Jack's Oral Interview
La Center Historical Museum
Clark County Stories
Interviewer: Suzi Terrell
Narrator Name: JACK WELLS
Interview date and time: 5/10/18 11:00am
Interview Address: 320 W 7th St., La Center, WA
Transcriber: Sharron Sunny Cathcart January 2021
Suzi: I am Suzi Terrell with the La Center Historical Museum. And today is May 10th and I'm chatting with Jack Wells of La Center. We will be talking a little bit about his background and how he came to Clark County. Jack, what would you like to share with us?
Jack: I was born in Hood River, Oregon on January 21, 1950. And my parents lived in White Salmon, Washington which was across the bridge from Hood River. For the first six school years of my life I lived in White Salmon and I went to school there through the six grade. My dad was a logger and he worked for a small logging company. And while we were in White Salmon he worked in a sawmill. Growing up there I had cousins who also lived in the White Salmon area up through Trout Lake, Washington and I was able to spend a lot of time with my cousins growing up. My Grandma and Grandpa Wells lived in a little community just north of White Salmon called BZ Corners. So, we got to spend a lot of time with grandma and grandpa. I learned how to fish in the various creeks and canals. I remember one creek specifically was called Rattlesnake Creek, we called it a crick. It had a lot of really nice native trout. We would fish quite a bit. And my cousins and I and my sisters would walk along the roads and pick up pop bottles and beer bottles and you could take them to the back door of the local tavern and sell them for a couple of cents, and then we would go to the store and buy penny candy. Up through the sixth grade, that is where we lived.
I do not know what happened to my dad's job at the sawmill. Maybe nothing but he was offered a job at the plywood mill at Chelatchie Prairie in Amboy and he took that job and that brought us from White Salmon to La Center. Initially we moved into a rental house up in Highland. I think we moved to La Center in June of 1962 shortly before Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. I remember the headlines. We lived in Highland. And then the Columbus Day storm hit. In our rental home there, the wind blew out almost all of the windows and blew down fruit trees. I remember it seemed strange, the wind was coming under the floor. We had linoleum on the floor and it raised it up off the floor ... it felt like three feet but it was probably just 6 inches. You could walk on it and it would push down. The wind kept getting worse and windows were being blown out. So my folks decided we should ride it out in the car. They put my three sisters and I together in the car. I just remember being in the car, it was dark and was rocking back and forth. Didn't do any damage to the car and nothing fell on it. We could see the trees blowing over. The house was uninhabitable at that point. Part of the roof blew off and whatnot. I don't know how my folks connected with the couple that owned the Texaco station. On the corner where Roxanne and Ron live just across from the bakery was a Texaco service station. And this older couple Charlie and Betty Sheldon owned that Texaco station. And they also owned the little house right behind us. And somehow my parents hooked up with them, and my parents wound up buying this little house. And so we moved from Highland into this little house. And the house that Charlie and Betty lived in was a hospital. And I have an uncle that was born in that hospital in the early 40s.
Suzi: The little house that sits there on the corner with the rock front porch?
Jack: Yeah that was a hospital.
Suzi: Wasn't she a midwife?
Jack: Yes, I remember Charlie was quite a drinker and we kids, not my sister, but some of the boys knew where Charlie hid his whiskey bottle. We had seen him coming out of the house with it and he would go round to his pickup and pull that bottle out and take a drink or two out of that. I shouldn't say this. But once in a great while we would get into his whiskey bottle. They also had a monkey. A little spider monkey whose name was Skippy. And Skippy liked little bugs that when you touch them they roll up. I don't know what they're called. I can't remember the name. Skippy loved those bugs. And so on occasion I would look for bugs and take them down for Skippy and he would reach through the cage and get the bugs and crunch crunch.
Throughout those years from 1962 to 1968 I went to La Center schools - 7th through 12th grade. And when I was 15, I got a job at the garage which is now Chips casino. He hired me to pump gas and he taught me how to fix flats and I would pump gas and check oil and wash windows. There was no self service. Back then you would pull up and you would get the full deal. So I worked at the garage when I was 15, 16, and 17. And then after I graduated from high school, within one month I got a job at the plywood mill in Chelatchie Prairie. That was the end of June or 1st of July in 1968. And then shortly after that, my dad got a job offer in Battleground for a company called Bigger and Better Poultry. A chicken processing plant. And they would haul them live chickens and then hang them up on racks and cut their throat and let them bleed out. And then they would process them out to packaged fryers. Live chicken was ready to go to the grocery store, so my parents moved to Battleground and I moved to an apartment in Amboy. And I stayed there for several months, I didn't like having to cook for myself and make my lunches, those things that mom's do. They had an extra bedroom so I moved to Battleground with them. And then I continued to work at the plywood mill.
And then in August 1969 I got my draft notice. I went to Ft. Lewis for basic training and then I marched across the parade field to an advanced infantry unit for advanced infantry training. I went through that for nine weeks and then I got a five days leave. Then I went to Oakland Army base. It wasn't Ft. Ord. It was called Oakland Army base and it was a processing place for Army service members that were leaving for Vietnam or returning. So I was processed through there. I was there for five or six days and they put us on a plane from Travis Air Force Base and we flew to Alaska and refueled and then from Alaska to an airbase in Japan where we refueled and then from Japan to South Vietnam.
Suzi: That had to be pretty scary?
Jack: Strangely enough it wasn't. I think through Army training and just being young and feeling invincible. When you're 19 years old the last thing you think about is dying. I was reading somewhere that that is how the military get young people to go to war like that. Because they're young and invincible and trainable and all of those things. They put us on buses. It was after midnight when we landed. It was pitch black. And as we landed they turned all the lights off in the aircraft. So your looking out the window and you can just see bare lightbulbs here and there but you really couldn't see anything. Because it was pitch black. And then we landed and they open up the door to let us out. And it was like a blast from the furnace. And strangely enough the last seven days of infantry training in Washington was at the base of Mt. Ranier. And they had built a village at the base of Mt. Rainier they had tunnels and prisoner of war camps, it was just simulated at the time.
Suzi: I had no idea they did all that.
Jack: Yes it was quite the deal. The reason I bring that up is because it was December. And we had freezing rain and snow. It was so cold you had the zipper fatigues and it was so cold. When I got my zipper down my fingers wouldn't work to pull it back up. That's how cold it was. And we couldn't have a fire so there was no way to warm up. Your sleeping bag got wet. It was miserable. And then 10 days later I'm getting off this plane in South Vietnam and it's a furnace. The hottest heat I have ever felt, I will never forget that.
We got off the plane and they put us in buses. One thing I noticed really quick, was that all the windows had metal bars. So they couldn't throw a hand grenade through your window. And that was a realization that there would be people here that would hurt you if they could. And we were escorted by an armored personnel carrier. So you're going down these village streets and there is no activity. Nobody is moving. It was a weird situation compared to what you are used to in the United States. We got to the 90th replacement company and that is where everyone coming into that particular area in South Vietnam was processed in. And then they determine what unit you would go to and where you would be assigned.
As my luck would have it. We were in the air for 20 hours and I think it took us a total of 22 hours from Travis Air Force Base in California to land in Vietnam. 20 hours actually in the air, then an hour in Alaska and Japan for refueling. Somehow, some way for the luck of the draw I got stuck with KP duty as soon as we got off the bus. And that meant no rest. You just had to start working in the kitchen. And I was exhausted. I decided I needed to go to the bathroom. I asked the cook or whoever was in charge. I said I need to go to the bathroom and he said get right back. So I went to the bathroom. And after I went to the bathroom I thought I am just going to lay down for just a second. I had to close my eyes and I fell asleep. And the next thing I know I was woken up by two MPs. They were shining flashlights in my eyes and they wanted to know who I was and I told them and they told me that I had to meet with the company commander the next morning. They told me to get back to the mess hall. I did, unfortunately for me while I was asleep someone had come into the mess hall and taken the radio. And because I was only one gone, they assumed it was me. I didn't have anything to do with the stolen radio. But I had to report to the company commander the next morning. He chewed me up one side and down the other and told me what a low life I was. What had happened. The day shift cooks were having a party that night and they came in and got the radio. The night shift did not know that, so they assumed it had been stolen and they did a headcount and Wells was missing. So anyway. I survived that. It was just what's next kind of thing. You just get there and you're accused of stealing. They called all the new people cherry boys. And welcome to Vietnam … accused of stealing their stupid radio.
A couple of days later my name was called and I was called for the first infantry division. And I thought finally I can get outta here. It wasn't a good place and I wasn't even thinking that if I'm going to the first infantry division that the crap is going to hit the fan pretty quick. And it finally dawned on me that this is the real deal. And this is what I was trained for. They told me to get my duffel bag and they would pick me up and take me. So I got my stuff and I went to the sign that said the first infantry unit. And I waited and the bus came and the guy had a roster of names. He called out all the names except for mine and I said I'm supposed to be on the list,- they called me for first infantry and he said I don't have your name so I cannot take you and I thought oh crap. After they called all the names they posted on a bulletin board all of the rosters for the different units. I went to look to see how my name wasn't on that roster. Because they called me specifically. They called my name. And I looked over the first infantry division and I wasn't on there. And I looked at all the others and I wasn't on any of them.
I found my name on the unit that I don't remember the name of. It was like a personnel services unit and I found their sign and I went to their location and I don't remember how long it was after that. A little quarter ton pickup with the canvas top pulled up. And he had my name on his roster. So I got in and I went. And for some reason I don't know why or how or what the circumstance was. I was switched from a basic infantry to a heavy truck driver. And I had never driven a truck. And these were like semi trucks. These were not little pickup trucks. 18 gears and all this other stuff. After they processed me through. They took me to this transportation unit and checked me in. And the next day we were in the motor pool for the first company formation and the CO was saying that the war is winding down. This and that. And all of a sudden here come the mortars and they were hitting the motor pool and slamming here and there. A bunch of us ran for a ditch, and you just try to get down as low as you can, and they lobbed in probably a half a dozen mortars and I thought I guess the war is winding down. And it was. This was in January 1970. It was winding down. But not for me at that point in time. I had three or four days of training on the truck. And learning how to shift it and how to make a go forward and backwards. I had to learn how to hook up 36 to 40 foot trailers and back them up and turn them around. Everything you needed to do to be a truck driver. I think I have been training for three or four days and then on the fifth day I had to show the Sergeant that I was proficient enough that he could sign me off and give me a military drivers license for driving a heavy truck. I was able to do that. I really wasn't proficient. It was just like give him a license and let's get this over with.
The very next day we were setting up, here come all the trucks, they were lining up, getting ready to go on my first convoy and the Lieutenant that was going to lead the convoy was coming up towards my truck and he's waving. I did not know what he meant. What he was telling me was to turn my lights on. I did not know how. He jumps up on the side of my truck and he flips these things around and he puts my lights on and I'm thinking that he is probably thinking what did they give me this guy for. I did not have a clue. I survived. I drove heavy truck in convoys. I drove over 20,000 miles in 14 months and I extended for 63 days. The normal rotation was 12 months. And I extended to get a five month early out of the Army. When I left there I wanted to be out. I didn't want to have to go to a stateside unit or whatever. So I volunteered to stay an extra 63 days. 14 months and five days I drove over 20,000 miles. That's a lot of miles when you're averaging 25 miles an hour. You are not cruising down the freeway at 55 or 70 miles per hour. I viewed the Army's decision, no matter what the reason, to take me out of the infantry and put me in is a heavy truck driver - more than likely saved my life.
Suzi: When you were driving were you transporting men or equipment?
Jack: No men. I hauled everything from beer to bombs. Ammunition, napalm, pallets of beer, food, clothing. Everything that other units needed to resupply.
Suzi: That didn't put you out of harms way!
Jack: No, we had to drive through areas that were less than desirable. It was common knowledge that we would get escorts by the Vietnamese Army. We knew that if they refused to go to escort us that it was not going to be a fun place to be. They didn't do it often, but once in a while they would refuse. It was what it was and you just dealt with it. Our job was to keep going. If somebody was shot at or blown up, to the extent that your convoy can keep going, you go, you want to get out of that area. My luck held. And I got home. I didn't get shot or blown up. Many, many times in the middle of the night you would have to jump up and try to get to a bunker because of the mortars and the rockets and stuff like that. The company area was close to one of the largest ammo dumps in the world. So the Vietcong would try to hit that and blow up ammo and stuff like that.
I was there for 14 months and came home and my folks were still living in Battleground. So I moved back home and I went back to work at the plywood mill where I was working when I got drafted. I made it home. And a week after getting home I went back to work at the plywood mill. It was the law at that time. If you got drafted, I think it applied to those who enlisted, the limit was three years - but your seniority continued while you were gone and they had to give you your job back. So when I got home. I went back to work five days later.
It was too soon. I was not prepared to be responsible with that mentally. And I was struggling. Some of the guys at the plywood mill were not sympathetic to your situation that you had been in. I remember one guy. The forklift he ran, if you turn the key off and then turn the key back on - it would backfire. And it would just scare me to death. It was like being under fire. And things like that. It was very difficult. I found myself doing a lot of drinking. Way to much drinking. And I began to miss work. I was working swing shift and I would get drunk during the day and then I would call in sick or not show up. Or whatever. Not long after that the mill superintendent called me and he said I don't know what is going on but you need to get it straightened out or you're not going to have a job. I didn't stop drinking but I stopped missing work because of it. I survived that part.
One of the bad things about the situation being in Vietnam. One-day you're in Vietnam and the next day you are not. And there was no debrief or help of any kind with stress or trauma or any of those things. It was like we flew in and I am regressing a little bit, but I remember getting off the plane in California and they took us through an area that had a big cyclone fence. And there were protesters on the other side of this cyclone fence that were screaming and yelling and having a fit over all of us. And I remember I went from Oakland Army base to a taxi to the airport in San Francisco to fly home. The taxi driver said get out of that uniform as soon as she can. You don't want to wear that uniform around here. They gave us a brand-new dress uniforms, it was green and I was proud of it and I did not think anything about being a bad person or whatever. We didn't get a lot of news over there, just Armed Forces radio station. The Army Times or whatever. I didn't have a newspaper sent to me and I didn't really know much, other than hit and miss.
I survived the return home. I worked at the plywood mill from 1971 until 1974. A friend of mine had gone to work at the jail, at the Sheriff's office and said hey you need to take the test and come work at the jail. It's a blast you will love it. So they were testing for what they call the jailer … now they call it a corrections deputy. I took the test and I did very well on the test, I took the test in January of 1974 and was hired in May 1974. So I started working in the jail and I worked there from May 1974 until December of 2006. 32 1/2 years. In October 1971 I got married for the first time. My wife and I moved and lived in this house right behind us here. We lived there for several years. I was working in Vancouver and we thought we would move closer to work. So we rented a place in Vancouver and lived in Vancouver for six or seven years. We got divorced in 1984. I stayed in Vancouver until 1989. And then in 1989 I bought this house from my parents. And I moved back to La Center in 1989. And I have been back here since 1989.
In 1991 I decided to run for mayor of La Center. There was a gentleman named Chuck Smith who was running. He and I battled it out for the privilege of being the La Center Mayor. I had not been involved in La Center politics at all. My initial motivation was that Chuck was running unopposed. And I have a thought process that when people run unopposed they have a tendency to develop their own agenda, because they are not threatened by competition. So they think that they can do whatever they want whatever it is within reason. So there were a couple of issues that were important to me as I got into the campaign. One thing that I found out was that La Center was never in the running for any grant money. There was the community development block grant program. It is a federal program that gave money to small cities that was funneled through Clark County. For some reason, I didn't start going to council meetings until I decided to run for Mayor. And so I would go to the Council meetings and I would hear this stuff that the then Mayor Ed Siegler would tell the Council, saying that we were really close this time, but we just didn't get the money. And it could be for a street or sidewalk or whatever but there was never an explanation as to why La Center wasn't getting our share of this money. So those things interested me.
Suzi: So Ed Siegler was right before you as mayor?
Jack: Yes, those types of issues interested me and I felt that it wasn't right that we deserved our fair share. We had a couple of candidate nights. The league of women voters put up a night at the middle school and there were a couple of other opportunities that we had to give our spiels and that was one of the things that I focused on. That La Center wasn't getting our fair share and that I think we should. I didn't really know what I was talking about - but I was willing to learn. I ended up getting 60% of the vote. I thought it was a landslide. And then when I won the election I thought, what do I do now. I learned. All the mayors in the county are on the board of directors and I learned very quickly that success or failure in those grounds is what your matching funds are. And that can be money or staff time or all kinds of different things. That they are matching funds and La Center wasn't coming up with enough match. Whether it was the value of the land or a park or that type of thing. At that point in time all the card revenue was being put into a local government investment pool for projects. But there were never any projects because we never got any matching money, and we couldn't afford to do it all ourselves. When I finally figured that out, we started getting grant money because we would up our match. Sometimes we would match 50% because 50% of redoing Aspen Avenue was a lot of money but the other 50% was free. We're not going to pay for the whole thing. So we started getting money for sidewalks and road improvements and those things. And we had sidewalks going everywhere. This little city didn't have many sidewalks for many years. We started getting grant money so that we could do some projects. And I was very focused on sidewalks. I thought any street that a child has to walk on for school should have a sidewalk. So we built a lot of sidewalks during my time as Mayor.
And one of the big issues that faced our community when I was elected was that we didn't have any water. I think at that time we had three wells, and two were not working. And we were pulling so much water out of it that we were mining the aquifer which meant that we were pulling water out faster than the aquifer could replenish the well. We did not have enough water in our reservoir. We had a big wooden reservoir where the water tanks are. There was a big wooden reservoir up there and we did not have enough water to fight a house fire. And that's critical. The prior Mayor and council had established an agreement with Clark Public Utilities to bring a water line from the Cherry Grove area in Battle Ground to the city limits of La Center as an interior, that they would tie into our system and then we could get water from CPU and then our system would be a backup system to that. In the meantime, when I was told we do not have enough water to fight a fire, I and fire district 14, and the workers from CPU, hand glued 3800 feet of two inch plastic water pipe and ran it from the reservoir. The old reservoir up the hill past Southview. A lady had an irrigation well, and CPU tested the well water and she agreed to let the city tap into her well. And once we got that hand glued pipe and hooked in, we began to start getting water from her well, until the interior line was done. That was the first crisis, I guess it could've been a crisis. With one fire we would've been out of water!
I had a wonderful City Council and we worked together very well. We didn't always agree, but I think we did some very good things for the city. We built Holley Park. I went up to Olympia and testified before the inter-agency for outdoor recreation, and we got a half a million grant from them to develop Holley Park in the ballfields. And we worked together on that and the CPU helped us.
Suzi: Was that land donated? Or did you have to buy that?
Jack: The city-owned 7.5 acres, and then we purchased five additional acres. I cannot remember Mr. Holley's first name. He gave us a good deal on those five acres which gave us 12.5 acres for the park. And in the meantime, Clark County saddle club had a corral, and their horse stuff wasn't really compatible with what we wanted for the park. We wanted ballfields for the kids and so we had a terrible time with the saddle club because they did not want to leave. We finally had to buy them out. They put a price on what they had developed for their fences and corrals and stuff like that. So we bought them out so that we could have the park for the community. Not that they were not important. It just wasn't part of the plan. That was a contentious time for this small community. And when I took office La Center was a town and not a city, and I wanted it to be a city. Town is okay. A city in my mind has a more professional connotation. And I wanted to make us more attractive to people who wanted to live here or have a business here and that type of thing. In order to do that we had to have all of the ordinances codified into laws. We did that and we were designated as the city of La Center. And that was a fun time for me. I felt that it was important.
Another big issue that we had in 1992 was that the state legislature had just passed the growth management act which required all cities in Clark County to develop a 20-year plan for growth. We did not have the money to hire a city planner to do that work so we had to contract with the county. We got a part-time planner from the County which was a conflict because it was like the county fought us every step of the way. We wanted the La Center junction in the growth plan. And the Clark County Commissioner fought me every step of the way. And I remember sometime prior to that not long before I was Mayor, the city of La Center was considering and incorporating and becoming part of Clark County because they had no money and no ability to take care of themselves. And I remember arguing with the county commissioner saying we need the junction - that's the future out there … and them saying that you didn't even want your community not long ago and now you expect us to give you something like that.
That was the battle that I had. It was many years later that they finally did give it to us in the 50-year plan. They gave Ridgefield land that Ridgefield didn't even ask for. They couldn't do enough for Ridgefield. The other two county commissioners lived in Ridgefield, so they got everything. And that is why Ridgefield is set up the way it is today. Because they were helped big time. And they fought La Center every step of the way. And it was only after many years later that we were able to get half of the junction into our urban growth boundaries. At the time that I was Mayor I was assigned to the internal affairs unit of the Sheriff's office and I would do internal investigations on employees. And that's how I functioned as the Mayor, because I had a flexible schedule. I had to get permission from the Sheriff to run as Mayor. He gave me permission and if I had meetings during the day I could modify my schedule. I would work early hours at the Sheriff's office typing reports, but I was able to function as the Mayor and keep my job as the internal affairs investigator. I wanted out of IA. I was tired of being an adversary towards coworkers and whatnot. And you know I did it for five and half years. I wanted out. And the only way I could get out was to go back into the jail. And if I went back into the jail, I would be on a set schedule with 12 hour shifts. And my four years as Mayor came up and I was finishing my fourth year. And I decided I wouldn't run again. I went back into the jail. And if I remember correctly Chuck Smith was elected the mayor after that and then his wife became ill and I think he had to pull the plug. And asked Liz if she would consider that. And for a short time after I was Mayor and I chose not to run they had an opening on the City Council and I applied for that opening. And the City Council selected me. So I sat on the Council for maybe close to a year. And during that time Chuck felt he had to leave. So I was on the Council and I asked Liz if she would consider applying for the Mayor's position. She did and we selected her. And that's how she got to be the mayor the first time. She was re-elected.
Suzi: You stayed on the Council for a short time?
Jack: Nothing more than one year. I think I went from day shift to night shift and with rotating days off. I had to miss a lot of meetings and stuff like that. I couldn't participate in anything Counsel wise that they may need someone to be on a committee. I just couldn't do it because I couldn't commit the time due to my schedule. So I resigned from the Council when I went on night shift. And then for many years I attended the Council meetings. And then as the new hierarchy has taken over I do not participate in the meetings. I realized having been in those chairs that it's not always an easy job to have. And I try not to be overly critical. Whether I agree or disagree. And unfortunately I find myself disagreeing more than I agree. I don't know if my opinion is the right opinion. I am sure there are others who feel differently. I don't always like hearing well the Mayor said no. Or the Mayor says we don't have the money, the Mayor says, the Mayor says. When the Mayor spends money on what he wants to spend money on I look at it as community enhancement issues and things like that that bring the community together and develop a sense of community - when those things are not a top priority, that bothers me. To that extent I am not pleased with what is going on in our community at this point. Not to say that everybody was always pleased with what we were doing.
Another little sidelight that I will tell you, as I am rambling on. You notice when you walk into Fourth Street Bar and Grill all the little squares on the step that have people's names on them and whatnot? That was because of me. I got a little upset over it. We replaced all the sidewalks in front of the stores and the Tavern and whatnot and the city paid for it. We didn't charge the business - we didn't do a local improvement district that would charge the businesses a certain amount of money based on their frontage. We paid for it. The citizens paid for it. And when we poured that new cement, a bunch of those yahoos at the Tavern scratched and wrote and scribbled their names on our brand-new cement. And I did not appreciate that. I don't remember how we dealt with that. The Tavern wound up selling those little bricks for people to put their names or whatever they wanted on them. To cover up the damage that they had done to the brand-new cement. And that is why that is there.
Suzi: That's interesting.
Jack: My life is what it is at this point. I retired in 2006. We are lucky enough to have a home on one of the Hawaiian Islands that we go to in the winter, and we spend the cold season there. My sweet wife is retired and is able to go and do. She volunteers at Meals on Wheels and things like that and is interested in our community. I remember when she first moved out here, I was living in the little house and she called it a shack out in the sticks. I couldn't get her out of La Center now even if I tried. She just loves it here. It is our home. And we have good friends. And it is a good place to be, and a good place to live. That is it for me unless you can think of any other questions?
Suzi: I really appreciate your time and stories. And as I do these interviews I am learning so much about our town. This is great. I really appreciate you.
Jack: Thank you for asking me.