“I was established in 1942 in Swayne County, North Carolina,” begins my interview with Carl Cook, December’s Savvy Senior. “I was born at home, which is now underwater of what is known as the Fontana Dam.
“They made everybody move from the backwater area. We moved from there to Swannanoa, just east of Ashville, pretty much after they had completed the dam.
“From there we moved about 50 miles away to an old homestead on Cope Creek near Sylva, called the Crawford Place. I don’t remember how old I was or how long we were there, but I wasn’t in school yet.
“We were blown out of there by a windstorm in the middle of the night from the tailwinds of a hurricane. It took the top off of the house and we walked two to three miles across the mountain in the pouring rain and in the black of night, to Uncle Claude and Aunt Laura’s house, who were living with his parents in their house. We stayed there for a bit.
“My parents fixed up a cabin about half a mile away from Claude’s house. It was a two or three bedroom log cabin and we were there for a year or two. It was still before I had started school.
“Then my mom’s dad bought a place about a mile away from Claude’s place and we lived there a year or so before I started school in 1948.”
Carl said he vividly remembers attending first, third, and fifth grades. However due to tonsillitis, ear infections, and strep throat, Carl missed a lot of school during the second and fourth grades. “I was too sick to go to school, but I did a lot of homework. I never remember getting anything less than an A on my report card. That is, not until we moved from North Carolina in 1954.
“That was the year after my father was chased out of the state with the revenuers on his tail for moonshining,” laughs Carl. “He didn’t have time to pack up the family
“When he left, Claude’s dad also left, but he went to Florida and Dad went to Oregon.
“Dad was kind of a Jack of all trades. He was working on a cattle ranch in Oregon and we came out to meet him the following year.”
No words for school
Carl remembers the first day of school in Oregon. “I got laughed at because of my southern drawl. I told the teacher not to bother calling on me in class or asking me to give an oral report, because I refused to do it. When he would call on me I’d just shake my head and wouldn’t respond. And that is how,” Carl explains, “that’s how I went from making straight A’s to straight F’s, for refusing to do anything.”
Carl shares that he received a “butt warming” following the first report card he took home. He decided that he was willing to do just enough to pass and that’s how he made it through.
“I still wouldn’t speak in class, but I’d do a written report if that’s what they wanted. I didn’t do homework either, I figured why waste my time when I’m not going to answer their questions anyway. When it came time to take the finals at the end of the semester I would always ace them, but I still received a D for lack of participation.”
“After a year or so, my father accepted a job as a carpenter and the family moved to Longview, WA. Things got a little better as I had gradually gotten rid of the slang. We were only there about a year. I remember when we got out of school in the summer we found jobs picking cucumbers and strawberries for the farmers, or whatever else we could find to do to earn a little money.
“The Columbia River ran past our house so we’d go fishing almost daily.
“Another year passes and we move to Kellogg, where Dad went to work in the mines.
“The following year we moved to the Fernwood and Santa area and lived there a couple of years. It was there I quit school in 1957 and decided to leave home.”
Carl told his mom that he had taken enough, and that he wasn’t taking anymore “butt whippings” from his father for no reason other than his dad being drunk. Carl’s mom feared his father would find him and really tan Carl’s hide. Carl vowed that would never happen.
The next morning Carl returned his books to the school in St. Maries and hitchhiked back to Fernwood to pick up his bag that he had packed earlier that morning. He hugged his mother goodbye and left before his father returned home from work.
Over the next three days, Carl walked from Fernwood to Orofino. “I swore my sister to secrecy. My folks didn’t have a phone in Fernwood so she couldn’t call.
“I dinged around here, working wherever I could to make a few bucks. It was 1958. I washed dishes at the old Ideal Café, and for the old Orofino Café. In the summertime I picked blackberries. I stayed and watched my sister’s kids while she worked at State Hospital North and her husband worked at Cardiff’s Spur in Pierce.
“In 1959, my mom, my dad, and the rest of the kids moved up here. My mom got a job working at SHN, in the laundry. I worked on one of the floors and was living in the apartments up there at the time.
“My sister that I followed here has passed now and I’ve lost four brothers as well to Agent Orange.” Carl shares that he had six brothers and two sisters. He was child number five, with four older siblings and four younger siblings. Suddenly the story of his family’s many relocations took on a new meaning. Can you imagine traveling cross country with nine kids, by yourself?
Thinking he wasn’t getting anywhere, Carl decided to go back to school in the fall of 1960 and graduated in 1963.
“In the meantime I worked at SHN, beginning in 1960. At that time we were called attendants instead of psychiatric aides. I was one of 15 chosen by Dr. Pullen to attend the LPN course that was sponsored by the Manpower Development Training Act passed in 1962.”
Fifteen students attended and all 15 students passed the first time they took the State Board Exam.
“It was the first time that had ever happened in the history of St. Joseph’s Nursing Program,” added Carl, “before they sent the program to LCSC. I graduated from nursing in September and enlisted in the service in November of that same year.”
“Oh the military was a fun trip,” says Carl and I wait for a second to see if he is serious or not. He’s not giving me any time to think about it, before going into more detail.
“I got to travel to San Antonio, Texas for basic training. I joined the Air Force, because I didn’t want to be a ‘ground-pounder.’ I still ended up going overseas but that’s alright, I didn’t get shot, and that’s the main thing.
“I got to spend all of four weeks in basic training and had a big argument with the drill instructor. I got sent to the company commander.
“What seems to be the problem, Cook?”
“They’re telling me they are going to make an MP out of me and it’s not going to happen,” answered Cook.
“Well don’t you think you’re going to do what they tell you to do?”
“And don’t you think you’re going to go where they tell you to go?”
The company commander looked at Carl and said, “You’ll be what they tell you to be!”
Carl informed him that he would be a medic or he would go to jail, “I did not spend a year getting my nursing license to become an MP guarding an empty plane here on the flight line.”
“Don’t get too excited,” responded the commander. “Let me look into this.”
The following day the captain comes in with a big stack of papers and calls me into the office.
“We cussed and discussed this at the big office,” he said, “and you’re right. Here are your orders and we want you off this base at 5 p.m.”
Carl said he packed his bags, they gave him a ride to the bus station and he went to Altus Air Force Base, OK, about 200 miles north of San Antonio, for his first duty station as a medic.
“When I checked into the NCO at the med clinic, he looked at my orders and noted that they said I was going to be a 902-50.
“He asked how I could be a 902-50 when I hadn’t even been to med school.” Carl said he kept listening to him. He told Carl, ‘You don’t even have a stripe on your uniform and furthermore, you haven’t even been in the service that long.’ The sergeant didn’t know what to do, so they went to see the Colonel in charge of the hospital.
Carl admits he hadn’t told them that he’d been through nursing school or that he had received his nursing degree.
When asked what he thought he could do Carl told them he could do anything they asked him to do.
So Carl was told to be scrubbed in for surgery by 6 a.m. the following morning.
“I knew exactly what was coming,” said Carl, “I was going to pass instruments to the doctor. So as soon as he picks up the scalpel and makes his initial incision, I knew what he was going to ask for next, and as he turned to set it down and ask for the next instrument I already had it in his hand. Throughout the remainder of the surgery he just held his hand out.”
Afterwards, he told Carl that he learned pretty well, but asked that when he reported for duty, “you better have a stripe sewn on your sleeve.”
“They tried to get me to go to OCS or Officer Candidates School, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay in the service that long. If I hadn’t been discharged for medical reasons I probably would have stayed. Every time I was eligible for promotion I received it.”
“It turned out that I had severe ulcers and unbeknownst to everyone, I was a worry wart and didn’t know it. It landed me in the hospital a couple of times. I was even discharged over them.
“Scar tissue from bleeding ulcers had completely obstructed me. Before they operated on me in 1971, I went from 165 lbs. to 117 lbs.
Those recovery room nurses just hadn’t run into taking care of anyone quite like Carl.
“I woke up and disconnected the intubation and the catheter, moved my IV bag to a traveling stand and was halfway down the hall before they even knew I was gone. I’ve seen way too many patients catch pneumonia after surgery by not getting up to move around. When I ran into my doctor between surgeries, I think I startled him a bit. It was just a few hours later till I was moved to the regular floor.
“The doctor kept me there for three months, and when I got so that I could move around, I grabbed a blood pressure cuff and a thermometer tray and made the rounds. The nurses didn’t mind, especially when they found out I was an LVN.”
After that, it was work, work, work. Carl said he returned to work at State Hospital North (SHN), and when they needed to lay folks off, he volunteered to be one of the ones to leave (so other employees with children didn’t have to) and worked at St. Joseph’s.
He also worked some evenings and weekends on call for a couple of urologists. taking care of post-op patients. He was so efficient at it, they offered to send him to med school so he could come back and join them. “They thought I had the knack.” Carl said he really didn’t want to attend any more school.
It was only a matter of time before Carl found himself back at SHN. He had great stories and memorable experiences in his total employment there of 34 years. He always had a job and was good at what he did.
His character and work ethics have earned him the pride in never ever having to draw an unemployment check, from 1964, until he retired. “Then of course,” he added, “I got my retirement check.”
“I joined the VFW when I came back to Orofino in 1969 and have been a member ever since doing whatever needed to be done. I do a lot of things with the schools during Veterans Day. We’d like to include Timberline Schools but we just don’t have enough active members to do that.
“Post 3296 has about 180 to 190 members, but only about 14 to 16 are what we’d call active. It’s difficult to get the younger guys to sign up, I have no idea why, but it is just too bad they don’t. But somebody has to do it and whenever I’m asked I can’t say no, and if I have to do it myself, I’ve done a lot of that too. Remember that crazy Maniac uniform?”
The red white and blue
The flags lining Johnson Avenue was one of Carl’s projects. “I worked with Rotary to get those raised and they are always great to send manpower down to help set them up and take them down,” Carl adds, “The only time Rotary isn’t there is during Lumberjack Days when they have the food booth.
“I kept trying to get the guys at the post to put more flags up prior to that and they said it would be too much work, so when I became the Post Commander in 2004-2005, I told them we were going to raise flags from one end of the cemetery to the other.
“Today there are 160 flags, and since the beginning, we’ve had nothing but good comments from others. I’m planning on another 80-90 more flags in the near future. Then if it keeps going, I’ll do the whole other side of the middle road in the cemetery.”
Carl applied for the opportunity to attend an Inland Northwest Honor Flight three years ago. He said he saw the applications at the VA Clinic in Lewiston and sent it in. Time passed and he had almost forgotten about it when he received a call in September of this year inquiring if he might still be interested.
After Carl assured them he was, they asked him to send a list of all his medications and any mobility assistance that he might need on the trip. “They also asked about any metal joints or things like that. I didn’t have any metal joints but I do have a metal coil running from my sternum to my belly button to hold my cartilage and muscles together.
“The doctor put that in there on purpose and kept me in the hospital three months because he figured I was kind of a rebel rouser. I guess he didn’t want me busting open later with hernias.
“Getting back to the Honor Flight…We left Spokane on Oct. 23, and landed in Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C.
“When we arrived they had three huge buses to transport us with 65-70 people on a bus.
“I made it to the Vietnam Wall and took a picture of the name on the wall where the only military person from Clearwater County was killed in Vietnam. His name was Lonny Hilton Hendrickson, his brother, Lee was a classmate of mine.
“Unfortunately, the bus I was on broke down and we missed about four hours of the tour. When we finally did get another bus, we just flew by the monuments in order to catch up with the other buses.”
Carl said that all of the veterans on his bus were invited to return in the spring if they wanted to go. “I was surprised that only five of us said ‘yes’ and I was one of them. I would absolutely go,” affirmed Carl, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with my fishing trip to the coast, because I’ve missed the past two years.
“During those years I stayed here and helped Susie Braun take care of her husband, Dave. I worked with them for two years and then he passed in July of this year. But we kept him out of the nursing home, and that was the main thing.
“I almost forgot, the wrath of a wind storm in 2010 brought a tree down through my house in the middle of the night.” Carl explained the tree drove the headboard of his bed frame into the floor while he was still in it. It was nothing short of a miracle he escaped alive.
“It was Dave Braun who had come by and offered me a place to live in his father’s old house on the back of the hill, and that’s where I am still. I was told that Dave said I could stay there until my dying day if I want to, so that’s good. If I ever need to come down off the hill, I still have a house downtown. It’s rented at the time, but it’s there if I need to, and I can be closer to town and still do the crazy stuff I do.”
For those who know Carl, I think you’ll agree, it won’t be anytime soon. Just last month, many people appeared to help him celebrate his 75th birthday at the VFW Hall. There was live music, a grand feast, and lots of people.
Carl didn’t miss a step on the dance floor. It’s a sure bet that he’ll be around to celebrate many more. There’s just too many things left to be done and he just can’t say no!