There aren't many WWII veterans left; especially one with his memory intact.
At 97, Dick Arcand of Gem Lake is rare for other reasons, too. Other than his service in the U.S. Army, he has never left town. His recollections of area history are invaluable, as is his treasure trove of memorabilia. He's been interviewed before.
Arcand was raised by his grandmother on a Portland Avenue farm after being orphaned at 7. He attended Beach School #26 until eighth grade then went to White Bear High School where he lettered in football, graduating in 1941.
But back to WWII. Two years out of high school, Arcand was drafted. It didn't matter that he was married with a baby at home. He got hitched to a classmate named Shirley Hoffman July 16, 1941. They had become better acquainted a couple years earlier when Shirley asked Dick to skate with her at the Hippodrome. She was the daughter of Henry Hoffman, Gem Lake's first mayor and owner of a produce business at Hoffman Corner.
Shirley was the family's documentarian. Back then, she probably called it scrap booking. Dick's Army years are lovingly chronicled in a remarkable album full of photographs, newspaper clippings, greeting cards and bits and pieces of history; like her husband's train ticket when he traveled from Piccadilly Circus in England to Chester.
England was Dick's destination after a short training stint at Camp Barkeley, Texas. He expected to work as a clerk for the U.S. Army, but the powers that be decided the war effort had too many clerks. What the Army needed were barbers.
Armed with comb, scissors, clippers and straight-edge razor, Arcand learned his craft on board a Dutch ship called the Volendam on his way to England. His barber skills were less than exemplary at first.
He chuckled recalling a lieutenant “with black hair and light skin. He took off his hat and showed everyone where I nicked him. Later on, after I learned how to cut hair, he apologized for yelling at me.”
The journey across the Atlantic for the new soldiers was a memorable one. "We left for Europe on Christmas Eve," Arcand recollected. "They were playing Christmas carols and everyone was crying. It took 21 days to get to England. There was a bad storm. Some of the guys nearly died they were so sick. The food was horrible, too, so I lived on Nabisco wafers and Coca cola."
As part of the 81st Hospital Field Unit, barbers like Arcand traveled with the medical corps. They followed Patton's Third Army, setting up mobile surgical units behind the front lines.
From France, he went to Germany, where his unit would occupy American-controlled hospitals and homes in Patton's wake, giving the former occupants a few hours to evacuate. Some sights remain ingrained in his memory.
"We saw bombed cities. It was terrible. One time I saw two Belgian horses hooked up to a cannon dead along the road. I'll never forget it. Hitler ran out of gasoline towards the end so they were using horses.”
When word came that the war in Europe was over, Arcand was on a ship bound for Indochina. It changed course for home. "We went to Camp Lee, Virginia and had a steak dinner when we arrived. God that was nice," he said.
After the war, Dick returned to his job as a clerk with the Northern Pacific railroad. He and Shirley built a house in Gem Lake next to then Summit Dairy, a house where Dick still lives, and raised their eight children. After 10 years with the railroad, they bought Hoffman's Market, which they owned for the next 25 years.
Sadly, a son was killed at age 5 when he was hit by a car on a new Highway 61 under construction near their house. “He'd be 72,” Dick said.
Today, the family patriarch stays busy cleaning St. Mary of the Lake church on Mondays and going to “the office.” He gave up his driver's license a decade ago due to poor eyesight so his daughters Mary and Carole provide taxi service, taking dad to church on Sundays and Mondays. His “office” is the McDonald's on E where he meets with buddies for coffee. Dick serves as “chairman” of the group, forbidding two topics of conversation: religion and politics.
His sense of humor is readily apparent as sly smiles come to his face as he remembers the stories. He misses Shirley, of course. Evidence of her is everywhere in their home - her collections of Hummels and salt and pepper shakers, her many photographs. She died in 2000 from Alzheimer's disease.
The conversation turns philosophical when Dick asks, albeit rhetorically, "Why am I still here when my friends are gone?"
There's a pause as he considers how few of his classmates are alive and names only four. Then Dick answers the question himself: "Because I've been lucky."