“Paul? I think I’ve found your wallet,” the caller, Bruce McKee, told Grisham.
It took Grisham a minute to piece things together. “What are the odds?” he said. “It was so out of the blue. I was blown away.”
He hadn’t seen his wallet since 1968.
Grisham’s wallet was found behind a locker at McMurdo Station on Ross Island by a crew doing demolition work in 2014. The crew gave the wallet to a manager at the station. It sat around for a while and changed hands, until it landed with a former researcher who reached out to McKee.
McKee, 58, is the founder and director of Indiana Spirit of ’45, an organization dedicated to veterans from World War II and other wars. His Facebook page has thousands of followers.
McKee agreed to help. He found Grisham’s name listed on a Naval Weather Service blog, and made a few calls and was delighted, he said, to learn that Grisham was still alive and living in San Diego.
“It’s not often that you get to reunite somebody with their wallet after 53 years,” he said.
Once McKee had verified that Grisham was the legitimate owner of the wallet, McKee had it mailed to him in California.
The faded brown leather billfold arrived on Jan. 30. Grisham and his wife, Carole Salazar, 82, unwrapped it.
“Looking at everything in that wallet brought back a lot of memories,” he said.
They carefully inspected the contents:
Grisham’s driver’s license and Navy ID card; a beer ration punch card with four holes punched (“I was pretty much a martini guy,” said Grisham); a tax statement; an instruction card with steps to take in case of an atomic attack; a recipe for homemade Kahlua; and two money order receipts for the poker winnings Grisham had mailed to his wife after cleaning up in card games at the base.
“My wallet was in really good shape considering how many years have passed,” said Grisham. “And my ID card was in beautiful condition. You can see that at one time I had dark hair.”
Grisham joined the Navy as a weather technician in 1948, was soon promoted to a weather forecaster position and then became a lieutenant, he said. He spent time at several other Navy bases before he was sent to Antarctica in 1967.
“It was called Operation Deep Freeze. We were supposed to provide support to civilian scientists working at the base,” he said.
“I have to say I wasn’t thrilled to leave my wife and two kids and get sent down there,” Grisham said. “I went kicking and screaming, in fact, even though the base is the warmest part of Antarctica. We called it the Banana Belt because the temperature would get up to 25 in the summer.”
Although he doesn’t remember losing his wallet, Grisham said he vividly remembers the freezing temperatures and the loneliness that sometimes set in during his 13 months at the bottom of the world.
“I had weekly shortwave radio calls home, but otherwise, it was just me and 180 men during the winter months,” he said. “Sometimes you just wanted to crawl under your blanket and forget about it, it was so cold.”
The men kept their sodas and beer in a heated warehouse so they wouldn’t burst in the cold, he said, and during the winter months all food came from a can.
To pass the time, Grisham and his friends had bowling tournaments in a two-lane alley and played a lot of poker, he said.
“I became a really good poker player and would send my winnings home to Wilma,” he said, referring to his late wife.
Perhaps the highlight of his year was when mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary — who along with Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest — visited the base for two days, said Grisham.
“He had come to Antarctica to climb a mountain, and I was thrilled to talk to him at my station,” he said. “We talked about the weather, of course.”
When his stint at McMurdo Station was over, Grisham served for two years aboard an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. He witnessed the fall of Saigon in 1975, two years before his retirement, he said.
He met Carole Salazar in a bus to the Paris airport in 2001, one year after his first wife had died, said Grisham.
“Both of us had lost our mates and were each vacationing in Paris with our sisters,” he said. “Before we boarded our flights, I told her if she ever got up my way in California, I’d love to take her to dinner.”
“Once everything’s over, I intend to go back,” he said. “And I’ll be sure to take my wallet.”
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