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Peaches, Cadillacs, Convertibles, Cows and Combat . . .

SUBTITLE: When, where and how I first met my wife

The following statement was excerpted from the website of the Georgia Peach Commission:

“Nothing else tastes like a Georgia peach. Its deliciously juicy, sweet flavor is unique, but, at the same time, incredibly versatile.”

That statement is true—a Georgia peach is all that and more. The peach is the official state fruit, and each year between mid-May and mid-August, Georgia produces more than 40 species and more than 130 million pounds of peaches.

Historically, the beauty of Georgia peaches also refers to the beauty, versatility and sweetness of Georgia’s women. That is also true. I should know—I met and married a Georgia peach in 1952.

Every year of my life has been spectacular, but some years shine brighter than others—the year of my marriage, for example, and 1954, 1960 and 1964, the birth years of my three daughters, and several overseas tours and assignments including combat tours in Korea and Viet Nam (and my return therefrom) over a period of 48 years in the the United States government, including 22 years in the military and 26 years in federal law enforcement.

All shine brightly, but one year in particular stands out from all the others—1952, the year I met and married Janie, the mother of my children—Janie, my wife and my life.

In January of 1952 a Navy troop transport ship docked in San Francisco, two weeks after departing Japan. Among the military personnel debarking was a 19-year-old Air Force sergeant, six-feet tall (minus five inches), with a soaking-wet weight of 110 pounds. That young man was my mother’s youngest son, returning after 22 months with the Fifth Air Force in Japan and Korea.

I arrived in Japan in April 1950, two months before the start of the Korean conflict in June of that year—I spent seven months at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo and Itazuke Air Base near Fukuoka, a city on the southern island of Kyushu. The next 15 months were spent in Korea at the height of the war, with assignments to airfields at Taegu in the south and Kimpo in the north, near Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I had intermittent stays at Nagoya and Brady Field in Japan (Brady Field is a strong candidate for a future post). My time in Nagoya became necessary when the Chinese army overran Teagu in the winter of 1950—my outfit left the air base in considerable haste—at least as fast as we could in a heavily loaded transport plane, a vintage Gooney Bird (C-47). We drew fire from advancing Chinese communist troops on takeoff, but managed to remain airborne and completed the flight to Brady Field in Japan.

This “squad” pictured below in the fall of 1951 had just returned from a combat assignment well beyond the outer perimeter of Kimpo Air Base. A group of Chinese soldiers had been spotted “advancing on the airfield,” and we, along with other similar groups of freedom fighters, were dispatched to counter their advance (I kid you not!). Ours was a 10-man squad, but only four responded to the call to arms. Although we were undermanned, we were heavily armed and ready for any encounter—we each had a carbine, each loaded with 15 rounds of .30 caliber ammunition (once again, I kid you not!).

I’m the tall, handsome Gregory Peck look-alike on the right (I never did get the straps on my backpack straightened out). The Ted Danson look-alike on my right is not Ted Danson, and the man on the left, Chief Many-Stripes, is our squad leader, a retread who was called out of retirement to help win the war. He was also our tent chief until one night in the winter of 1951 when, to avoid going out into the snow he peed in our water bucket. He had an affinity for strong drink which he daily demonstrated, and he claimed that was what made him do it—we tossed the drunk and the peed-in bucket into a snowbank and relieved him of his tent-chief duties. The fourth member of our squad (second from left) was called Swede, a garrulous sort who owned and played—relentlessly and poorly—an accordion with several missing keys. He also accompanied himself with song and never refused my request to play and sing “Danny Boy,” my favorite refrain, rendered softly in an Irish brogue. Go figure!

squad

EPILOGUE: During the battle we were safely ensconced in trenches on the side of a hill, facing north with another hill between us and the enemy. We couldn’t see the action on the ground, but we could see the fighter planes going in,  unloading bombs and napalm and strafing with fire from .50 caliber cannons. We passed the time by reading and passing around pages removed from a paperback copy of Mickey Spillane’s “My Gun is Quick.” In that manner we could all read the salacious novel at the same time. We eventually concluded that the enemy had been effectively neutralized, and in the absence of orders to the contrary we returned to our duties in the interior of Kimpo Air Base.

But I digress—on to Georgia and its peaches.

In 1952 television was in its infancy—there were no cameras on the dock in San Francisco, not so much as a box-Brownie, nor were there any cute and curvaceous blonds (neither male nor female) with microphones waiting to congratulate us on our return to “the land of round doorknobs and big PXs” (doors in Japan were fitted with handles rather than knobs, and Post Exchanges were small).

We were met at the end of the gangplank by a Red Cross Welcome Wagon, a vehicle-drawn wooden affair fitted with flip-up sides, staffed by two ladies who would have been far more comfortable in a rest-home, knitting and cross-stitching items for their great-grandchildren. Instead they volunteered, on a normal day in San Francisco (foggy and drizzling rain), to greet and welcome American GIs returning from combat tours in Korea, and to offer and dispense lukewarm coffee and soggy donuts.

The coffee was lukewarm and the doughnuts were soggy, but the ladies’ smiles and their welcoming words were real. I hope God blessed them for that —I know I did.

My original enlistment was for three years, but that enlistment was extended by one year, courtesy of Harry S Truman, our president at the time. On my return from Korea I began that final year at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Georgia, an advanced pilot training installation with Lockheed T-33 single-engine jet aircraft, a tandem two-seat version of Lockeed’s famous F-80 Shooting Star. I lived in enlisted quarters on base with a hodge-podge group of hooch-mates, including one who had found the love of his life in Douglas, Georgia, a small town located a considerable distance from the air base.

We’ll call him George, because that was his name.

Love-smitten George drove a 1947 Cadillac convertible which unfortunately was badly damaged when its driver, returning from visiting his girlfriend, traveling late at night and at high-speed on a narrow two-lane highway in an area which had no fences and in which cows, hogs, horses, sheep and other assorted domestic animals (and wild animals, or course) were allowed to roam free, attempted to have his Cadillac, with the top down, occupy a cow’s space when the cow started across the road. The two moving objects met in the center of the road and the results were predictable. The car was badly damaged and required extensive repairs. The cow was damaged beyond repair and died, expiring in the rear seat with all four feet in the air, having landed there on her back after flipping up and over the windshield following contact with the Cadillac’s grill.

At this point the reader may feel that, in the words of Hillary Clinton concerning General Petraeus’ report on the war in Iraq, suspension of disbelief is required, but the story is true. If one concedes that something is possible, one should therefore concede that it may have happened. Since George and the cow are not available to support or deny it (both now graze in greener pastures), the story should be allowed to stand and be accepted on its own merits—such as they are.

While the Cadillac was undergoing renovation, George negotiated a weekend date with his sweetheart, a girl who lived some 60 miles from the base and who would eventually become his wife. He begged and pleaded with me, on bended knees (yes, literally) to let him borrow my car. Not wishing to thwart his plans and spoil his weekend, I reluctantly let him use it, warning him to check the engine oil level. He did, but managed to leave the hood unlatched and, apparently at high speed, the hood flew up and was badly crumpled near its hinges at the windshield. I managed, with my aircraft mechanic’s tools, to make the car drivable and told George that he had seriously undermined our friendship, and that under no circumstances would he ever again use my car or anything else I owned.

With his Cadillac still in the hospital, George came to me a couple of weeks later with a highly unlikely tale about a lovely girl, a cousin and roommate of his sweetheart. He said that he had told her about a friend (me), and that she was interested and would commit to a blind date if I agreed, and therefore I should go with him, in my car of course, to meet her and keep that date. I tried mightily to refuse, but because the girl was described as a real “Georgia peach” in such glowing terms, I agreed to the blind date.

JanieinGreenI took this photo in Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C. in 1983, our 31st year of marriage. The girl was everything George said she was, but our blind date was a disaster, a calamity comparable to the Titanic sinking and to every hurricane that ever hit the Gulf coast. She was not expecting me, and considered me nothing more than George’s friend, acting as his chauffeur. There was never a blind-date. The story was a ruse designed to move George the 60 miles needed to be with his sweetheart. The adage says “all’s fair in love and war,” but this was not fair—for George, perhaps, but not for me and not for my “date.”

She agreed, rather reluctantly it seemed, to go out with us for a movie and burgers, so the four of us spent several hours in my car that evening, hours which included “dragging Main” (very few of us remain who remember that pastime) and a drive-in movie, and later Cokes and burgers at a drive-in restaurant. At both drive-in locations my date stayed glued to her door with a firm grasp on the handle, rejecting any moves or suggestions on my part. I, of course, was pretty well ostracized and stranded in my position at the steering wheel. Meanwhile George and his girlfriend, at both drive-in locations, made out effectively and noisily in the back seat. The carhop at the drive-in placed her tray on my door, and I managed to take out some of my frustration by refusing to pass items to the couple in the back—they had to reach over the front seat for burgers, fries and drinks. In retrospect I realized that my actions, or lack thereof, did not endear me to anyone, neither to my “date” nor to the couple in the back seat.

We parted that night with both of us resolved never to darken our respective doorways again, and that any future interaction, dates or otherwise, was out of the question. The resolutions were unspoken but we both acknowledged them at a later time. However, my resolve faded as my memories of the girl I had met grew stronger. After a few very long days I managed to arrange a rematch, and eventually I won the championship.

That’s it—that’s when, where and how I met a girl, the Georgia peach who became my wife in a union forged at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 13, 1952—a union which is well on its way to 57 years and one which will last forever.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 

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Unto you this day a child was born . . .

DISCLAIMER: There is a possibility, albeit slight, that some viewers may associate this title with a different birth, one mentioned in the King James version of the Holy Bible (Luke 2:1) wherein it is said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Granted, there appears to be a certain similarity but the relationship is purely coincidental—please be assured that this posting refers to a different child, in a different time, in a different place and under remarkably different circumstances. To those who are familiar with the biblical passage and thus recognize the similarity, I offer my congratulations and my respect.

To continue with my posting:

September in West Central Alabama is a pleasant month—a beautiful month, with foliage exploding in a riotous collage of colors. The days are cool and the skies are clear, and in 1932 the smell of wood smoke was in the air. In that era most homes in Alabama’s rural areas were lighted by kerosene lamps and heated by open fireplaces, and that would continue for several more years until electricity finally made its way to my place of birth, a farmhouse well off the beaten path, located in a thickly forested area some five miles south of Vernon, the county seat of Lamar County, Alabama.

The small clapboard house built on piers is long-gone, replaced with a modern brick-and-mortar edifice with electric lighting, gas heating, air conditioning, computers and telephones. Moreover, the locations of the garbage can and toilet have been reversed—now the garbage can is outside the house and the privy, formerly an outdoor toilet, is now inside.

The smoke came from fireplace chimneys and kitchen stovepipes. Smoke from rich pine chunks, burning in cast-iron stoves, and hardwood oak burning in open fireplaces emerged from stovepipes and chimneys to merge and fill the air with a scent both sweet and pungent. Since fall was hog-killing time in rural Alabama on most farms, some of the smoke came from fires laid around and under iron wash-pots. The water in the pots had to be at, or near, its boiling point before dipping the carcasses of freshly killed hogs in it, a process necessary to loosen the hog bristles so they could be cleanly scraped from the skin.

Shortly before midnight on September 18, 1932 a country doctor completed the successful delivery of a boy baby, the seventh and final child of the 35-year old mother. After he congratulated her and voiced his post-natal instructions, he turned his horse and buggy around and set off on the return trip to his home in Vernon, a small town some five miles to the north. He arrived there on September 19 during the wee small hours of the morning. Though sleepy and tired from his arduous day, he felt obligated to record the birth before retiring from his labors. Because of that tiredness, perhaps, he mistakenly recorded the baby’s birth as 19 September rather than 18 September.

I was that child, and because my mother said I was born on the eighteenth of September, each year on that date I added another year to my age, a process which would continue for many years. The year 1949 was an important milestone in my life. In that year I wanted to join—nay, urgently needed to join—the US Army and I had no birth certificate, so I traveled (hitch-hiked) to Vernon to seek the doctor who delivered me. I found him in his office and told him I was in search of a document showing my date of birth.

In order to know where to begin his search, the doctor needed to know my age and the year I was born. I told him I was 17 years old, born on September 18, 1931. He found his pen-and-ink record of my birth in a huge ledger and noted that I was not 17—I was 16, and I was born on September 19, 1932, not September 18, 1931. He said that was what the ledger showed, and that was what would be reflected by any document he might issue. I was unnamed in his ledger, so he consented to accept the name I gave him (I have often regretted giving him my real name—shucks, I could have been anybody I wanted to be!).

I apologized for my “little white lie” and explained that I needed to be 17 years old, the minimum age required to join the army with parental consent (otherwise the minimum age was 18). I explained that my mother was willing—eager, actually—to sign a false document. My pleas were rejected, and I left the doctor’s office with a certified document showing my date of birth as September 19, 1932.

No matter—where there’s a will there’s a way. The Army recruiting sergeant (a very resourceful recruiter who, at that time, had successfully achieved his recruiting quota for 12 consecutive years) took a bottle of ink eradicator, and deftly using the bottle’s tiny brush to apply the liquid, removed the “2” from the 1932, and placed the birth certificate in an upright Royal typewriter (the state of the art at that time). After several tedious moments he was satisfied that he had the “1” key appropriately placed. He struck the key firmly and—voila!—a “1” appeared in the exact spot where the “2” had been, perfectly aligned with the “3” in 1932. With that one stroke of a typewriter key and its resulting imprint, I officially became one year older.

The rest, as some are wont to say, is history. My mother (my sole guardian) willingly and unashamedly signed the paper attesting to my age and thereby giving her permission for me to enlist, and I was scheduled for a swearing-in ceremony. However, before that time came the Army recruiter had made his monthly quota for that service and enlistments were closed. He told me I could wait until the Army recruiting quota opened the following month, or I could go into the US Air Force immediately.

I accepted the Air Force offer without hesitation and was duly sworn-in, and on the morning of March 7, 1949, shortly after my mother had taught me how to to make a Windsor knot in a necktie, I boarded a train in Columbus, Mississippi (note: 2-digit codes for states had not yet been developed) bound for New Orleans. In that city I changed to a Southern Pacific train, the Sunset Limited headed for California.

In the midst of a gaggle of other enlistees, I left the train at Sunset Station in San Antonio, Texas and presented myself, all 110 pounds of me, at the tender age of 16 years, five months and 18 days, to a burly military policeman. That worthy used some really colorful language to form us into some semblance of a military formation, a formation which he strained mightily to maintain while we waited for the bus which would transport us to Lackland Air Force Base to begin basic training.

My association with the United States Air Force lasted 22 years, plus several more months and a few more days. As one might expect, events of those years now threaten viewers with an infinite number of additional inane blog postings.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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