School began for me in 1951, and as I recall it was a very wet year. The road in front of our house was dirt until it rained; then it became mud with tire tracks. Our road was named Homestead Road, and end-to-end it was about a mile long. In the winter we called it the Muddy Mile.
There were 26 kids on our road ranging from me in the first grade to Clayton in the twelfth grade. Not everyone had a rain coat, and nobody had boots. By the time we got on the bus, we had muddy feet, wet hair, and most had wet wool coats. A rainy day on the bus was a smelly affair, and the bag lunches did not help. Those tuna, egg, and onion sandwiches were the worst.
My rain coat was yellow, and it came with a hat that must have been a triple extra large. I could not see out when it was placed on my head. I tried to leave it home but Mama fussed. I left it in the library but the teacher made a fuss. Once I left it on the bus but the driver made a fuss. One afternoon Daddy was burning trash in the barrel. It was a nice hot roaring fire. It ate that hat in 30 seconds; nobody fussed. I wore that yellow rubber rain coat for three years. In 1954 our road was paved and the bus picked us up at the door. I never wore that indestructible rain coat again and was happy to leave it home. By the time I parked that old yellow rain coat, all of the bigger boys had written their girlfriends’ names on it with a ball point ink pen. I did not object because they all chewed tobacco and might spit in a kid’s pocket.
While in high school I found a job at the Cities Service gasoline station pumping gasoline, checking oil and wiping windshields. People buy gasoline when it rains, and they want the oil checked and the windshield wiped too. The station was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer, so it was Sawyers Cities Service. I did what I was told because they were paying me .75 cents per hour and I enjoyed tinkering with cars. Most of the customers were real nice; a few were real grumpy but I tried to treat them all the same way, even on rainy days. I always said, “Hello, may I fill her up”? Some had smart remarks like yeah if you can for two bucks. When gasoline went up from 59 cents to 61 cents per gallon, a few customers blamed me and asked if I had gotten a big fat raise.
There was one fat County Cop who never bought gasoline or anything but would drive the Cop car up, hand me a dime, and say, “get me a Pepsi and wipe the windshield, boy”. He wrecked two Cop cars and got fired. Looked like justice got around to him, too!
Mrs. Sawyer was a nice lady who kept a gun in her desk drawer. She dipped “Tube Rose Snuff”. She could spit 10 foot to the trash barrel. Gosh I hated to dump that nasty barrel. Once a drunk said, “I just might rob you, old lady.” She held the gun on him until the deputies took him away. The deputy said, “Mrs. Sawyer, where did you get that flare gun?” She spit in the trash barrel and said, “My old man was in the Navy.”
Teenaged kids were more respectful in those days and not just because she kept a flare pistol that looked like a shot gun. I came to work one rainy Friday afternoon, Mrs. Sawyer said, “You need a rain coat.” I was afraid to say no as she passed me that large yellow rubber rain coat. It had big block letters across the back that spelled: “SAWYER’S CITIES SERVICE, we give Green Stamps.” She smiled and said, “Well it is a little large but you will grow into it some day.” Fear shook me to the bone. She thought I planned to retire from SAWYER’S CITIES SERVICE. I never did tell her; she retired first.
There were two rain coat rules: Keep It Clean and Do Not Take It Home. Some of the guys made jokes and one called me Gorton because I looked like the sailor on the Gorton Cod Fish box. I just smiled and thought to myself, “well I am dry and 75 cents per hour is pretty good for a kid with plans to buy a new Corvette some day, But I bought a new red 911 Porsche instead.
Then in 1967 I received the letter I had expected from Uncle Sam. “Greetings, report to the Portsmouth Recruiting Station 9am December 7th.” I had previously passed the physical and been found to be a Prime Grade A specimen ready for duty.
First we rode a bus to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, but there was no space for us there. We were put on a train and shipped to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. My gasoline station training had taught me to be respectful to all (Genius to Nit Wit). In the Army the correct response at basic training is, “Yes, Sergeant!” Every mistake was paid for with push-ups, and asking extra questions or making smart remarks could cost 200 push-ups.
When issued our equipment and clothing we learned that a suitcase is now a duffle bag, work shoes are now combat boots, and your Sunday suit is now a Class A Uniform. The rain coat is now a poncho, which is a rubber blanket with a hole in the middle. My mistake that day was asking if they had any yellow ponchos. As I recall that cost me 50 push-ups.
The poncho was a trick some low bidder pulled on the Army, and it was a cruel trick pulled on GI Joe. When deployed it hung on the shoulders but stopped at the knees, front and back! It was very effective unless it rained, then your work shoe boots filled with WATER! One of the guys said, “You had a good idea, bright yellow poncho with a target on the back and big letters that say, SHOOT ME, put me out of my misery.”
I had to wear the poncho while in the Infantry, but helicopter crews get green rain suits, water resistant pants and jackets, much better. Most *Hueys did leak some.
I did cross-train with the Military Police while in the North Carolina Army National Guard. Much to my surprise they issued me a long yellow rubber rain coat. I realized that I had come full circle and was back in the first grade. I was disappointed, but I did not ask if they had a green one; I learned that lesson my first 25 minutes in the ARMY.
- A helicopter built by Bell Helicopter in Texas. Actually designated a Utility Helicopter UH-1 named “Iroquois” all US ARMY helicopters were named after American Indian Tribes. We the soldiers gave it the nick name “HUEY”, which results if you try to pronounce “UH”. Originally designed to be a flying ambulance… it became the primary troop carrier and the one I flew was an ambulance converted to a “Gun Ship” with rockets and mini guns.
- The real hero of the Vietnam War, “Mama Huey” was our ride, there were a few painted white with big red crosses… unarmed medavac birds officially designated “DUST OFF”. The enemy shot them full of holes but the HUEY just refused to give up; she brought us home bleeding three kinds of oil, fuel and smoking like the mosquito truck.
- The sound of that whop, whop, whop as the rotor blades beat the air is still a special sound to all VIETNAM Veterans… the Huey designed in the late ‘50s is still in service, an old Veteran we love and respect.