Tobacco officer helps clear the air in Gallatin County

A few months ago, while in the hospital recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, Rick Gale remembers his doctor asking him those standard medical questions:

Do you have any allergies? Are you taking any medications? Do you smoke?

It was that last question that almost cracked Gale up. He replied, “You don’t know what I do for a living, do you?”

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Bozeman’s unknown, underground factory

At about 9 a.m. most days, Sharon Harvey unlocks an uninteresting wooden door in an alley downtown, climbs down a steep and wobbly metal staircase and starts her day as the last employee of the Allied Manufacturing Company.

AMC was founded in the 1950s by Bozeman’s notoriously secretive businessman William J. Sullivan. The factory makes two products, both invented by Sullivan: a jeweler’s solder called Tix and Crazy Ducks, a magnetized novelty that has been sold by the millions since 1956.

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Trio of veteran Belgrade teachers retiring

BELGRADE — Every day for the past few weeks, a new load of freebies has appeared on a table in the teachers lounge at Ridge View Elementary.

The rulers, crayons, construction paper and other supplies — which disappear almost as fast as they are laid on the table — represent a tiny portion of the leftovers from three teaching careers that came to a close here Friday.

Long-time third-grade teachers Lynn Johnson, Jan Savko and Diane Thomas all retired last week, closing the textbook on 113 years of combined Belgrade teaching experience.

Johnson, Savko and Thomas had discussed retirement with each other over the last few years. Eventually they decided leaving at once would be best.

“We didn’t think it would be the same if one of us didn’t come back one year,” Johnson said.

Although it was a love of learning and kids that led the three of them to teaching, each of the retirees took a different path to their classrooms.

Johnson, who started teaching in Belgrade in 1972, said she became a teacher because she knew it would be something she’d be good at and because having summers off meant more time with her family.

Thomas studied to be a secretary at Montana State University until switching to teaching in her senior year, after many people told her she was a natural. She was hired in 1970.

Savko started teaching in Pennsylvania before moving to Belgrade in 1974. In need of a job, she walked into Heck-Quaw Elementary School and asked for a job. The next day, without papers, a resume or an interview, she was hired.

All three have taught at Ridge View since it opened 10 years ago.

The job has changed over the years. They’ve gone from ditto machines to photocopiers, from records to CDs and from pencils to computers.

But more than the technology has changed. Teachers and students now face more pressures from standardized tests and educational policies, they said.

“Sometimes we can’t let the kids be kids as much because they have to get ready for the next test,” Johnson said.

All of them said it was the kids that kept them at the chalkboard so long, and their love is reflected by the multiple generations of students and parent-students who have passed through their classrooms.

“‘Just one more year,'” the kids plead, Johnson said. “They ask, ‘What about my brother and sister?’ And some of their brothers and sisters are still in preschool.”

Debbie Berowski, whose twin girls Ashley and Lauren were in Savko and Thomas’ classes, said many parents are sad to see the three veteran teachers go.

“They are very friendly and outgoing, bubbly, funny, just somebody you could easily sit down and chat with,” Berowski said. “As a parent I just know my kids are in the best hands.”

“They’re not only excellent teachers but also lifelong learners and important people in the community,” said Principal Mark Halgren. “They’re really irreplaceable.”

In retirement, Thomas hopes to have time for fishing and camping, to take care of her mules and to do some sewing. Johnson hopes to have more time with her children and grandchildren.

Savko said she plans to continue on at Ridge View as a substitute teacher or, she joked, start a new career as a waitress — if she ever gets her classroom cleaned out.

Even though the school year is over, the reality of retirement will probably not hit home until the end of summer, when it would be time to get ready to come back.

“As a teacher, you’re always on the run, and now we won’t have to be,” Savko said.

For all the fond memories of all their years in the job, there is one thing that the women won’t miss about being a teacher — a question answered in unison and without hesitation: correcting papers.

Do you have an idea for a story? Michael Becker welcomes all suggestions. Contact him at 406-582-2657, [email protected] or on Twitter at @superjaberwocky.

Earl Vining: Filling in holes

It was the winter of 1950. Earl Vining had only been in Korea for a few months, and already he’d been wounded twice.

“When they sent me back again, I knew I was going to get killed,” Vining, now 78, said.

Then, one day, a lieutenant popped his head into the hospital tent and asked the question that Vining credits with saving his life:

“Does anybody know how to run a bulldozer?”

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Behind the scenes on the Backroads beat: Learning Spanish

I just got back from an interview for my next Backroads story, due out Monday. This will be the third Backroads in a row to profile a local veteran — the series is a lead-in to Memorial Day at the end of the month.

Earl Vining in his military daysI interviewed Earl Vining, a 78-year-old veteran of both Korea and Vietnam. Earl is a talker, and reporters love talkers. The problem, though, is that you wind up with more material than you can possibly fit into the column inches allotted to your story.

I guess that’s why the journalism gods created blogs.

Anyway, here’s a story that Earl told me during our interview today.

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Behind the scenes on the Backroads beat: Pranks aboard the Seahorse

For my latest Backroads article, I visited for about an hour with World War II veteran submariner Richard Clower at the retirement community where he lives in Bozeman.

Richard ClowerNeedless to say, the story that appeared in Monday’s Chronicle was not a transcript of an hour’s worth of conversation. Plenty of material got left in my notebook, including one story I thought was worth sharing.

Clower told me that at one point during the war, his sub, the USS Seahorse, was sent out on lifeboat duty — fishing downed aviators out of the water and giving them a ride back to port, presumably so they could get another plane and another crack at the Japanese.

Once, the Seahorse saw a Japanese plane go down, so the crew moved in to rescue its surviving crew members, Clower said.

Only three airmen survived the crash. Of them, the pilot drowned himself rather than be captured. Clower figures this was because the Japanese soldiers were told that awful things would be done to them if they were to become prisoners of the Americans.

The second crewman, the copilot, was badly injured in the crash and died shortly after being hauled aboard the Seahorse.

The third survivor, plane’s radio man, was kept aboard the sub as a prisoner.

Now, the Seahorse was on assignment. She couldn’t just run back to a friendly port to drop off the prisoner, so the Japanese airman had to stay on board.

Eventually, they gave the Japanese man the run of the ship, since “he was mostly harmless,” Clower said. He wound up spending quite a bit of time in the radio room with Clower, who was a radio operator aboard the Seahorse.

Over the 40 days the prisoner spent on the sub, he learned enough English to get by and managed to make a few friends among the crew.

However, near the end of the sub’s assignment, some joker decided it would be fun to play a little prank on the prisoner, Clower said.

The guy told the Japanese man that when they reached port, Marines would come to take him away and put a bag over his head. The reason for the bag, the prankster said, was because the Marines were going to cut off the Japanese prisoner’s head, and they didn’t want to get blood everywhere.

The Japanese man understood enough English to be scared out of his wits, Clower said, especially when Marines did come to the boat for him and did put a bag over his head.

Of course, nobody cut his head off. He eventually returned to Japan. Some of the Seahorse crewmen kept in touch with him after the war.

Still, I have to wonder: Why do some guys have to be mean like that?

Memories of the Seahorse

Just a few months before the end of World War II, the submarine USS Seahorse was sent to the Sea of Japan to map underwater minefields in preparation for a possible Allied invasion.

Richard Clower
Richard Clower (Photo by Sean Sperry/Chronicle)

On board was Radioman 2nd Class Richard Clower. A native of North Carolina who had qualified for the Olympics as a sprinter before the war, Clower was in his third year aboard the Seahorse.

During five wartime patrols on the sub, Clower and the crew had come under attack many times. Depth charges and airplane attacks had become part of the extraordinary “normal” that comes with war.

But Clower, who now lives in a retirement community in Bozeman, said that of all the attacks, the one in the shallow waters off Japan was the scariest.

“That was the only time I could honestly say that I didn’t think we’d make it out of there,” he said.

He did make it, of course, and so did the Seahorse, which limped back to port after the attack.

Now in his 80s and retired after a career as a school administrator, Clower looks back on his time in the Navy with mixed feelings.

He enlisted in the Navy in August 1942 after studying at the University of Wisconsin’s radio school, and once he was in, Clower volunteered for the submarine service.

“Many of us who enlisted, I guess they’d say it was the thing to do,” he said. “You want to do something unusual, something different that helps other people.”

But the submarine service offered more than just adventure. During his time on the Seahorse, the sub damaged 15 enemy ships and sank 24, including a Japanese troop ship — fully loaded.

“There must have been 4,000 guys in the water, and there was no way they were going to survive,” Clower said. “They were Japanese soldiers, but we got to thinking later on that they were people, too.”

Being responsible for the deaths of thousands of people isn’t easy to reconcile, he said, and those feelings only grew stronger as the years slipped by.

Remembering that it was part of a larger effort, part of the ultimate goal of winning the war, doesn’t help much.

“You don’t think about goals; you only think about your own survival and killing the enemy,” he said. “And you don’t think about Judgement Day either. If you did, you’d go crazy.”

Thankfully, Clower said, there are plenty of other memories to go along with the combat, like the time spent in Hawaii or Australia between cruises and the friendships made with crewmates.

“The least amount of memory I have was sinking ships,” he said. “You have to remember the other things that happened.”

He still keeps in touch with his crewmates and has attended a convention with them for years, but, odds are, that won’t last much longer.

“Probably this year or the next will be the last,” he said. “There just aren’t enough left.”

Despite the sacrifices — Clower never did make it to the Olympics, though he now runs in the Senior Olympics — he remembers that it was his choice to go to war, and he can’t imagine his life going any other way.

“Every war has a unique experience,” he said. “Those people who aren’t in it will never experience it. And you never want other people to experience it, but you’re glad you did.”

Michael Becker can be reached at [email protected]

The poetry of Twitter, or the significance of what you had for breakfast

Twitter: Millions use it to broadcast tiny bits of thought and notes about their days to other Twitter users around the world.

Some see these often inane and uninteresting dispatches as proof of Twitter’s worthlessness, but not Robert Bennet and Ben Leubner.

The two Montana State University English professors see strong ties between Twitter and some of the best poetry of the past century.

About 35 people attended the professors’ mid-April talk on the “Poetics of Twittering,” held in conjunction with National Poetry Month.

“We thought it was a way for people to see a connection between poetry and what they’re doing in their daily lives,” Bennett said.

Critics of Twitter, like political analyst William Bradley, say they don’t want tweets about a person’s breakfast interrupting their day.

Bradley wrote, “If someone … demands to tell me about their desire for a baked potato and a viewing of ‘The Singing Nun,’ I’m not too happy.”

But Leubner argues that a tweet about this morning’s breakfast can be about more than simply waffles and orange juice.

“We see something deeper in the idea of what you had for breakfast,” he said.

As an example, Bennett notes poet Frank O’Hara, who often wrote in a style prescient of Twitter, as in his 1964 book “Lunch Poems.”

In “A Step Away from Them,” O’Hara describes the sights seen on a lunch-hour walk: people eating, cabs driving, a bargain wristwatch.

“A glass of papaya juice and back to work. My heart is in my pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy,” O’Hara wrote.

“There’s this idea that art has to be deep and abstract and about Greek mythology,” Bennett said. “Yeah, that’s one kind of art, but not the only kind.”

Twitter is an appropriate medium for our fast-paced modern times, Leubner says, Plus, it can be a gateway to writing and reading poetry.

“You should take the material of your life and turn it into something interesting,” he said.

“There’s a real challenge to tweeting. You have to say something important and say it quickly,” Bennett said.

“Instead of telling the kids to quit tweeting and go to school, we should teach them to be more thoughtful in their tweeting,” he said.

Further reading: The professors suggest O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the beat poets as good starting points for “daily life” poetry.

Michael Becker always wants story ideas. Reach him at 582-2657, [email protected] or on Twitter at @superjaberwocky.