I grew up on the west side of Lake Carlos outside of Alexandria, moving there from Minneapolis in 1950 when I was 8 years old and ultimately became the oldest sibling of six, three brothers and two sisters.
Because my father was a traveling salesman, I negotiated my early childhood without a lot of discipline from Monday through Friday – but there was usually hell to pay on the weekends when dad was home. He loved to see me work!
I was saved from Ritalin (actually it had not been invented at that time) by my third-grade teacher, Ms. Erickson, who regularly took me across the hallway to the darkened janitorial closet for a short lecture about disrupting her class of 35 kids and then a few heavy handed ruler slaps across my opened palm – boy did that sting!
Rudderless and without a plan for life except to have fun with my drinking buddies – I enrolled as a freshman at St. John’s University (SJU), Collegeville, Minn., in the fall of 1960 in SJU’s pre-engineering course. I enrolled in engineering because I was good in math and science in high school during the era of Sputnik (launched in ‘57), and motivated not a little by the illogical fear that “the Russians were coming!”
Lacking professional career guidance in public schools at that time – overwhelming logic suggested that one excelling in math and science must become an engineer. Well that fiasco lasted about two years when I decided to “disenroll” from St. John’s due to a few significant circumstances.
First, I lacked the motivation to register for engineering classes in the fall semester at the U of M.
Second, I was simply having too much fun drinking and carousing to take life seriously.
Third, in the summer of ‘62, I fell down a hillside on the east side of Lake Ida while visiting a favorite girlfriend (I had two favorites at the same time) at the resort that her family owned one summer evening when a storm blew in. As I was trying to rescue the waterfront equipment in the dark (her father, Fred Blabaum, was a train engineer for the Soo Line and he wouldn’t let us visit his three cute daughters when he was home but their mom would – so Fred was away that night, obviously). Anyhow, I sprained my ankle and thereby lost my summer job at the local Chevrolet dealership in town washing cars in the basement of the garage. I spent the rest of the summer with my other girlfriend in her Mercury convertible cruising around town with my crutches sticking out of the back seat.
Because I had always had a love affair with airplanes, I had talked to the United States Air Force (USAF) recruiter in St. Cloud during my recently completed sophomore year at SJU, who asked me to take an Air Force entry test called G/A/M/E. This is a military test for all recruits testing basic skills related to general, administrative, mechanics and electronics. Well, I aced the test. He told me that no other person had scored that high in all four categories — but I think that he was just a salivating recruiter trying to make quota.
My old man was really mad by this time because I couldn’t even mow the lawn with my bum ankle (I could go boating and swimming and riding in my girlfriend’s convertible but I couldn’t work to get money for booze. However, my drinking buddies felt sorry for me – and so I ended up with what most would consider an inexhaustible supply of alcoholic intoxicants during the summer of ‘62).
One day, with nothing better to do right before the 4th of July, several of us decided that we should drive to South Dakota to purchase fireworks. On the way back, one of us suggested (and we all agreed) that it would be a good idea to see if we could stop in every bar in each town between the South Dakota border and Alexandria and purchase a beer with our fake IDs. We were very successful until we stopped at the bar in Kensington, wherein one of our group (there was about eight of us as I recall) decided to steal some beer from the back storeroom of the bar and carry the beer to his car on main street in broad daylight. We were apprehended, the Douglas County Sheriff was summoned, and we were all transported to the Douglas County jail in Alexandria now awaiting retrieval by parents. Mom had to collect me as dad, of course, was working his territory up north of Fargo.
Out of work, facing what could be a serious disciplinary action by the court, having no money to return to school, two exemplary parents totally fed up with me and all my drinking buddies going on to their junior year of college, I sobered up enough to realize that I might be in a real pickle.
I called the previously aforementioned USAF recruiter to see what ideas he might have on my behalf. He told me that I would not be eligible to enlist with any kind of court record. (He may have been blowing smoke because the only charge would have been underage drinking – as I had not been directly involved in the theft of beer) but he said that he would talk to the judge on my behalf – which he did. The next day I agreed to enlist in the USAF and entered basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas, in the fall of 1962 – and that’s where I was in ‘62!
In more recent years my many exploits that summer have now been captured in a very famous cult movie entitled American Graffiti wherein the main character “Toad” played an exemplary role in creating a character with an uncanny resemblance to me in 1962.