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Salute to a Stepfather

Saturday, January 6, 2018 21:11
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By Samuel Orrin Sewell

From the very beginning my stepfather and I got off on the wrong foot. “Wrong foot” is a metaphor, but in this case it had literal meaning. My mother introduced Daniel Dale Paulsen to my grandmother and me when I was five years old. While grandmother and my future stepfather were talking, and eager for some attention from my mother, I tugged on the hem of her skirt, saying, “Please tie my shoe,” whereupon Dale Paulsen said, “The kid’s five years old, and doesn’t know how to tie his shoes yet?” And so, he aggressively taught me how to tie my shoes. That was no way to start a relationship with a five year old boy.

I already had designated Dale Paulsen as competition for my mother’s love, so I did nothing to help the situation. In fact, I devised a nefarious plan to keep him from taking my mother away when they visited me at my grandmothers, with whom I had been living since before I was two years old. This was shortly after World War II. Dale Paulsen was a wealthy man, and he was eager to show everyone that he had a brand new, 1946 Hudson. That was the first year automobiles were made again in America since production was stopped, due to the war. I remember that the Hudson was so new that it had a wooden two-by-eight bolted to the front of the frame, because chrome-plated bumpers were not yet available. I went outside to look at Dale’s new car, and noticed that the keys were in it, so I locked all the doors, to prevent Dale and my mother from leaving. In my five year old mind, I had won a major battle. Mom could not leave me again! The reason I use the word “again” is that already I had developed strong abandonment fears after my mother left me with my grandmother as a toddler. Every Saturday, my mother would hitch a ride with the mailman from Waterloo, where she lived and worked, and visit me and grandma in Randalia. I would sit on the bench outside Trigger’s General Store for hours waiting for the mail truck to arrive with my mother. She almost always showed up to visit me every Saturday, but my little boy’s heart still felt abandoned.

My mother and father divorced when I was very young. My father worked in the John Deere factory that manufactured tanks for the war, and my mother had a job at the pharmacy. Today’s people cannot comprehend what our country was like during WWII.

I will reveal how the locked Hudson problem was resolved, but first I want to describe what it was like growing up in Randalia, Iowa during the war. Everybody worked. Almost all commodities were rationed, even in the tiny town of Randalia; gasoline, meat and other commodities were only available if you had a ration token. Typical of government snafus, my grandmother got ration tokens for gasoline, even though she didn’t even own an automobile, but being resourceful, she traded her gasoline tokens for extra food, so we ate very well.

The entire nation was dedicated to what they saw as a noble cause of saving the world from the Japanese and the Germans, even to the point of paranoia. Budsy Whiteford, the town sheriff, even posted an armed guard on the local water tower. I guess he thought that Nazi storm-troopers were going to attack the water supply in a village with a population of 143 people in Northeast Iowa.

Our family sent three men and one woman to serve in the military. They all came back, damaged but alive. Even at my young age I had a job that helped the war effort. I was part of a troupe of boys that collected milk weed pods to be used in military flotation devices. In addition, I went every day to the hardware store to stomp tin cans flat so they could be recycled. When I finished stomping, the owner of the hardware store, Mr. Beaman, would give me five pennies so I could go next door to Trigger’s General Store and buy an ice cream cone. One day as I clasped my five pennies in my fist and scurried eagerly up the stairs to my ice cream supply, I stumbled in anticipation of my merited treat, and my five pennies all fell through the grate on the steps, and were gone. Three old farmers sitting on the bench outside the general store immediately removed the coin purses from their bib overalls and collectively came up with five pennies, saving the day before I even had a chance to react emotionally to my loss.

There was a billboard on the front of the volunteer fire department building which had the names of all the men and women serving in the military from our village. When a family was notified that their son or daughter was killed, a star was attached next to their name on the billboard.

My parents may not always have been there for me, but I was parented by all of the adults in this tiny town. That’s how we were in this small town of Randalia, population 143, during World War II.

There are many more stories I can tell about growing up in Randalia, Iowa and someday I’ll write an article about that; but for now, let’s get back to that locked Hudson.

Dale wanted to spank me into submission and make me unlock the car, but my mother decided to bribe me. She knew I liked Life-Savers, which she kept in her purse, and she offered to give me a whole roll of Life-Savers if I’d unlock the car. So I stuck my tiny little hand in the wing-window, which I had left unnoticeably cracked, and lifted up the latch-lock. Dale and my mother packed up for their trip back to Waterloo, and my mom left me, “again.” I went to my bedroom and cried for a while, ate a Life-Saver, and then flushed the rest of the Life-Savers down the toilet. I began to realize that I could not depend upon other people. The significant transformation in my personality didn’t happen all at once, but became a process that resulted in my elimination of dependency upon other people. I refused to be a victim of anyone’s control. Instead I became emotionally self-sufficient. I turned into a warrior.

Mom and Dale got married. Dale built a new house, and I was collected from my grandmother’s, leaving Randalia, to live in the new house with my mother and Dale in Waterloo. I never did like Dale Paulsen, but many years later I realized that he, in his own way, had actually tried. I got a bicycle for Christmas, and he would run alongside until I learned to balance. Dale Paulsen was the man who taught me how to ride a bike. It wasn’t very long before we moved to a larger home in an upscale neighborhood.

Dale owned a contracting business, and, being a business man, he worked half days on Saturdays. I would usually go with him to his office on those weekend work days. One day his secretary and I were sitting in the outer office when we heard a scuffle and loud voices coming from Dale’s private office. Immediately after hearing the ruckus, two black men came dashing out of Dale’s office with Dale hot behind them, literally kicking them in their rears as they rounded the corner to the exit of the office building. Dale was obviously very angry. All he said as he went back to his inner office was, “I can’t stand a man who would sell his own people down the river!” I found out later from Alice, the secretary, that the visit from the two black men was their offer to buy the company’s past due accounts from delinquent, black customers. Dale knew that their less-than-honorable collection methods included intimidation, and worse. I not only received another lesson in ethics that day, but also learned to have greater respect for Dale Paulsen.

Here is another example that illustrates how Dale Paulsen’s hard-nosed personality had a counter-intuitive, hidden motivation. One of Dale’s businesses was a plumbing, heating and air conditioning company. Every Christmas, he would purchase all of the materials necessary to make Christmas baskets for his clients, customers and employees. These were no ordinary Christmas baskets – they contained full hams, expensive chocolates, polished apples, desserts and fruitcakes. The ingredients for these gift baskets were spread out on the work benches otherwise used for sheet metal fabrication in Dale’s shop, and his workmen would then assemble these lush Christmas baskets, and were given the addresses of the recipients. For “certain” baskets, they were instructed to park their trucks – with the large, red letters “PAULSEN” written on the side – a few houses away, deliver the baskets to front doorsteps, ring the bell, and run before the “certain recipients” could see who had delivered the anonymous gift. I found out later that those bountiful baskets went to people who were at least 90 days late in their payments for their furnace installations.“I’m not going to remove a family’s furnace in the winter in Northern Iowa just because they are 90 days past due on their payments. In fact, they are most likely the ones who really need a Christmas basket.” He said this in a very gruff voice, probably to hide the fact that he really had a very tender heart.

We were a wealthy family, so we had a maid named Johnny Mae Bush. She was very kind to me, and had a delicious, homemade treat waiting every day when I returned from school. When I was about 16, Johnny Mae died. We all cried, except for Dale. Dale paid for her funeral, and we all went to her church where the funeral services were held. We sat unobtrusively in the back row of this all-black church. Both mom and I cried, and used lots of Kleenex. Dale was stoic. He also made a generous anonymous contribution to the black church. I was beginning to respect the man, even though I didn’t actually like him.

In the fall of 1957, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas blocked the Supreme Court-ordered integration of the Little Rock School System. I was young, foolish, impetuous and idealistic. So was my friend Jim; so we hitch-hiked to Little Rock to join the protest. We, along with a group of other young people, were arrested, and escorted to the police chief’s office. Rather than jailing us, the policeman called Dale Paulsen with these words: “In case you folks have been worried, Sam is okay and so is his friend, Jim. If you want them back, wire me the bus fare for the two of them, and I’ll see that they head back to Iowa. Before the end of the day, the money had arrived via Western Union, and we were on a bus headed north. My mother was understandably anxious and angry about my idealistic escapade. I actually think Dale was secretly proud of me, but as far as I remember, Dale Paulsen never overtly voiced his approval.

However, Dale did help me earn the money to buy a car and become financially independent at a very young age. Mom wanted Dale to buy me a car, but Dale’s response was, “The only thing you can give an able-bodied man that won’t hurt him is opportunity.” So he told me that he needed to have his junk yard reduced. He instructed me to take one of the company trucks every Saturday, load the truck with scrap metal from his junkyard, take it to the steel recycling facility, and I could keep the money made from selling the scrap metal. Talk about an opportunity! I made over $100.00 on my first load of scrap metal. Soon it dawned on me that if I hired my friend to help me load the truck, it would increase my ability to deliver more scrap metal each Saturday. Thus I learned how to become an entrepreneur. I didn’t realize until many years later that my determination to sign my own paychecks was a gift given to me by my stepfather, Dale, as an opportunity.

I left home at the beginning of my senior year, worked in a filling station, and lived in a small room at the YMCA until I graduated from high school. I had no further contact with Dale Paulsen except for one, serendipitous incident, several years later.

Following high school I enlisted in the Navy. After qualifying through the United States Armed Forces Institute, I was designated as an LDO intelligence officer. The Navy, unique among the military services, commissions a group of highly skilled officers as the LDO, or “Limited Duty Officers.” LDOs are technically oriented officers who perform specialized duties in specific occupational fields. The protocol for such a designation required that the FBI do a background history before an officer was designated as an LDO. After my obligation to the Navy, I continued doing intelligence work. Years later, quite by accident, I saw the background letter Dale had submitted, talking about my character. There were large red letters on the document, saying “PAULSEN” – I could hardly miss it. He was very complimentary, extolling my many virtues. So, eventually, although he never told me directly, I guess I actually had earned the approval from Daniel Dale Paulsen.

Wherever you might be, Dale, I salute you!



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Total 1 comment
  • AJ

    Cool; Glad you adjusted.

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