Even though we marked Veterans Day last week, it's never too late to thank a vet and appreciate his/her contribution to our greater good.
When looking around for a vet to feature here, my beautiful wife, Karen, said that the guy who leads her weekly ukulele group is a vet, and a really interesting guy. Well, yet again, she was right!
I don’t know what the ratio of veterans who served on the front lines, to those who served behind them in a support capacity is. Bill served in Korea in the period of time between the Korean and Vietnam wars (both Korea and Vietnam were actually “Conflicts”), when there was no active conflict. But three years of service to country, leaves Bill Spence an honored veteran like any other. More on that soon.
Bill lives in a 105 year old home that was once thought to be the home of the Analy High principal back in the ’20’s (the 1920s!), with his wife of 39 years, Trish. He has two grown children (a professor and an architect), and a cute little barky dog named Koko.
Where and when were you born, Bill?
Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1940.
Yikes! Were you there for the attack on Pearl Harbor?
My dad was a supply officer in Pearl Harbor, but suffered from very high blood pressure. He was discharged from the Navy in mid ’41, and our family ended up on the very last ship that left Honolulu before the attack … Though he was discharged due to his medical condition, after the war broke out, there was an urgent need for service members. The health standards had changed to account for the need, and so they took him back and sent him and us, to Milledge, Georgia, where he was the commanding officer of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) training school. I spent a number of years in Georgia before our mother brought us kids back out here to Sausalito, where she had grown up.
Have you been here ever since?
Besides three years in the Army, and three years in the Peace Corps (in Malawi and Ghana, teaching math), this has been home.
Let’s talk about your military service.
Well, after I graduated from Tamalpais High in ’57, I really wasn’t ready for college. There was a recession at the time, and though I was book smart, I couldn’t drive a nail to save my soul, and there just wasn’t any work for me. So I took myself down to my favorite uncle, who had a job for me. Because I signed up for three years, I was able to choose my field of specialty, which was cartographic drafting. I trained at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, and then it was off for Korea.
I was lucky to be in a spot near the DMZ where I was promoted to SP4 (a corporal without the stripes). This was post Korean War, and pre-Vietnam, so there was no active shooting going on.
Do you believe the Korean War justified?
Had there not been a Korean War, the whole peninsula would look like North Korea today. The domino theory of the time, which was a factor in our involvement in Vietnam, had some legitimate merit.
Did you get to know Korea while you were there?
No. Korea was off limits. We were restricted to our base. I never went back.
And after your time in Korea?
We were only in the country for one year. I was an E4 when I left, which meant that I got to fly back to the States, while the others had to go by ship. So I got back early, and got to pick my next position before the others. I chose to be a math teacher and got two weeks of training to be one. I was a 19-year-old kid, teaching much older men who lacked math skills. And so began my math career.
What do you feel on Veterans Day?
That I did my part, and that I feel sorry that all Americans haven’t had the opportunity to serve. Everyone should contribute in some way.
So when did your political awakening happen?
It actually began while I was still in the army where I suddenly discovered Black officers who were so capable, and white officers who were so incompetent and blatantly racist.
About 1961, right after my service and the Kennedy election, I went to UC Berkeley, and there was an enlightenment starting up there. In ’63, we suddenly started smoking that whacky weed, Mary Jane, and we began to start doubting the government, and what was really true and what wasn’t. I became involved in the civil rights movement and eventually got into the Free Speech Movement.
I never got arrested, because it was the belief that if you ever got arrested, you’d never get a teaching credential, and I really wanted to be a teacher.
And indeed, you became a classroom teacher.
Oh yeah, I had a long career standing in front of classrooms. I started at Cook Junior High for 13 years, and then 19 years at Santa Rosa High School. Then after kinda retiring, I did six more years teaching calculus at Elsie Allen, and then as a support person, helping new teachers.
Since retiring, you have developed a big interest in playing the ukulele, and you actually lead two groups of musicians who play together every week.
That’s right. I lead a uke group in Santa Rosa on Mondays, and recently started leading the Sebastopol Ukestars. It’s just fun, and easy. I can’t play anything else, and trust me, I’ve tried. I only started playing the ukulele seven years ago. Anyone can do it!
Your other passion is for Geocaching.
It’s Hide and Seek for grownups. Before the uke, I’d go out and do it every day. Now, I only do it a few times a month. You want to find a cache right now? (Before I could answer, Bill is on his feet, and off we went. Using his GPS, he leads me to a tree stump, beneath which are two small logs, and in one of them, there is a blue metal cartridge. Voila!, I’ve found my first cache!) … Now just go togeocaching.com and sign up. Oh yeah, you’ll need a GPS too.
Okay, let’s wind this thing up. Here’s a few final questions. If the FDA announced tomorrow that they have approved of a vaccine for the COVID virus, would you go out and get it?
Tomorrow? (Bill laughs.) I’d wait for some more information from my own doctor. After Jan. 20, I’d be less concerned.
How relieved are you that this election is behind us?
I’ll give a big sigh of relief when the current president finally acknowledges that he didn’t win and some sort of process of handing power over begins. Needless to say, I’m pleased about the results, but now it’s the results in Georgia in January that will be truly consequential.
And your favorite place in the west county?
There are some great trails at the low spot off of Coleman Valley Road. I love it there. They’re secret and I can’t really tell you where they are.
Bill, many thanks for your service to our country, and for teaching all those thousands of students over all those years.
The Ukestars meet online for now, but when all this is past, they’ll be back at the Sebastopol Community Church on Fridays, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.