WORLAND — They are a mirror to a lost time in America, and oh the stories they can tell — for those who take the time to listen.
Calling themselves the “War Babies of Worland,” they’re the children of the Greatest and the Silent generations. They grew up not only at an amazing time in American history, but as they reflect back on their Wyoming upbringing, an amazing place in America.
As children, that perhaps wasn’t so clear to them. But it came into focus later as the Worland High School class of 1960 tried to plan its 60th reunion, right at the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The reunion had to be postponed because of the pandemic, but the classmates all continued to talk over Zoom, sharing their stories and memories of a time and place far, far away.
Cathy Healy, a former editor for National Geographic, was amazed at the stories her classmates were telling. Heartwarming, funny and often insightful, she also saw an open window on a time that would soon be lost, if someone didn’t do something urgently to capture it.
The ‘War Babies’ Are Born
Healy convinced 20 of her classmates to participate in an interview process over Zoom to capture their stories and memories of Worland for posterity. The collected works are the kind of pure Americana that made Norman Rockwell paintings famous, except the images are all painted with their words.
They’re all online at Worland’s Washakie Museum and Cultural Center.
Healy knows she has done this work in the nick of time. Throughout the process, there were close medical scares for some of the participants.
“Alex agreed to be videotaped while he was still having cancer treatment at MD Anderson (Cancer Center) in Houston,” Healy told Cowboy State Daily. “Carol Woodhams Day was videotaped the first time while she was recovering from surgery.”
That particular interview was re-Zoomed, so that people could see her in a more normal state.
“At least two of the six of us on our team faced life-threatening crises,” Healy added. “My COVID on the morning of my 80th birthday party was a big, bad bummer, but the meds cured me quickly.”
The project started 18 months ago, and with every interview, Healy became more and more convinced — ferocious, even — that her classmates stories had to be told.
They were recounting not just Worland and Wyoming history, but that of small-town America, which has long been the soul of the nation.
“Our earliest memories are of World War II dads returning with PTSD and overworked dads who didn’t go because they were ‘essential’ to the war effort at home,” Healy said in an essay about her project.
That return was happening alongside an oil boom that had vaulted Worland to prominence in the Cowboy State and America.
“For us, Worland’s oil boom was life as usual,” Healy said. “We had 20 filling stations, three movie theaters, two flights a day to Denver and attitude.”
Some of that attitude was earned, Healy believes.
After all, Worland High had won the state football championship six out of eight years, and the band was among the very best in the state.
“We marched, we danced, we performed in parades all over the state,” she said. “We drilled like crazy. We worked hard for our excellence, and we knew we were good. Worland had the famous band, and we had the famous football team. … We thought Worland was invincible.”
A Wonderful Place To Live
Worland was not invincible, however, to the march of time that has so changed the rural landscapes of America. In fact, it is a poster child for what that transformation is continuing to do to small-town America.
“When I was in the military, we were the eighth largest city in the state of Wyoming,” Laird said. “We are not now. And yes, it was a wonderful place to live.”
Worland’s oil boom brought together a wide mix of people from many walks of life.
They were descendants of Volga Germans, Mexicans, Japanese, Midwesterners, Texans and more. It was an incredibly rich mix of cultures, religions and outlooks on life, all stirred together in one big melting pot.
The oil boom also brought a lot of amenities to Worland that today don’t exist. Theaters, automobile dealers, jewelry stores, men’s and women’s clothing stores, dairies, hotels and banks.
And there were multiple drug stores, which sold an old-fashioned soda fountain favorite called a phosphate, Joan Purcell recalled. They were beloved for their characteristic tangy tingle on the tongue.
“They had lemon, cherry lime, and they were in vile colors,” she said. “But we seemed to all like them. There was the five-and-dime store where, if you had a little bit of money, you could buy junk that you just thought was fabulous like perfume, nail polish, and jacks and balls. I remember that everybody in the store sort of knew you.”
And then there was the “Slurp and Burp,” a place to get a hot dog and a coke for a quarter.
“We could walk everywhere in town,” Purcell said. “I remember riding my bike, even out to some of the farms.”
That ride came with certain unique smells, she added.
“If you had friends that were on a farm, and they had this silage pit, which I guess was beet pulp, cornstalks, and things they fed the animals,” Purcell said. “They had a sort of sour smell.”
Kick The Can
One of the great games of summer that Worland’s war babies particularly recall was kick the can.
“The sound of that can hitting the street, and the sound of the nighthawks crying overhead is a strong memory of growing up in Worland,” Rick Hake said. “Another sound I remember is in the summer, my father whistling for us to come home when it was time to go to bed, and he somehow managed to whistle through his teeth, which could be heard all over the neighborhood.”
Growing up, Worland’s downtown was a vibrant place, Hake said.
“You could go down there and there was wonder in every store,” he said. “Especially the dime store, where you could go in, and browse, and think of all the things it would be nice to buy if you had a dime.”
Hake was a member of Worland’s Rocketeers Club, which eventually was featured as the centerfold piece for a big national magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, which then had a circulation of 6.5 million people.
Hake credits his classmate Grant Ujifusa for coming up with the idea to shoot off rockets in Worland. Grant had the perfect sales pitch. It was all for science.
“I heard on the radio that some kids in Utah had been shooting off rockets,” Ujifusa said. “And so I said to myself, ‘Well we can do that around Worland.’”
He asked the science teacher at the time, a Mr. Swartz, whether he would order some zinc powder in granular form so they could mix it with sulfur that they could get from the remnants of a pile at the old sulfur plant.
“If ignited, that was rather powerful rocket fuel,” Ujifusa said. “And we could make what local people in Worland thought was science into what was really a large and powerful Roman candle. A giant firecracker, in other words.”
Sputnik Was A Butt Kick
For Ujifusa, the science involved was far down the list. He just thought the explosions would be awesome.
But Hake, who grew up to become a rocket scientist and managed some of President Ronald Reagan’s most essential Star Wars projects, remembers it all a little bit differently.
“This was all right after Russia sent its Sputnik up,” he said. “So, we were feeling like it was, you know, we were helping the U.S. science effort, and it was fun as well to build the things that belched fire and roared into the sky.”
Sputnik was Earth’s first manmade satellite. The fact that Russia had done this before America was a gut punch to the national psyche at the time.
There was a dreadful sense that America had fallen woefully behind on technology to an unfriendly nation. There was fear about what that would mean for the future, and that fear triggered a space race, as well as a new emphasis on science and technology in American classrooms.
Hake, Ujifusa and the other Rocketeers were all part of that.
“It was impressive and somewhat unnerving to hear something coming over you that was launched by the Soviet Union, with whom we were engaged in a Cold War at the time,” Hake recalled. “And they were a sworn enemy, so it was like they could come over and do to us as they wished, as they exhibited with Sputnik.”
Ujifusa was quarterback for Worland High School’s 1959 championship football team. He counts it as one of his greatest Worland memories from a childhood that is full of wonderful memories and times, including his eventual election as governor at Boys State.
But what he counts as his greatest achievement in life was his role in achieving reparations for the Japanese Americans who were interned during the war.
Japanese Americans who lived within a certain distance of the West Coast were given two options at the time. Move inland if they could, or go to an internment camp.
Reparations were something Ujifusa became involved in long after leaving Worland, but it was his childhood experiences there that provided the underlying motivation.
Ujifusa grew up on a beet farm near Worland, so his family never had to move and didn’t lose everything they had as a result of the order interning West Coast Japanese Americans. But he met Japanese American men from Heart Mountain who sometimes came to work on his family’s beet farm.
“They would live with us in our house,” he recalled. “We needed labor to harvest the sugar beets and they came to work for us.”
He remembers one man in particular, a Joe Furuta from Tacoma.
“Joe Furuta would carry me around on his back and we had a very nice time,” he said. “I completely lost touch with him after Heart Mountain was closed, but he was once one of my favorite people. And he’s one reason I got involved in redress, because I felt I owed it to Joe.”
A Place Unlike All Others
Ujifusa was eventually knighted in a decree by the Emperor of Japan for his part in helping win reparations for Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II.
The courage and the will to do it were part of a well-spring of experience he took from his childhood growing up in Worland.
“One of the deficiencies, I think, of Japanese culture, is a tendency to place too much emphasis on what others might think,” he said.
Growing up in Worland, playing as the quarterback for the football team, he learned a very different perspective on failure. Falling is something we all do at one time or another, and through his football career, he learned a very Western attitude toward it. Namely that the real shame is not in falling, but in not getting up to fight again.
There was also something else that Worland imbued in him. A general belief in the fairness of people, when one’s cause is truly just.
“One of the great things about growing up in Worland is that you think the best of people,” Ujifusa said. “And that experience of that understanding of life was conveyed to you from the people of Worland. This was very important to me.”
This made Worland “a lovely and fiercely protective cocoon,” Ujifusa said, “Created by our parents, who were especially determined to give their children the best that they knew how. And I’m very grateful to those parents. We had some great ones in our time .. who created a community for their kids, a kind of community perhaps not found in many other places.”
The War Babies of Worland oral history project from the class of 1960 is available online. Many more great stories and anecdotes are contained in 20 different interviews and video stories.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.