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Ralph “Shorty” Enzweiler

Ralph Henry “Shorty” Enzweiler was born July 20, 1921, in Medford, Wisconsin, where his father, formerly a factory worker in Chicago, had moved the family to try his hand at farming. According to family lore, when his wife went into labor that day with the sixth of their nine children, Henry Enzweiler harnessed a horse to the buggy and rode into town to fetch the doctor. When the doctor arrived, Shorty said, he sized things up and said, “‘Aw hell, Hank, there ain’t nothin’ I can do, so let’s have a cup of coffee’ — an’ there I was.”

Shorty’s mother had grown up on a farm in Indiana, but despite whatever expertise her background may have given her in the business, her husband’s attempt to make a go of it in farming failed to pan out, and after a couple of years or so the family moved back to Illinois, to the town of Steger, just south of Chicago. Shorty spent his high school years on the North Side of the great city itself, at 4820 North Roscoe, with his paternal grandmother and an aunt. He went to Cubs and White Sox games, to Mass at St. Bartholomew’s, and studied chemistry and metallurgy at DePaul Academy, affiliated with DePaul University. He graduated in 1939. He went to work before the war for the Civilian Conservation Corps and a smelting firm in Chicago Heights.

He signed up to enlist on December 8, 1941, but the recruiting offices being swamped with volunteers at the time, they didn’t take him until that January 2. After basic training at Great Lakes, he was assigned to the USS Republic, a transport that took soldiers to Guadalcanal, where he went ashore to instruct the Marines in cleaning their machine guns and saw combat, and circa May 1943 to the Macaw. On both ships he served as a gunner’s mate (on the Macaw he was a deep sea diver 2nd class as well), and on neither did he ever have occasion to fire a gun in anger. On the Macaw he served under “Gunner” Dunn, the gunnery officer, and trained the gun crews. After the ship sank, he was assigned to the armory at the submarine base at Pearl Harbor.

After the war, he spent years drifting around the West. He and a childhood buddy who had lost an eye playing with firecrackers at age 5 or 6 decided on a whim one day in a bar in Chicago Heights to take off the next day, preferring the open road to employment in a wire mill. In Wisconsin, they visited two brothers, friends of Shorty’s who asked whether they could go along too, and the four of them and Shorty’s dog took off in a four-barrel 1937 Dodge. Whenever they came to a fork in the road, whoever was driving would decide which way to go. That sort of navigation brought them to Washington, Oregon and Nevada and finally to a ranch in tiny Hartsell, Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains about fifty miles northwest of Colorado Springs. Shorty spent about two years there, running the shop, blacksmithing and shoeing horses.

He got married. When his wife left him about a year later, she took his prized Hamley’s saddle. Shorty drifted up to Montana, working here and there en route when he ran short on funds as a garage mechanic. In Wisdom, in the Bitterroot Mountains in the southwest corner of the state, he met Nadine, a waitress in a restaurant that served excellent chop suey. They went to a rodeo in Butte and were sitting in the grandstand when a thunderstorm knocked the power out. ” After that we sorta got to goin’ together, and we ended up married.”

They moved to Choteau, Montana, where Shorty leased a garage from a farm implements dealer and repaired lawnmowers, and three children arrived, twin daughters and a son. Then came jobs on a farm in Idaho and a ranch in northeastern Oregon, and four more children. During the latter stages of the Vietnam War, Shorty spent four years in Saigon working for Knudsen Morrison teaching auto mechanics to Vietnamese and Cambodians. He retired in 1998, having worked as a mechanic in one capacity or another fifty years to the day. Of his decision to retire, he said years later, “I just figured I’d twisted enough bolts off.” After Nadine died, he lived alone in the house they had shared in Adams, Oregon, with his miniature dachsund, Molly, a garage full of tools and an extensive collection of VHS tapes about World War II. He died in 2011 at the age of 89.

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