“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
If you were ever a Boy Scout, that promise should resonate in your mind as an oath you took a long time ago. Few ex-Boy Scouts forget it entirely. Unfortunately, many of us have let it slide way back into the blurry recesses of our minds.
Not 81-year-old Ed Hoffman.
“The best thing I ever did in my life was join the Boy Scouts,” he said. “That was about 1944, and it set my whole life. When I went into the Air Force, that was an extension of the Boy Scouts, of course a little more on the serious side. I’m still beholden to the Boy Scout Oath.”
Maybe that’s because Ed’s roots on both his mother’s and father’s side stretch back to the early days of our nation, back to when honor was held in higher esteem than it sometimes seems to be today. His mother’s family came to America before 1800, and his father’s family shortly after. They settled near Cresson, PA, where they became farmers.
Ed was born on the farm in 1929, and he lived there with his family lived until he was ten.
“Things were tough,” he said. “My mother saw how hard everyone in the family was working on the farm. We didn’t mind it, but she didn’t want to live on the farm anymore. They didn’t pay the taxes, so we lost the farm and we ended up in town.”
Like many other people during World War II, the men in his family moved to where the jobs were.
“My Dad, Grandpap, uncle, and brother started building army barracks around Williamsport,” Ed said. “When we were in Williamsport, I was one game away from being marble champion of the fifth grade in the entire school system. I had an off day.”
When the work was done in Williamsport, the family moved back to Cresson. Then Ed’s dad got a job in the navy shipyard in Philadelphia. Because his Germanic last name, Frank had to get affidavits from three people who knew him since birth to prove that he was born in the United States. Hitler had come up with a proclamation saying Germany was going to take over the world, and calling for Germans everywhere to sabotage for the Fatherland.
Because of the frequent moves, Ed failed in school twice.
“I was in eighth grade when I turned sixteen. I thought what’s the use of all this education when I’d probably end up in the army and possibly get myself shot. So I quit, against my parents’ wishes. I got a job at 26 cents an hour in a factory that made toilet seats.”
After the war, his father moved to the Shenango Valley to work in the steel mills. Ed worked at Sharon Steel for a short time, but didn’t like it. He got a job with a local contractor as an estimator, then started doing some carpentry work. He developed a reputation for doing goo work.
But good work doesn’t always guarantee a good job. In January, 1950, Ed was out of work.
“I was walking down State Street in Sharon. I saw the Army Recruiter sign, so I went in. I said, ‘ I’m looking for a steady job.’ He said, ‘The army is full. You could try the air force.’”
Because he wasn’t a high school graduate, he had to take a test. He passed it with the highest score the recruiters had seen, better than any high school graduate. He was sent to aircraft mechanic schools to Lackland Air Force Base, where he trained for eight month in aircraft mechanics school, earning a certificate that said he passed with distinction.
“About the fourth of December, it was a fairly warm day in Texas,” he said. “We had our summer clothes on. They flew us to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. When we got out of the plane, we are greeted with about a 35 mile an hour wind, and a temperature of about ten below zero. We quickly got on a bus which took us to barracks that were as cold inside as it was outside.”
During four months of schooling in airplane electrical systems, Ed did so well that they retained him as an instructor. While stationed there, he married Mary Lois Melhorn, a girl with whom he had grown up.
Through the years, they had seven children: Pamela, David, Timothy, Alan, twins Ricky and Randy, and Sherie.
“They liked to bring their friends home,” Ed said. “I was like a second father to about 40 kids.”
After teaching a while at Chanute, he was asked to rewrite the tech manuals. They told him they would send him to aircraft parts manufacturers, and set him up in hotels with all expenses paid. Then, after advanced instructor training in Alabama, he would be brought back to Chanute and set up in an office with a secretary. Unfortunately, before he could start the training, he was reassigned to Japan.
“When I was in Japan, the C-124 electrical systems weren’t wired right,” he said. “The wires were melting because the fuses were on the grounded side, and something was installed wrong in the factory that created shorts. I had to go over the boss’s head twice to get all 300 planes grounded and fixed. At the time we had 70% of these planes in the air at one time and they could have started dropping out of the skies. The master sergeant said to me one time that God only knows how many lives I saved.”
Ed’s commander wanted to put him in charge of a new program training aircraft mechanics. But the Korean War cease fire went into effect, and the Air Force allowed some people with less than three months remaining on their enlistment to get out early. When Ed told his lieutenant that he was going to take advantage of it, the lieutenant said if he agreed to stay on, Ed would be promoted to staff sergeant immediately, and promoted to tech sergeant after he re-enlisted. But Ed turned him down.
“If he had said one word about putting me in charge of the program,” Ed said, “I would have stayed. I would love to have made a career in the Air Force.”
Ed came back to the states and got out on September 23, 1953. He started doing carpentry work, first for the guy he had worked for before going into the service, and then for a union carpenter who got Ed into the carpenters’ union.
“I could have come in as a journeyman, but I said no, I wanted to go to school. I didn’t know how to cut rafters or stairs, so I came in as a two-year man at about half the journeyman’s wages. But from then on I was qualified to do anything. We built houses, churches, and shopping malls. When Sharon Steel added a 60” hot strip mill, they made me a carpenter foreman over ten men. We worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. We were paid 40 hours straight time and 44 hours double time, but at times I felt like a zombie.”
Eventually Ed and his sons started their own business. Between 1972 and 1982, they built 38 houses around the Shenango Valley.
“I retired in 1982, at the age of 63, because there was too much paperwork,” Ed said.
Ed did other things besides carpentry work. At times, he was a census worker and a member of the Mercer County Election Board. He also sold Fuller Brush and Rawley products, fire extinguishers, and Amway products.
Ed is always ready to take up a new challenge. When he saw the newspaper photo of Ground Zero after the 9/11 attack, he felt inspired to paint a picture.
“I never painted before, although I always had an urge to, but never had the time or the incentive. So I painted three pictures of the firemen raising the flag at Ground Zero. One is at the Hickory VFW, another at Hermitage Police Station, and another in the Hermitage Fire Station on Highland.”
At his grandson’s birthday party, a woman saw his paintings and asked him to paint a patriotic picture of her daughter who was in Iraq. He combined the New York 9/11 skyline with a scene showing troops and military equipment in an Iraqi desert.
“It took me six months of trial and error to get it right,” he said. “It hung in the Farrell Reserve Center for a couple of years.”
Even though he had never written a poem before, Ed wrote an inspirational poem about a soldier being killed in Iraq and buried in Arlington Cemetery. He had a poster printed with the painting and the poem, and gave away over 1,000 copies of it. Col. Scheetz, the commander of the Farrell Reserve Center, took copies of the poster to Iraq, where he said they lifted the morale of the troops.
“I told Col. Scheetz that when I joined the Air Force, I was sworn in,” Ed said. “When I got out, I wasn’t sworn out. So I’m still beholden to that oath.”
Since he considers his Air Force oath an extension of his Boy Scout oath, it’s fair to say that the Boy Scout oath truly did set the course for his whole life.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010