Refuge from the storm

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Elks Home has served as haven for Sheridan Besosa

By John Barnhart

    One of the current residents of the Elks National Home originally lived there for a couple of years as a teenager during World War II.


    Sheridan Besosa was 13 and living in Puerto Rico when the United States entered the war.
     Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii were considered war zones and the Elks allowed the sons of Elks members living in these areas to live at the Elks National Home, free of charge, for the duration of the war. The Elks Home was a male-only facility at that time. Harry Besosa sent his two sons—Sheridan and Harry. They were joined by six others.
    Besosa said that, back then, the trip from Puerto Rico to the mainland was normally made by ship. Oddly, the ships did not go straight to Florida, but went all the way up the coast to Boston before making landfall, because  of the German U-Boat threat.  Theboys were flown to Florida.
    Besosa has been involved with the Elks since he was 11. That was the year he joined a Boy Scout troop sponsored by an Elks lodge. When it came time to fly to Florida, he and his brother, Harry, chose to wear their Boy Scout uniforms.
    That turned out to be a good decision. Once they landed, they were given their choice of traveling to Bedford by train or by bus. The two brothers chose to go by bus because they had been told that was a better way to see the country. Besosa said that, at that time, military personnel got on the bus first. The soldiers and sailors, however, deferred to the Boy Scouts.
    He and his brother missed their first connecting bus. They decided that this turned out to be a pretty cool experience and they deliberately missed connecting buses all the way.
    The Elks were really worried about the brothers by the time the two teens got here. Then, it was their turn to worry. The brothers had never been in a totally English speaking environment before and they had a lot of trouble understanding the man sent to drive them to the Home.
    “When we got here, everybody was talking regular English,” Besosa said about their arrival at the Home.
    It turned out that the man who picked them up had a speech impediment and that’s why they couldn’t understand him.
    Besosa fell in love with Bedford.
    “The local people just opened up their homes to us,” he said. “They treated us like royalty.”
    The exception to that was the teenage boys. All the girls were paying lots of attention to the new arrivals from Puerto Rico, but Besosa said that there was a reason for that. A teenage girl from Brazil had been in Bedford the year before and the boys all flocked to her.
    “All the girls were getting back at the boys,” Besosa said.
    The Puerto Rican teens lived in I Cottage, on the first floor and each had his own room. Mary C. Nichols was hired as the house mother.
    “We got so she couldn’t handle us,” he recalled
    The home hired a man, Christopher Woodhead, to replace her. Besosa said that Woodhead was a retired prison warden. The teens gave him a hard time, too.
    “I never had as much trouble as I did with you young boys,” Woodhead once told them.
    They had a nickname for him, based on his last name.
    “We used to call him ‘Blockhead.’” Besosa said.
    Besosa said that Woodhead would lecture them.
    “Don’t do anything to the girls that you wouldn’t want a boy to do to your sister,” Woodhead would warn them.
    The teens had an 11 p.m. curfew and Besosa said Woodhead always had something to say if they came back five minutes late.
    “What’s the matter? She so sweet you couldn’t get away?” Woodhead would ask.
    Besosa remembers being desperately homesick on his first Christmas away from home. He had been invited to a party and was able to pull himself together and go. The party helped.
    He also remembered ice skating, and breaking through the ice one time and getting soaked. That resulted in a case of pneumonia, which Besosa’s father didn’t learn of until after Besosa recovered and  got the medical bill.
    “You mean to tell me my son was that sick and you didn’t tell me?” was his father’s response.
    Besosa also vividly remembers the first snowfall he saw in Bedford. He had never seen snow before in his life.
    “We were in the old Bedford High School cafeteria,” he recalled.
    Besosa said that the cafeteria windows looked out on the Peaks of Otter and the teens could see the storm blowing in. It started to snow — flurries at first, then a serious snowfall.
    “All eight of us went wild,” Besosa said.
    The principal let them all out of school for the day.
    “All right, you’re excused for the day,” he said. “Go home and get it out of your system.”
    The boys had gotten new winter clothes in preparation. None of them had winter clothes — something that nobody needs in Puerto Rico — when they came, so the Elks helped pay for this expense.
    Another winter treat for the boys was when the town would close Mountain Avenue for sled riding. Besosa said that a bonfire would be built at the top.
    During the summer, the boys were frequent visitors to the swimming pool that the Elks Home had on the grounds. It was a great way to beat the heat on those hot, humid Central Virginia summer days.
    “There was no air conditioning at all in those days,” he said.
    School was not a problem for Besosa. Back in San Juan, Puerto Rico, all his classes had been taught only in English from the time he was in 5th grade. It was a Catholic school and all the teachers were nuns from Notre Dame.
    Besosa lived at the Elks Home for two years, until Puerto Rico was no longer a war zone. At that time his father, who had a law degree from the University of Virginia (UVA), managed to get Sheridan admitted to UVA when he was 15. Sheridan said that was a mistake because he was too immature for college at 15. And, there was another problem.
    “It was the biggest drinking school in the country,” he said.
    After a year at UVA, he went to Virginia Tech. After a year at Tech, he enlisted in the Army at the age of 17 with his parents’ permission.
    He served a three-year enlistment, working at the Army Ground Forces Test Board in Ft. Benning, Ga. This was an outfit that consisted of 80 enlisted men and 30 officers, including a general. Their job was to test Army equipment. Besosa traveled to a lot of places during that time. He spent the summer in the desert and  the winter in the Arctic.
    “Can you imagine a Puerto Rican in the Arctic?” Besosa said, laughing about the idea.
    After his discharge from the Army, Besosa went to George Washington University in Washington, D. C. His mother, Carmen Besosa, worked at a hospital there at the time. After earning a master’s degree in international economics from George Washington, he got a job with the Library of Congress. That’s where he met his wife, Maxine, who had been a Spanish major at the University of Richmond.
    “My wife worked there [at the Library of Congress] too,” he said. “She was working there when I met her.”
    Later Besosa worked for the World Health Organization, where he was the program officer for the entire Western Hemisphere. He has also worked as the personnel director for the Organization of American States. Besosa believes that being English/Spanish bilingual opened doors for him.
    He also remained involved with the Boy Scouts, working with the organization for 45 years.
    After retirement, Besosa decided to live at the Elks Home once he learned that the Home accepted women. That meant that he and his wife could come to the home as a couple. They moved here in 2000.
    His wife died in 2008 and is buried in the Elks cemetery on the Elks Home grounds.
    “My wife is buried up on the hill,” he said. “I have a spot I picked and paid for right next to her.”
    “From there you can see all of Bedford,” he commented. “It’s a very well designed cemetery.”
    Besosa is happy at the Elks Home.
    “It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “The setting is tremendous.”
    There are other positives.
    “We have a very good staff here,” he said. “They are very caring. The place is kept immaculately clean.”
    “I love Bedford,” he added.
    Besosa would have graduated with the Bedford High School class of 1945 if he had stayed here. He still gets together with former classmates.
    “I still have very good friends here,” he said. “We get together every month and have lunch.”
    Besosa plans to live at the home for the rest of his life and isn’t worried that he will be able to stay.
    “There are so many rumors going around, it’s a rumor factory,” he said. “I’m hopeful they can make some arrangements.”
    Besosa said he’s taking it one day at a time.