Looking Back: Laura Robertson, 97, Recalls Roots in Kaiser Shipyards

posted on January 18, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

"Rube" (Ruby) Bingham, worker at NW Kaiser shipyard, Portland, 1943-Fall (photo courtesy daughter Laura Robertson)

“Rube” (Ruby) Bingham, worker at Kaiser shipyard, Portland; Fall, 1943. (photo gift of daughter Laura Robertson)

Laura Robertson, 97, chuckles when her doctor in Kaiser Permanente’s Colorado Region stumbles on the tiny size of her pharmacy order. She takes so few medications that the doctor assumes something’s off – but Laura assures her she’s just in very good health.

Laura’s not just healthy, she’s been connected to the big Kaiser picture almost all her life. I had the chance to sit down with her last October, and she’s got quite a story to tell about roots in the Kaiser shipyards and experiences as Kaiser Permanente member.

 

Early Years: Portland before the War

I am the oldest survivor of my family. I have outlived all my original friends, including people I’ve worked with. There are too many people that live in the past, and I have no desire to do that. Day-to-day is much more interesting.

These younger people think you’re lying, that you’ve got a great imagination.

Map of three NW Kaiser shipyards, 1943; by Marguerite Gillespie, from Record Breakers publication, Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation

Map of Portland-area Kaiser shipyards and Northern Permanente Hospital, 1943; by Marguerite Gillespie, from Record Breakers, Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation.

I had to dig pretty deep for some of this stuff.

Portland. I went there with my mother, Rube (pronounced “Ruby”) Bingham, in 1938. I worked in a restaurant, and was a member of the Cooks and Bartenders Union. I made $20 a week.

I then left the restaurant business and went to a business school a half day and worked for the school a half day to pay for tuition. I worked nights and weekends in a restaurant. During the war years I worked for Industrial Claims, an insurance company that handled insurance for “high risk” industries.

I worked on the 13th floor of what I think was the Board of Trades building, right down on the waterfront.  You know the river splits the town in two – I lived on the West side, close enough that I could walk to work, or I could walk down to the corner and take the streetcar. When I got to work and took the elevator I could look down onto the decks of the foreign ships that were coming in and loading and unloading. And, of course, it took me a while to understand that they came in on the tides, and had to wait to go out on the tides. And when they went out, it was fresh water, and the decks were practically at the water level. But once they passed the bar, the sea water was more buoyant. There were all sorts of countries coming and going – German, Russian, Scandinavian.

I was married in 1941. My wedding ring was from a jewelry store in Portland. It cost $30, and we bought it on an installment plan of $5 a week. The girls in my office were envious because I actually had a diamond. It was just a chip!

 

Working in the Shipyards

My mother worked in the Kaiser shipyards. Here’s a photo of her in 1943, in her work clothes. She installed sheet metal ducting after it was insulated.

Migration chart map, Fortune magazine 1945-02. Infographics

Migration chart map, Fortune magazine, February, 1945. Design by Walt Disney studios.

I remember the change in Portland during the war years. Kaiser was advertising for help all over, and they were coming in from all areas. Before the war, Portland was a pretty typical city. The Chinese worked in restaurants and laundries, the Filipinos were in the food industry, the Japanese were vegetable farmers. I had never heard a foreign language until I went to Portland.

[Editor’s note: wartime workforce labor migration dramatically affected many West coast cities, including Portland. The largely white, urban, population experienced struggles with an influx of mostly poor rural people and immigrants of color. Before World War II, Black Americans made up only 1 percent of Oregon’s population; most of them lived in Portland. By war’s end, the black population had grown from 2,000 to 20,000. In a 1974 interview, Kaiser Permanente founding physician Dr. Sidney Garfield remarked on the impact of this wartime immigration: “Portland people were rather unhappy with the influx of workmen into their area because Portland was sort of a staid, stuffy community…”]

I grew up in a town of 300 in Iowa, right next to Missouri, and I finished high school in 1936. We were very close to the Mason-Dixon Line. Just 25 or 30 miles south of us the schools were segregated; where we were, what few blacks were there went to school with the whites. We didn’t experience some of the extremes that people did in the south.

But in wartime Portland, if they weren’t speaking a foreign language they might have well have, if you were trying to understand what they were trying to tell you. They all had their own lingo. That, too, created quite an interesting atmosphere. Everybody trying to understand all these different people, and they were having trouble trying to understand us.

Aerial photo, Vanport City, 1942 [circa]; [C-10 - Oregonship albums Box 4 - M-343]

Aerial photo, Vanport City, circa 1943

I remember Vanport. I had friends who lived there. It was in a vegetable garden, in a flood plain, and it did eventually flood – but I’d moved to Denver by then.

[Editor’s note: Henry J. Kaiser built Vanport – Oregon’s second-largest city – to handle the enormous need for temporary wartime housing, including most of the immigrant black labor force. It was the largest public housing project in the nation and included facilities such as schools, movie theaters, and the first publicly funded daycare center built in the United States. On May 28, 1948, a dike failed during unseasonably high flooding on the Columbia River, resulting in at least 15 deaths and the total destruction of the city.]

 

Denver: Becoming a Kaiser Permanente Member

I came to Denver in October, 1947. Denver was that much behind the coast, on lots of things. Denver was a completely different region and atmosphere.

I took a loss in wages. Because of my union connections, I got a job with the Joint Council of Teamster locals. I started working for Local 17, the freight dock workers, where I worked for seven years before being fired when a new manager came in.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with message on back. Floors 3-5 are numbered by hand. Gift of Laura Robertson.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with message on back (below). Floors 3-5 are numbered by hand.

I got a job working for the Atomic Energy Commission in Grand Junction, so I moved there with my husband. The paperwork to get a clearance was incredible. It took me weeks to prepare it. An official came out to my house to talk about my application – which was very unusual – and he said that after contacting all of my references they didn’t get one negative comment. I got the job. I was on the procurement desk for the expiration division. That meant a worker brought the yellowcake samples to my desk and I took them to the lab. I contacted the warehouses to check on availability of equipment needed. If none was available I completed a nine-carbon form that I presented to the proper authority for his signature so that the equipment could be ordered.

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon, printed 1959. Given by Rube Bingham to daughter Laura Robertson, with satirical message on back "My summer home."

Postcard of Bess Kaiser Hospital, Oregon; satirical message on back “My summer home.”

I worked about one year, and in 1962 returned to work for the Teamsters in their Grand Junction office. I walked in their office and organized their records, which were a mess. This was just about time the Teamsters came under federal investigation. I had to stall them for two days because my boss was out of town.

It was through my Teamster employment that I became a Kaiser Permanente member, and have been ever since.

My mother stayed in Portland. Here’s a Bess Kaiser Hospital postcard from my mother, on which she wrote “My Summer Home. Third floor, May 10, 1964 – Broken arm; fourth floor, September 3, 1964 – head-on collision. Fifth floor, August 1962 – gall bladder operation.”

 

-Special thanks to the Colorado Kaiser Permanente communications team for setting up this interview, and to member Laura Robertson for her patience and support in producing this story.

 

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Henry J. Kaiser’s dream of personal aircraft

posted on January 10, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

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Artwork from draft “Fly with Fleetwings: Kaiser-Craft” promotional brochure (never produced), circa 1950.

“Flying is a pleasure, even if it is for business!” For a man whose professional passions blurred with enjoying the fruits of one’s labor, this was Henry J. Kaiser’s dream of transportation in America as we entered peacetime after World War II.

During the war, Henry J. Kaiser was involved in a several military aviation manufacturing projects, and was briefly put in charge of the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. Most of those projects went well, with the notable exception of the infamous “Spruce Goose.”

Aerial photo of Spruce Goose (H-4, Hercules Flying Boat), Long Beach, 1947.

Aerial photo of Spruce Goose (H-4, Hercules Flying Boat), Long Beach, 1947. Note shadow of dirigible from which photo was taken.

As early as 1942, Henry J. Kaiser proposed a massive fleet of giant cargo planes, figuring that they could have a better survival record than the Atlantic ship convoys were experiencing. Kaiser began a partnership with Howard Hughes and snagged a government contract. However, by early 1944 Kaiser withdrew from the project when nothing viable had been produced. Kaiser and Hughes parted ways, but Hughes doggedly persisted with his “Spruce Goose” monster airplane (it was actually made of birch plywood because of wartime restrictions on aluminum). It flew only once, on November 2, 1947, but was seen by the U.S. Senate as a boondoggle.

Henry J. Kaiser purchased a controlling interest in the aircraft manufacturer Fleetwings of Bristol, Penn., on March 29, 1943, as a division of Kaiser Cargo, Inc. During World War II, they developed the Model 23 Tandem and Model 33 trainers. They also designed the limited edition XBTK-1 torpedo bomber as a technical response to the need for smaller aircraft that could work well on compact aircraft carriers such as Kaiser’s CVE escort carriers.

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Hiller-copter in Modern Mechanix, December 1944

Fleetwings also produced a prototype XH-10 “Twirleybird” helicopter in 1945. Kaiser’s attraction to helicopters had been sparked earlier when he heard of Berkeley boy genius Stanley Hiller’s easy-to-fly gyrocopter; after Kaiser saw the young Hiller’s demonstrations, Hiller Aircraft became the Hiller-copter Division of Kaiser Cargo in 1944.  However, the next year Hiller and Kaiser’s partnership collapsed, at least partly because Kaiser refused to increase the Hiller-copter Division’s funding to levels required for full scale production.

But soon it was postwar civil, not military, aviation that fermented in Kaiser’s brain, and Henry J. Kaiser had grand plans.

An opening salvo came from an article titled “Still pioneering” in the Kaiser Richmond shipyard newspaper Fore ‘n’ Aft August 10, 1945, five days before the war’s end:

As concerns air travel, people who supposedly know say we are still in the pioneering stage. They agree it may be some time before every manjack of us has his own private plane, but ‘”the age of the air,” as Kaiser says, “has already begun…”  Kaiser foresees mass production of airplanes – and most of it in the west – with sales running up to 100,000 a year.

Clay Bedford [Kaiser Richmond shipyard manager] declared in 1944: “Think of a string of airports dotting the state every 15 miles in two great networks, connecting with air highways across the nation—each field equipped with inns and motels, restaurants, service and repair stations, hangars and clubrooms.

“Fantastic? Henry Kaiser doesn’t think so. He’s proposed to build a nation-wide network of 5,000 air terminals.”

Henry J. Kaiser at first test flight of experimental pusher "family" plane; designer Dean B. Hammond on left, H.V. Lindbergh on right, likely Oakland airport, 1946-02.

Henry J. Kaiser at first test flight of experimental pusher “family” plane; designer Dean B. Hammond on left, H.V. Lindbergh on right, likely at Oakland airport, February, 1946.

No long afterwards, the Associated Press wrote a story on February 7, 1946:

Henry Kaiser disclosed today he is well on the way to becoming an airplane manufacturer. He saw his first model plane given its test flight at the Oakland airport. The plane, tentatively called the Kaiser-Hammond, is a twin-tail, pusher type, single-engine craft, with a 40-foot wingspread. It will carry 1200 pounds.

The plane had been originally designed and developed by Emeryville, Calif., aeronautical engineer Dean Hammond in the mid-1930s. In 1936, Hammond partnered with noted aircraft designer Lloyd Stearman and formed the Stearman-Hammond Aircraft Corporation to build the Stearman-Hammond Y-1. High costs hampered sales, and production was interrupted by World War II. One design oddity was that the aircraft had no rudder; the tailplane fins were adjustable but not during flight. Turning was achieved by differential operation of the aileron and elevator.

In another article on the Kaiser-Hammond, Henry J. Kaiser was quoted as saying: “This is an automobile. Not a plane – it steers like a car and rides like one.”

But in the mid-to late 1940s, Henry J. Kaiser was heavily involved in many other projects, including his Kaiser-Frazer automobile company. His aviation ventures began to lose altitude, but he wasn’t quite done yet.

kaiserair3

Artwork from draft “Fly with Fleetwings: Kaiser-Craft”

A Fleetwings 51 airplane proposed around 1950 was his last stab at populating the skies. The all-metal plane would be powered by a 200-horsepower General Motors Model GM-250 radial engine.

By 1948, Fleetwings had been renamed Kaiser Metal Products, manufacturing a range of consumer products, including cabinets and dishwashers. However, Kaiser had kept the Fleetwings brand name alive for his civil aircraft projects.

A prototype brochure, “Fly with Fleetwings in a Kaiser-Craft,” sold the basic concept:

A preview or your personal plane, the Fleetwings 51… designed and built to serve your requirements for speed, comfort, safety, and economy, plus an entirely new concept in aviation–four passengers side-by-side.

Artwork from draft “Fly with Fleetwings: Kaiser-Craft”

Artwork from draft “Fly with Fleetwings: Kaiser-Craft”

Flying no longer requires the superman that it took to pilot the tricky craft of a few years ago. Aerodynamic advances have brought it within the reach of the average person. The Fleetwings 51 is a plane that any physically and mentally normal person can learn to fly.

In classic 1950s advertising prose that would humble Don Draper, the section “Flying is a pleasure, even if it is for business!” sold the dream:

Your personal plane will take you to the seashore or the mountains for weekends, quickly, without using up most of the time going and coming; pleasantly, without tiring hours of stopping and going, weaving in and out of traffic in a haze of exhaust smoke.

kaisercraft1

Artwork from draft “Fly with Fleetwings: Kaiser-Craft”

It will take you to the far-away places where the best fishing and hunting a replaces too far away to reach often by other means in the time most people have available. Equipped with pontoons, it will take you to Canadian lakes seldom or never fished before. It will take you over more of the United States than you have ever been able to tour. It will enable you to visit friends and relatives so far away that you would otherwise never see them.

It will enable you to enjoy a summer change of scene when you can’t get away from the office, by providing quick commutation.

Alas, the Fleetwings 51 never took off, and there’s no evidence that Kaiser sought to further develop civil aviation. During that period Henry J. Kaiser’s beloved wife Bess was suffering from poor health, and she passed away March 14, 1951. Henry soon married Bess’ nurse Alyce, and Henry became much more involved in the operations of the rapidly-expanding Kaiser Permanente health care program.

 

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Kaiser and Disney – Spreading Fun and Health since World War II

posted on January 3, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

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“Visitors from Aulani brought smiles to 4-month-old Moses Love and his family.” 2016, photo by Lance Agena.

At the end of last year, pediatric patients being treated at Kaiser Permanente’s Moanalua Medical Center in Hawaii received a special holiday visit from Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Pluto. Aulani, a Disney resort on Oahu, sent these cartoon characters to spread cheer to children during the holiday season.

But few know that Minnie has been greeting children at Kaiser facilities for more than 70 years. The historic connections between Kaiser (Kaiser Industries and Kaiser Permanente) and Disney (Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland) are longer than the bobsled ride down the iconic Matterhorn.

During World War II, when Henry J. Kaiser was building hundreds of ships for the war effort, Walt Disney Studios was producing posters for the War Manpower Commission encouraging home front workers to be productive.

"Don't be a job hopper" poster for War Manpower Commission, Walt Disney Studios, 1944. [Source: National Archives]

“Don’t be a job hopper,”  Walt Disney Studios, 1944. [National Archives]

Safety graphic, back cover of Bos'n's Whistle by former Disney artist Bob Davidson, OSC, 1942-04-09, OHS

The Bos’n’s Whistle, 4/9/1942

The weekly Kaiser Oregon shipyard newspaper The Bos’n’s Whistle included several mentions of former Disney workers – one 1942 back cover safety graphic had been drawn by Bob Davidson, a field aide and draftsman in the shipyards who’d worked in Walt Disney’s publicity department illustrating children’s books and posters for theater advertising. An article on the Hull Detail department boasted that “One of the most interesting types of work handled in the department is production illustration … which includes some ex-Disney men from Hollywood.”

Another article from June 29, 1945, titled “Artist Prefers Hull Drawing to Comics” interviewed one of those illustrators:

Sketching pink elephants and giddy fauns is a far cry from the businesslike lines of a ship’s hull for Charles Shaw, Oregon Ship Company production illustration supervisor, who was formerly an artist-animator connected with the famed Walt Disney studio. “Dumbo and Bambi were fun to sketch, but I’d much rather be doing just what I am – production illustration,” Shaw declared.

Oregonship photos, Disney images painted on wall, Box 3; Child Care Center, PA-665

Disney character art in Permanente Hospital pediatric waiting room, circa 1944

The waiting room of a pediatric ward at one of the wartime Kaiser shipyard hospitals featured a mural of Pluto and Minnie Mouse with two unidentified young mouse characters. A recumbent Bambi graces the floor.

After the war both Kaiser Industries and Walt Disney greatly expanded their operations.

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened to the public in Anaheim, Calif. – and one of the featured displays in Tomorrowland was the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame. The display ran until July, 1960.

Interestingly, one of the theme parks that inspired Disneyland was Children’s Fairyland, which had opened five years earlier on the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt near the headquarters of Kaiser Industries – just across the lake from the current Kaiser Permanente’s national headquarters at 1 Kaiser Plaza.

Postcard - Kaiser Aluminum exhibition, Tomorrowland at Disneyland, 1955-1960. [Jon Geary discrete collection]

Postcard – Kaiser Aluminum exhibition, Tomorrowland at Disneyland, 1955-1960. [Jon Geary discrete collection]

Kaiser Permanente historian emeritus Tom Debley described the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame:

A giant aluminum sphere sat in the center of the exhibit, onto which was projected a knight who would bemoan the fact that his armor was not made of aluminum. The knight would fade away and be replaced with a firefighter and then a spaceman.  On the outside walls of the exhibit were smaller displays extolling the benefits of the “miracle substance” called aluminum.  After you signed your name in the registration book, with an aluminum pen, you got to meet the Kaiser Aluminum mascot pig, KAP (“Kaiser Aluminum Pig”). KAP was 3 feet tall, wore aluminum overalls, and carried a wrench.  According to lore, he was the first non-Disney character at Disneyland.

KP 7th Annual Family Fun Party at Disneyland, 1974-10-06. [Jon Geary discrete collection]

Kaiser Permanente 7th Annual Family Fun Party at Disneyland, 1974. [Jon Geary discrete collection]

Disneyland Park would serve as a venue for many Kaiser Industries and Kaiser Permanente events. Beginning in 1967 and onward for several years, Kaiser Permanente hosted “family fun parties” at Disneyland.

A 2006 Kaiser Permanente media release enthused that “Disneyland Resort Welcomes Kaiser Permanente as Presenting Sponsor for the Inaugural Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend,” which included more than 8,000 runners.

“The Disneyland Half Marathon is the perfect setting for our message about the importance of good health,” said Ed Ellison, MD, Medical Director for Kaiser Permanente in Orange County [Dr. Ellison is currently Executive Medical Director and Chairman of the Board of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group]. “This will be a beautiful weekend event filled with fun and physical activity for the participants and spectators alike. We hope that everyone involved will be inspired to live well and thrive.”

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1998 Innoventions video still, click to see on YouTube

As far as Kaiser Permanente’s presence at Disneyland is concerned, undoubtedly the biggest moment was at the “Innoventions” pavilion that was installed when Tomorrowland was redesigned in 1998. Kaiser Permanente was featured in a huge interactive educational display about health and health care. A story in KP Perspectives, the internal news medium in videocassette format, explained how it all came to be. These quotes from that video told our story:

“We were approached by Disney. They were going to redesign Tomorrowland, and the centerpiece of Tomorrowland was going to be the Innoventions exhibit.” -Kathy Swenson, senior VP, Communications, Marketing & Sales.

“They needed a health care organization that met their standards, and Kaiser Permanente came to mind.” -Kenneth E. Bell, MD, medical director, Kaiser Permanente, Orange County.

 “I saw it as a terrific opportunity for us to partner with a wonderful organization that knows how to bring critical messages to the American public.” -David Lawrence, MD, chairman and CEO, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals.

“It was important to us that the people pictured in these exhibits were real Kaiser Permanente staff and real Permanente physicians. We are not in the fantasy business, what we do is very real.”
-Sharon Levine, MD, associate executive director, The Permanente Medical Group [currently director and senior advisor, The Permanente Medical Group].

Kaiser and Disney – spreading fun and health since World War II.

 

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Ale Kaiser’s Pink Christmas truck

posted on December 19, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

FC-170 Jeep truck - Xmas gift for Ale Kaiser, 1958

FC-170 Jeep truck – Henry’s Christmas gift for Ale Kaiser, 1958

Henry J. Kaiser may have been a bold man of action and an international industrialist leader, but he was also a devoted husband. So it should come as no surprise that he was perfectly happy to break with 1950s gender-stereotyped gift giving by buying his wife a pink truck for Christmas.

Kaiser and his second wife Alyce “Ale” moved to Hawaii in 1954, where they enjoyed the island life until Henry died on August 24, 1967 at the age of 85. Alyce’s favorite color was pink, which was the reason why some of the Kaiser facilities in Hawaii are pink. Not just any pink, “Kaiser Pink.”

It had all started when ordering custom-dyed leather for furniture in his Hawaiian Village Hotel. What was supposed to be a mild coral pink showed up a far deeper hue. Too late to change for the opening, the color proved to be a popular hit.

Henry declared that “Pink is a happy color,” and he and Ale proceeded to use it for everything, from building trim, to cement trucks, to catamarans. It was even rumored that Ale once dyed her poodles. And oh, by the way, since it turned out that Ale also liked trucks…

This Christmas story from 1958, written by a Kaiser Industries public affairs person, is a window into their personal life.

Mrs. Henry J. Kaiser started a while back letting the word get back to her industrialist husband that what she wanted most for Christmas this year was – a truck.

At first, Mr. Kaiser couldn’t believe it. One night he exclaimed at dinner table, “I guess I’m being kidded … Everyone in the house seems to think your heart’s desire for Christmas is a powerful truck.”

“But it is – really!” Mrs. Kaiser declared.

Henry J. Kaiser and Ale Kaiser, wedding photo, 1951-04-10. [C10-Oakland Trib - Box 22]

Henry J. Kaiser and Ale Kaiser, wedding photo, 4/10/1951.

“Now what on earth would you do with a truck?” asked Mr. Kaiser, who manufactures Willys Jeep trucks in the United States, Argentina, and Brazil. [The year before moving to Hawaii, the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation had purchased Jeep manufacturer Willys-Overland for approximately $60 million. It would remain under Kaiser Industries control until 1970.]

“It would be great,” Mrs. Kaiser explained, “if I had a truck to haul landscaping plants and gardening supplies when we build our new Portlock Road house. Think of all the uses.”

“Now wouldn’t that be a sight when the family gathers at the Christmas tree and opens packages,” Mr. Kaiser remonstrated, “and I’d say – ‘now come out to the garage, Ale, and see your present’ – and there’d be a pink truck wrapped in cellophane.”

“Just the same,” Mrs. Kaiser replied, “that’s what I want for Christmas.”

So that’s the story-behind-the-story of the Kaiser Pink truck that created something of a sensation among Honolulu people who saw it lowered from the S.S. Leilani, or rolling over to the Von-Hamm-Young Company Jeep distributorship and then out to the Kaiser Kahala avenue house.

FC-170 Jeep truck - Xmas gift for Ale Kaiser, 1958

FC-170 Jeep truck for Ale Kaiser, 1958

The Kaiser gift to his wife is the new Forward Control Jeep FC-170 that can carry 3,500 pounds of cargo on its nine-foot truck body. Mr. Kaiser explained that the 1,700-pound heavy-duty vehicle has nine forward and three reverse power combinations.

Mrs. Kaiser forthwith took the powerful Jeep out for a rigorous drive. She came back beaming.

“It’s a living doll,” she exclaimed. “It’s the most useful Christmas present you could have – simply terrific.”

P.S. – Mr. Kaiser, who thought he was going along with a gag, had another present wrapped and under the Christmas tree for his wife, but decided she wasn’t joking – she obviously was so overjoyed over getting her wish – the pink truck.

 

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