“Tieton From Hatton Road Looking Northeast”

Ernest Lee Beitel

When attending school in the 1950s he was known by his given middle name “Lee” or by his nickname “Skeeter.” Lee is shown here to the right when he was in his late sixties.

To many of us a Skeeter is a small iceboat equipped with a single sail. Some of us like to use the analogy of a lone boat with a single sail to describe Lee’s life. His voyage of life took him through rough waters, but he managed for the most part to keep himself upright throughout his journey. His voyage in life may have been made a measure more difficult by the independence he displayed to the very end.

Lee, being the first born, was named Ernest Lee Beitel after his father. His given name was Ernest Lee, but because of having a father with the name Ernest, Lee took his middle name to eliminate confusion both at home and outside the home. At school he was known as Lee, and from time to time by nicknames given to him by various friends.

Lee was born in November 1938 in Yakima County Washington where he lived until he departed for a stretch with the United States Navy in the summer of 1957. Shown to the right, is his high school year book photo as a young man headed for military service. He was to revisit the area west and northwest of the city of Yakima where he grew up, but never with the intent of making the area a permanent home again. There is something in the DNA of the male Beitel that causes them to be adventurous. Lee had that gene in abundance.

Lee father’s family came to Washington State from Washington County, Iowa probably around 1920 or maybe slightly before 1920. The county seat of Washington County, Iowa is the town of Washington. A town of less than ten thousand inhabitants that lays almost half way between Chicago, Illinois and Omaha, Nebraska. A town not known for much save that in Washington, Iowa is where the first county hospital was built west of the Mississippi River.

It is believed Lee’s grandfather came with his wife and children first to the Okanogan region in Washington State, where he had other family. There as a young man, Ernest Lee Beitel the first met Velma Norine Davis at the Maple Hall Grange near the town of Conconully. It is said Lee’s mother and father were second cousins by marriage. The two of them are shown above shortly after their marriage in the late 1930s.

Velma Norine Davis was born in the Okanogan area. Her family before her had come west from North Caroline by ship in the late 1840s by way of Cape Horn. On board with the extended family were forty or more head of thoroughbred horses. The sea voyage ended in San Francisco, and from there to the Okanogan country they came by team and wagon to the wilderness that was North Central Oregon Territory near what would eventually become the international border with Canada.

Lee’s recollection from family stories was that the family, “… grabbed land and left relatives all the way from California to the Okanogan.” It was the right move for no product save gold and cattle were of more value at the time than horses. Horses at the time were often used as currency in the region and soon to be in high demand as the American military entered the area to make it safe for expansion of the United States to the Pacific.

Little is known of Lee’s Iowa family, but it is believed Lee’s grandfather was a butcher by trade prior to coming west. Lee’s father also tried his hand at being a butcher in the 1950s. To the left above is shown Lee’s father near the meat counter of the family grocery store in the small town of Tieton, Washington.

Lee remembered his grandparents as being very religious. Lee was to say that he remembered his mother, Norene, and father, Ernest, “…making him go to every nearby church at least once.” Those mandatory tests of religion in Lee’s youth were unsuccessful, as he became a self professed Atheist in adult life. Over his adult life Lee had many events that would test his beliefs about religion, but he was not to be persuaded to change his views.
Lee’s grandparent divorced and his grandfather (Harley Beitel) took Lee’s father Ernest, who was one of two children, to Alaska. The grandmother, Bessie (Bales) Beitel, after the divorce moved to Yakima, Washington where she subsequently married a Ted Jensen. After marriage, Lee’s father and mother first moved to the city of Yakima. Shortly after arriving, the house in the city of Yakima they lived in burned and they moved to near the village of Gromore west of the city of Yakima.

Lee’s grandmother Bessie (Bales) Jensen and her second husband Ted Jensen had a small twenty acre turkey ranch in the Gromore area. It is believed Lee’s family purchased small parcels of land as well for the purpose of raising turkeys. During the war years of the 1940s, the family raised turkeys normally in quantities of five thousand each year. Lee’s father worked at General Electric on the Hanford Atomic Energy Project eighty miles away during the early and mid 1940s and was away from home for extended periods. Lee’s mother Norene, was left to manage the turkey ranch for the most part.
Lee remembered that it was necessary each year to replace the turkey roosts to prevent disease and parasites. He, and his mother, and other siblings would take their Ford one ton truck (purchased as a surplus military ambulance) up the Tieton to Clear Lake and camp just below the dam. There they would cut, clean, and load log poles to make roosts. from. Each spring eight new roosts had to be constructed, and the turkey brooder houses had to be washed and cleaned with Lysol and new roosts constructed in each.
As a small boy, Lee remembered it was hard work for his mother loading poles, mending fences, and generally keeping thousands of turkeys alive and healthy for market; and of course he was called on to help where he could. He was often to be heard to say that he “had no childhood.”

In 1953 Lee’s family sold the Gromore property and move to Tieton City proper. Ernest and Norene had decided they would be grocers and opened the Tieton Mercantile in what had originally been the Hatton Hotel in Tieton. A building first constructed at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street as the Hatton Hotel in 1922 shortly after the town had moved from two blocks away. The hotel burned to the ground and was reconstructed in 1923. The building is shown immediately above.
The arrow on the map to the right points to the current location of the store just north of the Tieton City Park. The Beitels left Tieton in 1961 for Tennessee, living between Chattanooga and Nashville Tennessee.
In Tennessee, Lee’s father took work with the Department of Defense working on missile silos. He started as a carpenter, but quickly worked his way to construction superintendent. He and six others lost their lives in a fall of some 250 feet from the top of a silo to its floor.

Lee wrote a friend, “I was pretty lucky in life, I got to taste a wide variety of it. I just never found a spot that I felt I wanted to stay.” He felt the most comfortable he said on his relatives grain and cattle ranch in the Okanogan country of north central Washington State. His goal in life was to be a novelist as he said to be one of those “Walter Mitty” types. We all know that “Walter Mitty” was a fictional being created in the fictional writings of James Thurber. Lee never reached his goal, but some he corresponded with saw the raw skill he possessed in using words to weave stories of interest.

Lee found as the oldest of five children he often was had to watch after his siblings when he wasn’t helping his mother on the farm and later in the grocery store. He was highly intelligent and complained that the learning process of school was to slow and never presented him with a challenge. He was often sent home from school with notes from teachers stating he was not applying himself. He was bored with school and bored with the pace of life until age forced him to slow his pace.

In his teen years, he often found himself in mischief that brought him contact with disciplinary authorities in the community. He was prone to joining others in pranks that from time-to-time would result in destruction of property, but to his credit he never physically harmed others or himself. In the end, he did not apply himself and was never given a high school diploma. One of the things that bothered him all his life is that he was not part of his high school class graduation ceremony.

Years after high school he was to remember when the celebrated actor Audie Murphy was around Tieton filming the movie titled, “To Hell and Back” in the summer of 1955 in the foothills. Murphy, Lee, and Ray Klusmeier were to go hunting together as well as to go bowling. Lee recalled Murphy walking in front of the family store one Saturday asking what people did for fun. Lee and Ray took him to Wiley’s Hardware to purchase something to hunt with and the proprietor loaned him a shotgun to use. Murphy had grown up on a Texas farm and was an avid outdoorsman.

In the 1950s, America had laws requiring young males to serve in the military. The fear of being drafted was ever present for most teen males. Some avoided it by getting married early and getting their wives pregnant. We all knew those that literally planned draft avoidance and thus military service in this manner. Others deferred active service by staying in school after graduating from high school.

While in high school, Lee along with other classmates, chose to join the Naval Reserve committing himself to two consecutive years of service starting immediately after he was out of high school in the fall of 1957. When asked years later why he made a commitment to the United States Navy while in high school he was to say, “He wanted to take the competitive test for the Navy sending him to college.” Many who lack the financial means to further education then and now, turn to the government to find a way to obtain a college education. He in fact scored high on the test but not high enough.

Lee had no job skills save for what he picked up in basic training and was assigned to the a destroyer-tender, the USS Piedmont to work in “Supply.” Those two years were spent mostly at sea in the Southeast and Southwest Pacific. After mustering out of the Navy some two years later in the fall of 1959 he was heard to say, “I wished I had stayed in.”
In the fall of 1959 he entered Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington where his younger sister Bonnie was already in her second year. He had no trouble with entrance exams and in fact was able to skip remedial classes some high school graduates are required to take when entering college.

He found formal education as he was to say, “Just to easy, I got good grade and never went to class half the time.” He had a new Triumph TR3 from saving his military pay which he used for, among other things, to catch the girls eye. Sister Bonnie introduced him to many. He was as he says “done” at the end of one semester saying he left school because he was “full of himself.” A condition that can lead to disaster as it is not what one thinks of himself, but what others think of you that leads to success.

He had gone back to Tennessee in 1961 with his dad, and mother, and younger sisters Debbie and Cathy, but could not find work. Finding no work Lee signed up for a tour of duty in the military, this time into the United States Air Force. For a time he may have thought about becoming a Green Beret like his elementary and high school friend Billy McBride, a West Valley of Yakima high school graduate in 1957.

Early on after signing up for the Air Force he was sent to Duluth, Minnesota for computer school training. While there, he was selected to participate in a beauty pageant as an escort for a young high school senior. They were married on Labor Day 1962 and from the union came two sons. Lee ended his Air Force career August 17, 1964 and returned to Washington State working at various job. Ultimately his wife encouraged him to return to her home in Minnesota.

In Minnesota Lee became a long haul trucker for a couple of years. He made good money, enough to purchase an apartment house, and begin to live comfortably. But he was away from home for six weeks at a time and the time at home was spent primarily drinking. For whatever reason, he and his wife separated and when the divorce was final custody of the two sons were granted to her.

Following the divorce, Lee moved to the Seattle area and lived in and around Seattle. He met a new girl from the San Juan Islands area and moved to the Islands. The girl, known only to family members as Char, was a live-in girlfriend from 1972 to 1982 where upon under Alaska State Law, where they were living in 1982, they became common law husband and wife.

Lee became a police officer for the town of Roche Harbor in the 1970s. A place where many Hollywood celebrities would come to be out of the public eye and to relax. The area is most notable as a frequent destination of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Lee was to tell stories of assisting or providing police services to the likes of John Wayne when he came to town and anchored his yacht, and to Julie Andrews when she would come and stay at the Roche Harbor Resort. He particularly enjoyed telling stories of the Smothers Brothers being escorted back to their boat after the police received calls from local bartenders to insure they wouldn’t fall in the bay and drown. It apparently wasn’t uncommon to find celebrities drunk in public and sometimes in the waters of Puget Sound.

In 1978, a friend of Char’s asked if she and Lee would join her in Alaska in setting up fresh fish processing factories. Lee said they did it one summer in Anchorage and liked it so much they came back to the Islands, packed up and went back to stay. They were in Anchorage three years and then relocated to Valdez to open a new processing operation.

Lee and his wife remained in Alaska until his wife became ill with cancer and passed away after only four months in 1988. Lee, by his own admission, was then to become nearly a full time alcoholic. He returned to Roche Harbor to his old job.

In 1994 Lee had open heart surgery. Lee had been a life long smoker and continued to smoke the rest of his life even following his bout with heart illness. His health never fully recovered but he did stop drinking.

In October of 2010 shortly before he died he was to write about the possibility of driving to his sister Debra’s to celebrate the forthcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. By then he was on oxygen nearly all the time, and the burden of dragging tanks all over didn’t appeal to him. He wrote, “I don’t think I’ll be going to Deb’s for Thanksgiving or Christmas – too much bother to load and unload my O2 maker. Would have to get someone to do it: up here (near Mt. Vernon where he lived) and down there (at sister Debbie’s home)! I think I’ll actually be glad when this is over – this ain’t living, my friend! I can handle the pain; I can’t handle the suffocating – scares the … out of me. Not a nice way to go, so I gotta pray for the biggun!” He was shortly to receive the greatest gift of life for those who suffer, that of death.
Even though he could not enjoy the holiday season near the end with family he could recall earlier times. He wrote his niece:

“Hi Rylea–
If you can stand it, I thought I would write you another story. This one is what Christmas was like when I was real little—about four or five years old—right in the middle of World War II. Our daddy wasn’t home in those days; he was working for the government and couldn’t come home very often. We didn’t know it, but he was helping build the place where the first atomic bombs were built, Camp Hanford. We spent most Christmas’s at my Grandmother Jensen’s house. Gramma had divorced Grandpa Beitel and married Grandpa Jensen and they had a boy, my Uncle Ted Jenson. He was going to college. This story is about one of those Christmas’s.
First, things started out just like at Nana’s. Lots of baking and cooking. Clothes to be washed and ironed, so we would look nice at Gramma’s house. Sister Bonnie and I were big enough to help mom to get ready. In 1943 brother Barry was only eight months old, so we would look after him. I had to pack a lot of wood to keep the kitchen stove hot. We had to haul our water on sleds in the winter. We would take a 20 gallon milk can down to the warehouse, about 1/2 mile away, fill it up and pull it home. I would pull and your Aunt Bonnie would balance it, so it wouldn’t fall off the sled.  Sometimes, if it was real cold, we would only fill it halfway up, so it was easier to pull and we could go faster! Gasoline was rationed, so we did what we could with the sled. Otherwise we would have to harness a team of horses or try to start our old Ford Model A, which was hard to do in the winter! In those days, before El Nino’s, we always had a lot of snow and ice.  Mom would bake pies; apple, pumpkin and mincemeat. Made the house smell wonderful for days. Sometimes we had a huckleberry pie, my favorite then! Angel food cake, real dark chocolate cake and sugar cookies! Since we had our own chickens and cows, we were lucky and always had real butter and eggs galore! Lots of real cream whipped cream—sugar was also rationed so we used a lot of Karo syrup and honey. Have you ever made real fudge and divinity candy with Nana? And Taffy! We would carefully load cakes, pies, candy and a few presents into the car, which was parked with it’s nose downhill to get it coast started. We would be all bundled up like we were going to the North Pole! It was only a couple miles to Gramm’s house and the snow was plowed on the county road, almost up to the windows of the car! Gramma’s house was bigger than ours and always had a big, BIG Christmas tree, all decorated up! When we would get there, there was always lots of hugs and kisses from our Aunts and Uncles and especially from Gramma! Seems like it took forever to get out of our winter clothes, so we could play and visit with our cousins! I was a smarty pants, so I liked to listen to the grownups talk about the war, crops, prices, and things like that. Gramma always had a smorgasbord,. Scandinavian style. You’ll have to ask Nana about that—she ought to know! We really ate and ate and ate!  Then after dinner we would exchange gifts. During the war days, gifts were mostly for kids, so we usually got most of the presents—grown ups saved up so that we would have a wonderful Christmas! We mostly got clothing and shoes. That year I got a real sled, instead of the one’s dad made! A Flexible Flyer! Big enough for all three of us kids to sit on, at once! ‘Course it made hauling water easier too! I kept that sled until I was in high school—Nana may have had it after that, cause I know it moved with us when we left the ranch. Our Uncle Milton had to repair the steering a couple times. When they would hand out gifts, we would do it by candle light—all Aunt Mays and Gramma’s candles made it look real pretty, but I always wanted the lights on, so I could see what we were getting and read who it was from!!! I think this was the first year I heard the sleigh bells ringing outside! I remember I stopped what I was doing and at the urging of everybody, I ran outside to see if Santa and his reindeer were on the roof!! No Santa, but when I went back in the house there was a perfect, golden cocker spaniel puppy by the tree; with a big red ribbon around his neck. The tag said it was to the Beitel’s from Santa! Mom named him ‘Smoodgee” (phonetic spelling). We finally had a dog to play with and we would really tire him out! Sometimes he would piddle on the floor and get his nose rubbed in it. Then, all too soon, we would have to bundle up, get the old car started and go home. We would unload everything out of the car, because we wouldn’t want it to freeze, get some more firewood in, bank the fire and go to bed—everyone including the puppy, exhausted! Christmas morning Mom would wake us up, to find that Santa had been to our house too, so we would go into the living room and under the tree would be more gifts from Santa! What fun!! Tearing open beautifully wrapped presents; the puppy running and barking at all the paper and our excitement over our gifts and Mom always had a special breakfast all ready for us!! We didn’t have electricity, indoor plumbing, or TV, but we had family and fun, fun, fun!
Bye for now,

Uncle Lee”

The story of a man’s heart and life often is best told to little girls.

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