Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Big Richard



I don’t know the year, but I remember the time.  We had been in our new building for a few years when the big guy showed up.  He met with an old friend, Richard Coon.  Richard was struggling with cancer and had diminished in size so when he met with this new Richard, they seemed quite the odd couple.  They were soon Big and Little Richard.  Sadly, we lost little Richard soon afterwards to that dreaded disease.
Richard Smith (Big Richard) soon became a steady regular as did our conversations.  I found that Richard was the construction supervisor at Habitat for Humanity.  Since my daughter, Carrie, had been on the list for a house for some time, I asked him one day if he knew how far along she was.  To my amazement, I found that she was right up at the top of the list….number 2.  He came in grinning one morning and told me not to tell her but the person on top had just stepped aside and she now was to get the next house.  It was hard for me not to tell her as she had become a bit discouraged as to whether she would ever get one or not.
Habitat had just had a big plate supper to raise money and I wanted to help also….especially since my own daughter was soon to be a recipient.  I poured over ideas with Richard one day while sitting at the counter.  Now, recently, my best friend Frank Patka and I had gone to a couple of free Texas Holdem tourneys down in Sunriver and I mused whether we could actually raise some money while playing this card game that had become so popular.
I decided to give it a go and purchased some table tops and chips from Walmart that I found on their closeout isle.  I began to promote and Frank and I hosted the first event on a Monday night.  Two people showed up.  I was quite discouraged.  But, the next Monday four people showed up and it grew from there.  Soon, we had two to three tables of players every week.  I had some sweatshirts made up and gave them to the winners in those first months of the growth of the event.  I also gave it a name….Holdem for Habitat.  And the person who was working on my logo agreed to make a logo for the event as her donation.
The popularity grew and while Richard played in those early times, he soon decided to be the chip boss for the event and to coordinate it rather than play.  To me, this seemed a boring task as I loved playing but Richard seemed to take it on with gusto and gained the respect and admiration of the players.  I recall when the local TV station decided to run a piece on our event.  With Big Richard between us, the newsman interviewed us sitting at one of our tables.  This helped bring in even more players.
Then, tragedy hits a bit when my office was broken into after one of the Monday night events.  A dishwasher who quit the next week seemed to be the culprit as he was sitting out behind the building and must have seen me place the bag in my desk drawer.  The burglar knew exactly where to go as he broke through my door and pried open my desk drawer stealing over $1000 of Habitat’s money and around $500 of mine.  It was a lesson learned of never leaving money in my office and of being more discreet around short term employees.
As you can imagine, the theft became big news and it reached out to other areas of the state.  An officer of the Department of Justice called me up one day.  At first, I thought that someone had found the thief.  But, I soon found out that I was the one being investigated.  Now, I had studied the laws and found nothing that I could see as a problem.  But, the investigator soon showed me my error.  Money down for chips, chips played to win, and a prize given to the winner meant gambling.
I was told to rectify the situation, one of those items needed to be eliminated.  I thought that it was going to be the end of the game.  But, I woke up one morning with an idea.  First off, we had recently had a larger tourney where we garnered prizes from some businesses on the coast and also local when Habitat asked us if we could help them raise some money for a special need.  So, what if we eliminated not one but two of the items.  First off, we would donate the original money at the register and then instead of a prize, we would make it a qualification of sorts for the big event that we would run once a year and hold it under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity thus remaining legal.  I contacted the DOJ officer and he said, “I think you might have found yourself a loophole.”.
While we lost some players, the others soon became quite consistent as did Big Richard.  Every Monday, you would find him there before anyone else setting up the game.
 
In fact, Richard did much more than that.  One night after cleaning up afterwards, we sat once more over a cup of coffee.  “Lyle”, he said, “I really admire what you do in this community with all of your events.  I want to be a part of this.  Don’t ask me if I want to help.  Just tell me where you need me and I will be there.”.

Soon, at all of our events, you would find Richard either running the register, or taking tickets, or cutting pies at Thanksgiving.  In fact, when we had to give up our yearly Thanksgiving affair recently, it seemed almost fitting as how could we do it without him.  When Jimmy would get involved with Chili cook offs, Richard was right there next to him, helping him serve.  And then one day he came in to tell me of a group of vets that he had just joined that were looking for a place to meet.  I agreed to let them come in  to my back room.  After the first week, he asked if they could return the next.  He even talked me into joining up with them.  I found them to be a very interesting and fun group so when they asked me to let them make us their permanent home, I not only agreed but appreciated it.  In fact, I hold it as the defining moment of finally joining my veteran brothers who I had been looking at from the sidelines since I was still somewhat in the closet from my unpopular war of years gone by in Vietnam.
I came to look forward to this group of “Old Farts” as they called themselves.  They and Richard were the foundation of so many things that I do and became the catalyst and center of my mission in life (of sorts).  This might have never happened if not for my friend, Richard.
When the group grew out of the back room and I decided to buffet them in the front, it was Richard who volunteered to stamp their hands when they purchased a buffet meal so that we knew they had paid before joining the line.  That also placed him at the door and he became the official greeter of sorts for the group.  All new members saw his smiling face as he directed them where to go and what to do.  It was Big Richard doing what Big Richard did….volunteering his time to help others.
Richard knew that his weight was a problem and pursued what he could do to help himself there.  He agreed to a stomach surgery.  They would decrease the size of his stomach thus forcing him to eat less and lose weight.  He was a bit nervous of this event but felt that it was needed and went through with it.  I remember when we picked him up at the hospital and took him home, they needed a special wheelchair to accommodate his larger body.
He struggled with eating afterwards but soon grew into a diet of sorts that would sustain him.  But other things soon came to be problems also like blood pressure and sugar.  He fought through it all however between revisits to the hospital.  Other family issues became bigger in his life also.  His brother who was living with him had major health issues and soon passed on.  His son needed his help and he was right there as a good father.  And, he missed his daughter and granddaughter down in Southern California.  He would often talk of them and show pictures around to us all.  His little granddaughter had garnered a huge piece of his heart.
He would talk of his other son who lived close by.  Something had happened between him and his wife and it had placed a barrier between them.  While Richard was proud of him, his son held anger over the breakup of the marriage.  This bothered Richard but he could do nothing about it.
One of our servers, Cindy, had become a real estate agent and talked to Richard of a program that he may qualify for to get him into a house.  Before we knew it, Richard had picked out a home south of Sunriver and although it was a struggle soon owned a mortgage on it that he could afford.
While we were happy for our friend, we soon saw less of him.  The cost of coming in every day became just too much.  Our daily meets soon turned into two to three times per week.  I missed my morning greeting of “Good Morning Sir Lyle”.  It actually led me to appreciate him even more when I did see him.  I would come in early on a Monday evening to share supper with him before the poker tourney.
But it did not deter Richard from being Richard.  He saw a need in my kitchen.  Crystal (our lead cook) was on her own.  She had left her husband and was now bringing up their three kids alone.  Richard told her that he would help her get into a Habitat house.
He soon became her mentor encouraging and pushing her to continue on.  He even saw another need through it all.  Her kids had never been to Disneyland.  He took it on as his cause and soon he was taking them on a trip south.  His big heart beat loudly on that trip and it is something that they all will never forget. 
Then, one day he told me that he was going up to Portland for a special need.  The numbers were up on his blood work and they had decided that he might have a bit of cancer.  They told him not to worry as they felt that they could get rid of it early.
His appointments kept getting put off and one time he even drove to Portland only to find it put forward again.  This was frustrating for him and I understood that.  He was assured once more not to worry.  So, it was just another trip up for him last spring.
Then I got the call.  He told me that they had opened him up and then just closed it all back down.  He said that cancer was on an artery and that surgery was out of the question.  I asked him what that meant.  He said, “They give me six months.”.  The shock hit us all but it did not deter Richard…..at least at first.
And then his absences grew and we saw less and less of him.  I took a couple of trips down to see him.  His family brought him in on the fourth of July.  He looked at me and said, “This is the first fourth that I have not worked with you.”.  He would always take tickets for the BBQ that evening.
 I will never forget the last time I saw him.  Richard was laying in his bed watching TV.  Ken and I sat at the foot of his bed and visited.  I looked over and Richard was staring at me.  I stared back and two old friends just looked at one another.  Without a word, tears welled in both of our eyes…..no sound was needed….my friend was saying goodbye.
We held a service for our friend in early August.  I carried his ashes while Ken carried his flag.  David performed his sword ceremony and JW and I piped him off.  It was a beautiful service but a sad goodbye.
But that was not the end of Richard’s story.  His legacy lives on.  Crystal’s house was named the Big Richard build.  Richard made it to the dedication ceremony where a sign with his picture was placed in front of the lot.
Two weeks ago, I spoke in his place at the dedication of the house.  It was a happy event where we spoke of Richard’s dedication and his drive to get Crystal into a house.  I also spoke of how the Band of Brothers may have never taken off if it had not been for Richard.  The bend group is now over 1100 strong thanks much to him.

And last week, I spent Thanksgiving in the house that Richard built….the Big Richard build….Crystal’s new home.  As I listened to the laughter, thoughts and memories of my old friend wafted through my head.  If he were alive, he would have been right there with us.
So….when we sat to eat, I placed a setting on the table for him.  And before we ate we raised a toast….to Big Richard.
Now a family has a home….a roof over their heads and a warm place to retreat at the end of the day.
All thanks to Richard Smith….Big Richard….a part of his legacy will always be close by.


Big Richard



I don’t know the year, but I remember the time.  We had been in our new building for a few years when the big guy showed up.  He met with an old friend, Richard Coon.  Richard was struggling with cancer and had diminished in size so when he met with this new Richard, they seemed quite the odd couple.  They were soon Big and Little Richard.  Sadly, we lost little Richard soon afterwards to that dreaded disease.
Richard Smith (Big Richard) soon became a steady regular as did our conversations.  I found that Richard was the construction supervisor at Habitat for Humanity.  Since my daughter, Carrie, had been on the list for a house for some time, I asked him one day if he knew how far along she was.  To my amazement, I found that she was right up at the top of the list….number 2.  He came in grinning one morning and told me not to tell her but the person on top had just stepped aside and she now was to get the next house.  It was hard for me not to tell her as she had become a bit discouraged as to whether she would ever get one or not.
Habitat had just had a big plate supper to raise money and I wanted to help also….especially since my own daughter was soon to be a recipient.  I poured over ideas with Richard one day while sitting at the counter.  Now, recently, my best friend Frank Patka and I had gone to a couple of free Texas Holdem tourneys down in Sunriver and I mused whether we could actually raise some money while playing this card game that had become so popular.
I decided to give it a go and purchased some table tops and chips from Walmart that I found on their closeout isle.  I began to promote and Frank and I hosted the first event on a Monday night.  Two people showed up.  I was quite discouraged.  But, the next Monday four people showed up and it grew from there.  Soon, we had two to three tables of players every week.  I had some sweatshirts made up and gave them to the winners in those first months of the growth of the event.  I also gave it a name….Holdem for Habitat.  And the person who was working on my logo agreed to make a logo for the event as her donation.
The popularity grew and while Richard played in those early times, he soon decided to be the chip boss for the event and to coordinate it rather than play.  To me, this seemed a boring task as I loved playing but Richard seemed to take it on with gusto and gained the respect and admiration of the players.  I recall when the local TV station decided to run a piece on our event.  With Big Richard between us, the newsman interviewed us sitting at one of our tables.  This helped bring in even more players.
Then, tragedy hits a bit when my office was broken into after one of the Monday night events.  A dishwasher who quit the next week seemed to be the culprit as he was sitting out behind the building and must have seen me place the bag in my desk drawer.  The burglar knew exactly where to go as he broke through my door and pried open my desk drawer stealing over $1000 of Habitat’s money and around $500 of mine.  It was a lesson learned of never leaving money in my office and of being more discreet around short term employees.
As you can imagine, the theft became big news and it reached out to other areas of the state.  An officer of the Department of Justice called me up one day.  At first, I thought that someone had found the thief.  But, I soon found out that I was the one being investigated.  Now, I had studied the laws and found nothing that I could see as a problem.  But, the investigator soon showed me my error.  Money down for chips, chips played to win, and a prize given to the winner meant gambling.
I was told to rectify the situation, one of those items needed to be eliminated.  I thought that it was going to be the end of the game.  But, I woke up one morning with an idea.  First off, we had recently had a larger tourney where we garnered prizes from some businesses on the coast and also local when Habitat asked us if we could help them raise some money for a special need.  So, what if we eliminated not one but two of the items.  First off, we would donate the original money at the register and then instead of a prize, we would make it a qualification of sorts for the big event that we would run once a year and hold it under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity thus remaining legal.  I contacted the DOJ officer and he said, “I think you might have found yourself a loophole.”.
While we lost some players, the others soon became quite consistent as did Big Richard.  Every Monday, you would find him there before anyone else setting up the game.
 
In fact, Richard did much more than that.  One night after cleaning up afterwards, we sat once more over a cup of coffee.  “Lyle”, he said, “I really admire what you do in this community with all of your events.  I want to be a part of this.  Don’t ask me if I want to help.  Just tell me where you need me and I will be there.”.

Soon, at all of our events, you would find Richard either running the register, or taking tickets, or cutting pies at Thanksgiving.  In fact, when we had to give up our yearly Thanksgiving affair recently, it seemed almost fitting as how could we do it without him.  When Jimmy would get involved with Chili cook offs, Richard was right there next to him, helping him serve.  And then one day he came in to tell me of a group of vets that he had just joined that were looking for a place to meet.  I agreed to let them come in  to my back room.  After the first week, he asked if they could return the next.  He even talked me into joining up with them.  I found them to be a very interesting and fun group so when they asked me to let them make us their permanent home, I not only agreed but appreciated it.  In fact, I hold it as the defining moment of finally joining my veteran brothers who I had been looking at from the sidelines since I was still somewhat in the closet from my unpopular war of years gone by in Vietnam.
I came to look forward to this group of “Old Farts” as they called themselves.  They and Richard were the foundation of so many things that I do and became the catalyst and center of my mission in life (of sorts).  This might have never happened if not for my friend, Richard.
When the group grew out of the back room and I decided to buffet them in the front, it was Richard who volunteered to stamp their hands when they purchased a buffet meal so that we knew they had paid before joining the line.  That also placed him at the door and he became the official greeter of sorts for the group.  All new members saw his smiling face as he directed them where to go and what to do.  It was Big Richard doing what Big Richard did….volunteering his time to help others.
Richard knew that his weight was a problem and pursued what he could do to help himself there.  He agreed to a stomach surgery.  They would decrease the size of his stomach thus forcing him to eat less and lose weight.  He was a bit nervous of this event but felt that it was needed and went through with it.  I remember when we picked him up at the hospital and took him home, they needed a special wheelchair to accommodate his larger body.
He struggled with eating afterwards but soon grew into a diet of sorts that would sustain him.  But other things soon came to be problems also like blood pressure and sugar.  He fought through it all however between revisits to the hospital.  Other family issues became bigger in his life also.  His brother who was living with him had major health issues and soon passed on.  His son needed his help and he was right there as a good father.  And, he missed his daughter and granddaughter down in Southern California.  He would often talk of them and show pictures around to us all.  His little granddaughter had garnered a huge piece of his heart.
He would talk of his other son who lived close by.  Something had happened between him and his wife and it had placed a barrier between them.  While Richard was proud of him, his son held anger over the breakup of the marriage.  This bothered Richard but he could do nothing about it.
One of our servers, Cindy, had become a real estate agent and talked to Richard of a program that he may qualify for to get him into a house.  Before we knew it, Richard had picked out a home south of Sunriver and although it was a struggle soon owned a mortgage on it that he could afford.
While we were happy for our friend, we soon saw less of him.  The cost of coming in every day became just too much.  Our daily meets soon turned into two to three times per week.  I missed my morning greeting of “Good Morning Sir Lyle”.  It actually led me to appreciate him even more when I did see him.  I would come in early on a Monday evening to share supper with him before the poker tourney.
But it did not deter Richard from being Richard.  He saw a need in my kitchen.  Crystal (our lead cook) was on her own.  She had left her husband and was now bringing up their three kids alone.  Richard told her that he would help her get into a Habitat house.
He soon became her mentor encouraging and pushing her to continue on.  He even saw another need through it all.  Her kids had never been to Disneyland.  He took it on as his cause and soon he was taking them on a trip south.  His big heart beat loudly on that trip and it is something that they all will never forget. 
Then, one day he told me that he was going up to Portland for a special need.  The numbers were up on his blood work and they had decided that he might have a bit of cancer.  They told him not to worry as they felt that they could get rid of it early.
His appointments kept getting put off and one time he even drove to Portland only to find it put forward again.  This was frustrating for him and I understood that.  He was assured once more not to worry.  So, it was just another trip up for him last spring.
Then I got the call.  He told me that they had opened him up and then just closed it all back down.  He said that cancer was on an artery and that surgery was out of the question.  I asked him what that meant.  He said, “They give me six months.”.  The shock hit us all but it did not deter Richard…..at least at first.
And then his absences grew and we saw less and less of him.  I took a couple of trips down to see him.  His family brought him in on the fourth of July.  He looked at me and said, “This is the first fourth that I have not worked with you.”.  He would always take tickets for the BBQ that evening.
 I will never forget the last time I saw him.  Richard was laying in his bed watching TV.  Ken and I sat at the foot of his bed and visited.  I looked over and Richard was staring at me.  I stared back and two old friends just looked at one another.  Without a word, tears welled in both of our eyes…..no sound was needed….my friend was saying goodbye.
We held a service for our friend in early August.  I carried his ashes while Ken carried his flag.  David performed his sword ceremony and JW and I piped him off.  It was a beautiful service but a sad goodbye.
But that was not the end of Richard’s story.  His legacy lives on.  Crystal’s house was named the Big Richard build.  Richard made it to the dedication ceremony where a sign with his picture was placed in front of the lot.
Two weeks ago, I spoke in his place at the dedication of the house.  It was a happy event where we spoke of Richard’s dedication and his drive to get Crystal into a house.  I also spoke of how the Band of Brothers may have never taken off if it had not been for Richard.  The bend group is now over 1100 strong thanks much to him.

And last week, I spent Thanksgiving in the house that Richard built….the Big Richard build….Crystal’s new home.  As I listened to the laughter, thoughts and memories of my old friend wafted through my head.  If he were alive, he would have been right there with us.
So….when we sat to eat, I placed a setting on the table for him.  And before we ate we raised a toast….to Big Richard.
Now a family has a home….a roof over their heads and a warm place to retreat at the end of the day.
All thanks to Richard Smith….Big Richard….a part of his legacy will always be close by.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Big Richard



November 21, 2014
I remember when I first met him.  It was shortly after I moved over to our present location.  He would come in and meet with another friend of mine, Richard Coon.  Richard was the retired Vice Principal of Bend High and a friend of many years.  They soon became Big Richard and Little Richard to me.  Sadly, we lost little Richard a few years back to cancer.
I discovered that Big Richard was the construction supervisor for Habitat for Humanity.  A very heavy man, I found it interesting that he was living in a 5th wheel trailer....actually sharing it with his brother who I believe we lost to lung cancer.
Carrie was on the list to get a Habitat House so I asked him if it were possible to find out just how high up she was .  He came back the next day, informing me that she was at the top of the list.  Actually, the person to be the first to get a house in the next location.  Shortly afterwards, he came in and told me that if she wanted, a person in front of her had just dropped out and she was in line, if she desired, to gain the last house in the present location.
I sat down one morning with him over coffee.  It was right after a gala event up at COCC where they were raising money for the local chapter of Habitat.  I shared with him that I knew the fellow who had actually started the first chapter here in Bend, some years back.  We had placed a donation box for him at the counter.  I told Richard that I wanted to get involved and help, especially since Carrie was getting a house.  But a fund raiser meal in my place would not raise the money that was needed and besides, I wanted to do something that the local joe could afford to help out with.....and who could afford a $100 a plate meal.
I had been playing a few hands of free Texas Holdem with my buddy, Frank, down at a bar in Sunriver and I thought out loud that maybe we could set up a tourney right in our back room.  I even coined a phrase, Holdem for Habitat.  Richard thought it might be a fun project, so I found some table tops and chips on closeout at Walmart and thus began our new project.
The first night only brought in 2 players.  I thought it was going to be a bust.  But the next brought in 4 more and before we knew it, we had 3 full tables of players.  At first, all three of us played but Richard soon backed out of that.  He said, "You guys play, let me handle the chips" and so he became our 'Chip Boss'.  It had to be one boring job but he handled it well.  Announcing when the blinds were raised, restacking chips, and controlling the flow of the game.  I remember when the local TV station showed up and interviewed the three of us at a table with chips in front of us.
That program, less than 10 years old, has now raised over $40,000 to help build houses for the less fortunate.  As a matter of fact, one of our cooks is to receive the next house do out by the winter.  It is officially called 'The Big Richard Build' and all of our weekly funds are going towards it.  Crystal had Richard as her sponsor as he encouraged her through her process.
Somewhere after Carrie's house was built, Richard announced a special thing in his life....a grandchild.  He was going down to California to see her.  He was gone so long, I thought that he would not return.  So did Habitat, who relieved him of his construction supervisor job.  Richard returned to Bend, jobless but not homeless....he still had his 5th wheeler.  I don't ever recall him complaining, however, life was just what it was.....life.
We soon found out something else that we both had in common, we were both veterans. Another friend had recently walked down the middle of the street in downtown Bend thus starting the Veteran day parade here.  We both started joining the parade the same year.  He, as a part of the American Legion and me with just a few vets in my convertible.  The first year it was just my dad and I.  The next, three other friends joined including Ken Hauge, who became another close friend of Richards through it all.
One day, Richard informed me that he had joined a group of vets that called themselves the Band of Brothers.  I was not one for joining veteran groups.....the pain of the Vietnam war was still present in my mind.  I was a closet vet.  It was just a part of my history.  Even though I had been working with a couple of local organizations, it was not a close part of my life.  That was soon to change.  Richard asked if they could meet at the diner for their Monday morning meal.
I joined the first week, only because I was a vet, they were meeting at my diner, and with the encouragement of my friend, Richard.  So, it became Richard who brought them to the diner where they began to grow in numbers, spawning groups all over the state.  The Bend group that meets at Jake's is now over 1000 strong.  When we grew out of the back room and began a buffet in the front, Richard volunteered to stamp hands being the first person that people would see when they came into the room.
At one of our many breakfasts, Richard informed me that he liked what I did in the community and he wanted to be a part.  "Don't ask me if I want to be in something, just tell me where you want me.", he said.  From then on, that is exactly what happened.  Every BBQ or Spaghetti feed, he was the cashier or ticket taker.  Every Thanksgiving, he cut the pies and served them.   Every Chili cook off, Richard sat right next to Jimmy.  In fact, when we had our Christmas parties, Richard was a part of the crew.
Richard seemed to always be there in the morning before I arrived.  As I walked into the diner, I would hear, "Good Morning Sir Lyle!" .  And I would counter with, "Good Morning Sir Richard!".  His smiling face and generally good attitude just seemed to start the day off right.  Judy also enjoyed his presence and looked forward to his hugs and kisses.  Richard had become a part of our family.
He struggled with his weight and decided that he needed to do something about it.  An operation was set up to take out part of his stomach.  It was felt that with the smaller stomach would reduce his intake and thus assist in weight loss.  I picked him up at the hospital afterwards and we needed a special wheelchair and he was taken down in one of the freight elevators.  He struggled eating things after that surgery.  Most foods seemed to make him sick.  It did assist in his weight loss but also left him somewhat anemic.  He struggled with his blood pressure, blood sugar, and his health in general.
I worried about his living environment.  He lived in a small fifth wheel trailer.  To me it was a bit claustrophobic.   But, it was all that he could afford and he was happy with it. I was tickled with Cindy, one of our waitresses, helped him get into a house down south of Sunriver.  The move gave him room to move around which was good....but it also took him away from us as he could not afford to drive into town every day.  But, he was proud of his new digs and we were happy for him.
He continued to come in to the meetings and to the poker tourneys along with any other event that we staged or assisted but our daily encounters began to fade.  Actually, that made our breakfasts even more meaningful as it would give us a chance to get caught up.
He still struggled with what he could and could not eat and that lead to more tests and to a diagnosis of possible liver problems.  When I first heard that, I worried.  I knew of a few people who had contracted liver cancer and none of them had survived.  My worries seemed to confirm themselves as he told me that the doctor felt he had some cancer.  But, he was not worried.  He had fought other battles and he felt that this was just one more obstacle to overcome.
Appointments were made to have surgery to extract the cancer.  Neither the doctor nor Richard seemed to concern over it but the VA did have problems with their scheduling.  More than once, Richard would go to Portland only to be sent back home because of scheduling problems.  I remember asking him once if that bothered him.  He said that yes it did but only because of the nuisance of it all.  Sooner or later, it would be scheduled and it seemed like a somewhat small procedure.
Then came the phone call from his recovery room in Portland.  The cancer was bigger than they expected and it was attached to an artery and inoperable.  "They give me a year to live", he stated in a confused state.  I knew from experience that the year was probably stretching it.  I did not know what to say to my friend....I struggled to find words of encouragement.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

John Spence



October 30, 2013
For the ones from out of town who cannot get the local paper, here is today's main article:
John Spence, right, talks with Jonathan West in 2012 shortly after West — a Marine — received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service during World War II. Spence, who died Tuesday in Bend, served in WWII and was the first to try out a new diving apparatus that allowed for much greater freedom underwater. Erick Simmel, a filmmaker and historian, says every combat swimmer since can be traced back to that swim by Spence.

World War II vet was a first
John Spence, dead at 95 in Bend, pioneered U.S. underwater warfare
By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin
Published: October 30. 2013 4:00AM PST

"America's first frogman," John Spence, died Tuesday in Bend. He was 95.
Lyle Hicks, owner of Jake's Diner and an active member of the veterans group Oregon Band of Brothers, said he went to visit Spence Tuesday morning and learned he had died during the night. J.W. Terry, president of the Band of Brothers, said Spence had been at an assisted living facility for about a year.
In the years before Spence's death, Hicks, Terry, and California filmmaker and historian Erick Simmel collaborated with Spence to develop a detailed biography of his service in the U.S. Navy. Portions of that biography are excerpted here, including all quotations from Spence.
Born in 1918, Spence was the son of the sheriff in Centerville, Tenn. Spence was 9 when his father was killed, ambushed by a group of moonshiners.
Spence joined the Navy in 1936 and was sent to diving school. Assigned to the USS Idaho, he was primarily a gunner, but on occasion he'd be called on to dive, doing ship maintenance wearing a diving helmet tethered to an air source on deck.
He was discharged from the Navy in 1940, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Spence volunteered to serve as a gunner protecting merchant ships. But Navy officials instead took note of his diving experience. He was told the Navy had a role for him as a diver, and he spent the next three weeks camped at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., waiting to get the call.
A letter from Spence's mother alerted him that his assignment could be something different. Federal agents had been through his hometown, tracking down his former teachers and classmates and asking questions.
The Navy brought Spence to a secret base on the Potomac River south of Quantico, Va., where Spence learned he'd been recruited to the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Italian swimmers had been sinking British ships, Spence learned from his commanders, and so the Navy had decided to form its own group of underwater warfare swimmers.
The term “frogman" was coined during the group's initial training, when Spence tried out a new waterproof suit made from green rubber.
“Someone saw me surfacing one day and yelled out, 'Hey, Frogman!' The name stuck for all of us ... but once again, I was the first," Spence told his biographers.
'Like Buck Rogers'
Spence's claim to being the first American frogman began the day a team of armed Marines escorted him to the pool at a Washington, D.C., hotel, where he was introduced to a young medical student, Chris Lambertsen.
Working in his garage, Lambertsen had built a diving apparatus out of a converted gas mask that allowed much greater freedom for the swimmer than anything Spence had used before. Spence was selected to be the first test subject, and soon he was swimming back and forth in the hotel pool, underwater, with no bubbles rising to the surface.
“It was silent. The only sound was my own breathing," he said. “It made me feel kind of like Buck Rogers."
Other hand-picked swimmers joined the team, and the five-man unit began training in explosives, espionage and close-quarters combat.
Spence was sent to Florida to teach newly formed Army and Navy amphibious units how to use Lambertsen's apparatus, a rebreather. One of Spence's students was Draper Kaufman, recently selected to lead the new Navy Underwater Demolition Team, and often credited as the “father of the Navy SEALs."
During a demonstration of the fins and face mask that members of the demolition team would be using, Kaufman, Spence recalled, told him he didn't really care for swimming.
In early 1944, Spence's unit prepared for its first combat mission. The divers would use small submersible craft to approach the German submarine base near Lorient, where repeated bombing raids had failed to penetrate the concrete bunkers protecting the subs. At the base, they planned to swim inside the bunkers and plant mines, sinking the subs and disabling the locks.
Planned to take place days before the Normandy invasion, the attack on Lorient was scuttled hours before it was set to begin. Simmel said Gen. Dwight Eisenhower “got cold feet," and scrapped the attack, fearing it could alert the Germans that the larger invasion was imminent.
The incident rankled Spence, who had returned to the Navy hoping to see action.
“He had trained so hard for that, and to have them scrub it, I think that angered him," Hicks said.
Spence asked to be relieved from his work with the OSS, and in June 1944, he returned to naval service on the USS Wadsworth as the chief gunner's mate.
Combat action
Spence served aboard the ship through the end of the war, fighting in the battles for Palau, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. At Iwo Jima, Spence got his opportunity to see combat swimmers in action from the deck of the Wadsworth, firing the ship's forward turret to provide cover as a group of UDT swimmers — including Kaufman, the reluctant swimmer — made their way to the beach.
Spence often recalled the story of his meetings with Kaufman, Terry and Hicks said.
“He always thought that was so funny, and then, he laid down fire for that guy at Iwo Jima," Hicks said.
Spence stayed with the Navy until 1961, retiring as a master chief gunner's mate. He went to work for Lockheed, where he'd worked briefly between his initial stint in the Navy and his reenlistment. Simmel said Spence spent several years in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, working at a variety of military subcontractors as a systems testing engineer.
Simmel said Spence and his wife moved to Oroville, Calif., after he retired. When she died in the early 1990s, he moved to the Los Angeles area to live with one of his daughters, Simmel said.
Hicks and Terry said Spence moved to Bend, where one of his daughters lives, five or six years ago. They said they've had a difficult time learning much about his life, and are uncertain how many children he may have.
Hicks said beyond Spence's involvement with the Band of Brothers, he remained active until fairly recently.
“I know that John loved to dance, he would go down to the senior center to dance," Hicks said.
The details of the OSS combat swimming program were classified top secret until the late 1980s. In 1998, Spence and others in his unit were inducted as lifetime members of the Army Special Forces and given Green Berets. The Navy soon recognized the OSS program as the forerunners of the SEALs, and awarded the SEAL Trident to its members, according to Simmel.
Terry said there's a case to be made that Spence, not Kaufman, ought to be recognized as the first SEAL. He said Spence was aware of the controversy, but was largely content to let others argue who deserved credit for what.
“There is some dispute, there's an officer who claims he was the first SEAL," Terry said. “John always was just disgusted by the whole mess, so he just didn't talk about it."
Simmel said there's no dispute Spence was the country's first frogman, and that every combat swimmer since can be traced back to the experiments in the pool at that hotel in Washington.
“Every Navy SEAL owes themselves to John Spence and Chris Lambertsen," he said.
Hicks said one of Spence's daughters told him there are no plans for a memorial service, but the Band of Brothers may hold an event in his honor, and will seek to recognize him in the Veterans Day parade next month.
“The guys will probably do some kind of memorial, some sort of service, because he's so close to us," Hicks said. “He's a tremendous man."