by Nicki Shellenberger Lies
Some men are just like that, always dominating the story, the action, the focal point of the photograph, the classroom, the Thanksgiving table. Forget the bird, and let’s get to the ‘Shaggy Dog’ tale narrated by Uncle Jake.
The woman who loved him the most had to have been his mother, Bertha. She had lost her second-born, who was a son, to childhood leukemia. In those years, before there were familiar terms associated with that dread disease like ‘chemotherapy’ and even ‘cure,’ this mother and father and little sister clung to one another as they watched helplessly as death took over.
Bertha and Olin (aka “Jack”), lived in Akron, Ohio, where both Mary Kay and Buddy were born. Along with their best friends, Jack’s little sister Lila and her husband Leonard, they took jobs working for Goodyear Tires. It was 1917 and there was a war on and a need for tires. Tires for trucks and tires for fighter planes. When the baby got sick, Bertha and Olin, and their oldest child Mary Kay, traveled back home to Kansas where they sought medical help for little Buddy. Mary Kay was only 2 1/2 years old, but her mother’s loss was her loss as well. The loss reverberated deeply in Mary Kay’s soul when her own baby died many years later from spina bifida, at nine days old.
My mother, Mary Kay, remembered well the birth that brought such deep happiness to her mom and dad. She said, “I was thirteen years old when Jerry, was born.” Her baby brother was later known by his friends as “Jake.” “Seems like Mom had morning sickness the whole nine months. Her friends had showers for her and I spent a lot of time helping her prepare things for the new baby. Dr. Roberts came to the house to deliver our new little brother, the child who was the joy of my parent’s lives. I am so grateful they did not have to live to see his suffering and death.
“Jerry was a great pleasure to us all until he got old enough to be a pest. When he was about three years old, we moved to 354 Wabash, Wichita, Kansas, just a couple of doors from the fire station. We became close friends with several of the firemen, and Jerry spent much time at the station. They made a pet of him and taught him every bad word in the book!”
Jake’s wife, Carolyn, said that Jerry had so many names, at first she was confused about who was being talked about. The older relatives knew him as “Jerry”. He was known to the younger relatives, including his sisters as “Uncle Jake.” All his friends, the coaches, and a few of the priests were calling him “Red.” Then, to make things worse, Red’s Mom called him “Son” or “Sun,” adding another handle to her boy. Part of his reputation was his standing as ‘top dog’ among the Bishop’s acolytes. “Jake was always there when the Bishop needed an altar boy, and he and Walt Struble went on all the bishop’s trips with him,” my mother told me.
My mother was called “Red” by my dad, Chet. The connotation of that endearment was very different than in the case of my uncle “Red.” Both of them, (Mary Kay and Jerry), had the soft red hair of their father, a Scots-Irishman who drank daily, worked endlessly, read books voraciously, and loved my grandmother with an abiding love. It could have been that common attribute of having their father’s hair color that gave them a special affinity for each other; or it could be that Mom was so grateful when Jake was born that her wonderful mother finally had another son to love.
Whatever the special chemistry, Jake admired Mary Kay, thought her full of grace. She saw his sharp wit and humor (sometimes sarcastic) for what they were, tools to deal with those things they all had to deal with – poverty, an alcoholic dad, and a longing to be somebody.
My aunt Beulah’s hair was the burnt copper color of a new penny. She was grandma’s favorite daughter. Bertha loved all her children, but Beulah was special, I think because she filled up some of that awful black hole in grandma’s heart, left when Buddy died. I remember my aunts, Mary Kay, Beulah, and Sally sitting in grandma’s kitchen drinking coffee with cream and laughing. The sound of their laughter and endless chatter was intoxicating to me.
Sally (Sarah Ann) was the only brunette among the children, and she thought Jake a pest from when they were little until they were in high school.
Carolyn Ryan and Uncle Jake began noticing each other in her freshman year and his junior year. She considered him irritating. One day as she was walking down the hall, she said, “The boy in front of me suddenly stopped and turned around forcing me to run into him. It was Red. Loudly, he said that I had been walking the wrong direction and had deliberately run into him. I became known as ‘The Immovable Force’ to him and his buddies.”
This guy who was very popular, played football and baseball, was the Bishop’s altar boy, and liked teasing girls, would marry “The Immovable Force”.
Jake and Carolyn Epperly were married on March 12, 1951 and had to have eight dispensations from the Bishop to have the wedding during Lent. Carolyn did not wear a formal white dress because that would have required another dispensation. All the statues in the Cathedral were covered in purple cloth – music was not allowed. That somber tone required by the Church allowing couples to marry during Lent was a particularly apt rule in March of 1951.
“They married before Dad went to boot camp. Mom only got to see Dad one more time before he shipped out for Korea. Carolyn and her cousin, Shirley Ann, went to meet the troop train he was on as it passed through Kansas somewhere near Pittsburgh. Mom said she thought the train was going to tip over since all the guys were hanging out the windows to get a good look! They had to wake Dad up, he was not expecting to see his wife, I guess.” (Jodi Pyle, youngest daughter of Red and Carolyn)
His wife Carolyn, or, as Jake referred to her, Suzie, tells us a little more about his leaving in her journal:
“On March 15, Red was back on the train to California where he would be shipped out to Yokohama, Japan. One of the movies Dad and Mom and I saw at the Kansas theatre showed the ship Red had taken to Japan, and then a newsreel of what the training would be like. That was the last movie Bertha went to. Dad always went along with Bertha. She felt that what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.”
As with most soldier’s rucksacks, Jake’s held a pencil, and he would use that pencil to touch the folks at home in the dark hours of the months ahead. Along with Carolyn, his new wife, and his folks, Mom and Dad were the closest family he had. My brothers and sister and I were crazy about our uncle Jake, and these missives from him were treasured. The war was only in its third month when my folks got this letter:
Dear M K, Chet & Family.
Well, things are sunny in California right now. But when evening falls the fog comes rolling in.
How are all the kids? O.K. I hope. I suppose by this time the kids are
all worked up for Christmas. I guess I must be getting old because I
don’t get very excited about Christmas anymore.
Up until today I thought I’d probably get to come home for the holidays
but when we came in from the rifle range they told us that nine
divisions of Russians were on their way to China, so it looks as if the
training will speed up and the passes home will be stopped entirely.
Well, I guess that will be about it for now. I’m going to eat and go to
bed. Hard day tomorrow and for the next three years.
PS Take care of that God-son (and name-sake) of mine (John Gerald
Shellenberger) and call Carolyn and give her my love.
In the ensuing spring he was that much closer to the war, writing from Japan:
6 May, 51 Camp Haugen, Japan
“NEW and VIEWS and a FEW LOOSE SCREWS FROM THE RED- HAIRED MAN WHO RAN TO JAPAN. AND A WITTY SAYING NOW AND THEN FROM THE YANKEE MEN WHO NOW SPEND YEN!”
Greetings! What’s new in the Marajuna section? I hope you’re all feeling well, I’m okay too. Things in the land of the rising sun are about the same as usual. That needs no explanation since you don’t know how things usually are in the land of the rising sun. However, I will say one thing about this place, it is the only country I’ve ever been in where the wind blows all the time.
You can tell Johnny and all the other kids I’d like to see them too. It seems like a year I was home but I’ve been in six months now and the time goes faster from here on out so I’m told.
Don’t tell anybody that would get their hopes up too high but, the general consensus of opinion around here, from military men that should know, is that “police action” will soon be over. We get a daily communique from General Headquarters Far East Command American Defense and all reports are very favorable.
All the U.N. armies are doing now is trying to kill as many “Reds” as they can. I guess they are doing just that too, because the “Commies” are sure losing a lot of men.
If you could send me a small billfold size picture of the “kids” I would greatly appreciate it. I would like to see what the kids looked like before they got bigger than me.
Well. I guess that will be enough of this nonsense for now, so I’ll close.
Love from the “young” Mr. Epperly,
P. S. I could use some of those good cookies too.
17 May 51
Camp Haugen, Japan
Whadda ya hear from the mob? Good news I hope. I was glad to receive your latest epistle since it was both enlightening and entertaining.
I’m afraid I can’t do too much for you toward securing Japanese merchandise since I haven’t been on a pass since the day we arrived in the empire.
I really have no desire to go off the post around here, “it’s that bad.” The V.D. rate is quite high as you could expect and fertilizing is done the “hooman” way which results in an aromatic air current in the villages that I haven’t learned to like as yet.
Some of the men (boys) in my outfit tell me that I will some day go out to the Pom Pom girls but I think and hope they are wrong. I know that as long as the “Man” upstairs keeps an eye on me I need not fear a fate such as this.
I have received two issues of the “Catholic Digest” and I’m sorry I haven’t written to thank you for it much sooner. It is, as you know, a very good authority on things both spiritual & temporal and has made quite a hit around the barracks. I’ve enjoyed several articles in both issues such as the one about Pius the 10th and Tunney’s story of how he beat Dempsey.
I would like to deliver the seven paper hats for New Years personally if at all possible and it may be if things work out. I will explain the above if you keep it on the Q.T. from Mom Dad & Suzie.
As you probably have heard I was given the chance 3 times before to got to O.C.S. but refused because I thought I would be kept in the Forces too long. Well, last week Lt. Hitchcock (our Exec.) called me in and we sat down and figured it out that if I accepted the offer to become officer, I would only be in 7 to 9 months longer since I must serve 36 months anyway,
As much as I hate to admit it I like the Army and love the Infantry. You may now write and tell me what a “Jackass” I am. Nevertheless I’m going to give it a try.
This is about the crop for now so I’ll close, for a little “sack time’ is now in order.
P.S. Appreciate both your letters and subscription to “Digest”. Thanks for the ‘beads”. Jake Give my love to Johnny
Jake’s referral to his God-son reminds me of a story of the always funny (mostly) uncle of mine. When my brother Tom’s son was born, they named him Bryan. Jake immediately called everyone in the family asking, “Who is this guy Bryan that everybody is naming their kid after?”
Next up are the letters Jake wrote to me and my big brothers and sister. My little brother John, Jake’s namesake, had to have Mom read Jake’s letter to him. I was a bright child and could read on my very own. I was also a smarty-pants and Jake knew it.
Letters to the kids, Camp Haugen, July 4, 1951:
**Dear Miss Shellenberger,
Congratulations! So you finally graduated. I guess after being exposed to education long enough anyone can finally absorb a smattering of culture equal to obtaining a diploma.
Seriously, I’m very proud of you as you probably already know. Suzie thinks you are about A-1 but I think she’ll probably get wise to your family before long. You can tell your Mother that before she takes her paper sack over to see Suzie that we have all of our gifts marked and insured.
I guess that is about enough rawhiding for now so I will close.
P.S. Thank you for the holy card. I really appreciated it.
Shari, my oldest sister, remembered how exciting it was to get a letter from a world far away: “I was fourteen years old and admired my uncle Jake. I could remember ten years earlier being in the kitchen with him when he got home from school and learning the secrets of mixing cocoa, sugar and a little milk for a delectable taste treat. To me it was almost magic! By fourteen, I knew there was more to war than traveling to far-off places, so at night when I thought about my uncle, I knew fear.”
“Butch” was what Jake called my big brother, Larry. How he was able to find just the right words to enter our hearts and calm our fears, amazes me now. Larry was all about baseball. He was never without his ball glove, constantly thwacking it with his left fist to shape the ‘pocket.’ He would have the glove curved into perfect form, slide it off his hand, and then wrap it with a strip of cowhide to hold it in place until the next morning when the ritual would begin anew.
By this time your won-loss record should be something to behold. Those left-handed slants of yours should be a shade wicked to all those free swingers you face in the period of a game. How are your curve, drop and slider working? I hope they are as effective as Lopat’s.
Now I’ll tell you something that I hope you will take to heart. No matter how good you get remember that the man upstairs made you that way and He will probably make someone a little better someday so don’t let your success go to your head. That’s my sermon for today.
P.S. Stay right in there and pitch on God’s team and you can’t be beat.
Jake encouraged Tommy’s baseball skills as well, but Tommy was working on being the fastest draw in the West at that particular time. I would come around a corner in the kitchen and Tommy would grab that gun from his well-secured holster, “blam!”, and I’d be dead, “before you could say, Jack Robinson!”
**Dear Tom (Ted Williams),
Things in Japan are perking along in good shape. I am little cock-eyed but that is normal in the Orient.
I’ve heard you’re about the hottest thing in right field since Babe Ruth. It has been rumored that you have a batting style second to none and are pressing Williams of the Red Sox enough to make his position rather insecure. I hope you continue to “rattle the boards” with that big bat you swing.
With Larry pitching and you hitting it should be an unbeatable combination and go far in the game. Just remember horse-racing is the “Sport of Kings” but baseball in the “King of Sports”.
P.S. Thanks for the prayers and stay as modest and swell as you are.
Uncle Jake took time to write sweet letters to the younger kids, to Johnny and to me. His best letters he saved for my dad, whom he looked up to and loved dearly. Nearly twenty years his senior, Chet was more than a big brother or brother-in-law to Uncle Jake; he was a role model and a spiritual mentor. It’s funny how other people in life can get a whole different experience of the same person. I remember around 1965, I saw an old newspaper clipping of my Dad’s. There was a picture of him with the caption: Chet Shellenberger, Supreme President of the CAC. If I’d known he was supreme president of anything, I would have shown a little more respect. That’s how it was with my uncle and my dad, real respect going both ways. My Grandad was alcoholic, and I think my Dad filled a need for Jake during his young life. My Dad loved Jack, which is what people called Olin, Jake’s father. Except my Dad called him ‘Pop.’ People in my family have a penchant for adapting their own and everybody’s else’s first names.
I was very glad and surprised to hear from you. Your penmanship really amazed me. I guess I must be getting along in years because I really did not expect to be getting mail from the young Miss Shellenberger. I suppose by this time you are as brown as an Indian. As a second grader you undoubtedly will be able to write me oftener and give me reports on your whole family.
P.S. Keep chattering.
I am very sorry I haven’t written you sooner. However, I think you’ll forgive me since I have been kept very busy the past few weeks, with duties too important to neglect. Since I had to either perform my job in the prescribed manner or no longer be a squad leader (the aforementioned is quite similar to a top notch cub scout) I had to let the letter writing slide by until now.
It is a warm sunny Saturday afternoon here and all the little Japanese children are having a big time playing baseball and other games not too familiar to me. It has been quite some time since I’ve had the opportunity to see small children playing and I envy them. Not so much for the enjoyment they get out of their games but for their peace of mind and unending amount of energy.
I suppose you are having a good time playing baseball with your older brothers. I might add that they can teach you a lot of good things besides baseball since they are both ‘jam up” students and young men. When you say your prayers at night say a prayer or two for all the little Japanese boys and girls who do not have the many facilities for enjoying their young lives that you have. You might also thank Baby Jesus for making you an American.
Grandma and Grandpa probably tell you that we (company B) walked 84 miles not long ago. I’m going to pass something on to you now that I hope you will remember for a long time. You can try to be like me if you wish but don’t you ever try to walk 28 miles a day with a full field pack on. Of course you probably know I’m kidding you. The part of the Army that walks is the best part and don’t ever let anyone tell you anything else about the Infantry. I must close now and get some boys to shine their boots and brass.
Love, Uncle Jake
P.S. I’m going to give you a privilege no other man has. I want you to kiss your Aunt Carolyn and tell her it’s from me.
Thank you for not eating any of the cookies your Mother sent me but you could have eaten one just to test them.
One more letter was included in the envelope for the little Shellenbergers and this was to his big sister:
Well I’ve finally gotten around to answering your last letter. You need not apologize for not writing any sooner than you did since I know the limited amount of spare time you must have. You see, I have eight little ones of my own I must take care of (seven riflemen and a B.A.R. man, all older physically than myself) and it really is a time and energy consuming job.
I suppose John felt quite slighted when he didn’t receive a letter along with the other kids but tell him that I wanted to send his along with yours so you could read it for him. As yet I haven’t received the cookies you sent but please don’t be alarmed because it often takes a month for the packages to reach us.
Some of the Missionary sisters from Aomori, the principal seaport of northern Japan, came down to Camp Haugen last week and the children from their orphanage put on a little program at the service club. They are really doing a terrific amount of good work in this idol-adoring land. Most of the nuns were from around Boston and Baltimore and had many questions to ask about the States. They haven’t been home for six years and are consequently glad to talk with someone who has been in the states as recently as we have. (By the way, in case you’ re wondering, I just got some ink for this pen which accounts for the sudden change.) -from pencil to ink –
I’m going to confession in about 20 minutes so I’ll have to close this in order to get in my class “A” uniform to go to the chapel.
“your baby brother”
P.S. Say a “Memorare” for my special intention if you will please. I told Chet about the O.C.S. deal and with a little luck I could be in the states by Sept. 1. (That is the intention). I take the entrance exam Monday the 10th. Pray for me.
How does a young man barely twenty-one years old and just married find within himself the “right stuff’? This relatively short war caused nearly three million casualties And the letters consisted of words ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. His job turned out to be so much more than his youthfulness could take in. First, just being a soldier, then being put in charge of older soldiers, most of whom would die in battle.
17 August, 51, Camp McNair
Dear Mary Kay,
One nice thing about the army is that after the first five days of the month every one lives the same because no one has any money.
Don’t get me wrong now. We have a system among the talented and intellectual men in this outfit known as the “git it while you can” plan. The first thing everyone does payday is go over to the PX and buy cigarettes, toothpaste, aftershave and other necessities for the month. Then we pool our funds and eat and drink stateside food & beer till the funds run out. After that we go back to 3 squares a day and looking at 5,000 absolutely gorgeous guys like yourself for the rest of the month.
However things could be a lot worse. For instance we could be in the (don’t ever mention these two words in an Infantryman’s presence) Air Force.
Well that about tells all for now so I’l close. Love from the Cpl, Jake
P.S. I am enjoying the cartoons you sent which are now posted on the “B” company bulletin board.
That’s it, Love, Jake
Unfortunately, “That’s it, love Jake”, is not the end of the tale of my uncle Jake and his tour of duty in the Army during the Korean War. It is however, the end of any letters to our family. He shipped out for Korea right after that letter but didn’t write to tell us anything about his time there.
Master Sergeant John G. Epperly – our Uncle Jake – had been wounded and received two Purple Hearts. He had done what he had to do, and he did it with great dignity and with a sure sense of looking out for his men. He received several field promotions as he proved himself to be a man steady under fire.
Carolyn’s journal has an entry about his return to the United States.
“Red got home from Korea August 4, 1952. It was the end of August before he was granted a leave to go home, (he was at Camp Crowder in Missouri). I was able to visit him and stayed with my aunt and uncle in Joplin. The day we returned to Wichita the Epperly(s) had a big picnic at Mom and Dad’s house. Red was so happy to see everyone, he didn’t really think he would see them again.”
The war took so much out of all who had to fight in it, and Uncle Jake was no exception. He had to fight some demons (alcohol) when he returned home, and once again he was a worthy opponent. He fought valiantly and came through his challenges. He spent the rest of his life helping other alcoholics and their families. We are all proud of our Uncle Jake. Jerry, Jake, Red, Son. He died an early death, succumbing to a hard-fought battle with malignant melanoma at the age of forty-six.
In Washington, DC there is a Korean War Memorial, beautifully and pitifully designed to show the bravery, pain, sadness, hardship and fear that our young troops felt as they slogged through the cold mud and rain without really understanding why they were there. One panel in the marble surrounding it poignantly proclaims:
OUR NATION HONORS
HER SONS AND DAUGHTERS
WHO ANSWERED THE CALL
TO DEFEND A COUNTRY
THEY NEVER KNEW
AND A PEOPLE
THEY NEVER MET
The Memorial is so touching, and the hardship it portrays takes my breath away. American soldiers like my Uncle Jake were in a strange place doing their job for a people they had never met, as they had in other wars. The abiding friendship of the South Koreans is a testament to the sacrifices these American boys made. Isn’t that the enduring lesson of our American values?