Leslie, The Sailor Who Became My Stepfather

By the time I was ten, my mother had married Leslie Hollingshead, and his presence changed my life. Writing this segment of my memoirs brought new clarity to the significance he had on what kind of person I have become.

The date: January 20, 1898.

The place: A cabin on a sheep ranch, twenty miles from the nearest town, Seven Devils, Idaho.

The snow was deep. Blanche was sixteen years old and in labor. She and her mother lived alone and ran the ranch. Her mother hitched up the one-horse carriage, piled buffalo skins in the seat, and headed for town to the nearest doctor. The twenty-mile dirt road wound up and down, several times crossing the Canadian border. Leslie was born among the buffalo skins on the way to town. Blanche said afterward that they didn’t know whether he was born in Canada or the United States, but since she and her mother were United States citizens, they decided to say he was born in Idaho. His American citizenship was never challenged.

Leslie spent his early childhood in that sheep-ranch cabin. He remembered only a little about those days. One memory was about the Indians. They were dressed in skins that smelled with a high odor. They would come into the cabin and sit behind the kitchen stove. They would sit there, not speaking, not moving, until they were given something to eat. Then they would leave. They would stay as much as three days if food was not offered before then.

His other memory was of the cattle ranchers. The cattle ranchers hated the sheep ranchers because the sheep ate the grass close to the ground, and it did not grow again so the cattle could feed. This particular day his grandmother had been warned of the cattlemen coming. She went to the yard and scratched a line across the front about twenty feet away from the house, and awaited them with her rifle aimed at the line. The cattle ranchers rode up on horseback toward the cabin and found themselves looking down the barrel of her rifle. Blanche and little Leslie were hiding in the cabin looking out the window. Grandmother shouted, “The first one who crosses that line is dead.” The cattlemen tried to reason with her, and moved around, behind her line. They eventually turned and left.

Shortly after that Leslie’s grandfather came back and they sold the three thousand sheep and moved to San Gabriel, California. There they had a lovely house by the second hole of the golf course and Leslie loved to play golf, and by the time he was twelve made good money being golf caddy to the top players. He got in with a gang of boys who were not afraid of mischief. On Halloween they turned over the outhouses of people they didn’t like, as well as setting horse carriages on the top of the owner’s  houses.

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Leslie, at age fourteen, was having trouble in school. During an altercation with the school principal Leslie picked up a chair and hit the principal over the head. The school called the police who took him to court. The judge ruled, “Join the Navy or go to jail.” America was already involved in World War I, and Leslie chose the Navy. The judge and his parents lied about his age and he was sent to Balboa Park in San Diego to the Naval Training Station.

During the induction physical examination he was measured tall enough, but didn’t weigh heavy enough. The pharmacy mate told him to go to town, buy a hand of bananas, eat them all, drink all the water he could hold, then come back to be weighed. That process worked and he was accepted into Boot Camp.

He was issued uniforms and a duffel bag and taught how to pack regulation style. The approved way to carry the duffel was to throw it over your shoulder and let it hang down your back. Leslie had passed the height requirement, but wasn’t as tall as the duffel was long, so it dragged on the ground everywhere he took it.

Leslie on the right
Leslie on the right

During his induction, the officers asked him what part of the Navy he liked best. “Shooting guns” was his immediate answer, so he was assigned to the torpedo squad. He was advanced to second-class torpedo-man by the time the war was over, and then because we were not fighting, was not upgraded during the rest of his thirty-year tour of duty. When World War II was on the horizon he was called back into service from retirement, and made Chief instantly.

Les loved the Navy. It was his family, his teacher, his excitement, his identity, and his home.

Flashes of stories early he told me:

When his ship was docked in New York it was St. Patrick’s Day and everyone on leave was going into Manhattan to see the parade, with its theme of the Wearing of the Green. Les and his buddies were looking for excitement so when they learned that the Parade symbolized the Irish Catholics and their sworn enemies were the Protestants that were symbolized by William of Orange, they procured orange streamers, wrapped them around their bodies, and then headed for the parade. Yes, they evoked the inevitable melee.

When the Boxer Rebellion was still under way in China, and the U.S. and Western Europe were trying to maintain control, the mother-ship San Pablo was sent up the Yangtze River with its contingent of destroyers. Leslie was assigned to one of those destroyers. His stories of the atrocities they saw on shore were horrific. Hollywood made a film using the mother-ship’s nickname Sand Pebbles for the title.

There was a tragic happening when his convoy was on maneuvers traveling at night. The ships were to follow single file in the dark, with only a single lamp at the stern of each ship for guidance. Leaving San Diego harbor, heading north, the lead ship veered to the shore, crashing on the rocks at Point Mugu, followed by the rest of the convoy. Many of Les’ shipmates were killed that night but Leslie escaped. He was in the Naval Hospital in Balboa Park with the mumps. Rumor had it that the captain of the lead ship was either drunk or asleep.

Crashing of Leslie’s fleet at Point Mugu
Crashing of Leslie’s fleet at Point Mugu

As Leslie matured he was often given a billy club and assigned to Shore Patrol. He told us that sometimes when sailors on shore were getting into trouble that he knew he couldn’t handle on his own, he would take off his armband with the Shore Patrol insignia and surreptitiously slip away.

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By the time I turned ten years old my mother and Leslie had been together almost two years. I moved in with them into a small house in Ocean Beach, California. Soon after that, one day I brought home a calico kitten and asked my mother if I could keep her. Mom’s reply, “Ask Leslie.” She sent me into the living room where he was sitting, and I handed him the kitten. I asked, “Can I keep her?” He lovingly turned the small creature in his big calloused hands and said, “Let’s call her Pinto.” That was the beginning of our bonding.

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Leslie Hollingshead
Leslie Hollingshead
Carolyn and Leslie
Carolyn and Leslie

Carolyn (on left) with her kitten Pinto, Leslie (center), and friend Joyce with her cat Dusty
Carolyn (on left) with her kitten Pinto, Leslie (center), and friend Joyce with her cat Dusty

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