m. 5 Nov 1916
m. 25 May 1938
Facts and Events
In His Own Words
Interview with Reece Mayer by his grandson, about 2002.
My name is Reece Mayer. I was born in McCall in 1918 on a ranch 6 miles from town. January 6th they had 2 feet of snow on the ground my mother said. She and my dad had only been married 2 years and were farming. And in those days with that much snow a doctor couldn’t get there so they hired a midwife. She would come out a week or 10 days ahead of time and stay until the mother was able to take care of the child.
My dad raised wheat as the main crop and in 1920 they had a big crop year price-wise. A cousin of mine, older than me, rented 40 acres; put in a crop and got $5000 for that wheat. He said it was the most money he had for years. The next year, 1921, they had a financial panic, they called it in those days. Things got so rough that wheat would only bring 10 cents a bushel, and down in the valley in the Boise area people were buying wheat instead of coal and burning it for fuel because wheat was cheaper. That was when things were just beginning to get rough. My mother and father were leasing the ranch from my mother’s dad and they couldn’t get enough on the wheat to pay the taxes and so they moved down to Emmett in early 1922.
I went all through school in Emmett and graduated in 1935. The Great Depression started in ’31 and the worst years were ’31, ‘32, 33’ and ’34. The main industry in Emmett was a big sawmill that shipped out lumber, and that mill shut down in 1931. It hired 500 men – people I mean, a couple of girls worked in the office, I’m sure lots of girls work there now – but it didn’t turn a wheel for 2 and ½ years. I was, in those years, in high school, graduating in ’35.
To this day I don’t know how that town made it. There were some ranches near the main street but farmers had to leave town and look for work elsewhere; but it was hard to find. Every summer for 4 years through high school I worked on a ranch up in the McCall area with my cousin. We milked cows, put up hay, gave the skim milk to the calves and some hogs and the only money they had out of all that was the cream that they took to town once a week – that was their main cash.
Those years, ’32 and ’33 particularly, were real dry years and there were a lot of forest fires up in that country. There were a lot of men that came through, way more than they ever needed in the forest service. I’m not talking about hundreds, I’m talking about a thousand or two or more than would show up all throughout that area. There was Boise National Forest, Payette National Forest, Idaho National Forest; ’33 particularly I remember, you could look out at night from the ranch house, look out at night when they had some of those lightning storms and you could see all those ridges and hills around there on fire, a beautiful sight. With the lightning, BOOM, BOOM, you couldn’t tell if it was the flames coming up or the lighting coming down. They hired those guys to fight the fires and they had a lot of them, the CCCs were going then. They had them come out there and working all year round but they like them up there in the summer. They brought them in by the truckload off the streets of New Jersey and New York and Brooklyn. It was a new class of people for me at that age, you couldn’t hardly understand the people from New York. But they got labor, they got money that way. And people would come in hobos, but they were regular people, riding the tops of boxcars and everything else. You could see those people coming in, there would be 50, 60 at a time. The town was full. They would go out – they all had a pack on their back and a bedroll. They even had to have their own bedroll in those days in the Forest Service. Now, they give them all that stuff you know.
To show how hard times were, in those years Emmett High School didn’t have enough money to graduate students in caps and gowns. They told the boys they could graduate in chords and a white shirt, but the cords had to be clean. (In those days the dirtier boys got their cords the better they liked them. They got so dirty they said they could stand them up in the corner by themselves.) Girls were allowed to wear a plain gingham dress. The class of 1935 which I was in was the first one for which times were getting a little better, and we put out an annual. And we graduated in caps and gowns.
I’ll get in my pitch here. I was playing basketball at the time; I wasn’t heavy enough to play football. Tall and skinny I was then. But I was captain of the time. Now, every year we always had to play in the district tournament against Boise and Nampa. Boise only had one school and was supposed to have 30,000 population. Our population was only 3,500. We beat Boise 2 out of 3 times to get to go to the state tournament. It had never been done before and has not been done since. But because the town was small, it went nuts over us winning the district tournament.
I worked summers and made a little money, but a lot of other people, high schoolers, could only make money in our town picking fruit and working in the packing houses in the summer. It was quite a fruit town and shipped sweet cherries east to New York. That was a big deal. I picked cherries and prunes all through high school, and I was pretty fast so I did pretty good, but it didn’t last long; two or three weeks at a time at most. Kids worked wherever they could, and there wasn’t a lot.
At that time politics was a big topic, Roosevelt and closing the banks, and the election of 1932. Roosevelt won again in 1936. The mill in Emmett started up again after 2 and ½ years. It didn’t run full blast, but they had enough to start going again. It was Boise-Payette in those days. Later, sometime after the war, it joined up with a big mill in Yakima, Washington called Cascade Lumber Company. They knocked off the “Payette” and called it Boise Cascade, a big operation now.
History books say that Roosevelt got us into the war with Japan, but he needed Japan to do the attacking. Churchill wanted him to jump in to the war against Germany, but he had no reason to. We had had enough of war in the First World War. Of course, Japan attacked us so he had a pretty good reason. I’m one of those that believe that he and his right-hand man, Harry Hopkins got the word from Hawaii the day before, because they had broken the code, that Japan was going to attack. They knew that all those ships were gathered out there, but they didn’t know what was going to happen and they should have been prepared. The generals on Hawaii went to a dinner and didn’t do anything. They say to this day, and I’m one of them, that they might have done that deliberately. Because you know what happened. They court-martialled the admiral and the general, they took the rap.
I don’t know nationwide, but everybody I knew wanted to join the service. I was what they called a pre-Pearl Harbor father; I got married young and had a two-year-old daughter. She was born in ’39. I had to stay home: they wouldn’t take me, because I was in an industry that they needed men in real bad. I worked for Union Pacific railroad from 1943 to ’47 as a brakeman. While I was on the railroad there was an extreme shortage of help. Pocatello was a railroad town and a huge marshalling town for freight cars. At one time during the war they had room for 10 trains in the yard, each one 100 boxcars long, sitting there waiting for crews, because they didn’t have enough help to take them anywhere. There was a lot of freight coming west then.
They had, back 10 or 15 cars from the head of the train, every trip or two, big box cars with great big sins saying, “explosives.” The freight cars had big heavy wheels with grease cups on the side of them that they called gearboxes. They would pack them with cotton rags soaked in oil to keep them cool and keep them from catching on fire. And they would every one in a while – it was a common occurrence. The engine man and the break man on the caboose would all the time have their heads out the window looking up ahead to see if they could see any smoke coming from the gearbox. If they did they would yank what we called the emergency cord which would put on the breaks and stop the train, and hike up there real quick to put out the fire. We would just hope it wasn’t on one of those boxcars with the big explosive sign.
Towards the end of the war, about 1944, it was really tough. We didn’t have nearly enough help for all the boxcars moving through. The Union Pacific main line went right through that country. There was a train both ways every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, loaded with soldiers. Fort Lewis up in Washington was a hugh training ground – they even had quite the encampment out here, Camp White, in Medford. They had, really, way more help in the service than they needed, but they took them all anyway. This one year particularly, they drafted guys from the service that had been drafted or enlisted from the East – Pennsylvania, New York, and all the big cities back there. They would send them out to work on our railroad. I worked with more than one man in his army fatigues, working as a brakeman just like I was, and he was earning 50 dollars a month while I was earning $300 to $400 a month. If you’ve ever seen some mad guys, those were the ones. Those times, with the shortage of help that they had, that’s where they got the phrase, Rosie the Riveter, because often there were more women working than men. I had an aunt that worked for Boeing then.
I was a good student, I studied hard. I was playing athletics, basketball and tennis, but I made the honor roll. Anyhow, unbeknownst to me, my Dad contacted the druggist in town, his name was Hailey, who was the head of the Republican Party in Idaho. Down the street was a hotel and a billiard parlor, and the guy who ran it, Frank Knox, he used to let us boys from the basketball team after practice when we had the time play pool. We weren’t supposed to if we weren’t 18, and I was only 17, but he let us play anyway. But he was the head of the Democratic Party for all of Idaho. Anyway, my father went to see George Hailey, and they cooked it up, as they hadn’t had anyone from town go to the military academy in [Annapolis?} since 1922, they thought they should get a candidate again to go and they tried to get me. My Dad didn’t even ask me if I wanted to go, and when I got off school he made me go up to the University of Idaho. I wanted to lay out that year and get bigger and heavier, because I thought I could be a Pacific Coast 10 basketball star. The coaches told me that I had a chance. I was shooting one handed back then. Hank Louis said he popularized the one-handed shot back in 1935 at Stanford – back in those days you had to shoot two handed. But I was shooting one handed long before that.
I was supposed to go to school for 2 years and take a lot of physics and engineering courses, and then Hailey would give me a non-competitive appointment to West Point. I joined a fraternity at Idaho State, mainly because meals there were only $30 a month. My Dad gave me $200 and I went up there in September. And let me tell you in that that fraternity, the hazing was something awful. They had paddles, and every so often if you did something wrong they would have you line up on what they called the firing line, and you would get your behind paddled. They were thick, solid paddles, and every so often they would break one on you.
At West Point back then, hazing was a big deal. I didn’t believe in hazing, and after my first year I didn’t want to go back there because I knew how they hazed. And I knew that if I had to get up and sing for my breakfast, stuff like that and even worse, I would end up hitting someone and getting court martialled. So I disobeyed my father and refused to go back, and I lost the appointment to West Point.
The guy that got the appointment I would have had was named Chad Nell. He graduated in the spring of 1941. His first assignment as a second lieutenant was in the Philippines, and he got killed the first 3 weeks of war. That’s where I could have been.
I couldn’t find a job back then, except that boxcar job that ran a few months of the year, and I got married to a gal named Maxine out of high school. The only jobs she could find was wrapping bread in a bakery in the morning for a few hours and working as an usher in the movie theater for a couple of hours in the evening. And so we got married and moved to Oregon where I had a full time job.