of accomplishment is part of it, but more than that, there’s just nothing like sitting up there on top, higher than anything else around, able to see for fifty, a hundred miles in any direction. No picture or narrative can do justice to the experience.

I had trouble deciding which fourteener to try - there are 54 to choose from in Colorado. I’ve climbed most of the ones near Denver, and I didn’t want to go too far away, because I don’t like spending the night away from home. Still there are several I haven’t climbed within a four or five hour drive: La Plata, near Buena Vista was at the top of my list, because I’ve tried it three times and failed each time. Sherman, over by Leadville, is pretty easy, they say, and it’s in a new area for me. I was still debating the issue in my mind the last week in August when I heard on the weather report that it was snowing in the mountains. I had almost waited too long.

I don’t like to hike in the winter. It’s cold; the rocks are slippery, and it’s painfully slow slogging through the snow, even with snow shoes, so I decided to go the next day, before the weather got any worse, and I picked the closest fourteener that I hadn’t climbed, Torrey’s Peak. 

Torrey’s is just an hour and a half from Denver. Most people climb it and Gray’s Peak – another fourteener – together, since the peaks are just a half a mile apart, but, although I’ve climbed Grays three times before, I’ve never had enough energy left to get to the top of Torrey’s too. Half a mile doesn’t seem like a lot, but getting from one peak to the other also involves going down about 500 feet – that’s like a 35 story building – and then back up again, so Torrey’s it was. I set out my pack, filled my water bladder up to three liters, made my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and set my alarm for 3 AM.

Usually I’m like a zombie at 3 AM - that’s when I wake up to pee, but this morning I was bright eyed and bushy tailed. I didn’t take the dog. Penny gets upset when the weather turns bad, and I didn’t want to have to carry her in addition to my pack. It’s happened before. At 5 AM I was the first to arrive at the trail head, but before I got my gear on and set my GPS, there were two more cars with more brave souls anxious to tackle a fourteener. I spoke briefly with the two guys parked next to me. They said they had been planning the hike all summer and hoped to summit both Gray’s and Torrey’s. I wished them well, and then we both hit the trail, lighting our way with headlamps.

Gray’s / Torrey’s Peak Trail about 6 AM, August 26, 2016

Everything was covered with snow, and it became deeper as we climbed higher. I was prepared for the cold, but I didn’t anticipate deep snow, so I hadn’t brought my gators to keep the snow out of my boots. Snow quickly melts inside boots, and you don’t want to hike all day on wet feet, so I began to worry a little.

The other hikers were younger than me of course, so all morning I watched as they passed me. I take my time. I can walk all day if I pace myself, but if I try and push it, my legs soon start to ache. Also, you see more when you stop occasionally. It’s hard to take in much scenery when you’re concentrating on picking your way between the rocks. I look at the flowers, and the wild life, and I take a lot of pictures. I figure the more you take, the more keepers you’ll get. There weren’t many flowers poking their heads through the snow this morning, but the vistas were spectacular all the way.

The trail head for Gray’s and Torrey’s is right at the tree line, 11250 feet according to my GPS, so once it became light enough, I could plainly see snow covered slopes on one side of the trail, and steep cliffs in the other. The clouds were too low to see the peaks though until I was almost at the top. 

After two or three hours I noticed that some of the hikers ahead of me had stopped. Then I met a couple who had passed me earlier, coming back down the trail. The guy was wearing shorts, so I had wondered how far he’d get. They said the snow on the trail was getting deeper, up to their knees in spots, so they were giving up for the day. I was still worried about not having gators, but my pant legs come down pretty far over my boots so I decided I could handle some snow, and I kept going.

As I continued up the trail more people passed me going the other way. “The wind is really strong up ahead,” they reported, “and it’s getting colder.” I had worn a long sleeved undershirt and long handled underwear, but I began to feel cold too, so I put on my quilted jacket and got out my face mask and goggles. I had on glove liners, which I had brought mainly for climbing on the rocks, but I began to wish I had brought insulated gloves as well.

It wasn’t long after putting on my coat that I came to the place where the trail to Torrey’s Peak branches off. It was a little hazy up ahead, but I could see that the hikers who had taken the Gray’s Peak trail were having trouble. Those in front had slowed or stopped, and some were coming back. No one else had taken the Torrey’s trail so it was a little hard to see, but I had come to climb Torrey’s so I figured, why not? It looked steeper than the Gray’s trail so maybe the snow wouldn’t be as deep.

Me at the Start of the Torrey’s Peak Trail

Well the snow was pretty deep, knee deep in spots, so I tried to stay on the outer rim of the trail, which was closer to the surface. This only worked part of the time, so I still had to deal with some deep snow. That’s when I learned how to “post hole.” I had heard that climbers use it in deep snow, but I’d never really tried it.

What you do is stick your pole into the snow in front of you to test the depth before you take a step. It’s slow going but it’s better than falling up to your waist in snow. I’ve done that before. And then there were times when there was no choice but to step out into deep snow. Then I would stamp my boot down over and over to press the snow down in a larger area so that when I stepped out it wouldn’t leak into my boots. That was even slower going, but my feet didn’t get wet.  

So I made slow headway, and getting through the snow was not the only problem. I kept losing the trail, and then had to climb up or down to get back to it, but that’s one nice thing about starting at 5 AM. You’ve got plenty of time to piddle around.

After I had got pretty far up the Torrey’s Peak trail, I looked back and saw a strange sight. There was a person, tumbling over and over down the mountain. I thought he might be hurt, so I started to go back to him, but pretty soon he stood up and walked to where I was. He explained that he was coming down from the Gray’s Peak trail, and had decided that rolling down the snow drifts would be easier than walking. He and his partner had turned back because the Gray’s trail was too rough, and since I seemed to be making headway on the Torrey’s trail – I was still the only one on it – he thought he’d try it too.

“My name’s Keith,” he said.

“I’m Robin,” I replied, and off we went.

I couldn’t keep up with Keith, of course, but before he left me, I found out that it was he and his partner who had parked next to me the first thing that morning.

There was one more hurdle to pass before getting to the “saddle” between Gray’s and Torrey’s, and that was a cornice of snow along the rim of the slope. It was much deeper there than it had been anywhere along the trail, maybe four feet. Keith dived in and rolled right through it, but when I tried his technique my pack got in the way and I ended up tunneling through the snow on my hands and knees.

When I got past the cornice, I was able to brush the snow off my clothes pretty well, but I had to take my boots off to clean the snow out of them before it melted into my socks. By the way, I do carry an extra pair of socks, just in case.

After that the going got harder. The saddle was broad, and the snow wasn’t as deep, but the slope was getting steeper and the air was getting thinner. That’s a frustrating thing about climbing a big mountain, the higher you are, the harder it gets. I’m always singing to myself when I hike, and the song that was going through my head at the time – I didn’t have enough wind to actually sing – was “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow,” and it was really slow: “Somewhere” – step. “over the rainbow” – step. “Way up high” – step. On the way down, I remember that my song was “When the red, red, Robin comes bob, bob, bobbing along.” Going down is a lot easier than climbing up.

From the saddle to the top was a climb of about 500 feet, and it took me a good 30 minutes. I would watch Keith up ahead of me climbing up towards the cloud - the peak was still hidden in a cloud, and just as he was about to disappear, the cloud would rise a little higher. He finally did disappear, and was actually on his way down before I could see the top of the mountain. When he passed me I dropped my pack. Why carry that stuff all the rest of the way up? All I needed was my peanut butter sandwich anyway, and it was in my fanny pack, so I took one last drag off my water straw, and climbed the rest of the way to the top.

Keith Climbing up Towards Torrey’s Peak

It was 11:30 AM when I got to the top of Torrey’s Peak, still before noon. They always tell you to be off the peak before noon because of storms and lightening. I was lucky in that the sky cleared up for me at the top of the mountain. I could see the mountains all around. I could see Gray’s. It was wonderful!

 Triumph on Torrey’s Peak, Gray’s Peak in Background

Keith and I weren’t the only ones to summit Torrey’s that day. Just behind me was a man from Littleton, Co. and his two sons. They had actually climbed Gray’s and then come over the saddle to climb Torrey’s. Pretty good for a cold snowy day. I’m pretty sure they were the last ones though, because everyone was starting down about that time and I didn’t meet anyone else coming up the trail.

Coming down is the least enjoyable part of climbing a mountain, and my journey down Torrey’s was no exception. It is easier, but I haven’t found a way to step down a two or three foot trail step without jarring my knees and back. After three or four hours of that pounding – it took me four hours to get down, you can get pretty sore. What made it worse on this hike was the snow, which had turned to slush and was really slippery. And the weather kept changing. The sun would come out and it would get hot. There’s something about the thin mountain air that allows the temperature to change really quickly. Then I’d have to unstrap my pack, take off my coat, secure it in the pack, and then lift it back onto my shoulders. Then, thirty minutes later, it would get cold again, snow – it snowed about half the time on my way down, and I’d have to repeat the procedure, in reverse. That happened two or three times.

I usually take more time looking for flowers and critters on the way down, but there was none of that this trip, except for the ravens. They were everywhere for some reason. They must have been able to see critters to eat better as the snow melted. I tried to photograph them, but they were too far away to get a clear picture.

I was one of the last ones back to the car as usual, but I was happy. I managed to summit my tenth fourteener, and in winter conditions. What an adventure!

Torrey’s Peak, 14,267 Feet

Sunday, August 7, 2016


My kids live in Spokane, Washington, so I don’t get to see them that often, or my grandkids either, so when I went up there for my granddaughter Alyssa’s graduation, it was a big deal for me. When I go I stay with each of my kids for a while, which is great, except for the grandchild who has to give up his or her bed for me to sleep in. Each visit is precious for me, and memorable, but one thing in particular touched me while I was staying with my son Donald, my daughter-in-law Tina, and my grandkids, Ciara, Lauren, Zach, Sophia, and Cody. Zachary’s the one who had to give up his bed. Thanks, Zach.

Anyway Donald’s a lawyer. He’s much better in every way than I am, but he does have one thing in common with me at his age.  He’s really busy. He gets up at the crack of dawn, and often works late and on weekends. In spite of this, he still manages to spend quality time with his family. When he’s there, he’s really there, hearing about the latest accomplishment or disappointment; playing games; helping Tina cook or clean up; running errands; organizing work details to get stuff done, and he fixes oatmeal for breakfast.

That’s what got to me. My mother used to fix oatmeal for breakfast. I can still remember the warmth and smell of it as I would stand on a stool by the stove, stirring it so it wouldn’t stick to the pan. Donald asked me to stir his oatmeal too. Well, anyway, to me oatmeal means love.

Thinking about oatmeal and love and old memories, reminded me of a letter my Grandmother wrote to me when I was four.

Dear Robin,
I received your Letter. & read every word that you wrote. When I got home it was past three in the morning, and I went out to see Spot. He came to the fence to look at me. Neither one of us spoke. Then I came in to see if I could find anything for him to eat & there wasn’t one scrap of anything so I cooked him some oat meal & took that to him & then when I came in he cried, so I brought him in & let him sleep in the rocking chair. I have a lot of flowers blooming & my place looks pretty. I took dinner with Phillip Sunday & I told him that you were coming to play with him. & he is looking forward to you coming. You write again soon.
Lodes & lodes of love. Grandmother

Spot was Grandmother’s dog, and Phillip was my cousin. She loved her dogs and her grandchildren. 

Grandmother and Spot