My uncle, Nate Knight Jr., was born in Moab during the year of 1920 and was living with his family near Sego, Utah by 1922. His father, Nate senior, was working a small coal mine in Thompson Canyon just over the ridge from the larger Sego coal mine.
Nate said they were certainly poor folks in those days and had to scratch pretty hard to make a living. He told me that he always hoped to receive something to play with come Christmas or for his birthday, but his folks were poor and that was not realistic. Clothing was more important and was always what his gifts consisted of.
He knew better than to complain but always secretly wished for something to play with instead of just something to wear. Uncle Nate said when he got a little older, he got smart and started asking for Levi’s when the possibility of a gift was mentioned. He jokingly told me he’d pull the front pockets out backwards from his new Levi’s and cut them off first thing. Then he had something to wear and something to play with.
Uncle Nate often told the story of when he and his sisters attended an afterschool Halloween party at the schoolhouse in Sego. He said it was dark by the time they started the three-mile walk home from Sego to their house in Thompson Canyon. Their path led past the Sego Cemetery and someone had arrived there ahead of them. As they eased past the boneyard, a sheet-wrapped apparition with sparklers burning in each hand leaped up from behind a stone and started yelling bloody murder! Nate said the Knight kids never ever made it home faster than they did that night.
I’m looking over some notes from an interview I did with my uncle in 1967. I believe it was for a 7th grade English class assignment. I just came across said notes a couple weeks ago while looking through a box of junk out in the shed. In that paper from 52 years ago I see that while living in Sego, Nate had to help his dad work in the mine quite often. He and his brother Hardwater had an old burro to ride around the hills on and they could make a nickel from their dad for each squirrel and a dime for each rabbit they managed to skewer with a homemade crossbow.
Uncle Nate also told me that when he was 13 he won a Marlin .30-30 rifle on a punchboard at the Desert Moon Café in Thompsons. After that he kept his family’s larder well stocked with venison. That rifle survives to this day in the care of Nate’s son Nate III, I’m told.
After Uncle Nate’s dad sold the mine in 1935 the family moved to Moab for about a year, then moved on to La Sal Junction. Nate said he used to ride an old bicycle from there to Moab and back, though he just had rubber hose wired onto the rims in place of tires. Nate’s uncle hired him to come back to Sego and help in another mining venture. However, the vein gave out within a year, so Nate went to poking around the hills for a while looking for something interesting. He said he learned the life of a broke prospector was not the way to go.
When World War II started Nate was 21 and the perfect age to join the fray. He wasted little time signing up along with plenty of other good young men from Grand County. Nate attended paratrooper school. He used to tell me that jumping out of airplanes at a good altitude is one thing, but he had to learn to jump out as close as three hundred feet above the ground so the enemy didn’t have as much time to take pot shots at him. He told me of jumping over bombed-out cities in the South Pacific and trying desperately not to get tangled in ragged rebar jutting out at all angles, and mentioned some grisly sights of men not so lucky.
Uncle Nate told me that after jumping on several Japanese-held islands for a year or so he decided it was time for a change. He felt that he was living on borrowed time after too many buddies were lost due to chutes that didn’t open and other situations even less bearable. So, he transferred to the infantry in 1943 and did well enough to get promoted to a corporal.
When the invasion to retake the Philippines started, Nate was in there. He said he was a truck driver for a while, and lost a buddy one day when machine gun bullets started tearing the cab of his truck apart, barely missing him. His buddy in the passenger seat was not so lucky.
After that Nate became a Jeep driver for a colonel. They were driving in deep mud down a narrow lane pulling a small supply trailer headed to a battle site. Nate told me he saw a flash followed by a lot of machine gun fire. He said the bullets were whizzing in from everywhere and pinging into the Jeep from all angles. One bullet went through Nate’s leg above the knee and another through the colonel’s pants leg. Another punched the gas tank and started draining it into the floor of the Jeep. Nate said this all happened in the time it took him to throw the Jeep in reverse and start backing it and the trailer right back where they’d come from as fast as it could go. I wrote in my report that they were making 35 mph in reverse.
I was at a fairly tender age when I heard that story, but I was young enough to know that backing up a trailer fast is not something most people can manage. Uncle Nate said it helped a lot that the muddy ruts kind of kept them going straight back. After having owned an old Jeep, I’m pretty sure that one of us was full of beans about the 35 mph, though. Uncle Nate probably meant that was how fast his heart was beating.
Uncle Nate told the stories I’ve related above to me over the course of 28 years. He told them to me throughout all those years from his wheelchair or his hospital bed in his home on Moab’s north side. I’ll explain that next time.