Shaun Illingworth: This begins an interview with Walter B. "Chip" Olsen, on June 20, 2019, in New York City, with Shaun Illingworth. Thank you very much for having me in today.
Walter Olsen: Thanks for doing this.
SI: To begin, can you tell me where and when you were born?
WO: Yes, I was born in Philadelphia, October 11, 1947.
SI: For the record, can you tell me you parents' names?
WO: My father was Walter M. Olsen, and my mother was Beatrice Bobenrieth Olsen.
SI: Now, tell me a little bit about your family history, starting with your father's side of the family.
SI: Do you know how they came to settle in the United States, as far back as you may know?
WO: Sure, yes. Well, I'll tell you what I know. My father's parents were both Norwegian immigrants. My grandfather was a seaman his whole life, and from at least the time in his, I'd say, early to mid-twenties, he was a ship's captain and he stayed as a seaman for his entire working career. I remember on the wall of my grandparents' house, there was a big picture of--it looked like what I would call a clipper ship. I think it was a steel-hulled clipper ship, and that was one of the ships that he was the captain of before he even came to the U.S. He probably came to the U.S., I'm guessing, in the early 1900s, 1905, 1910, '15, something like that. Later in his career, he became a pilot on the Chesapeake Bay. So, he'd go on ships that were either entering the bay or leaving the bay and navigate them either to the dock or to open water and then get off the ship and come back home. I think that's about the only job he ever had in his life. He was a seaman his entire life.
I didn't find out until later in my life that he had been married three times. He had five kids in total, and the first two were by different wives and they had both died. The last three kids, which included my father, they were born from the same wife of his, and that was the grandmother that I knew about. We used to joke that if a wife died, he'd go back over to Norway and find another one and marry her and bring her back here. [laughter] On the third one, apparently, she was one of the Norwegians who came to the U.S., and they either tended to stay in Brooklyn or the New York area or go west to Chicago. So, she went to Chicago, and he met her through another relative or something like that. Anyway, her name was Thora, and she was a housewife her entire life. She never worked, at least as far as I knew. He died when he was seventy-two, so I think it was in the mid '50s. I think I was in the fifth grade when he died, and she lived to be ninety-seven and had a good long life.
SI: Now, your father was born in New Jersey. Were they living there at the time?
WO: Yes. Both my parents are from South Jersey. My father's side of the family were living in Pennsauken, and I'm pretty sure he was born in Camden. They lived in Pennsauken up through high school, the same house, never moved. They stayed in that house, I guess, until my grandfather died, and then my grandmother moved into an apartment that was closer to some of her other kids. The entire family stayed in South Jersey, actually on both sides of the family. Finally, somebody became a renegade and moved out of New Jersey, and it was one of the things the family talked about, like, "How could somebody actually move out of South Jersey and away from the family?" [laughter]
SI: Yes, wow.
WO: So, it made for big family gatherings back when I was a young kid and a teenager. Thanksgiving and Christmas and the major holidays were always a dinner with twenty, twenty-five people all from within probably a ten-mile radius of Pennsauken or where we lived in South Jersey.
SI: His father, when he was working as a pilot on the Chesapeake, must have been away quite a bit.
WO: Well, that sort of work, it was almost like a nine-to-five job with irregular hours.
WO: I mean, there were probably many pilots on the Chesapeake Bay. So, they worked by a schedule and were assigned different ships. He could be called to go meet a ship at two a.m. and then they'd finish at six a.m., and he'd have to get a bus or a train back or drive back, however he did that. So, they were very irregular hours, but at that point, he was never gone for long periods of time. It was just whatever it took to go from the docks in Philly to the open water outside of Cape May and that sort of thing.
SI: Your father also went into Merchant Marine life.
WO: He did, yes. He was born in '24 and graduated from high school in '43. I think the day after everybody graduated, then all the guys went into whatever branch of the service they were going to go into. My father went to the Merchant Marine, and they sent him up to King's Point, New York, where there was the Merchant Marine Academy, which still exists. He was on kind of an accelerated officer program there. He worked in the engine rooms of ships. The captain and the mates were above deck, and the engineers were down in the engine room and below decks. For some reason, he wanted to be an engineer, and he went to King's Point to learn how to do that. I'm not sure how long his training period was. I mean, I think it was substantial. It was probably at least six months and maybe a year. Once he graduated from there, he went to work on the troop and supply transport ships that were going back and forth between Europe and the U.S. I guess fortunate for--well, not I guess--definitely fortunate for him, this was after the bulk of the U-boat [German submarine] threat was over. I mean, not that it didn't exist, but it wasn't anywhere near as severe as it was early in the war. Again, not to diminish that at all, because being on a ship in a huge convoy and not knowing who's going to be picked off has got to be a terrible thing to have to deal with.
He was in the Merchant Marine for I want to say maybe as much as a year after the war ended, because like a lot of guys that age, he didn't talk much about it. It's not like he saw infantry combat action and stuff like that. I'm sure he saw ships torpedoed in the convoys that he was in, but the only thing that he ever talked about that sort of surprised me was much later in his years. His second wife wanted to take a trip to Italy, and he had zero interest in going. Oddly enough, my wife and I had just been there, and she traveled there for work. We went and thought it was just fabulous. I said, "Dad, why didn't you want to go?" and he said based on the stuff that he saw after the war in Italy. I'm sure he was on ships that were either bringing back troops or delivering supplies maybe under the Marshall Plan and that sort of thing. He said the things he saw in Italy just made him never want to go back to the country again. So, I guess it was just the aftermath of the war and maybe the poverty that existed there and who knows what else.
After he got out of the Merchant Marine, he tried to do some work where he didn't go back to sea. I think kind of deep in his heart maybe he didn't want to. He tried selling insurance, and I know at one point he was working for an undertaker. He didn't take advantage--this actually didn't even occur to me until fairly recently--he didn't take advantage of the G.I. Bill at all, and I'm not sure why that was. [Editor's Note: The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, or G.I. Bill, provided a wide range of benefits to World War II veterans. Updated versions of the GI Bill continue to exist today for veterans. In 1988, the U.S. Defense Department granted World War II-era Merchant Mariners veterans status, thus making them eligible for certain benefits.]
SI: It could be Merchant Marines were ineligible.
WO: It's possible, yes.
WO: I'm not entirely sure. I mean, I know they weren't eligible for a lot of the veterans' benefits until maybe much later or if at all. I'm not sure.
SI: I think in 1987, they recognized them as veterans.
WO: That's probably right, yes, yes. Yes, he might not have had that available to him. Anyway, he tried those things, but I don't know if it didn't work out, he didn't like it, or he wanted to return to something he knew. He went to work for the Atlantic Richfield Company, which later became ARCO, and then got bought by British Petroleum. He sailed for ARCO for thirty-five, forty years, I guess, most of it as a chief engineer on oil tankers. You were asking about my grandfather being away for long periods of time. Very early in my life, when I was a real young kid, my dad was gone for a long periods of time. A lot of the trips were to the Persian Gulf. They'd go from the Eastern U.S. to Iran and various ports over there. They were pretty much six-month trips, and it wasn't like it took that long to get over there. I think a lot of it was travel between the countries in the Persian Gulf, going between several ports. He was gone for long periods of time.
My mother ran the household while he was gone. The only way they could communicate was by letter and there'd be an occasional phone call, but they were either ship-to-shore radios or phone calls that cost a fortune. They rarely talked on the phone, and it was all by mail. She ran the household. She largely raised my sister and I during those periods, which may have ended when I was ten or twelve. After that, he got a more regular route up and down the East Coast of the U.S., so that he was going from Philadelphia to Texas and back with stops in between. It was about a two-week round trip. He'd be home for twenty-four hours, gone for two weeks, back for twenty-four hours, gone for two more weeks. The odd part about it was that it was either that schedule or when he got his vacation, he was home for like three solid months at a time. He was either gone or there all the time, so it was an odd circumstance. Well, it was natural for us, my sister and I, because that's all we knew, but everybody else's parents, the fathers had nine-to-five jobs and were home on weekends. That wasn't the case in our family.
SI: Tell me a little bit about your mother's side of the family and what she did.
WO: She was also a South Jersey kid. I'm pretty sure she was born in Camden also. Her family lived in Moorestown, New Jersey, and my mother's side of the family had a real tough time. My grandfather died when he was thirty-two--so I never met him--and he died at the height of the depression. It was probably 1931, '32, '33, somewhere in that area. He and my grandmother had three kids. My mother was the oldest, but they were only separated by, I think, six years or something. They were fairly close. He dies at the height of the depression, and I know my grandmother had a tough time raising three kids by herself. All of my grandparents just had high school educations or I guess the Norwegian equivalent of high school educations, so they were blue-collar people.
My grandfather, on my mother's side, the only thing I knew about his work history was he was listed as an electrician on his discharge papers from the Army or the Navy. I'm not sure actually which it was. That's the kind of work that he did. His son, my uncle, kind of followed in his footsteps. He was a jack of all trades. He was an electrician, a plumber, a roofer. He did everything, so I suspect my grandfather was probably sort of the same deal.
The saving grace for my mother's side of the family was they lived on just a one-block street in Moorestown called French's Lane. They lived right next door to my grandmother's brother and his family. He was a builder in Moorestown. He built residences, commercial buildings, churches, did renovations and that sort of thing. I think there was a lot of helping going on between the two families. I guess once the kids were old enough that my grandmother could work, she went to work for RCA in Moorestown and worked in the paint shop there for probably thirty, forty years and earned a decent living wage once she got to that point in her life. But the early part of it was pretty tough, I think. My mother used to joke about--but she was serious--about eating ketchup sandwiches. I mean, they'd have ketchup sandwiches for dinner, because there just wasn't that much food in the house. So, that side of the family had a much, much tougher time.
SI: Do you know how your parents met?
WO: They were in the same class in high school. Pennsauken, at that point, didn't have a high school. So, they went a fairly substantial distance to Moorestown. They might have had a choice of a couple different schools; I'm not sure. My father went to Moorestown, and my mother's house was only maybe six blocks or so from the old Moorestown High School. So, they met in high school, graduated the same year in 1943. I'm not entirely sure they dated when they were in high school. I found my mother's yearbook one time, and you know how kids wrote messages in the yearbooks. I looked around for what my father wrote, and there was just a real short little note about what a sweet gal she was, just very general stuff. I never really got the sense that they dated in high school, but, I mean, they might have. I'm not sure, and they never talked much about it.
SI: Now, you said she worked as a secretary. Do you know if during the war she was working for a war industry or something like that?
WO: Not as far as I know. The only two places that I knew she worked--well, actually three--I think in high school, she had a job as a ticket clerk in a movie theatre, because there was a picture of her out in front of one of the theatres in town. So, she did that. After high school, I know at one point she worked for the company that made--I don't know if you remember--the American Flyer sleds that kids have, and maybe they still exist now. Then, also, there was a pen company called Esterbrook. So, she worked at those two places, but as far as I know, that wasn't part of the war effort, unless they also made some sort of products that the government might have needed. I don't know; I'm speculating here. She talked about the bond drives and rationing, not having butter and sugar, and gas rationing and everything, but that was common to everybody, so not just her circumstance.
The other part I just want to mention--my father's side of the family had a much, much easier--at least financially--time during those years, during the depression years and all that. Even though the economy was in the pits and things were bad, there was always a need for pilots who did what my grandfather did.
During the whole depression, they didn't live an opulent lifestyle, but I gathered that they were pretty comfortable. I mean, they had five kids, and they were able to support the five kids pretty well. The three sisters of my father all went to nursing school, so they were able to do that somehow. That side of the family had a much easier route, I know, than my mother's side of the family.
SI: I am curious, this is jumping ahead, looking at your whole childhood and growing up, but with both sides being recent Norwegian-American transplants and immigrants, did any traditions from the old country live on in your family in any way?
WO: On my father's side of the family, yes, but kind of with a qualification. The meal gatherings, whenever we got together at my grandmother and grandfather's house, all the meals were Norwegian themed--well, not themed--but Norwegian meals. Even those Swedish meatballs--Norway and Sweden consider themselves very different--that's the main thing I can remember about meals at my grandmother's house. There was just a gigantic pot of Swedish meatballs and other dishes I couldn't even pronounce. So, it was primarily around the food that the traditions lived on.
There weren't any Norwegian customs that they observed that I recall. In fact, the main thing they wanted to do when they came to the U.S. was become assimilated with the U.S. culture. My grandparents didn't even speak Norwegian when they were in the house with the kids. I'm sure when they were probably by themselves they did. They kept in touch with aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and cousins who were mainly in Brooklyn, so they probably spoke Norwegian there. But if you asked any of my father or his brothers and sisters how much Norwegian they spoke, it was almost nothing, because they were going to be Americans, they were going to speak English, and that was it. I mean, my grandparents were very adamant about that. In the house, you'd see Norwegian pictures or paintings or a flag or themed things around the house, but other than that, if there were any Norwegian customs that they could've observed at that point, I have no idea what they are, because we never did.
That's pretty much the same with my mother's side of the family. This is, at least to me, sort of an interesting story. I don't know if anyone else will find it interesting. Her maiden name was Bobenrieth, and I've gone my whole life and outside of one instance never run into anybody with the name Bobenrieth before. We were always told that they were English and German. To fast forward to the early 2000s, my sister and her family--my brother-in-law worked for a French company, and they sent him to France for three years. My sister and her husband and her three kids took my mother, and they went to France and lived on the eastern coast there for three years. During the course of while they were there, somehow, my sister ran into somebody who either knew or used the name Bobenrieth. This was the early days of the internet, and I'm not so sure if this is how she got the information, but she traced down a family in Strasbourg, France named Bobenrieth. So, she got in touch with them, and it turns out they were relatives of my grandmother's or grandfather's side of the family. I'm not sure which. It was probably him. Yes, it was him, now that I think about it.
The funny part about that was, for some reason, growing up, my mother would always be sort of negative about the French. I had no idea where it came from. It might have been something during the war or whatever. Anyway, like I said, you fast forward fifty years, and they find out that her side of the family is part French. They never would've known that if my brother-in-law hadn't gotten transferred to France and my sister traced down this family. This family, the guy was one of these amateur genealogists. He gave my sister a book where he had traced everybody he knew about, and they were actually able to fill in some gaps because some people went to the U.S. and he lost track of where they were. My sister and mother were able to say, oh, yes, these were all the relatives they had there and what the names were and where they went, where they ended up. So, it ended up really expanding this guy's genealogical project that he was working on. We always just thought it was funny that my mother didn't like the French, and then she found out she was half French.
SI: Well, that area of France, Alsace and Lorraine, changed hands a couple times between France and Germany. Do you think maybe they were Germans living in France?
WO: Well, yes, because it's right on the German border or just really adjacent to it, so that's probably where that whole German thing came from.
SI: Let us go back to when you were growing up. Your parents, I guess, got together after your father got out of the Merchant Marine in 1946.
WO: Apparently, yes. They got married in 1947. I was born later, in October of '47. So, I'm not actually sure how they got back together. I mean, it wasn't like the towns were adjacent. The towns were actually probably eight or ten miles apart. So, I never heard the story on how they got back together again, but they did.
When I was born, they were living in Merchantville, New Jersey, which actually is about halfway between Pennsauken and Moorestown, maybe a little bit closer to Pennsauken. In an apartment complex was where we lived. They stayed there until I was probably two or three and then they bought a house in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, just a small brick Cape Cod style house, and that's where I started school. That's where my sister was born. She's five years younger than I am. So, we lived in Haddon Heights for probably three or four years and then moved to Haddonfield.
The odd thing about the move to Haddonfield was there were already two of my father's sisters who lived in Haddonfield. The other sister lived in Haddon Heights, which is just an adjacent town. So, my parents ended up buying the house from my father's sister and her husband. So, it sort of stayed in the Olsen family for quite a number of years. So, Haddonfield was--all those towns were nice middle-class towns. Haddonfield was probably a little more of an upper-middle-class town. I think it's kind of where my parents aspired to live, and that's why they bought that house. They lived there until 1973 when they moved to Texas. He moved for a non-sailing job; it was just a job on shore. They were in Haddonfield from '56 to '73, so both my sister and I went through that period there. Well, I actually started in the Haddon Heights School System and then picked up in Haddonfield when we moved there midyear. She only went to the Haddonfield Schools, and we both ended up graduating from Haddonfield High School.
SI: What are some of your earliest memories? I guess you might be too young for Merchantville, but what are some of your earliest memories of Haddon Heights? What do you recall about it?
WO: Well, actually, I remember a fair amount about Merchantville.
WO: There was a main street in town that originated in Camden and went straight up through Pennsauken, Merchantville, Moorestown, Mount Holly and other towns. So, we were in an apartment complex called the Morris Court Apartments, and they were two-story brick structures. There were a bunch of buildings. Maybe in total, there were ten buildings, and maybe, I don't know, ten or fifteen apartments per building. It would be a great New York City apartment. I mean, it was a good-sized living room, a kitchen, a little dining area, and two bedrooms, and a bathroom. It'd be a perfect, like I said, city apartment. As far as I know, the building still exists. I drove by there maybe five years ago, and it was still there, still kept up pretty well.
Merchantville was a nice town; it was a small town. It was on a rail line that came out of Philadelphia that went all the way up actually through Moorestown. Merchantville High School was a high school that all the Haddonfield teams played when I was in school, may still play; I don't know. One of my mother's sisters also lived in Merchantville. She was maybe six blocks away. It was one of these towns where the main intersection in town had a raised little box where a traffic cop stood. I guess back before automatic traffic lights, they would work the light, because I could remember walking through that intersection. There'd be a cop up there changing the light for me to green and that sort of thing. It was a nice, vibrant downtown. Merchantville was a nice little town. Despite being very young when we moved from there, I probably remember more about it because one of my aunts lived there and my grandmother and her son lived there for a while. We went there a lot.
Then, I'm not sure why they picked Haddon Heights, aside from the fact that one of my father's sisters lived there. It was a small starter-home neighborhood. It was a block away from the elementary school, a block away from the church. It was quite a ways from downtown Haddon Heights. I wouldn't go down there on my own until I was probably maybe eight or ten. Then, we'd just ride our bikes to go to downtown, but it wasn't like we needed to do that back then. It was a nice self-contained neighborhood. Like I said, the school was a half a block away, and parents didn't have to walk their kids to school. We had the run of the whole part of the town to ourselves. Riding bikes, we could go pretty much anywhere we wanted.
SI: Were there organized activities for kids, or was it just sandlot baseball and stuff like that?
WO: There were none that I remember in Haddon Heights. I'm sure they existed, but I was probably too young for that. I was in third grade when we moved to Haddonfield. If there were, they probably were for older kids. The street was filled with kids. When school started in the morning, it was just a parade of us kids, pretty much the same age, walking down to the grammar school. The organized activities didn't really happen until Haddonfield. Haddonfield had a ton of that sort of thing.
SI: When you were living in Haddonfield, it sounds like it was fairly suburban, but was it maybe a little more rural back then?
WO: Not really. It was kind of one town after another.
WO: Even back then, Haddonfield was sort of a landlocked town, except for one section of town. I don't know if it was always an undeveloped section of town or if it was maybe something that Haddonfield annexed from or bought from somebody else. The main part of the town was old. I think when I was in high school, I believe the town celebrated its 350th anniversary, which would have meant it was founded back in like the early 1600s, I mean, 1610 or '15 or '20. I have a very close friend who is a historian, a good friend of mine from high school I'm still in touch with, he would know every detail of that. [Editor's Note: The land of Haddonfield, New Jersey was first settled on in 1682. The town of Haddonfield was officially formed in 1875.]
WO: There was a part of town--I'm not actually sure which direction it was, maybe a little bit farther east--that was developed later. One part of it was called Lane of Acres. So, it was a real exclusive part of town, where all the lots were an acre at least in size. Everything else, they were older streets, houses that were old colonials or Victorians, that sort of thing. There was no real room for expansion. Even with those other two areas, maybe Haddonfield only gained another, I want to say, fifteen hundred or two thousand people. It's always been around thirteen thousand, fourteen thousand, probably still is. If it was that way back in the '60s, it's probably still the same now.
SI: What about your early schooling? What do you remember about that? Do you remember it being a good experience or so-so?
WO: Yes, the entire school experience I had through high school--actually through college--was a very positive experience. I don't remember a whole lot about the Haddon Heights part. It was kindergarten through half of third grade, and it was all pretty rudimentary back then. It was learning how to print, simple math, and we spent a lot of time drawing. There was a nap time during the day, and they'd bring in like cartons of milk for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack.
But overall, the school experience was terrific. They both had good school systems. Haddon Heights and Haddonfield, the school systems are top notch, I believe. They always were back then. I think they still are now. Neither was very diverse, Haddonfield maybe slightly more than Haddon Heights, but I was pretty young there and got to know Haddonfield much better because we lived there longer and I was older.
SI: You mentioned the church earlier. Did that play a role in your life, either church or in some way religion?
WO: Only, I would say, a minimal role. My father was raised a Lutheran. My mother was raised an Episcopalian. When they got married, we went to the Lutheran Church that my father went to, which was close by. So, I was baptized a Lutheran. I'm not sure if my sister was or not, because she was born in Haddon Heights. So, we moved to Haddon Heights, and the church down the street was a Presbyterian Church, so we became Presbyterians.
Our attendance at church was pretty sporadic, I'd have to say. I'd say if you were to ask both my parents if they were religious, they would say, "Yes," but not to the point where they felt they needed to go to services every Sunday and participate in other church activities. I can't think of any other church activities that they--I mean, maybe bake sales and stuff like that. In retrospect, we probably went to church more when my father was home than when he was away. So, it was not something that either my sister or I felt was probably a huge impact in our lives. Frankly, I stopped going to church when I went to college, and have really have never returned. My sister's pretty much the same. I mean, I think there was a time she and her family maybe got interested when the kids were young because they wanted them to have some sort of foundation.
The short answer to your question--it didn't have that much of an impact. Even in Haddonfield, we, again, went to the Presbyterian Church there. It was a big granite structure on the main street in town. There were some activities that were housed in the church, but they weren't sponsored by the church, like the Boy Scout troop. The meetings were there and that sort of thing. There were probably some other things that happened. One thing that I remember was, one of the churches--I think it was the Baptist Church in town--sponsored kind of a sex education series for teenagers. I want to say everybody in my class--it wasn't everybody in my class--but a lot of people from my class all went to these things at the Baptist Church in town. So, there were some things like that, but by and large, at least in our family, we were pretty noncommittal when it came to going to church and participating in religious activities.
SI: Now, you mentioned the Boy Scouts. Was that something you were into, or were there other activities that really caught your interest?
WO: Yes, this was in Haddonfield. I was a Cub Scout. A lot of kids were Cub Scouts. The Cub Scout troops were kind of by--there were three elementary schools in town, so they were kind of aligned with the elementary school districts. So, if you went into a Cub Scout pack, it was pretty much with kids that you went to school with, not that there weren't some others that filtered in and that sort of thing. So, yes, I did that through--after Cub Scouts, it's Webelos, and then I dropped out of that after that. I kind of lost interest.
The other big group in town was--there was a YMCA in Haddonfield and a lot of other towns in the area. The YMCA had a huge impact on us at that time, and by us, I mean, kids in my age group, younger and older than I. There was a small YMCA building, which was open after school. You'd go there, you'd play basketball, ping pong, toss a football around, baseballs, that sort of thing. They didn't have a lot of land, but we all viewed it as a center of activity. Each of the elementary schools, for each class, had a YMCA group. For everybody my age, there were three groups, and there were sports leagues, where we'd play each other or Ys from other towns, like Haddon Heights and Westmont, Haddon Township. There was an organized football league, an organized basketball league, and then the clubs each had social activities. There were dances or that sort of thing. The Y was actually a big deal up through junior high school, through eighth grade. Then, with high school athletics, that kind of took over the athletic part of it, but the Y groups still existed. Even as a senior in high school, I was a member of the Tiger's YMCA group, and there was always a little bit of friendly competition between the groups. Actually, the one that I started out in probably had the smallest membership. We disbanded and merged into each of the other two. Between those two, there was always a friendly rivalry in town, but it wasn't like we didn't like each other. We all went to school five days a week and got along. It was a great activity venue for the kids.
In fact, there's a guy who was our YMCA leader probably for the last six years that I was in the Y, who I don't stay in touch with him, but he was probably twenty years older than we were. He ended up being the football coach at Eastern Regional High School and the athletic director there. He still comes back to Haddonfield reunions, and he remembers all the kids that he led groups for. He was a real positive influence on me and everybody in the group. So, the whole Y experience was a really good thing.
There was also a Catholic grade through high school in town and I'm sure they had a similar CYO organization, but the odd thing was the two never merged or never really interacted. We, at least at that point, always stayed very, very separate. It was kind of unusual, because we were all neighbors. We'd play pickup games at the local elementary school with the kids that went to the Catholic schools and stuff like that. We knew them all, but outside of that, we never palled around with each other. If there were social activities, they did their own, we did our own. I'm guessing that doesn't exist nowadays.
SI: I know the Catholic Church was kind of trying to distance itself from more Protestant-based groups like the YMCA and even the Boy Scouts. Well, that was probably over by the time you were coming up, but in the '50s, they tried to create their own separate Boy Scouts.
WO: Yes, yes. Well, even my parents, they sort of had, I would say, an anti-Catholic bias. You didn't want to date somebody who was a Catholic if you weren't a Catholic, that sort of thing. I mean, not that any of us ever paid any attention to that sort of thing, but it existed back then, I guess from both sides.
SI: Once you got into high school, what interests in academics did you start developing? What did you think about in terms of what you might study later on, where you might have a career, that sort of thing?
WO: My parents pushed both my sister and I to study hard. It was a given we were going to go to college, because neither of them really had the opportunity. If my father did, he didn't take advantage of it, but I'm not sure he had the opportunity. It was a given that we were going to go to college. Study time was important, homework was important. You couldn't watch television until you had your homework done, that whole sort of thing.
I took math courses, sciences courses in high school. I was in an Advanced Placement science program at Haddonfield. Basically, what that did was you either got in classes where there were the kids who were very good at sciences or more interested in them than maybe the other kids and I think maybe you got into some things like physics earlier than kids who weren't in that program. I was in that. In math, I struggled in that when we got to algebra. Early on, I was horrible at algebra, and my parents recognized it--I just didn't get it. They got me a tutor, and after working with this tutor for a little while, I just picked it up. I had a block against it to begin with because it was so different than arithmetic and geometry. Once I got over that, I was fine with algebra and calculus. I enjoyed both math and the sciences.
What I was probably best at was languages. I took four years of Spanish in high school, and then I took two years at Rutgers. I think I probably had my best grades in Spanish, not that I ever thought about any kind of a career revolving around that. I took a fairly standard course; you couldn't really focus on just humanities in high school.
I'm not sure what my sister did. She was also strong in languages. In fact, she went to Mexico for, I want to say, a summer and lived with a family there and just spoke purely Spanish. I know she liked it, and I think she was good at it. Also, when they went to France, they all picked up French very, very quickly and still speak it. Maybe both of us had some sort of natural inclination to that. But in high school, it was a lot of sciences, a lot of math.
SI: You said college was a given. Were your teachers encouraging you as well as your parents? Were they kind of developing the mindset of, "Think about this school, or think about that"?
WO: They were. I don't remember them trying to direct us to a certain school, as opposed to just directing us onto some sort of secondary education. Haddonfield prided itself on always sending a high percentage of the kids onto secondary education. My class was 303 students, something like that. I want to say eighty-five or ninety percent, maybe even higher, went on to some form of higher education, not necessarily a four-year college but either a junior college or a technical school. The vast, vast majority went on to four-year colleges, and it may have even been higher than eighty-five or ninety percent. It was way, way up there. The focus was always on secondary education.
I don't remember the guidance counselors back then having much of an impact on me. They may have on other people. I probably didn't take advantage of things they could've provided to me as much as maybe I could have, but I knew I had one and we talked on a fairly regular basis. I don't remember it as directing you to a specific school, but it was a huge emphasis on taking college prep courses and the SATs and going on to college.
SI: Did you play any sports in high school?
WO: I considered myself a decent athlete, but I was small, I was slow, and I wasn't all that strong. I went out for wrestling my freshman year, because size really didn't matter there. Haddonfield had a tremendous wrestling program then, and I wasn't good enough to make the freshman team. I gave that up after my freshman year, and then I didn't do anything until my senior year. The year before that, they'd established a cross country team, which we'd never had before, and I actually didn't know about it when I was a junior. I went out for that and ran cross country my senior year, but that was the only high school athletics that I did. The Y teams, I played football and basketball, and we all played sports twelve months a year. It was after school. It was whatever was in season, we were playing it.
The class that I was in, in school, it probably wasn't any different than most other classes in that there were a number of just tremendous athletes, but I actually think we may have had more than some classes. My senior year, the football team was undefeated, and the basketball team was good. The baseball team was great. I think the wrestling team was undefeated. There was a guy in my class who was a state wrestling champ, which, from South Jersey, that rarely happened. Wrestlers would win the regionals and the districts, but those from North Jersey really dominated the state championships. There were a ton of good athletes. I'm not saying that to make it sound like a reason that I didn't make the high school teams. I just wasn't good enough was the bottom line on it. Yes, sports was a huge part of growing up in that timeframe for all of us.
SI: Did you work at all while you were in high school on the weekends or during the summers?
WO: I didn't. Well, I didn't during school. I think from the time I was between my either sophomore and junior, or junior and senior year, we all started working summer jobs. I was thinking about this the other day. I actually can't remember anybody that I grew up with or went to school with who had a job during the school year. There may have been some that I just didn't know about, but as I said, Haddonfield was a pretty upper-middle-class town then and I'm not sure that too many people did. There may have been people who did, but I didn't. No, I can't remember any. I'm sure it's probably different now.
SI: You said that Haddonfield was a little more diverse than Haddon Heights had been.
WO: Well, maybe, and maybe the only reason for saying that was that there was an area of Haddonfield where, I think, if not all, almost all the black families lived. I'm not sure Haddon Heights had a section like that, but I was pretty young when we moved from there. I just saw some figures on racial diversity in Haddonfield fairly recently and it's still extremely low. I think the black population is in the one, one-and-a-half percent range. The Asian and South Asian population has increased, but it's still vastly, vastly white, and it was back then. I can only remember a few black students in the Haddonfield system in all the time I was there. I'm kind of ashamed to admit that I'm not actually sure and don't know if they were in classes ahead of or behind me. In Haddon Heights--our part of town--I don't remember anybody who wasn't white in that part of town. There may have been some minority families in Haddon Heights, but I don't remember if that was the case.
SI: When you were going through high school, you were going through in a very interesting period in our history, '61 to '65?
SI: Were you following international or national news? Were you aware of what was happening in the larger world?
WO: I was aware, but I wouldn't say I was very aware. In my household, the daily activities came to a halt whenever the local news came on, and then we watched Huntley and Brinkley, the national news, and then we ate dinner. My sister and I would pretty much sit there while my parents or just my mother watched the news. So, we knew what was going on. We were pretty carefree kids. I'm not sure how much we absorbed, but we were aware of what was going on. The big thing that changed all that, at least in my mind, was the Kennedy assassination. I think everybody in my age group can remember that day like it was almost yesterday. I was in Miss Gist's English class when we got the news. So, that, and the other thing was the civil defense drills, getting under your desk and covering your head, that sort of thing; I even remember that back as far as Haddon Heights, in first and second and third grade, going through those. Outside of that, I can't think of any one specific type of event that we would have focused on back then with a clear recollection of what was going on. I mean, we knew the Russians were a big threat. We knew the Cold War was going on. Even back then, we knew China was an expanding population and nation and that sort of thing, but I wasn't aware of too much else. [Editor's Note: Anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, The Huntley-Brinkley Report was an evening news program that aired on NBC from 1956 to 1970. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.]
One of the places my father used to go on the ships was Iran. He went to Iran a number of times, and that was back--I don't know if that was before the Shah or after the Shah, but Iran was no threat to the United States. In my mind, they were more an ally than anything else. I mean, we sold tons of military weapons to Iran and that sort of thing. Of course, we knew about the escalating war in Vietnam later in high school, but it wasn't like it was a big deal to me or my friends at the time. Little did we know. [Editor's Note: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the last Shah of Iran, ruling from 1941 until his overthrow in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, in which Ayatollah Khomeini seized power.]
SI: Tell me how you came to choose Rutgers. It is the end of your senior year in 1965. Were you looking at colleges before then, or was it more informal than that?
WO: I think I started looking at colleges in my junior year. I'm pretty sure about that, and I focused on four. Duke was where I wanted to go. I applied there and got on the waiting list. I also applied to Gettysburg, Saint Lawrence and Rutgers. The reason for the four was--and if I look back on this in retrospect, it was just ridiculous--Duke, I knew it was a good school. It was in the South. So, it was totally out of a geographic area that I had ever traveled to or knew anything about, but I liked the name. [laughter] I thought the name was really cool, and how stupid is that, right? There was a guy two years ahead of me who went there. I didn't know him all that well. He had a brother who was in my class. So, I would ask him how his brother liked going to Duke, and he said he loved it, it was a great school and that sort of thing. I applied there sight unseen, and it was really where I wanted to go.
Gettysburg--when we got out of junior high school in eighth grade, it was in 1962, and it was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. We had a whole Civil War-themed eighth grade thing going on, and the graduation was all Civil War themed. We sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and recited the "Gettysburg Address" and all that sort of thing. That held a lot of interest to me. History, I always thought was really pretty cool. I applied to Gettysburg, and I got in there. Saint Lawrence, up in Upstate New York, I applied there because I think my father kind of suggested that I apply because a neighbor's daughter was going there.
Then, the Rutgers one I think was probably the most interesting one. Growing up in South Jersey, outside of Rutgers-Camden, which was not much back then, at least in my mind, I had zero awareness of Rutgers in New Brunswick. I mean, I knew it existed and I knew it was in Central New Jersey and I knew it was the State University, but I really had no interest in it at all. The other funny thing is that of all these people in my high school class who went on to secondary education, the vast, vast majority--probably like today--went out of state. There were only two other guys that went to Rutgers from my graduating class in Haddonfield, and there were two women who went to Douglass, out of 303 kids. That's a pretty small percentage, really, and so I had no initial interest in Rutgers at all. How that all developed was, I had a cousin in my class who also lived in Haddonfield. Her mother was my father's sister. She dated a guy that lived in our part of town, our neighborhood. I knew him and his brother, and he went to Rutgers. I'm pretty sure, again, my father kind of talked me into applying to Rutgers. I'm sure his motivation was it was going to be a lot less expensive than any of the other three.
We went, and we visited all four. We drove down to Durham and went to Duke, and what can you say? It's a beautiful campus. It's all granite stately buildings and that sort of thing. They took us to the Cameron Indoor Arena and the basketball court, because Duke was even good in basketball back then. So, it was a really impressive campus, and it just sort of solidified my notion that that's where I wanted to go. Gettysburg was a nice, small, compact campus, I think on the edge of town. It was sort of wide-open space. It was a beautiful place. It was a nice visit. Saint Lawrence, it seemed like we drove forever to get up there. We went through Syracuse and then kind of went north, and we got up there. It was a nice campus. The only thing I really remember that we did up there was we went to a hockey game. They had a good hockey team. They played RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] at the Saint Lawrence arena. I always thought that was pretty cool, a college having a hockey team, because I didn't know anybody else that had one.
I'm pretty sure the last place we went was Rutgers, and we went up on a weekday. The boyfriend of my cousin met us there, showed us all over campus, and gave us a great tour. I fell in love with the place from the moment I stepped on the campus. It was the only one of the four that was more of an urban-type campus. I mean, it wasn't in downtown, but it was just on the fringe of it. Just walking through the Old Queens part and the mall--I remember walking there. It was late in the afternoon, probably in the fall; it was kind of twilight and that sort of thing. I just thought it was one of the most--peaceful may sound comical, because it wasn't all that peaceful on campus, but that's the way it appeared to me and it was just kind of idyllic. It was the atmosphere that I decided I wanted to go to school in.
From that point on, when I got into Rutgers, I was ecstatic. It didn't even bother me that Duke was going to review my application later on and maybe take me off the waiting list to get admitted there. It didn't even matter, because I made my mind up. I mean, I've never, ever regretted that decision, but it goes to show how much of an impact an appearance and a feeling can have, as opposed to any research on what a school's strengths and weaknesses are. I felt from the day I got to Rutgers that I fit in with the student population there, and I just loved everything about it.
SI: Well, tell me about your first few days and weeks on campus, what those were like.
WO: When I got assigned a dorm, it ended up being Davidson Hall out in what we called the Heights, Busch Campus, and to me, it was in the middle of nowhere. I mean, if anything should've soured me on the Rutgers experience, it should've been being at Davidson Hall back in 1965. [laughter] To make matters worse, the buses between campus went across the Landing Lane Bridge, and--I think it was right before I got there--there was some structural foundation problem with the Landing Lane Bridge, so the buses couldn't go across it. At first, they started to go across the Highland Park Bridge, but it was too congested going through downtown and all that. So, they'd go all the way out River Road to 287, down 287 to Easton Avenue, and then back to campus on Easton Avenue.
WO: What you ended up doing was, in the morning, you'd pack all your stuff up, and you'd have everything for your entire day on the College Avenue Campus unless you had a class that you had to go back for. So, it was actually a pretty miserable experience. I know I must've explained that to my father, so he made a deal with me--well, he didn't really make a deal. He said, "I'll buy you a car," because freshman who lived at Davidson could have cars. So, he bought me a car. It was a '62 Chevy Corvair, and that cut the commute time between campuses from a half hour to forty-five minutes down to maybe ten minutes. That made it really bearable. The actual experience on campus, you get there freshman week, and back then, you had to wear a dink and you had to wear a tie, nametag and that sort of stuff. There was no hazing. The guys who were there who were sophomores and older could've cared less about any of us. [laughter] We were just a bunch of young kids walking around. There were tons of convocations and meetings and exposure to university life.
The two experiences that I remember most vividly were that story about you're sitting in Records Hall, and there's somebody talking about something. They say, "Look to your left and look to your right, one of you won't be here second semester," and it ended up pretty much being true. I'm pretty sure the class started with 1,766 students, and easily we were down to probably 1,400 or 1,500 at the end of the first semester freshman year. It was that drastic a paring of the number of people that were there. I was talking about this to some people at our 50th reunion just in April, and we kind of think we graduated with maybe 1,200. For all that left, I'm sure there were probably some that transferred in, but I mean, that's a pretty sizable chunk of the population that's gone. I remember that Records Hall experience.
Then, the other was they scheduled a football scrimmage for probably one of the Saturdays or Sundays of the freshman orientation week. So, we all took buses out to the football stadium, and we're sitting there with our dinks and our ties on. I just remember it was a horrendously hot day. The upperclassmen who were there were walking in with suitcases full of beer on ice, and water was just streaming out of it. It was a big beer event, because you could drink beer on campus at any age back then. Oddly enough, those two events sort of stick in my mind most prominently.
It was a huge change from little old Haddonfield High School, where you knew everybody, to Rutgers where everybody was a class president like I was, everybody was a varsity athlete, everybody was a member of this who did that, the National Honor Society, perfect SAT scores, advanced this, advanced that. It seemed like the entire school was made up of guys with those sorts of backgrounds and qualifications.
SI: Did you start getting involved in activities right away? Did they bar freshman from getting involved in fraternities that first semester or first year?
WO: Yes, they did. The rushing didn't occur until second semester of freshman year. I pretty much stayed out of most activities that first semester freshman year, except if you consider ROTC an activity. There was Air Force and Army ROTC. I went into Air Force ROTC, but I wouldn't consider myself a tremendously active member of ROTC. Some, even as freshmen, took it really seriously. I mean, they went out for the drill team and the color guard and other activities. I sort of stayed on the periphery, but I had pretty much decided I was going to go Advanced ROTC and then get commissioned at graduation, which was what I ended up doing. That was the only extra activity that I did that first year. There were dorm functions, dorm dances, or mixers, they called them back then, that sort of thing, but I can't think of anything else that I got involved in. I was too busy trying to keep my head above board academically, so I didn't do anything first semester of freshman year.
SI: For ROTC, the first two years were still mandatory?
WO: I don't think so. In fact, I'm positive they weren't. Amongst some friends of ours who were all Rutgers people, we've had this discussion, and we're pretty sure that it wasn't at that point. I should ask my junior and senior year roommate, because I'm certain he wasn't in ROTC. Even if it were mandatory and you could get out with some sort of exemption, I don't think he did that or would've done it. So, I'm positive it was not mandatory back then.
WO: I know it was only a couple years before that that it was.
SI: Yes, yes. Tell me a little more about what the training consisted of in Air Force ROTC.
WO: I know it was a credit-and-a-half a semester, and I think it was one class two days a week and then a drill period on Wednesday, late morning or early Wednesday afternoon. That might have only been in good weather. I'm not so sure if we did that year round or not. You had to wear your uniform. You've got these hot, real heavy wool--both the Air Force and the Army uniforms were just a different color--they were hot, heavy, and didn't fit right. So, you'd put your uniform on, then you went to class, and then you left class and took your uniform off. You had to salute upperclassmen when you walked around campus, and the classes were all about military history, like the history of the Air Force. I'm pretty fuzzy now on a lot of the details on what actually they taught us, but it was the Air Force part of the Army role during World War II and the Korean War and then the separation of that as a branch of service in '47 or '48, whatever it was. Then, the Cold War, the systems they had, which mainly involved just aircraft. It wasn't anything other than aircraft. It wasn't like they talked about Air Force scientists or meteorologists or administrative people or that sort of thing. [laughter] They were all pilots, air crews, navigators, missile launch people.
The other main thing that I remember about it that they sort of pounded into you was how to give a presentation. They'd give you topics that you had to give a talk on fairly regularly, because as an officer, you were supposed to lead people and do that sort of thing. They drummed into your head, "When you're going to give a presentation, you tell them what you're going to tell them, you tell them that, and then you tell them what you told them." They would go over that just relentlessly. So, it was the military way of teaching people things. That was the academic part of it. I'm sure there was way more involved in that than I can remember.
Then, the drill part was just basic drill movements, about face, to the rear march, column left, column right. There'd be an inspection. You'd form up in front of the Air Force ROTC building. I can't remember the name of the street, but it was right around the corner from the College Avenue Gym.
WO: Senior Street, yes. You'd form up there, and you'd march to Buccleuch Park, put out road guards to hold traffic while we were marching out there. Then, you'd get out there and you'd get inspected by the upperclassmen. They'd gig you because your tie wasn't tied right or your buttons weren't buttoned right or your shoes weren't shined, that sort of thing. So, it was a basic indoctrination into military drill and discipline.
It was that way for four years. I mean, I think the class schedule was pretty much the same. If you got into Advanced ROTC--if you wanted to--then it was a little bit different. You weren't doing the marching at--well, even as a junior, you were doing the marching, because the seniors would still hassle you and inspect you and all that stuff. Once you got to be a senior, you were the top people in the whole wing; I guess they called it. Then, we got to dish out the discipline and tell people what to do and that sort of thing. Oh, and they paid you fifty dollars a month in the two years of Advanced ROTC. That went a long way back then.
SI: Yes. Did you wind up becoming one of the officers in the unit?
WO: Yes, I think every senior did. Once you went through the summer camp between your junior and senior year, then senior year, you were an officer. So, you had some sort of rank. I actually don't remember what I was. Even then, as a senior, as I said, I was a little more on the periphery of Air Force ROTC than a lot of the people. I'm sure they went to informal group meetings on weeknights and weekends. I only went to the things that I sort of had to do.
Actually, the other thing that they sponsored were some trips to Air Force bases just to see what an Air Force base and Air Force life was like. I remember one time they flew us out to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where the Air Force Museum was, and we spent a weekend out there. That was kind of cool. We went to McGuire to see the base and what was happening there. Those sorts of things I went on, but if it was a social group of Air Force ROTC people, I really didn't do that. One other I remember--one of the regular Air Force officers, who was an instructor there, sponsored a trip into McSorley's in the city, I guess, maybe when we were seniors. We came in and drank beers at McSorley's for a night and then took a bus back or he drove--I can't remember what happened. So, there were some informal activities like that, but I pretty much kept it to the things that I actually had to do.
SI: During this time, there is an anti-war movement building. Would they come out and try to protest or do anything while you were at drill?
WO: In retrospect, I'm sure they did, but I don't actually remember that happening. I know there were anti-war activities. I know there were anti-ROTC things. I know that existed, but if they were out there standing alongside our marching route or in Buccleuch Park, I don't remember that happening. If we walking around in our uniforms going to and from class or something like that, there may have been some comments made, but I actually don't remember any. I think maybe it got a little more intense after I graduated, with the Kent State shootings in 1970 and a lot more anti-war activities. I actually don't remember any, but I'm sure it happened. [Editor's Note: On May 4, 1970, at Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on anti-war demonstrators and bystanders, killing four and wounding nine.]
SI: Do any of the cadre stand out in your memory?
WO: By cadres, you mean the regular officers?
SI: Yes, the regular officers.
WO: Only one. I can only actually remember the name of one. There was a guy named Major Conner. He was a bolt upright Air Force Academy graduate, at least I'm pretty sure it was Air Force Academy. I didn't know at that point, but if you went to one of the academies, you could transfer to another branch of the service, and some did that. He may have gone to West Point, I'm actually not sure. We used to call him--like all of them--we called them ring knockers. The class rings were a pretty good size back then, and most everybody had one. The academy rings were huge. His military bearing was there in everything that he did, and his is the only name that I remember. There were a couple of other ones that I remember, but I can't remember the names. I remember them as much more human, likable people to talk to.
I remember I got a number of talkings-to by a couple of them to try to get me to go into pilot training. Actually, to this day, it's probably one of the biggest regrets in my life that I didn't do. By everything I knew, I could've passed the physical. I mean, my eyes were good. I didn't have any things that I knew about that physically would disqualify me from at least getting into pilot training. Graduating's another story. But I didn't want to do it because that was a five-year commitment as opposed to a four-year commitment. Based on the little bit of active-duty military life that I'd seen, I pretty much decided that I probably wasn't going to make it a career. I viewed it as more of an obligation that I felt, because I think all my male relatives were in the service. A lot of my cousins were in the service. Even though I wasn't a supporter of the war, I sort of felt an obligation to do my part, whatever that might be. That coupled with the desire to maybe have the military help me figure out what I wanted to do with my life--they were the two main reasons that I did it. From the time that I was in high school and even in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. In fact, even if you'd asked me the month before I retired, "Did you ever figure out what you really wanted to do?", I would have said no. Fortunately, I ended up finding things that I liked doing.
SI: Let me pause for a second.
SI: Now, you mentioned going to summer camp in between junior and senior year. Do you remember where that was?
WO: Oh, yes. I went to Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There were a couple of bases that Air Force people went for summer camp. I know Otis was one out on Cape Cod. The other ones, I can't remember where they were, but I know there were a few around. Pease was as far north as I'd ever been in the U.S., I think, at that point. Oddly enough, we ended up--after I got out of the Air Force--living in Portsmouth. Yes, it was four weeks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
SI: What would they have you do?
WO: We lived in what looked like dorms. We were grouped into a flight. There were probably fifteen or twenty of us in a flight. So, you got assigned a dorm room with a roommate, and it was two beds and a bathroom. The bathroom you shared with another two-guy room. So, it'd be up at the crack of dawn. You'd put on sweats, go out in the parking lot, do calisthenics for an hour, go back, and get changed. Then, go to the mess hall, get fed breakfast, and then it was a real blend of classroom stuff, physical activity, marching, drill stuff, that sort of thing. The flight that I was in, we were real fortunate in having a guy from--it was like Texas A&M or VMI [Virginia Military Institute], I can't remember where. We all had our ROTC drill instruction in our heads, but this guy knew--they knew everything, and they knew how to do everything the right way. When it came to actually marching and formations, this guy knew everything. So, it was really good having him.
SI: You mentioned that you wound up not looking at the pilot route. You wound up becoming a weapons controller. Was that a path in itself, or what path were you on when you were going through ROTC?
WO: At that point, if you weren't a pilot, there was really no path, at least that I was ever aware of, unless maybe if you were an engineer or science major. I just assumed that if I wasn't going to be a pilot, I'd probably be a personnel officer somewhere or a supply officer somewhere or something like that. In fact, I had never even heard of a weapons controller until I got my orders to go on active duty as one. There really was no other path that I knew of.
Just one other thing, every flight at summer camp had an active-duty office who was in charge of that flight. The guy that was in charge of ours--I remember his name was Captain Manning--he was a forward air controller. He had just gotten back from Vietnam, and that was one of the most dangerous jobs any pilot could have in Vietnam. He flew the equivalent of a Piper Cub, and later on, they came up with a little more advanced aircraft that they flew. These guys flew low over suspected enemy territories and would shoot smoke rockets at places where they were sighted or known to be. Then, the fighters would come in and bomb them and strafe them and all that sort of stuff. This guy was a very laid back, really nice guy, as I remember him. He was in charge of our flight. There'd be sort of informal times--maybe at night, early in the afternoon--where'd we all get together, and we'd just talk about Air Force life. He'd recount his year in Vietnam as a FAC [Forward Air Control] pilot, and it was just unbelievable, the stuff that he talked about. I don't know if that had any impact on my decision not to go to pilot training or not, but it was pretty fascinating, the stories he would tell. Not every Air Force pilot's life is like that, but he certainly had one of the way more dangerous roles a pilot could have in the Air Force.
SI: Going back to Rutgers, you wound up joining Zeta Psi. Was that in your second half of your freshman year or later on?
WO: Yes, it was second half of my freshman year. You couldn't pledge until then. You got back from Christmas vacation, the holiday vacation, had exams, followed by another short break, come back, and rushing started. I had pretty much decided I wanted to join a fraternity because I viewed it as kind of like a YMCA group, where in your class, you had a fairly close group of people that you had things in common with and were friends with. So, that's why I decided to join a fraternity. I went around and went to different houses, and there were a couple that I really liked. Beta Theta Pi was one, and the one that's next to Chi Psi [Alpha Sigma Phi]--I think it's still there--that was another one that I liked, and Zeta Psi. I ended up being lucky enough to get a bid to join Zeta Psi. Could we pause for just a minute?
SI: We were talking about joining Zeta Psi.
WO: There were probably, I want to say, twenty, twenty-five who ended up being in our pledge class. Rushing started on a weekday and, if they liked you, they'd ask you to come back Friday, Saturday, that sort of thing. I got to meet a fair number of guys in the house, and there were two in particular that I just really sort of enjoyed talking with them, bonded with them. They were friendly guys. They were kind of like myself. They were middle-class backgrounds, as were probably the vast majority of Rutgers people. It was largely based on meeting those two guys that solidified my interest in the house. Plus, it was an impressive place. The building was nice, and it had a long history at Rutgers. Yes, I was very happy that I picked Zeta Psi and that they picked me. You got thrown into having to clean the house up and they make you do all the scut work and other pledging activities pretty quickly.
SI: What was life in a fraternity house like during this period?
WO: [laughter] There was a lot going on all the time. Even weekdays, during classes, there were always a bunch of people either playing cards or sitting around the living room talking or watching TV together, and then the big activities were parties on weekends. Whenever there was a home football game, there was a big party. We'd have a band and fifteen or twenty kegs of beer. Then, big weekends, I'm not sure if this was occurring when I was a freshman or maybe until later years, but the guys would all move out of the house, their dates would move in for the weekend, and they would turn the place over to the women. Then, we'd just have the party there Friday night and Saturday night, but only the women could go upstairs.
There was always tons of stuff going on. There were intramural sports. People in the house were involved in all kinds of extracurricular stuff. There were a bunch of lightweight football players, because they still had a lightweight team back then. I got involved with the yearbook because there was somebody else from the house on the staff. There were all kinds of people involved in things, but I would say not too much in the political realm. I don't remember anybody being in the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] or whatever the opposing sort of Republican organization was. I think everybody pretty much kept it to either academic things or social things or things like the yearbook. I don't remember anybody being on the Targum or WRSU staffs or other activities kind of like that.
There was always a lot going on. We had a housemother back then, so she was probably a big factor in keeping people from getting totally out of control, not that things didn't get wild at times. By and large, it was a pretty, I want to say, law-abiding group with a few exceptions, but there was always somebody to bullshit with, to talk with, pal around with, do whatever you wanted to do.
SI: You mentioned the Scarlet Letter, what did you do there?
WO: I was involved with covering some of the sports teams, mainly non-major sports. The upperclassmen, they got football, basketball, and that sort of thing. I got wrestling, cross country, track and field, maybe golf. I talked to the coach or one of the coaches if I could get some time with them, maybe try to interview a player and learn what, from their perspective, the season was like. After, in retrospect, I read through what I wrote about those varying teams, it was really pretty nondescript. [laughter] It was pretty amateurish journalism on my part, but it was interesting hearing what the yearbook staff did, how they went about things, where they got funding. It wasn't inconvenient that they met at the house right next door to Zeta Psi.
WO: There was an office that they had in that building. That was kind of fun. I think I did that my sophomore year, and I didn't do it after that, maybe because I was too busy trying to keep my head of above water or too busy with my social life. I'm not sure which it was--and other things--but I only did it that one year.
SI: In terms of your classes, do any professors stand out in your memory as being particularly important to you or influential or on the other side, maybe bad professors that you remember? [laughter]
WO: At various times in conversations with other friends, we'd try to talk about people that we remember, and I hate to say this, but I sadly remember very few. The classes I had--well, first of all, I started out being a bio-sci, which was just a brutal curriculum. I think, in your freshman year, with ROTC, I had twenty-one-and-a-half credits each semester, so it was a horrific workload. I don't remember any of my freshman or sophomore instructors, except for the Spanish teacher that I had. I had this guy named Professor Rosenthal either all four semesters those first two years or a couple of them, and I remember him for one reason. That was because I got ones in Spanish, and back then, the grading scores were flipped. One was an "A"; five was an "F". So, I got ones, and second semester, it really saved my academic life. Rosenthal, I remember mainly because of that.
Later on, when I fulfilled most of the core requirements that I had to have and I could take some other classes that were just of general interest as opposed to specific to my major, Sidney Ratner, I took one of his history courses. I took a philosophy course that I just found fascinating. It was a logic course. When I signed up for it, I had zero clue what that involved--I don't remember the guy's name--but it was fascinating. An art history course that I took was another very interesting one that was totally 180 degrees from anything I had ever taken before.
Then, in the Psychology Department, I actually can't remember anybody's name except this lab instructor that we had who was a graduate student. His last name was Kagan, and he was great. We had to perform an experiment on our own and write it up. He was a down-to-earth guy and maybe I remember his name because he was very complimentary about our project. A fraternity brother of mine, I teamed up with him, and we did this experiment. This guy couldn't have been more complimentary about what we did, and I remember him saying--and this was through no fault of mine, by the way--that we got into a much deeper aspect of psychology than we actually started into and he was very impressed about that. I thought that was pretty cool. I remember Kagan's name, but as far as other professors, I hate to say it but not really. [laughter]
SI: How did you decide on psychology as a major?
WO: Well, the bio-sci curriculum was just too brutal. The other part of it was, my father wanted me to become a dentist. He had a classmate in high school--who he stayed friends with--who became a dentist, and my father always viewed doctors as people to be looked up to. I think a lot of people in his generation did. I remember him saying, "Being a dentist is a great way to be a doctor where you're not on call twenty-four hours a day, and you don't have to reset broken bones and do surgery at all." I had zero interest in being a dentist, but I was a bio-sci [major] because if you wanted to go to dental school, you had to do that.
After my freshman year, it was just too tough a curriculum for me. I figured psychology was sort of a blend between the humanities and the sciences, and so that's why I did it. It was [a] pretty superficial reason in retrospect, not that I didn't find psychology interesting. I actually kind of liked it, but you had to have a master's or a Ph.D. in it really to do anything with that degree. I was a decent student, but I wasn't a real star student. I had to work for everything that I got. In high school, I got good grades because I worked at it. I did my homework, I studied, I took it very seriously because of my parents--I had to. I really had no other choice. I wasn't one of these kids where things came to them just naturally. There were guys in my class, I remember, who didn't do anything at all during the year. They'd do some studying the night before an hourly or a final, and they'd get good grades. I wasn't like that. So, anyway, I decided I didn't really want to do anything with psychology beyond a bachelor's degree and then just kind of went on with it after that.
SI: Again, it was a very interesting time when you were in college. Culturally, socially, politically, a lot of things are changing. Are there any memories that stand out about what was going on, on campus, or just in general?
WO: I guess, if anything, it was just the diversity of activities that were going on. Certainly in high school, there was nothing like what happened at Rutgers. There was the Latin Club, the Spanish Club, the Projector Club, and that was pretty much it. At Rutgers, there were radical leftists, there were hardcore right-wing people, there were the minorities that were campaigning for better representation and better facilities on campus and that sort of thing, but certainly nothing like I ever saw in high school. One of my fraternity brothers put this very well. He said many of us saw Rutgers through a Zeta Psi filter, and I think I was part of that. We knew what was going on campus, but the fraternity life was our primary focus and put everything else in a different perspective.
At one of the reunions, we had lunch with the guy who was the head of the SDS at the time, and he--I think at the time--owned a restaurant in Washington, D.C. So, he was the epitome of the campus radical, of the protests--everybody knew who he was. You name something, it seemed like the SDS would protest against it, although I'm sure they were much more narrowly focused than that. But that's kind of the way it just seemed to us non-participants. He was a perfectly likable, reasonable guy, and it was just that time in history where all kinds of things were happening.
I can't think of any one, say, protest or boycott or march on campus in particular that I remember, but it was just the totality of everything that was going on. Maybe that's a cop-out because I didn't get involved in any of those things. As an Advanced ROTC student, I really couldn't go out and protest against ROTC. I suppose I could've protested against the war, but I didn't do that. Not that I didn't have feelings against the war, it was that I just sort of didn't do it and didn't feel that I could. In general, I was as apolitical probably as you could be during those times. I think it would've been tougher a year or two years later on, but it was still relatively easy to do that in 1968 and '69, even with all the stuff that was going on.
SI: Before we talk about you time in the service, are there any memories at Rutgers that we did not get into or that I did not ask about?
SI: First, actually, I want to talk about interaction with Douglass. Would you go often over to the Douglass College, or would Douglass students come over to College Avenue? Were there opportunities to meet and socialize?
WO: Yes, yes, there were. From week one of freshman year, they had mixers, where if they were at Rutgers, the Douglass women would come over. If they were at Douglass, the Rutgers guys would go over there. There were plenty of opportunities for meeting people from the other campus.
I'd say, as a fraternity member, we didn't go over to Douglass all that much until real late in the game, and when we used to go over there, we'd go to the Douglass Library. The Douglass Library had a big open area, and then off of that were the basement--not cubicles--but isolated spaces where there were desks and hallways, like the Rutgers Library. That's all the Rutgers Library ever seemed to have to me. I mean, I remember there was a big open area, but I remember that as more where the librarians were and the card file was, not as a place where people would go to sit and study and then socialize. You went off into one of those little catacombs and studied there. Yes, we'd go over to the Douglass Library and "study."
In fact, that's how I met my wife. I saw her there when I was a junior, but I didn't have the nerve to go up to her and introduce myself. We met my senior year through my roommates, who did what I should've done a couple months earlier. The other thing was--I guess it was my senior year--you could take classes at Douglass, and Douglass students could take classes at Rutgers. Oddly enough, I took a religion class over there with one of my friends, but I didn't meet anybody at Douglass because of taking that class. It's probably because I was a little more on the non-outgoing, shy side of things than the outgoing side of things. The Douglass women would come over to the fraternity houses. There were a bunch of them that we got friendly with, and so there was a fair amount of interaction between the two campuses.
SI: Well, again, if there is anything that you think of, we can always come back to it as it comes out.
WO: Sure, yes. One thing I'll just mention is, my sister, she actually left Haddonfield High School a year early and went to college. She went out of state, didn't like it, came back for a semester at Drew in New Jersey, and then she ended up transferring to Rutgers. She graduated in the first graduating class of Rutgers to actually have women graduates. There weren't many women at Rutgers at that point, but she pledged a fraternity at Rutgers, one that took women in. Zeta Psi didn't, but some of the other ones did. She has gone to love Rutgers in retrospect, and her husband was a Rutgers graduate. Her son's a Rutgers graduate. The family has a history there, but not too many women can say they were in the first graduating class of Rutgers that had women in it.
SI: Is she still living?
WO: Oh, yes, yes. She and her family live outside of Atlantic City. They're still in New Jersey. We see them a couple times a year and stay in touch all the time.
SI: All right.
WO: Could we take one more break?
SI: Yes, sure.
SI: Did you get your commissioning before or after your graduation, or was that a part of it?
WO: It was part of it. I think it was a morning commissioning ceremony and then the academic part in the afternoon or evening.
SI: How soon did you get your orders, or did you already have them?
WO: No, I didn't. The graduation, I want to say it was around June 10. I think I got my orders shortly after that. After I graduated, my roommate was from Central Valley, New York, and his family owned a shoe store up there. They were going to move from where they were to a new shoe store. We went up there to help them with a renovation of the new space between when he was going to law school and I was going into the service, so we had some time to kill. We went up there to do that, and I think it was while I was there that I got my orders.
The orders were for August 2 to report to weapons controller training at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. It was pretty soon after graduation. I think, at that time, most everybody who wasn't going to graduate school and get another deferment got orders pretty quickly, whereas a year later, I have a good friend of mine who went to pilot training. He went to work for Johnson & Johnson for a year before he got his orders. In that year, they kind of scaled the war effort down a little bit in Vietnam, so things got a little less urgent, I think, on the part of the service and getting people on active duty.
SI: What was your experience at Tyndall like?
WO: I think the farthest away from New Jersey I had ever been, up until that point, was Chicago. We went out to Chicago for a family thing one time. Tyndall is out on the panhandle in Panama City, so it's not glamourous at all like Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale or anything like that. It's a coastal plain with really not much other than pine trees there. It was a huge base for the Air Force equivalent of TOPGUN in the Navy. Fighter squadrons would go down there, and they'd compete against each other. So, it was a mainly a training ground for already skilled fighter pilots, and they just sort of honed their skills there. I remember it was a huge place. It was pretty bland. There wasn't much to it. The only thing that resembled a hill was like a highway overpass or something. It was just as flat as a pancake.
We lived in the BOQ [Bachelor Officer Quarters] there. They were almost like little huts. It was a living area, two bedrooms, and a bathroom in between. Two of us shared this thing. Every morning, you'd get up, take a shower, you'd shake the bugs out of your shoes, get dressed, and then go out to controller school.
The main thing that I remember about that was, first of all, the officer's club was kind of the hub of the activity for us. You'd get out of class, and you'd go eat at the officer's club, have a couple of beers, and have dinner. The pilots were all off on one part, the non-pilots were in the other part. It was as though we were in two different branches of the service. That really struck me.
The other thing that I remember most vividly about that was that was the month that Hurricane Camille formed in the Gulf. At one point, Camille was headed right for Panama City. There were all these plans in the background--that we only found out about later on--to evacuate everybody, and I think evacuation was to get all the fighters out of there, get the pilots out of there, and everybody else is going to hunker in place on the base. At the last minute, Camille took a westward turn, and it hit Biloxi, Mississippi instead, and it just destroyed Biloxi.
A year later, I went to a training class at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi for two weeks, and Biloxi, even then, a year later, was just absolutely destroyed. I remember there was a five or six-hundred-foot freighter that was just high and dry up on the beach, and they were just in the process of starting to dismantle it. They were going to cut it apart, because that was the only way they could get it out. The whole beach front area was just leveled. There might have been an occasional concrete structure that was still standing, maybe a house or some sort of business or something like that. Everything else was just leveled. It really impressed on me the power of nature and how glad we were that that thing didn't hit Panama City and Tyndall. What that one hurricane, I think, last summer did to Panama City, it did what Camille would have done to that place back in 1969. [Editor's Note: Hurricane Camille formed and made landfall along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August of 1969. It killed 259 people and caused over one billion dollars in damage.]
WO: Controller school was four or five or six weeks. I can't remember exactly how long.
SI: Can you kind of give me a sense of what was entailed in the job?
WO: Yes. A weapons controller was kind of like being an air traffic controller, and the job was, you were going to control the fighters that were going to go up to shoot down the Russian bombers that were coming over the horizon to bomb the United States, if the Cold War ever blew up. It was like being an air traffic controller in that you watched the radar blips on the radar screen, and you told them when to turn, how to turn to attack a target, that sort of thing. It was kind of the opposite of being an air traffic controller in that their job is to keep planes apart, where ours was to ultimately bring them together, not to crash them into each other, but to bring them together so a fighter could shoot down a bomber or whatever the target was.
The real reason, at that point, for having controllers--there were two of them, really. We did because the Russians had a similar job. So, we had B-52s that would go out, and they'd fly along Russian airspace. Maybe once in a while, they'd penetrate it, and Russian fighters would come up to intercept them and guide them away. We did it because they did it. The other reason was, the Air Force needed controllers in Vietnam, and the jobs there primarily were to flight follow fighters that were taking off to go up and bomb areas either in South Vietnam or in the north. They would guide them. They'd take off from a base and be turned over to the weapons controllers. The controllers would guide them on the outbound leg. The fighters would have to refuel right after they took off because they took off with such a heavy armament load. They couldn't really top off the fuel tanks before they took off. So, you'd hook up the fighters with a tanker, then they'd go off and do what they'd have to do. On their way back, if they'd need to refuel, you'd hook them back up with the tanker. Then, when they got fairly close to the base, you'd hand them off to the terminal controllers, and they would bring them in to land. The most important reason for the job, from the Air Force perspective, was they needed people to do that in Vietnam.
The job itself was pretty interesting. I actually liked doing the job. The controller school was sort of a madcap, part academic, part behind the scope controlling airplanes, and the thing about the controlling airplanes was, there was no simulation of that. You'd sit, and you'd watch a controller control airplanes. Then, you'd rotate in and do it, and then somebody else would come in behind you and somebody else would come in behind you. It was controlling live airplanes. They were just trainers, T-33s mainly, and you'd bring them together and then they'd go apart, bring them back together again. In terms of anybody who could come out of that and actually be able to control an airplane, you really couldn't do that. It was more on the job learning once you go to the site where you were assigned. You had very little time actually controlling airplanes at Tyndall.
The other interesting part about it was, there were three or four German lieutenants in the class, because there were control sites throughout Europe. So, I guess we had an agreement with the other country's air forces to train controllers in Panama City. We got to know them a little bit, but they sort of stuck to themselves and we sort of stuck to ourselves. So, that was kind of the training we had.
SI: Then, your first assignment was to Dover--sorry, Charleston Air Force Base.
WO: Yes, Charleston Air Force Station, Maine. One good thing about the controller school class that I was in was that it ended the Friday before the 100th anniversary Rutgers-Princeton football game. [Editor's Note: The first-ever college football game was played on November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. On September 27, 1969, the two teams faced off in the centennial football game, and Rutgers won 29-0.]
SI: Oh, okay.
WO: I left Panama City and flew back up to Newark and got to go to the game, so that part was really pretty good. After that weekend, I drove up to Bangor, Maine, and Charleston was about twenty-five miles northwest of Bangor. It was out in the woods. They called it Charleston Mountain or Charleston Hill. If you drove around that area, it really wouldn't stick out to you as a mountain, but it was the highest point in that general area. It was a radar site of about five hundred people. I think, ultimately, there were probably about, I want to say, thirty-five or forty-five officers there. The rest were enlisted guys, radar technicians, cooks, maintenance people, power plant people, security guards. It was a fairly small operation.
When I got there, I'd never been to Maine before, so I crossed the New Hampshire-Maine border at Portsmouth. I thought, "Well, Dover-Foxcroft or Charleston can't be too much farther." Well, it was like another four hours after that. I got to see more pine trees, probably, than I had ever seen in my life. So, you get to Bangor, and then you get off the interstate and go twenty-five miles northwest into the woods and it was really in the middle of nowhere. This town of Dover-Foxcroft, which was a little bit beyond Charleston, was maybe four thousand people. It was primarily a mill town and there were woolen mills, papermills and stuff like that around there, but not much else. There was a town of Charleston, which was basically a crossroads a little off this main road, that had a general store, a gas pump, a church, that sort of thing, and that was it.
I get to Charleston. You have to go through the security at the gate, and the guard says, "Yes, the admin building's just in here on the right." I pull in, park, and there was like a low military-looking building. There were three doors there. I walked in one of them and found myself in the commander's office. He was a lieutenant colonel. I snapped to attention and said, "Lieutenant Olsen reporting for duty, sir," and he goes, "Oh, no, not another one." It turns out this was a time when controllers and other personnel were showing up pretty regularly, because they were staffing this place up to its full staffing level. He shook hands, said, "Well, welcome to Charleston," and then he handed me off to the personnel officer. I did my processing in and checked into the BOQ. That was day number one at Charleston Air Force Station.
SI: What was a typical shift like ...
WO: It was ...
SI: ... Or your daily rotation?
WO: Yes, it was kind of a nine-to-five job. The odd thing was, Charleston was one of a number of radar sites, where they were installing a new computer system to control airplanes. It was called BUIC, for Backup Intercept Control. So, the idea was, in every air defense sector, there was one central control site that was responsible for the control, and these were sites that were called SAGE sites. In typical military terminology, that stood for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, which what would that mean to anybody? It'd mean absolutely nothing, right. It was a big open room with a lot of controllers sitting there at radar scopes, and the radar scopes were computer enhanced. You'd see a blip that was one of your airplanes, and you would attach this computer symbology to it. You could tell it to climb, descend, turn one way or another just by a computer command. It kept the voice commands down to a minimum.
The SAGE system had been around for a number of years, and so the Air Force, I guess, decided they wanted to have a backup system. In case of a nuclear attack, one of the first things to be hit would be military bases, these SAGE centers, major population areas, that sort of thing. So, BUIC sites were smaller sites that were designed to take over if the SAGE site became disabled for whatever reason. This was in September of '69. I'm not sure this BUIC system was operational at any site at that point. They were just installing it. If it was operational, I didn't hear about it. I get to Charleston, and it's way in the early stages of being implemented.
A typical day would be, we'd have to get up at like five-thirty, eat breakfast, be there at six, sit around, and they'd say, "Well, we really can't do anything today because the computer system's down." There were programmers there who were working on all this, but it didn't work. They'd say, "Well, go eat lunch, then come back after lunch." We'd go eat lunch, we'd come back after lunch, and they'd say, "Well, it's still down. You're released for the day." So, we'd go back down to the BOQ. Everybody else who lived off base would drive home, or they'd go to the club, have a couple beers and go home, or go to the gym and play basketball or whatever. I want to say that's what a typical day was like for probably the first six months that I was there. It was completely absurd, and all this time, more people were coming in. They were graduating from controller classes. There were guys coming back from Vietnam and from Alaska who were assigned there as senior controllers, and we all did very little. They'd have these academic sessions where you'd sit in a room, and they'd show multiple choice questions on slides on the wall, and it was called Testo. You'd answer these Testo questions until you did Testo so often [that] you knew the answers to them just by repetition alone. It was so ridiculous.
SI: The people that were installing this BUIC system, were they from a company, or were they from the military?
WO: They were both. As I remember, the company was Burroughs. It's no longer in existence as a computer company. There were Burroughs people there, and then there were people who were Air Force-trained programmers who assisted them. It was really both of them. I don't, frankly, remember any of the Burroughs programmers, but I do remember a couple of the Air Force guys. They were former controllers who got out of controlling and got into programming. There were only like, I want to say, two or three of them.
Finally, the place was deemed stable enough to go to operationally-ready status. At that point--and a little before that--we could actually start to train on it, where you could train with simulated airplanes. So, that's really how we got to know how to use it, running sim missions. I think there were a couple of controllers who had gotten there before me who--the typical path for a controller was, you got there, you spent eighteen months there, where you learned how to control airplanes, and then you got sent to either Southeast Asia or Alaska to remote sites there. I think there were controllers who got there who never became what we called operationally ready. The system just wasn't ready to do that by the time their eighteen months were up and they had to go elsewhere.
I was one of the first ones who actually got to become operationally ready. Once that happened, the job was actually a lot of fun. It was kind of stressful but not too stressful. You'd go there, and in the morning, they'd say, "Okay, we have these missions scheduled for the morning. Olsen, you're going to have a three on one in a particular designated airspace area," which was geographical in nature and also say from twenty-thousand feet to 45,000 feet. You'd designate one of your planes as a target. The other three would be the interceptors. You'd set them up apart from each other, and then you'd run them together in the various tactics that you did. That part of it was really a lot of fun. It could get stressful in that sometimes you'd have two or three interceptors on a target at the same time, and you have to keep them separate. You don't want them to run into each other. So, there was a vertical separation and then linear separation. Sometimes, weather would get bad. You'd get right in the last portion of an intercept, and they would say they've lost radar contact and you need to make sure you kept separation between them and the target, that sort of stuff. The actual controlling airplanes was a lot of fun; it was kind of enjoyable.
The other part of it was, maybe once every two months, they'd have these live exercises, where you'd work during the day, you'd run missions and stuff like that, then you'd go home, and you knew you were going to get recalled at some point during the night. It was going to be a simulated attack by Russian aircraft. They'd send out any kind of aircraft the Air Force had to serve as fake targets. You'd be home, you'd be sound asleep, you'd get a call and have to get up, go into the base. We'd sit there, we'd sort of monitor things, and we'd wait for the SAGE part to get knocked out. Then, all of a sudden, we'd go live, and we'd take over the fighters that they were controlling. It was fairly well simulated as a live mission. They couldn't do any real electronic countermeasures, which we were trained to sort of be able to work through, because if they did that, it would interfere with civilian air traffic.
They'd do those missions maybe every two months, and that was as real as it got. I mean, the whole time I was at Charleston, there was never a time when a Russian bomber came close to our air space, where we were controlling aircraft, or even that I knew about. It might have happened. I heard that they would do that. They'd fly along the coast, from Maine down to Virginia and then head back, but we never saw one. [laughter] It was kind of anti-climactic, there for all that training and never having to do the actual job.
SI: Well, it is good you did not have to do it. [laughter]
WO: I guess it was good, yes, yes. Well, the other thing that became apparent readily to us was that if a real war ever broke out, we'd be sitting there either dead because the site got hit or we'd just be totally ineffective. They would send over ICBMs [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles] and they would blow up nukes in the atmosphere over New York or over Boston, over northern Maine or something like that and just wipe out any radar coverage that we had that would be usable. We would have just been sitting there doing absolutely nothing if we were still alive. That's an over-dramatization of the job. I mean, it may have come to that, but who knows. We'd have been totally ineffective. We wouldn't have been able to do anything, but it's the way it was.
SI: Wow. How did morale fair during these eighteen months that you were there, particularly in that first part where you really had nothing to do?
WO: It was surprisingly good. They kept us busy enough that you felt there was something you had to learn how to do while all this was going on. The other part was that every officer had an additional duty to do. You were the security officer of the place, or you were the--I'm sure they didn't have a base recycling officer, but you would be the base recycling officer. My additional duty was I was the officer's club officer. That may have had something to do with the fact that at Zeta Psi, I was the social chairman one time and plus, I lived in the BOQ. Basically, that involved ordering all the beer, snacks and alcohol and paying the bills. It may have had something to do with it; it may not have. We had an officer's club that was the size of about this living room with a little bar, a couch, a TV, and a foosball table, and that was it. So, I was in charge of that.
The other thing was, we got to be a pretty close-knit group, because there weren't that many of us. I would say most of the officers there and a lot of the enlisted men were in just to do their time and get out. So, we all kind of had that in common with the vast majority of the other people. Of the, say, thirty-five or so officers that were there, I'd say there were maybe six or seven that were going to stay in beyond their four years or who were already in beyond their four years. The rest of us, we were in for our four years, and then we were going to get out.
A lot of the people who were there were hunters, fisherman and outdoorsmen, so there was no better place to be to do that than northern Maine. I learned how to ski there. There was a place called Squaw Mountain that was about forty miles from the radar site. A bunch of us rented a small apartment up at Moosehead Lake, and we'd drive up there, stay over there on a Friday night, and ski Saturday and Sunday and come back on Sunday night. It was a beautiful area. I got really friendly with another lieutenant there who was from Lancaster, PA, and he and his wife were big antique collectors. My wife and I--I got married while we were up there--we furnished our apartment from antique auctions. On weekends, we'd go to auctions in these barns, where they'd auction off old pine furniture, like the desk over here and this thing. These are all remnants of things we bought up in Maine at auctions. We bought everything there. [laughter] It was a great place. The winters were snowy. The summers were short. One guy who'd been up there a couple years before said he had seen it snow in every month of the year. The summers were nice and I guess it could snow in June or July or August or something, though we never saw it. It was a beautiful area, and we kind of liked it. Somehow, morale stayed pretty high. None of the work or the scheduling was onerous, or the discipline wasn't onerous. So, I guess that probably helped keep it that way.
SI: Did you have enlisted men reporting to you?
WO: Only in the sense that when you were controlling aircraft, you had a tech with you and you'd be telling them the commands to punch into the console data entry pads, almost like a vertical keyboard and a number pad. If you wanted somebody to turn right, turn starboard one-eight-zero, they would put in the heading. You'd say, "Victor Papa 04 (the call sign of the aircraft), one-eight-zero (the heading)," and they would do that and you would execute the command, or you'd tell them to call up Boston Center to hand off an aircraft. So, no, I didn't have anybody under my command, which was fine with me, not that we weren't trained to do that. But the NCOs [noncommissioned officers] took care of the enlisted guys, and we were pretty much specialist controllers.
SI: Then, in March of 1971, you were reassigned to New Brunswick, Canada.
WO: This is the luck of the draw in the military and how it works. As I said, most everybody who was a controller, once you spent your eighteen months in the States, you either went on a one-year remote tour to Southeast Asia, or you went to these remote radar sites in Alaska and Northern Canada. Remote meant you went by yourself, no spouses or family. I went to this training class in Biloxi, Mississippi for two weeks. After class one day, I was at the bar at the officer's club, and there was a guy in the class and we were just talking, "Where are you stationed?" and all that. He said he was in a place in Canada called St. Margarets. I said, "What's that?" He said, "It's a BUIC site." I said, "Well, I'm in a BUIC site in Maine. Is it the same?" and he said, "Yes, they're all the same. They're about the same number of people. They do the same job." His BUIC site was a backup site for a SAGE center in North Bay, Ontario. So, I said, "How in the world did you ever get that assignment?" He said he found out about it, and he put in a volunteer statement through the Air Force personnel system and he requested this place. The way volunteer statements worked in the Air Force was you could request a specific place. If there was a radar site in Germany, you could request this place in Germany. Presumably, they would consider that when it came time for your reassignment, but the other thing was that if you put in a volunteer statement, you also put in a volunteer statement for every other site that existed that you could possibly go to.
WO: It wasn't like if you didn't get that one, you'd go to a similar one or anything. He told me about it, and I said, "Well, how many people are there?" He said there were five Americans there. He said, "A couple are due to get out in the next couple months. It would never hurt to put in a statement for this place." I get back to Charleston, and of course, I blabbed about it to everybody else who was in my situation. We all put in for these places, not thinking that anything positive was going to happen.
Lo and behold, I get sent to St. Margarets, and right behind me, there was another guy who also got sent to St. Margarets. So, there were two people from Charleston who ended up there. Oddly enough, this guy from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the antique guy who was my best friend at Charleston, married with two kids, he put in one and he gets sent to Da Nang. It was just the luck of the draw. It was the odds or where they needed people when they needed them. Two or three other guys that I can remember all got sent to Alaska. They had a year pretty much all indoors at a radar site in Alaska, no spouses with them, no spouses or family. Obviously, the people who went to Vietnam had no spouses that went with them either, whereas I was lucky enough that my new wife got to go with me for the time up there. It really worked out well for us, but it was just the luck of the draw.
SI: Was she living off base with you, or did they have married officer's quarters on base when you were in Charleston?
WO: We got married when I had been in Charleston for about a year. We lived in an apartment in Bangor. They had some base housing there, but it was full and it was hard to get into and we didn't want to live out at the site anyway. So, I had an apartment in Bangor, and we lived there. When we got to St. Margarets, they had base housing there; we actually got housing on base. I have to pause for one more minute.
SI: We were talking about base housing.
WO: Yes. We got there, and it was in March of '71. The American who was in the house before me had left. They had to refinish the floors, so we lived in a motel in this adjacent town for a couple weeks. It was right during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so the only thing on TV in Canada, of course, was hockey. We watched hockey for two weeks while the house was being done, at least when I wasn't on the base. Yes, it was a base that had a couple of single-family places, a couple duplexes, and we were lucky enough to get a single-family place. The Americans were all right in a row. There were five of us there. There was one guy who was our commander; he was a captain. The other four were like me; they were four-year-and-get-out officers, lieutenants and junior captains. So, it was actually great living right adjacent to all the Americans, because we all related to each other. We were all not going to be lifers, other than the commander, and we were good friends with the Canadians. They were very good to us. Yes, it was very convenient living on the base there.
SI: Was the routine any different there?
WO: Pretty much exactly the same. The only difference was the Canadians were all volunteers. They were all lifers. There were no people like us there, so they were amazed at us. They couldn't imagine why anybody would go into the service and go through all this training and then get out. They were in for the duration. So, they let us do pretty much all of the day-to-day controlling, and then when these live exercises would happen, they would swoop in and control the airplanes during the live exercises and stuff. Everybody kept track of how many intercepts you had. We all had hundreds of intercepts, and these guys had in the tens, except they would do all the glory stuff. We had to do all the grunt work, but it wasn't with any malice in any way. They were really nice people, they were friendly with us, and we had a good working relationship with them.
SI: At that station, were there any contacts with the Russians?
WO: None, none, nope. The only excitement we had there was, there was one day, I wasn't controlling these airplanes, but in the room, there were controllers and the techs and there was one person who was called the senior director. The senior director was just in charge of monitoring all the stuff that was going on, and they were the senior person in charge. Wouldn't you know the day that I'm it, one of the planes that somebody was controlling had some sort of mechanical malfunction and the pilot had to eject. It was a CF-100--was the name of the plane--and they used to call them "Clunks." The joke was that that was the sound that they made when they hit the ground. Anyway, this guy had some sort of a problem--I can't remember what it was--and had to eject. I was the senior director. You had to get in touch with air traffic control and the headquarters to let them know that they needed to send rescue helicopters and flights out there. That was the most exciting moment of the entire year and couple months I spent at this place. Otherwise, it was pretty much the same routine as in Charleston. You control planes during the day, you go home, eat dinner, and then do it again the next day, Monday through Friday. [Editor's Note: The Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck, nicknamed the "Clunk," was a jet fighter used by the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1952 to 1981.]
SI: What happened with that situation?
WO: Well, it was funny, I can't remember if the guy who was controlling them was controlling two airplanes or more than two. Anyway, one of the other aircraft that he was controlling spotted the guy's parachute, and he just circled him. The guy landed just off a snow-covered road in a field somewhere in--I don't know--Quebec or Ontario or wherever it was. We had a pretty big geographic area that we covered. Fortunately, it wasn't over water, or it would've been an entirely different story. I mean, the guy was only on the ground for, I want to say, a half an hour or an hour before he got picked up and taken back. It all worked out pretty well. Wherever the plane crashed, it didn't hurt anything. There was so much open space around there that it didn't fall on a schoolyard or a town or anything like that. That was the sum total of my excitement in three years of controlling airplanes in the Air Force.
SI: Did you have additional duties on that base?
WO: There, no. For some reason, like I said, somehow, the Canadians just differed in how they did things. I had no additional duties there, which was actually pretty good, because they were always a pain in the neck. It was largely administrative in some fashion and was a lot of paperwork and regulations and stuff like this. A friend of mine at Charleston got assigned to be the security officer with another guy, a senior captain, and he had endless sorts of things he had to do. I never had anything quite that bad, so I kind of lucked out.
Probably the most interesting thing we got to do at St. Margarets was we got to go back to the SAGE headquarters in North Bay, Ontario, and this was a duplicate of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. It's under this mountain, where they have all these hardened facilities and control things, administrative areas--almost a small underground city. Another guy and I got to go back there and see that one time, and that was actually really pretty cool. You got dropped off at--it was a sort of small rise in the ground and a ramp went down to these huge gates that look like massive bank vaults. I mean, the doors were five-feet thick. Then, you just went down underground into this underground bunker that was colossal. We didn't even get to see a tenth of it probably, but that was actually pretty neat. The main one in Cheyenne Mountain is where all of NORAD was controlled from, but the Canadians had a backup site up in North Bay, Ontario. That was actually pretty cool, but the rest of it was really, pretty mundane and pretty unspectacular. [Editor's Note: Canadian Forces Base North Bay, now called 22 Wing/Canadian Forces Base North Bay, is a Canadian Air Force Base near North Bay, Ontario. The base works with the United States via the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in the air defense of North America. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex is an installation within the Colorado Rockies at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station near Colorado Springs, Colorado.]
SI: Did you get to travel much while you were there?
WO: The trip to North Bay was the only Air Force-related travel I did from there. My wife and I did a fair amount of traveling around the Maritimes, going to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island or across New Brunswick to Loring AFB in Houlton, Maine, to do some shopping. We did continue buying some antique furniture while we were there, some of which we still have.
SI: What was your wife doing during this time? Was she able to work at all?
WO: In Bangor, she got a job as a waitress at a restaurant there. There was really very little to do in Bangor. It was a town, really, to support the logging industry and then some of the fishing businesses on the coast. There wasn't a whole lot going on in Bangor. Plus, we never knew how long we were going to be there. We got married in September, and from that point on, at any time, I could've gotten orders. Nobody wanted to hire somebody to be anybody they'd have to train to do something for anywhere from a month to six months, and it ended up being about six months. Yes, she did the waitress job.
Then, up in Canada, she wasn't able to work because of visa requirements. She went--along with the rest of the spouses there--absolutely stir crazy, because a grocery shopping trip was a big event. One night, I came back from work, and she was in the kitchen. She was sitting on top of the refrigerator--I actually have a picture of this--where she was painting designs on the kitchen cabinets, just to have something to do. [laughter] There wasn't much to do up there. The wives would get together, and everybody else had kids. We didn't have kids. We were kind of unique in that regard. They had them to keep them busy. She had not much to keep her busy. To her credit, man, she withstood a year and a couple months there with not much to do. A lot of the time, you really couldn't go outside much because there was so much snow and it was so cold. It was a tough year for her, no doubt about it.
SI: It sounds like you probably were not encouraged to think beyond your original idea of going for the time that you were required before getting out. You said you had a four-year commitment, but you were in for maybe three years.
WO: Three years, yes.
SI: What happened?
WO: Along about the spring of '72, the air war changed a lot in Vietnam. It got scaled back, and the need for controllers just dropped off the cliff. We were home one night--I remember, we had just eaten dinner--and I got a phone call from our headquarters in North Bay. It was a personnel officer there, and he said, "The need for controllers isn't anywhere near what it was before. We're offering people early outs. You and one of your coworkers up there--I'm going to call him next--we're going to offer you an early out as of the end of June." The tour I had up there was two years; it was accompanied. Even if I came back after two years, that would've been March of '73, I only would've had five months left and they wouldn't send somebody someplace else for five months. They probably either would just leave me there or just say I could get out. So, they said, "You can get out if you want." I put my hand over the receiver, and I said to my wife, "I can get out in June. You got any reason you want to stay here?" She said, "Absolutely none." I got out, and the other guy who was in the same boat as I was got out also. We only had another two months there, I guess, maybe three months, and you also got credit for the vacation time you had built up. I think I ended up leaving early in June. It was like the 2nd, 3rd or 4th of June, and that was it. We went down to Pease AFB in Portsmouth again, processed out of there, and I was out.
SI: Had you made plans for what you wanted to do next?
WO: None. Absolutely zero. What happened was, the only plans we made is we decided we wanted to go back to New England, because we liked it. We decided we'd go back to Portland, Maine, because it was the biggest city in Maine. Maine was really kind of a cool state--we thought--so that was the plan. We got back to New Jersey--we went back to my wife's parents' house in Northern New Jersey--and I typed up a resume and started sending them out. There was a recruiter for people who got out of the military in Manhattan on Madison Avenue that used to advertise in the Air Force Times all the time. I sent them my resume, had a couple of interviews in the city, one in White Plains, but there was really nothing that I wanted to do. I don't know where this idea came from. It was either my mother-in-law or we thought of it. We thought, "We're twenty-three years old, just got out of the service. There's no more obligations. We've never seen any of the country. Let's just take a couple months off, travel across the country, come back, and then we'll start this whole process." I know my mother-in-law, to her credit, said, "Do it. Now, this is the best time in your lives to do this sort of thing, so do it." That's what we did.
We had a Volkswagen Squareback, we bought two sleeping bags, I borrowed some camping equipment from a cousin of mine, we mapped out a route, and we just set off. We took two-and-a-half months, went out across the country, the southern route. Mostly, we stayed in campgrounds. We stayed with some people we knew along the way but not very many. I'd say only four or five nights out of the whole time did we either stay at a motel or stay with friends. The rest of the nights, we went to campgrounds and slept in back of the car. We just had a great time. It was one of the best experiences of, I'd say, both our lives. We had no obligations, no times we had to be anywhere. Somehow, without cell phones, email, or texting, we got in touch with people along the way that we knew. Some of the people that I was stationed with in Canada, we met in Ohio. We stayed there for a night or two. We met some out in California that we knew and some back in Washington, D.C. It was just a blast. We had a great time but no plans. We had zero plans, and the getting out early kind of got sprung on us just out of the blue. I mean, we had no inkling anything like that was going to happen, and it just happened.
SI: After this trip, what did you do next?
WO: We came back, saw our families, and then we just packed up and left. Most everything we had was in storage. It was in storage, that's right. We went up to Portland, Maine, and we rented a room from a woman for, I don't know, a week or two weeks until we found an apartment. We found an apartment, called up, had our stuff delivered, moved into the apartment, and then started the job search. My wife found a job--it was at a department store in downtown Portland. It was kind of an entry-level job, but it had some possibilities where you could go into department management, store management, at least some chance of upward mobility.
I got in touch with a recruiter there, and oddly enough, they were looking for somebody for a sales position for Proctor and Gamble. Before we went on this cross-country trip, I had also interviewed with Proctor and Gamble through this Madison Avenue recruiter, and P&G was a big employer for taking people out of the military. While that whole process was going on, I did odd jobs. I worked in a dairy through companies like Manpower and stuff like that. Then, I got a part-time job with Bar Harbor Airlines over at the Portland Airport, where they trained you to be a jack-of-all-trades gate agent. You wrote up the ticket; you took the money. The plane came in; you guided it in to where it parked. You chocked the wheels, you opened up the cargo hatch, you took down the door, and brought people in, unloaded the baggage, you did everything.
I did that for two or three weeks, I guess, before this Proctor & Gamble sales position came up. It was basically selling soap, and this whole process, moving to Portland to getting hired took, I want to say, five months or six months. In January of '73, P&G said, "You really should move to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, because it's the center of your territory." We moved down to Portsmouth. We had to move ourselves, but we didn't have much, so it was not that big a deal. We rented an apartment in Portsmouth, and I got a company car for P&G, went to Cincinnati for training. My wife got a job as a manager of a fabric store in Portsmouth and started as an assistant manager, and later became the manager of the store.
We spent three years in Portsmouth and loved every minute of it. Portsmouth was just a great town. The winters weren't quite as bad as in Bangor and Charleston or in St. Margarets, but there was still a fair amount of snow. Then, in the summertime, the beaches of New Hampshire were ten minutes away, and the downtown of Portsmouth was just sort of coming into its own with bars and restaurants. It was a great place to live. We loved it. So, we spent three years in Portsmouth.
A year into living there, I just decided I didn't like sales; it wasn't for me at all. P&G was a great company, but I just didn't like sales. At some point, after I had gotten out of the Air Force, I'd taken the Civil Service Test and a job came up with the Social Security Administration in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I was so anxious to get out of sales that I took that. I commuted back and forth to Lawrence for a year and worked as a claims rep in a Social Security office there in the old mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts.
SI: When you would apply for jobs, would you always put on that you were a veteran?
WO: Yes. I think that helped with P&G. I know it helped with P&G, because when I went for a training class in Cincinnati, I'd say the vast majority were former military officers. One guy in particular that I became a really close friend with--who was in my same territory--he was just out of the Navy. They definitely hired vets. Social Security, I think, did too. With the government, I think you got some sort of credit for service time. Anything else, it never got to the point at which I was going to be offered something where I would've found out maybe if being a veteran had helped or not, but definitely with those two, yes.
SI: I was wondering if there were any contacts where you did not feel comfortable revealing that or it caused a problem.
WO: I didn't. I never did. I was never in a situation where I felt that, yes, saying you were in the military or you were a veteran in any way was a negative in my life. I mean, there might've been people who thought, "What an idiot that guy was volunteering for the service," but I never felt that or never heard it at all.
SI: Let me pause again for a second.
SI: You had begun working for the Social Security Administration in Lawrence. What kind of claims were you dealing with?
WO: It was a couple different kinds. It was mainly retirement, survivor and disability claims for people who were eligible for Social Security. The other big thing, at that point, was they had taken over a welfare program from the states. It's called SSI, Supplemental Security Income. Social Security field offices took over taking applications for benefits for people for that program, and they were people who were either over sixty-five or disabled and who were low income and had very little in resources. You had to meet very, very stringent low-income requirements, and you couldn't have much of anything in a bank account or property and things that you owned. It was a huge culture change for Social Security because prior to that, it was all people who had paid into Social Security for twenty-five, thirty-five, or forty-five years, that sort of thing. Then, you were interviewing people who maybe had paid into Social Security and just had very low benefits amounts or maybe had never done it or maybe they were immigrants. I don't remember what the immigrant status had to be. I mean, I imagine you had to have a green card, but I'm not sure. It was a totally different category of people that you were talking to.
It was routine, mundane work. On the one hand, I didn't really like being a federal employee because of the stereotype of the typical federal employee. You were just there to collect a paycheck. You were lazy. You were too lazy to look for another job, etc. That always bothered me, but the thing about Social Security was you really felt like you were doing something for people's lives. I'll tell you, I've worked hard in jobs all my life, but I don't think I ever worked as hard as for that agency. Part of that was it was run on a very tight budget. They were always very proud of the fact that the overhead cost of running this agency was miniscule. It was in the low single digits. I mean, it was maybe two percent or two-and-a-half percent or something like that. There were never enough people to do the work that needed to be done. The offices were never lavish in any way at all. The only way they got all the work done was by overtime. They couldn't hire more people, and I don't think there was any reason for that other than the Republicans always wanted to strangle the snake. They didn't like Social Security to begin with, and so they kept the budget tight, because they didn't want it to be an overwhelming, hugely expensive bureaucracy. And in response, the agency prided itself on running on a fairly tight budget.
Anyway, I ended up staying for ten years, and I stayed for ten years because the work was very interesting, for one thing. I got to take the retirement application for Joe Gordon, who was a Hall of Fame second baseman for the Yankees, not that every claimant was anywhere near that interesting. In fact, I didn't even know who he was when I did it. I called my father up one day, and I said, "Hey, have you ever hear of this guy Joe Gordon?" He said, "Of course, everybody's heard of Joe Gordon." The stories people had were incredible. The work was fulfilling, and I was fortunate enough to work for people who gave me enough interesting things to do that it kept me challenged. I ended up being a field representative, where you go out and interview people in their homes and you gave talks at rotary clubs or retirement organizations, that sort of thing, and then a supervisor and a part-time branch manager for a while. I just found the work very interesting and rewarding.
SI: At some point, you moved from Massachusetts out to the West Coast.
WO: I had a friend of mine who, when we were living in Portsmouth, he was a fraternity brother who was stationed at Pease. He was getting out of the Air Force, and he had been stationed at Mather in Sacramento, Mather Air Force Base. His wife was a Douglass graduate who we knew, and my wife's a Douglass graduate also. He started on this campaign, "We're going to go back to California. Why don't you guys go?" We thought, "Yea, right, we're going to pick up and go to California." I have to say, he was relentless in this, and then after a while, we got to thinking, "Why not? We've been in New England for a while; let's try something different." I put in for a transfer within Social Security and got offered a job in Sacramento and they moved us to Sacramento, so we went. That was another thing where there wasn't any plan at all. I mean, we'd been to Sacramento before on our cross-country trip, so we knew a little bit about the area, but it was just a shot in the dark really. That's what we did. I put in for this transfer, and then within, I'd say, four months, we were in Sacramento, which was probably one of the best things we ever did. Our parents probably thought we were nuts.
SI: What did you think about life out there?
WO: It was great. We had a blast. My wife got a job at a department store there and ended up becoming a buyer and then a merchandiser. It ended up being a career for her, which was great. That fabric store experience, the experience in Portland, Maine, that all helped, and this ended up being a real career for her. We loved living in California. It was just a real hoot.
WO: From an employment and a cultural standpoint, California was great. We spent ten years there. We rented an apartment and then bought a house. To buy this house, we assumed a mortgage, which nobody does anymore, and then we were there when real estate prices in California started their first real climb. We traded up to a bigger house with a bigger yard. We had two dogs, swimming pool, hot tub, and we just loved it. We became avid skiers. Lake Tahoe was ninety minutes away; San Francisco was ninety minutes away. That was the benefit of Sacramento; it was between a lot of this other stuff.
It ultimately led to us leaving there because it ended up being a little bit limiting. Nothing was a novelty anymore. We got a little restless, and my wife got offered an opportunity to work back in New York City. Her father's health had deteriorated a little bit, and I was ready to leave the government. I wanted to get out of the government and try to do something else at that point. She got this job in New York. They moved us back to New York. I took a leave from Social Security to look for another job when I got back here, and that all worked out just as well as the California move did. We were very fortunate in that regard.
The other odd thing was, in California, there were five of us out there, four of whom were all friends at Rutgers and in Zeta Psi. We all just re-bonded out there, and we'd spend weekends together, almost like the equivalent of big weekends at Rutgers. We'd get together and go rafting in Sacramento, and we'd go up to Sea Ranch, north of San Francisco, for a long weekend, went skiing together. We palled around together the whole time. They were all in the Bay area, and we were in Sacramento. The odd thing was that within a year, we all left California for other places. We still, to this day, all get together a couple times a year. They're in Kalamazoo, Austin, D.C. and here, but that friendship was solidified there and has remained ever since. It's been really great.
SI: When you came back, was that 1985?
WO: '85, yes.
SI: Yes. That's when you went into radiology?
WO: Yes, yes.
SI: Tell me what facilitated that transition. What did you like about it?
WO: We came back, and my wife had a job from day one. That was a tremendous help. I started answering ads in The Times for jobs, and one of them was for a position in a radiology department here managing the non-technical aspects of the department. Radiology takes X-rays, but they generate a report, they generate films, they store films. There's a whole administrative workflow thing behind the scenes that most people never see. They wanted somebody who had some experience with procedures and workflow and were looking for someone with some computer experience, which I sort of had at Social Security. They wanted somebody who at least had the aptitude to deal with that sort of thing. It was a pretty entry-level job managing people who did the back-office work, receptionists, file clerks, transcriptionists, like the people who transcribe these interviews, that sort of thing.
It was at a point where radiology departments were all becoming computerized. The first step in that was to put in a digital dictation system, where radiologists are dictating not on tapes but onto a computer disk that stored their voice dictations and were then transcribed by a transcriptionist. It was really a mini-computer that stored all that dictation. They needed somebody to run that. Then, the other thing that they were doing was putting in an information system that really kept track of everything that a patient had done in a radiology department, from an exam being scheduled to an X-ray being taken to a result being distributed, films being stored, where they go, transmitting those results out to referring physicians, and that sort of thing. That was actually the really big part of it that I got involved in and really enjoyed the most, because it was just in, basically, the infancy of that whole computerization of radiology departments. Not that there weren't hospital systems that kept track of patients that all came into the hospital, but those gigantic systems were too big and too non-specific for individual departments to get much benefit out of them. Individual systems were developed for radiology, for lab, for surgery, and other hospital departments. I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of that.
SI: Did you remain in that field until you retired?
WO: Yes, yes. I worked at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital; that was the initial job. I have to say, I was really fortunate in working for a couple of people who were real, first of all, trendsetters in that whole field. My ultimate boss, a radiologist and department chairman, was just a terrific person, who I still remain friends with. He saw the importance of that sort of thing, promoted it, and was very supportive. He facilitated anything we needed to get that system in place and running in those hospitals.
Then, later, the hospital merged with Beth Israel, it became Continuum Healthcare, and a couple of years after that, I ended up going to work for one of my vendors, the IDX Corporation. They were the ones that took over this information system from Digital Equipment, who had actually developed it. IDX was a small Burlington, Vermont-based company that had other computer systems, but they were looking for people who could help them with implementing their radiology system after the sale was completed. They looked for people who actually had experience running the system. It was kind of a natural progression for me. Plus, the other advantage there was I got to travel, because it was dealing with their customers nationwide. I traveled to Texas, California, the Northwest, pretty much everywhere for them.
It ended up being a very good fit. It was the first time I'd ever worked where I wasn't behind a desk pretty much all day long. This was probably two-and-a-half to three weeks of travel a month, and then I worked a week or so from home, just catching up on the stuff you had to do. It was a great blend for me, and I got to travel a lot of places that I never had been before. I really liked it. It was great.
SI: You have had several different careers, but maybe we can look at the last part of them, since you were there for the bulk of your career. What were the greatest challenges that came up in your field or in your work specifically?
WO: It was mainly something that the sales training from Proctor & Gamble probably had some effect on, and that was to try to convince someone that your point of view on how something should be done is the way it should be done. The one advantage that I had in working for IDX was having the experience of implementing this system. It was software that cost about a million dollars and up. Usually, it was like a million-and-a-half to buy the software and do what you had to do to implement it, and it was largely in departments that had no computer system before. IDX thought it was a huge advantage to have somebody and others like me, who had implemented it from scratch and made every mistake you could make and learned from those mistakes and then figured out better ways to do it. It was extremely configurable; you could set it up in many different ways for all the functions it had to manage.
When you walk in to a hospital as a vendor, most of these places look at you with some suspicion to begin with. Their attitude usually was, "Well, you don't work here, so you don't know the way this place operates. We're totally different from any place else." The odd thing about it was, they were no different from anyplace else. They didn't realize it. Everybody had basically the same job to do and the similar conditions under which to do it. It may differ slightly, but by and large, it was all the same. Everybody thought they were unique, but they weren't.
I just found it very fulfilling to do that in kind of a semi-sales situation, where it really wasn't a sales situation. I could figure out pretty early on--I mean, the way we would do it is we'd go in, and for a week or so, we'd go through how they did everything. I wanted to find out how they did everything they did, who did it, when they did it, why they did it, how come they did it this way as opposed to another way. Then, I'd come up with this document that would say, "This is the way I think you should do it, and this is why I think you should do it." There would be a big presentation in front of all the decision makers in the department and the IT department, saying, "This is how I think you should configure and implement the system and this is the workflow you should follow." By the end of it, I can't remember one instance where they would say, "You're wrong; we're going to do it our way." Everybody bought in to the fact that this was the best way to do it. From my perspective, just getting that fulfillment, I enjoyed that. I liked it, because I didn't have to sell them soap. [laughter] I could sell them a way of doing things, as opposed to a product.
SI: Looking back, do you see any ways that either your experience at Rutgers or in the Air Force affected your life afterwards?
WO: Yes, I would say hugely. With Rutgers, the thing is that nothing there was ever handed to you. You weren't coddled in any way at Rutgers; that can be a good thing or a bad thing. [laughter] For me, I think it was a good thing, in that you had nobody else to rely on other than yourself. The thing was, if you sought it out there, I always had the feeling you could find that. I never felt that I got much from an advisor that I talked to at Rutgers, because I didn't really ask for much and they really didn't pursue checking in with you. I sort of figured I knew it, or I could figure it out myself. I think that was one of the biggest things that I got out of Rutgers. Of course, not every decision I made was necessarily a good one, but I thought I had to rely on me, not someone else. You hear tales about people--not back then but more in the present--who would really rely on advisors or a faculty member to help them along the way. The idea of a mentor, it's sort of foreign to me because I never felt that I needed that. My Rutgers experience had a lot to do with that.
One very minor example of the way things went at Rutgers was the way you used to register for classes. You went to an office and you got IBM cards for the class you wanted. Well, one time, we got to this office, and it was in the College Ave Gym--I remember this--and the guy said, "I'm going to go to lunch now, so you'll have to come back after one o'clock." We're standing there saying, "Well, this is ridiculous," and the guy left and he didn't lock the office. We just went in, and we took the cards we needed for the sections we needed and walked out. It was that sort of thing where you just figured out a way to do something and you did it. Whereas now it seems as if everybody needs someone to guide or mentor them all along the way. At least that's my sense of how things are. Granted, that kind of thing can be helpful, but how does that help you be a functioning, independent person in life? I don't know how it does. Rutgers definitely did that for me.
I think the Air Force was that way too, because they didn't ask for volunteers. They'd say, "You're doing this. You're doing that." You either had to do it and learn or not do it, and so you did it. I'd say that was a huge thing, more from Rutgers than the Air Force, but definitely from both that I got out of both of them.
SI: Well, is there anything that we skipped over that you would like to talk about?
WO: Just two things. One, I mentioned my father was a merchant seaman. One of the summer jobs that I got through him was as a seaman working on the ships, another huge work experience and a life experience for me. It was one of the things where his company hired people during the summertime who were mostly the sons of employees in the company. I was certainly privileged in the fact that my father was an officer, and I got the job through him. Working on an oil tanker for two summers was really an eye-opening experience, and it was manual, grunt labor, most of it, but it was way more interesting than any other summer job I ever had. Being on a ship out of sight of land was a totally new experience for me. No towns, no buildings, no houses, no traffic. It was the best summer job I ever had. I wouldn't have wanted to do that as a career, but first of all, it paid really well. Plus, you got to work with guys who may have seen you as just spoiled college kids who came to work on the ship, but you had an opportunity to win them over, to show that you weren't there just to slack off for a summer, and actually get your hands dirty and do the work. It was just a really cool job to have as a kid.
SI: You said there were two things.
WO: Yes, the other thing is I wanted to put in here a remembrance of a friend of mine from high school. We were very good friends and had many connections beside living in the same town and being in the same class. His father and my father worked for the same company. We belonged to the same swim club. We were in the same Y group. We played on opposing Little League teams. We competed on some teams together. He was a kid named Ronnie Bond, and he went to the Air Force Academy after high school. After he got out of the academy, he was stationed at Mather AFB, which was in Sacramento, right where we moved after he was out of there. He went to navigator training while he was there because his vision wasn't good enough to get into pilot training. When I was stationed at St. Margarets, I read in the Air Force Times that he was missing in action in Laos on Sept 30, 1971, and it was a huge emotional hit at that point. I mean, here was a kid I was good friends with. We palled around together. You're at the age where you never think anything at all can happen to you, and it was the first point in my life where I lost somebody who was close to me. I don't want to make this any more dramatic than it is, but we were just really very good friends. To lose somebody who had everything to live for senselessly there was just a terrible thing, and it has stuck with me all these years.
One of the great things about the internet is you can find out all kinds of stuff, and I found out about the Vietnam Virtual Wall and the remembrances left there of people who were lost during the war. Through that, I got in touch with his roommate from the Air Force Academy, who just put me on to how to search for documents on the government's POW [prisoner of war] website, which is just breathtaking in its scope and depth. I was finding out more details about the accident that he was involved in, what transpired to try to locate him and his pilot, and what his family went through post being MIA in Vietnam. His parents and my parents kept in touch because of the Haddonfield connection and the Atlantic Richfield connection, and it just haunted that family until both the parents died, that he was lost. They always held out some measure of hope. So, that experience--plus what ROHA does in documenting people's experiences in the service and combat and that sort of thing--kind of went hand in hand, so I just wanted to make sure that I mentioned this. [Editor's Note: VirtualWall.org is a website that provides an information page on every military service member whose name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Wall, in Washington, D.C. The website was first opened to the public in 1997.]
SI: Absolutely, I understand.
WO: It was just a sad, sad thing.
SI: He must be on the Wall in Holmdel. [Editor's Note: The New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Museum is located in Holmdel, New Jersey.]
WO: Oh, he definitely is. Yes, I've seen his name on the Wall in both D.C. and in Holmdel. They never recovered any remains and he was later declared KIA as kind of an administrative action. It's just a sad, sad story.
SI: Thank you very much. I appreciate all your time today. Again, if you think of more, either I can come back, or you can add it to the transcript. I really enjoyed the interview. We got some great material, and I am glad we got a little more information about his life, just to follow up on the last piece.
WO: Yes, well, I am too, and thanks for doing this. The only other thing I just wanted to say is--I wanted to save it until the end--that by doing this, I don't have any notions that what I did at Rutgers or in the service or after in my life was in any way significant. Compared to many of the people who have been interviewed for this, what I have done was absolutely nothing. A good friend of mine encouraged me to do this, and I think he was right in doing so, especially after being at the last meeting. [Editor's Note: This refers to the Rutgers Living History Society (RLHS) Annual Meeting in April 2019.]
WO: Hearing the stories from some of the other people who've done this, because of their life experiences--forget Rutgers, forget the war, forget all this other stuff--just immigrant experiences, the experiences of minorities and that sort of thing, they're incredibly powerful stories. That was really brought home to me at that last ROHA meeting in April.
SI: I am glad to hear that.
WO: That was just a very inspirational day, I thought.
SI: Great. We want to get everyone's story. From that to the social and cultural history of how people get to college in general, Rutgers specifically, all of that is very important, and it is good to have another South Jersey person. [laughter] I will conclude now.
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Transcribed by Jesse Braddell 12/20/2019
Reviewed by Zach Batista 4/27/2021
Reviewed by Kathryn Tracy Rizzi 6/17/2021
Reviewed by Chip Olsen 7/26/2021