Two Journeys to
One Wondrous Life.
A friend in the squadron shared my passion for flying. We would go to a small, well-maintained airfield in Kent, Washington, on weekends for lessons in a Piper Cub. The little town of Kent was then on the far outskirts of Seattle.
I can still remember the thrill of that virgin takeoff and landing. There were rituals involved in doing your first solo flight. For example, if you were wearing a tie, which was quite normal in those days, after you landed, it would get cut in half, right across the middle. And tucked away somewhere, I still have my “short snorter,” which is a dollar bill that’s signed by everyone who witnessed my solo. Best of all, I still have my pilot’s license from that memorable day. On my first leave home to Nebraska, my big family of nine came to a small airfield near Lincoln to watch me fly. This was the beginning of my long journey to becoming a naval aviator.
After I was discharged after World War II in 1946, I enrolled on the GI Bill at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, my hometown. My childhood buddies there were members of Phi Gamma Delta, and they encouraged me to join them. They were active members, along with Johnny Carson, who would become my chief tormentor. I was a townie, still living at home, not at the fraternity. So even though I was a new pledge, I could, unlike my fellow pledges, escape Carson and the rest of the actives overnight.
I had never skied in flat Nebraska, but skiing became a lifelong activity after I first encountered it in Anchorage, Alaska, during World War II.
I was with VR 5, an air transport squadron based at Sandpoint Naval Air Station on Lake Washington in Seattle. We also had bases in Anchorage and on Kodiak Island. Our mission was to transport supplies and arms to our troops based on the Aleutian Islands. Our infantry, including Heinie, my oldest brother, were stationed on Adak Island. The Japanese had occupied Attu, the island nearest to Japan, which was the only American soil they would occupy in World War II. The infantry who were preparing to storm Attu and take it back were based on Adak, just to the east of Attu. The push to drive the Japanese from Attu Island was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific, with the majority of the Japanese committing suicide. My brother, fortunately, survived.
The remoteness of the Aleutians fostered an illegal and profitable bootlegging business. At the time, only officers could have hard liquor, enlisted men could have only beer, and wine was unheard of. So some of the crew, including officers, would buy rotgut in Seattle, and the price would go higher the farther out on the chain it was purchased. One hundred dollars was the norm on Adak, where Heinie, my brother, was stationed.
When I visited Adak, I would always take Heinie and his mates really good booze. I would also eschew the comfortable enlisted quarters to stay with him and his buddies in their crowded and smelly Quonset hut, where we would party into the night. The latrine was a distance away, and the snow on the permafrost surrounding the hut was always yellow.
I had just graduated from Whittier High School, and rather than wait to be drafted, I had enlisted in the navy.
I’ll never forget the evening of my departure from the Lincoln, Nebraska, train station, on my way to boot camp. That afternoon, my mother had placed the sixth star in our front window at home. That was my star; the others were for my two older brothers and three brothers-in-law. A seventh star would be added several years later for my younger brother Speck, who would be drafted into the army just as World War II was ending.
Since our first language growing up had been German, Speck was quite fluent. He spoke an eighteenth-century version, since that was when our ancestors had left Germany and last spoken the language. Speck would become an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials.
Speck, along with the rest of our big family, went with me to the station for our goodbyes. My steady girlfriend, Mary Claire, would also be there.
As the long troop train, filled with volunteers, lumbered into the station and waited at the platform for us to board, my thoughts were not at all on this awesome new adventure. Instead I worried that my father and everyone else in the family would kiss me goodbye, a show of affection that I’d learned wasn’t shared by all families.
Mary Claire’s family status was far above ours. They were what we called the “country club” set in Lincoln. When visiting her home, I noticed a huge difference in their interactions among family and friends. They were much more subdued on meeting than in our big, boisterous family. Kisses in the Phillips family were mere pecks or brushing cheeks. Men, I was certain, would never kiss other men, even their own sons. Our family was more like the film
My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Well, my father did kiss me on the mouth, as did everyone else. However, I had worried needlessly. Mary Claire’s first letter to me at Farragut Boot Camp in Idaho said she was touched and happy to have seen that genuine, emotional show of affection from my family.
Several months later, I would get a Dear John letter from Mary Claire. She had fallen for a major at the Lincoln Air Base, and they were getting married. I sent her framed picture back to her with a teary note to say how sorry I was. In reality, however, I was totally relieved. I would soon find out that there were many more guys like me, not only in the navy but in all the armed forces. Gays were aware of the lack of tolerance for homosexuality during World War II. If someone found out you were gay, moving up in rank was no longer an option. You were stuck at your current level or demoted.
Our long train trip took us to a hastily built boot camp because there were not enough facilities to handle the crush of recruits. It was named Farragut, for the admiral who famously had said, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” in Mobile Bay during the Civil War.
Most summers when we were young, my mother would send her three youngest—Abbie, me, and Speck—to Uncle John’s farm near Cozad in central Nebraska, where we would work in the fields. This would get us out of the house in Lincoln for the summer and give Uncle John three extra sets of hands to work on the farm.
My favorite part of those summers was skinny-dipping in a clear and cold spring-fed pond with a diving board. There I developed a huge crush on Bill, a neighborhood boy who was several years older. He was a hunk, tanned and muscular. He would have me climb onto his back, my arms locked around him on the diving board and my genitals pressed against his sweaty, warm back. I would usually get an erection, and then I’d have to swim around on my stomach for a bit in the icy water until it subsided.
My time swimming with Bill lasted only a couple of summers, and I was always sad when it was time to go home. In later years, as Bill grew into a handsome young man, we remained friends, but I was jealous of the high school beauties who flocked around him.
It was 1973 in Lincoln, Nebraska. My father, Heinrich Klein, had died weeks before after a long illness, and it was time for us to clear his closet. My sister Rose found a small suitcase that was falling apart tucked far in the back of the closet, apparently the one his parents had packed for him when he left Russia, never to see them again. It was empty, with only a cardboard bottom, so she tossed it into the discard pile. My sister Kay then noticed some faint writing near the bottom of the cardboard.
The portraits had been hidden away since he and my mother started raising our big family of four boys and four girls in 1906. I think that having nearby the only connection to his childhood home in Russia gave him some comfort all those years he was bedridden. After his parents kissed him in a final goodbye, who could fathom his emotions as he was on the train to the port and the ship the Hamburg bound for Ellis Island and an unknown future to a new life? He was still in his teens, with little money. We were known as the Volga Germans, and in New York, he would be met by others in that ethnic group who had arrived earlier.
The Volga Germans went to Russia at the invitation of German Catherine the Great’s reign. She issued a manifesto in 1763 that promised her native countrymen “land and freedoms in perpetuity from military service.” They would also not have to pay taxes, would have freedom of religion, and could keep their German language and customs, and she promised them housing in small communities near Saratov. Her hope was that these craftsmen and farmers would be a good influence on the serfs.
Catherine’s manifesto appealed to our ancestors from Baden in the Black Forest of Germany. They were peace-loving Christians who had survived the famines, wars, and religious upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Germany. They were yearning for a place where they could live in freedom and raise their families. They accepted Catherine’s manifesto by the thousands, not only in Germany but also in surrounding countries where it had been published.
So the Volga Germans began the long and difficult journey to the promised land, which many of them did not survive. Those who reached the sea in winter had to survive there until spring to begin the journey to the Volga.
When the fortunate Kleins and others arrived near Saratov, they found none of the promised houses. The Russians were still living above their animals in barns. The Germans established their own small communities far from the Russians and then built imposing houses of worship. They had little interaction with the Russians, and the disdain they had for each other was mutual.
Klein enlisted in the Navy right after graduation from high school in 1942 and seved in the Pacific during WWII. He then returned to the University of Nebraska (Johnny Carson was a fraternity brother and friend). He received a BA in Journalism, and went back into the Navy as an Ensign in 1949 and completed flight training in Pensacola, Florida and Corpus Christi, Texas. He became a fighter pilot on carriers and was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet just as the Korean War began.
His carrier, the U.S.S. Wright, took part in the first big NATO naval exercise, Operation Mainbrace, in September 1952. They operated in the North and Baltic Seas observing Russian Naval operations and were assigned the task of tracking their submarines. This was at the height of the Cold War.
Klein opted out of Active duty in mid 1953, but remained in the Naval Reserves until 1976 fulfilling all of his commitments. He went to work as a pilot for American Airlines, based in Idlewild and Laguardia. He took a leave of absence when he was notified he had been awarded a scholarship as the Hitchcock Scholar at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.
He earned his MS in Journalism in 1954.
He became an Associate Editor of Air Force Magazine in Washington, D.C. upon graduation from Columbia. He traveled widely for stories, including a trip to Europe to report on the progress of NATO.
He relocated to San Francisco in the Late 50’s and joined the Organizing Committee for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley. His interest in the sport dated to his WW2 stint in Seattle and Alaska. He bought his first ski equipment from Eddie Bauer out of his garage in Seattle.
A Gay Man, Naval Aviator, Airline Pilot
I live in Napa, California. I was born at home in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1924, the 7th of 8 children of immigrant Germans who worked the beet fields of Nebraska during the depression. In the scorching heat of summer, we lived in two small cabins, one for cooking, another for sleeping.
One of my most prized possessions is the First Prize Certificate
awarded to my father by the American Beet Sugar Company. It reads: this prize is given for Contract Labor hand work to Henry J Klein. This award is based, principally, on the best general work performed, stands of beets left, selective thinning and clean hoeing during the growing season of 1928. I was four years old. This prize is awesome, when you consider that thousands of families, such as ours, were working the beet fields in many Midwestern States that year.
All of our work contributed to the wealth of the Spreckels family in San Francisco. Adolf Spreckels’ widow, Alma died in the big Mansion they built in Pacific Heights in the city. Danielle Steel owns it now and is living there.
Essentially, I had to walk parallel high wires, both leading to one
wonderous filled life to reminisce about in old age with no regrets. I held “Top Secret” clearance in my many years as a Navy Carrier, and American Airlines pilot, while at the same time enjoying a deep and abiding love with my spouse Scott Chappell. This is the right of every couple. We will be celebrating 38 years together next Valentines Day. My tentative working title for this book is, Two Journeys to One Wondrous Life.