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My life story — if anyone cares

 The Early Years 1936 – 1941

I was born June 7, 1936 in a small house in Lilly-Washington Township.  This was a part of Lilly, PA population about 1,000.  The family lived in rented houses until the summer of 1941 when they bought a house with 3 acres of land not too far from where I was born. 

The School Years 1941 - 1954

I started 1st grade in the fall of 1941.  There was no pre-school or kindergarten at that time.  We went to 1 room schools. 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades were in one building.  Our teacher was Miss Carney.  4th, 5th and 6th grades were in another building taught by Miss Burke.  We rode a bus to and from school about 3 miles each way.  Our bus was painted blue and the bus driver was Tony.  There was no running water in school. We had a 2 gallon water crock in one corner where we could get a drink.  The water came from the well of a house close to the school.  There was no indoor bathroom.  We couldn’t wash our hands after playing outside on the playground or using the outhouses.  I spite of this we were healthy.  There were two out-houses; one for the boys and one for the girls.   During the winter a 6th grade boy was paid to come to school early and get a fire going in a big furnace at the back of the school.  Sometimes it was still cold we got to school.  We would all sit around the furnace with our coats on doing our lessons until it warmed up enough to take off our coats. The furnaces burned wood that was stored in the cellar (basement) of one of the schools.  I started trying to build model airplanes during my 2nd grade.  This was during WW2.  Balsa wood was not available.  If the kit had print-wood it was some type of softwood as pine as basswood.  It sometimes was cardboard.  I remember these as Joe Ott kits.  None of these kit were completed.  I did not know of anyone who built models, so I was on my own.   

We had our school celebrations like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentines Day and Easter.  On the last day of school every one in all 6 grades went on a hike.  When I was in the 5th and 6th grades we would walk through the woods to school in late spring and early fall.  We could leave the same time as the bus and get there before the bus.  The woods were across the road from the school.  The upper classes were allowed to play there during recess and lunchtime. There was small mom & pop grocery store (Pyo’s) up the hill from the school (about 2 blocks) that the 5th and 6th grade pupils were allowed to go during lunch time to buy penny candy. This was called elementary school. 

During recess when it was warm we played baseball, red rover, tag, hide and seek, marbles, numbly peg, jacks, kick the can and capture the flag to name a few.  Numbly peg was played with a pocket knife.  I did know a boy on the 4th 5th or 6th grade boy who did not carry a knife in his pocket or in a knife pocket of out hi-top boots.   During the winter we built snow caves, snow forts and had snowball fights.  Yes we threw snowballs at each other. Then there were always the bullies and fights that ended with scrapes and sometimes a black eye. 

Our days growing up during WW-2 were carefree.  Because we lived on a small farm we had plenty to eat.  We grew vegetables and had a cherry, peach and 5 or 6 apple trees. We could walk to the woods and pick berries.  We had a cow for milk. Soured milk became cheese.  Cream was churned into butter.  Once every week mom baked bread.  That also was the day to make butter.  Fresh bread and fresh butter with home made jam was a real treat. We also raised pigs and chickens.  The chickens gave lots of eggs.  A calf was usually born in the spring.  About 2 weeks before Easter dad’s brothers would arrive early on Saturday.  They would butcher the calf and a pig.  Meat from a calf is called veal.  Meat from a pig is pork.  Veal and pork was ground and mixed with spices to make Polish Sausage.  It is also called Kielbasa.  The hams and bacons from the pig and the Kielbasa were then cured by smoking. This was our Easter foods.  The Kielbasa and hams were shared with my uncles.  There were no large super markets then.  There would be lots of little stores in a neighborhood for bread, lunch meat, canned soup and penny candy.  The candy was not wrapped.  It would be displayed in small glass dishes.  You pointed to what you wanted and it would be put in a small bag for you.  Ours was across the road and two houses away.  It was Mazi’s.  When we needed to go shopping there were the bigger stores in town.

In town we had 4 grocery stores, a hardware store, 2 gas stations, 2 doctors, a dentist, a drug store, a dime store, 3 or 4 bars, about 5 social clubs and the movie house.  The movie was 3 nights a week and Sat and Sun Matinees. The movies cost 10 cents and popcorn was 5 cents.  The matinees were serials; every week was like a chapter in a book.  The ending was called a cliff-hanger.  You would want to go next week to see what happened next.  They were westerns mysteries and sometimes science fiction.  There were no special effects like today.  The cowboys were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Red Ryder, The Lone Ranger and Zorro.  Before the movie started they would show the News Reels.  Before television this is how we saw what was happening around the world. The news sometimes was weeks old.  Then you would see 2 or 3 cartoons before the main feature.  They did not show advertisements like they do today.  They also did not show what movies were going to be playing soon.  In the lobby there would be a poster or two about the movies that were coming.

During WW-2 there was a big board across from the high school names The Honor Roll.  Everyone from the town and surrounding township who joined or was called into the Army or Navy had their name in blue on this Honor Roll.  Walking through town you would see a small white banner fringed with gold with blue stars. There was a star for each person in the Army or Navy. Most banners had one star, but you could also see some with 2 or 3 stars.  If a service member was killed the blue star was changed to gold and the name on the Honor Roll was changed to red.  The blue star mother of the war came from our town.  She had 11 sons in the army and navy.  They all returned home after the war.  The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt had her and her husband at the White House on at least 2 occasions.

Jr. Hi-school was grades 7th, 8th and 9th.  We then went to the big school in town.  Our required classes were English, Math, Health and History.  Electives were Wood Shop for the boys and Home-Economics and Typing for the girls.  We could join the band and or glee club and chorus. Art classes were also offered.  During my 7th or 8th grades I finally was able to finish a model.  These were comet kits made after WW2.  They were rubber powered.  They did not fly.  I did not understand how CG or a warped wing affected the flying of a model.

Sr. Hi-school was grades 10th, 11th and 12th.  In Sr-Hi we also took the required classes as in Jr-Hi. We also could take trigonometry, calculus, science and chemistry. Many girls took advanced typing and shorthand. Sr-Hi students joined the school plays and could play basketball and football.  Soccer was not a sport that we ever heard about.  We did not have a gym or auditorium.  We used the Italian Hall for there events.  Because I had asthma I did not play sports.  I was in band. I learned to play the Bass Drum, Mellophone, Sousaphone and Trumpet. With my cousin, who was the Drum Major, we planned the half time show for the band at football games. I was always a backstage hand for the school plays and I tried to sing in the choir. In today’s schools I would be called a nerd.  My grades were always A’s and B’s except for an F (this does not mean fair or fine) for spelling in the 4th grade. I am still a poor speller.   During my sophomore year a friend and I decided we could build and learn to fly C/L models.  We heard about a small hobby shop in a neighboring town.  We bought Sterling profile Mustangs, OK Mohawk .29 engines, lines, fuel, props, dope and silkspan. This package cost me $25.00.  My learning curve had it ups and downs.  As I remember the first 6 attempts at flight resulted in crashes that required repairs.  That summer we finally were able to complete flights and learn a few simple stunt maneuvers.  We then branched out into scale models.  Most of our scale models were tail heavy.  I did not know this at the time.  We never found a model club in our area or heard of contests.  Radio Control was a pipe dream. 

Every summer the near and far relatives would come to our farm for a weekend party near Labor Day. They came from Michigan and New York with my cousins. We would make fresh apple cider.  We would have fresh corn from the garden, hot dogs, hamburgers plus whatever homemade pies and cakes brought by relatives.  I remember, when I was about 8 or 9 I was being my usual pest, when my uncles had enough. They put me in a gunny sack and hung it from a limb of a tree until I promised to behave.  My sisters and cousins thought this was very funny. 

People did no go on vacations as we do today.  I do not remember Dad getting any time away from work.  Sunday afternoons we would sometimes go for a drive in the country side taking roads to see where they went.  We also sometimes got lost for a while.  A treat was to stop at Long’s Dairy for Ice Cream. 

We did not have television.  We sometimes listened to the radio, mostly in winter and rainy days.  But even on rainy days we played outside unless there was a thunderstorm.  We would lie on the floor in front of the radio. To hear better someone always had their hand on the antenna wire.  We listened to The Green Hornet, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Lone Ranger, Truth or Consequences, People are Funny, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Archie's Tavern, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gilderslee, Red Skeleton, Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen just to name a few. 

In the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school I worked in a shoe factory.  A part of my paycheck made the payments on a new TV set.  Most of the time the picture was so bad it looked like we were watching through a snow storm.  The big thing to watch was wrestling and the variety shows. There were kid shows in the early evening all done by local people.  No Big Bird, Barney Sesame Street or what we see today.  The summer after my junior year I worked on a potato farm. This farmer had a contract with the local Wise Potato Chip Co. to buy all he grew that was a certain size or bigger.  In the spring I rode and worked the planter behind the tractor making sure everything was OK.  In the fall I rode and worked the digger behind the tractor.  He had other kids picking the potatoes and putting them in the gunny sacks.  We would stop digging and then drive the truck picking up the bags and taking them to the barn for sorting.  We were paid according to our age.  The younger kids did not pick as many or as fast as the older kids.  We were paid at the end of the day.  If you goofed off too much you were told not to come back the next day.  This usually lasted almost a week. 

After High School  

In the fall if 1954 I joined the Air Force.  I was sent to New York for Basic Training. Then to Tech. School in Denver, Colorado for Camera Repair school.  I wanted Photography but I was told the field was closed.  After Tech. School I was sent to Duluth, MN. In the Air Force I worked as a photographer, camera Repairman, Cook in the chow hall, and took care of the Gun Cameras on the planes during Rocketry Meets.  There was a rocketry range in the middle of Lake Superior.  The 31st Air Division held yearly meets over the lake.  We had F-86D, F-89D and F-102 fighter squadrons competing.  Another airman and I would meet the returning aircraft in the fuel pits to remove the film from the aircraft.  There was a camera on each wing.  We put new 16mm film packs in the cameras.  Each film was then titled with the A/C tail number and run thru the processor.  The film was then taken to the screening room and an officer analyzed the films to decide if the rockets would have shot down an enemy bomber using a B-29 side view drawing.   I can say that the Air Force was good to me. The work was easy and we had fun. I learned a lot about life during this time.

Radio control was starting to be used.  We built our own receivers and transmitters.  We bought escapments.  The receivers were either hard tube (3A5) or soft tube (XFG1).  Everyone was on the same frequency (27.255) so only 1 plane in the air at a time please. I never had much luck with planes but I did have a few R/C boats that were successful.  During my assignment to Duluth AFB I joined a model club in the area.  We still flew C/L and learned more about setting up and trimming a plane for better flight.   

It was here that I met and married Bev Hall from Crosby, MN. Bev was in Nurses Training here in Duluth. We were married when she graduated. She went to work at the St. Mary’s hospital and I had a job with Richard’s Photography. Our sons Steve and Jeff were born in Duluth. We then moved to Pine City, MN where I worked for Bev’s father in a grocery store.  When I learned that I did not like the grocery business we moved to Roselle, NJ where I worked as a darkroom technician for a photo-finishing house. There is a famous photo taken by the Apollo 8 moon mission. This was the first photo of earth taken from space. I had a big part of making the first photos from the negative that was returned to earth. I still have my copy. 

This photo was taken on the Apollo 8 space flight. 

Apollo 8 left earth, circled the moon and returned to prove it could be done safely. The photo was taken about December 20th 1968.  The moon is 70 miles below the space capsule. 

In 1970 I went to night school to become a computer programmer.  After getting my certificate I could only get a job as a computer operator.  Operators were getting paid the same or a little more than programmers so I stayed as an operator. Chris was born during this time.  My first job as a computer operator was on Wall Street in New York for Dunn & Bradstreet.  I then went to Baker & Taylor Co.  They were the largest and oldest book wholesaler in the world. 

While living in NJ I introduced my sons to modeling.  We were members of the Union Model Airplane Club.  We attended many local contests both C/L and R/C.  My oldest, Steve, was the only one who stayed with the hobby.  During a 1972 summer vacation to Duluth, MN to visit family and friends I saw successful R/C modeling.  I bought a used R/C system from Hobby Lobby.  It cost me $300.00.  As with my learning C/L my early models were failures.  I finally soloed with a glider.  I had a great mentor who taught me all I know about finding thermals.  His name was Henry Orzech.  Henry was also a pilot holding multi engine and instructor ratings.  He was retired and had quit full scale piloting at that time.  He held pilot license #172 – signed by Orvell Wright.

In 1975 I got a call from a friend in Duluth that they were looking for someone to work putting up CB and TV antennas.  Another reason for moving back to MN was the beginning of the drugs and crime problems in the New Jersey area.  In Duluth I have worked as a radio – TV repairman, installing burglar and fire alarms and sound systems. In 1998 I retired from the City of Duluth Water & Gas Company as a journeyman in the service department. 

During the years from 1975 to 2002 I flew R/C sport, gliders, Old Time F/F R/C assist and  the new electrics.  In 2002 I gave up R/C to get back into C/L modeling.  I became discourage with R/C due to the amount of radio interference in the Duluth area.  I did some C/L Speed and C/L Racing modeling.  Due to a medical issue I have retired from active modeling.  I spend some of my spare time as part of the CAF Museum Staff of the  Commemorative Air Force * Lake Superior Squadron 101 * Duluth, MN.  We have 9 rooms and more than 2,000 items on display.  The items range from the Civil War through The Iraqi and Afghanistan conflict.     

Since retiring we have been doing a bit if traveling in the US and Hawaii and to England, Ireland and Portugal. 

Bev has taken up painting and gardening.  Since retiring I have taken classes in machine shop and welding.  I spend my days in my library / computer room or in wood or metal workshops.                                                 

Airplanes have been a lifetime pastime for me.  I’ll continue until they put me away in the home.

Thomas A. Wilk  



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