Two weeks after receiving his bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Minnesota, John Bjeldanes received in the mail another document. It was a draft notice from the Army. The year was 1968 and the Vietnam War was building. Not finding much appeal in the prospect of slogging through rice paddies halfway around the world as an infantryman, John looked at the alternatives.
"I raced around trying to get into anything else, and the Navy took me," he explained. "Then they said, "Do you want to be an officer? Four hundred dollars a month.' Sure. Then, "We see that you played sports that required hand-eye coordination. Want to be pilot? Three hundred dollars a month.' Sure."
So John took the third airplane ride of his life from Minneapolis to Penscola, Fla., to begin flight school. He then moved on to Meridian, Miss., and Kingsville, Tex., for further training. He was soon qualified as a pilot of an F-4 Phantom, a two-man fighter-interceptor capable of flying more than twice the speed of sound. It was armed with air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles as well as bombs.
He ended up flying 175 combat missions in Vietnam through two tours there, culminating in the heavy attacks on North Vietnam in late 1972 and early 1973. Like many Vietnam vets, John uses few words to talk about his experiences in the war zone, which included many a close call with enemy fighters, antiaircraft fire and the white-knuckle landings on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
He enumerated his ordeals tersely as, "Shot up, beat up, missing the deck, losing my best friend and radar operator. As they say, if you've been there, no explanation is needed. If you haven't been there, no explanation will suffice."
Throughout his career, he was based at the former Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego when shore-based and on the carrier USS Ranger when deployed. John was one of the lucky ones who came home. After nearly six years in the Navy, he was discharged in October 1973 and thought of California as the home to go back to.
By that time, he had wed Andrea, a school teacher who had lived in his Pacific Beach apartment complex. They've been married 41 years and have three children, aged 39, 37 and 35, plus three grandchildren and a fourth due in August. They've lived in the same house in La Jolla for 34 years.
After his Navy service, John opened a tire and auto repair business on the north end of Los Angeles in May 1974. He hired a salesman named John Edmundsâ - yes, our '63 classmate - who moved out West with his family.
"Weird things happened after that," John noted. "For example, a guy came to me at the cash register and said he was an Eskimo from Fairbanks, and he wanted to pay for the shipment of snow that he had bought from Mr. Edmunds!"
John had several similar businesses before getting into brokering, consulting and handling mergers and acquisitions for business owners. Then, as he put it, "I had my mid-life crisis. Rather than buying a motorcycle, I decided only to deal with businesses where customers actually wanted to be there [instead of feeling forced to, such as needing a repair]. So from 1990, I have been a manager and consultant for skating arenas and entertainment centers."
Hockey, of course, was his big sport at Roosevelt. He was the goalie on the Teddies team that went to the 1963 state tournament and was given plenty of chances to develop the hand-eye coordination that the Navy found of interest. He played hockey until age 55, as a defenseman, no less, and also coached for 30 years.
"I travel only occasionally for my paid consulting business and counsel almost every day when in San Diego for SCORE the last nine years through 1,600 clients," he said. Holder of an MBA, John was also Pacific District risk manager for USA Hockey for 18 years in the five Western states.
Despite the distance from Minnesota, he's kept in touch with many of the classmates he grew up with. "Dave Benolkin is a main man, so is Edmunds and so was [the late] Tom Huber," he said. "If Dave would rather have dinner with me privately for the 50th, perhaps I won't see any of you again."
He added, "Today I spend my time sneaking cigars on the back porch and trading potty humor E-mails with Larry Stevens and Brian Lundquist. Lungy [Dick Lundquist] and [wife] Barb and Karen Ukura [Kilberg] have been out to visit in San Diego.
"I love them all."
Posted Aug, 8, 2013
|John (third from left) with the Bjeldanes clan.