Meet the grandfathers featured in How to Build a Fire:
William Holloman III
On August 21, 1924, one of our nation’s bravest pilots was born. All Bill Holloman ever wanted to do was to fly airplanes, but before he got off the ground, he spent plenty of time playing ball on vacant lots in his hometown of St. Louis Missouri and swimming, hunting and camping on his grandparents’ farm 50 miles outside the city. Because his father was a postal worker, his family managed to get through the Depression relatively unscathed, but Holloman’s friends and neighbors weren’t as lucky. “There were five of us in my family, but my mother always set a table for eight and there were always eight people at the table. She’d let us bring some hungry kids home,” he said. In 1942, Holloman enlisted in the still segregated military and learned to fly at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, where the first and only black pilots trained. During the war, he flew in the famed 332nd Fighter Group, The Red Tails, an elite all-black unit, which escorted and protected bombers on their missions. (Holloman recently consulted on the George Lucas film, The Red Tails, starring Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr..) After the war, Holloman served as an instructor at Tuskegee and before he had a chance to get a college degree, he was ordered back into the Air Force to serve in the Korean War. Despite spending years fighting evil abroad, Holloman still had to fight racism at home. Though he’d served in two wars, no American commercial airline would hire him because of his skin color, so he stayed in the military. “The color bar was still there,” he told me. “I just wanted to do what I loved: fly airplanes.” Eventually, a crop dusting outfit in Central America hired him, and in 1957, a Canadian commercial airline offered him a job, after which he soon met his first wife and started his family. In 1966, he was recalled into service to fight in Vietnam, and by the time he returned to the States, he’d found another mission: “When I came back, I became upset that most Americans didn’t know that blacks flew in World War II.” From that day forward, he dedicated his life to teaching history to younger generations, which include his six children, two step children (he remarried in 1990) and seven grandchildren. It’s not all lecturing, though. He also loved to travel with them—by air, of course. On June 11, 2010, a few weeks after my last interview with him, Holloman passed away, and the nation lost a hero.
Al Sulka, the son of Polish immigrants, was born on July 12, 1922 in Blue Island, Illinois on the far south side of Chicago. He spent much of his childhood playing basketball (“we had an old bushel basket nailed to a post in the alley”) and, when he had a dime to spare, watching Roy Rogers westerns. During his summers, his father and mother—a railroad stevedore and a hotel maid—would send him, along with some his six siblings, north to his uncle’s farm in Michigan to pick strawberries and weed onions. In return, Sulka was paid ten cents an hour (which he promptly spent on school clothes) and his uncle would send his family sacks of potatoes, corn and apples for the winter. Sulka also caddied at a local golf course. “I got 50 cents a round, and if you got a dime tip, then hallelujah! That meant you had a milk shake. It was tough during the Depression, but we pulled through.” At seventeen, Sulka, along with his only brother, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the public works programs of the New Deal, and went to Oregon to build roads and fight brush fires. About three years later, in 1942, he enlisted in the navy, where he spent three of the next four years on the water off the coasts of Italy and Africa, repairing amphibious landing craft. He was lucky enough to be stationed in Staten Island on VE day, May 8, 1945. “We had a three-day pass to go into Times Square, and I don’t know if we slept those three days or not. You couldn’t even move! Oh, we snake danced. It was a big deal!” After the war ended, Sulka moved back to Illinois and in 1946, married his wife, Helen, whom he’d met at a town carnival just prior to enlisting. They had two children, and to support his family, Sulka worked several jobs including bartender, steel bender at a local factory and even trash collector. Helen passed away in 1994. Now, he lives outside of Chicago, in Crestwood, where he calls bingo (and breaks hearts) every Wednesday night, and entertains his three grandchildren and one great-grandchild with his very funny jokes. He has a lot of them.
Joe Toth was born in Lackawanna, New York, just outside of Buffalo, on February 10, 1923. His father, like most in the area, worked at the steel mill as a bricklayer. “He had such hardworking hands. Everyday he’d come home with blisters on his knuckles,” said Toth. “When I saw those hands, I thought, I’m never going to work in a steel mill.” With eleven siblings, everyone in the family had to chip in and Toth remembers doing his part. “Everybody loved wearing knickers, because they had elastic below the knee. So, you’d go into somebody’s yard with a fruit tree and pick fruit. Of course, you had holes in your pockets so you could fill your pockets and your knickers. By the time you were done, you’d be pretty heavy!” After graduating from high school, Toth attended Alfred University, a trade school, and worked on a government run farm, milking cows and cleaning gutters. On Columbus Day, 1942, he enlisted in the navy and became a fire controlman (or ship gunner), and before he shipped out, one of his buddies introduced him to his fiancé, Frances. “It was love at first sight,” said Toth. “I told my friend, ‘If you screw up and lose Frances, she’s mine!’” His friend did, and Toth soon won her heart. In the fall of 1943, he was scheduled to depart for the Pacific on the USS Liscome Bay, but the ship had too many fire controlmen, so everyone with last names beginning with T through Z got reassigned. After the ship departed without Toth, it took a direct torpedo hit by a Japanese submarine and it sunk, along with more than 600 men aboard. “I just thank god my name starts with a T,” Toth told me. When he got out of the service, he moved to Garfield, New Jersey, married Frances and became an electrician. Together, they raised two children. Now he lives in Warwick, Pennsylvania, where his two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren visit him often. A navy man to this day, his grandchildren call him “Mate,” and he loves to make their eyes light up by building them things, including giant dollhouses with hand-laid parquet floors, chandeliers and tiny working light switches.
On October 1, 1922, Frank Walter was born in Milton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. His father worked for New England Bell Telephone, and after the stock market crashed, his mother picked up work with the Camp Fire Girls, a sister organization of the Boy Scouts. Life in the Walter household ran on a tight schedule: supper was at 6PM, bedtime was at 7PM—and when he wasn’t doing chores, Walter would roller skate or play ping pong with his two younger brothers. He attended Tufts University, but after his sophomore year, he enlisted in the Navy with hopes of becoming a pilot. By March 1943, he’d earned his wings and soon after was selected to join the Marine’s corsair Flying Fighter squadron in Okinawa. After the war ended, he remained in Japan as an operations officer. “I was the only captain that wasn’t married, so I said I’d stay as long as I was needed,” he said. In 1946, when he returned home, his parents threw him a party, where a childhood friend, Elinor, sat on his lap and asked him, “Well Frank, are you going to marry me now?” He dodged the question. After graduating from Tufts with a degree in mechanical engineering, Walter took a gig with the Chrysler Corporation in Detroit, which allowed him to work during the day and earn his masters degree at night on the company dime. He ended up working for the automaker for forty years, where one of his greatest achievements was conceptualizing the Plymouth Barracuda. “We conceived of it on the back of an envelope,” he noted, adding that he also helped design the Fury and The Roadrunner. In the meantime, he’d married another woman, had one son, adopted a 10-year-old daughter, taken up skiing and later divorced. In 1977, he sent Elinor a card out of the blue. She called him immediately, told him of her marriage, her four children and her divorce. Almost exactly 31 years after her initial proposal, the two married. They shared 11 wonderful years together, often swishing down the slopes of Copper Mountain in Colorado, before Elinor lost her battle with cancer. Now he lives just off the lift line, as they dreamed of doing together, and he still feels close to her on the slopes. Maybe that’s one reason he still skis every single day of the season, and as often as possible with his twelve grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Angel Rodriguez was born on a corn and yucca farm on November 28, 1924 in Palmar de Candelaria, a rural town in Colombia. He was the youngest of five children and son to a single mother. When he was three years old, his sister, Paulina, who was thirty-two, traveled in search of work to the port city of Barranquilla, where she met and fell in love with a German optician named Adolf Kinderman, who immigrated to the country after World War I. As part of their marriage arrangement, Paulina insisted that she and Kinderman would raise her little brother, Angel, as their own, and he agreed. Rodriguez lived with them in Barranquilla, and almost immediately began to apprentice at Kinderman’s optical shop. By age 14, he was able to run it on his own and did so for the next six years. Before long, political tensions in Colombia took their toll on Kinderman, and he lost the shop to another family, who kept Rodriguez employed. In 1952, after having a vision of an angel that told him to marry, he and his sweetheart Gladys tied the knot and expanded their family. In 1968, in order to give his children a better education, Rodriguez, who didn’t speak any English, moved to West New York, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and got a job through a friend making glasses at the American Optical Society. “I had a good salary in Colombia, and I moved here and earned less. I used to cry, because I felt so stupid,” he said. Still, he persevered, working hard at two full-time jobs and earning promotions, and in 1970, he was able to bring his wife and five children to America with him. They had one more child together and in 1995, Rodriguez became a proud American citizen. Thanks to his dedication and handiwork, thousands of New Yorkers can now see clearly. Since his retirement, Rodriguez can often be found in Brooklyn at the home of his son, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician, where he and his large family, including thirteen grandchildren, love to boogie into the night.
Though HBO’s miniseries The Pacific drew upon his self-published book Red Blood, Black Sand, about his experiences fighting in Iwo Jima, that’s only part of Chuck Tatum’s story. He was born on July 23, 1926 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father, an oil field builder, died of pneumonia when Tatum was only eight years old, and his mother, who later moved her brood to Stockton, California, raised all six kids single-handedly. Despite the hardship, Tatum recalls a happy childhood, shooting marbles, playing sandlot baseball and collecting dime store novels. “I became very interested in reading about airplanes and cowboys and crooks,” he said. By age 15, Tatum, struck by a patriotic fervor, began begging his mother for permission to enlist the marines. “I was afraid the war would be over before I could get in it,” he said, adding that he selected the marines because “they had the best looking uniforms.” Eventually, she relented and in July 1943, he went to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, where he trained as a machine gunner under sergeant John Basilone, the famous war hero and Medal of Honor winner. The two fought side-by-side in The Battle of Iwo Jima. In the 36 days it took to take the island, 6,821 marines, including Basilone, were killed and over 20,000 more were wounded. Tatum, then only 18 years old, earned a Bronze Star for his heroism on the battlefield. In the summer of 1945, he returned to Stockton, where he became a fireman, married, had two children and divorced. In the meantime, he decided to try his hand at car racing. “I found out that you could make good money. Some nights you could win $50! I wasn’t making that in a week!” It turns out he had quite a talent for it, and eventually he designed and built his own race car, The Tatum Special, which was featured in the 1954 movie, Johnny Dark. (Look closely, and you’ll see Tatum driving the car.) By then, he’d also met and fell in love with his second wife, Evelyn, whom he married in 1952 at age twenty-six. They had four children together, and in 1964, after a close call on the racetrack, Tatum, not wanting his children to grow up fatherless like he did, retired from racing and became a car salesman. Now, he’s looking forward to celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary. On the guest list: his eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
From the day he was born on October 4, 1927, Robert Kelly knew he wanted to play baseball, which explains why he spent every free moment of his childhood in Cleveland, Ohio at the sandlot. After he graduated from high school and put in a semester at Purdue, he was drafted into the Army in 1946. “They put us on a train to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, where they gave us shots before they figured out where they’d send us. They wouldn’t let us go to bed until we made our mind up whether we’d enlist or stay drafted. I got so tired that finally I said, ‘Alright, where do I sign?’” Kelly, who’d enlisted for 18 months, went to Camp Lee in Virginia for basic training, and he stumbled across a baseball diamond where the camp team was playing. He joined the game and was soon offered a spot on the roster. “During the war, the Navy and Army teams were better than the Major Leagues, because all the guys were in the service,” he said. In 1947, after he finished his military service, Kelly signed with the Chicago Cubs and played on their minor league farm team. Soon after, he began dating his wife, Sandra, a high school classmate whom he’d admired but had previously been too shy to approach. Within 3 dates, he proposed and within 6 months, the two married. In May 1951, Kelly made his major league debut, as the Cubs’ pitcher, a position he’d hang onto until 1953, when he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He finished his baseball career in 1958 as a Cleveland Indian. After his retirement, Kelly opened a record shop. He then spent the next several decades working various sales jobs and raising his seven children. Now, he lives with his wife in Connecticut, where he enjoys the occasional Manhattan cocktail. He also has fourteen athletic grandchildren and one great grandchild, and he makes a point of cheering them on at as many of their games as he can.
Buck Buchanan, the youngest of the three Buchanan boys, was born on September 29, 1927 in McAllen, Texas. When the Great Depression hit, his father, a lawyer who’d invested heavily in real estate, went bankrupt, and though his mother held a job at the chamber of commerce, his family had to do whatever they could to get by. At first, they rented a small farm, where they were able to grow their own food, and then the family moved to Oracle, Arizona to mine for gold. “I can remember the dry creek beds,” said Buchanan, who attended a one-room schoolhouse there. Rather than striking gold, they struck out and the family eventually moved to Rockport, Texas, where they operated a shrimping boat. Buchanan not only worked on the boat as a deck hand, but also helped build their house, which didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, but did have an outdoor shower made of palm fronds. He spent his spare time at the beach. “We had a diving platform and raced tin boats,” he said. After he graduated from high school, Buchanan enlisted in the marines and spent the next eighteen months on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. “I was very, very fortunate,” he said. “I got in after World War II and out right before the Korean war.” In 1948, he enrolled in the University of Texas, where he met his wife, Sue. They married in 1951, and Buchanan left college to help his father grow and harvest alfalfa and cotton. While raising four daughters, he spent the next several decades farming cotton, operating heavy machinery for other farmers and oil field producers and even building houses. Now, rather than watch his cotton grow, he enjoys watching his three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren grow. They’re just as soft.
Joe Babin was born on September 27, 1916 in Cleveland, Ohio, where he had a carefree childhood. “The streets were our playground,” he told me, adding that he and his friends played baseball and football just about everyday. About a month after his thirteenth birthday, the stock market crashed, and his father’s building supply business nearly went down with it. “It was touch and go, but there was always food on the table,” said Babin, who attributes his family’s ability to scrape by to his mother’s frugality. “My mother was a good leader, so we managed.” She budgeted so well, in fact, that Babin even had the opportunity to go to college and law school, a luxury some of his friends couldn’t afford. “To get to high school, I’d walk two miles east from home,” he said. “To get to college, I’d just walk two miles west.” During his freshman year at Case Western Reserve University, he met his wife, Geraldine. “I needed a date for a fraternity dance, and my friend told me he had a girl for me. He used to chauffer his mom around, and they made a call at my future wife’s family’s home. He never even talked to her, but when we got home, he dialed her number and as soon as she got on the phone, he jammed the receiver in my face,” said Babin, still incredulous after all these years. In case you’re wondering, she said yes to the dance—and a few years later, also to marriage. A month after they tied the knot in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and two days later, Babin was called up for the draft. He then enlisted in the air force and served as a groundling in North Africa, Sicily and England. Upon his return home in 1945, Babin went to work at his father’s building supply business and embarked on what he considers his life’s boldest undertaking: starting his own family. Now, whenever Babin drives around Cleveland, where he still lives, with his two children and four grandchildren, he can show them all the houses he helped build. Of all the things he helped raise in his life, though, it’s the people in the back seat that make him proudest.
Philip Spooner, Sr.
Philip Spooner was born on a potato farm north of Caribou, Maine on January 2, 1922. As a young boy, his chores included feeding the horses and milking thirty to forty cows at five o’clock every morning before school. He attended a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade, but since the nearest high school was twenty miles away (and his family didn’t have a car), his education was cut short. Rather than continuing on, he became a janitor at his grade school, where his duties included lighting the stove and fetching water for a dollar and a half a month. At age eighteen, Spooner traveled north, ten miles shy of the Canadian border, to harvest lumber for thirty-five cents an hour. After that, he joined a road building crew outside of Bangor. “We lived in tents, and the boss’s wife was the cook and I mean she really cooked: homemade pies and baked beans,” he told me. Then, he worked for a private contractor in the navy yard, and fell in love with a waitress named Jenny at a nearby restaurant, before being drafted for the war in November 1942. “It was love at first sight. We got married on Saturday night, and I left Monday morning for the Army,” he said of his late wife of 54 years. During the war, Spooner became an ambulance driver and medic and saw action in all five major campaigns, participating in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Paris. Not only did he carry injured soldiers to hospitals during battle, but he also transported Allied prisoners of war home from Poland, Yugoslavia and Hungary and hundreds of injured Germans back to Germany. His unit earned the Presidential Citation. “I’m probably the only guy who sat with Eisenhower in France,” he said. “He and a British big shot came to see how the bombing was going to go, so they put us ambulance drivers out back of the hospital tent, because we weren’t all spruced up, and all we had to eat was K-rations. Eisenhower got out of the car and instead of going into the hospital and having chicken, he sat down in the grass with a K-ration and talked to us.” After the war ended, Spooner returned to Maine, where he raised his four sons and one daughter and made a living driving trucks and delivering newspapers. In April 2009, Spooner, a life-long Republican, made history once again when he made a speech to Maine’s Judicial Committee. He said, “I am here today because of a conversation I had last June when I was voting. A woman at my polling place asked me, ‘Do you believe in equality for gay and lesbian people?’ I was pretty surprised to be asked a question like that. It made no sense to me. Finally I asked her, ‘What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?’…For freedom and equality. These are the values that make America a great nation, one worth dying for.” He’s a hero not only to his two granddaughters and several great-grandchildren, but also to all those Americans who believe in equality for all people.