By Nickalas Adams
Les walks into his favorite pub between 4:30 and 5 p.m. six days a week. His location is northern Minnesota, so Sundays are spent elsewhere. Not quite grinning as he approaches, Les bellies up to the very first and most hidden corner chair at the bar. His chair. But Les would never attempt to claim his chair if it were occupied by some unknowing alien—that’s not him. Les would pick the next closest, likely to leave a chair gap between him and the invading party. Not in hasty, premature judgment, but in observation and invitation. Les will take a Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap, in a room temperature pilsner glass and at a discounted rate.
In October of 1929, the stock market began a long crash, spinning the country into the Great Depression. In mid-December of 1929, Leslie D. Peterson was born. Not in a hospital—“In Gonvick, some damn place.” To Margret and Helmer. The eldest of six. He married Ella and unmarried Ella and that’s enough about that.
In 1929 the Vatican claimed independence from Italy. In 1929 the Oscars become a thing. The first gasoline chain saw sliced through towering red pine. It was the year zombies were introduced to western civilization via The Magic Island. I’m just saying—Les has seen some shit.
During the Second World War, Les was a kid. He worked for a gravelling outfit, chauffeuring around. The business was to fix the roads up for the various demands of wartime traffic. That was when Les got to work three different bulldozers and learn a skill which would add to his arsenal of heavy machinery knowledge. He had conquered tractors because he’s a farm boy. And he drove to town at fourteen to pick up whatever needed refrigeration.
Luckily for Les, his dad was a mechanic. Les would watch his father disassemble the car and then wash the parts as seen fit. The only thing Les ever wanted to do was operate heavy machinery. The bigger, the better.
Les grew up in a tough time from many angles. “Christ we’re lucky we didn’t freeze to death. Snow blowing under the door and drifted to the eaves, forty below out. And we didn’t eat much. I was small. I was underweight. I wasn’t a great student.” So in 1946 he picked potatoes with his friend and relatives—an experience that persuaded him to enlist in the Navy at a Bemidji recruiting office. In February of 1947, “The recruiter musta been hard up to send someone because, sure enough, there I went.” They sent him to Minneapolis, where he would pass the physical—albeit underweight. In less than a month of boot camp, Les gained thirty-five pounds. He was well fed and fit strong. But still short.
In the ranking and rating march at the end of camp, Les was “firmly grabbed” by a commanding officer and brought to the front to carry the flag. This action assured that no stride could be too long and everyone could march in time.
For the military post tests, Les proved that he knew how to handle and work on heavy equipment. The mechanic experience with his father payed dividends. As a result of Les’s proven aptitude, he was sent down to Jacksonville, Florida to attend aviation gunnery school, where he was 1 out of 6 students bearing mechanic ability. Then it was right on to Aviation Mechanics in Memphis, Tennessee, where he cranked F6’s.
After Memphis, Les was stationed for three years of shore duty at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. He was eventually assigned to Flight Testing, or “getting the damn thing running—I loved the work.” Les then transferred to the West Coast for sea duty. It took him three days in third class of the train to finally arrive in Alameda, California. It was here that he worked in an old blimp hangar to form a squadron of aircraft capable of carrying massive weapons. But the proper equipment never arrived as scheduled. “It was so stupid. We were supposed to get these aircraft that could hold atomic weapons, and, psh, nothin’!” So Les went back to Virginia.
In June of 1950 the Korean War broke out. “I was about to be discharged, but they kept me on a while longer. It was okay, too, because I don’t know what I would have done anyway.” It was just for a brief stint.
Les arrived home in January of 1951 after being discharged on his birthday. He had plenty of money stored up because there wasn’t time to spend it in the Navy, and most of his earnings were sent home anyways. With a thousand dollars, Les bought a red Ford convertible.
Back in Minnesota, Les found a job when his pals got him working as a wagon driller in the mine. He worked in close quarters with about-to-blow dynamite for only three weeks, where he proved his mettle driving twin automatic Euclid bulldozers. These were the most advanced of equipment that Les had operated in his young life, with power steering and even in-cab heat!
As you can see, Les got around and saw some stuff. And at this point of Les’s story, keep in mind—he’s only twenty-two years old.
After four months in the mine, Les came to Bemidji to build roads with a TD14 bulldozer. It was around this time that Les decided a critical direction in his life. “I wanted to be a 49er, and I’m still a 49er today. Sixty-two years a 49er. You pay your dues and they will take care of you in a good union. Unions are what built this country. When the unions got a raise, everybody did.”
Les continued his road work in the Oklee, Minnesota area until the Thanksgiving freeze of 1952, when he began his winter unemployment. It was that January when Les ran into LJ Lee, who “was a hell of a guy and told me to get my stuff and my passport.” Lee offered Les an employment opportunity in Iceland.
It was the beginning of the Cold War and Les’s crew was in Iceland to extend runways and taxiways for the Navy and Air Patrol. For twenty-six months, Les crushed material for the runways and operated other equipment along the forty-mile Southern Peninsula. “It was a lot warmer than Minnesota, that’s for sure! I should’ve stayed longer. I wanted to learn those machines inside and out. Even when I wasn’t working, I was studying the equipment and playing with it, getting to know it. Plus I got to room with Davey Crockett, a great, great man.” Not the Davy Crockett with a coonskin hat, though—
In Iceland, on a Sunday, thanks to friend Cornelius “Casey” Schwartz of Illinois, Leslie Peterson hung iron from a crane for the first time. Over the next thirty years, Les would hang iron steady while using up-to 250 ton cranes. This is the part where he whips out his old pictures and shows off the massive height of the towering booms mounted to his white and red crane.
From 1957 to 1967, Les traveled to Kurdish Northern Iraq to cut a dam, Cambodia for more road work, Thailand to go up in DC3’s, Liberia to help lay for the railroad and Hong Kong/Saigon for tourist purposes. Les saw much of the world while building a skill set which would propel him through the rest of his working years back home. He made connections to people like LJ, Davey and Casey.
But most of all, Les learned the way of the world. He learned how things work and more than just the machinery he was operating. He learned what it takes and what it doesn’t. Les experienced reality outside of the American border, and it was for the better.
So I asked Les: What isn’t working right now? Why is generation Y flailing about?
“Today the minimum wage needs to be raised. Middle and lower class people use money and recycle it back into the economy, strengthening it, while the richest few see the most tax breaks and put their money where it doesn’t have a positive flow. They sit on it. We all should be paying taxes proudly, because moving money can do things and sitting money cannot. The rich especially should enjoy paying taxes because the only reason they are rich is because all of us are here buying into their ventures. The boys knew what they were fighting for back in those days and a lot of it had to do with unions and fair living or working conditions.”
And so I looked at Les and posed the big question: Would our fallen heroes approve of what we have done with the opportunity that they gave to us with their lives? Do we owe it to our forefathers to at least put the cellphones down and put in an effort?
He looked at me direly, grabbed his beer and sipped hard.
“There,” he says. “I gotta go.”