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The abridged Overstreet: Part 1

Journey to Juneau

Posted: September 29, 2012 - 11:00pm
A drawing from his younger days is displayed in Bill Overstreet's livingroom.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
A drawing from his younger days is displayed in Bill Overstreet's livingroom.

Everyone has a story to tell, but when one has lived as long and full a life as Bill Overstreet, there are more stories than can fit reasonably in a print feature in a newspaper, even split into a few parts. It’s astonishing that Overstreet himself was able to condense his life story into his short book, An Okie’s Life in the Alaskan Rainforest: From Territorial Teacher to Juneau Champion, which excludes the last dozen years, or that he can keep track as well as he has of everything that has happened over the course of 86 years.

Overstreet was born in 1926 in historic Waynoka, Okla.

“I say historic because in 1928 or ‘29, I’m not precisely sure, Lindbergh started an airline and his objective was to provide coast-to-coast transportation — to get coast to coast in 48 hours by plane and by train — and it turns out our little town was an important transfer site.”

Due to its strategic location, Waynoka was for a few years home to the second largest airport in the U.S., Overstreet said, and was a stop on the way from New York to Los Angeles or San Francisco. One also had to stop in Columbus, Ohio and Clovis, N.M. on the plane and train journey.

“My wife Jean and I go back every five years, for a school reunion — they don’t have class reunions because the classes were too small, so we have school reunions.”

Overstreet’s parents moved to Oklahoma about six years before statehood, he recalled.

“My mother was born in a dugout, a sod house made out of earth, in Kansas, but almost on the Nebraska border. And she, as a young girl, moved with her family to Waynoka, they made the trip by railroad. My father, who lived in southwest Missouri, and his family, made the trip about the same time, but there was no railroad connection, so they made the trip by wagon — took them six weeks to make the trip from southwest Missouri to Northwest Oklahoma.” Overstreet said.

“We’ve often thought, Jean and I have often laughed about the differences in our families’ experiences. Our family moved here about six years before statehood in Oklahoma and we moved here about six years before statehood in Alaska, and, you know, roughing it for us was dining without a tablecloth. It was just a totally different world.”

Though Overstreet and his wife, Jean, might laugh about how easy things are compared to their parents’ days, there were certainly experiences detailed in this interview that don’t sound any easier than packing up and traveling by covered wagon.

“I quit school in my, 11 weeks into my junior year, and joined the Navy, that was November of ‘42 — Friday the 13th of November of ‘42.” Overstreet said.

“That is quite the date, do you remember that date?” He asked, “Well let me tell you a little bit, it always struck me as an interesting coincidence — on that day in 1942, the USS Juneau was sunk in the naval battle of Guadalcanal and that became important to me because the ship that I was to serve on for three and a half years during the war was torpedoed on that day. The same day I signed up was the day of the naval battle of Guadalcanal and it was the first time we had defeated the Japanese in a naval battle, even though we had lost the Juneau.”

The USS Juneau was sunk, with all but ten of her crew, that day, including all five Sullivan brothers.

There is a plaque in Juneau and, Overstreet said, all the survivors made it to Juneau at some point.

“We go acquainted with those people, we actually became friends with the senior survivor of the battle. We were friends here in Juneau and then down in Arizona we got together as well. But they’re all dead now.”

Overstreet sat in an upholstered chair in the living room, facing a wall of picture windows overlooking the Gastineau Channel and downtown Juneau. It was a sunny day in August.

“One of the tough things about living a long long time, as I have, is that most of the friends you’ve made in your life are already dead.” Overstreet said, quietly. And, indeed, many of those mentioned in his stories have passed away.

“I served) three and a half years in the Navy on the Portland, which has been described by at least one Naval historian as having perhaps the most illustrious record of any ship in the navy. She received the medal, I can’t even think of the name of the medal, but it’s the second highest medal a ship can receive.”

Overstreet served in nine of the 16 engagements the Portland saw. He has a plaque on the wall listing them all.

It was on the Portland that Overstreet first visited Alaska.

“I was in nine of those engagements. One, was not a major victory, but is of interest of Alaskans. My first occasion to come to Alaska was the retaking of Kiska Island. That was in July, I think, of 1943. And we moved her, we moved to Juneau in 1952.”

Overstreet, and his wife too, fortunately, has an adventurous spirit.

“I joined the Navy to, in the words of the day, to see the world.” Overstreet said, listing off a handful of obscure places he had set foot on, as well as the parts of the world he had seen from the Portland. “I dare say I saw three little islands of this world that damn few other people have ever seen. But we were in all these major engagements, but we didn’t get ashore in any of them.”

During his time in the Navy and for some time after, Overstreet would return to Waynoka because his family was there, and he also started dating Jean, at the time a junior in high school and three years younger than him.

“I worked for a while for the railroad, and I worked for a time as a call boy for the railroad, and I always hasten to say — is not the male equivalent of a call girl - but rather one who wakes up the crews to deal with the trains whenever they come in, day or night.” Overstreet said of his employment in Waynoka.

While still in Waynoka, Jean gave birth to their son. Then the young Overstreet family headed to Alva, Okla., home of Northwestern Oklahoma University, where he studied on the G.I. bill.

“We went to college and the housing that was available to married veterans was an old prisoner of war camp, it was an old camp for Germans we had captured, and the camp was in the middle of a wheat field — as everything was — back there in the farming community.” Overstreet said.

“It was very micey. You’d be amazed at how many mice live in a wheat field. And it was a constant battle between the mice and as, as to who was gonna control that household. It became known on campus as the prisoner of love camp. Which was fair enough.”

And prisoners of love they may still be — when asked when he and Jean were married, he responded, “Seems like yesterday, but it’s been 65 years.”

While he studied, Jean started working at a bank, training to be a bookkeeper.

“I didn’t really approve of that, her working, so after she attained the age of 65, I guess, I let her retire.” Overstreet joked.

After four years in Alva, Overstreet took his degree and they headed to a small community on Colorado with the highest unemployment rate of any county in America, he said.

“It was what I could find that would hire me. I was a history teacher and history teachers were lucky to find a job anywhere. We stayed there a year and I really rather liked the place, but Jean didn’t care much for it.”

And this is where the tale becomes old and familiar for most in Juneau.

“So we ended up being urged — I had a cousin and a sister who had moved to Juneau back in the late ‘30s and they were still here — and they had urged me by conversations and an occasional letter to try teaching here (in Juneau).”

With the goal of teaching for a year in Juneau, then all over the world, wherever they could find work, the Overstreets made arrangements for him to get a job teaching.

“We applied to Juneau, and just to be safe, we went to the encyclopedia and looked at Juneau and saw that, hell, here’s the town of Douglas right here and this place called Auke Bay, so I went ahead and wrote to the superintendent of each place and, Sterling Sears, who was the superintendent in all three places, took that as a sign of real interest.”

They headed to Juneau about six years before Alaska statehood, marveling that they were able to reach their journey in only a day, unlike the long journey his parents had to Oklahoma. Jean was able to find work almost immediately doing bookkeeping for the Coast Guard, which became a lifelong career for her. His work experience ended up being quite varied.

“I found a job helping build the Harborview School, and my job was pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with chat up to the roof to be scattered - I don’t know why they put rocks on the roof, but they used to do it all the time, I don’t know why. I was almost the original 98 lb. weakling — you know, I was not good at what I was doing, but I was doing it.” Overstreet said, but almost immediately another opportunity arrived.

“After I had done that for a few days, my cousin, Wayne, who was a local dry-cleaner, came by to advise me that Sandy Madsen, who was a well-known name in the Fish and Wildlife service, was looking for stream guards. And I didn’t know what a stream guard was, but I figured it had to be better than pushing a wheelbarrow, so I resigned my position at Harborview and never went back to that school until I was superintendent.” Overstreet said, adding, “Interestingly enough, when I was interviewing for that job of superintendent, they asked me what experience I had with school construction, because we were in desperate need of space, and I said, “Well, I helped build the Harborview School.” And I looked at the board members and they looked at me like, “What the hell, what does he mean by that?” So I explained to them and, fortunately, they had a sense of humor, so that answer didn’t disqualify me.

Overstreet’s stint as a stream guard was a good introduction to life in Southeast Alaska.

He was to be stationed in Lutak Inlet, where the ferry stops in Haines, he said, and he had specific instructions as to what he was to do, though those instructions most certainly did not prepare him for every aspect of the job.

“I was told to get enough supplies to last all summer, or most of the summer, that I’d only be able to go to town once in a while, so I did and I was taken up there by Karleen Grummett’s father, who was the captain of the Grizzly Bear.” He said.

Captain Alstead dropped Overstreet off with a small boat and a roll of tar paper.

“Captain Alstead said, “Here, you’ll probably need this.” and he handed me a roll of tar paper, and I thought, ‘Well, what in the hell will I need this for?” and he said, “Oh, when you get up there, you’ll find the reason.” From the sea, we couldn’t see the backside of the cabin roof — because there was none — so the tar paper could replace the roof. And the place had about that much mold all over the floor,” he said, holding hands a distance apart that would give even the least OCD of us heart palpitations, “But Captain Alstead had also given me a shovel.”

He was able to shovel out the mold and put tar paper where the roof should have been, build a fire and make the place livable.

The next days held more challenges, as the instructions provided were deceptively simple.

One task was counting fish.

“One of the duties was I had to go up to the head of the bay, to the stream, and go up the stream and estimate the escapement — they told me how to count the fish, you know, just pick a space and count how many pass through there in a minute or an hour or however long as you can. And I discovered I couldn’t see the fish because of the heavy silt… but I was supposed to go up there once a week to count them. So I went up there once a week to look and never saw a damn fish.”

Another task was to obtain reports from the cannery.

“So I told the cannery people that I need that information and they said they send that information to Juneau automatically every week, and I said, “I don’t care, I’m told to get it, so by god I want it.” So they gave me the information and that kept me busy for a while.”

He also had to keep watch on the fishermen to be sure they didn’t stray from the legal fishing areas. The stream guard who preceded Overstreet had turned out to be lax in his enforcement of the rules.

“The fishermen had told him so many bear stories that they had him scared to death, so they offered him to sleep on the boat that night, and then he slept there every night. And it went on for quite a while until it got down to Juneau somehow that the whole damn fishing fleet was moving inside the line up there. … They did a raid, and they arrested about 17 boats, on one of which the stream guard was sleeping, so I was told to not let them scare me out of there.”

Overstreet took his position very seriously and vowed not to let the fishermen trick him into being off guard. Despite not having a gun, he said he wasn’t afraid of the bears.

“There were some fishermen who came and started telling me bear stories, but I knew what they were doing so it didn’t bother me, they even offered me a bunk if I’d like to sleep there, and sure enough that night there was huffing at the cabin. I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid, I guess I wasn’t afraid because I had just finished World War II, which taught me to be afraid of people with guns, at any rate, I wasn’t afraid and i didn’t accept their invitation, and I finally decided that I was going to get even.”

Overstreet had learned of one boat that was infamous for crossing the line and he set out one night to watch for that boat. Sure enough, the line was crossed and though he had been instructed to give a little leeway, he only gave very little.

“I gave them a little leeway but not very much, and I charged out in my boat and got on and explained to him that he was under arrest for fishing inside the line and I told him to get that net out of the water as fast as he could and he said, “What do you think I’m doing down here?” Well, it turns out that fisherman was Jeff David — does that name mean anything to either of you? Well. in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s he was the premier basketball player in in Southeast, and he was president of the fishermen’s union.” Overstreet said.

“So I said to him, “Well, take us up to the cannery.” And he said, “You take us up to the cannery, you’ve confiscated the boat and the fish.” And, christ, I had no earthly idea how to run that boat, and I finally said, “I do believe it would be better if you took us up there, because I’m not a qualified boat operator like this.”

Overstreet described David as being “alternately mad as hell and amused.”

The next day, Overstreet said he had realized he had made a mistake, gone after the wrong boat — not the repeat offender. There was a hearing a few weeks later and both Overstreet and David were there.

“It was the United States of America vs. Jeff David, and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, what have I done…” And they asked him how he would plead and he said, ‘Not guilty.” He knew he was guilty. even if it was not very much.” Overstreet said, chuckling, “The commissioner made a nice little speech commending my commitment to duty, but felt he had to dismiss the case because there wasn’t enough evidence, it was just my word against his, “ and the case was dropped.

And strangely, this would be the beginning of a long friendship for Overstreet and David.

A basketball fan, Overstreet found himself at the Gold Medal tournament some months later, in the gym of the high school where he was teaching, and “all of a sudden, when nothing in particular was happening that I could see, everyone was standing and applauding, and they were applauding the arrival of the Sitka ANB team, starring Jeff David. He’s getting a standing ovation up there, and I’m feeling like, “Good god, this is the guy I arrested.””

“It’s just odd that we became friends out of an error on my part, more than anything else. But it worked out, happily.” Overstreet said.

Overstreet did end up with the teaching job at the Fifth Street School and when he was offered a teaching position on an outlying island in Hawaii, instead of Honolulu, he and Jean decided to turn it down “and the subject of moving never came up again until it was retirement time for me. So we stayed here all those years.”

These days, the Overstreets spend their summers in Juneau and winters in Arizona, saying they get about the right amount of rain.

In Arizona, they met a woman who was born in Juneau and stayed through school, but after leaving never returned.

“I asked, “How can you grow up there, leave it, and never go back?” And she said, “It’s fairly simple, Bill, at the age of 18, I discovered the sun.””

And whether it was the beauty of the place, the friends they made, or some inexplicable draw — the Overstreets chose Juneau as their home — and this has only been the beginning.

Part two will be printed in next week’s Neighbors section.

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