His name was Dave, and the first time I met him I thought he was an old geezer. What hair he had left was white and he walked with a noticeable limp, aided by a cane. But there was nothing old about Dave. Not at all!
His daughter was visiting from California and called my office because she thought the world should know about Dave. I asked her why, and she said, “Because my daddy says every time they start a war, someone shoots him.”
Well, that was enough to get my attention, so I made an appointment to come and visit Dave the next day. As it turned out, Dave was only 68 years old, and now that I’m that age, it doesn’t seem all that old to me. Dave invited me into his little apartment in the senior residential home, and Trisha told me I probably wasn’t going to believe her father’s story so she went to fetch some scrapbooks from the bedroom while we talked.
“So, I hear people keep shooting you,” I said. “What’s that all about?”
Dave laughed and said, “Yep, it’s true. Whenever somebody starts a war, the first thing they do is shoot me. I don’t think anybody likes me.”
Tricia returned with three or four scrapbooks that had a lot of family pictures and several newspaper clippings about her father, including one story about him being on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, put them on the coffee table, and then sat down on the couch next to him as he began telling his story.
Dave grew up dirt poor on a sharecropper farm in the Mississippi Delta. Some of his earliest memories were of his mother taking him out to the cotton fields and him sitting on the ground while she picked cotton. Dave didn’t know how old he was at the time, but he spent many days sitting in the cotton patch as a child. He said at one point, he thought he might have been four or five years old but really couldn’t remember, he saw something moving into the cotton plants, and always a curious child, he reached out to grab it. It turned out to be a snake, and it bit him on his hand. Fortunately, it wasn’t venomous, but it seemed to set the pace for Dave’s life.
Later, he thought he was probably nine years old at the time, he was riding in the back of the family’s old truck on the way to town when a hog ran in front of the vehicle. His father swerved to avoid it, and Dave fell out onto the road, breaking his leg. He said his parents got all the way to town before they realized he wasn’t with them and had to come back and find him.
Dave said he hated everything about farm life. He hated the cotton patches, he hated the stinky outhouse, he hated the little shanty his folks lived in that was hot in the summer and wet every time it rained, from the many holes in the roof. He got a little bit of schooling but stopped going in the sixth grade. It wasn’t that he didn’t like school, but one day a prissy girl sitting next to him raised her hand and told the teacher he smelled and asked if she could sit somewhere else. Everyone in the classroom laughed at him, and Dave got up and left and never went back.
When World War II broke out, Dave went down to the recruiting office and tried to join up, but they laughed at him because he was only 14. So he waited until his birthday and then went to another recruiting office in another town, told them he was 17, and they said he would need his parent’s permission. He said the sergeant gave him some kind of form to fill out and he went next door to a soda fountain, borrowed a pen, filled it out and signed his father’s name to it. Dave said when he went back the next morning, he was pretty sure the recruiter recognized the fact that it was a forgery, but apparently he had a quota to fill, and the next thing Dave knew, he was in the Army.
After training at Camp Polk, Louisiana, they put his company on a train to California and then shipped them to the South Pacific. He said he went ashore someplace in the Solomon Islands a few days after the initial bombardment and invasion, and things were still pretty hot there. Dave was assigned to an infantry company, and their job was to check out enemy pillboxes built into the side of a cliff. “I was young and could climb like a monkey,” Dave told me, “so the next thing I knew, they had me crawling up the side of the cliff, clearing out those pillboxes. I’d get close to the entrance, throw a hand grenade in, and once it went off, I would poke my head in and look around with a flashlight.” Dave said he did this for five days, and suddenly as he was climbing up the side of yet another cliff, he felt a terrible pain in his left leg and was next thing he knew he was falling. The sniper’s bullet went in one side of his calf and out the other, and he was taken back to a field hospital.
It didn’t take long for the folks there to figure out that he was just a kid, and before he knew it, he was on a hospital ship headed back stateside. When he got to a base in California, a colonel chewed him out for lying about his age, then told him that as soon as he was 18 to come back because they needed soldiers like him. Then they put him on a train back to Mississippi.
He bided his time impatiently, and the day he turned 18, Dave was at the Army recruiter’s, signing up again. Based on his prior experience, Dave only had to undergo a couple of weeks of training before he found himself on another ship headed to the South Pacific. By then, it was 1945, and less than two months later the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and the war ended.
Like so many soldiers, Dave mustered out but then didn’t know what to do with himself. He had no interest in going back to the farm so he worked in a factory in California for a while, then went to Arizona to pick melons somewhere around Yuma, but that was too much like picking cotton, so he gave that up, and within a year he reenlisted.
Dave said the Army was the perfect place for him, “I got three hots and a cot, free clothes, and they even paid me. I couldn’t complain about that!” Dave made a career of the Army, and when the Korean War rolled around, he was a sergeant in an infantry platoon in an area several miles behind the main lines and he thought he had a really cushy deal. But a few months later, he was checking the positions of the night guards, making sure everyone was awake and alert when a small group of North Korean troops probed their lines. That’s when Dave got shot the second time. He held up his left arm to show me where the bullet had gone in and broken one of the bones. He spent some time in a field hospital and had a lot of trouble regaining full strength in that arm, so the Army sent him back to the States for rehabilitation, and then he was a drill sergeant for the rest of war.
Dave said he bounced around from different posts, mainly teaching new recruits how to be soldiers for the next 15 years or so. He was married and nearing 20 years in uniform, and beginning to think about retirement when things were starting to heat up in Vietnam. Dave figured maybe he’d have one last adventure, so he volunteered to serve there. He said his commanding officer didn’t want him to go and told him at age 38 he should leave the fighting to the younger guys, but Dave thought that maybe his experience could help keep somebody alive.
David didn’t recall exactly how long he had been in Vietnam before he got wounded for the last time, but it might have been a month or two. He said they were on patrol when a machine-gun opened up on them from a hidden position, and he was hit twice in the legs. One bullet shattered his left knee, and the other took out a fist-sized chunk of flesh in his right thigh. He said he remembered the medic working on him looking up at one of the other men and shaking his head, thinking their sergeant was a goner because he had lost so much blood. But somehow Dave managed to survive and was shipped home. His wounds were so severe that he was not able to go back on active duty, but he had his 20 years in by then and retired.
That was 30 years before I met him, and David spent much of that time living in the Phoenix area and running an automotive parts store before selling out and moving to the White Mountains. He had been widowed and had three children, one of whom was a career Air Force man.
The years and his wounds had been hard on Dave, and somewhere along the line, he developed emphysema, so an oxygen bottle was his constant companion. I looked in his scrapbooks and confirmed everything Dave had told me was true. Every time they started a war, someone shot him!
I enjoyed visiting with Dave, and I stopped by several times after that just to shoot the bull and listen to his stories.
Sometime in 1997, I got a call from Dave’s daughter, telling me that he had passed away. They buried him in Phoenix, next to his wife, and I went down to say my final goodbyes to my old friend, then I came home and wrote Dave’s obituary, including his line about every time they started a war someone shot him.
Time went by, and Dave crossed my mind once in a while and I felt honored to have known him. About 18 months after he died, I got a letter from Trisha. She opened it by asking me if I remembered Dave saying nobody liked him, because every time he went to war, they shot him. She said apparently he wasn’t very popular when he was dead either.
She had come to Arizona to visit her sister, who lived in Prescott, and they decided to drive down to Phoenix to visit their parents’ graves. It was the first time either of them had been there since Dave was laid to rest. When they got to the gravesite, they didn’t understand why their father’s headstone wasn’t there next to their mother’s, and they went to the cemetery office to complain. The manager insisted that the headstone was there, he had signed the papers when the headstone came in and put in the order for it to be mounted over the grave. The daughters insisted that it wasn’t there, so all three went back to the gravesite. As the sisters got out of their car and started walking to their mother’s grave, the cemetery manager asked where they were going. They said to the graves, and he said, “Your father is not over there, he’s over here,” pointing at least a dozen gravesites down. They insisted they had been to their father’s funeral and he was buried next to their mother.
Well, guess what? Whoever erected the gravestone put it in the wrong place. Some people would have been outraged by that, but Trisha and her sister, knowing their father’s history, thought it was hilarious. She said the cemetery manager probably thought they were crazy because they were laughing so hard they could barely stand up. When he asked what was going on, she just shook her head and said, “It doesn’t surprise us. Nobody likes Dave!”
The headstone was moved to its proper place, and as far as I know, wherever Dave is, he’s getting along with folks these days.
It’s Thursday, so it’s time for a new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is a four-book set of audiobooks from my pal Carol Ann Newsome’s popular Dog Park mystery series. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Being old doesn’t seem so old now that I’m old.
Great story Nick.
Great story about Dave. Especially because it’s true. You have also led a
charmed and interesting life.
I was going to the PHS hospital in San Francisco in the early 80’s, I was in my Coast Guard dress blues and there was this old guy standing by the top of the steps. He was on crutches and had an Army ball cap on that said “WW2, Korea, Vietnam”.
As I walked by be said, “Hey Coastie”. I stopped, then he said “I don’t like the coast guard, every time I’d see you guys you’re driving a boat that’s taking me to a beach where someone is going to shoot at me”. He smiled and wished me a good day.