Connecting with the past at the Seagram Building, New York City

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The Seagram Building – 375 Park Avenue, New York, NY

On my way to Rockefeller Center this past December, I decided to take a short detour over to Park Avenue. I wanted to see the Seagram Building. I’ve seen it before − walked by it many times and even hung out on the famous plaza, but I never gave it much thought − until recently. It has been described as one of the most beautiful buildings in New York City. The design has been copied so often since it was completed in 1958, that today it seems commonplace. However, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s statement “God is in the details,”  aptly describes this sleek and modern skyscraper. Only the finest materials were used − marble, bronze, travertine, and granite − and they were used with exquisite detail.

I hadn’t noticed the plaque on the front of the building before. Even if I had and taken the time to read it, I would not have connected anything it said to me. Until recently, the sentence on the plaque ending in “and Swenson pink granite for the Plaza” would not have held my attention. But after a trip to Maine last summer I have felt  a personal connection to the Seagram Building and the granite  spoken of here − the granite that makes up the beautiful plaza − the granite taken from the former Bald Hill Quarry in Wells, Maine where my Dad, Wally Paton, grew up and his father, George Paton, worked.

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Plaque on the Seagram Building – “and Swenson Pink Granite for the Plaza”

“Bald Hill Quarry was owned by a conglomerate known as Swenson Pink Granite of Concord, New Hampshire. … Although the use of granite for steps or building foundations was common among the early settlers, the first granite quarry business wasn’t established until the late 1800’s in Concord, New Hampshire. … Under John Swenson’s leadership, the company continued to flourish and eventually added regional quarries like Bald Hill in Wells, Maine, where my grandfather worked. … eventually, Swenson would carry over 18 different colors, the pink stone coming from the quarries in Maine.” Excerpt from Journey Home: How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy by Bonnie Paton Moon

At the time of the Seagram Buildings completion, it was the most expensive skyscraper ever built. CEO of the Seagram Liquor Company, Samuel Bronfman, spared no expense in the construction of his company’s world headquarters. Over the years,  it has received many awards. In 1960, the Plaza was declared “a source of inspiration” for its innovative,  privately-owned public space, − “an open, urban plaza set back from the street creating the groundbreaking concept of pedestrian space.”  The public plaza was a revolutionary idea and led to a landmark planning study called Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in which daily patterns of people socializing around the plaza were recorded.

In 1976 the exterior and in 1990 the interior, were designated New York City landmarks. In 1999, the New York Times declared it “the Millennium’s most important building”  − important because Mies van der Rohe’s design ushered in a new era of skyscraper − one which showcased the building materials rather than covering them up with brick and mortar and ornamentation.

Not only were the original granite slabs making up the Plaza taken from Bald Hill, but when Aby Rosen, the new owner, embarked on a major renovation project in the year 2002, the 110 pink granite replacement slabs came from there as well.

“Perhaps the most remarkable rehabilitation project is underfoot. At a cost of $1 million, about 110 large granite paving slabs have been replaced. Close inspection reveals that the new and old stone looks identical – specks of salmon and gray, threaded with subtle veins of red and orange.

‘They are identical,’ said Sal Aiello of Concept National in Carlstadt, New Jersey, the contractor on the job.

“He knows because he tracked down the quarry himself, beginning with a dive into the book ‘Building Seagram.’ There, he learned that the original slabs were made of Swenson pink granite from Maine.” Excerpt from nytimes.com/2016/07/19 − What Stays as the Seagram Building Loses the Four Seasons.

I tracked down the  Bald Hill Quarry myself this past summer, along with a few of the Paton family joining in the fun of connecting to my Dad’s childhood home. The house is gone, replaced by the Quarry’s office building, but much still looks like it did when my grandfather worked here during the Great Depression. The fields where my Dad roamed and the woods where he hunted as a child are untouched by development.

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Millennium Granite (former Bald Hill Quarry) – 2018 (Photo by George Paton)

Discarded equipment and piles of stone now liter the land close to the Quarry, where wildflowers compete to reclaim their space. It is comforting to know that much is unchanged at the old Bald Hill (now thriving under the name Millennium Granite) making it easier to connect to my family history − a history that includes beautiful pink stone that traveled from Maine to New York, gracing one of the most beautiful buildings in that city.

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Bonnie Paton Moon hanging out on the Seagram Building’s famous plaza – pink granite slabs from the former Bald Hill Quarry, Wells, Maine – 2018

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George Paton (back row center) at Bald Hill, Wells, Maine – 1939

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My grandfather, George Paton with children, Doris and Wally Paton, posing on granite – 1929

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Wally Paton’s childhood home – Bald Hill Quarry, Wells, Maine – 1934

Remembrance of Christmas Past – Baking with Mom

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Matthew Moon checks out an antique Ford pick up

My grandson Matthew wants me to put an antique pickup truck on my Christmas list this year − “preferably red,”  I say. He knows that for a long time I have coveted one these beauties.

I am not sure what I would do with it exactly, but for years I dreamed (or perhaps fantasized) about starting a business baking homemade pies and delivering them door to door in a truck like this one. What the intrigue is about this I don’t know, but every time I see a truck like this, I re-visit that vision.

I certainly don’t envision myself rolling endless rounds of pastry, cutting up apples, baking pumpkin and squash, or sorting through berries. I only envision the truck, piled high with boxes of various sweet, delicious pies, ready for me to jump into and begin my rounds. Perhaps one might see a flaw in my business plan and they would be right. But I will continue to bake pies and hold onto my fantasy of the antique red truck.

I do make a pretty good pie − apple is my specialty. I’ve been told by many that it is the best they have ever tasted. I once went to a pie tasting at our local Michelle Pies − a small business specializing in homemade pies. I tasted their apple − I think mine is better.

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My specialty − Apple Crumb pie

I learned to bake from my mother. People used to say that Marion Paton is always feeding someone and they were right. The kitchen is the place where my mother and I connected best − maybe because that is where you would find her most often. Growing up on a farm with an ample supply of milk, cream and eggs, we ate dessert every night.

“Saturday mornings were designated for baking dessert to last the week − pies, cookies and milk-based desserts: custards, grape nut and Indian puddings, cream puffs filled with custard and a holiday favorite called Lemon Snow Pudding. Our favorite cookies were New England standards: snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, and peanut butter. Snickerdoodles are basically a butter cookie rolled in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar before baking; creating the characteristic cracked top when baked. The origin of snickerdoodles remains a mystery. Some claim that it has German origins; others say it has Dutch origins. I like to believe the theory that they originated in New England and are just nonsense words with no particular meaning, following a local tradition of naming cookies whimsical names like “Cry Babies,” “Jumblies,” and “Plunkets.” Excerpt from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy by Bonnie Paton Moon

The kitchen was my mother’s and mine alone every Saturday morning − for hours. Sometimes, perhaps when we were getting tired of filling the counter with pies, cakes and cookies, we would  get giddy. I remember one time in particular that the mixer went a little haywire throwing flour and chunks of butter all over the counter − we couldn’t stop laughing. It was really these moments of occasional, shared laughter that I loved most about this time together.

Every year that I have been married (almost 49 years now) I have made my mother’s Lemon Snow Pudding for Christmas. It was a tradition I started to honor my Mom, who used to make it every Christmas, and the special times we shared in the kitchen. It’s a simple recipe of lemon juice, sugar, beaten eggs whites in a gelatin base covered in thick, creamy custard sauce − delicious after a big holiday meal. The fact that the base is white and fluffy, reminiscent of snow, makes it the perfect Christmas treat.

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Mom and me in the kitchen at Paton’s Birder Haven

This year I have decided to make my Dad’s favorite bar cookies – Date Nut Squares. I will send them to the Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds in honor of the staff and volunteers who continue to keep Wally & Marion Paton’s legacy alive and thriving. They have recently built a small nook in the kitchen, right next to the old kitchen table, where we would sit for hours watching the birds in their now famous backyard. The nook is for the volunteers to help themselves to coffee and perhaps a light refreshment while they carry out the many chores of running a world-renowned birding sanctuary.

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Marion Paton’s Handwritten Recipe for Date Nut Squares −Wally Paton’s favorite

 

“Mom later went on to a career in the food industry, first working at Fay School in the cafeteria, then the local regional high school cafeteria; then as manager of the school lunch program in Patagonia, Arizona, until her retirement in 1990. Someone once remarked ‘Marion is always feeding someone − family, friends, strangers, animals − domestic and wild’” Excerpt from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness led to the Creation of a Living Legacy.

Bald Hill Granite Quarry Visit- Paton Legacy – Part II

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Edith with her children, Doris and Wally Paton at Bald Hill Quarry, 1929 – ©Paton Family

Many of the photos taken of my Dad as a kid have a back drop that includes Quarry equipment or  the family surrounded by giant pieces of granite. He spent the better part of his childhood on a granite quarry in Wells, Maine called the Bald Hill Quarry. In a small house on land owned by Swenson’s Granite, he and his sister Doris and his parents George and Edith Paton lived. They moved there in 1929, when my Grandpa George got a job there. It was the height of the Great Depression and people often took to the road in search of a job.

There is no doubt that the years living on the Quarry were formative ones . Food was scarce and there was little money for anything other than the bare necessities. But here on these 40 acres of land that surrounded their little quarry home there was great bounty.

They planted a huge garden, gathered wild nuts and fruit, raised chickens and goats, fished and hunted deer, grouse and rabbit. They heated their small house with two wood stoves from wood cut from the surrounding forest. In addition to his many chores, my Dad worked throughout his childhood here, getting up at 3:00 in the morning to walk over a mile to milk the neighbors’ cows before getting the school bus and in the summer he worked on a local lobster boat.

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Wally Paton heading out for a day of fishing, Wells, Maine – ©Paton family

Lately, I’d been thinking a lot about the place where my Dad grew up, so one night I googled “Bald Hill Granite Quarry” to see if there was any historical information. The last time I had visited the Quarry, which was many years ago,  it was dormant and looked like it had been that way for quite some time.

“The Bald Hill Quarry has been closed for decades but the farmhouse still stands, surrounded by fields overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. Giant pieces of abandoned granite litter the fields as a reminder of what once was. I imagine my dad growing up here on these acres of fertile soil, playing in the dirt with his toy hoe, exploring the miles of wilderness that surround the Quarry. It is here I am sure that his love and appreciation for the land evolved.” – Excerpt from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy.

To my  surprise I discovered a website.  The Bald Hill Quarry had re-opened under new management,  and was now called Millennium Granite.  Pictures on the website showed some of its former glory – days when the train tracks led down to the quarry, days when hundreds of quarries thrived in New England.  I wrote to the new owner, Richard Bois,  to tell him my Dad’s story and share a few of the historical photos I thought he might enjoy seeing of his Quarry  during its heyday. I wasn’t really expecting to hear anything back.

But I did.

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Bald Hill Quarry – 1929 – © Paton family

Coincidentally, Mr. Bois had also grown up in these parts and felt a strong connection to this land. He too had roamed these fields of abandoned granite as a kid and that was what inspired him to buy it.  Mr. Bois hadn’t really intended to re-open the Quarry, at least not at first. The price of the Quarry was “right” he said and it included acres of land. He figured on selling off parcels as building lots someday – that is , until he got a phone call from a guy by the name of Mr. Aiello.

In the year 2000, Aby J. Rosen, the new owner of the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue in New York City,  embarked on an extensive maintenance and renovation project. Part of that project included $1 million to replace 110 of the pink granite slabs that make up the famous Plaza. Sal Aiello, the contractor hired for the project soon embarked on his own mission – to find the exact same granite used in the original building project. He drove to New Hampshire to  Swenson’s Granite Quarry only to find that the quarry had been closed for years. So he started calling around to various other quarries and by chance found himself in a conversation with the new owner of the Bald Hill Quarry, Richard Bois. A partnership evolved and the quest to find the granite that was used in the original building of the Seagram plaza began. Mr. Bois knew that the pink granite at the Seagram Building had come from his Quarry – they just had to find the exact spot.

And so they did.  Bald Hill Quarry was in business once again.

Eighteen years later, Millennium Granite is a thriving business  as I discovered during a recent visit to reconnect with my dad’s childhood home.

This past July, my brother, George Paton, my cousin, Bruce Garfield, Bruce’s daughter, Kim Henry, my husband Richard, my Grandson Matthew  and I met at the Bald Hill Quarry. We came equipped with cameras and old pictures to share. Unlike my visit years ago when we only found  abandoned fields littered with boulders, on this visit we had to make an appointment to tour this now busy site. Mr. Bois and his office assistant, Sue Penney graciously spent several hours with us showing us around and sharing interesting stories.

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Richard Bois (far right) leads the group around the Quarry, Bruce Garfield, Bonnie Paton Moon, Kim Henry and George Paton – July 2018

We too were on a mission of sorts. From the historic family photos we hoped to find some of the landmarks of my dad’s early years here. The old farmhouse where he grew up is gone now, but we determined after much detective work that Mr. Bois’ office was the sight of the former house. We wanted to find the dirt road in the picture of my dad and the family arriving at the Quarry in 1929, and we concluded it was the dirt path that remained in front of Mr. Bois’ office.

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George & Edith with children, Doris and Wally Paton arriving at the Bald Hill Quarry – 1929 – ©Paton family

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We determined this to be the dirt path passing by the former homestead – 2018

Then, we happened upon an old piece of equipment that had obviously laid dormant in a field for decades. We decided that  it could have been used by my Grandfather George to pump the water out of the Quarry. That was his job – to keep the water out of the hole so drilling could continue.

“He had a job where he made, I think, about $12 a week running the pumps, because the water would come into his excavation. His hole, where they were actively working, was over 100 feet deep, so the water would get in there, and in order to keep working they’d have to pump it out. So he had a – you wouldn’t say a good job – but it was a reasonably good job for those days.” – Wally Paton quote from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy.

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Abandoned equipment from a by-gone era at the former Bald Hill Quarry,  2018 (photo by George Paton)

 

We were as excited about our discoveries that July day as Mr. Aiello must have been when he heard Richard Bois  on the other end of the phone back in 2000 saying “you dialed the person who owns that Quarry now.”

In a New York Times article, dated July 18, 2016 about the Seagram Building,  Mr. Aiello talks about his quest to find the original granite for the plaza.

“’I was on a mission,’ he said. ‘I love the Seagram Building. It will always be in my heart.’  He explained that his father, a mason who had immigrated from Sicily, helped set the kitchen tiles at the Four Seasons.”  – the restaurant that once occupied the Seagram Building.   Likewise, our mission was accomplished with a great sense of pride and satisfaction and the new Millennium Quarry will always be in our hearts as well,  thanks to Richard Bois.

 

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Sharing old photos at Millennium Granite with Sue Penney (far right) are Bonnie Paton Moon, Kim Henry, Bruce Garfield and George Paton

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Kim (Garfield) Henry, Bruce Garfield, George Paton, Bonnie Paton Moon, Richard and Matthew Moon at Millennium Granite – 2018

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Wally Paton at the Bald Hill Quarry – 1934- © Paton Family

Edith Paton’s Dolls

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Edith Paton with her rag dolls, Florence, Jane, David, Baby Dumpling, Betty Boop – 1933

“Each doll is a conscious individual creation…The individual nature that comes from conscious creation of folk art dolls make them a rich source in information about their maker’s past, economic and cultural traditions. By examining the creations we can extract a very wide sweeping narrative about the maker and her world.”The History of Toys – Creation in the Hand

The notebook arrived first, followed a few weeks later by the box of dolls – a gift from my Cousin, Alan Garfield, from my Nana Paton’s collection. Emmie, Bessie and Cookie are among the dolls described in my Nana’s notebook, titled “My Dolls.”  The notebook chronicles just some of the many dolls my grandmother made and collected over the decades. As early as the 1920’s she crafted dolls ─   rag dolls, some of which she sold during the Depression for about $2.00 each. Considered the oldest toy in existence, rag dolls have been around for centuries. During  the years of the  Great Depression, they were hugely popular in the United States. Raggedy Ann, perhaps the most famous rag doll, created by Johnny Gruelle in 1915, became the subject of his book, Raggedy Ann Stories, published in 1918. Her brother Raggedy Andy was introduced two years later.  Also referred to as folk-art dolls, rag dolls are individually crafted from any materials on hand, mostly from scraps collected in the family rag bag. My Nana’s rag bag was filled with not only discarded pieces of fabric, but a variety of materials – leather, yarn, feathers, even rubber.

The doll named “Joe – I made this doll from an inner tube when we lived in Wells. ME in 1939. Wool chinchilla cloth for hair.” – Edith Paton Continue reading

Bald Hill Granite Quarry, Wells, Maine

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Wally Paton at the Bald Hill Granite Quarry – 1934

My Dad grew up on a granite quarry in Wells, Maine during the Great Depression.

“Like thousands of others, my grandfather, George Paton, was forced to take to the road in search of any employment he could find. When my Dad was six years old the family moved to Wells, Maine, when Grandpa George got a job at the Bald Hill Granite Quarry there.” Excerpt from Journey Home: How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy by Bonnie Paton Moon

Bald Hill Quarry was originally owned by a conglomerate known as Swenson Pink Granite of Concord, New Hampshire. A family-owned business founded in 1883 by Swedish immigrant John Swenson, it has recently reopened under the name Millennium Granite, owned now by a gentleman named Richard Bois. Mr. Bois, a civil engineer, has a special affinity for the quarry having grown up nearby  and having spent endless hours playing in the fields nearby – not unlike my Dad who spent most of his childhood running around these same fields and woods.

A couple weeks ago an email arrived on Mr. Bois’ desk from a Harvard professor and architect who is doing research on the granite used in the Seagram Building in New York City – “as you know granite from your quarry was used in the famous plaza there.”  The Harvard professor asked to tour the quarry and was interested in any historical documents or pictures Mr. Bois might have.

 Coincidentally,  a few weeks ago I, too, became curious as to what had become of the Bald Hill Quarry so I conducted some of my own research. When I read on the Millennium website that Mr. Bois had reopened the quarry after years of dormancy,  I decided to reach out to him and send along a few photos of the Paton years living on his quarry. I included the story of my Dad’s later success in creating a world famous birding sanctuary in Patagonia, Arizona called Paton’s Birder Haven. With my permission, Mr. Bois shared this with the Harvard professor. The architect wrote back the following.

“Thank you for sharing these emails and stories. I find the stories very touching, a very genuine glimpse of life around the quarry at that time. It is really striking how amazing that depression era WWII generation was, how they lived and what all they accomplished. These stories are a fine glimpse into that. I am finding such rich information that I think I will turn the project from an article into a book.”

Who knows, perhaps a few of our quarry photos or a bit of my Dad’s story will show up in the architects article or book – or perhaps I will even write a story myself. I am planning a field trip to the old Bald Hill Quarry this summer and will combine it with seeing the Paton Homestead where my grandmother’s relatives  lived for decades. More to come…….

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George and Edith Paton and children, Doris and Wally, arrive at the Bald Hill Quarry – 1929

Veterans Remember Pearl Harbor Day

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Not unlike, September 11, 2001, most people remember where they were and what they were doing on Pearl Harbor Day. Some remember returning from Sunday visits with relatives, others remember relaxing at home listening to the radio or, some, like my Dad, remember leaving the movies, having seen Citizen Kane or The Maltese Falcon ─ popular movies of the day. It is said that the average American went to the movies two times a week in those days, perhaps they were seeking escape. The country was on edge from the war raging in Europe. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan were rapidly deteriorating. No one expected an attack on American soil however, not even President Roosevelt who on the following day would proclaim: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 ─ a date which will live in infamy ─ the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

 

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USS Arizona under attack – Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

That day changed everything.

 “Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, lives were forever changed; plans were postponed, dreams were put on hold. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans enlisted to serve their country in the war effort.”Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy by Bonnie Paton Moon

A few weeks ago the Westport Public Library in partnership with the Westport Historical Society held a screening of a documentary by local filmmaker and former New York Times correspondent, Jarret Liotta. Called Community and Country: A Spirit of Service, twenty local veterans are interviewed for the film. They share their war experiences and the impact that serving their country had on their lives. Among those interviewed is 94 year old Leonard Everett Fisher, a WWII veteran, who has lived in town for some 60 years. I suspect few would know of Mr. Fisher as a veteran. More likely they would know him for the 250 plus children’s books he has illustrated, or the 80 plus books he wrote. Or they would know him for the ten postage stamps he designed or  as a gifted artist or for his service over the years to our Westport community.

I got to know Leonard Fisher from working with him at the Westport Library when he served as Board President in the late 1980’s. I knew about the books and the artwork years before I learned about his service to his country in WWII. I found out about this part of his life by accident, having overheard a conversation he was having with another Library staff member. That day, Mr. Fisher was talking about his experience during the War making topographical maps for the many battles that were fought ─ a fascinating story, especially to someone who hadn’t heard much talk about WWII experiences. Even though my Dad was a WWII pilot, he hadn’t shared his story with us or the world ─ yet. That wouldn’t happen for over a decade.

Following the screening, three Veterans appeared on stage to talk about the movie and their insights. Mr. Fisher talked about landing in Casablanca in December 1943. His unit was suppose to move on to Bari, Italy but a German air raid on Bari sank the ship that contained all their equipment. Seventeen Allied ships were sunk there and one of those hit contained mustard gas which contaminated the entire town of Bari. He was then sent to Algiers, Africa where he created maps for the American 5th Army, the invasion of south France, for the D-Day invasion in Normandy and maps for General George Patton’s 3rd Army.

“The military topographic ground maps ─ maps that described land elevations and depression above and below sea level (and various other information) made during WWII ─ both 2 and 3 dimensional ─ originated with aerial photographs and a variety of intelligence matters. It was a complicated process called “photogrammetry.”  The accuracy of these maps in a science that was still in its infancy was beyond belief. All of the maps that I worked on flattened the curvature of the earth with a projection called “polyconic” based on the mathematics of a series of cones. All of these maps were 1:25,000 projections (i.e. 1″ on the printed map = 25,000″ on the ground). Also, each of these ground maps had 3 Norths: True North, Magnetic North, and Grid North. The difference of degrees between True and Magnetic North was called the “magnetic  declination.” The Grid North belonged to an arbitrary imposed system of squared lines that informed the soldiers in the field their exact position and also assisted the mathematics of artillery trajectory. Obviously naval approach and bombardment charts that  I worked on were of different projections, different scales and were not necessarily made from aerial photos.” – Leonard Everett Fisher

One of the younger veterans on the stage remembered not having a bath for over a month to which Mr. Fisher responded that when he first arrived in Casablanca “there was no water.” For several months they were issued just a small cup of water each day to take care of their daily hygiene. From Africa, Mr. Fisher’s unit was transferred to Hawaii where they worked underground in a secret installation creating maps for the invasion of Iwo Jima and of Okinawa. Conditions in that underground location were so humid, Mr. Fisher said, that the moisture would collect on the ceiling and it would start raining.

Veterans in the audience then got up to speak. Ted Diamond, also in his nineties and a WWII veteran visits our middle school each Veteran’s Day to share his story so students can learn about the War and these experiences firsthand. He worries that this year students seemed disinterested in his speech ─ he worries that the students are not learning about this important piece of our history. According to Mr. Liotta that was his purpose in making the movie ─ to keep the stories alive for future generations. Mr. Fisher says that is why he wanted to participate in the film.

I want my grandkids to know what their grandfather did. I thought there was a job to be done, I did what was asked of me, and I did it willingly because I enlisted.”

I recently viewed a short film of the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. The initial fire balls followed by billowing black smoke and smoldering remains for days following were eerily reminiscent of the attack on the World Trade Center. The days following 9-11 were filled with stories of heroes and it seemed we banded together in unity much like the country did following December 7, 1941. The younger veterans on the stage cited 9-11 as their reason for enlisting, much like Pearl Harbor had inspired thousands of young men and woman to sign up, like Leonard Fisher and my Dad. I hope that Mr. Diamond’s observations are not an indication of the general attitude of our country. I hope veterans will continue to share their stories. My Dad finally did. When he was in his mid-seventies he was interviewed by Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a retired research entomologist who enjoyed interviewing WWII veterans for articles that later appeared in various publications. My Dad was just 18 years old when he enlisted. He joined the Air Force immediately after graduating high school in 1942.

 “I will never forget Pearl Harbor Day. I was at the movies in Sanford (Maine). It was a Sunday. We got out of the movies about 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and there were newspaper vendors in the street in front of the theater yelling about Pearl Harbor. That was December 7 and I was going to graduate in June from high school. Sometime before graduation, this recruiter came to the high school and gave a lecture, saying if any of the seniors could pass the entrance test, they could go in the Air Force. I knew I was going to be drafted as soon as I got out of high school, and I didn’t like the idea of going in the Infantry or anything like that. One reason that I picked the Air Force—because I hate sleeping on the ground. And I couldn’t imagine myself sleeping in some trench someplace. And I said ‘That’s not for me.’ If I go in the Air Force, and I make it back at least I got a bed to sleep in. So I took the entrance exam. And the guy told us ‘This exam is actually given to second year college students, you’re going to find it rough.’ So I think it was about 4 in the afternoon before we got done with that exam. And, lucky as hell, I passed it.”  – Wally Paton, excerpt from Journey Home

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Wally Paton, Bennettsville, South Carolina – 1943

He would spend another year in pilot training school before reporting to Molesworth, England where he flew his 1st mission, as co-pilot in April of 1944.

We went to B-17 school and then we went out to Salt Lake City, where we joined up with a bunch of other guys who were to make up our crew, pilot and co-pilot. The pilot school I went to was in Tennessee. That was all book work and tests. They’d give you a pin and a piece of metal with a hole in it and you had to put the pin through the hole, and you couldn’t touch the side. That would mean you were shaky or something. We finally got through that and I got sent to Bennettsville, South Carolina, for my primary training, where I learned to fly an old PT-17, which was a bi-wing, double cockpit, open deal. I learned to fly on that. I survived and then got sent to Albany, Georgia, for advanced training where I was flying AT9’s and AT10’s. Now those were twin-engine planes. I made it through that all right, too. Then we went back to Salt Lake City, where we got assigned to a crew of ten men—the crew of the B-17. Without any B-17 training I got assigned as a copilot, where I started out.  In 1944, we were assigned to go to England. I was assigned to the 359th Bomb Squadron in Molesworth, which was in the midlands. We were stationed there during the war—flew all of our missions out of there. I did 31.” – Wally Paton, excerpt from Journey Home

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Wally Paton (second from left) at Pilot Training School – 1943

“I’m glad I participated in the war, Paton said. I don’t feel I did anything extraordinary. I did my job like every other American.”

This seems to be a common sentiment among veterans. None of those interviewed for Mr. Liotta’s documentary consider themselves heroes. Each was proud to have participated ─ they had learned invaluable lessons from serving their country and despite the sacrifice and hardship, they would not hesitate to do it again.

Pilot Wally Paton & the B-17

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Pilot Wally Paton (second row, second from left) with his crew in front of the B-17

“Pilot Wally Paton never gave the order to bail out, despite the condition of his B-17 on May 11, 1944. The day began with orders to bomb a ball bearing plant in Saarbrucken, Germany. The day ended with a kiss on the airfield at Molesworth, England, and a shot of scotch. In between the ten airmen who did their job on a plane called ‘Knock-out Dropper’ straddled the thin line between life and death for some ten hours. ‘That was the toughest mission we ever flew,’ said Paton, a first lieutenant in the 359th Bomber Squadron, 303rd Bomber Group….’There was a whole squadron of crippled airplanes flying back to the base that day. The subject of bailing never came up. No one was injured and no one wanted to be caught in enemy territory. All we wanted was to get home after a successful mission…’” excerpt from Journey Home – Nogales International Times interview with Wally Paton

Last May, some 73 years after my dad flew that harrowing mission over Germany, the B-17 flew into Sikorsky Airport, about 20 minutes from my home. The plane was traveling around the country providing tours and rides. When I heard on my local news that May 31st would be her last day here, I dropped everything and headed for Sikorsky. Pulling into the parking lot, I was awestruck.  I hadn’t imagined her that big.

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B-17 at Sikorsky Airport, May 31, 2017

 

With a shiny steel exterior, a massive wing span sporting four monster engines, and gun turrets back, front and under, she is well nicknamed – “the flying fortress.”  Clouds moved in while we were there, so pilots were delaying passenger rides until the sky cleared. I never got to ride in her, but I did get an extensive tour of the inside and outside of the plane and by chance got to talk to a Veteran who had flown the B-17’s.

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Gun inside the B-17

I had been there perhaps an hour when the WWII veteran made an unexpected appearance. People gathered around him like he was a celebrity, wanting to hear a story or just catch a word with one of the “greatest generation.” I waited my turn as I wanted to spend a little time with this hero having just written about my Dad’s experiences as a pilot in WWII for my book, Journey Home. Finally, it was my turn to have his full attention. He pointed out where the bombs were housed – he related a story about the time the bombs got stuck and they had to go in there and manually push them. He talked about enemy fire and bullet holes in the plane and friends he had lost in battle.

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I had an opportunity to talk to a WWII veteran who flew the B-17’s, just like Dad

When I got home, I wrote my brother, George, about the experience. It had been an exciting and deeply emotional day and I wanted to share it with him. He wrote back his own story about his fondest memory of the B-17.

“In the 1990’s the Owl’s Head (Maine) airport was putting on a air show and was going to have three WWII planes on hand, one being the B-17. I couldn’t pass that up. I went up there with my rather large video camera of the era. It was Friday afternoon and a small crowd was waiting for the three planes to fly in. The first was a small fighter (P-38, I think) – I filmed it landing. Then a CD-3 (small cargo plane) did the same. Then it came, hearing it first, then looking up – a B-17 – overhead. It flew down past the end of the runway, banked hard making a 180 turn and approached the runway. During the hard turn I could see the distinctive profile of the wings with all four engines. It landed and taxied right up to me with all four engines firing away and then shut down, the propellers slowly stopped. I filmed it all. I got to go on board and was surprised at how cramped the interior is. I squeezed past into the pilot’s seat and tried to imagine Dad sitting there with his co-pilot inches away. The gun turret was directly overhead and the navigation compartment right below. I squeezed through the bomb bay area and out to the tail – each area having defensive gun turrets along the way.

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Pilot and co-pilot seats – B-17

During my next visit to Patagonia, I told Dad I had a surprise for him. I sat him and Mom down and played the video on the TV. I said there were a few vintage planes on the film and I wanted to see if he could identify them. First the fighter appears and he remembered flying alongside many of them during the first part of his missions. The CD-3 was next and he remembered seeing a lot of those back then delivering parts and soldiers. He talked about it for a few minutes as I paused the film. I proceeded and then the B-17 came into view and he said ‘Oh my God, it’s a 17’ and he couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. ‘It’s been a long time since I have seen one of those in the air,’ he said.  You could tell he was really moved seeing one of those iron birds still flying. It landed and taxied right up to him, shut down the engines and then the plane sat there in silence, as did Dad. I told him how I had filmed it. He didn’t say much at first – just looked and remembered what those days during the war were like seeing scores of the 17’s coming and going. He was surprised and pleased to see what once was the aircraft he flew 31 bombing missions in and had somehow survived it all, which many didn’t.” – George Paton

A young man named Rishi Sharma, just 19 years old, is currently traveling around the country interviewing surviving WWII veterans. His mission – to interview all those vets who are still with us before their story is lost forever. My Dad will not be among those this young man interviews – he passed away in 2001.  Fortunately for our family, my dad was interviewed in 2000 by Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a research entomologist who had retired to the Patagonia, Arizona area and enjoyed interviewing and writing about WWII veterans. We have the taped interviews and manuscript. Both Dr. Whitcomb and my Dad passed away before the manuscript reached final form, but his wife Judith offered to share the tapes with the family. What an incredible gift to hear my dad’s voice talking about his war experiences.

As we honor today, Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2017,  the men and women who sacrificed so much for our freedom, I am reminded of these special memories of my dad as well as the “simple act of kindness” of Judith Whitcomb in sharing his story with us. Many of those who served were just 19 and 20 years old at the time – one day graduating from high school and just a few months later sitting in a bomber risking everything to  protect our country.

“I’m glad I participated in the War,” Paton said. “I don’t feel like I did anything extraordinary. I did my job like every other American.” – Wally Paton, Nogales International Times

Dad earned four Oak Leaf Clusters, a Distinguished Flying Cross and two combat ribbons.

Pretty extraordinary, I’d say.

She was a great plane, Paton said with a smile. Everyone depended on her to get us through every battle and she did.” Wally Paton,  Nogales International Times

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Ball Gunner Turret – gunner was protected only by glass in a very cramped space

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Back of B-17 with Gunner Turret

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Pilot’s check List – B-17