PEACETIME IN LINCOLN, NEBRASKA
I was living in Lincoln, my home town, married, my first daughter about to be born. The first thing I had to do was to find a place to live. When the baby was born, we were living with my wife’s parents. I worked then with my father, who had a construction business, and my father-in-law, who had a very good going business in outdoor advertising. The outdoor advertising business was good for me, because it combined sign painting and sign construction outdoors, which I liked. I had grown up in the construction business with my father. Both of my brothers worked for my father also. In fact, during the war my father had a sign on his truck which had read “CATHER & SONS”. This he changed to “CATHER & NO SONS”.
I had several interesting projects immediately. I wanted to move out of my father-in-law’s house. It was good food and the price was right — still I needed my own house. My father had a duplex, a nice building with a basement apartment that became available. Another brother had lived there, but had acquired his own house, so I moved in the basement apartment. And I decided to build a house for myself.
Building materials were like impossible to get and also very expensive. But mostly just hard to find. Lumber was scarce and not cheap. I solved this by buying granaries. The U.S. government during the war ran short of storage space for grain, and Nebraska being the home of the cornhuskers — com and wheat…. So the government contracted out to build mobile grain bins. These were large buildings 20 x 40 feet with gabled roofs, and out of beautiful clear lumber that just wasn’t available otherwise. These were in the disposable storage areas in a small town not far from Lincoln. They had never been used to store grain — brand new — brand new wood. Nice wood flooring — built on the specifications of a home, like one wing of a house.
So I got an architect to design a nice small home made up of three of these containers. I had them hauled into a location I had bought out at the edge of town -a little town adjacent to Lincoln called Bethany. It was on a main highway, Cotner Boulevard. I got these containers to this land. I had enough to qualify for three houses. The ceilings of these bins were ten feet high, so I had the bins jacked up and chopped off the bottom floor and took out three feet of the sides, which left an eight foot ceiling inside. Since the wood in the houses was all brand new, never been used, they passed all the city inspections. I had them hauled to this location.
We put in footings for each of the houses — built three houses. I left the comer lot open for a filling station site, and it was zoned for a commercial comer. We set the frames on the footings we had put in to raise the house off the ground level.
Then the big problem was to find sewer pipe. This was almost impossible. This small community did have sewage, which was fortunate, so our problem was to get sewage pipe laid from these house locations to the city sewage pipes on the main street. I finally had to go to western Nebraska in the sand hills and found a small company that did casting. They didn’t know what sewage pipe was. I had to take them a sample and from that they built my own sewage pipes.
These houses were in such demand, I was sorry I could only build three. Both of my brothers wanted one, and since they were involved and Cather Construction was involved in building these houses, I had no choice but to give them first priority. These brand new grain boxes I had bought at government catalog prices. I bid $600 apiece for them. So each house had $1,800 in the basic cost of the house, plus, of course, the foundation which Cather Construction had to put in and the modification of lowering the height of the building and the sewer pipe coming from western Nebraska. I charged my brothers $1,000 a house on top of all my costs.
Those three houses were suppose to get me a house free someplace. That didn’t quite do it, but I did lease the comer lot to Citgo Company for a filling station, and little bit later sold that to one of my brothers. My brothers eventually built a filling station for Citgo on this comer lot. Those three houses are there today and so is the station. I never lived in one of those houses — just two of my brothers did. I moved up in the duplex which was next door to where I had grown up.
While I was in this house construction business, I had also set up an outdoor advertising business. The business looked so good from my father-in-law’s training, that I decided, with his permission, to form my own outdoor advertising company. This business was limited really to leasing of sign locations out on highways coming into Lincoln. This took a salesman, yours truly, to get the leases. Also I had to use my university and friends’ connections to get contracts for the advertising.
One of the first contracts I got was a fraternity brother, naturally. His family owned a furniture store. I sold him five signs in five different locations coming into Lincoln. I got a farmer’s permission for a little comer on his land that was adjacent to the highway. For this little spot I was able to get a five-year lease for five dollars a year. I leased this for a furniture sign for ten dollars a month. That’s why I had found this business to be exceptionally profitable.
But I really needed to move into big signs, and there were two locations between Lincoln and Omaha that I needed to be on. One was a Nebraska clothing store sign and the other was an O’ Shay Rogers Ford Cars location near a steak house on the same Omaha highway. This meant building big signs — billboards. I had been exposed to very elaborate West Coast billboards, where they used cutouts, elaborate trim and landscaping. I happened to have another friend from the university whose family own Nebraska Clothing. They owned this property. It had no signs on it, and they considered this a high income piece of property. They were building a steakhouse on the property, but there was also a wonderful location for two billboards. I got the contract for this for ten years at $165 a year. Since my tour of duty in England and increase in rank, I had been saving a substantial amount of my salary in the air force. That was my financial investment for my outdoor advertising business.
But the really cream of the business came a couple of years later, when a friend of mine was appointed as head of the state aeronautical department. The state aeronautical department in each state was a new thing. The big program budgeted by the state, and partly subsidized by the federal government, was the air marker program. This was to encourage local flying. Many of the farmers, particularly, liked flying. And it was a fairly necessary thing to get from one place to another on some of the major agricultural developments. These air markers were put on lumber yards in most towns. Without them, you couldn’t tell where the next town was or the next airfield. So that was how you navigated from one place to another.
These markers had the name of the town, a circle and an arrow pointing to the nearest airport. The contract called for the state to provide aluminum paint for the first coat and yellow oil paint on top of that. And the state also provided permits from the lumber yard owners for each location. I developed a system of marking these towns’ names on the roofs. This was made up of a big frame. The letters were to be eight feet tall. This frame was made out of 1 ft. x 2 ft.’ s in the shape of an O. The outside gave the thickness of the letter and the length of the frame determined the height.
So my crews just had to carry a ladder, big enough to get on top of a lumber yard, take this frame up, put it on the asphalt roofing of the lumber yard, take chalk and, hopefully, the crews were talented enough to make the letters for the town. Then they painted the letters with aluminum paint first to keep them from bleeding through the asphalt on the roofing. This was quick drying aluminum paint like used for airplanes and had a banana oil base — smelled like bananas. So by the time they had this lettering spelled out and the arrow made, the aluminum paint would have dried. They then went back for the second coat which was bright yellow paint.
My brother, Bob, did many, many of these. He has an indelible memory of every little town in the state of Nebraska. He can tell you all about that town, where the lumber yard is located, everything. Unfortunately, he fell off a roof one day. It had rained the night before and probably froze also. They would have had to wait a couple of hours for this to dry out before they could get on the roof, but it probably was still slippery. Bob broke his back falling off this roof. I got this bad news, called my friend at the state house. He flew up to this location where my brother had been taken to the hospital and fixed up as best they could. Then Bob was flown back to Lincoln to a hospital and was out of commission for a few weeks. But there was no permanent damage to his back.
The actual time of marking these air markers was a matter of maybe four hours -maybe. I got $85 from the state for each marker. They were not very far apart from each other so the men could probably do three or four a day. Two men in a crew. I split the $85 with the crew — gave them half. They got rich. I got rich. The state got an air marker. I had this contract for two years, and then a guy from Iowa who was doing the same thing in Iowa underbid me. My friend had left his job in the state of Nebraska and gone to a better job, the same one, in Michigan.
One of the things I maintained all through this period was my connection with the military. So in addition to my small business I was running, I also had to maintain my contact with the military, which was done in this way. I signed up for a reserve association appointment to the Strategic Air Command in Omaha. SAC headquarters in Omaha was headed up by General Curtis Le May and other members of the bomber command, mostly 20th Air Force and 8th Air Force. So it included a wide association made up of primarily B-29’s. This was a fantastic bombing machine which played a big role in the Pacific, particularly before the end of the World War II, and was manned by ex-bomber crew members. At headquarters, this was a very high priority for General Le May, and the B-29 four engine bomber was the best thing, the only thing, they had.
At SAC headquarters, I was assigned to the air inspector general’s office run by General O’Day. The requirements were that once a month I spend three days at headquarters. In this assignment the air inspector general covered everything. This involved traveling to a number of bases. This was similar to the job I had left at the air inspector general’s office in Orlando. And in the process, I got checked out on a B-29. But at that time, the air force was rapidly switching over to jet airplanes. The B-29 was planned to be converted to B-52 four-engine jet bombers — huge airplanes.
I was fortunate that in the process of my assignment, I had a buddy in Lincoln who also had an assignment at SAC headquarters, but he was in personnel. And as it turned out, wouldn’t you know, I happened to be in a vacancy that called for a full colonel; so in qualifying, I moved from a lieutenant colonel to a full colonel. I was also fortunate in that this position as a full colonel qualified me for a position at the Air Command and Staff School. So I attended the Air Command and Staff School, which was in Montgomery, Alabama. Following that, I attended the Air War College which was also in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Air War College was a very, very pleasant experience. I wasn’t the greatest student, but you didn’t have to be. At this War College, one of the fringe benefits was the access to an airplane of your own, which happened to be a twin-engine beechcraft. This was available to you on weekends, so this made it possible for me to attend the War College and go back to Lincoln on the weekends to see my family.
This little airplane was very handy but dangerous. Fortunately the range, without refueling, was the 700-mile-distance between Montgomery, Alabama and Lincoln, Nebraska. At Lincoln, there was at the airport a naval squadron. So I had facilities there for fuel and parking overnight. On every flight I made, I flew directly over
St. Joe, Missouri, and there the air controllers contacted me and asked how my fuel was. I would say fme, because the model beechcraft that I was flying had emergency fuel cells. It wasn’t necessary for me to land for additional fuel. But as a result, I arrived at Lincoln very low on fuel.
I was so low on fuel on one occasion in a storm that I was getting icing in the engine. I called for an emergency landing permit in Lincoln. The guy in the tower said that he couldn’t give me clearance to land — emergency or not for me -because there was another plane in the storm area that was unidentified. I was told just to circle, which I didn’t have fuel to do. So I called and announced an emergency landing. I landed safely and to prove the fact that I was low on fuel, when I landed and dropped the tail down to the runway, both engines quit. I had to be towed off of the runway. It taught me one thing. When that controller in St. Joe asked about my fuel, I said I was coming in to get some. I couldn’t handle any emergencies with just the fuel cells.