An Old School Education
Conversations with Morey Skaret
This is the tenth in a series of articles on West Seattle legend Morey Skaret. At ninety-six, Mr. Skaret has the verve and vigor of a man thirty years younger, much wit and wisdom to share and many lively stories to tell.
Morey’s life has been filled with the kind of travel, experiences and adventures that most of us can only dream about. He has lived through seventeen U.S. presidencies, two world wars (he served in the Second World War and Korea), the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression—the subject of today’s story.
Like many young men reeling from the joblessness, hunger and despair wrought by the Great Depression, Morey Skaret leaped at the lifeline offered by President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” One of these programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which not only put millions of men to work rebuilding, replanting and repaving America; it provided their families back home with desperately needed income as well.
I ask Morey to talk about life in the CCC. As the memories come flooding back, his eyes sparkle, his voice booms and the words begin to flow as if it were yesterday:
“I wanted to tell you how the CCC got started,” he says, his tone as smooth and melodic as your favorite bedtime storyteller’s. “Anybody that had military service could get in the CCC, and also boys between 18 and 23. They announced that they were going to give veterans of World War I a bonus for their services. It was almost time for it, but not quite; it was a year short when the Depression came.
“The veterans of World War I said: ‘Hey, we’ll march to Washington D.C. and get them to give us the bonus money one year early, ’cause it’s in the heart of the Depression.’ So they started different groups—they met at our house in Olympic Heights a couple of times. They called it the Bonus March. So, they kept coming; it caught on. Veterans all over the states marched to Washington, D.C.”
The doorbell rings, one of Morey’s frequent visitors. “Cap’n,” his guest says, saluting Morey from the brim of his cap. Nearly everyone, especially vets, calls him ‘Captain.’ (Morey rose to the rank of captain in both the Seattle Police Department and the U.S. Coast Guard—subjects of future articles.)
“Pull up a chair,” Morey says. “We were just talking about the CCC. So the Bonus Army marched to Washington D.C. to ask President Hoover for their bonus early. And they camped there. The city was plagued with ’em. Just a whole bunch of men, and they didn’t have money; and if they got a few dollars they sent it to the people back home.
“So Hoover called on the military. He said, ‘We’ve got to get these people out of Washington. We can’t handle it. They’re cramping our government’s style, and they’re everywhere.’
“So he called for the Academy. And the Academy sent two men in charge: Douglas MacArthur and George Patton. And Hoover said, ‘I want you to get these men out of Washington. Send ’em back home. Run ’em outta here.’
“MacArthur and Patton did terrible things to those veterans. A lot of ’em were killed. They brought the army in and the army was supposed to march through with fixed bayonets and—terrible! Hoover became very unpopular, and was unable to make the next presidential race. When Roosevelt heard about this atrocity, he said, ‘I’m going to change the rule in the CCC: You don’t have to be 18 to 23. Any veteran of any of our wars can get in the CCC.’ And what a blessing that was for me.”
Morey was first assigned to a camp on the Olympic Peninsula, where he stripped the bark off logs destined to become park shelters. Later he helped build Camp North Bend (now Camp Waskowitz).
“One of the nicest learning experiences I had was to be in the CCC at that time,” he fondly recalls. “They took seventeen of us young punks—18 to 23; I was probably 19—put us in this camp, and then: Here comes the veterans! Spanish-American War. I had a very good friend—I had the top bunk, and he had the lower bunk. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American War, and we became close friends.
“I learned so much from those old-timers; me, a young kid, inexperienced, ignorant of the facts of life. These old veterans, they would tell stories; and you listened to ’em when you were a kid, you know. I learned so much from them.
“The Spanish-American War veteran was a high school teacher in Seattle,” Morey continues. “What a good guy. We’d get liberty at the same time, and we’d ride the CCC truck to Bremerton and get on the ferry and come across. He’d go home to Issaquah and I’d come home up on the top of the hill here at Olympic Heights.
“That was one of the best learning experiences I had in my life,” Morey states, seventy years dissolving in the blink of an eye. “’Cause these guys came from the Old School, you know—and they had different teaching. You know: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ And, ‘Always leave something better because you have been there.’ A ‘Conduct of Behavior,’ I guess you would call it—and they stuck with me all my life. That and what my Norwegian parents taught me. And I’m sure glad I got it.
“One of the things I learned in the CCC, and I still do to this day, is this: ‘If you are in a place, make it better because you have been there. When you leave, leave what you left behind better than when you first came.’ That was an emphatic rule. Another one is: ‘When you start something, finish it.’ Don’t go to another job, and then start on that.
“Just like when I built this house, or when I built any of those houses,” Morey says, referring to the homes in Fauntleroy Cove that he has occupied for more than seventy years. “My dear wife, Marjorie Dorais, when we built those houses, I’d be out there two o’clock at night. Poor Margie, she’s looking out for her man; she’d come out—she’s a little lady, about 110 pounds, I guess—she’d come out, she says, ‘Oh, Morey: c’mon in now. You gotta have some rest.’
“‘Oh, I gotta finish this, Margie. Thank you, Dear, but I gotta finish this. Right up to that place there,’” Morey says, tapping with an invisible hammer. “‘When I get up there, then I’ll come in.’ Sometimes I slept four hours a night. That was: ‘When you start something, finish it.’
“And of course, lying; to lie was a terrible thing. My mother would get me by my ear whenever I lied. She’d say, ‘Say that over again now. Say it like it is now.’ You can’t tell a lie. I don’t think I’ve ever out-and-out told a lie.
“Franklin Roosevelt was a good president,” Morey says, recalling more Depression-era memories. “He did a lot of good things. He started the Works Progress Administration. You see that gold-colored roof down there?” He points through the sea mist toward drizzly Lincoln Park. “There’s a big fireplace on the end of it—oh, as big as this room, almost. Dad built that with stone that they got off the beach and made there.
“My dad, coming from Norway, was an excellent stone mason. He was the head mason that put in that fireplace. They made it out of big, heavy stone all chiseled out. It must have taken three months to build the darn thing. And they still use it. Mark Sears, he calls me up every year and says, ‘C’mon down, we’re gonna have a community party.’ And we go down and get a big fire goin’ in there.”
Morey’s seen a lot of world in his ninety-six years. And it always flows back to him, one way or another: Familiar faces emerging from the mist that shrouds the mossy sidewalk beneath his window. Old friends returning to his doorstep like salmon in the fall to nearby Fauntleroy creek. The lessons learned—and scars earned—as a young man during the toughest of times.
Next week: How’s the milkshake, Tommy?
In case you missed any in this series here are some links to previous installments: