Les Messamer, on growing up fundamentalist, being shunned for enlisting during WWII, being a seagoing cowboy on the Pacific, and more
(Publication Date: 1.7.23)
Overview: In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Les Messamer, a 96-year-old World War II veteran who one might swear has lived multiple lives simultaneously. Adventurous ones and otherwise.
Les tells about his upbringing in a fundamentalist religious farm community in Iowa, and why he defied its wishes and enlisted to serve in World War II, only to be shunned when he returned home.
Adam talks with Les about his post-war adventures as a sea-going cowboy taking several hundred heifers across the Pacific to Shanghai, China, and surviving near-death experiences along the way. Among other big moments from a life full of stories.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
Producer & We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Director of Chaffee Housing Authority: Becky Gray
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream. A conversational podcast of humanness, based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams.
Today I'm talking with Les Messamer, a 96-year-old World War II veteran, who you would swear had lived multiple lives simultaneously. Adventurous ones, and otherwise.
Les is a storyteller. I can't even imagine how many stories he must hold, but we did what we could to get into some big highlights here, in this one conversation. We talked about his growing up in Iowa, in the Church of the Brethren, a farming community that Les describes as one step away from Quaker. So when World War II came around, not only did he not object to the war, or even just nervously wait to be drafted and then accept that fate, he actively enlisted to participate. That did not go over well where he came from. Les tells us about that experience.
(01:01): He also talks about being a seagoing cowboy in the mid 1940s, after the war. He was on board a ship loaded with several hundred heifer cows bound for Shanghai, China. On that trip alone, he survived multiple near-death experiences, let alone others we didn't even have time to dig into today.
Les tells about some of what he experienced while in port in Shanghai. Fair warning, some of them are heartbreaking and tragic, but others are positive lessons that he clearly still remembers.
Les had a number of careers and life chapters, so to speak, over the many years. He was a school teacher and principal, he also taught drama to offenders in prison. He would retire from teaching, and start a new career as a radio broadcaster.
And he has developed deep and meaningful friendships within indigenous communities that have welcomed him and his wife Mary.
By the way, Les and Mary, they've stuck together in marriage for 73 years. Les shares a simple bit of wisdom on that subject too. Here we go, Les Messamer sharing stories with me, and you, on Looking Upstream.
[Transition music, guitar instrumental]
(02:15): All right. Well, I want to welcome you to Looking Upstream. Thanks for being here.
Les Messamer (02:19): Okay. Thank you for having me.
Adam Williams (02:21): I know that you are a man who has lived many, many experiences, and has a lot of stories to tell. It's almost hard to choose where we go, but I'm going to go with the fact that you are a World War II veteran.
Les Messamer (02:33): That's correct.
Adam Williams (02:34): And that you grew up in a community that was really not into that. They were not okay with you having enlisted for World War II, and I think that's a different story, because we hear about the greatest generation that you're part of, and World War II veterans.
Les Messamer (02:50): Right.
Adam Williams (02:51): So why was it that your community was not behind you, including your family, to do that? What led you to it?
Les Messamer (02:59): The religion of the area. All my friends, all my family, were a country church in the Midwest, Iowa. A small town area, all country people, and very conservative, and very, very anti-war as I always was too. But you were not supposed to enter the military, period. And there was a path called a conscientious objector that you could take, and avoid being in the military.
Adam Williams (03:38): Were others in your community taking that path?
Les Messamer (03:43): A couple of them. I had a fairly close relative, an uncle, that did take that path. And he had different experiences than I had, but we stayed friends just fine for life, always. But my feeling was, at the time, and really hasn't changed, I actually got to listen to Hitler on shortwave radio at my grandparents' house, and couldn't understand a word he said, but he was a dynamic speaker, and you could tell that from his speech, and from the rhythm, and from the audience reaction, so on and so on.
But also had read of his book, Mein Kampf, and read parts of it, and knew that he planned to rule the world and take over, and basically get rid of everybody else. And it was an evil plan in my thinking, and most people's, and needed to be stopped, and I felt like I needed to do my part of it. So I did enlist.
Adam Williams (05:03): Okay.
Les Messamer (05:05): My high school class, incidentally, in 1943, a small high school, I think we only had 43 guys in our class, every boy was in service in World War II.
Adam Williams (05:21): Oh, okay.
Les Messamer (05:22): 100%
Adam Williams (05:24): I'm sorry, were they all part of this–
Les Messamer (05:24): No.
Adam Williams (05:26): It sounds like a fundamentalist community.
Les Messamer (05:28): It was very fundamental, and it was out in the country. My school was in town, it was for town members, and it was country.
Adam Williams (05:40): So you all enlisted?
Les Messamer (05:41): Yeah. And interesting part of that... Well, no. Some of them were drafted.
Adam Williams (05:47): Okay.
Les Messamer (05:51): And out of all of us, we were a fortunate group. Nobody got killed.
Adam Williams (05:59): Oh, wow.
Les Messamer (06:00): I did have a classmate, and the rapidity of his time in service still boggles my mind. He was drafted into the army, sent the basic training, sent over to Europe to the front lines, got to the military to the war zone, then sent to the front lines, he was there for eight minutes before he got shot through the back of the neck, kind of a crossway shot, hospitalized in Germany in one hospital, sent to another one overseas, then sent to one in the United States, and then discharged as he was well enough to be discharged, survived it, and that entire sequence took place in three months time. That was a whirlwind time for him.
Adam Williams (06:56): Wow, yeah. And so lucky to have survived that.
Les Messamer (07:00): Yeah.
Adam Williams (07:01): Okay. But that was not your experience. I know that you actually ended up being stateside, and your time actually was also short, wasn't it? Due to the ending of the war?
Les Messamer (07:10): Less than a year.
Adam Williams (07:11): Okay.
Les Messamer (07:12): I think it was February when I was first sent to a camp to get basic training, which was Biloxi, Mississippi, by the way.
Adam Williams (07:24): I assume that was the first time you'd ever left your community.
Les Messamer (07:27): Pretty much, yes.
Adam Williams (07:29): And even though you did not go over to Europe or fight in combat at all...
Les Messamer (07:29): Right.
Adam Williams (07:34): I assume, then, did not harm anyone at all in that experience, your family in that local community, Church of the Brethren, is that right?
Les Messamer (07:43): Yes, it was.
Adam Williams (07:44): Was the religious fundamentalist perspective, they still did not respond well to your having made that choice?
Les Messamer (07:44): No.
Adam Williams (07:53): And to when you came home?
Les Messamer (07:54): No, I wasn't supposed to have done that. So although as a child in youth, I had been very active in the church, a youth leader, et cetera, but when I returned after going there, I wasn't welcomed.
Adam Williams (08:17): I wonder how you, as such a young man, you were, I think, 18, 19, probably at that point?
Les Messamer (08:24): 19, yes.
Adam Williams (08:25): Okay. How, as such a young man, and being brought up with such strict foundations, where you found the voice within yourself, that courage, to say, "I know I grew up doing these things too, but I believe this is an important choice to make." And you defied not only your family, not only your parents, but all of these other people. What brought you to that place of saying, "I'm willing to have all of you upset with me because I think this is right."
Les Messamer (08:56): I listened to the radio, read the newspapers, followed what was happening, and that was just my decision.
Adam Williams (09:03): That's some really independent thinking at a very young age.
Les Messamer (09:06): It was, yes.
Adam Williams (09:09): How did they treat you then when you came back and they were upset? What did that mean?
Les Messamer (09:12): Basically ignored.
Adam Williams (09:15): You were shunned?
Les Messamer (09:16): Yes, that's the word.
Adam Williams (09:20): I don't know what that looks like. Is that something that is an official decree of some kind at your church pulpit that says, "This is how we're handling this"? Or was it more in just kind of cold shoulder, casual, if that's a way to say it.
Les Messamer (09:36): I don't know of any official declaration of that. The church was about one step removed from Quakerism. In Quakers, I think there was an actual edict somewhere that you could shun people, if needed. Shun was official within that church. Don't know even if it was official in ours, but it just happened.
Adam Williams (10:03): But the effect is still the same.
Les Messamer (10:05): The effect was the same. I did not have friends, my closest child... By the way, all my friends were of this church community, basically. Not that I didn't know people outside too, but all of them were there, and they weren't... My best friend never spoke to me again.
Adam Williams (10:32): Wow, okay.
Les Messamer (10:35): It hurt.
Adam Williams (10:36): I imagine so. How about your family? Did you have siblings that also were involved in this?
Les Messamer (10:43): I had a brother 11 years younger than me, so not even involved.
Adam Williams (10:43): Okay.
Les Messamer (10:47): That's all.
Adam Williams (10:49): And how about your parents, then? Were they pretty openly upset and also not supportive?
Les Messamer (10:57): They weren't pleased, at least my mother wasn't, that I had gone into service, but I didn't stop being her son at the same time.
Adam Williams (10:57): Okay.
Les Messamer (10:57): Yeah.
Adam Williams (11:13): So you made this choice, you go off to the Army Air Corps, I believe, which is the precursor to the Air Force...
Les Messamer (11:21): Yes.
Adam Williams (11:22): And you are an MP. I'm curious, to be a member of the military police, to be in law enforcement in that way, was that okay? Outside of the military, was that also–
Les Messamer (11:35): As far as I know, it was. That wasn't the problem.
Adam Williams (11:38): Yeah, okay.
Les Messamer (11:41): Yeah. I became an MP in basic tra... I signed up originally, because I wanted to be a fighter pilot to help protect our pilots in the air. And I wanted to fly also. That was interesting to me. And during basic training, I was tested in all respects, and passed every test to become a fighter pilot, and was placed on the list to be trained as a fighter pilot, which I also knew had a higher percentage of casualties of deaths than any other branch of any military. I think that's maybe still true, I don't know. But it was then. So it wasn't that I had a death wish or anything, it was that I was willing to do whatever was needed to put a stop to what was happening. Hitler and Mussolini, [inaudible 00:12:47], those people.
Adam Williams (12:49): Right, okay. You're certainly a young man at that point of conviction, it sounds like. It's amazing.
Les Messamer (12:56): Yeah, I think so.
Adam Williams (12:57): And extraordinary, I think.
Les Messamer (12:58): I think so.
Adam Williams (12:59): I know that there's a lot there we could talk about, but again, because I'm already aware of you having so many stories, I want to go ahead and take us to what comes next. After you get out of the Army Air Corps, you end up joining the Merchant Marines and going into a different adventure, at still a very young age, that I think is also really extraordinary.
Les Messamer (13:20): Yeah, the Merchant Marines was kind of a technicality. There was a program started, actually from a church member of some other state, called Heifer Project International, you possibly even have heard of it.
Adam Williams (13:20): Yes.
Les Messamer (13:41): It's still in effect today. And as a farm boy, I knew how to take care of cows, so that's part of the story. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, an organization that I don't know what it was actually formed, but it was in effect after the war, set up this program where heifer cows, female cows, young ones, were given to the organization, and they sent it to various places to help people who needed help.
And I'm all in favor of that. And the plan was that if that heifer was given to your family [inaudible 00:14:38], and they were already bred before they were sent. If that heifer then had a heifer, then it would be your family job to pass it on to somebody else.
Adam Williams (14:53): Oh, okay.
Les Messamer (14:53): Supposed to be a continuous type of operation, which sounded good. And so as a person who knew how to take care of cowboys and was up for adventure, was able to sign up with them. And I was at first turned down, because they had all the people they needed. This is a big story itself, because later on, got a phone call, my parents did, saying, "If he can be in New Orleans by a certain time, he could still go." Checked and checked, in order to be there by that time, I had to be on a train that same day.
Adam Williams (15:46): That's cutting it close.
Les Messamer (15:47): Cutting it very close.
Adam Williams (15:48): For how long of a train ride from Iowa?
Les Messamer (15:51): Iowa to Chicago to New Orleans. And that's where I got on the ship, which then traveled through Panama, and start to get to start Pacific direction.
Adam Williams (16:02): Went through the Panama Canal?
Les Messamer (16:03): Went through it, yeah.
Adam Williams (16:05): I don't recall when that was built. Was that a fairly new experience at that time?
Les Messamer (16:09): It was built–
Adam Williams (16:10): I'm not exactly sure when we're talking about.
Les Messamer (16:12): I think it was built back in the teens, wasn't it?
Adam Williams (16:14): Okay.
Les Messamer (16:15): I believe that's right.
Adam Williams (16:16): It'd been around for some decades, but this must have been, what? Late forties? Mid-forties?
Les Messamer (16:20): Yeah, this would've been mid-forties.
Adam Williams (16:23): Okay.
Les Messamer (16:29): Well, see, the war ended in 1945, so we're looking more at '46, I guess probably.
Adam Williams (16:35): So you're on this ship from New Orleans through the Panama Canal, and headed into the Pacific?
Les Messamer (16:39): Yes. Interesting time, huh?
Adam Williams (16:42): I think so.
Les Messamer (16:44): I was up for it, and I liked to be out watching and see what was going on as much as I could. I watched as we pulled into the dock there to be elevated to the level of Lake Gatun, but that took three lifts to get there.
Adam Williams (17:02): Up the locks of the Panama Canal?
Les Messamer (17:04): Uh-huh. And then we sailed across Lake Gatun, and we went down the specific on the other side, but that was at night and I was asleep. I'm sure it was the opposite of what was going on the other end.
Adam Williams (17:20): Yeah. So I'm trying to picture this too. You're on a ship with these heifers, I don't know how big of a ship we're talking about. So how many cowboys are there are on this ship? How many cows?
Les Messamer (17:36): If I remember right, we started with 719 heifers. We had 27 cowboys. Seagoing cowboys, we were called.
Adam Williams (17:46): Okay.
Les Messamer (17:48): Turned out we were the first ever to take cattle from the United States to China.
Adam Williams (17:59): Wow.
Les Messamer (17:59): Ever.
Adam Williams (18:00): Wow, okay. Well, I didn't know that we ever had, so it's amazing to me to find this out at all.
Les Messamer (18:08): Yeah, but we did. We had some of them die, particularly in the Panama area because of the heat. It was too hot.
Adam Williams (18:16): Okay.
Les Messamer (18:17): Too close the equator. And we didn't have air conditioning, so we lost a few of them. Percentage wise, not a very high percentage, but still not too many. Then we went up the West Coast and stopped in San Diego to load up fuel for the ship, or fuel for the cows, I'm not sure which. And then we went on to Los Angeles, and filled up with the other stuff we needed, before we went across the ocean. So that took some time. And after we got up as far as Los Angeles, I think maybe we only lost one more cow, if even that. Crossing the ocean, we did okay with them.
Adam Williams (19:04): How long are we talking here to get across the ocean?
Les Messamer (19:07): Basically two weeks.
Adam Williams (19:09): And you were headed to Shanghai?
Les Messamer (19:10): Yeah.
Adam Williams (19:12): Okay. But I know that this is... What I found out in asking you prior to recording, there are some things that happened that you let me know is actually only one, at least one, and there might have been two, of the near-death experiences of several, that you have had.
Les Messamer (19:29): Actually more than two.
Adam Williams (19:31): Several at least, right?
Les Messamer (19:34): Yeah, several super dangerous experiences, anyway. And I never knew it before I was aboard ship. I learned a lot there, of course. But there is an ocean current that goes through the ocean, much like a river, that's continuous. It was then, maybe it still is, I don't know. But it went up past China, past Japan, on up by the Falkland Islands, a big oval turn, went back south through the South China Sea, south of China quite a ways, another part of the oval. Wasn't round, it was definitely oval.
Adam Williams (20:20): Okay.
Les Messamer (20:20): And since it was just after World War II, the Japanese had mined their harbors to keep American ships from coming in and giving them difficulty with floating mines. And like anything, some of them broke loose, and they were known to be in this current. There are enough of them floating around that a regular sailor... I wasn't a regular sailor. I did have to join Merchant Marine, but that was just a technicality. I got paid something like three and a half cents a year or a month or whatever, all of which was deducted for taxes. But that was all a technicality, but I was officially a member.
(21:15): My pay, what little I got, was from the Relief and Rehabilitation Association, which basically paid for my train trip from the Midwest to New Orleans, and from coming back from Vancouver, Canada back to the Midwest. The two train trips. Well, train, bus part of it. So I wasn't making money, but had lots of interesting experiences. The floating mines... And I learned to like to be on the ocean. I enjoyed the ocean very much, and all the variety. There's a lot more variety to an ocean than you ever know if you haven't been there. And I liked to be up on the bow of the ship and look for whales, and porpoises, and flying fish, and on and on. And I was there one day along with the regular sailor, who was the one posted there to look for mines, and I saw one dead ahead of us. There were numerous, kind of numerous, because in one day, five were seen, as we crossed that ocean.
Adam Williams (22:37): That's a significant danger.
Les Messamer (22:39): It is. But this one was dead ahead. But I happened to be the one to see it. I told the sailor beside me, he grabbed the communication phone in front of him, called the captain, the captain gave us violent orders for a ship as I think you could possibly have. We were going full speed ahead, he ordered full reverse on the engines, and a full [inaudible 00:23:05] one direction. And the combination of all that laid the ship on its side, and we missed that mine by no more than a hundred yards. And that's super close on the ocean.
Adam Williams (23:21): Big ocean, that's a short distance.
Les Messamer (23:23): It's a very short distance. In other words, we just barely missed it. Had we hit it, it would've blown us up, we'd never been heard from. But it did, so that was one of these close calls.
Adam Williams (23:41): It laid the ship down at a pretty severe angle to make that sort of sudden shift.
Les Messamer (23:47): It did, just laid it on its side. But we made it, and got on over, and crossed the International Date Line on the way there. And I've even forgotten which way it goes. We either had two Sundays in a row.... There were two things that happened. We crossed [inaudible 00:24:11] both ways, over there and back. And the other way, I had a friend who never had his 18th birthday, because today was the day before, the next day was the day after. But those things happened. But we landed at Shanghai on New Year's Day. The Asian New Year's Day, not the same as ours.
(24:40): And learned rather quickly as we got to the dock, that one of the customs at that time was that nobody went to work on New Year's Day at all. You didn't work on New Year's Day. Forget it. So in order to tie up our ship, there wasn't anybody on the shore to do it. Finally, we got one person on there to take a small rope and tie it up on the ship on the shore, and some of us, and I was one, went hand by hand over that rope to the shore, and we tied up our own ship. That was a start, but that was interesting. Cause then we got to see celebrations for the new year there.
Adam Williams (25:31): Did you get a chance to go explore in the city and have some port time?
Les Messamer (25:39): Oh yes. Yeah, quite a bit. Got to be downtown numerous times, and since we were connected with the government... It was quite a long ways from the port to downtown Shanghai. And my first trip to downtown Shanghai, was with the Chinese Minister of Agriculture. The National Minister of Agriculture. Because we were there with this relief effort. It's a good trip.
Adam Williams (26:11): Okay. And you said that was the first time doing this particular thing with the heifers, so I'm processing how significant this was then, that experience.
Les Messamer (26:21): Yeah. That was the first time overseas. Now, there had been people taken to Europe before to deliver, and I think mostly they hauled horses over there, because they needed the power. But we were the first ever to go west, to go to the east.
Adam Williams (26:41): Sure, to the far east. Shanghai is so large now, and it's such a modern city, and it's cutting edge in its architecture. That was not, I assume, what you saw when you were there a good 60, 70 years ago.
Les Messamer (26:58): Unfortunately, yeah. One of the very first things I saw in downtown Shanghai were the streets were where the litter was, streets were bathrooms also, by the way, there was a dead baby that had been tossed out in the street, like you would toss out a dead cat or rabbit or something. Just tossed out. Wasn't a very pleasant site.
Adam Williams (27:23): No.
Les Messamer (27:25): And I saw other instances, where the people at that time were not very much into caring about human life. One example, sampans were houseboats where people lived. And there were those that came to our ship and they tried to sell you stuff. The sampan was way down from our deck, but they'd have a long bamboo pole and a net, and they'd lift stuff up, and you'd barter like that, but the sampans did not have any railing on the edge of them. They were just flat like this.
Adam Williams (28:16): Like a table.
Les Messamer (28:18): You fall off, you're in the ocean. I saw babies barely able to walk tottering along the edge. And I was scared to death I was going to see one fall in, and was told, and who can believe everything they're told, but anyway, I was told that if one fell in that that was thought to be an act of the gods, and they did nothing about it, which may or may not have been true. I have a suspicion it may have been true.
Adam Williams (28:52): Okay.
Les Messamer (28:57): I saw on another occasion a person fall from... Okay, hay was unloaded and stacked on the deck to feed the cattle. That's another whole story. And one of the Chinese workers fell off the top of a stack of hay, and it was significantly high. When he landed on the dock, he was injured. I was some distance away and saw this happen, saw another one run up to him immediately, and I thought, "Oh, that's good. He is going to get help right away." The one that ran up to him began laughing and kicking. Kicked him. Did not do anything to help him at all. So just another example of not caring.
Adam Williams (29:47): Okay. Were there some things that you experienced while there, by chance, that opened your eyes in different ways, comparing... The cultures and the lifestyles, of course were very different from what you would've known in Iowa, and I wonder if there was anything that especially perked your interest.
Les Messamer (30:06): Oh, lots of things, really. One was the patience of the Chinese people. We were around town quite a little bit, and in stores, and found people that talked to English and a lot of stuff. There were people who were making paintings, for example, that were very elaborate, large paintings, very meticulous, that they knew that they were never finished in their lifetime. It would have to be carried on by their children. They also knew it would take at least grandchildren to finish the work they were doing, but they were still willing to do it that way. To look to the future, and leave it that way.
Adam Williams (31:01): Very long view.
Les Messamer (31:05): I read about this, it didn't happen while I was there. I didn't see any part of it, but there had been some kind of a ship, I think an American ship maybe, that was sunk in the harbor there, wartime likely, that they wanted to bring back up, and our military equipment couldn't do it. Didn't have the ways to do it. The Chinese did. You'll never guess how. They sent divers down carrying ping pong balls to put inside the ship.
Adam Williams (31:41): To make it float.
Les Messamer (31:43): They had enough to bring it up. It took thousands of dives, no doubt.
Adam Williams (31:50): Yeah. That's incredible.
Les Messamer (31:53): But that's incredible patience, again.
Adam Williams (31:56): Okay. Well I'm absolutely certain the stories could go on in just any given section of time here. I do want listeners to get a chance to know some of other highlights, because at this point, you're still only 20. So you had mentioned that you came back, and when you come back, you get to Vancouver, you get your ride back to the Midwest. And I want to mention that you ended up choosing to go to college, I think that was in Kansas, right?
Les Messamer (32:31): Yes.
Adam Williams (32:32): Where did you go?
Les Messamer (32:33): McPherson, Kansas.
Adam Williams (32:35): Okay. And I think that that is especially significant because of a couple things. One, what you studied and where that led you in life, and what ultimately would also play a role in bringing you to where we are here in Colorado. But you met your wife, who you've been married to for, is it 73 years?
Les Messamer (32:52): Yes, that's correct.
Adam Williams (32:54): 73 years. So I will go ahead and acknowledge, it's probably already obvious, that is you have been married and in this relationship and building this life and these stories together, for many more years than I have been here.
Les Messamer (33:06): Yes, that's true.
Adam Williams (33:07): And I'm considered middle aged. So I have a great appreciation for that, and I'm curious to understand then what maybe you have learned through the process of that relationship that is so long with one person.
Les Messamer (33:26): Well, first of all, when you have wedding vows, you make a promise to stay with that person for life. I keep my promises. Simple enough right there.
Adam Williams (33:40): Okay.
Les Messamer (33:41): Doesn't mean everything always went smoothly. Most of the time it did, but of course there were times it didn't. I doubt if any two people can spend that many years together without some times that aren't always smooth. But yeah, we've done well. We still have love for each other today, and hope it lasts longer.
Adam Williams (34:06): I think that so much about the experiences we have in life, and something that I'm very curious about, and so I explore it with guests on this podcast in this conversation, this way of digging into, what are the things that we learn? What do we have to share with each other through what we've learned? And so that's where I'm coming from and asking about relationship, is that not only have you had a chance through personal experiences to learn and come to maybe some sort of ideas about life and what it's about, but also because of this relationship with your wife, whose name is Mary, correct?
Les Messamer (34:06): Yes, right.
Adam Williams (34:42): Okay. So I just wonder if there are any things there that you've imparted maybe as wisdom to your own kids and grandkids, and I think you have great grandkids, right?
Les Messamer (34:52): Yes. And one great-great grandchild.
Adam Williams (34:56): So you're continuing to teach and share some of this wisdom, I think, through them. And now I guess that's what I'm asking you to share with us here, is maybe what are some of the key things that you have learned at this point in life?
Les Messamer (35:11): Oh, don't quit. Just keep your promise that you have made, and that was made before the creator, so you better do what you said you would.
Adam Williams (35:26): Okay.
Les Messamer (35:27): And that's just kind of simple, really.
Adam Williams (35:32): It is. And it is straightforward enough, and yet somehow we also have a hard time with some of those simple things, don't we?
Les Messamer (35:37): Oh, yes.
Adam Williams (35:39): So I'm going to take us back to McPherson, Kansas, then. This is where you went to college and met your wife, but also then what you've studied, would lead to career paths that would bring you, like I said, to Colorado. So what did you study and tell us about that path.
Les Messamer (35:53): I got my bachelor's degree in history and education. And immediately after getting the degree... And she was also in education, and we had already married before that, and we found a school where both of us could teach at the same time. A relatively small school, not a very high paying workplace, but at least we both could work. And that started that. And then I spent 28 years in education.
Adam Williams (36:30): Okay. A full career. You retired from that?
Les Messamer (36:30): Yeah.
Adam Williams (36:36): But that was here, correct? In Chaffee County, where part of it you would ultimately retire from as not only having been a teacher, but principal, right?
Les Messamer (36:45): Yes, yes. Teacher, principal, coach.
Adam Williams (36:50): What ages are we talking about?
Les Messamer (36:52): Oh, well, ages I've taught... I even worked for one of the professors in college, and so I did some college teaching before I even left college. And I taught kindergarten and everything through to college. Along the line. And beyond that. After getting acquainted with Native Americans later, and learning a lot there, I found myself giving Native American stories and information to adult seniors. People our ages and older.
Adam Williams (37:33): Okay. I know that you became friends with a number of Native Americans from varying tribes, right?
Les Messamer (37:33): Yes.
Adam Williams (37:40): And so this really did become a big part of your life for many years, and still ongoing, I think.
Les Messamer (37:47): Right.
Adam Williams (37:48): How did that come to be, that you would get to know these people, but also be trusted with their stories and essentially permitted, I think it sounds like, to share those stories forward?
Les Messamer (38:02): Yeah. In fact, one of the things I learned fairly early with the storytelling part, is that a storyteller and Indian culture, at least that's the way I learned it, owns their stories. And you don't tell their stories, they belong to them. Even though others may also own them. And so the only stories I've ever told were stories that I was given by the storyteller who told it to me, so that I also became owner of those stories.
Adam Williams (38:43): So you kind of became part of, I'll say, tradition, maybe ritual.
Les Messamer (38:47): Yes.
Adam Williams (38:47): There was an intentional sharing of it sounds like.
Les Messamer (38:52): Oh, definitely.
Adam Williams (38:53): In giving you then access as owner to then share.
Les Messamer (38:57): Yes.
Adam Williams (38:58): Which you've done with, I think, in all kinds of settings, haven't you?
Les Messamer (39:03): From kindergarten through seniors.
Adam Williams (39:06): Okay.
Les Messamer (39:07): Yep.
Adam Williams (39:08): But well beyond, I mean, beyond your years as officially as an educator in the school system, you've been doing this ever since.
Les Messamer (39:15): Yeah, that's right. That's right.
Adam Williams (39:17): In powwows and ceremonial gatherings.
Les Messamer (39:20): Participated in powwows, danced with the Indian people, which is something many people don't ever get to do, close relatives, and because of other commitments, and I even told you this, Christmas day, I was real pleased because we got a phone call from a New Mexico pueblo from our friends there, to wish us Christmas greetings, from a pueblo that is known as a very closed pueblo, and most people don't get to know about it. We've been there many times and participated in ceremonies and so on, and stayed with them overnight and attended a wedding in the pueblo. Oh, well, anyway, I can back up somewhere along the line and tell you how I got started, maybe.
Adam Williams (40:24): Sure.
Les Messamer (40:26): And once you get started, it's easy. You find yourself being asked to come. Once I got started, I'll come to that later, I was invited down to southwest corner of Colorado, to Ignacio, to the Southern Ute Reservation, there's three branches of Ute. Southern Ute, Northern Ute, and Mountain Ute. There's a Southern Ute, and we were invited there for a dance. It's a little different, because nearly all Indian dancing is individual dancing. You're not dancing with a partner, you're dancing by yourself. But the ones that we were invited to did include partner dancing.
(41:30): And so we were there watching this and had learned about it. Only women invite a man to dance with them. Doesn't go the other way in that dance. Called bear dance, and I can explain a little bit of that. And they don't go ask you, they do it by signal. And you need to know what the signal is. I was invited, I did actually participate in that dance. The rhythm used in that is still a two beat rhythm, actually. With a drum, you go boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. This is rubbing a noshed stick where it goes back and forth.
That kind of rhythm, same rhythm, but just different sounds. The rhythms are accomplished by a group of people seating around a wooden box that had a piece of tin roofing on top of it, and their nosh stick sometimes were axe handles that had been noshed. A fairly solid stick. And that was put on that, rubbed back and forth, and it made a great sounding board. Could be heard a long ways. And there were numerous people keeping the rhythm around there. So that's some of what I learned about that.
(43:22): So I did, I went and danced [inaudible 00:43:27], and when you go to that dance... And the native people are the most giving people I've ever seen. I don't care who else explains their wanting to give, nobody does better than the natives. And they do things... To kind of connect back some with what you were talking about earlier, after getting pretty well acquainted with native cultures, which are very closely related to each other, but there are what? 586 tribes in the United States yet today.
And they have different languages and everything else. Their religions are close. They're not the same, but they're close. Neither is Catholic and Protestant the same, they're close. And I have learned in my thinking over time that the native religion and the Christian religion all believe in one creator. And different ways of looking at it, but one only. So it's not as different as our history books try to make it.
Adam Williams (44:49): Yeah, I would agree. And a question comes to mind that you grew up... I'm remembering, you grew up in this very fundamentalist Christian, correct?
Les Messamer (44:59): Yes.
Adam Williams (45:00): ... Upbringing, and I wonder, then, how in the later years in your life, as you came to know these stories and these beliefs of native friends, how did you come then to understand your belief in a creator or your faith, or your spiritual perspectives for yourself?
Les Messamer (45:19): I saw how similar the two were.
Adam Williams (45:22): And just let them coexist within your beliefs?
Les Messamer (45:25): Absolutely. Absolutely.
Adam Williams (45:27): Yeah.
Les Messamer (45:28): I still think that way. And I still go to powwows and things like that. And I've been allowed to participate. In fact, on one occasion, there is a grand entry, and it's led by someone with a prayer stick, followed by flags. But the prayer stick is first. And I've even carried the prayer stick into powwow to lead into a powwow. The grand entry. So yeah, I guess I've kind of been accepted.
Adam Williams (46:09): It sounds like it. And I wonder, did you ever think about, or ask? Or did anyone tell you, "This is why you have our trust. This is why you are welcomed into things that otherwise tend to be within the community or..."
Les Messamer (46:25): No, not really. Nobody's ever actually said that, but it's just happened.
Adam Williams (46:31): And you've always felt accepted fully?
Les Messamer (46:33): Very much so. And I've gone to native events in several states as far away as North Carolina, attended powwows there, and treated the same way I was in South Dakota or Wyoming or Montana or other places, Nebraska, all over Colorado, lots of places. Yeah, I go anywhere and don't have any trouble.
Adam Williams (47:08): Okay. Well that sounds like wonderful experiences.
Les Messamer (47:12): It is.
Adam Williams (47:13): And it's been going for many, many years, as you've been developing these connections.
Les Messamer (47:19): Oh yeah.
Adam Williams (47:21): Do you still participate? Is that something that you still travel for at this point?
Les Messamer (47:26): Yeah. Haven't been to as much lately because I don't drive as far as I used to at my age. So we haven't been down to the pueblo where we went every year for a long time to this dance. Well, the Pueblo dance, we went because we had gone to the bear dance in the other place, and sat beside some people from a pueblo, and they invited us to come. We went and visited there, and then we probably most of our closest friends are in the Pueblo. I got a call from them on Christmas day.
(48:18): And another one I wanted to tell you about is one of the big success stories I've ever known. So I'll get that in here right now. Because of other factors, and because of my connection with natives, I've gone into prisons to meet with the native people in prison, so that they could hold their meetings with somebody that would accept what they were doing, so to speak.
And I became friends with one of the young people there in prison, in the Buena Vista prison. Knew when he was to get out, went to Johnson Village the day he got out, kind of pre-arranged this, his wife came to meet him, and we stopped in Johnson Village at a truck stop, had a cup of coffee together, wished him well and all that, and we left, and they left.
(49:28): But then it turns out, we kept in contact with each other later. As we went to powwows up in Denver there, he'd be there too. And of course, we stayed overnight. We had to get a motel to be able to attend much. And he and his wife came to visit us in the hotel rooms, just good friends, all over the place. He got out and basically did everything right. I never asked him why he was in prison. I didn't ask prisoners that. But he had served an 18-year sentence. So it had to be more than minor.
Adam Williams (50:10): Something.
Les Messamer (50:11): Yeah, something. But when he got out, he did everything right. No more drinking, no more drugs, just leave all that aside, go on the red path instead of the dark path, and continued living. And he had done that. He had struggled with two part-time jobs, and enrolled in college to learn to be a counselor, so he could go help his own tribe, off in another state. And so two part-time jobs, going to school, he spent years getting four hours of sleep a night, literally.
Adam Williams (50:56): Okay.
Les Messamer (50:58): He graduated from college, and once he did, and I knew about it, he was called to his tribe in the state of Washington to be their youth counselor. He and his wife, a Polish girl, by the way. The Indian married the Polish girl. From Poland, actually. But anyway, so he was out there serving as their youth counselor, called me often on the phone, we talked often, to let me know how everything was going and so forth.
(51:37): And he called one day really heartbroken, because he had discovered draft in the tribal council and all, opened his mouth, and they fired him. [inaudible 00:51:50] right like that. And they charged him with tribal crimes in tribal court, which were all made up. They weren't true, but they were there. And it was bad enough that he and his wife left the reservation and moved into Washington, Tacoma I think it, was because they fared for their lives, literally.
(52:15): But again, we stayed in touch. And again, they struggled with part-time jobs and finding work, and on and on, but taking it full circle, the time came eventually that he was hired by the State of Washington Department of Corrections, to work for them with prisoners, to help them learn prisoners, especially those who were soon to be released for their time up or whatever, to teach them how to act when they got out, and behave so that they didn't come back. And then he also worked with people outside of prison to form organizations that would help these people who were getting out. And he had worked with that ever since. That's been a lot of years.
Adam Williams (53:15): I think that in that kind of situation, there's nobody better to have that kind of role and opportunity is to–
Les Messamer (53:21): I agree totally.
Adam Williams (53:22): To go to someone who has the experience and the compassion and the heart to give that work, and to do that teaching and mentoring, which it sounds like you have done for so many people throughout so many decades. I need to mention what we are not going to have time to talk about, but I want people to know is that this is a coming back to the microphone for you. You also had a career after teaching in which you were on radio and did wonderful things. But at this point we're going to have to wrap up with just, I want to acknowledge that this is only a little bit, we're scratching the surface of what is an amazing life that you are living, with so many stories. And I asked you previously, not recording here today, if you by any chance had ever written a book or were going to write one. And I think that you are writing one, is that correct?
Les Messamer (54:17): Yes. In the process. Probably 85% complete now.
Adam Williams (54:22): Okay. I hope I get a chance to read that book one of these days, and learn what I didn't get a chance to ask or learn about now. But Les, thank you very much for the stories that you have come in here to share with us today.
Les Messamer (54:38): Okay. By the way, native stories are much like Aesop's Fables. They have a moral to them, almost continuously. They're not just fun stories, but they do have a good moral.
Adam Williams (54:51): Right. Not just entertainment.
Les Messamer (54:53): Not strictly entertainment, right.
Adam Williams (54:54): Something to hold onto and learn from.
Les Messamer (54:56): Yep.
Adam Williams (54:58): Well, thank you for your stories, Les. I appreciate talking with you.
Les Messamer (55:00): Okay. You're welcome.
Adam Williams (55:08): Okay. That was my conversation with Les Messamer. If what he shared here today sparked curiosity and ideas for you, you can email comments to Lisa Martin, one of our producers, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use that has that functionality. We also invite you to share the Looking Upstream podcast with others on your social media pages, and by word of mouth. Help us to grow the good. Be part of the light the world needs.
(55:39): Once again, I'm your host, Adam Williams. John Pray as engineer and producer, thank you to KHEN Radio where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado. To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Lisa Martin, producer and Community Advocacy Coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative, to Andrea Carlstrom, Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and to Becky Gray, Director of the Chaffee Housing Authority.
(56:03): The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health, and the Chaffee Housing Authority. And it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities.
You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org, and on Instagram and Facebook, @wearechaffee.
Lastly, thank you for listening and until next time, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, be human, share stories.