Wood Lake’s Kenny Schmidt – Part I

We recently lost a southwest Minnesota neighbor to cancer. Most of us never met Kenny Schmidt, but he was a member of our southwest Minnesota community nevertheless and a veteran. I’d like to introduce you to this neighbor, now gone.

Kenny grew up on a farm in rural Wood Lake with two older brothers and a younger sister. He learned about responsibility and work on the farm. His parents ran a traditional operation in the 1950s where they raised hogs, milk cows, sheep, and chickens in addition to field crops for feed.

He explained his chore responsibilities growing up, “The first years, I wasn’t allowed to milk cows. I wasn’t old enough. I had to do the chicken chores.”

When his older brothers began working for other farmers, Kenny’s dad promoted him to milking. “At twenty after five, morning and night, the buckets went under the cows. That’s just the way it was,” he recalled.

He attended school in Wood Lake. This is where he met a classmate, Lenae, who later became his wife and life partner. This is also where he learned to love singing tenor in the school choir, an extra-curricular activity his dad would permit, unlike participating in high school sports, which got in the way of farm chores.

Kenny graduated with the Wood Lake High School class of 1960. The military draft was active during those Cold War years. His oldest brother, Mel, had already joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army. Kenny recalled, “He (Mel) came home and I sure liked that blue uniform. So that’s where I went.”

Kenny had a specific plan for his Navy service. He explained, “The Navy at that time had a program called 9901. That was a six-year enlistment – four with a two-year extension, but that was specifically to get nuke submarines.”

He signed this extended enlistment so he could be a nuclear submariner. His parents, however, were not enthusiastic. “They didn’t like that very well,” he said.

The Navy sent Kenny to Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago for his Basic Training, what the Navy calls “Boot Camp.” His recruit class arrived in January, which was a shock to some. Kenny explained, “The guys who had enlisted in Minnesota were prepared because you didn’t get uniforms right away and you had to stand outside and it was cold. But those poor guys from Georgia and Alabama, all of them got sick.”

Kenny adjusted to life as a “Boot:” living in open bay barracks; doing lots of calisthenics; and marching everywhere for classes like naval history, knot-tying, and ship identification.

He remembered that it was not difficult for him, “I was on vacation when I got there. I was used to getting up at 5 in the morning – we didn’t have to get up until 6! It was a breeze for me, other than the running.”

He said the drill instructors did not give him a hard time. “They were tough characters. But as long as you did what you were supposed to, you got along fine. But if you messed up, you were going to catch it.”

Kenny already knew how to swim, but some of his fellow recruits were not as well-prepared. He recalled, “A lot of guys just couldn’t swim. They were in trouble. You had to pass that (swimming qualification) or you didn’t make it in the Navy. If you didn’t dive in, they threw you in.”

Kenny graduated from boot camp on April 6, 1961, spent a few days at home on leave and returned to Great Lakes for electrician’s mate school.

He explained how this training was different than boot camp, “Well, it was strictly electrical. You didn’t have any history or nothing like that. It was strictly what you were going to do. We had nice barracks and there were individual cubicles, like for two guys.”

Those four months training as an electrician’s mate equipped him with specific skills relating to shipboard electrical systems. He summarized those skills, “I could identify motors and fix them. I could identify circuits. It was a good education.”

He received his rating as an electrician’s mate and faced one, final test before reporting to submarine school: he had to clear psychological screening. This involved interviewing with psychologists who assessed his ability to manage the stresses of serving in the enclosed spaces of a submarine.

These screenings apparently went well because the Navy sent Kenny on to submarine school at Groton, Connecticut.

He described the goal of the submarine school, “They just wanted to teach you what made a submarine work – what everything was for – how many different systems – all that. We all received the same training no matter what rate you were, whether you be a machinist’s mate, a signalman, or anything. The school was exactly the same for all of us.”

He enjoyed the four-month course and its greater freedom, recalling, “We had liberty every night. You could do whatever you want. There were a few of us who enjoyed swimming. We went swimming pretty near every night just to have something to do.”

Kenny had a final course of training before he could embark on his goal of serving aboard a nuclear boat. He had to qualify as a crew member aboard an older, diesel-electric submarine. In November 1961, he reported aboard the USS Sennet at Charleston Naval Base, South Carolina for this demanding, nine-month task.

I welcome your participation in and ideas about this exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieviewpressllc @gmail.com.