Colonels Wanted

In 1959 my father, a Lt. Colonel in the USAF, was assigned to Ice Island T-3 in the Baltic Sea. The iceberg base provided a landing zone in the era of nuclear threat.  However, there was a real physical threat to my father lurking in the shadows of the mess hall trailer.

Dad was a bomber pilot aging out of flight—a prospect he abhorred. Flying was his passion.  My mother believed her husband was banished to the “North Pole” by a tyrannical general at Plattsburgh AFB.  

Plattsburgh, New York is located near the Canadian border, a beautiful small town when we were assigned there. I skied at White Face Mountain and ice skated under the moon, ignoring the travails of adults. However, when Dad received his orders, it got my attention. He would be gone for a year, and Mom had just discovered she was pregnant.

Reality set in hard and stark. We women were moved from the three-story brick home on Officer’s Row to a Levittown-style house. Women and kids were ancillary baggage, last to be considered. My sisters and me took care of Mom. I matured early feeling responsible for her and my little sister.

The only communication with Dad was via Hamm radio. Our go-between in the mid-West became a friend. Desperate were our few conversations in the flickering voice transmission and static. Brief exchanges with Dad left me bereft. Mom was having trouble with her pregnancy—she’d given birth to us three girls and as many miscarriages prior to the Pill. At age 38 she was at risk. I worried constantly. I recall a quiet household. Waiting. Life on hold.

Then came the neighbor pounding on our door one Saturday morning, a Time magazine clutched in his hand. He held it up in front of him with one finger pointing to a small box in the corner where a polar bear glared and which read, “Colonel’s Wanted.”

My sisters and I hovered over Mom’s shoulders reading about the attack that happened one night as Dad left the mess hall. A polar bear foraging in a nearby trash receptacle suddenly turned on him. The reporter described Dad’s desperate attempt to flee in heavy gear and deep snow. He was saved from mauling when a pregnant female husky got in the way, and was mauled but held the bear off long enough for men inside to hear the ruckus, get a rifle and shoot the bear.

The husky survived and gave birth the next day despite her wounds, and not long after, Mom gave birth to a 10-pound baby girl, my sister Kathy. Several months later, Dad arrived at our doorstep looking very much like a bear. He’d gained 30 pounds, was white as a grub with dark circles under his beady black eyes and bushy eyebrows. A frightening countenance but nonetheless our cherished father.

He brought a wooden crate with him. The preserved skin of the polar bear– a parting gift to Dad, reminder of his frigid incarceration. It wasn’t until several years later that mom smelled a foul odor in our garage in Merced, California. The original preservation had been poorly executed and, alas, the bear skin never made it to a wall behind Dad’s desk.

Today, I recall that Time magazine photo of a ferocious polar bear and its cryptic message. The nuclear threat never materialized but the threat of human striving is manifest. T-3 is melting in the warming Northern Hemisphere. Polar bears are at risk in rapid ecological change. In the chronicles of a distant time there may yet be a photo of a human face and a final message, “Humans Wanted.”

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this memory. The spouses, mostly wives, were owed a debt of gratitude which few of them received. Keep telling the stories.

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  2. Naval officers wanted

    Susan, I always enjoy the stories of your life as an Air Force junior. Often, as in this one, I am reminded of my own life growing up as a Navy junior. My dad joined the Navy, a year shy of graduating from high school, in his Southwest Arkansas town of Mena. He was inspired by the “Join the Navy and See the World” posters at the local post office, and traveling the world certainly seemed so much more exciting than remaining in his little town with its limited opportunities for any young person with ambition. Dad had to eat a few pounds of bananas to meet the weight requirement but was finally sworn in and sent off to boot camp. In a couple of years he became a Navy photographer who took some of the photos of sailors in China and the Philippines that had inspired him to join the Navy.

    But here is the part of my Dad’s story that I am reminded of by your story. As Hitler and the Nazi party rose in power in the 1930s, Americans generally remained at least somewhat isolationists. But President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who shared his fellow Americans’ reluctance to enter into another world war, saw that it was likely that the country would be drawn into a war that increasingly by the late 1930s seemed inevitable. In 1940, FDR ordered a doubling of the size of the Navy. As a result, there was now a demand for more commissioned officers. Throughout the Navy, a few enlisted men (only men at that time, of course) were selected to receive several months’ training for the officer ranks. My Dad, at that time a chief petty officer, was one of those selected for the training. At first he demurred but, encouraged by my mother, he decided to go for it and soon became one of a couple of thousand “mustang” Naval officers.
    We use the term “mustang officer” to describe people plucked from the enlisted ranks to earn a commission. The British have a different term: “temporary gentlemen.” Despite his humble background, my Dad was always a permanent gentleman.

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    1. This is a wonderful story and reflection on your father. Thank you so much for sharing it here! I have never heard the term “temporary gentleman” which you could never get away with in our present time!

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