lessons learned

In this Army someone must always be in charge

In the spring of l963 I was in basic unit training at Camp Polk, Louisiana. 

At a company formation the First Sergeant counted off twenty men to serve on a work detail at battalion headquarters.  Dismissing the rest of the company he looked around for cadre to march the detail to our work area.  There wasn’t even a PFC in sight.

“Ryan, fall out and march this detail to battalion headquarters.  Report to the Company Commander.  He is already over there.  And Ryan, you keep them looking sharp, no horse play, the Colonel is with the C.O.”  The message was clear.

I stepped out, called, “Attent hut.  Right face.  Forward march.”  Down the road we went.

“Hut, two, three, four.  Dress it up look alive, get in step.  Hut two, three, four.”  As we neared our destination I spied the company commander, a cocky young First Lieutenant, and the battalion commander- a grizzled old Lieutenant Colonel, standing on the sidewalk.

“Column..halt, left..face.  Detail..at ease.”  They looked sharp.  With my fatigue jacket buttons ready to pop, I stepped around the detail, approached the officers and snapped a crisp salute on the Lieutenant.  “Detail reporting for duty sir.”

The Lieutenant returned the salute, and adjusted his swagger stick under his arm.  “How many men are there?”

Without thinking, I replied “Nineteen men and myself Sir.”  A smirk appeared around the corners of the Lieutenant’s mouth.

“Private Ryan, I asked how many men are there in this detail?”

Color welled up from the collar of my thoroughly deflated fatigue jacket.  I blurted out, “Sorry sir, twenty men sir.”

The Colonel stepped forward and caught my eye.  In a voice that only the Lieutenant and I could hear, he said.  “That’s all right, Ryan.  In this army someone must always be in charge.”


Sgt Ryan & fish

I lived up to the Old Colonel’s expectations and made Sergeant a few years later.
Here I am with my first Northern Pike, caught while on weekend leave at Camp Ripley, Minnesota.

Categories: lessons learned, Military, soldiers | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Dull Knife, Dull Feller . . . Sharp Knife, Sharp Feller

I can’t remember when I first carried a folding knife in my pocket.  A good pocket knife was an essential tool for a farm kid in the forties and fifties.  It was used to cut the ties on fodder bundles and hay bales.  A sharp Case, Schrade or Barlow, and you were ready to skin a squirrel or clean a mess of Clear Creek bullheads. 


I was instructed in safety measures early on.  Such things as always cut away from your body, and don’t run with with the blade open.


At school we played Mumbley-peg during recess.  It was a gentler time.  No one questioned the right or reason to carry a pocket knife to school.  No one was ever hurt or threatened by a pocket knife at any of the rural schools I attended.

One of my most prized possessions during the fourth grade was a pair of high-topped lace-up boots equipped with a snap down knife pocket sewn on the side.  I wore them until they came apart from wear.


As a teenager while finishing high school, I worked at a feed mill on Saturdays grinding and mixing feed.  Most of the bags of grain and supplements we handled were one hundred pound size burlap bags.  They were tied or sewed with heavy cotton string.  To drop the contents into the hoppers the ties had to be cut.  Pocket knives were left laying on the scales or some other handy place ready for use on each bag dumped. 

One old timer I worked with never lacked for good old country humor and sayings.  He would pick my knife up and run his thumb across the dull edge, shake his head and say, “Dull knife, dull feller.”  Well, I did have trouble sawing through the larger cords.  I went to work on the knife with a sharpening stone.  I did not think much about it.  A few days later I turned around just in time to see him pick up the knife and run his thumb over it before I could warn him.  It must have bit him just a little.  Harry grinned and said, “Sharp knife, sharp feller.”


Today I carry an electrician’s knife in my pocket.  It has a large drop point blade and combination screwdriver burr reaming, lock open blade.  I also carry a pair of regular old slip joint farmer’s pliers in the plier pocket of my yard overalls.  Both tools are the handiest tools a man could carry.

These tools were made in America by craftsmen who knew what a good tool is.  When I am done with the knife and pliers, they will still be solid enough for another generation of handymen.


Categories: lessons learned, times gone by | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Alma’s Fire Shovel

Alma Ewing was my first grade teacher at Highland school in Benkelman Township, Cheyenne County, Kansas during the 1945-46 term.  Highland closed down at the end of the school year.  The school house was sold and the small number of pupils shifted to other schools.  For the second grade I went to Mt. Zion, another one-room school, three or four miles east of our sod-walled home.  Alma taught there, too.  Sometimes I rode horseback, but most of the time the folks delivered me in the A-Model Ford.

My older brother Wayne had graduated from the eighth grade at Highland the year before I started and Alma had been his teacher, too.  He told me that she was a strict disciplinarian.  He claimed she used a fire shovel to administer spankings.  When things really got rough, so his story went, she stuck it in the stove to heat it first.


This is similar to Alma’s fire shovel

I was young, but I had already caught on to my brother’s mischievous nature.  I didn’t set much store by his fire shovel tale.  That is, until one cold wintery day at Mt. Zion school.

This day the students were more fractious and noisy than usual.  Alma warned us several times to quiet down.  Soon the din would return to a low roar.

Finally she had enough.  Alma walked to the back corner of the room, removed the fire shovel from the coal bucket, opened the stove door, and placed the shovel in the fire box with the handle protruding out the door.  Silence fell over the room.  It seems the story had been told by others, also.  Alma had heard the story too!

The morning ground on in silence.  Finally the noon hour came.  We went out for recess and when we returned the shovel was back in the coal bucket.

Alma left her mark on me.  I’m happy to say that it wasn’t with a fire shovel.

Several years ago I was returning to Missouri along Interstate 70 from a vacation out west.  I learned that the Tri-State Threshers Association was having their annual get-together and steam engine show at Bird City in eastern Cheyenne County.  I turned north at Goodland and went about 40 miles to Bird City to visit the Association’s fairgrounds.  The steam engines were puffing and the whistles were sounding.  I was browsing the flea market, enjoying the displays including the Charles Lindbergh display.  Yes, there is Charles Lindbergh history in Cheyenne County, Kansas!  But that is another story in itself, for another time.

I stopped to look at the old schoolhouse display and realized I was looking at old Highland, District 66 school building.  After it had closed it had been sold to a service station owner who moved the building to St. Francis and used it for tire and automotive products storage.  The Threshers Association had obtained the school and restored it.

Highland School

Highland School in its new place


There it was complete with schoolmarm and class in session.

Highland School inside

A modern day schoolmarm pretends to teach class at the new school location during Tri-State Threshers Association’s annual get-together in Bird City, Kansas.


Highland school had traveled from its Buffalo Grass and sagebrush-covered hill on the western side to the flat land eastern side of Cheyenne County.  Alma Ewing would have been proud.

Walt at original Highland School site

Walt at original Highland School site – District 66 Cheyenne County, Kansas.

Categories: lessons learned, times gone by | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.