The following was originally published in the 2019, Issue-1, of the AUSWR Retiree Guardian. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.
Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’
“We lived in a shack built of four by eight plywood sheets and covered with canvass, our sleeping bags inside. We were entertained by the Aurora Borealis and the occasional polar bear roaming around. Once in a while, my friend Morrison Knudesen would shoot a few ptarmigan to improve our diet.”
George Lauritsen “Bud” (who remains a member of the CenturyLink Retirees) was describing what it was like on Barter Island, north of the Arctic Circle, north of Alaska, in the Beaufort Sea. He was on loan to Western Electric from Northwestern Bell, helping to build the Distance Early Warning System (The DEW Line).
Digging holes. Wielding a shovel, digging bar and scoop; that’s how he started his career fresh out of high school. It was in Redfield, South Dakota, in 1940—the youngest guy on the line crew, the new kid. They were building a telephone line. His crew mates changed his job description. Too young to be served a beer, he became the “designated driver,” to get them all home safely from the bar after work.
World War II scattered everyone. America didn’t have enough pilots to compete with the Germans and Japanese. The U.S. Navy knew they must train more of them fast. So they lowered the prerequisite for flight school from two years of college to a high school diploma. Lauritsen had joined the Navy and decided to give flying a try.
He found himself in the rear seat of a dual control Piper Cub NE-1, his instructor sitting in front. This was the plane the Navy used to wash out those recruits who were not suited to be a pilot. Lauritsen knew if he could learn to take it off, land it and perform a set of maneuvers in 30 days he could qualify. And he did, becoming a Naval Aviation Cadet in their V-5 program. He learned to fly other aircraft, to fly in formation and attended gunnery school. He did so well he was kept as a flight instructor so he could train more cadets. By the end of the war, the Navy had trained over 65,000 pilots.
Lauritsen earned his greatest prize of all while in the service. One he could bring home to show to his Danish immigrant parents and his two brothers and three sisters. It was Dona (That’s the correct spelling) his wife and partner for the years ahead of them.
“Roll out the barrel! We’ll have a barrel of fun! Roll out the Barrel; we’ll have the blues on the run…” That was Lauritsen belting out the song, “Roll out the barrel.” It was his strong voice over the phone as he was being interviewed for this article. Pretty darn good for a guy of 95 years. He was being coached in the background by his daughter, Kathy Coufal, who was laughing with pride at her amazing Dad.
Back at Northwestern Bell, it didn’t take him long to he promoted to foreman and then to engineer.
He was assigned to the “Gordon Project of Rural Service Improvement.” Gordon is a small town centered in rural Nebraska not far from South Dakota. In those days many rural homes had no telephone service and farmer-owned lines were often strung along fence posts or laid across the fields. Service was unreliable.
A remarkable agreement was reached. Northwestern Bell would provide the engineering and supervision for the project. The farmers would do all the actual work.
When finished they had placed over 8,000 telephone poles and nearly 1,500 miles of wire in rural Nebraska and South Dakota. It was a daunting project, but the next job Lauritsen would take on would make this one seem like small potatoes.
He was sent to New York City for a month of training to begin his work on the DEW line. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was on, threatening to become a hot war. The U.S. and Canada were vulnerable to a surprise attack coming over the polar icecap.
The DEW line was an early warning system that would require construction of over 50 advanced radar stations north of the Arctic Circle stretching for over 3,000 miles from the tip of Alaska to Baffin Island off the east coast of Greenland. The US Air Force turned to the only entity in possession of the personnel and resources to handle such a vast project—The Bell System.
Lauritsen, in addition to working the actual construction sites, was also responsible for orienting new recruits and getting them to their assigned sites. He was in the air constantly, taking his new recruits to remote landing strips in small airplanes piloted by Alaska’s famous bush pilots.
“I loaded my family of six along with our Irish setter into the family car and we moved to a rented house in Tacoma, Washington.” That way he could reconnect with his family on weekends.
The DEW line project was completed in 32 months.
“THE DEW LINE STORY for Mr. George H. Lauritsen.” That’s the title on the cover of the 23 page brochure that was given to Lauritsen. Inside, the first page features a letter from the Vice President of Western Electric thanking Laritsen for his work on the DEW line.
Lauritsen continued his work in Alaska by working on the White Alice project that linked the DEW line together and established a more comprehensive, reliable communications system for the Territory of Alaska.
Lauritsen then returned with his family to Omaha.
If you saw this peculiar softball game in Omaha, you’d have to take a second look. The crowd watching was totally silent. The batter was blindfolded and so were the fielders. The ball was emitting beeping sounds as it was pitched to the batter who was given four strikes instead of three
It was “beep baseball.” It was for kids who were blind or sight impaired. The blindfolds were to equalize things because the degree of sight impairment could vary. The watchers, parents and friends were instructed to stay silent so the players could listen for the ball. They cheered after each play was concluded.
Beep baseball was one of the many activities conducted by the Telephone Pioneers. And Lauritsen was asked to take over as the president of the Omaha Chapter of the Pioneers, which covered Sioux Falls and Rapid City in South Dakota. Omaha, North Platte, Grand Island in Nebraska.
Lauritsen oversaw many events of a wide variety during his term in office. Additional programs for the sight impaired included “talking books,” and hidden Easter Eggs beeping their way into the hands of delighted children.
The Omaha Council of Telephone Pioneers assisted the elderly and handicapped to see the rock faces of Abraham Lincoln and his fellow presidents at Mount Rushmore with a program of volunteers that helped them from their cars in the parking lot to observation platform.
They built a handicapped ramp that enabled wheelchair people to observe the beautiful Snake River Falls near Valentine, Nebraska.
Lauritsen, when concluding his term as President of the Omaha Council gave a talk to an audience of Pioneers. He said, “When I took this job, I felt like Liz Taylor’s sixth husband before the wedding. Now, looking back, working with the pioneers has been like enjoying dessert after a fine meal.”
Lauritsen retired from Northwestern Bell with over 41 years of service. It was people like him that dealt firsthand with The Great Depression, World War II and The Cold War. Tom Brocaw anointed the heroes of that incredible era as our “Greatest Generation.” Lauritsen’s story reflects that same character and sense of duty that made the Bell System the best in the world.
Don Warsavage is grateful for the help he received from Bill and Kathy Coufal in getting these memories to share with you. Bill retired from Northwestern Bell in March of 2002 as Managing Engineer on loan to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and Kathy is George Lauritsen’s daughter.
Categories: Don Warsavage - Person to Person