As told to Chace Anderson
I went up to Buffalo and talked to the recruiters. I told them I wanted to join the Navy. The guy there sees I’m about 25 and says, “What do you do?” I told him I was a machinist, that I made tools. He says, “These young kids going in will run rings around you. You have a trade, why don’t you join the Seabees and get $20 more a month?” I said, “I’ll take it.”
— Reggie Chisholm
At 98 years old—I’ll be 99 in May—I just don’t remember specific dates too well. When people ask me the year something happened or specific names, sometimes I don’t have the slightest idea. But of course, much of my life still stands out in my memory.
My family and where I was born—now that’s pretty easy. I was born in Smethport, Pennsylvania, in May, 1917, the fourth of five kids. I had one sister and three brothers. My dad, James Thomas Chisholm, was a tailor and made many of our clothes when we were young. My mother, Edna Adelaide Chisholm, was a homemaker.
The family moved to Jamestown, New York, before I started school, and when I was about 9 or 10, my mom left. She took the oldest and the youngest children, my brothers James and Earle, and moved to Olean, New York, to live with her mother.
My dad was sort of a timid little guy. One day my brother John got upset and said, “I’m going to go to Mom’s.” Dad said, “Pack your bag.” John did and moved to our mother’s.
That left just me and my sister Rhea, and one day she got teed off and left. Of course I went down and spent my summer vacations with my grandma and mother, but they said “Don’t you come live here; there’s no room for you.” I didn’t really feel like I wanted to go there for the simple reason I felt sorry for my dad all by himself.
We lived upstairs over a grocery store, and Dad’s tailor shop was two doors down. He’d sew a button on for 10 cents — five cents for the button and five cents for knowing how.
The clothes he made for us kids were always handed down, but I remember a pair of knickers he made just for me. They were short pants, you know the ones that go down to your knees. He made them out of an old corduroy couch cover, and he made them too damn big. Every time I walked, the material bunched between my legs and went “zip, zip, zip.”
Jeez, it just irritated the dickens out of me. I’d be walking at school and you’d hear “zip, zip, zip.” I couldn’t spread my legs any further. I hated those damn pants.
When I got to high school in the early ‘30s, I didn’t play any sports because I needed to make some money. For a while I worked with a photographer, picking up film from drug stores, taking it to his place to develop, and then delivering the prints. He’d drive the car, and I’d run in and make the pickups and deliveries.
I also delivered groceries for the store beneath us, and I think I got 10 cents a delivery. I saved my money and finally bought a wagon.
A guy from the state came by, saw me weighing potatoes and told me I had to have a work permit to do what I was doing. I then had a wagon but no job. The owner of the store did pay me 10 cents rental on my wagon.
One day I was walking home from school, and I asked this guy, “Would you like me to mow your lawn?” He gave me 50 cents, rain or shine, for mowing his lawn—even when I didn’t. He’d leave my 50 cents on the counter for me to pick up after I was done.
One time it rained, and I didn’t stop by to mow his lawn. When he saw me he said, “You didn’t come down and pick up your 50 cents.” I told him I hadn’t mowed his lawn. He said, “You couldn’t help that it rained; there’s still 50 cents on the counter for you.”
That man had a daughter named Helen, and when I’d get my 50 cents, sometimes I’d take her to the show. We’d get in for a dime. I guess you could say she was kind of like a girlfriend.
About the time I graduated from Jamestown High School in 1935, I was working part time in a creamery, serving ice cream on nights and weekends. It was about then that I bought a car, an old Chevy that cost me $163. As soon as I got it, tires started going flat and I had to buy four new ones.
When I quit the creamery in a disagreement with the supervisor, I asked Helen’s dad if he needed any help at his factory. “It’s in the foundry,” he said. “It’s noisy and loud. It pays 40 cents an hour. You work all week for $16.”
I said, “I’ll take it.”
He told me, “You better buy yourself some heavy shoes, jeans, and some blue shirts because you’ll need them.” I bought the clothes and went to work.
I was about 19 then, and I worked as a machinist at that foundry until I went into the service five or six years later.
I used to roller skate all the time in Jamestown. Sometimes I paid and other times the guy who owned the rink where I skated would say, “Reggie, why don’t you go put on your skates and help fill up the place?” I’d help people learn to skate, and then I’d skate with them.
When they did the draft lottery in 1940, I ended up with a pretty low number—I think it was three, or maybe it was 33. They listed people and their numbers in the paper, and everybody was telling me, “It’s in the paper, you’re going to go.”
The superintendent at the foundry came down and said, “Don’t worry, Reggie, we’ll take care of that.” The foundry was a necessary industry for the war effort. Jeez, I got two different deferments.
After a couple years I finally had to ask him to let me go. We were in the war, and all my friends were in. The girls I skated with all had boyfriends and husbands who were in the service, and they’d ask me, “Haven’t they got you yet, haven’t they got you yet?” Jeez, I felt like a turd, you know.
I went up to Buffalo and talked to the recruiters. I told them I wanted to join the Navy. The guy there sees I’m about 25 and says, “What do you do?” I told him I was a machinist, that I made tools. He says, “These young kids going in will run rings around you. You have a trade, why don’t you join the Seabees and get $20 more a month?”
I said, “I’ll take it.”
Back at my draft board, one of the girls in charge was someone I skated with. She said, “They finally got you, huh?” I said, “Yeah, when am I going to go?”
I waited and waited, and still I wasn’t called up. I went into the draft board and asked that girl when I could go.
She said, “Well, who are we going to skate with if you go?”
“Come on,” I said, “I feel terrible. Here I am single, and goddammit, you girls are all married, and I’m running loose.”
She said, “OK, we’ll send you.”
I went back up to Buffalo, and they shipped me out for about six weeks of basic training in some camp. I wish I could tell you where it was, but I just don’t remember. I do know it was a dump.
After that, they told me I was going to be assigned to the Marines, and they sent me to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
I did all the Marine training at Camp Lejeune, all the training and the rifle stuff—just everything the Marines had to learn. I always felt you didn’t want to get too smart in the service, so I played it cool. I scored 98 on the rifle test and qualified for the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), but I didn’t want the damn thing. It was real heavy. My bunkmate got a carbine, so I said, “I’ll trade you.”
We went to the commanding officer. “Sir,” I said, “I have the BAR and Clark here would like to trade me.”
He looked me in the eye and said, “Young man, you are going to take that BAR and either live or die with it. Is that clear?” That was the end of that. Couldn’t trade.
About then I met this gal on the train and started writing to her. She lived in Washington D.C., and she told me if I came down there, she’d show me around. I got a 72-hour pass from Camp Lejeune and got a room at the USO in Washington. She said, “If you behave yourself, you can stay on my couch.” That was a good deal, so I did. And I can tell you, there was no hanky-panky.
While I was there, she showed me how to read the cards — you know, take a deck of cards and tell fortunes. The kings may be men in your life, the queens could be women; stuff like that. The more you work those cards the better you get at telling fortunes. Back at camp all the guys wanted me to read the cards for them.
Sometime later when I was stationed in the Pacific, I remember reading the cards for an officer who asked me to tell his fortune while we were onboard ship. He was married, but he also apparently had a girlfriend. I read his cards and could see he was going to pay out money. I told him, “It’s going to cost you.”
While I was at Camp Lejeune, I met this gal named Catherine who was a Marine. I gave her my address and she gave me hers so we could write if we wanted once we had left North Carolina.
All through the service I gave my name to all these gals I would meet on the train. At night, you know, we didn’t have much to do, so I would write letters to all the gals I met. Didn’t cost me nothing. The service mailed them for me.
I wrote to every damn girl who wanted my name. I’d write the same letter and just change the name at the top. One time at the end of the war, I got 21 letters at Camp Pendleton. The mail guy said, “No need for me to keep going, you get all the damn letters.” A lot of the time there was nothing else to do but write.
From Camp Lejeune, I was sent to Camp Parks in Dublin, California, and I became part of the 7th Naval Construction Battalion of the Seabees. At Camp Parks we did a lot of horseshit crap. It was all construction work, hammering nails and putting up stuff. I remember we built them a recreation center there. I wore a Marine uniform, but I was a Seabee.
One day at camp, I was working on something, and I got a sliver. I worked at trying to get it out and couldn’t, so I went over to sickbay. This guy over there started cutting at it with a knife. He kept fooling with it and cutting and trying to get it out.
I finally said, “Gee, do you think you can save the hand?” He was a little peeved at that.
I can’t tell you exactly how long we were at Camp Parks, but in December 1944, we headed out to the Pacific.
For a while, maybe a couple months, we were at Iroquois Point near Pearl Harbor, horsing around and building stuff. I pounded nails and poured cement. All that sort of crap.
I remember seeing the ships and stuff. You know, the damage from the attack. Some of it was still there.
I got licensed to drive a truck while I was in Hawaii. If we wanted to tour around, I’d go get a truck and drive. Oh, I worked it all the way around, I did.
It seemed every place you went, out came the Hawaiian girls doing the Hawaiian dances, the hula and stuff. First the little girls and then the big girls. You got kind of tired of it after a while.
I never had a steady girlfriend or anything while I was in the service. I had written to Helen a couple times but not much. I never did see her after the war.
Saipan and Okinawa
The 7th Battalion was sent to Saipan in March 1945, and again we did a little construction, a little straightening up. We were told, “Tear this down…Put this back together.” It was disgusting really. I remember we built a house, but a lot of the time we sat around doing nothing much. It was about eight months after the battle there.
In April or May we moved on to Okinawa. We set up a camp and did a little construction. More of the same stuff. I drove a truck, used a wheelbarrow, transported cement.
The Japanese would come through our camp at night—in the morning we’d see the footprints of those funny shoes they wear. They were probably civilians, or maybe deserters.
One night somebody shot one of them. He was a heavyset fellow who was going through our camp in the night, so they shot him. I saw his body in the morning, just outside camp. He didn’t have a uniform on, so he must have been a civilian. I don’t know who shot him.
There were times we heard shooting off in the distance, but the battle was over.
Note: Research shows some members of the 7th NCB were moved from Saipan to Okinawa in April, some in May, and some in June. Hostilities on Okinawa lasted from April 1 through June 22. Histories of the 7th NCB indicate men on Okinawa constructed a seaplane base, pontoon piers, causeways and roads, and they did clearance work for an Advanced Base Camp.
We stayed on Okinawa until the war was over, then took a troop transport back to Hawaii and then on to the States. As we were disembarking, an officer called to me. “Hey you, you’re the guy who read the cards. You were right, I paid just like you said.”
I was sent to Camp Pendleton, and somehow I got in good graces with the Red Cross man there. I asked him if he could help me get out soon. Usually married men got out first, and I was single, but they got me out very quick. I was discharged on Dec. 5, 1945.
About that time, I wrote to Catherine, the lady Marine I had met at Camp Lejeune. She was living in Oakland by then, so I went to her place and slept on the couch until I got settled.
Another Marine friend and I started looking for work together. Wherever we went, he would say, “We’re Marines, you got a job?” I didn’t like that approach, so one day I went alone and walked into a wholesale grocer in Oakland.
He told me he’d have something after the first of the year, but I could do a few odd jobs for him until then.
From January to July 1946, I worked at the grocery wholesale warehouse, learning as much as I could about business. I went to a banker down on Mission Street and got some of the best advice I was ever given. He told me to buy some things on credit and pay them off. He told me it was important to have a good credit rating, and I’ve always had one.
In July, I rented a place at 46th and Judah in San Francisco and opened Sunset Variety Store. I married Catherine, and the two of us ran the store for about 10 years. We lived about five blocks from the store on 45th Avenue.
I wish I could tell you our wedding date, but I just can’t remember. I do remember many of the things we carried in our store. We didn’t have groceries of food, but I sold the hell out of something called the Baby Coo doll—$24.95 apiece for a doll. Can you believe that?
We had a whole doll section. We sold a lot of toys, pencils and school supplies, pottery for plants… much better than a five and dime.
Catherine and I didn’t have our own kids, but we adopted two girls, Shelly and Daphne. Daphne battled multiple sclerosis for 28 years and died when she was 48. Shelly lives in Benicia today.
When the girls were little and we lived in the city, they used to complain that there was no sun in San Francisco.
About 1956, Catherine and I closed the store and moved to Corte Madera in Marin County where the girls would have more sun. For the next seven years I sold insurance.
In 1963 I walked into a Sprouse-Reitz store in Petaluma and asked if they needed a manager. I told them about my experience in retail and must have impressed them. I did some training there in Petaluma, and then they had me run their store in Berkeley.
Later I transferred to the store in San Pablo, so we sold the house in Corte Madera and move there. Whatever I ordered for my stores, they’d send me because they knew I’d sell it.
We added 3,000 square feet to the San Pablo store when I was there.
By the late ’70s, things weren’t too good between Catherine and me. She was always going up to Oregon where her family lived—she’d take off and stay for three or four weeks at a time. It just wasn’t working that good, so I said, “Why don’t you get rid of me.” So she did.
I met Diane at Sprouse-Reitz in San Pablo; in fact she worked for me in that store for three years. At the time, she had six kids and a bad marriage. After she kicked her husband out, we started seeing each other and were married in 1979.
After 20 years with Sprouse-Reitz, I retired in 1983. Some of Diane’s kids were living in Tuolumne County, and of course we visited them up here. Pretty soon we decided to move here as well. Diane drove up a few times and scouted around to find a place for us to rent.
It was all so easy. In San Pablo we rented a truck; then the gang down there loaded our furniture and up we came. My daughter Shelly moved into the San Pablo house. The gang up here unloaded everything and set up the beds. I’m still living in that same house Diane found.
One day shortly after we settled in, I went to the Payless store up by where Orchard Supply is now. I walked in and asked someone, “Want some help 14 or 15 hours a week?” I was 66 but told them I was 58.
Well, they hired me right away. I was a cashier and I watered plants—all that kind of stuff. I told the wife it would give us extra Christmas money, and then they’d dump me after the holidays. But they kept me working part-time for over seven years. I think I was almost 74 when I quit—but only 65 to them.
Diane died in 2009 from smoking. Her emphysema got so bad at the end she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t even smoke a cigarette—two or three puffs and she was out of breath.
Carol is Diane’s youngest daughter. She’s about 48 and has a few learning problems. She’s been in the WATCH program for about 30 years. She lived here with me until about three years ago. Then I got to thinking; I couldn’t really guarantee I was going to be here too much longer. And I worried what would happen to her.
Carol had been spending some weekends at this home in Twain Harte, so I pulled a few strings and got her in full time. She lives up there with five or six other women. She helps do dishes, puts them away, and makes her own lunch before she goes out with WATCH. She calls me every morning at 6:30 to check on me and then calls again to say goodnight at 7.
And she’ll spend weekends with me sometimes. I still take care of her cat here at the house.
My stepdaughter Julie and her husband live in Columbia and are very good to me. She’ll come by and take me grocery shopping and always seems to put some extra food she’s cooked in my refrigerator. Her husband will change a light or do whatever needs doing around here.
I use a walker sometimes to get in and out of bed, but I just take a cane when I walk over to Courthouse Park to catch the bus. I keep the menu from the Senior Center on my refrigerator, and if they’re having something good for lunch, I’ll take the bus up and eat with some of the others. Sometimes I’ll take the bus to the doctor. It’s very handy. It brings me right back to the park.
I can take pretty good care of myself. I do my own dishes, and I do my own laundry. I don’t really cook. I have a man who comes in once a week to help me with a few things like bathing. It seems like everything works out. I think the man up there watches over me.
I tell people I’m as healthy as a horse but not worth a damn. I have an enlarged bladder, and I have macular degeneration in one eye, so my eyesight isn’t too good. I gave up driving about six months ago. I had that carpal tunnel in my hands, so I don’t have much feeling, especially in my fingertips. I can’t pick up those damn little batteries for the hearing aids, so I don’t bother to use them any more. And I have some diabetes that I treat with pills.
One thing I’ve always done is I’ve listened and I’ve learned. I’m very proud that I had all those jobs and that I could keep them and support my family.
My greatest joy and the best thing that every happened to me was Diane, being married to her and being part of her family. Up here she used to work part time at Fye’s Stationery, and for several years we traveled and did a lot together, sometimes with the whole family.
We went east twice to see my family. We went to Puerto Vallarta and took Carol to Florida and Southern California.
I’ve always loved to sing. In San Francisco I was a tenor with a group called “Men of Note.” And up here, for a long time, I would lead a singing group at the Senior Center on Thursdays. I’m always asked to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Want to hear it now?
I miss Diane. I have to admit I’m lonely. Some days I just don’t feel very good, just kind of blah. I think it’s because I’m lonesome. Sometimes I think maybe I should go in a home. But I’ve visited those places, and I don’t see people out and around. They all seem to stay in their rooms. I don’t want that.
I was proud to serve my country during the war. I don’t think I did that much. I was either building stuff or moving around. I was ready to go up to the lines, but we didn’t get there.
I don’t have a regret, but I do feel bad about something. That was supposed to be the war that ended war. And we keep having them.
Oh yes, I was proud to serve. I wanted to be like the rest of them. I wanted to go. And I can be thankful I came out alive.