I guess when it comes to space and aviation, I’ve seen and done a lot in fifty years. My name isn’t the first one to come to mind when somebody says the word astronaut, but I was one of the original Mercury guys—the one who got screwed out of a mission for medical reasons. I hung in there and wound up running the Astronaut Office. Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon because I selected him. I eventually got into space, however, on Apollo-Soyuz—thirteen years after I should have.
When I was four years old, growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, I was fond of running across the country road to the neighbor’s place. There wasn’t much traffic on that road, but my mother was terrified that I’d get hit by a truck. With three other children younger than me, she had her hands full and her eyes elsewhere.
So whenever she let me out into the front yard, she tied me to a tree with a rope. I was tethered like a puppy. I could run around, but only so far. I certainly couldn’t reach the road.
Eventually I convinced my mother that I wasn’t going to go running into the road, and I was set free. But I can make the case that ever since I was young I have wanted to explore…and people have tried to stop me.
* * *
It’s not as though there was anywhere to run to. The Slayton farm was a mile north of Leon, Wisconsin, which itself wasn’t much more than a wide spot in Highway 27, which runs south of the city of Sparta. Sparta was a small town in those days—I remember the population well, because it was the same as the number of feet in a mile—5,280. I think it’s now grown almost to a nautical mile, 6,010 or something.
In 1959, the year I was selected as a Mercury astronaut, Leon’s population was 150. It probably still is, for all I know. It had a general store named the Farmer’s Store, a feed mill, a couple of filling stations, a garage, and two farm implement dealers.
I had an older half sister, Verna, and an older half brother, Elwood. My dad, Charles Sherman Slayton, was married once before, but his first wife died when Elwood was born. Elwood was farmed out to an aunt to raise, so he was more like a cousin than a brother…he didn’t live with us.
Verna, who was four years older than Elwood, did live with us. She eventually died of multiple sclerosis. Elwood is still up in Wisconsin.
My dad remarried to Victoria Larson, and I’m the oldest from the second marriage. I’ve got a brother, Howard, one year younger. A sister, Bev, a year younger than he is. A sister, Marie—she’s two years younger than Bev. My youngest brother, Dick, is nine years younger than I am. So that’s the family.
I should point out that to my family, and to the rest of the world until I was in my thirties, I was always Don Slayton. Nobody called me Deke until I became a test pilot at Edwards in the 1950s.
Slayton is supposed to be English, but three of my grandparents came from Norway. The English one we’ve traced back to New England somewhere. My dad used to say he was probably a cabin boy or horse thief. There are a lot of Slaytons around the country, I’ve discovered. I go someplace and somebody pops up to say he’s my relative via this channel, forty times removed.
My dad was an avid reader, even though all he had was an eighth grade education. He took the Saturday Evening Post and the Farm Journal. When I was a little older he even became the township tax collector, but managed to stay liked by everyone.
He took jobs because farming was a tough way to make a living, especially in the thirties. Nobody had money in those days and by most standards we were poor. We reused Christmas and Valentine’s Day cards to save a few pennies. But, fortunately, being on a farm, we never worried about starving to death. We always had plenty of good, healthy food to eat. We didn’t have fancy clothes, but for farming all you need are old overalls.
My dad used to go out and run a road grader for the county, building roads. That’s how we got cash. Verna’s husband really ran the farm.
Entertainment was a luxury. I do recall being taken into Sparta once to see my first movie, which turned out to be some Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald thing. My parents must have liked it, but I didn’t. I’ve hardly been to a movie since.
We didn’t even have a radio until I got to high school, because we didn’t have electricity. For a while we had a Delco battery plant set up in the basement of the house. That gave us electricity for lights, but not much. It was only after I left in 1942 that we got 110-volt electricity.
No indoor plumbing, either. That didn’t come in until we got electricity.
(Growing up the way I did, I’m still amazed at the number of things that are electrical these days. Once I had a conversation with a guy about nuclear war and nuclear winter. He was telling me it wouldn’t bother him: he’d just jump in his car and head out to the country. I pointed out that his car probably had an electronic ignition and if he tried to put gas in the car the pumps were also electrical.)
Fishing was something we did all the time. There was a stream down in back, half a mile from where we lived. All you had to do was cut a cane pole and get a piece of string; hooks were cheap. You could get a lot of entertainment for very little.
I also started hunting when I was very young: I was using a gun from the time I was six years old, and bought an old sixteen-gauge shotgun—single shot—when I was eight or nine. I think I paid a dollar and a half for it. It didn’t work half the time. It had an outside hammer. I can’t remember how many times I’d find a rabbit and pull to shoot the son of a gun and the gun would misfire. You could say I did a lot of unintended game conservation in those days.
We also learned how to deal with animals. These days everybody’s got pets, and we’re probably giving more feed to them than we are to farm animals. When I was young, people would usually have a family dog around, maybe a few stray cats, but nobody paid much attention to them. My wife, Bobbie, and I have some little Lhassa apsos—it gets down to forty degrees and you’ve got to get those little guys inside or they’ll freeze. But those old farm dogs, it would get down below zero and they’d just dig a hole in a hay bale—or in the snow—and curl up, spend the night. Animals are pretty tough if they’re on their own.
We also had some sheep. I remember grinding an old mechanical shaft that runs the shearing scissors. You’d usually cut chunks out of the hide here and there, grab a slab of pine tar, slap it on the wound, and off they’d go.
We sold a few eggs, anything that would get a penny here or there. Today my brother doesn’t have any chickens…no pigs…no sheep, nothing. He’s got dairy cows and that’s it.
The problem is, he’s got about half a million dollars invested in machinery. You need about five to six hundred acres to make any financial sense out of it, and he’s only got a couple hundred. So when he was more active (and I guess his son-in-law still is) he did a lot of job-shopping for other people. He’d do his own combining, then he’d go combine for some other people.
You can’t find farm labor; you’ve got to have the machinery. And you’ve got to have a big base of land to make the machinery pay. Howard’s got three tractors, for example, which is just a hell of a capital investment.
Lot of people are just selling off the land or moving out of the farm. There are bigger and bigger chunks with less people. The old family farm is a thing of the past. It happened pretty fast, too.
I always thought the Russians could reset to where we were about 1939. They’ve got the people and that style of farming is manpower intensive.
* * *
I had to pump water and carry wood before I even started going to school. I started milking cows, first thing morning and night, when I was probably six years old. With our cows in the wintertime, you had to pitch hay and feed in front of them, and shovel manure out from behind them, every day. Summertime they ran in the pasture, so it was a little easier.
The crops we raised were mostly to feed the cattle. Corn and hay and oats. Of course, we didn’t have a tractor, we had four horses. The oats were raised for the horses.
Harvesting was just plain manual labor. Mow the hay down and let it dry, windrow it. Then it was just hand work. Get a pitchfork and stack it…come out with the wagons and pitch it onto the wagons, haul it into the barn. Then you’d lift it up to the hay mow and pitch it around up there. It was hot, dirty work, but it was good for you. Today they just chop it and blow it into a silo or bale it. One guy can do a hell of a lot of hay in a day.
We had threshing parties where all the neighbors would get together and travel from one farm to the other. You had one guy who was running the threshing machine, which he’d rented out, and he’d come to our farm for the day. All the surrounding neighbors would come in with their wagons and haul in the bundles of oats and corn. Some people would do that while others would carry the grain to the granary. When you finished that guy’s crops, you headed down the road to the next guy’s.
The family that was getting the work was always obligated to feed the crew. Ladies would chip in with cooking, too. Some of the biggest meals I’ve ever had were threshing meals.
That happened three times a year—one was the grain threshing, another was when they were filling the silos with green corn. And the last time would be late in the fall, when the corn had matured and you were shredding the corn off the stalks. But it was basically the same format for all of them.
These days each guy does his own haying with a combine and a truck and a trailer. It’s all automated and not very manpower-intensive, which is good, because there isn’t a lot of manpower around. In the 1930s and 1940s the standard working wage for a hired guy on a farm was a dollar a day, a ten- or twelve-hour day, whatever hours were worked. When I got in high school, I used to do some day work for people, and that’s the pay I got, too.
* * *
My dad tried to be diversified. We had chickens and sheep, but our income was from whole milk. My uncle over the hill used to sell cream. He had one more step to go through besides milking the cows: he had to run the milk through this old cream separator, which is a hand-cranked thing. He sold nothing but the cream, and that went to a butter factory in the area. Our milk went to the Pet Milk factory in town, where it was converted to condensed as opposed to fresh milk.
We did have one cash crop, and that was tobacco, which was really labor-intensive. You had to grow tiny plants under cloth in beds, then pull those out and hand plant them. Tobacco planters are still in use today because nobody’s ever figured out a better way to do the job. You had a big water barrel mounted on a pair of wheels and two little seats back behind it, right next to the ground. A guy sits on each seat, and then there’s a little blade right in between them that digs a furrow. You’ve got a clicker to time it, and you just sit there with your lap full of fresh tobacco plants and stick them in there one at a time. First it’s my turn and then it’s your turn. You go click-click-clicking across the field. The water tank dumps a shot of water in with every plant as you stick it in there. It’s just a mechanical timing device. Having horses trained to walk at the right speed was a challenge in itself. You had to have exactly the right team of horses. With a tractor today it’s easy; you set the throttle any place you want it.
That was the first major job. Then, when the stuff started to grow, you had to hoe it continually. You always got big green worms like tomato worms that grow on tobacco. You’d have to go through the plants constantly, drag these big worms out, and slam them on the ground to kill them. We didn’t put insecticide on anything because we didn’t have any—nothing that was safe.
Finally, when the tobacco was mature, you’d chop it down, string it up on laths, and hang it up in a shed to dry. This was all just a hell of a lot of work.
You used to do that in September, then leave it there until Christmas time, when you usually got a warm spell where it was above freezing. The tobacco was now dry, but there was enough moisture in the air that if you touched the leaves they wouldn’t break up. This was casing season. You’d take down the plants and spend the next month in the barn stripping the leaves off and putting it in bales. Finally you’d sell it in the spring.
It was really hard work. One of the things I tell my friends who still have the bad habit of smoking…if you ever saw people fixing tobacco, you’d give it up. We’d take all the really nice leaves with no wormholes and put them in one bale. They went up to the cigar manufacturers to make cigar wrappers. Tobacco in Wisconsin was mostly for wrappers.
But any trash that had wormholes in it went into another bale, and that went to cigarette companies. They just chopped it up and converted it to cigarettes.
You’d think with all this I’d never have taken up smoking, but at that time smoking was the adult thing to do. My dad smoked and my uncle smoked—everybody I knew smoked. In third or fourth grade we’d take shavings out of the hand pencil sharpener and try to roll a cigarette. That didn’t taste too good.
Howard and I tried snuff once. This was in the middle of winter—we were up in a pile of straw, and we got so damn dizzy we couldn’t stand up.
It’s amazing to me that people still smoke today, with all the current knowledge. In our day nobody knew it was that bad for you. We knew it was a smelly habit. I never wanted to get too close to my dad when I was young because he always smelled like smoke.
My dad lived till the age of eighty-three and he was still smoking. But he died of lung cancer. If he hadn’t been out in the fresh air on a farm his whole life, he’d have probably died about twenty years earlier. I think in an outdoor career you can probably tolerate it better than you can sitting in an office smoking.
The thing about farming then—and it’s not a lot different now—is that when you talk about a farmer, you’re defining an all-purpose person. A farmer has to be a small businessman, an entrepreneur, a bookkeeper. He has to know how to deal with animals; he’s sort of a half-assed veterinarian. He’s a horticulturalist. These days he’s even got to be an electrician. He’s got to be a carpenter, a mechanic, it’s all these things rolled into one. It’s a very demanding occupation.
A farm is a good place to be raised. I support the idea of compulsory farm rearing; it would be a great character builder for everyone. But it’s hard to create that environment.…My first wife used to say, you can’t simulate poverty.
* * *
One thing happened to me on the farm that affected me for a long time: I cut off the ring finger on my left hand.
I did it when I was five, before I started school. I was following my dad around on his horse-drawn hay mower. We had an old mower with a sickle bar, two horses on it. I’d go out there and follow him around, like little kids do.
The bar would get clogged up with hay and you’d have to back the horses up a step and get off and clean the sickle bar off. Then go on and mow again.
So I was going to be helpful, and I reached down there to clean the bar off and about that time the horses took this one step…it went click and zipped that finger right off.
I was luckier than hell because I could have lost all of them. It didn’t hurt, but of course, my dad was pretty upset about it. He took me uptown, where they trimmed it off. First time I ever had anesthesia…one of the few times I ever did.
It never particularly bothered me physically. When I took up boxing, I found I could hit just as hard with my left as I could with my right. But I also think it made me self-conscious. I was probably in my twenties before I got over the idea that the missing finger was the first thing anybody noticed about me.
* * *
I had to walk to grade school in Leon except in wintertime, when we used to ski across the fields to school. In the spring and fall we’d follow the road around, which was a mile and a half walk. Rain, shine, or whatever, you went to school. They didn’t close it because it was raining or snowing.
The Leon School was an old two-room schoolhouse, grades one through four in one room and five through eight in the other. One teacher for each room, six to twelve kids per class. A lot of the kids showed up for school having heard nothing but Norwegian all their lives; they couldn’t speak any English. (In my family, where my mother and her relatives spoke Norwegian, it was the other way around. They’d use Norwegian whenever they didn’t want us to know what the hell was going on.)
So we all lost an opportunity to learn another language at an age when it would have been very easy to do. I’ve always regretted that. (It took me months, when I was pushing fifty, to learn enough Russian to get by.)
My first four years were with Miss Ovelia Melby, who made me her teacher’s pet. I didn’t mind too much, though it was kind of awkward, since she was going out with a cousin of mine. The second four years were with Miss Martha Schamens and with a young guy named Ernie Betts. Betts later became the assistant secretary of agriculture.
The only mischief I got into was tossing a snowball through one of the classroom windows. I was ashamed of myself and confessed. I always did well with the schoolwork, but I had problems with presentations. I didn’t like to get up in front of people and talk.
When I was chosen class valedictorian for eighth grade graduation, my self-consciousness kicked in: I froze onstage.
High school was five miles farther away than Leon, in Sparta itself. I’d ride the school bus sometimes. I was interested in sports, but farm kids really couldn’t play football, since the season conflicted with harvests. I tried out for track, but I turned out to be too slow. I had a cousin in town who was on the boxing team, so I tried that, under Coach Eddie Blewett and his assistant, Killer Kane (later a coach at the University of Wisconsin).
I found that there were some other farm kids taking boxing, and one of them had his own car, an open Model T. So I used to ride back and forth with them during the boxing season. A lot of the time I’d simply run home; it was more productive than running around the goddamn floor of the school gym. By that time I also had a bicycle, and sometimes I rode that to school.
(Some of those older guys are still around and into Formula One airplane racing. In fact, that’s how I got into it when I retired from NASA in the early 1980s. It’s pretty unusual that you’ve got about twenty-five active racing planes and three of them are guys from Sparta, Wisconsin.)
I don’t think I expected to become a world welterweight champion boxer, but I held my own. I stayed in my weight for the next forty-some years.
Howard and I belonged to the Future Farmers of America—FFA—in high school, and we started raising animals to show at the county fair. I raised Shropshire sheep and he raised Berkshire pigs.
I also went out for the band and learned the trombone. The director, Beldon LaBansky, was also a lieutenant in the Army Reserve. He was the kind of feisty guy you couldn’t ignore.
This was the big band era; it also happened to be the time we got a radio and I was exposed to music for the first time. I became a big fan of the Dorseys, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Les Brown, all of the big bands. Sparta had a city band in addition to the school group, and the school band would play concerts on Sunday evenings sometimes.
Here’s where I had my first experience with alcohol. I tried drinking some wine, naturally drank too much, and threw up. That ended those experiments for a while.
One day in November the school band was out on the field at marching practice. It was a pretty nice day for that time of year—you didn’t even need your jacket in the morning. About midday snow started to fall. So much snow fell just that afternoon that some of the country kids were trapped at school.
This became the Armistice Day blizzard—November 11, 1941—and killed hunters all over Minnesota and Wisconsin.
* * *
My mom used to tell a story of how I got all worried about wars when studying geography. I was eleven and the Italians had just invaded Ethiopia. So I went to her for reassurance that there wouldn’t be any more. When I was just starting my sophomore year at Sparta High School, the Germans invaded Poland, and by God, here was another war. It was still pretty far from Sparta, however. I don’t recall anybody being too worried that we would be involved.
But over the next few months I began to notice airplanes going in and out of Camp McCoy, an Army base a few miles outside Sparta. I began to think that flying around looked like a great thing to be doing—it beat working on a farm. I got so well known for this that in the yearbook my motto was, “Keep ’em flying!”
So in my junior year I transferred out of all my ag courses and loaded up with physics, chemistry, and math.
Transferring like that caused one of the few real arguments I ever had with my dad. We always got along. Working on a farm with each other every day of our lives, we had to. But I was the oldest boy in the family, you see, and I was supposed to take over the farm. So my dad was pretty disappointed when I told him I was more interested in becoming a pilot.
Fortunately, my brother Howard stayed in ag, and we all just assumed he would take over the farm.
The only mark on my school record was an F I got in chemistry my junior year. It was particularly surprising because I had gotten an A the quarter before. But the teacher, Clarence Simonson, had caught me smoking and decided to teach me a lesson. Unfortunately, it didn’t take.
Then, midway through my senior year, on Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day we were at war.
* * *
Like all landlubbers, I was interested in the Navy. Partly this was because all my older friends who were entering the service all wanted to join the Navy, and partly because I wanted to be a Navy pilot. I knew that to be a pilot, you needed some college education, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
It so happened that in March 1942 the Army Air Corps changed its rules. They would now accept high school graduates as candidates for flight school. So, on April 8, 1942, I signed up with the old Army Air Corps as a private unassigned.
Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Donald K. Slayton and St. Croix Productions