A war story of three Nevada veterans

The following story was told to me by Robert Laxalt shortly before he passed away several years ago. At the time I was doing some work on his irrigation system at his home in Washoe Valley. Robert’s wife, Joyce, told me Robert wanted to meet with me because he knew I had written a book and Robert always was interested in writers and writing. He was very ill at the time, but we had a delightful conversation.

Robert asked if I was related to a Bill Cassinelli. I told him Bill was a cousin of my father, Raymond. He then told me that Bill Cassinelli, Paul Laxalt and another fellow I knew named Leon Etchemendy all had served in World War II together. Paul Laxalt was Robert’s brother. Leon Etchemendy worked at the Nevada Department of Transportation at the same time I worked there in the 1980s. Both Paul and Leon were from Carson City. Bill had been born and grew up in Reno. Somehow, the three of them ended up in the Aleutian Islands under attack by the Japanese.

Apparently, the three men had never met before. As they introduced themselves to each other, they were surprised to learn that they all came from western Nevada. The time came when Bill Cassinelli took a hit from a Japanese shell, which took off one leg. With the assistance of Laxalt and Etchemendy, Bill was taken out to a medical facility where they were able to save his life, but not the leg. Bill was a frequent visitor to the ranch where I grew up in Sparks. Before the war, he had been an avid baseball player. After his return, he continued to be a fan of the game. We often attended games at the old Threckels Ballfield on East Fourth Street in Reno in the 1940s.

Bill and his wife, Clara, a cousin of my grandmother, Edith Cassinelli, moved to Stockton, Calif. Paul Laxalt later became governor of the state of Nevada. Leon Etchemendy and Bill remained close friends. Leon and I both worked at the Department of Transportation in Carson City during the 1970s and 1980s. He remarked how unusual it had been that two Bascos and an Italian from the same area just happened to end up in the same place at the same time during the war.

Phallic pestle unearthed in Carson City

stone pestle

A pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl-shaped piece of stone called a mortar.

Between May 2008 and January 2009, I was working as an inspector on the section of the Carson City Freeway Bypass from US Highway 50 to Fairview Drive. Before the project began, I attended a public open house of the project site to see the archaeological excavations being performed by the Louis Berger Group, Inc., consulting archaeologist hired by the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. It appeared that the project route passed over a known prehistoric site that included a large Indian village that had been occupied for over one thousand years between 425 AD and 1470 AD.

The Louis Berger archaeologists discovered over 150 prehistoric features such as houses, storage pits, fire hearths, roasting pits and activity areas. The site represents one of the largest prehistoric villages ever discovered in northern Nevada. Thousands of prehistoric artifacts were uncovered during the scientific excavations, indicating the various daily activities which the people living there performed. These artifacts included projectile points, scrapers, manos, metates, mortars and pestles. I submitted a resume of my qualifications to help identify the artifacts but my offer was not accepted.

Several months after the archaeological field work was completed, construction began on the project. I was contacted by PBS&J Consulting Engineers to be an inspector for several phases of the work. I was told that the Louis Berger Group archaeologists had completed their field work and even though there was a possibility some artifacts may still remain undiscovered, they had sufficient material to complete their report. One of my assigned duties was to inspect the installation of highway lighting components along the freeway ramps north of the Fairview interchange. This included grading, trenching and installing conduits and concrete lighting system footings.

Having developed an eye for spotting arrowheads and other traces of ancient habitation, I noticed some charcoal remnants of old fire pits along the west slope of the Fairview exit ramp. As work progressed on the lighting system, I picked up a few broken projectile points and a 4” piece of a stone pestle that appeared to have been broken by excavation equipment. It appeared to have both ends broken off and the breaks seemed to be recently done. I had discovered many fragments such as this in the past and did not consider it of much importance. I put the stone in my toolbox and forgot about it for several days.

A stone pestle is a long piece of stone intentionally shaped to be used in a bowl shaped piece of stone called a mortar. The Indians used these tools to grind up seeds, cattail roots and other food items they had gathered. These have been found in several different sizes ranging from a few inches to a foot or more in length. After a few days I found another piece of the same pestle near where the first one was found. This one was about 7” in length and fit perfectly onto one end of the first piece.

The amazing thing I noticed about this second piece of the puzzle was the shape of the end, which resembled a male appendage. This surely perked up my interest and I made an all-out effort to find the last piece so I could reassemble the entire artifact. Sure enough, after a few more days of carefully inspecting the slope, I found the third and final piece and was able to connect the three together with stone masons epoxy. The resulting completed artifact was a whopping fifteen and one half inches long and weighed seven pounds.

I looked online and found that such artifacts are very rare and are called “Phallic Pestles.” I found several photos of similar items, but without bragging, I can honestly say that none of those shown were as long as mine. Because I found the pestle on state property, I felt an obligation to take it to Eugene M. Hattori, curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. Gene was the archaeologist who was called in to excavate the 500 Carson City coin dies I had found at the old mint building back in 1999. He confirmed that the item was a genuine phallic pestle and said that to his knowledge, it was the first one ever reported from Nevada.

I agreed to make a donation of the amazing artifact to the “Under One Sky” exhibit at the museum with the understanding that it would be placed on public display and not hidden away in some storage room where no one would ever see it again. The Museum is expanding their Native American display area and the pestle will be displayed when the expansion is completed.

Still plenty of room at John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

There’s still room to sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26. My team and I will be cooking a delicious Dutch-oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler. This should an amazing and educational event, and definitely lots of fun.

Signup information is below, as well as links to media stories with further details. Be sure to help spread the word!

Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

Learn more

To register, click here

Additional details on The Nevada Appeal website

Additional details on This Is Reno

Symposium Agenda

Sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

2014 is the Sesquicentennial year of Nevada Statehood. I can still remember celebrating the Centennial year in 1964 when I grew my one and only beard in celebration of the event. Now, it is the 150th birthday of Nevada, and I will celebrate it by growing a set of gray sideburns and cooking a dutch oven lunch for 80 people at Mills Park in Carson City on July 25th. To celebrate the event, the Nevada State Museum where I am a volunteer tour guide and part-time cook, is presenting a John C. Fremont Symposium.

One of the many events of this two-day extravaganza is a lunch like western explorer John C. Fremont may have had along the trail in 1844 when he entered our own area here in the Great Basin. I would really like to meet all those of you who read my History of the Comstock column and serve you a delicious Dutch oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler.

My team and I have seasoned up about 20 Dutch ovens and are raring to serve you the greatest frontier grub this side of the Oregon Trail. Fremont’s crew used Dutch ovens for cooking on their 1843-1844 expedition through western Nevada where he discovered Pyramid Lake, Truckee River, Carson River, Lake Tahoe and disproved the myth of the legendary Buenaventura River thought to drain the Great Basin to the Pacific Ocean.

For those of you who may not know, the elusive Fremont Cannon that he abandoned along a deep creek near the West Walker River has been found. The Fremont Cannon Recovery Team found three of the cannon carriage iron wheels and the cannon mounting hardware from one side of the cannon carriage after an exhaustive search lasting several years.

It also appears the bronze 1835 Cyrus Alger cannon barrel long in possession of the Nevada State Museum is likely the same one that had been abandoned in the canyon, and was re-discovered in the mid-1800’s. It was then possibly sold where it made the rounds of several locations in western Nevada including Virginia City and Glenbrook at Lake Tahoe. Everywhere it traveled, it was referred to as the Fremont Cannon. When John C. Fremont visited Virginia City in the 1870s, he was shown the bronze barrel and identified it as the one he had abandoned in the winter of 1844.

The John C. Fremont Symposium to be held July 25th and 26th is a gathering of top Fremont scholars, archaeologists and authors from around the world, offering two days of lectures and panel discussions at the museum. You will be able to meet and talk to the members of the Fremont Howitzer Recovery Team and cannon experts who will tell about the amazing discovery of these artifacts.

Two special galleries have been set up at the Museum to contain the many artifacts and photographs from the Fremont Expedition. These include Fremont’s presidential campaign flag, maps drawn by cartographer, Charles Preuss, The original cannon carriage parts discovered near the Walker River, and a replica vintage cannon carriage with the bronze Fremont cannon mounted on it. Many of the original surveying instruments and equipment used on the expedition are shown, including the remains of a Dutch oven found at one of Fremont’s camp sites in Oregon.

Breakfast of coffee, tea and pastries will be served each day. The Dutch oven lunch that I will be serving at Mills Park will be at noon on the 25th. We are trying to arrange for a surprise presentation of some cannons firing blanks following lunch. On the 26th, the festivities extend into the evening hours with a theatrical presentation by actor Alastair Jaques in the Nevada Room at the Governor’s Mansion. This will be followed by a catered dinner at the mansion and songs of Nevada and Cowboy Poetry by Richard Elloyan, singer and songwriter, raised in Virginia City.

And now, what will all this cost? When you consider all the meals, outstanding speakers, and a chance to meet your favorite historian, (Me), the Symposium is a bargain at just $100 per person. For $40 you can attend just the dinner and entertainment at the Governor’s Mansion on the 26th. Call soon to make your reservations, since there is a limit of just 80 participants. Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

See you there.

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Learn more

To register, click here

Additional details on The Nevada Appeal website

Additional details on This Is Reno

Symposium Agenda