Posts Tagged ‘ action ’

BEAUTY QUEEN TELLS ABOUT HER ADVENTURES IN LIFE

THE HUMAN RACE

LIFE’S REALITIES FROM A FORMER BEAUTY PAGEANT WINNER

 

     Lee Turner was one beauty pageant queen who wasn’t afraid to tell her true story,  looking at life and death as she lived it.

     Here’s the still-timely interview I wrote 26 years ago:

     Despite their years, the expressive brown eyes are youthful and unmistakable trusting. As we sat across from each other in a corner booth at Buffy’s coffee shop in old downtown Torrance, California, Lee Turner revealed what those eyes had seen in 74 years of life.

     I’ve never used the word sweetness to describe a woman’s face. But in Lee’s case, it was a perfect fit. Even before she spoke, her eyes would reveal the emotional thoughts behind them.

     It wasn’t all good. It wasn’t all bad. Yet there were moments of terror that still lingered in her memories. There were moments of love, restlessness, confusion — and times when she felt “on top of the world.”

     For Lee, motherhood was one dream that never materialized. After several miscarriages, she could never have a baby of her own.

     The last pregnancy lasted six months.

     “It broke my heart,” she remembered. “But looking at the world today, maybe it’s just as well.”

     Although she shrugged away those memories, she recited “My Great Desire,” a poem she wrote after she lost her last child, as if it happened just yesterday.

     “I wish I had a darling boy to tuck into his bed,

     To put away each baby toy and smooth his tousled head.

     I’d walk so proudly down the street

     And take his chubby hand

     And smile at ever one I’d meet

     And look upon his face so tan!

     God, is that too much to ask,

     A favor which seems quite small?

     I would try to master the heaviest task

     If you would heed my call.”

     A half-century before we met, in the former Torrance Auditorium, Miss Leila (Lee) Mae Combs, a striking 24-year-old brunette paraded across the stage in a one-piece swimsuit and high heels.

     In competition with nine other young women, she won, selected as the first Miss Torrance in that city’s history.

     “The country was still very poor then. The Torrance Moose Lodge sponsored the beauty contest. I came prepared to sing a ‘song poem’ I wrote. But it wasn’t necessary.

     Lee walked away not only as Miss Torrance 1939 but was awarded a new swimsuit, a beach towel, a robe, a free hair shampoo and set at a local salon, and the opportunity to compete in the Miss California beauty pageant in Venice, Calif.

     “I lost that one,” she said, smiling.

     Beauty contest winners, Lee noted, “have it made today. If they were asked to compete for the kind of prizes I won, they’d say, ‘Forget it!’ In my day, the honor of being selected as a pretty woman was important.”

     As a young women, her favorite actress was Clara Bow. “I wanted to be like her,” Lee said. “In 1940, she moved into a girlfriend’s apartment in Hollywood, worked as a waitress and taught ballroom dancing while pursuing an acting career. But Hollywood never beckoned.

     “A couple of producers offered to show me their etchings,” she said, giggling. “I told them, ‘No way!'”

     She would never forget the Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. “Even now when I think of it, I break out in goose bumps.”

     On that fateful day, Lee and her first husband, Eddie Guillow, a crane operator, were newlyweds living in a small house near Honolulu Airport.

     “I was sitting at a breakfast table writing a note to my mother on a Christmas card when I heard the sound of a plane,” Lee recalled. “It kept getting louder and louder. Suddenly, the house seemed to explode.”

     A Japanese Zero riddled her home with machine gun fire, the bullets penetrating the breakfast nook only a foot from where she was sitting. “I ruined the note,” she said, laughing at the irony. “I dove for a door jam, thinking it might be an earthquake.”

     Then a second plane zoomed overhead, dropping a bomb that exploded across the street, sending chunks of shrapnel into her house. About the same time, her husband was operating a crane near the battleship USS Arizona, which was under heavy attack. “When the Arizona exploded and sunk, Eddie had to dive off the crane and swim under the burning oil to safety.”

     A year later, back in the U.S. while walking with her sister-in-law, Lee said she “hit the dirt” when a plane passed overhead. “I felt embarrassed. But when my sister-in-law started laughing, I told her, ‘It’s not funny!'”

     Her husband was killed in a crane accident in 1947. Five years later she married Ken (Buck) Turner. A maintenance supervisor for the Torrance Parks Department, her husband died several months later.

     “It seems that everywhere I go, something drastic happens,” said Lee, who grew up in Torrance in a family of eight children and graduated from Torrance High School there.

     Another calamity she found herself in the midst of was the devastating Long Beach earthquake in 1933. “It was a very foggy Friday afternoon,” she recalled. “I was in the kitchen of my second-story apartment fixing french fries when the building began to sway and shake.

     “Polytechnic High School was right next door. It’s tower collapsed and fell onto my front yard. I was 18 years old and terrified. When I sat down at the breakfast nook, a second temblor tore the gas stove from the wall and knocked me out! When I came to, I was covered with french fries.

     “I was trapped in the kitchen. Rescuers had to break into the room to get me out. Other than a bump on my head and being scared half to death, I was fine.”

     At that time, I asked, “At your age, with all these experiences, what have you learned about survival?”

     “I live today as if it were tomorrow. I have girlfriends. I like to go places. I was a liberated women long before my second husband died. I don’t like to see what’s happening in the world. But I love visiting downtown Torrance.

     “I plan to be around long after everyone else is pushing up daisies,” she said with  that sweet-faced smile.

     Suffice to say: Lee Turner, if she’s still alive today, was my favorite beauty queen.   Ever!

 

                        — Boots LeBaron —

 

 

NAVAL/MARITIME OFFICER REMEMBERS THE HELL OF WAR

THE RING OF LIFE

 

COMBAT STORIES RECALLED BY U.S. NAVAL/MARITIME COMMANDER

     In 1989, then Mayor Katy Geissert told me about a 78-year-old Naval veteran whose American flag autographed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was stolen from a convalescent home. At the time, I was working as a free-lancer writing everything from human interest stories and essays to light poetry.

     Katy was serving as the first female mayor for the city of Torrance, Calif. What began as a brief interview with retired Naval/Maritime Commander Lloyd Jasper Ellis, stretched into days. I saw his credentials, believed his words, and wrote this story. It was carried on the front pages of a few newspapers, including The Daily Breeze, a Copley paper. Although I didn’t work

at The Breeze, I was there when his wife, Maureen, brought him into the newsroom on a wheelchair. In full uniform, he struggled to his feet and stood proudly for a photo that made the front page of The Breeze.

     Although I edited the feature slightly, meet the crusty old U.S. war veteran whose wife said she “rescued” him from the convalescent facility where she had cared for him, married him, and finally brought him home where he recalled his wartime adventures.

     Believe it or not, here’s the story he told me during a surprisingly long interview which I wrote about the ancient warrior:

 

     Birth is a gift. Life is an adventure. Death is a tragedy that even the courageous might welcome with open arms.

     “Many times,” retired Naval/Maritime Commander Lloyd Jasper Ellis admitted wishing “the sun would never come up, at least for me.” Not while serving his country during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, but over the decade he was being shuffled from one hospital to another, winding up at society’s last stop: a convalescent home in Torrance, California.

     When a bomb explosion blew him off the bridge of a cargo ship as it headed down the Saigon River in 1971 during the Vietnam War, Cmdr. Ellis suffered a serious head injury.

     “I was in a coma for months,” he told me. “When I finally came to, I couldn’t talk, think, and my legs were paralyzed. The surgeons must have left a couple of loose wires in my head.

     “When I was younger, I felt that a man who’d commit suicide has gotta be a coward. I was wrong,” said he sat in a wheelchair with his caretaker-wife, Maureen, 48, at his side.

     What I had anticipated to be a brief interview stretched into hours. Although dates escaped him, the stories he’d recall was far more than a old seaman’s yarn. For Ellis, with memory fading and a body that was anything but shipshape, hell appeared hard for him to forget.

     I first learned about the commander from Torrance mayor Kathy Geissert who told me about an elderly man in a convalescent home where his American flag which was personally autographed for him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was stolen.  

     The second eldest in a family of 5 sisters and 4 brothers, Ellis grew up on a fruit farm in Garfield, Arkansas. In 1928, right out of high school, he enlisted in the Navy. Following his discharge, he remained in the Naval Reserve and went on to college studying mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland.

     The day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was called back into active duty. Eight months later, serving aboard the USS Edgar Allen Poe during the invasion of Guadalcanal, a bomb struck the ship, rupturing steam pipes in the engine room severely scalding the young engineer.

     Months later, he was aboard another ship that was sunk by German torpedoes in the North Atlantic. “This was early in the war before they started using convoys,” he said. “We floated around for four days before a Dutch trawler picked us up.”

     He described the feeling of watching your ship sink as “helpless, sad and depressing. Your ship is your home. Down with it goes all your personal belongings, your letters, uniforms, pictures of loved ones, and some of your shipmates.”

     Ellis vividly remembered the nine invasions he participated in during The Big War: Guadalcanal, North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Naples, Normandy, Toulon (a seaport in southeast France), Marseilles and Okinawa.

     After the death of his younger brother, Harold, a B-17 pilot who was shot down over Germany, Ellis described himself as “bitter.”

     That, combined with experiencing the loss of shipmates with the sinking of the USS Poe, caused Ellis to volunteer “to make the first wave of any invasion the military cared to send me to.”

     In 1943, off the western coast of Italy, Lt. Com. Ellis was aboard another troop carrier, the USS Georgian. “They had bombed us pretty heavy and we lay dead in the water,” he recalled. The Germans boarded the ship, captured five officers, including Ellis, and transported them to a prisoner-of-war camp in Czechoslovakia.

     “Every morning the Germans would come by and say, ‘You goddamned Yanks, this is the day you’re going to get it!’ One day they loaded us into wooden boxcars. We were jammed together. There was no velvet seats in those cars. We knew we were headed for the gas chambers.”

     As the train sped along the tracks, Ellis and a chief petty officer, Felix Bond, broke a hole in the side of the boxcar and jumped off “in the middle of nowhere. My arms, knees and face were badly scraped up and Bond broke his leg.”

     The two men hid in the brush during the day and, using the stars to navigate, traveled at night. “We didn’t want to go west. That led to Germany. If we were captured we knew we’d be murdered.”

     A distant light led them to a small farmhouse where a Czech

couple and their teen-age daughter lived. “The girl spoke almost fluent English. They had no love for Hitler so they hid us in the stable, fed and doctored us as best they could. They were scared but very brave. They knew they’d be killed if they were caught harboring allies.”

     Although Bond was too injured to travel, Ellis somehow had to get to Prague, which was about 10 miles from the farm. He claimed he had to locate the underground by reciting the code word, “Mickey Mouse.” The problem was how could a 200-pound Yank, who didn’t know a word of Czech, find that needle in the haystack?

     “The woman shaved my head. She cut off her long hair and glued it to my head. They gave me an old dress, a hat and a walking stick. Oh, and two shoes that didn’t match. I was some sight.

     “They put me on the road and pointed me to Prague. I hitched a ride part way on a horse-drawn wagon. But most of the way I walked. I spent hours on the streets. My feet were killing me. I find somebody and whisper ‘Mickey Mouse.’ Most of them thought I was a crazy old lady.”

     Finally, he said, a man responded with another code name which Ellis no longer remembers. “He took me into a cellar, dressed me in a French uniform and got me to the French border.”

     When he made it back to England, he volunteered to participate in “commando-type missions to help evacuate Jewish and Slav refugees across the English Channel.” Months later, Ellis found himself on another mission aboard the SS Benjamin Contie, a troop carrier which was wired with high explosives.

     On June 6, 1944, the Contie was part of the first wave to hit Ohama Beach during the massive allied invasion of Normandy. He claimed it was the sixth invasion he participated in.

     “We pulled up so close to shore we scraped bottom; unloaded our troops, blew out our hull, turning the ship into a permanent bunker,” he recalled. “There were four other ships in that invasion just like us.”

     Two battleships, the USS Texas and USS Arkansas, were firing their big guns from a distance so close to the Contie “the concussion would knock some of us down. I lost my helmet and my right eardrum because of those damned 16-inchers.”

     He recalled a grisly memory aboard the Contie during the invasion: As an Army sergeant was supervising the debarkation of troops, a cable snapped, decapitating him. “He body took a few steps then fell forward into the arms of two soldiers.

     “A soldier picked up the head. I’ll never forget. The G said, ‘Look, he’s trying to say something.’ I looked. The eyes were open. The mouth was moving. I said, ‘Let him talk. Maybe he’s talking to God.'”

     Listening to the old commander, I was convinced that he was telling what he remembered was the truth. Hard to believe, it was not a yarn designed for Hollywood and John Wayne.

     But his adventures continued.

     Expecting to be transported to a hospital ship on the second day of the invasion, Ellis climbed onto a British minesweeper. In less than ten minutes, the sweeper was struck by a bomb, split in two and sunk. He was knocked overboard. Soon an amphibious landing craft plucked him out of the ocean and carried him into the thick of the invasion.

     That same day, he said, a jeep driving past him hit a landmine and Ellis suffered serious injuries, losing part of his stomach and chalking up a second Purple Heart for his war chest. After spending time in an English hospital, he traveled aboard the Queen Mary, which had been converted into a hospital shop, to New York where he was discharged from the Navy and re-enlisted in the Merchant Marines.

     As a Maritime commander, he returned to the wars. Following the invasion of Sicily, he transported Gen. George S. Patton and his Third Army troops on a few occasions. During that period, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited him to meet her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a hospital in Warm Springs, Georgia.

     “He was very sick,” recalled Ellis. “But he was sitting up in bed puffing on that long-cigarette holder. That’s when he shook my hand. The president, said Ellis, tried to write a brief tribute

on presidential stationary. His handwriting was illegible, prompting his wife to write the note. In part, it read, “…

knowing your military history, I consider you a brave man and a great credit to the United States.” Right then I told him that the real heroes are the men who never make it back. I still believe that.”

     The president managed to autograph an American flag, which he presented to Ellis. After it was displayed in Torrance, Calif. on Memorial Day 1988, the flag was stolen from the convalescent home where he was being cared for.

     On May 13, 1989, dressed in his Maritime uniform, Ellis married Maureen Buckley Kerger, who had “rescued” him from the same convalescent home where his American flag was stolen. Thus began another chapter in the life of an Arkansas farm boy who went to war so many years ago and had seen his share of hell on Earth.  

               END

    NOTE: Tomorrow, July 4, 2015, (Independence Day), I’ll tell Ellis’ story about the day the commander refused to allow Gen. George S. Patton to bring his pit bull terrier aboard the USS Thomas W. Hyde, a troop carrier. It was in the midst of World War II.

 

 

A WARTIME LOVE AFFAIR THAT LIVES ON

THE HUMAN RACE

 A WORLD WAR II ROMANCE THAT BEGAN

AT THE MAJESTIC BALL ROOM

      It was a night in November 1944. Rain was pelting the sidewalks, lightening was sparking across the Pacific Ocean, and World War II was raging when two 18-year-old kids — a sailor on shore leave off the USS La Grange and a 10-cents-a-dance girl — danced their first dance together.

     Jack Perry, a tall rawboned signalman soon to head off to war aboard the attack transport, had ducked out of the storm into the Majestic Ballroom. It was a legendary haunt at The Pike, an amusement park in Long Beach, California where big bands played and servicemen swayed and jitterbugged with girls for 10-cents a dance.

     Across the packed ballroom floor was Ruth Balding, a statuesque blonde. She had blown her first paycheck as a bank trainee on a coral-colored gaberdine dress with gold-rimmed buttons running down the front.  

     A couple of hours earlier she sat alone in the garage of her parents’ home in nearby Harbor City crying. The storm was ruining her life. She loved to dance. Besides, she wanted to show off her pretty dress that cost a whopping $28. At the last moment, a friend gave her a lift to the Majestic.

     And that’s when the shy swabbie, who grew up in Ajo, a tiny copper mining town in Arizona, forked over a dime to dance with the daughter of a shipyard worker. Although Jack couldn’t jitterbug, one ten-cent dance ticket led to another. And another. And they fell in love.

     But that’s not the end of the story.

     Several weeks later their romantic interlude ended when Jack shipped out headed for a war in the South Pacific which included the invasion of Okinawa. Months later, measured by a stack of censored love letters, the USS La Grange pulled into San Francisco Bay.    

     As the ship’s launch, loaded with sailors, neared the dock, there was a lone woman standing there to greet it. A teary-eyed ten-cents-a-dance girl named Ruth. She had taken a Greyhound bus to San Francisco, talked her way past the shore patrol, and stood alone, shivering in the cold, waiting for the sailor boy who couldn’t jitterbug. The one who, despite kamikaze attacks on his convoy and the fear of death, wrote all those bushy love letters.    

     On November 3, 1946 they were married. Now in their 80s living in Torrance, California, the love affair continues. “There isn’t a day that goes by — with the exception of an occasional catastrophe — that Jack doesn’t make me laugh,” said Ruth. “Happiness. That’s what love is.”

 — Boots LeBaron —

(This and many other human interest stories

interspersed with poetry and essays are featured

in Boots’  current book, THE HUMAN RACE

by Boots LeBaron available on Kindle and in

 paperback on Amazon)

WRESTLER GRAPPLED WITH IMMIGRATION AND MAN MOUNTAIN DEAN!

THE HUMAN RACE

 DANTE REMEMBERS LIFE IN RING DURING THE GORGEOUS GEORGE DAYS.

 

    More than a half century ago Leonardo Rica, a 22-year-old Italian-born immigrant accompanied by his mother and younger brother, arrived by ship in New York Harbor.

     Like millions of foreigners who come to America, their mission was to find a better life. They spoke no English, only Italian and Spanish.

     Leonardo, a ruggedly handsome, mustachioed 225 pounder who grew up in Argentina and trained as a Greco-Roman wrestler in Buenos Aires, was determined to become a professional wrestler.

     With no command of the English language, finding his way around New York City was at times difficult. “If I was in Brooklyn asking directions to 33rd Street and someone would call it, ‘toity-toid’ street, I’d be lost,” said Leonardo, laughing.

     A long time resident of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Leonardo had initially intended to compete as a wrestler in the Olympics. Instead, he began “free-style” wrestling in Argentina before coming to America.  

     His childhood hero was Argentine Rocca, a world famous “no nonsense” champion known as the Bare’footed Warrior. Rocca helped bring his young protege Leonardo into the profession where even in those days theatrics sold tickets.

     It was a non-steroid world dominated by a collection of powerful characters using box office monikers like Gorgeous George, Man Mountain Dean, The Great Moto, The Destroyer, Killer Kowalski

The Strangler, The Syrian Assassin, Chief Blue Eagle, Mr. America, Kayo, Mister Terror, The Jumper and Gentleman Jim (who was anything but a gentleman).

     As a professional wrestler, the Italian kid from Argentina became Dante.

     “I liked that name because it sounded evil. Most of the hundred or so matches I had on the East Coast, I was the straight man.”  

     Playing the bad guy, he said, “was part of the act. If the audience booed, hissed, or even threw objects into the ring, it was a successful performance. One time, a little old lady was so mad, she climbed into the ring and hit me over the head with an umbrella.”

     For Leonardo, “that was like an Academy Award nomination. Just like today, there was eye gouging, arm twisting, body slamming, lifts and drops — all sorts of spectacular moves.”

     Of course, he noted, the “big guys” who dominate the sport today could overpower most of the pros when I wrestled.

     “In those days, we didn’t rely on steroids. My enhancement drugs came from Argentina: Beef, beef, beef and more beef.

     “We were gladiators just like they are now,” he said. “We were like a team. You helped an opponent lift you over his head. He knew how to slam you to the canvas or throw you out of the ring. And you knew how to land. I can’t tell you how many times I was thrown out of that ring. More than a dozen.

     “We didn’t have mats at ringside. So the safest way to be thrown out of the ring was to land on the audience.”

     Man Mountain Dean was one opponent he couldn’t lift or heave anywhere. He sported a black beard, wore dungarees, weighed 450 pounds and was built like a Sumo wrestler.

     “I wanted to beat him,” said Leonardo. “Believe me, I tried. But lift him onto my shoulders! Are you kidding? When he finally pinned me and the referee counted me down, he refused to get off of me. When the crowd started booing, they gave me the match. So I beat Man Mountain Dean.”

     Although he wrestled on the same card with the legendary Gorgeous George, who climbed into the ring wearing a golden cape accompanied by a corner man who played the violin, Leonardo never locked arms with the glitzy celebrity who was also known as “The Orchid Man”.

     “Before every match, George would have his hair curled. Like Argentine Rocca, women were crazy about him. He’d strut around the ring pulling bobby pins out of his hair tossing them to lady admirers. They scrambled after them like hungry sharks.”

     But Dante was developing his own fan base. “Kids would circulate in the crowd selling my autographed photos for $2. That was a lot of money in those days.” Despite only a year of professional wrestling, in 2008 he was inducted into the New York State Wrestlers Hall of Fame.

     Alas, the promising career ended abruptly in 1954 when he was drafted into the Army. When the Korean war veteran was honorably discharged, instead of returning to wrestling, he went into the wholesale jewelry and the photo-finishing business in Yonkers, New York.

    A memory he would forever cherish was the sight of the towering Statue of Liberty that greeted his family when they arrived in New York Harbor from Argentina.

     “I’ll never forget that beautiful lady holding the torch,” said Leonardo. “If she wasn’t so big, I would have hugged her. What do you expect, I was an immigrant, born in Belvedere Marittimo, a small village about 30 kilometers south of Naples in southern Italy.  

     “I was only five when my mother (Victoria), who did without to feed and cloth me, brought me to Argentina so we could be with my father (Francisco).   My mother meant everything to me. We were very poor. As an infant, she would chew up the food and spit it in a bowl to feed me.   

     “She sacrificed so much. My father was a decent man with ways of the old country. He taught me to rely on common sense. Throughout life, I have tried to do that.”

     “I was an immigrant twice,” he noted. “Once as a very young boy coming from Italy to Argentina. Again, as a young man immigrating to the America. I can identify with people from any country wanting a better life.  

     “We open the door for them,” he went on. “Finally, they have something to eat, money to raise a family. Yet, there are those who complain: ‘They are taking my job!'”

     What I would he tell immigrants arriving in United States?

     “You want to live an honorable life? Welcome to America. If you are a criminal, GET OUT! Never come back. Never!

     “As for sending millions back to poverty — good people who work our fields, cut our lawns, do so many menial tasks for so little money — punishing these innocent men, women and children is un-American. Come on! It’s so unfair to turn them away. They come here like so many of us with hope in their hearts.  

     “I believe in amnesty. They deserve it,” said Leonardo. When we met, he had three sons, grandchildren and was divorced. He lived with his brother, Carlos, an aerospace/missile scientist, in Palos Verdes, Calif.

     He died in 2012 at the age of 83. Although he knew their significance, Leonardo couldn’t recall the words written by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning

to breathe free…”

                                     — Boots LeBaron —                                     

             (THE HUMAN RACE, written by Boots, is an

            inspirational self-help book interspersed

          with stories about people, essays and light

  1. It’s available on Kindle as well

                    as in paperback on Amazon)

 

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