Clark Field Memories (Part 2)

A flame tree in full bloom in front of base headquarters

“I was young then – younger than I’ll ever be again by a thousand years.”

Mark Twain
Wurtsmith School, the way I remember it in 1959, adapted from a photo
in the 1958 yearbook at WHOA

Wurtsmith School

Cheers, cheers for old Wurtsmith High,

You bring the whiskey, I’ll bring the rye.

Send the Freshmen out for gin

And don’t let sober seniors in.

This was my first time living in an airbase outside of Arizona, and I had major adjustment problems. This was partly because I was a bookish and quiet kid- an absolute magnet for the rougher element. It was also because the crowd at that time really was a bit tough. I remember that there was a noticeable amount of drug commerce between Wurtsmith and the Filipino village on the other side of the chain link fence. There was a pair of easygoing twins that I knew from Scouts, one of whom had his nose broken by a much older boy while riding on the buses.

The high spirits culminated in an incident where a gang of Clark kids went out cruising in Angeles one night and beat a Philippine student within an inch of his life. The next day it was all over the front page of the Manila Times, and the day after that, there was absolute silence. For 30 years, I didn’t know if the kid lived or died.

I found out, curiously enough, when I posted some of the recollections to the Wagner/Wurtsmith list. One of the people indirectly involved wrote me and told me more of the story. A Filipino had committed a particular daring crime against several American families. The beating was in revenge against the man that they thought was responsible. The victim did pull through and at least one of the attackers was punished and did some time in Philippine jails.

Wurtsmith was housed in several locations during my brief stay there. At first, it was in a facility near the golf course. We moved to the Wurtsmith facility near the base perimeter halfway through my 1959-1960 eighth grade year (And I believe that they built Wagner High in the school area that I first attended). School started fairly early in the morning – around 7 or 7:30, and got out quite early in the afternoon – I think it was 1:30. Considering the long tropical days, this left a lot of kids with a lot of time to kill. For many, this meant cruising in the free buses at night. The bus lines were named after colors – it was the yellow or blue line that went past our house on Maverick Street, on its way to the central depot right next to the BX.

The first teacher that I remember from seventh grade was a science teacher, a no-nonsense black woman named Mrs. Butler. She had each student recite a verse from the Bible at the beginning of every class. One kid, a rather rough-hewn red-headed fellow named Tom Naylor, always quoted “Though shall not covet thy neighbor’s ass.”

Our home room teacher was Mr. Gilbert Rethmeyer, the social studies teacher. A Miss Bovers was the math teacher and Mr. Rickerts was English. The coach, at least in 9th grade, was named Don Blow. In the second half of eighth grade, we had a series of lectures about Philippine culture from a teen-aged Filipina. Mr. Rethmeyer read us Animal Farm over a period of a week. I still remember the chilling words “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” It didn’t occur to me at the time, but those words had special resonance in the two-tiered system that permeated every aspect of base life – Officer or Enlisted. In all fairness, this stratification was our perception at the time. Many people who lived on Clark and wrote to the Internet list said that they encountered no caste system.

Me, then.

There were not too many of my classmates that I remember fondly, but there were a few. Ted Jones, a half Filipino kid, assumed that he would never be living in America (When I saw the 1963 yearbook on the Web, he was the only person I knew from my class). We used to pass cartoons back and forth, drawing interstellar wars between his starfleet and mine. I found out from a reader recently that Ted moved to Japan and married a Japanese woman.

Others that I remember were Law Henderson (who was the envy of everybody because he had the entire album of Big Bopper songs), L.G. Young and Gordon Ward. A kid named David Dawson was one year younger than me – I remember that he had his own full-sized pool table. One of the girls in Mr. Rethmeyer’s home room, D’Arcy Guerin, read my page and became the first person from my class to get in touch with me.

Master Sergeant Sam H. Ballard

Dad in 19973

My dad was a master sergeant and flight inspector in the 509th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. The insignia was a precursor of a rock band that would come into existence 6 years later – a skull with a rose growing through its eye socket. My dad told me that it was against the rules for master sergeants to work weekends, so the timesheets carried the days Friday, Friday1 and Friday2. Dad was an enlisted man by circumstance and by temperament. He told me that there are only two kinds of people in the world – officers and enlisted. “When I say ‘Yes sir,’ in my mind I am saying ‘Cur.'” I didn’t inherit a single one of his mechanical ability genes, but he told me something that has served me well all of my life – ‘In dealing with machines, if something doesn’t want to go – don’t force it.”

He was already an active Mason when he got to Clark, and became extremely active in the Leonard Wood Lodge. The lodge was named after a general who led some troops after a tribe of Filipinos who would not accept American authority after the Spanish-American war. Wood chased the natives to the cone of an extinct volcano and then shelled them from the sides of the crater. This made him an instant hero in America, and also a target for Mark Twain who thought the operation was hideous. The lodge was memorable for its pot lucks – at least that’s what I remember best. At one of them a man told my father, “You know, I’ve been watching that skinny kid over there. Every time somebody comes in late, he runs over and tries whatever they brought.” My dad said, “Yes, I know that kid. He’s my son.”

There was a lot of commerce going on with liquor and cigarettes. It seems that everybody bought their full allotment even if they didn’t smoke. I heard a lot of statements from a lot of people to the tune of “Well, everybody does it.” Indeed – and everybody went back loaded with treasures of furniture and native art.

The artwork tended to be the sort of thing you might see in Mexican border towns. Lots of black velvet paintings – nudes and bullfights for the most part. By far, the most popular artifact seemed to be the ‘Happy Buddha,’ which would give good luck to those who rubbed his tummy. Another was the giant fork – about the height of a yardstick. `I still have one of the caribou bookends in my living room.

The Base Library

My favorite place on base was the library, which had the best selection of science fiction that I would ever see in any library. When I got there, I was reading the adolescent science fiction books by Heinlein and Clarke, but I soon took advantage of the base library’s awesome collection and started reading adult science fiction – by Heinlein and Clarke. Later I branched out to Lewis Padgett, E. Everett Evans and Robert E. Howard. I would spend many hours there, leaving when I had to because of 9 pm closing.

Thanks to Sgt. Jim Clark, who served at Clark in the early 1950’s for this wonderful shot of my second home at Clark.

Sometimes walking back at night, the mosquito control trucks would be driving by, creating an artificial fog. Other nights, the base was running low on power, and this resulted in “brownouts,” where lights ran at 50% capacity.

One of my greatest regrets was that I never learned astronomy at the time. I remember that you could see the stars very well, and I must have seen the Southern Cross any number of times, but I just didn’t know what I was looking at. On those nights coming back from the library, I was so saturated with science fiction that I would pick out moving objects in the sky (almost certainly weather balloons) and imagine that they were UFO’s. I would send telepathic thoughts to them – “Come and get me. Take me out of this place.”

Another time, I was walking back from the library during the day, thinking that I would soon forget this perfectly ordinary moment, so of course I remember it to this day.

Another memorable night included a dinner visit for two Australians who were on the base for a meeting of “SEATO,” the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. They were great fun, full of stories, and possessed an uncanny ability to put away San Miguel. Years later, one of the two happened to come across my page and realized that he was reading about people he had met, so he dropped me a line. Here is a picture from that night:

Side Trips

My dad went around with a camera collecting unusual road signs. His favorite was “Look Out! One way only!” Another was the shingle for a doctor who specialized in “the diseases of women” or the “painless dentist” in an open air clinic.

We made one trip to Baguio, and I vividly remember the ride up, with the endless hairpin turns over the rice paddies. Some of the bridges could only handle one lane of traffic at a time. Busses would go flying across them, even though the bridge was only about six inches wider than the bus. Wherever you drove, Filipinos would wave and yell “Hey Joe!” They were still pretty happy with America for driving out the Japanese, so feelings were basically good (although my Dad was once horrified to see newsreel footage of Manila crowds in 1941 waving Japanese flags). However, we were told that if we had any traffic accident in a barrio we had to drive to the next village and turn ourselves in to authorities – even if you ran over somebody. There was just too great a risk of being surrounded by a hundred relatives and neighbors.

We stayed at John Hays in a cabin right across from a well preserved Japanese tank relic that you could climb into.

For war-obsessed kids, it was heaven. Further down the road, there was a formal Japanese garden. We drove through town, and my dad stopped to take pictures of the Baguio meat market. The only thing you knew for sure about the carcasses hanging out in the open was that they were originally mammals.

Another favorite side trip to the North was the drive to Hundred Islands. A caravan of us went out and rented a boat which took us to our own island for the day.

Some of our friends were at a beach about 100 yards away, so I decided to swim over. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, because there was a large coral reef that blocked my swim. I decided to go back, so I kicked once against the coral, and got a foot full of spines from the sea urchins that lined the reef. I was limping for just a few days afterwards.

I never made it down to Subic, but Dad did.

We also made the trip to Corregidor. In 1959, the evidence the war was incredible. I remember walking through MacArthur’s tunnel (actually called the Malinta Tunnel), which seemed like an incredibly huge hangar carved in the side of the mountain. Check HERE for an excellent site with details of the tunnel. There was a lighthouse at the highest point of the island – it was the first lighthouse that I ever visited. We had soft drinks in a large bamboo building that was the site of the treaty signing when the island changed hands. We also saw giant installations of rusty squat cannons. It is said that the Japanese chained American POWs to these and forced them to fire at their own planes. Their accuracy rate was not high.

We knew one sergeant who made the trip to Corregidor a number of times. He had been through the Bataan Death March, and ended up as a prisoner there. He would visit his old cell and stare at it silently for hours at a stretch. My parents were scandalized that the Air Force would be insensitive enough to send him back to the Philippines. Eventually, he was in the base hospital, in the terminal stages of self-inflicted liver disease. My parents were there the night he died, and they say that the doctors brought in a death certificate for the semi-comatose man to sign. He had enough presence to hold the pen and make some sort of squiggle. Two days later, his widow called the Red Cross, and heard from someone who bluntly asked her “Okay, what do you need to get moved out?”


My most vivid memory from Wurtsmith – on my last day of school there, I was walking through a field (across from the hobby shop), covered with a kind of clover that closes its leaves when you walk on it. When I got to the far end, I saw that my footprints had already disappeared where I had started across. Even as a kid, the symbolism did not escape me. A few days later, Kennedy was elected president, and it was the beginning of an era for all of us.

Life After Clark

After I left the Philippines, I finished high school at North High in Phoenix, went on to Phoenix College (where I was in Freshman English with Nick Nolte) and a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State – I majored in English simply because it was my best subject. Then I worked for the next two decades as a paraprofessional at the Phoenix Public Library. Meantime, I had met Donna Weiss at the library and we married in 1972 and had a son named Robert Daniel ten years after that. Eventually, I got a master’s degree in Instructional media, and another master’s degree in library science. That got me a job as a systems librarian in New York in 1990 (where I once helped Long Island Railroad gunman Colin Ferguson at the reference desk), and we’ve been there ever since. Until I lived in New York, my years in the Philippines were the most interesting time of my life.

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