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Uncommon life: Donald Anderson pens book on his extraordinary 89 years

Photo Credit: GAZETTE PHOTO: RAY PITZ - Donald Anderson displays props from Fireman Don's El Cheapo Magic Act, which he brought out to entertain children when he worked for the former Tualatin Rural Fire Protection District.Donald Anderson has lived a rather interesting life with a lifetime of events ranging from heading up a small-town radio station to serving as one of the early public education officers for the former Tualatin Rural Fire Protection District.

Over the years, Anderson repeated so many of his life stories to his children that his children said he should write it down. And that’s exactly what he did, self-publishing his autobiography, “Donald,” through Xlibris Press. It’s a book he describes as amusing while guaranteed to bring a tear or two.

“I spent 2013, most of the year probably, writing this,” he said from his Woodhaven subdivision home. “I had never written a book before.”

All the while, the onetime advertising salesmen wanted to make sure his book wasn’t passed by in the bookstore.

“They all look pretty much alike. The only thing that catches you is the title,” he said.

Since the book’s title wasn’t particularly compelling by his own admission, he decided to place one of his favorite photos, one of himself reading to an oversized stuffed bear, on the cover. His reasoning is that readers would be curious and wonder “why would a guy be reading to a bear for God’s sake?”

He then placed a blurb in tiny letters on the front, forcing would-be readers to pick it up.

The cover was shot at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont, a place run by the descendants of Maria von Trapp whose story became “The Sound of Music.” Anderson’s wife, Dorrie, had a timeshare at the lodge for many years.

“In one of her previous visits, Dorrie had met Maria in person. She was in the habit of greeting guests personally and came to their dining table and shook hands with Dorrie and her family. Maria eventually passed away, and is now in the tiny family cemetery just steps from the present lodge. Descendants of the illustrious family now operate the lodge and continue to personally speak to guests.”

Born in Arlington, Wash., and having grown up during the Great Depression, Anderson, now 89, would go on to have four marriages -- two of his wives died unexpectedly of cancer -- and father three children.

His travels throughout his life have taken him to bull fights in Spain and an ocean cruise that stopped in Argentina, Uruguay, the Falkland Islands and Chile. He has had up-close views of polar bears near Hudson Bay and enjoyed a scary hike in Puerto Rico.

Anderson said his father always wanted to revisit Alaska and the San Diego Exposition grounds, two things he never did before he died. So Anderson said he wanted to ensure that he wrote a book before it was too late, pointing out he “never wanted to be buried with any regrets.”

Like many young men in the 1940s, Anderson was drafted into World War II before he even finished high school. At age 19, he would fly his first mission as a tail gunner aboard a B-17 two days after Christmas in 1944.

“This was a milk run (easy mission). Flak was meager, but uncomfortably accurate. Two pieces went through the ship. Joe (the plane’s waist gunner) nearly got it.”

Then on Feb. 3, 1945, Anderson and his crew joined more than 1,000 other B-17s on a German sortie that stretched an estimated 300 miles.

“It was the biggest bombing raid on Berlin up to that time,” he recalled.

At a briefing for the mission, all pilots were instructed to drop their payload and immediately bank to the right and head home. A few moments before the bombs were dropped, Anderson observed that massive amounts of German flak were exploding in the air to the right of them, loud enough that he could hear them.

“I knew as a certainty that I was going to be killed in the next few moments. But strangely, I felt no fear. Later, I read of others who had a similar experience. Apparently, we reach a point of resignation and simply wait for it to happen. Amazingly, the moment our bombs dropped, the flak stopped and we banked as planned and returned to our base.”

After all missions, crews were given a shot of whiskey while they were debriefed regarding the day’s events.

Anderson asked for two shots that day.

“I was still flying when the war with (Germany) ended,” he recalled, noting that the airmen were offered the chance to continue to fly combat missions over the South Pacific. Anderson had other plans.

“I was glad as hell not to be shot at anymore so I went home,” he said.

One of his early business endeavors came in 1959 when he borrowed $3,000 to take over KPRB, a 250-watt AM radio station in Redmond.

“We ran that for 10 years,” recalled Anderson. “We persevered, Rita (his first wife) and I, and I give her full credit. We never would have made it without her.”

In 1966, while still running his radio station, Anderson became interested in the fire services and joined the local volunteer fire department. He quickly found that most small towns in Oregon lacked an emergency services.

“And that’s where I started my big campaign for emergency medical care,” he said. “The only training we had was the Red Cross advanced first aid card.”

He would quickly become a lifelong advocate for improving the ability of first-responders to render help in medical emergencies. One thing he noted was that his Red Cross class lacked something as basic as a course on childbirth, something that Anderson believed would prove invaluable to aid residents in rural settings who went into labor.

“Our ambulance didn’t even have stethoscope. It was upsetting to me that the military had medical corpsman for years, yet there was no civilian counterpart. In public talks about the problem, I would point out that it required 2,500 hours of training to become a license beautician in Oregon, but the town drunk could paint

AMBULANCE on a manure spreader and there was no law against it.”

He would eventually become president of the Volunteer Ambulance Association of Oregon and went on to teach a childbirth class. One night he was teaching in a small Columbia Gorge town. Slightly nervous and questioning his expertise on the subject (considering the large number of mothers in his audience), Anderson looked at some of the women and said out loud what they were no doubt thinking: “Yeah, tell me about it, Charlie.”Photo Credit: COURTESY OF DONALD ANDERSON - Donald Anderson performs a portion of Fireman Don's El Cheapo Magic Act along with the Fire Prevention Singers at Tualatin Elementary School back in the 1970s.

While he had to respond to numerous auto accidents during his service with the fire department, Anderson’s worst experience came when he was called to an animal feed manufacturing plant where a man caught his boot in a grain augur. When Anderson and his crew arrived, he knew it was a bad scene and that doctor he had called wasn’t going to show up.

“The only way to save his life was to sever the tendon. We didn’t have a razor or anything like that, but someone must have handed me a knife. I cut the tendon, applied a sterile dressing and we transported him to the hospital. The man’s name was Les and he remained conscious through the ordeal and recognized me, calling me by name.”

Anderson writes that the first responder has to “take care of the problem, no matter how bad it is, because there is no one else.” Today, Anderson said, fire departments have highly skilled paramedics who administer life support daily.

In 1970, Anderson packed up his family and headed for Tualatin where he would soon take a job as an alarm operator for what was then the Tualatin Rural Fire Protection District. Back then, the main fire station was located on 84th and Seneca in Tualatin. A year later, he became the district’s public education officer, one of the first positions of its kind in the state.

“We sort of had to invent it as we went along,” said Anderson.

He said when children would visit the fire station, they didn’t teach them much other than putting them in firefighters’ turnouts.

But eventually fire departments began teaching about smoke detectors and fire escapes.

With his background in radio and sales, Anderson created the Fire Prevention Singers, a group of 20 hand-picked youths who would sing their hearts out as they went around to various school with safety messages and warning about dangers surrounding home fires. From 1972 to 1989, Anderson helped coordinate the troupe, along with Tualatin Elementary School teacher Joy Lindner, and later teacher Linda Laine.

Part of the program included some magic tricks, something Anderson was interested in. He even came up with Fireman Don’s El Cheapo Magic Act, which he still keeps in a cardboard box inside his garage. Anderson said the goal was to keep the students interested, which involved doing silly things.

He also has humorous bits in his book as well including one about creating a manure cannon. (Actually, he mentions the device on the back of the book cover, but forgot to include it inside the book.) For the record, the cannon was made of a linoleum tube used as a barrel with large wooden spools -- used for rolling out large cables -- as wheels. When it was ready, he used a piece of plywood on a stick as a muzzle-loader, the ammunition being manure. He then knocked on the door of his friend’s home.

“When he opened the door, I fired and shot horse (expletive deleted) over him and his house,” said Anderson.

After 27 years in Tualatin, Anderson move to Sherwood more than five years ago. He says he’s lived a life where he’s been so lucky, “I can’t believe it.”




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