It has been 68 years since Jack Erlandson, Jack Latta, Wayne “Moose” MacGregor and Dale Johnson suited up and played football for Spokane’s North Central High School.
It was fall 1941, when NC played rival Lewis and Clark. And for many members of the “greatest generation,” it was the last time they remember being young and carefree.
In December of that year Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and 16.5 million young Americans – including all four of these NC graduates – went to fight in World War II.
“One week after I graduated from high school I was in the Air Force,” Johnson said.
On Friday, the four combat veterans reunited in Spokane to watch their alma mater match up against Mead High School at Joe Albi Stadium. They swapped football stories and memories of growing up in Spokane during the Great Depression. They remembered the friends and comrades who are no longer with them.
“There’s not a lot of us left,” MacGregor said. “There are fewer and fewer of us all the time, so we have to cherish the time we have.”
There are 2.5 million WWII veterans alive today, though they die at a rate of 900 a day, according to the Department of Defense.
MacGregor said he and his friends were bound together by poverty and the war.
“There was a different spirit then,” MacGregor said. “Things were tough, and when the war came we were ready for it.”
Latta and Erlandson went first, graduating in 1942. MacGregor and Johnson graduated in 1943.
MacGregor, an infantry solider, later wrote a book about his war experience, “Through These Portals.” Erlandson was bombardier in the 8th Air Force. Latta was a B-24 pilot flying missions in the South Pacific, and Johnson was a gunner for the “Flying Tigers” in China.
When the war was over, Erlandson, Johnson and MacGregor headed to the University of Idaho, where all three pledged the same fraternity.
Latta stayed in Spokane, where he began his longtime career with the Spokane Police Department. He was a motorcycle cop for 29 years, logging more than a half-million miles.
Although there were class reunions and letters back and forth, it had been more than 60 years since the four were together until about six months ago, when they met in Grangeville, Idaho, where MacGregor is an attorney.
Erlandson, who now lives in Issaquah, Wash., recently called up his old buddies out of the blue.
“Erl called up and said we’ve waited too long,” MacGregor said. “We had so much fun that Erl said, ‘You know, I think we oughtta get together and go to a ballgame.’ ”
On Friday, the four sat around a table before the game, swapping football tales.
“We wore leather helmets you could fold up and put in your pocket,” Erlandson said. “Plastic hadn’t been invented yet.”
Latta remembered his first pair of football shoes, hand-me-down leather shoes that were worn so many times wet they were hard as a rock. “And they had rectangular cleats.”
They reminisced about notable North Central players and friends – the great Jerry Williams, drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1949, Bob “Red” Weeks and good friend Don Freeman – all dead now.
The stories weren’t all about football. The friends talked girls and nights spent dancing at Natatorium Park to the big band sounds of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey.
Johnson remembered his 1925 Oldsmobile, which he bought for $10 in high school. Eventually the car’s starter went out and any passengers – including dates – had to push it to get it going again.
And while many things have changed since those days, some haven’t.
North Central lost the game Friday 57-7.
“It’s so great to be here,” MacGregor said. “Hell, we are all alive, and here we are, together, in our mid-80s. What more could we ask for?”
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