In this photo taken in 1944, Terri’s parents (Vincent Sojat and Blanche O’Leary) were at a supper club in San Francisco. Blanche was 18 and Vince was 24. At this point in time Vince had already served in the Navy for six years and had seen an incredible amount of action in the Pacific starting on December 7th, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. Vince, like so many WWII veterans was truly a humble man. But he was also a hero. Vince was from the small town of Lincoln, Illinois and he left home as a teenager to escape the Depression by joining the C.C.C. At age 17 he joined the Navy and was on the cruiser USS Honolulu when the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet. Blanche was from Loleta California in the far northwestern corner of the state, a dairy rancher’s daughter who fled to San Francisco when the war began to get away from her rural, small town life. Like so many couples from this “Greatest Generation,” war and fate brought them together for better or for worse for the rest of their lives. After the war Vince and Blanche settled in Long Beach California where Vince continued to serve in the Naval Reserves. Terri was born in 1949 and grew up in the sprawling post-war suburbs nearby. I mentioned in a previous post that I met Terri at a high school football game in 1964. Terri was just 15 at the time. While her Dad, Vince kept an eye on both of us, it wasn’t enough. We were married in Hawaii in 1967 just two months after Terri turned 18.
I went to Catholic elementary school in the 50’s and early 60’s and I know much has been written by people who had that same experience. But I have stories that must be told about the horrors I lived through if only to help prevent something like this from ever happening again. We’ll start with 2nd grade, my first year in what I look back on now as the beginning of a 7 year sentence at a penal colony for children.
My first teacher was a Franciscan nun. She wore a brown habit with a rope for a belt. She also wore sandals. She was very old and I was certain she was a witch. On the first day of class she spent an hour using colored chalk to draw a picture of hell on the blackboard. Then she drew a little child dangling from a rope over the image of hell. She turned to us and said, “If any of you die while you have a mortal sin on your soul God will send an angel to cut the rope and plunge you into the everlasting fires of hell!” We’ll, that pretty much did it for me. I needed to find out what a mortal sin was ASAP to avoid this terrifying fate. Unfortunately, there seemed be a lot of things that fell into this category, so I started to list them. Here are three.
1. Eating meat on Fridays
This explained why we had to always have creamed tuna on toast every Friday for dinner. As long as my mom kept making this terrible meal I was ok. However, I later learned that she was really a Presbyterian so who knows when or if she slipped some meat into our Friday dinner.
2. Not going to mass on Sunday or on a Holy Day of Obligation
This was not a problem in the 2nd grade but by the time I was in 5th grade it would become one. By then I considered going to church as something that wrecked a perfectly good day off. But I was dangling from that rope so I usually attended.
I think there are degrees on this one. Kind of like a misdemeanor versus a felony. So stealing a pencil was just a venial sin but stealing a bike was very likely a mortal sin. As people at my work know, I have always coveted other people’s property. In some kind of perverse way that’s probably what got me interested in police work and security. But anyway, if anything was going to get me into hell it would probably be this one.
Speaking of venial sins, I learned that while they won’t get you into hell you were not quite off the hook. If you died with venial sins on your soul you were sent to Purgatory for a very long time instead. It was a place very much like hell (fire everywhere) but with one important difference. You had an expiration date. Someday you were going to get out.
The Baltimore Catechism was my nemesis in my Catholic school years. We were often required to memorize the answers to questions in this book and if picked on the next day, stand up and recite them. I never memorized the answers of course so I had to take my chances and hope for an easy one. Like, “Who made us?” Answer – “God made us.” Or, “Where is God? Answer – “God is everywhere.” But then there were the very long answers that in my mind were impossible to memorize. Here is an example: “Is there any difference between the sacrifice of the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass?” Answer – “Yes; the manner in which the sacrifice is offered is different. On the Cross Christ really shed His blood and was really slain; in the Mass there is no real shedding of blood nor real death, because Christ can die no more; but the sacrifice of the Mass, through the separate consecration of the bread and the wine, represents His death on the Cross.” There was just no way I was going to try and memorize this so I didn’t. And when I was called on and couldn’t answer questions like this there were very painful consequences.
My greatest trial in all my time at Catholic school came in the 7th grade. I spent the entire nine months trying to avoid being beaten to death by my 7th grade teacher, Sister Stephanie. She ruled with an iron yardstick and I was her #1 target. I once asked her if nuns wore underwear and she had the pastor come to the classroom and paddle my rear end in front of the whole class. But I won – I didn’t cry, which just pissed her off all the more. Finally the last day of school came and I was free! I survived Sister Stephanie! I thought if I could do that then my last year would be a breeze.
Summer came and went in a blur and in September my classmates and I were back at St. Matthew’s Catholic school. We were all sitting in the classroom talking and showing off our new shoes when the door opened. The room got quiet. I looked up. Our 8th grade teacher had walked into the room. It was Sister Stephanie.
The past is malleable and flexible, changing as our recollection interprets and re-explains what has happened. P.L. Berger
Did you fall on your head as a kid?
Many people know that for me the answer is yes. When I was three I was in the back seat of our car sitting on my great-grandmother’s lap. I’m told that my Dad was driving about 50 miles an hour when I reached down, opened the door and out I went. It was Summer and we were on our way to my grandparent’s house in Mukilteo Washington to spend a week with them. This event definitely interrupted things but we finally got there.
If you live in the Puget Sound area in Washington and you have money you live on waterfront. My grandfather was in that category and his house was on five acres of high-bank waterfront that looked across the Sound at Whidbey Island and the Olympic Mountains beyond. This is where our extended family got together every year. There was always a bunch of kid’s at these gatherings and my Aunts’ Suzie and Sally (16 year-old identical twins) were put in charge of us. I remember they would take us down to the beach and we would run back and forth across the railroad tracks waiting for trains. Sooner or later a Streamliner would come racing by and we would all run along side it, waving to the engineers. If the fall from the car didn’t kill me then playing on the train tracks surely should have. Looking back I honestly don’t know how I survived those trips to the beach.
My grandfather had chickens and we were often sent to the hen-house to get eggs. Suzie and Sally called the hens “the girls” and the chickens would squawk like crazy when we interrupted them. My grandfather also had rabbits and sheep that grazed on pasture grass on the property. If fried chicken was served at dinner you could also find yourself munching on rabbit. I’m not sure what the sheep were for but he must have had a purpose for them. I always liked the sheep. They were the only animals that didn’t scare me.
Spending the Fourth of July at Mukilteo meant fireworks. And I don’t mean just some sparklers. My grandfather would buy hundreds of dollars worth of real, commercial grade fireworks. I’m certain this is where I learned to blow things up, a hobby I enjoy to this day. By the time it was dark the adults were thoroughly intoxicated which meant it was time to light the fireworks! Once again my brothers, cousins and me cheated death. Despite pyrotechnics going off in a million wrong directions no one ever got hurt.
My grandfather died unexpectedly when I was about seven and the summer trips to Mukilteo came to an end. My grandmother sold the house and moved to town. My own family soon moved away to California. 24 years later in 1977 Terri and I decided to travel to Washington to see where I spent the early years of my life. Terri was interested to see what this place I called “Mukilteo” was all about. I didn’t have an address but I had a feeling I would be able to find the house. I quickly learned however that Mukilteo Blvd (the main road closest to the water) had hundreds of houses on both sides of the street, and it went on for miles. I knew I must have been close but I didn’t find the house and we gave up for the day. The next morning I woke up in our hotel room and told Terri that I knew where the house was. She asked me, “How?” I replied, “I had a dream and they told me.”
About an hour later we headed back toward the waterfront in Mukilteo. I drove about four miles, then made a left turn, maneuvered through some trees and down a long narrow driveway. Suddenly I was in front of my grandparent’s house where I chased trains in my youth. And the sheep were still there.
When Terri, Mike and I would visit at the O’Leary ranch in the 70’s there wasn’t always much for me to do. So I hung out with Terri’s grandpa Art and uncle Edmund, mostly in the barn. And I learned a lot. I once heard Art refer to a cow as “Bossy.” I said, “So you name your cows, Art?” He replied, “Yep” (he said “Yep” a lot). He continued, “I have 70 cows and they are all named Bossy.” And I learned that there were different cows for different purposes. Some produced more butterfat. Some just produced more milk overall. Art and Edmund had the three primary breeds of cows at that time (Holstein, Jersey and Guernsey). All three types are pictured here as they walk to the barn for their 4:00pm milking. Each cow btw always returned to its own stanchion when entering the barn. And they listened to classical music during milking which increased their output.
Dairying was a serious business. Cows were “livestock” and each was worth a lot of money. The O’Leary’s had just one phone at their ranch. It was in the barn to call the vet if a cow got sick. Art was in his 70’s then so he worked in the milk shed where the milk that was collected was kept at just above freezing in stainless steel vats. Edmund was the “milker,” an incredibly tedious job. Although automation was used to milk the cows the entire process took up to five hours, twice a day. Most of the effort involved cleaning up and getting ready for the next milking 12 hours later. There were no days off.
Milk cows were rotated out of the herd at about age seven when their productivity began to decline. Their next stop would be the auction yard, where representatives from McDonald’s and other fast food businesses would find one more use for the animals.
As people read this I know some may ask, how do I even remember such unimportant details from so long ago? I think it has to do with my particular type of memory. I quite often remember the minutiae while forgetting more important stuff. Maybe that explains my grade point average in high school. Which I do remember.