Not everyone is so fortunate as am I to have lived a long, happy life. Too often, I fail to appreciate how blessed I have been.
The road of my life is now mostly behind me. Looking forward, I see a short, relatively straight path to that day in the not-very-distant future when folks will be remarking how life-like I appear … “Why, he looks as if he were asleep!
Conversely, looking over my shoulder at the past, I see a long, winding road climbing steep hills and descending into deep valleys. This road begins before the twentieth century was half grown —March 31, 1939 was when I first took a breath on this Earth.
It was a time when the world was on the cusp of that terrible conflict the planet universally referred to as World War II. The war that ended like none had ever done before in all the tens of thousands years of humans killing humans in the name of ending all conflict forever.
The war where for the first time in human history, a war that was ended when two atom bombs dropped on our enemy — soldiers and non-combatants alike … dropped on two huge cities, unleashing on an unsuspecting population death and misery that would become multi-generational.
Never before had the world seen such devastation wrought from human technology. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the horrific effects killed some 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki.
The final toll is still not known even as we’ve well into the second decade of a new millenia.
So, how is one affected who was born at the beginning of a World War and was old enough to actually develop a rudimentary understanding of the causes and effects; who could, albeit with a child’s understanding, explain before that conflict ended yet with reasonable articulateness who went to war and why?
Millions of lives were altered by that horrible conflict. Too many were ended, too young to die.
My life was one of those inexorably changed by World War II.
The Early Years
My dad and his brother were men in their mid-20s as the United States entered into the war. The only two living sons of my grandparents, both entered the war married and left it divorced. Both being experienced carpenters (a family tradition for four generations now and one I followed until age 42), they were able to spend their war years in non-combat roles, though both were stationed overseas. Dad enlisted as a Seabee and Uncle Leonard was in the army engineers. Uncle spend most of his time in the Philippines and dad was stationed in North Africa and France.
Uncle Leonard had no children (as was never to have any … I have no paternal first cousins).
Dad had two, my sister Judy, 18 months younger than am I, and me.
An interesting aspect of our parent’s divorce and on which I will not speculate, since I’ve only heard one side of the story, was that dad was granted custody of us. I saw my biological mother a couple of times a year through the 1940s, then after I was in my early teens, never again.
Dad remarried quickly after the war. He and my step-mom — who is really “mom” to me; the only mother of which I have any significant memory — reared a family of seven, two boys and five girls. I suppose that technically, I came from a “broken home” but in all honestly, it doesn’t seem like. I lived in a two-parent home during most of my childhood, surrounded by siblings, all of whom I think of not as half-anything but, simply, as my brother and sisters. Judy and I were treated no differently growing up than were the younger five.
During the war years, before dad joined the Seabees, we lived in a house on Farrow, a dead-end street next to a cemetery. It was a simple rectangular bungalow with high ceilings. I only remember one bedroom but there may have been more. Our widowed maternal grandmother and our two youngest aunts lived with us so it was undoubtedly crowded.
My biological mother was one of seven sisters. All but two are now deceased. I made contact with the two who are living about ten years ago, after over a half-century since last having heard from them and still am in contact with the youngest one, who is only a couple of years older than am I.
These are the two who lived with us in the house on Farrow.
The house long ago lost a battle with progress when Interstate 635 first circled the Kansas City metro area.
I have surprisingly vivid mind pictures of that place, given that I was only about five or six when I last lived there.
The cemetery next to it is one where many individuals of my family are buried. We still pay an occasional visit to the graves of grandpa, grandma, an aunt, two uncles and other family members buried there.
Dad, the frequent mover and mom are buried in Spring Hill, about thirty miles south of there.
Apparently, sometime in the mid 1950s, our mother dropped off the face of the earth as far as family was concerned. None of her sisters heard from her from that time on. They tried to reach her when her mother, my maternal grandmother (of whom I have no memory whatsoever) died around that time.
She is undoubtedly buried somewhere but not in any place of which I have knowledge.
I clearly remember certain events that occurred during those early years. The Missouri river was only about a mile away and I remember a shiveringly cold day duck hunting with dad on the river. I remember throwing modeling clay against the ceiling, dingy from years of coal heat, and laughing at the small clean spot left where the clay struck.
And I remember the kid next door, who was a few year older, jumping off a retaining wall and smashing my new toy car. Interestingly, he grew up to be a cop.
At some point around the middle of 1945, we went to live with Grandpa and Grandma Banister. Our mother left for Detroit with her boyfriend. Soon, dad was back home after receiving an emergency discharge to deal with the divorce.
The most exciting thing that happed there was also quite terrifying and painful for me, Grandpa had built an indoor toilet in the house they purchased on 27th street, straight across from Klamm park, where the carnival was held each summer.
After the indoor toilet was operational, he stuck wheat straw into the privy, set it afire and burned it to the ground. Meanwhile, my sister and I had been across the street in the park, looking for coins in the graveled area where the circus had recently pulled up stakes and moved on.
Grandma called us for supper. Since it was starting to sprinkle, we were ready to come home, We got a little damp but the rain didn’t amount to much.
Grandpa told us to look out the kitchen window and see if anything looked different.
“The outhouse is gone!” Judy exclaimed.
As soon as dinner was over, we headed out to where the outhouse had been. All that was left was a pit with gray colored ash up to ground level. We could feel some heat but being kids, we figured that the recent rain had put out the fire.
At the point, the stories of eye-witnessess (sister Judy and I and me) diverge.
She claims she dared me to jump into the pit and I did. I clearly remember declining to do that so she pushed me.
However it was accomplished, I wound up knee-deep in what turned out to be red-hot coal hiding under the cooler gray ones on the top.
When I jumped, my jeans rode up my legs so the bare skin on my legs was exposed to live coals all the way to the knees.
Undoubtedly, what saved my legs (and maybe, my life) was a telephone installer who was putting in the phone that day. He heard my the screams of my sister and I, rushed to the pit and pulled me out, then treated the 3rd degree burns with salve.
By the time grandpa got me to the emergency room, huge blisters had formed. The doctors were discussing the probability that at least one and possibly both legs would have to be amputated at the knee.
Grandpa nixed that in no uncertain terms. “You’re not taking that boy’s legs” he said. His tone trucked no argument.
So I was treated with antibiotics and salves and slowly, the burns became ugly scars. Though I am a very hirsute guy, with copious amounts of hair on my front, back, arms and thighs, no hair has ever grown between my knees and my feet. This part of my anatomy lies fallow.
The burned skin is thin and cuts and scrapes heal slowly. I grew up pretty much a normal kid but always had a couple or three bandages on my legs.
After the War is Over …
After the war, dad and Uncle Leonard built houses on lots owned by Grandpa B. Within a year of the divorce, dad remarried. On Groundhog’s Day of 1947, another sibling, Karen, was added to the bunch that would ultimately grow to seven.
We didn’t live very long at the 27th Street house (though years later, as newlyweds, my lovely bride and I moved in with grandpa just two blocks up and on the other side of 27th Street, where our first two children were born).
Soon, dad built another house on Rowland, a couple of blocks from Parker elementary school, where I attended school through the 3rd grade.
Then it was on to Bethel, Kansas … then a small town west of KCK, now engulfed by the city. I doubt that many who now live there ever refer to the area by its former name — or even know it.
At Bethel, the five of us lived in a temporary one-room dwelling that was intended to be the garage when dad got around to building the house. It was there, too, that I got my first job. I was the youngest “Kansas City Kansan” newspaper boy in the city. I had a two mile route that I walked daily, carrying a newspaper bag.
The house in Bethel never came about. Instead dad decided to purchase a small farm west of Basehor, Kansas, in Leavenworth county another twelve miles west. Grandma and grandpa (really against dad’s better judgment — he and grandpa never got along very well when spending much time in close proximity) moved in with us.
Life on the Farm Ain’t Always Laid Back …
For a while, I was quartered in the north upstairs bedroom. Grandma and grandpa had the other upstairs bedroom. I’m not sure where my sister slept because as far as I can remember, there was only the master bedroom downstairs.
Maybe they slept in the living room?
Soon, though, grandpa and dad built a small, concrete-block house next to the hundred-year-old farm house in which we resided.
Dad was glad to do it!
I spent a lot of time in my grandparents little house.
Dad knew where to come look for me at milking time.
It was on this farm that I spent the longest period of my childhood spent in one place — five years from grades five through 9. It is Basehor that I still think of as my home town, these 60-some years later. It is people from my Basehor childhood that are still numbered among friends with whom I stay in contact. (In a bit of an ironic turn, eventually I ended up teaching at Piper high school, a rival of Basehor high and still live in the Piper district, two miles east of the Basehor city limits. We have attended Church at Holy Angels in Basehor for the 35 years we have lived here, making for some interesting exchanges between old friends at Church socials. More on that later …)
In 1951, sister Anna was added to the family. She didn’t get to spend much time on the farm, though.
Finally, dad’s restlessness got the better of him. He bought a lot on Lathrop in KCK, built a house and once again, we moved.
That’s when things started to go wrong for me. When I was a freshman, Basehor high school had 39 students in four grades. As a sophomore at Washington Rural high school, I was a member of a class with more than twice that number. In grades nine-12 there were about 500 students.
Now that doesn’t sound like a very large student body when it isn’t uncommon for high schools to have thousands of students.
But to this wide-eyed country kid, it was huge! … And it was easy to get lost!
… And I did!
Moving on to Magazine Sales & Borderline Juvenile Delinquency …
Not long after we moved, I met a neighbor kid from the next block north.
He was <ahem> not the best influence. Within a month, I was skipping school more than attending. By October, school was in the past.
Shortly after, dad had become a partner in a new housing project in a small Johnson county town called “Lenexa”. Soon, we had moved again, to this town of which I’d never, ever heard.
Not long after that, new developments occurred in my personal life.
After I’d dropped out of school, my Bad Influence and I had gotten jobs selling magazines for a shady firm that to this day, I think was a front the Kansas City area mob. But I was a naïve 15-year-old dropout so that didn’t occur to me at the time.
I was also a lousy magazine salesman, unlike my bad Influence, who was willing to lie though his teeth to prospective customers (even those groups the boss told us were off limits to sales — a lot of overt racism went on back in those days), take the front money and throw away the contract of those to whom we weren’t supposed to sell).
So I was living at home and wasn’t making much money and staying out late.
Back in those days, there was a penny arcade on 12th street in KCMO and just down the street, a movie house that was open 24 hours a day, where transients who could bum the price of a ticket (about 50 cents) could go to sleep in warmth for a few hours.
I spent a lot of time in those two places.
So much time that I had been warned by my father that should I decide to come home again in the wee hours of the morning, I would need to find a new place to live because he would disinvite me to live in his house.
And so did he …
Dad wasn’t much about second warnings.
On this particular morning, I quietly sneaked into the house and into my bedroom around 3:00 .a.m.
Breathed a sigh of relief at my good fortune in getting in undetected and closed my eyes in blissful sleep.
But, as I should have been smart enough to realize but wasn’t, getting into the house undetected was an illusion.
About what seemed to be fifteen minutes later but was in reality about 7 a.m., I was rudely awakened by someone helping me from bed rather brusquely. My bag was already packed. I was escorted unceremoniously to the front door.
Not sure what my next move would be, I walked to the pay phone in downtown Lenexa and called my Bad Influence for advice.
Not the best idea I’ve ever had …
He suggested we pool our resources and move to an apartment at ninth and Forrest in KCMO.
So we did.
It wasn’t a very savory neighborhood but it was the best two teenaged magazine salesman could afford.
And that’s where I celebrated my 16th birthday. My Bad Influence believed it was my eighteenth. He was a few months older than me, much more jaded and street wise so I lied to him about my age early on so that I could appear “cooler”.
But living on my own with a “Bad Influence” was very wearing on my young, vulnerable psyche. And given my ineptness at selling, money was becoming more and more of a problem.
And then we got into an argument which turned physical and Bad Influence, who was physically larger and stronger than was I beat the living crap out of me.
Later, he apologized profusely but as far as I was concerned, the damage was done.
So sometime in April of 1955 I pretended to be ill. As soon as Bad Influence left for work, I slipped out of the apartment, leaving everything behind except what was on my back, found a public phone booth and, using one of my last dimes, called dad and ask to come home.
While his pride didn’t allow him to admit it, I suspect he was as glad as was I to return to the family fold. He quickly agreed to meet me at the Greyhound bus terminal on 12th street.
The Reunion: Reconciliation and Reform are Fleeting …
A couple of hours later, I was on my way back to Lenexa.
It was on that journey that I was informed that the family was soon to become larger. In July of 1955, the twins, Les and Lorie, were added to the fold.
As for Bad Influence, I never saw him again but did keep track of him because he was frequently in trouble with the law in later years.
Last I knew — and this has been probably thirty or forty years ago, he had been incarcerated for the third time.
I was never incarcerated but in the first two or three years after walking out of that apartment, that can only be attributed to the Grace of a Merciful God …
That summer went reasonably well. The twins were born in July. I went to work with dad every weekday and, remembering the unhappy, hungry days in that bare, lonely apartment on the wrong side of town, obeyed the (unspoken but very clear) terms of my probation.
It was agreed that I would try school again when school started in the autumn of 1955, this time in Olathe.
Being busy and obedient (for the most part) that summer, I made few friends in Lenexa before school began.
Unfortunately, that changed once school began. Once surrounded by others of my age, I made several friends.
As was my wont back in those days, I made friends with guys who weren’t calculated to move me to the top of the class …
Nor to build a reputation as a serious, hard-working, upstanding teenager.
I won’t go into the minute details of my activities during this time because my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren may happen upon this narrative.
Not to mention educational colleagues, friends and neighbors.
Who, for the most part know me as a strict parent, loving grandparent and stalwart, active member of the community.
Suffice it to say that had luck not been with me back then, I may have been in the adjacent cell to “Bad Influence”.
Soon, I was back to old, bad habits. By December, there was no point in staying enrolled in school because I had skipped so many days that the chance of passing a class — any class — was more than remote … it was hopeless!
For the next year or so, I moved from job to job, working as a sack boy at a grocery, a ramp boy at a drive-in theater, pitching hay.
Nothing on which to build a successful career.
And I wasn’t very good at accumulating much savings.
And the tension at home was growing day by day, as evidenced by the ever-increasing confrontations between dad and me.
And the 17-year-old that was me was bound to lose every one of those confrontations with a 41-year-old dad who had grown up during the Great Depression and who had already been in a REAL war.
So something had to give and, of course, that “something” was me …
When I approached dad in the early days of 1957 with a request for him to sign so that I could join the Marines, he was not just agreeable, he was estatic!
So on January 20, 1957, the family and a few friends gathered at the Kansas City Municipal Airport to see me off to Camp Pendleton.
I arrived at the San Diego airport in the early morning hours.
To say that the next few hours of my life were some of the most traumatic I’d yet experienced would be an understatement.
Those who’ve endured the three months of USMC boot camp will understand exactly what I mean.
For those who’ve not, there are no words that can accurately capture the experience!
You are lower than a worm! You are a maggot! … You are a Marine Boot!
There were three of us from Kansas City on the plane that descended out of a foggy January sky onto the runway of the San Diego airport.
For no other reason than having scored the highest of the three on the GCT taken back in Kansas City, I was assigned with the responsibility of contacting MCRD to notify them of our arrival.
It was probably the first time I’d ever been in charge of anything (though I’d been responsible for a lot of things up to this point in my life — most of them negative).
So I put a dime in the slot, dialed the number and when a voice answered “Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, San Diego.”
I casually replied “Yeah. This is Jim Banister. I was told to call this number and request transportation for three of us from Kansas City to boot camp.”.
What came from the other end of the line then made me acutely aware that my life was going to undergo a dramatic transformation.
And not necessarily for the better.
“Idiot! From now on, the first and lasts words out of your mouth will ‘Sir, Yes, Sir!’ You got that?”
“Sir, Yes, Sir!!!”
“That’s better! Now, proceed to the curb and notify the skycap that you are awaiting transportation to MCRD. Do this immediately! Do not stop anywhere else. Do you understand?”
“Sir, Yes, Sir!”
During the time we left the phone, walked to the curb and notified the skycap as instructed, many thoughts ran through my mind.
Most of them were variations of the question “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
“I want my Mommy!”
His last name, ironically, was Saylor.
And he couldn’t swim a lick.
Which didn’t stop the USMC boot camp swim instructors from repeatedly throwing him back into the pool, then fishing him out, only to throw him back in again.
I’ll never forget when finally, he cried in a panicked, plaintive voice “Mommy!”
That’s what finally brought back some reason and humanity to those enjoying his plight. One of the instructors jumped into the pool and pulled him out for the final time.
He was one of the few guys in our platoon who was even younger than was I. Joined on his 17th birthday.
Didn’t make it to his 18th as a Marine. Soon after this humiliation, he went over the fence.
Last we heard of young Saylor was scuttlebutt that he had been determined to be “unfit for military service” and sent back home.
I hope his life from that point in January of 1957 spiraled upward and he lived happily ever after …
For most of us in Platoon 108, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, MCRD, San Diego, California, life in Corps went on.
By the time we went to the rifle range at Camp Matthews, we considered ourselves old salts.
Not that the DIs agreed with our assessment, of course. Senior DI, Staff Sergeant Marr and junior DIs Sergeants Essex and Nekker were fond of reminding us that despite the fact that our hair on top was now being allowed to grow out a bit, we were still recruits and, ergo, lower than a snake’s belly.
They brought that point home with graphic clarity one lazy Spring Sunday afternoon, a couple of weeks before we were to graduate.
We were kicked back in the Quonset huts, some were reading Sunday newspapers (a privilege only recently granted). Others were shooting the bull. Some industrious souls were spit shining their dress shoes.
It was a laid-back, tranquil day.
Until Essex and Nekker, both unhappy about being on duty on Sunday and bored with the routine, decided we needed a lesson in discipline and industry.
Up to that point in my military career, I’d believed that the reason the fire buckets were filled with sand is because water would evaporate and sand was an excellent medium for smothering a small fire, should one break out.
That April Sunday, I discovered that they had another purpose, indeed!
From the duty hut came the call “Platoon 108, fall in and come to attention immediately!”
Once we were in formation outside the huts and at rigid attentions, we were given the order “Parade Rest”.
While we stood with feet apart and hands behind our back, a position not as stressful as being at attention but not one of the most relaxing positions possible, the two junior DIs proceeded to walk through the three Quonset huts of our platoon, one through the front door and one through the back, grabbing the fire buckets positioned at each end as they entered and flinging handfuls of sand randomly over foot lockers, abandoned newspapers and bunks as they walked from one end to the other.
When they had finally completed the dastardly deed in all three huts, they walked back to the parade ground where we waited expectantly.
“Platoon, Attention!” called Sergeant Essex, the senior of the two.
Then Sergeant Nekker, a small man with a Napoleonic complex began pacing before the platoon. He walked silently past the front of the platoon, then back up behind us until he was again standing in front of us, in the center of the formation.
“You people are pigs,” he began. “Sergeant Essex and I have conducted an inspection of your barracks …”
After pausing for dramatic effect, he continued, “And they are FILTHY!” He shouted that last word at the top of his lungs.
For a little guy, he had a BIG voice!
“There will be an inspection of the barracks at 1700 hours. If you have any desire to go to the mess hall for supper tonight, these barracks will be spotless for this inspection! Platoon dismissed! Move, you idiots, move!”
That was about 3:00 p.m. (or, Marine time, 1500 hours).
So much for a relaxing Sunday afternoon. The next two hours were spent removing sand from various and sundry places where sand can end up if flung from a bucket with enough force.
The inspection was conducted with us standing at attention at the end of our respective bunks. The two DIs didn’t really conduct a white-glove, detailed examination. They had already made their point.
Which was, “You maggots are still at the bottom of the totem pole here and don’t ever forget it!”
We later heard that the junior DIs had exceeded their authority that Sunday and were disciplined when Staff Sergeant Marr reported the incident to the company commander.
But nobody ever confirmed that to us.
The only other unusual event of our boot camp occurred about a week later, just days before we were scheduled to graduate.
The leader of my squad, an older guy (probably at least 23, which was ancient to a kid who had just turned 18 while in boot camp) whose Polish name was unpronounceable to most of us and was referred to as “Ski” had been ill for a few days. He resisted going to sick bay, even as he grew sicker by the day. Not only was he reluctant to go because of the issue the DIs made of anyone seeking medical help but because he was afraid that whatever he had would take him off duty long enough that he would be unable to graduate with the platoon.
He was right about that last part.
One night long after “lights out” had occurred, there was a disturbance in our Quonset hut. Someone flipped the lights on.
Ski was in the middle of the hut, trying to climb onto the clothes rack that held our dress uniforms, hanging there under plastic wraps awaiting that proud moment when we would don them and march to our graduation exercise in a few days.
He was nude and had defecated on the floor. He showed no cognition when asked what was going on.
It was obvious that regardless of the consequences, someone had to alert the DI on duty about this.
Because I was the tallest person in our squad and was, therefore, assigned the bunk next to the door, and because of that purely coincidental circumstance was standing next to the door, everyone turned and looked at me.
It was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. So I did.
“Sir, private Banister requesting entry to the duty hut, Sir!”
“What the hell do you want in the middle of the night, Banister?” came the sleepy retort from a rudely awakened Sergeant Essex, who was on duty that night. (I was relieved that he was the duty DI. He was much closer to being a human being than was Nekker.
And he also realized that if I had the courage to knock on his door in the middle of the night, there was something seriously amiss.
Turns out that Ski had spinal meningitis. Because he had resisted going to sick bay for far too long, our whole platoon and the DIs had been exposed to the highly infectious illness. We were quarantined for two weeks, missing our scheduled boot camp graduation.
Ski hovered between life and death in the hospital for a few weeks, finally recovered and, a month or so behind schedule, also graduated and became an exemplary Marine.
Over the course of the three months spent in boot camp, there were a couple of other guys not exactly Jarhead material who either went over the fence on their own or were weeded out and sent home but most of us managed to adjust to life in USMC well enough to get through boot camp and move on up to the Second Advanced Infantry Training Regiment at San Onofre, Camp Pendleton.
“I am a Marine!”
With hair now long enough to wax into a flattop, we boarded busses and moved to Second ITR at Camp Pendleton.
There was much excitement in the air. Once settled into camp, we were to be given weekend liberty and for the first time in three months, set foot in places to where we weren’t marched in formation.
Well, certainly freer than we’d been since January.
And no longer did we have to say “Sir” to everyone who wasn’t a boot.
Now we only had to offer that honorific to commissioned officers.
But old habits are hard to break. On getting off the bus, we were met by the staff sergeant who would be our platoon NCO for the next three weeks. As we stood at ease in formation, he explained what to expect over the next few days, then pointed to the barracks that we were going to call home, told us to stow our gear and fall back out in formation.
Rather than ask if we had questions, he simply said “Do you understand?”
Several responded to him with “Sir, yes, Sir” as had been the well-learned response to anyone who wasn’t a boot since the cold days of January.
“You idiots!” was the response. “Look carefully at my sleeve. Those are stripes, not bars. Save the ‘sir’ for the brass! You can call me Sergeant … but not unless I speak to you first.”
After a couple of days of orientation, we received our first liberty, a weekend pass! Most of us headed to Oceanside, the small Southern California town on Highway 101 just outside Camp Pendleton.
The first place I headed was to a department store to buy a set of civvies! I had my uniform sacked up and wore the cream-colored slacks and bright green knit shirt out the door.
I don’t remember whether I removed all the tags or not. Whether I did or didn’t, no one had any trouble recognizing me as a newly-minted, green Marine.
Monday morning dawned not a heck of a lot different than did the previous Monday mornings over the past few months.
The sun wasn’t up and an NCO was yelling at us to MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!
The fact that we didn’t have to call him ‘Sir’ wasn’t all that big of a change.
The next few days were spent crawling under barbed wire, running through mud, climbing log walls, walking along narrow planks and standing inspections.
Finally, second ITR ended with the traditional 3-day war.
And amazingly, it rained in Sunny Southern California the whole three days! Three days spend crawling through the mud and sleeping in fox holes filled with muddy water was made even worse because I had foolishly spent the previous weekend on the beach and was redder than a lobster.
Coming soon: Permanent duty station/first leave: Hitchhiking through the desert
This may take awhile. While you’re waiting, you can head over and read about my great grandfather, Jesse Thomas Banister.
Warning, though … I’ve only started this one, also, and have not updated it past chapter 2, so you may end up more frustrated than this page leaves you.