Growing up in a small town, you get to know many of the people who live there. You get to know some more closely than others.
So when one of the folks you grew up with passes, you feel it. And when it turns out they were a vet – and you’re a vet yourself – you feel it a bit more. That’s especially true when that small town is near a major military installation.
And it really hits home when they were also your best friend’s dad.
. . .
I got the word earlier today that my best friend lost his dad. He’d been in declining health for a number of years.
I saw him over the holidays. He wasn’t doing too well then, and I wondered if I’d see him again.
Still, the end was sudden. And it was from a completely unexpected cause.
His given name was Dale. I’ll use that name here, though he didn’t normally use it himself.
. . .
As I recall, I first met Dale well after I first met his son. At the time his son and I met, he was on his final tour of duty with the US Army.
I later got to know him better. And damn if I don’t wish today I’d had been able to spend more time with him. He was a fine man to know.
Dale was from a smallish town in Oklahoma. He was a short man, and gregarious as hell. His wife was much the same, except that she was from Texas vice Oklahoma.
Yeah, the week of the Texas-Oklahoma football game was kinda interesting in their house. (smile)
. . .
Dale served a full career in the Army. He enlisted in the early 1950s (1950, I think); he could remember being paid $75 a month as a new private – and catching grief from the drill sergeants for being grossly overpaid, since a year or two prior the monthly pay for a recruit was $50 per month.
He served in the Orient. I’m pretty sure he did a tour in Korea (though I can’t say for sure if that was during the Korean War or afterwards), and in Japan as well. He was in a remote detachment in Japan on advisory duty when my best friend was in diapers.
His family accompanied him on that remote tour. Yeah, he had a few interesting stories about that. One such story involved the first attempt at disposable diapers – which didn’t work out very well. Let’s just say they were about as durable as a wet paper towel, and lasted about as long. (smile)
. . .
Dale made Sergeant, then Staff Sergeant. But not long after that tour in Japan, he applied for flight school. He was accepted; he passed flight school and received his Warrant and his wings. He later became an instructor pilot.
During his career, Dale did at least one tour at Fort Benning – and at least one in Germany. And he did at least one tour in Vietnam. As a kid, I didn’t ask Dale all that much about his service, and he didn’t volunteer much. I seem to remember that he mentioned a second, earlier tour in Vietnam before his tour in Germany. But I could be wrong.
Dale’s final tour of duty in the Army was in Vietnam – as a CW3. He returned from Vietnam, and retired from the Army.
On return from Vietnam, he found out that he’d been selected for CW4. But he’d put in his retirement request before going to Vietnam, and it had been approved. So he’d have to request that his retirement be rescinded to accept the new rank and serve a while longer to retire at that grade. After what was I’m sure some serious soul-searching, he decided to retire as planned.
Dale didn’t generally talk much about his time in uniform. But you could occasionally get him to talk about his career. And when he did, he could certainly keep your attention; he was a damn good storyteller. He was willing to talk about the good days in Vietnam. (Even as a kid, I had the good sense to not ask about the bad ones.)
He had a few decent stories about his time in Vietnam.
Besides being gregarious, Dale was a bit of a . . . well, let’s just say he didn’t always let regulations get in the way. One story he related about his time in Vietnam involved the acquisition of a substantial quantity of plywood through “other than routine supply channels” – using an aircraft and a sling-load assembly – so that his unit could build their flight surgeons a building suitable for performing minor surgeries. (According to Dale, both circumcisions and hemorrhoid removal were apparently somewhat commonly done in Vietnam; I think he said tonsillectomies were also common.)
A second, related story he told was an account of what happened one day afterwards when their base received an attack during one guy’s minor surgery. Let’s just say the story includes the image of a naked guy wearing a steel pot and boots with a rifle – and a numb ass – manning a foxhole while cursing a blue streak and hoping like hell that the attack ends before the Novocain wears off. (Apparently it did.)
. . .
But after he retired, Dale wasn’t done serving quite yet.
He decided to stay in place, leading to my becoming best friends with his son. Dale found employment as a contractor: a rotary-wing instructor for the US Army Aviation Center. And for another roughly 20 years, he worked for a variety of contractors supporting the Aviation Center as an instructor training new Army aviators.
If you know anyone who went through Army rotary-wing flight school between the early 1970s and the very early 1990s, there’s a fair chance they had him as an instructor. He was quite good at what he did.
He had a couple of stories about that, too. One of them involved an unplanned autorotation (e.g., landing a helicopter after loss of power to the rotors) – while practicing autorotations no less – and while flying as instructor with an allied officer. Dale told the guy it was the “real McCoy”, and took control of the landing. The allied officer asked him after they had landed safely and were waiting for ground assistance to arrive, “What does this ‘real McCoy’ mean”? (The man was apparently unaware that the landing was a bona fide in-flight emergency.)
Unfortunately, Dale’s wife became seriously ill; her illness was terminal. So he retired permanently from his second career in the early 1990s, and cared for her for the last few months of her life.
. . .
He and his son stayed close their whole lives. They didn’t seem to ever do much of the usual father/son “head butting”.
For somewhat over another two decades after his wife passed, he lived quietly in the house that he’d bought after his retirement from the Army. But his health began a slow decline a few years after he lost his wife. During the last few years, his health had gotten pretty bad.
And yesterday he passed suddenly.
. . .
As far as I know, Dale wasn’t a highly decorated soldier. I don’t think he had a Purple Heart – if he did, he never mentioned it. I can’t find him on any list of Silver Star or Distinguished Flying Cross recipients. If he had any other awards for valor, he never mentioned those to me. Given his background and rank, I’m reasonably sure he had some Air Medals and at least one Bronze Star. But I’m really not sure what awards he had.
I also really don’t care. He was a damn fine soldier and pilot, and served when many others would not. He served his country in and out of uniform for forty-plus years. He was a helluva good man – and a helluva good person as well.
I’m damn glad I had the chance to see again him last month. And I’m honored to have known him.
Rest in peace, Chief. Rest in peace.
Note to our Naval/Marine/USAF readers: the term “Chief” is used in the Army as the informal title for a Chief Warrant Officer. Much like the term “Top” for First Sergeants, it’s generally used only by those who know the individual well, and with their permission.
I don’t think Dale would mind me calling him “Chief”.