Topeka Capital Journal
May 8, 1998
I saw Frank Sinatra perform live with the Tommy Dorsey band on the stage of a Washington DC theater in 1942. I stood in line with hundreds of others to get tickets to an early matinee, and when the show was over I was a fan of his, and I’ve been one ever since.
When he died this month I thought about that day, and before long I was drifting through memories of the years before and after it and reliving the chain of events that got me to Washington in the first place.
By the time I saw Sinatra, I had been there more than a year, and had seen the Glenn Miller Band on the same stage. I thought at the time that nothing ever would top that, but I suppose Sinatra did. He was one man, and maybe there never has been another single performer who could move an audience like he did.
I was in Washington working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I was there because the FBI, expanding rapidly to handle the problems of impending World War 2, had gone all over the country interviewing candidates for clerical jobs. Salary: $1,440 per year, or $120.00 per month.
I was in Oklahoma, on crutches with a broken ankle, and my life at a virtual standstill, when I interviewed. A few weeks later, I was excited to learn that FBI agents were checking my background, talking to my former employers and schoolteachers and to people in my hometown of Britton, Okla., including next door neighbor Nora Hawkins, who lied and said I was a nice boy. I figured she wanted to get rid of me.
Britton’s lone real estate man RR (for Ripley Riley) Sheets, sent my dad a copy of the letter he wrote to the FBI, saying I “was as good as Britton had to offer.” Maybe that wasn’t saying much.
I was notified by letter that I was hired and was told to report on a certain day to FBI headquarters In Washington, and getting there was my problem. The letter also said surprisingly, that I didn’t have the option of deciding not to show up. It said my presence would be vital to national security. Even then, I found that hard to believe.
About that time, my brother Al, who was Navy aviator in Corpus Christi, Tex., called and asked me to come visit him. He said he wanted to give me all his civilian clothes, because the Navy soon would rule that its officers must be in uniform at all times. I went to Texas with an empty suitcase and returned with it loaded.
So it came to pass that I arrived in Washington as a pretty well-dressed rookie bureaucrat, because my brother had good taste. All I had to buy a were the dark, plain socks and the dark, plain, hat to meet the conservative dress code the FBI imposed on all its male employees. You’d hardly know I was a refugee Okie.
I was assigned to the 11:30 pm to 7:30 am shift in the 24-hour Bureau operation. I started as a file clerk, but over the months worked up to classifying and analyzing fingerprints. The idea was to classify the prints, then check to see if the subject was wanted for any crime anywhere in the country.
On a good night you might find an applicant at an aircraft plant in California who was wanted for murder in Georgia, or a civilian army employee in Maine who was an escaped armed robber from Texas. The prints never lied.
Because I had 60 hours of college I was admitted to Columbus School of Law, now the law school of Catholic University. The goal was a law degree, to become eligible to take the exam for special agent. I wanted to be a G man because, for one thing, they made $6,000 per year.
My routine, five days a week, was to get off at 7:30 in the morning, get to bed by Noon, get up in the evening, go to night law school, then go to work at 11:30. Believe it or not, I liked the hours.
When we got off work in the morning, my group would go to breakfast. We also had morning bowling (duckpin) leagues, and softball and basketball leagues in season. On the morning that we saw Sinatra, we had a long breakfast, then took turns standing in line for tickets. Since then I’ve never tired of listening to him and, like most, I have a favorite Sinatra song. Mine is “Summer Wind,” written by Johnny Mercer.
As it turned out I didn’t get a law degree and I didn’t make special agent. I became a sailor who never saw the sea, but I could say I saw Sinatra.
I saw him in person only one other time, at a nightclub in New York called Jilly’s in the early 1970s. He was drinking, not singing, and he did that with style, too.