A National Weather Service Publication In Support of The Celebration of American Weather Services
...Past, Present and Future
Personal View of H. B. Boyer
Fort Myer! What a flood of memories that name brings! Memories gay and grave; painful and pleasant. But I can truthfully say my memories of the place are mostly gay and pleasant.
On a hill overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, Fort Myer was laid out in the regular military post style of a quadrangle with the officers' quarters facing the Potomac on the east side, the hospital, quartermaster's and commissary buildings on the west side, and guard-house and observatory on the south side, and near the wall surrounding beautiful Arlington - the old Lee Estate - the Nation's "Bivouac of the dead." Fort Myer as I knew it is indelibly fixed in my memory. Many years after I embraced the opportunity to revisit the place. It was the occasion on which the Wright Brothers were to give their first airplane built for the Government its final test of a flight from Fort Myer to Alexandria and return, and it is interesting to note that the Wrights refused to make the flight and obtained an extension of time for the reason that the wind was too strong - ten miles an hour! This visit to Fort Myer greatly disappointed me, for the post had changed so much that I was wholly unable to recognize any feature of it.
(Upon first arriving in Washington, D.C.) Missing the last trip of the ambulance I negotiated the distance from the end of the car line in Georgetown to the Fort on foot, crossing the Aqueduct bridge and trudging up the long road to the post carrying a heavy "grip" and a heavier heart, for as this was my first separation from home and all that word means nostalgia had already attacked me. Nor was my dark outlook of life materially brightened by the howl that greeted me from the barracks when the men caught sight of me. With hilarious yells of "Fre-s-h fish! Fr-e-s-h fish!" they surrounded and accompanied me to Top Sergeant Michael Mahaney, a product of the old military school of non-coms, to whom I reported.
I shall gloss over the "settling down" process which, in my case I am sure was rendered less difficult by reason of my being the "kid" or youngest boy at the Fort at that time. In the adjustment that followed I was kept quite busy for several days drawing my allotment of clothing, uniforms, bedding, blankets, etc., from the quartermaster, and in drilling in the awkward squad. I shall always remember that I arrived immediately before "retreat" (sunset) and shortly thereafter the men were marched to the mess-hall in column of twos. My long walk had given me an exceptional appetite, notwithstanding my homesickness and dejection, and I viewed the coming repast with pleasurable anticipation. On a long bare table I found a cup of black coffee, a piece of bread, and a plate containing five prunes! Yes, I counted them; five - no more, no less. And on timid and anxious inquiry I learned that a second helping was not permissible. That while I would find no mention made of such a procedure in either Upton's Manual or Army Regulations, it was taboo in polite Army circles, and that Truman, the chef, would justly feel horrified and hurt at such a display of vulgarity! The world, indeed, looked dark, dank and dismal to me.
On the death of Gen. A. J. Myer, which occurred August 24, 1880, a new policy was inaugurated under the new Chief Signal Officer, General W. B. Hazen. General Hazen, recognizing that the meteorological work of the Corps demanded men of higher educational attainments began reaching out into high schools, universities, and colleges. The glittering bate was commissions. In view of the feeling against the Army in the South at that time the number of recruits obtained from southern universities and colleges was remarkable. In parentheses I will state that of the seventy-one who were at Fort Myer with me only two obtained commissions.
The parting of the ways came on June 30, 1891, and the meteorological work of the Signal Corps was taken over by the Weather Bureau, Department of Agriculture, on July 1. With comparatively few exceptions, the personnel of the Signal Corps elected to go out into civil life. The Army, of course, protested vigorously, and it is rather amusing, now, to note that the keynote of the protest was that only Army rules and regulations could hold together the far-flung stations, and make the men efficient and amenable to discipline. This was found not to be true because under civil administration, all the laxness that undoubtedly existed under military administration abruptly ceased. I cannot, and will not attempt to explain this sudden transition to a higher moral plane as regards the work of the personnel, but I am free to state that this uplift took place immediately, and the work of the Bureau carried on with greater efficiency, conscientiousness, and enthusiasm.
In my telegraph test I had a rather amusing experience with the Signal Service sergeant in charge of the telegraph division.
For some reason, which I do not recall, I failed to take the test with my class and was later ordered to appear at the Signal Office for an individual examination.
On reporting to the sergeant, he placed me at a table containing the usual telegraph instruments which he connected, locally, with a set at the far side of the room.
"I'll first test you out in receiving." he said. "And remember, I'm in Washington and you, theoretically, are in Baltimore."
Picking up a newspaper, he proceeded to his table, placed his watch before him, and began to send, gradually increasing the speed from about fifteen words per minute. Without break I smoothly followed the clicking instrument to twenty words per minute, twenty-three, twenty-five and then hurriedly jumping up, I called, "Hey sergeant!" Robinson continued sending, apparently not having heard me.
"Say, sergeant, you're going to fast," I called in a louder tone. Robinson sat unmoved and unhearing, the sounder clattering on with increasing speed.
Hastily running across the room I tapped Robinson on the arm and said, "Sergeant, slow down; you're going too fast for me."
Dropping the key and whirling around, Robinson gave me a long, steady look and grunted, "When did you arrive? Darned fast trip that!"
"Fast trip?" I stammered, "I don't quite understand what you mean, sergeant."
"I mean just what I said," he came back at me with a rasp in his voice. "You were supposed to be in Baltimore weren't you? If you had actually been there, under the same circumstances," and here his tone took on fine sarcasm, "you would have dropped your key, grabbed your hat and coat, and lit out for Washington, I suppose. Fine operators they're turning out up at Fort Myer! Do you understand now? If so we'll try it again," this is a kindlier voice.
I did understand; sheepishly and in all humility I returned to my table.
Bed bugs were a problem at Fort Myer. They kept us scratching for a living throughout the summer of 1881. There was no surcease from their savage attacks until winter drove them into the innermost cracks, crevices and interstices of the barracks building where they hibernated, gained strength, and multiplied for the next season's onslaught.
Entrenched in the walls of the barracks these entomological pests resisted every effort to dislodge them, and at last we capitulated, and retreated, with our bedding, to the porch where we slept in comparative comfort.
Before surrendering, however, we put up a stiff fight. Incessant stalking, sniping, and use of gas bombs in the form of kerosene, failed to relieve the situation, and we had about given up in despair when one of the several old Army veterans suggested throwing our blankets over the cots and sleeping on them, the idea being that the insects would find great difficulty in crawling over the blankets, the fuzzy wool offering such obstacles to their activities that they would become discouraged and disgusted and abandon the siege.
The suggestion met with favor, and was adopted. But we had met with defeat so many times that our acceptance of the scheme was not optimistically enthusiastic. Our assailants had caught us in the rear and on the flank so often that we had reached the stage of doubt as to our ability to meet the unexpected and unforseen attacks of our enemy which gave every evidence of thorough organization and control.
But what a relief - the first night! The second night we began to twist, and squirm, and scratch, punctuating the darkness with exclamations more or less explosive and descriptive in character until finally one of the group yelled, "Boys, it's of no use. The damned things are dropping on me from the ceiling!" and grabbing his bedding he made for the porch followed by a scrambling line of boys driven to desperation.
One of my assignments was at the New Orleans Signal Service office, and I must confess that the assignment caused me no little alarm. In view of the fact that although four years had elapsed since the terrible yellow-fever epidemic of 1878 had swept the lower Mississippi Valley, it was still the topic of conversation, and there was an epidemic of the disease then at Pensacola. On the way to New Orleans our train stopped at Pensacola Junction where I saw men patrolling the station platform with shot guns on their shoulders, and was informed that it meant a "shot-gun quarantine" against Pensacola. Naturally, this incident failed to cheer my faltering and depressed spirits.
I was stationed at New Orleans about three years, including six months in charge of the station at Port Eads where I had the pleasure of meeting James B. Eads, the great engineer who constructed the St. Louis bridge and the Mississippi jetties. The port Eads station was discontinued under me, and while awaiting instructions, I received a note from a friend who informed me that orders would soon be issued for me to proceed to Key West, Florida.
I was nearly panic stricken. It should be understood that at that time Key West was commonly looked upon as being a hot-bed of yellow fever which, I was told, was endemic at that place and that to the unacclimated, death was certain.
On learning of my probable assignment, my friends gathered around me with lugubrious and sympathetic faces, and recounted the most horrifying tales of the great 1878 epidemic - stories that congealed my blood, and at night, made me spring up in bed and cry out in terror with nightmare. And they denounced in unstinted terms a Government that would heartlessly and cold-bloodedly and brutally send its servants to certain death!
In consternation I hastily composed a long telegram to my father in Washington, D.C. Through the influence of Senator Don Cameron of Pennsylvania, my orders were revoked and I remained at New Orleans.