Men of a Certain Age

At a wedding reception I attended earlier this month, my wife and I found ourselves at a table with 6 other people. Three of them were men about my age, fellow Baby Boomers. All of us were draft age during the Vietnam War.

As we talked, the subject of the Draft Lottery came up. On December 1, 1969, the United States held the first Draft Lottery since World War II. 366 blue plastic capsules, each containing a day of the year, were placed in a large container and drawn out one at a time. The future course of life for many males born between January 1, 1944 and December 31, 1950, depended on when the capsule containing their birthdate was drawn.

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These Blue Balls Delivered Bad News to Many

Without hesitation, each man at the table spouted their number. 316, 323, 325. Mine was 263. I thought my number was high but at that table I was the low man on the totem pole.

The draft lottery didn’t matter to me. I had already served in the Army National Guard for 3 years when the draft lottery took place. I owe that fortuitous decision to my parents. When I graduated from high school in 1966, the Vietnam War was starting to heat up. Not overly excited about starting college immediately, I informed my parents I planned to join the Army and go to Vietnam. Ah, nothing like being 18 years old and knowing everything.

Before I actually signed my name on the dotted line, my Dad suggested I consider joining the National Guard instead. It was a six-year commitment with six months active duty, and 5 1/2 years of Guard Drills one weekend each month and two weeks active duty every summer.

“You can go in for six months, see if you like it, and if you do you can tell them you want to stay on active duty and go to Vietnam. If you don’t like it, you can come home after six months and go to college” reasoned my Dad.

Somewhat incredibly, I took my parent’s advice. On December 10, 1966, I enlisted in the National Guard. On February 27, 1967, I boarded a bus in Springfield, Mo. bound for Columbus, Ga., home of Fort Benning. After spending 30 hours on a Greyhound Bus or in a Greyhound Bus station, I arrived at the United States Army Training Center at Fort Benning, Ga. There I would spend the next 9 weeks at Sand Hill learning to march, make a bunk to Army standards, learn to fire an M-1 rifle, and do a lot of push-ups.

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A Few Fellow members of Echo Company, First Battalion, First Brigade, aka “Trainees”

After Basic Training, I rode another bus to Fort Rucker, Alabama for training as a helicopter repairman. I was back home in time to start the Fall semester at Southwest Missouri State College, now known as Missouri State University. I was in the best shape of my life, and I was very happy to be walking the halls of college rather than the jungles of Vietnam.

Tonight, about 4 hours from when I am writing this, a good friend of mine whose life took a different turn will be boarding a plane bound for Washington, D.C. On December 1, 1969, his birthdate was the 43rd drawn, a sure ticket to the draft. He served 2 years, half of it in Germany, and came home to resume his life. Tonight he will join 104 other veterans on an Honor Flight. Tomorrow they will visit the War Memorials in Washington on a well-planned, very tight schedule that will deliver them back to Missouri before midnight tomorrow night.

My hat is off to Central Missouri Honor Flight, a worthy cause serving those who have served their Country.

Central Mo Honor Flight

The ultimate honor belongs to those who answered the call and sacrificed their lives. In Vietnam alone, 58,220 died, and thousands more were injured.

Thank you to all who have served.

If you want to see how you would have fared in the 1969 Draft Lottery, find your birthday on this chart. September 14 was the  first date drawn.  June 8th was the 366th number chosen. No one above 195 was drafted. The last draft call was December 7, 1972.

draft lottery

The Lure of the Appalachian Trail

Our Summer Vacation – Day 13 continued

On our drive from Valdosta, Ga to Amicalola Falls State Park, my wife and I passed through Cordele, Ga.  Inside the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor’s Center is a display honoring a man from Cordele, Gene Espy.

In 1951, at age 24, Mr. Espey became the second man to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  The display contains the equipment he carried, much of it military surplus.

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At 50 pounds, Mr. Espy’s equipment is 20 pounds heavier than today’s hikers carry

Here is a list of the items he took.  None were high tech or ultralight or carbon fiber.

espey equipment

In 2008, Gene Espy published an autobiography titled The Trail of My Life: The Gene Espy Story.  Earlier this year I purchased a copy of that book on-line.  When I opened it to begin reading, I was surprised to find Mr. Espy’s autograph and the inscription “Best Wishes and Good Hiking to Eric”.  It was dated Sept. 10, 2009.

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I also have the book written by the very first A.T. thru-hiker Earl V. Shaffer.  Mr. Shaffer completed his hike in 1948 after serving in the South Pacific during WW II.  His best friend had lost his life during fighting on Iwo Jima and Earl Shaffer’s goal was to “walk the Army out of my system”.  His book is titled Walking With Spring – The story that inspired thousands of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.  

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In 1955,  Emma Gatewood, aka “Grandma Gatewood”, became the first female to thru-hike the A.T.  She was 67, wore Converse All-Star tennis shoes and carried a shower curtain for shelter.  Prior to her hike she told her family she was “going for a walk”. Grandma Gatewood ended up hiking the A.T. multiple times and also hiked the Oregon Trail.  She once said “I get faster as I get older.”

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Speaking of fast, on August 28, 2018, Karel Sabbe (age 28) set a new speed record for hiking the A.T.  Mr. Sabbe, a dentist from Ghent, Belgium, completed his hike in 41 days, 7 hours, 39 minutes.  That’s an average of over 52 miles a day.  The previous record was 45 days, 12 hours, 15 minutes, set by Joe McConaughy in 2017.  The average successful thru-hiker takes about 5 months to hike the 2191 miles thru 14 states from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

You can find the link to his story here:

https://www.runnersworld.com/news/a22865359/karel-sabbe-breaks-appalachian-trail-speed-record/

When Earl Shaffer, the very first thru-hiker, started his hike in 1948, he encountered a family having a picnic in the Georgia countryside.  Seeing Mr. Shaffer carrying his backpack, the husband asked “Howdy, where you headin’?”

“To Maine” replied Earl Shaffer, eliciting shock from the couple and their small son.

Finally the wife spoke up.

“Y’all mean to say you are walkin’ all the way to Maine, over the mountains, all by yourself, and carryin’ that thing?”

“Yes Ma’am” replied Earl.

The woman shook her head, chuckled, and said “I’m glad I got sense, Mister. I’m glad I got sense.”

Since Earl Shaffer’s hike in 1948, over 15,000 hikers have successfully thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Earl started his book with a verse he wrote

There’s a lone footpath along the crest                                                                                                     of the Appalachian Chain,                                                                                                                 On the cloud-high hills so richly blest                                                                                                      with sun and wind and rain.

Today’s hikers typically inspire themselves with a shorter, less romantic verse”

No rain, no pain, no Maine.

Unable to resist at least a short hike before leaving, my wife dropped me off at the top of beautiful Amicalola Falls.  As she drove back around to the bottom, I hiked a mile thru woods, over rocks, and along ridges back to the Visitor’s Center.

Then it was west, winding through the hills & hollers of north Georgia, to I-75.

One more night on the road and we were home.

We had learned a lot, made some great memories, and lost a friend during our journey.

After 8 different beds on a 14 night road trip, it was good to get back home.

Without bedbugs.

 

 

Finding Our Way Across Georgia

Our Summer Vacation – Day 12

After a good night’s sleep in Doc Holliday’s hometown, Valdosta, Ga., my wife and I were ready to cover some new ground on our way back to Missouri.

But first, breakfast!

The last time I stayed in Valdosta (1967), my $8 room did not include breakfast.  In 2018, our $125 room did.  It was a good breakfast, but not worth the extra $118.  Still, in 1967 I was earning $1.35 an hour, so $8 amounted to about a day’s pay in those days and I thought it was an outrageous sum to pay for a place to sleep.  On that 1967 trip I covered 3000 miles and spent a total of $32 on gasoline which I charged on my new Gulf credit card.  Gas prices averaged thirty cents a gallon in those days.

My wife and I had two goals for the day:

  1. Survive Atlanta traffic, which was not new ground for us; and
  2. Find our way to Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park, gateway to the Appalachian Trail, which was new ground for us.
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Driving in Atlanta is not for sissies

We entered Atlanta well before lunch.  My heart rate increased as traffic thickened.  Atlanta traffic is notoriously bad.  And it has been my experience that if you do not drive AT LEAST 20 mph OVER the speed limit you risk being run over at worst or receiving multiple one-finger salutes at best.  I try to stay with the flow – that’s usually 25-30 mph over the posted speed limit.  Occasionally, an Atlanta police car will suddenly appear out of nowhere, lights flashing, speed past our car, and make a traffic stop.  How they decide who to stop is a mystery to me.

As it turned out, Google maps directed us through the bowels of Atlanta with a minimum of hassle and spit us out heading northeast toward the Chattahoochie National Forest, home of Amicalola Falls.

As the skyline of Atlanta receded in the rearview mirror the nice lady on Google maps spoke up:

“Exit right.  Then turn left.”

We obeyed to the letter.  We exited Highway 19, turned left, crossed over Highway 19 and awaited further instructions.

“Make a U-turn.”

Huh?  I HATE it when she says that.  But I obeyed, recrossing Highway 19 heading the opposite direction.

“Turn left”.

That put us right back on the same Highway 19 she had requested we leave a few minutes earlier.  Guess she thought a curly que would be a nice addition to our route.   95% of the time Google Map instructions are perfect.  The other 5% of the time is why we still carry an Atlas in our car.

bojangles chicken

Not having had lunch, we stopped in Dahlonega, Ga., located on the southern edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest.  After a quick stop at the Food Lion grocery store for bottled water & snacks and a stop at Bojangles Famous Chicken for a carry-out box of famous chicken & biscuits, we were ready to explore Amicalola Falls.  As we pulled out of the Bojangles parking lot, I suddenly heard a siren and saw lights flashing in the rearview mirror.

Rats!

I pulled over.  The police car sped past me toward some emergency elsewhere.

Whew.  I am never quite sure if a Missouri license plate brands us as Yankees or fellow southerners in Georgia.

The scenery was gorgeous as we neared & entered the State Park.  We paid a small entry fee and received a guide to the Park and a permit to hang on our rearview mirror.  Parking was scarce, but we finally found a spot near a picnic table.  We exited our car to claim that picnic table which was located in a beautiful, shady area near the Visitors Center.

The Visitor’s Center in Amicalola Falls State Park near where we had our picnic lunch is where all thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail check in & receive their permit before officially starting their 2191 mile hike to Maine.  Registration for approval to hike the A.T. is typically months before you plan to begin a thru-hike.

This was the same place where, three months earlier, my brother had hoisted his 30 lb pack onto his back, crossed under an archway, and started hiking the 8 1/2 mountainous miles one must traverse to even get to the 2191 mile Appalachian Trail.

More than a few hikers have called it quits before even reaching the official A.T.

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I love to hike and found that standing in front of this arch is like standing on hiker holy ground.

But this day, under a threatening sky, I hiked from our car to our picnic table. Instead of a 30 lb pack, I carried some cold drinks and a 12-piece box of Bojangles Famous chicken and biscuits.  It was great.  I understand how it got famous.

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My wife, Val, awaiting our picnic lunch

The trail could wait.

It was  time for lunch.

Backward, Turn Backward, Oh Time in its Flight

Our Summer Vacation – Day 11

Interstate 75 and "Alligator Alley" in the Florida Everglades
I-75 From Fort Lauderdale to Naples – aka “Alligator Alley”

Our last morning in Fort Lauderdale was a whirlwind.  Packing the cars, taking a headcount, checking out of the condo where we had spent a great week – then it was another two-car parade to the Fort Lauderdale airport where we dropped our son and his family off at the curb.

They would be sleeping in their own beds that night.

My wife and I were headed back to 1959 by car.

When my wife was a kid, a summer road trip was an annual event.  Along with her Mom, Dad and two brothers, my wife vividly recalls exploring the United States by car.  One of those trips, circa 1959, included a visit to Weeki Wachi, a roadside attraction north of Tampa on U.S. 19 featuring real, live mermaids.

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The underwater theater at Weeki Wachi Spring

The Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show was the fulfillment of the dream of former Navy Frogman, Newton Perry.  In World War II he taught Frogmen how to navigate underwater.  After the war, he scouted out pretty girls and taught them how to be mermaids with the aid of air hoses concealed in the scenery.   Newton Perry’s typical mermaid could drink Grapette, eat a banana, do the ballet – all with a smile – twenty-feet under the surface of Weeki Wachee Spring.

My wife never forgot that.

On Day 11 of our vacation we hoped to end up at Weeki Wachee, now a Florida State Park, but still featuring daily mermaid shows.

To get there, we would have to navigate “Alligator Alley”, the nickname for the stretch of I-75 that traverses south Florida from Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico.

That actually sounds more treacherous than it was.  Alligator Alley passes through the Everglades and Big Cypress National Park.  Though there is no telling how many alligators saw us, we didn’t see any alligators.  That might have changed had we been unlucky enough to have a flat.

Though the alligators didn’t slow us down, road construction, traffic signals and beach traffic did.  By mid-afternoon it became clear we would not make it to Weeki Wachee before its 5 pm closing time.  Since the next day was Sunday, the park didn’t open until 10 am.

Weeki Wachee would have to wait.

My wife wasn’t overly disappointed.  What she REALLY wants is to take our 8 year-old granddaughter to see the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee and pass those memories to the next generation.

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Though the Weeki Wachee sign states “You’re Probably In Time For the Show!”, we weren’t

Whenever I revisit a spot I recall fondly from my childhood, a poem by Elizabeth Akers Allen titled “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother” sometimes comes to mind.  That poem opens with the following lines:

Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight,                                                                            Make me a child again, just for tonight!

The rest of that poem is a little dark, but I love those first two lines and imagining what it would be like to go back and experience life as a child again for a single day.  The closest I’ve come is experiencing life through the eyes of a child, first our son, and now our grandkids.

We ended up spending the night in Valdosta, Ga.  In 1967 I spent a night there prior to taking Army Basic Training and before the U.S. Army generously furnished a very large comfortable room for me and 23 other guys.  The thing I most recall about Valdosta from that night was having to spend $8 for a room.  My budget for that trip was $3-$5 a night.

Oh, yeah – one other Valdosta memory!

Doc Holliday was born there.  Despite that fact, when I was making a reservation, the national Marriott reservations desk person had never heard of Valdosta.

“Where?” she asked.

“Valdosta, Ga” I replied.

“Never heard of it!” she responded.

“Ever heard of Doc Holliday?” I asked.

“Yes” she said, unconvincingly.

Well, Doc Holliday was born in Valdosta” I informed her.

She found us a room.

And it made the eight bucks I paid in 1967 sound really cheap.

With apologies to Elizabeth Akers Allen:

Backward, Turn Backward, Oh time in its flight.                                                                            I want a room for 8 bucks, just for tonight!

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Doc Holliday inadvertently suggests the only activity I might actually beat him in.