A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Box of Cookies for Vietnam

Me, in my homemade Navy uniform.
My brother Gene was the first to be sent. When he graduated high school in the late 60's, the war in Vietnam was raging, and we all knew that being drafted was inevitable. So, since Daddy had served in the Navy in World War II, Gene decided that he, too, would be a Navy man. So, after completing Basic Training in San Diego, Gene soon found himself on his way to Southeast Asia.

Gene was stationed on an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Ranger. Just a couple of years earlier, the Ranger had been the scene of a horrific fire caused by the crash landing of a jet. But it was back in service by this time, and it became Gene's home.  He even got to see Bob Hope perform one of his Christmas shows on the ship.

All I knew of this place called Vietnam was what I heard other people talking about, or maybe from a story from Frank Blair on the Today Show in the mornings when I was waiting to leave for school. I just knew it was a place far away where young men had to go, and many of my classmates had brothers over there too. We did what we could to support Gene while he was serving his country. My Aunt Addie and Uncle Joe had gotten a new horse, a sweet natured little pony that Addie named Mollie De Ranger, in honor of Gene's ship. And Mama showed her support with boxes of cookies.

Gene in the radio room of the U.S.S. Ranger
Actually, Gene loved homemade chocolate icing spread between two graham crackers. So Mama would make up a giant box of icing, and Janet and I would help spread it on the graham crackers. I also performed an occasional quality check, to verify that the combination tasted right. Mama would carefully wrap the cookies in wax paper, and place them in a box for shipping. Then, a week or so later, a letter from Gene would arrive describing what a hit the package had been with is shipmates, and requesting a resupply. We would then gladly begin the process again.

Phil aboard the U.S.S. Saratoga, off the coast of Vietnam.
About a year or two after Gene enlisted, it became time for my brother Phil to make his decision. He too chose to join the Navy. He was assigned to the U.S.S. Saratoga, or the "Sinking Sara," as it was lovingly known. Before sailing to Southeast Asia, the Saratoga was based in Pensacola, Florida. Phil and his wife Glenda lived there, and I once sent the money for Phil to buy me a tape recorder at the PX there. I'll never forget my excitement when it arrived in the mail. It had that great, electronic smell and I put it to great use, recording songs off the radio and even a few things from TV (pre-VCR days!)

Phil bought himself an 8mm movie camera at the PX, and made some great movies of planes landing on the aircraft carrier. It was a fascinating thing to watch, as the F-4 Phantoms came in at blazing speed and managed to catch what looked like a thin cable with a hook extending from the aircraft's tail. I bought a plastic model of an F-4 Phantom and put it together, and I remember being amazed at the precision that had to have been required to land one of those on a ship.

Occasionally, Phil or Gene would get to come in on leave. The first time Gene came in, I was really impressed by his Navy uniform. Gene offered to make the old white sweatshirt I was wearing into a copy of a uniform, and proceeded to take a magic marker and start drawing. He drew a Navy tie, and drew on a nice collection of medals as well as some stripes on the sleeve. By that time, Phil was helping him, and when they began to draw on the back I heard some muffled laughing. When I looked in the mirror, they had drawn a large "P.O.W" on the back, and informed me that it meant Prisoner of War. I didn't want to be a P.O.W. and protested loudly, so Gene drew a series of X's through the "P.O.W" and told me that was the Navy way of saying I was not a P.O.W. That sounded right to me.

Phil and his wife Glenda, along with Mama and my sister
Janet at the Fort Smith airport, waiting on Phil's return flight.
Leaves were fun, but they were always followed by the inevitable trip to the Fort Smith Airport to say good-bye again. I remember those trips very well; the sadness of knowing that we were sending our loved one away, but at the same time the excitement of seeing the big Frontier and Braniff airplanes landing and taking off. We never said much on the long drive back to Waldron.

By the time I graduated High School in 1974, the draft was no longer an issue. The United States was still withdrawing troops from Vietnam, but I don't think anybody had been drafted for a couple of years. I had dreaded it for several years. I always assumed that I would also join the Navy, and I knew from stories my brothers had told me that part of Basic Training included being thrown into a pool and having to swim your way out. I was particular horrified by tales from my brother Gary, who had joined the Navy Reserve and who, being a non-swimmer like myself, had actually experienced this nightmarish scenario. Gary said that as he was struggling to stay afloat, one of the men in charge had extended a long wooden pole to him, and as he grasped it to climb up, the man just let it slip through his hands, leaving Gary to get out as best as he could. Somehow, Gary survived.

You know, maybe I should have considered the Air Force...