Rural Missouri - May 2012 - (Page 40)

N E I G H B O R S A Legend on the Line Ozark Border Electric’s John Barker knew every mile of wire roadcaster Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation.” These are the people who lived through a depression, fought a world war and then set about the task of turning the United States into the world’s first superpower. John Barker of Poplar Bluff is a bonafide, cardcarrying member of this generation. Now just a month shy of 90, he can look back on an amazing life spent fighting for his country, then helping to bring electricity to rural Missouri. A product of the Great Depression, John grew up near Neelyville. Like a lot of young men facing an uncertain future in the 1930s, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work-relief program that was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. John joined a CCC camp at Troy, where he worked building what is now Cuivre River State Park. At that time, Cuivre River Electric Cooperative was getting started. John was offered a job on the surveying crew staking the co-op’s first line. The job didn’t last long, however. “They bombed Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning and by that afternoon, they shut the job down. So I came home and ended up going to work for AT&T,” John says. With the war escalating, John realized it was just a matter of time before he was drafted. So he enlisted in the Navy and became a Seabee, a nickname for members of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion. In the Pacific Theater during World War II, Seabees hit the beach right behind the Marines. They built barracks, roads, airfields and did plenty of fighting as well. “I spent 28 months solid in the South Pacific without ever coming out,” John says. “I was in the engineering department. I was in charge of a surveying crew working at night. No one wanted to work then. I took it because it was cool. The bad part was the Japanese did their bombing at night.” Starting with Guadalcanal, John leapfrogged from island to island as the United States fought its way across the Pacific. His last campaign was on Okinawa, where he worked to extend a runway so that it could handle Poplar the massive B-29 bombers that were attacking the Japanese homeland. “We were working at night again and were right behind this gun emplacement,” John recalls. “Five Japanese planes came in. These were cargo planes stripped down. There were probably 20 men on each plane. All they had was a knapsack full of hand grenades. They shot down three of them, but the other two made it in.” John and his crew had a ringside seat to the attack, as the U.S. troops battled the insurgents who were trying to blow up as many planes as possible. “We killed all of them that night except two. They got them at daylight, crawling in a B by Jim McCarty jmccarty@ruralmissouri.coop John Barker had a ringside seat to much of the history that made “The Greatest Generation” such a vital part of the 20th century. Besides hitting the beaches in World War II, he helped bring electricity to rural Missouri. trench toward the control tower.” His closest call came when two Kamikaze, or suicide aircraft, struck a landing craft moored next to the one he was on. The ship sunk in 12 minutes, taking 250 soldiers with it. John mustered out near the war’s end and returned to Neelyville. Before he arrived, Ozark Border Electric Cooperative learned of his skills with surveying instruments. John was quickly hired to plan lines in a long-awaited push to extend electricity to everyone who wanted it. On his first job, John staked 200 miles of line, working for a contractor five days a week and for the co-op on Saturday. Then he added 100 miles of extensions off the main line. “After the first contract, Ozark Border ran out of money,” John recalls. “I would go out and stake the line, the warehouse would make up a material Bluff list and price it. Then they would • tell the member how much it was, and they came in and paid the money. After the cooperative got its loan, they would reimburse the customer.” Materials were tight for many years following World War II, but John says the co-op’s manager, Ansel Moore, knew how to get his share. On one occasion, he procured a surplus bulldozer. Three days later, he swapped it for reels of new wire. John grew up without electricity. When rural electrification finally arrived, his dad bought a new electric stove for his mom, because he was tired of chopping wood and carrying out ashes from the wood stove. “She put that electric stove right next to the old one — and then kept on using the wood stove!” John says. He was there when many families saw electric lights for the first time. He remembers approaching one home where a husband and wife argued about whether they would sign up for power. “The woman wanted it and the man said no, we’re not going to have it,” John says. “The woman said, ‘Yeah, we are going to have it.’ He got kind of teed off and said no. She said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m not washing your clothes. I’m not cooking for you. I’m not doing anything in the house until I get electricity. He said, ‘I guess we are going to have electricity.’” John remembers another incident where a man who sold kerosene refused to allow an easement for the co-op’s lines. Finally two neighbors who desperately wanted electricity made the rounds about supper time and delivered most of the man’s customers to his doorstep. “They called him out, and said, ‘We come to work something out with you to build this power line. We are buying all of our fuel from you, and if you don’t let us put this line in your fence row, we aren’t buying any more fuel from you.’ You know what happened? He signed up.” Though John never climbed a pole for the co-op, he estimates he surveyed at least half of the Ozark Border’s 5,826 miles of line before he retired in 1985 as operations manager. “I guess if you gave me a location number back then, I could almost tell you the color of the siding on the house behind it,” he says. “It’s been an experience.” 40 WWW.RURALMISSOURI.COOP http://WWW.RURALMISSOURI.COOP

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - May 2012

Rural Missouri - May 2012
Table of Contents
Comments
Columns
Moonshine mystique
Missouri snapshots contest
Curbing copper theft
Outdoors
Out of the Way Eats
The mandolin man
Knight for hire
Hearth and Home
The kid with the electric car
News Briefs
Around Missouri
Marketplace
Neighbors
Just4Kids

Rural Missouri - May 2012

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