This isn't a post about global great men. It is a post about a few of the men who have been instrumental in my life (And, yes, there will be a comparable Great Women post in the Norman Rockwell series).
My secondary objective is to bring a few of your great men to mind. If that happens, and you'd like to mention them in a comment to the post, know that I welcome them.
The first men I met were the most influential and I've already mentioned both of them in this series - my Daddy, and my Grandfather.
Before I share a few of the other men in my life with you, I should note, that some, only appeared in my life for a short period of time, but, no matter, they made their mark on me, and I'm more than pleased to have had those moments with them.
Walter G. Lusby taught World History and American History at Palatka Senior High School, where, in September of 1955, I became a most reluctant student. The school had 1,200 students. The town I'd moved from had 500 students from the first through the 12th grade. The move was a shock that I took years to recover from. And if you think I'm going to tell you that Mr. Lusby recognized my distress and put his arm around my shoulders and told me it would be okay, you're wrong. He wasn't that kind of person.
Mr. Lusby was a teacher who loved to teach - the first man who assumed that role in my life. He loved history. He didn't teach it, he told it and with his words, spread it across the landscape for all of us to see, while I hung on every word. He lived in a boarding house on River Street. The river was the St. Johns, and it ran in front of the boarding house. One day Mr. Lusby saw me fishing across the street from his residence. The next morning, before class, he found me outside the building, for, as usual, I was unwilling to go inside until I absolutely had to. He told me I was welcome to use his boat any time I wanted to.
After each of my solo angling excursions, Mr. Lusby was always waiting, and we talked - about everything. Mr. Lusby was the first man, besides my Daddy and my Grandfather, who listened to me, really listened, and in doing that he shifted me to a higher path - I can't think of another way to say it.
Major Billy Sprague looked through my personnel file as Corporal Fleury signed me in to the 214th Combat Aviation Battalion. When he finished reading my records, he looked at me and said, "Specialist Carson, you made E5 in record time considering you were in a stateside unit. I'm short one Platoon Sergeant, and I'd like you to take that position, in addition to running the enlisted personnel records section, which your orders say you are going to do. In order to make that official, I need to have Fleury cut an order making you an Acting Sergeant, is that okay with you?"
I was blown away. Inside of five minutes with the 214th, before I'd even unpacked my gear, I'd been converted from Specialist to NCO and the battalion commander had asked if that was okay with me. Not only was it okay, it was way beyond anything I could have imagined. As a platoon sergeant I would be in on the inner workings of the unit, something I craved since becoming a soldier. And there was another bonus. I got to watch, first hand, how a man in a rigid organization could maintain his personal integrity. I could tell dozens of stories about that, but I'll share only the abbreviated version of one, to make my point.
Sergeant Howard Dirler, a good friend and the NCO in charge of our Pathfinder Platoon, was walking past the orderly room, late one evening, after spending 48 hours with his platoon, securing a landing zone in the boondocks for an upcoming operation. Staring down, moving slowly, and carrying more gear than one man is normally expected to carry, Howard was barely moving when our new communication officer, a Major who had been in country less than a half day, walked past him. Howard not only didn't salute, he didn't even see the officer. The offended Major screamed and the sound registered with Howard, who stopped and slowly turned toward the source of the noise. The officer launched into what I'm sure would have been a world class chewing out that ended with Howard getting an Article 15. However, that didn't happen.
Major Sprague's voice boomed out of the orderly room and I mean boomed. "Stand the fuck down, Major." With his words still echoing in the quiet night, Major Sprague slammed out of the orderly room, coming to a stop with his face inches from the Major's.
Without looking in Howard's direction he said, "Sorry about that, Sergeant. You're dismissed. Fleury will help you with your gear and there's a cook standing by in the mess hall ready to cook your supper."
As Howard moved toward the barracks, with Fleury now carrying the majority of his gear, Major Sprague shifted his attention back to his target. In a soft voice that lowered the temperature in the area ten degrees, he said, "Major, we don't operate that way here, but that no longer concerns you. As of this moment, you're not a part of the 214th Combat Aviation Battalion. In the morning, you are being transferred. I don't want you or anyone like you in the 214th."
That's why Major Sprague was a legend both in Vietnam and in the hearts of all who served under him. I suspect it's also the reason he retired fifteen years later as a Lieutenant Colonel instead of a full Colonel or a Brigadier General.
I met James Cooper on a Greyhound bus that was carrying us from Palatka, Florida, to the Armed Forces Induction Center, in Jacksonville, Florida. After spending the day at the induction center, I spent the night riding another bus, this time an Army bus, heading from Jacksonville, to Fort Benning, Georgia. The only thing that didn't change between the two bus trips was my seat mate, James Cooper. I had not known James before that day, even though we were from the same small town. We were separated by segregation. James is black and I'm white. However, nothing separated us from the things that mattered. We were both kids who had been snatched away from all we knew and ultimately sent half way around the world to defend something that was never threatened. We went through basic together and in the process became good friends.
One day, someone called my name as I was crossing a busy street in Saigon. I stopped, with traffic streaming around me, looked back, and saw Cooper standing on the corner waving. He was easy to spot in the crowd, thanks to the bandages on both his hands. The night before, somewhere in the Delta, Viet Cong attacked James and his gun crew. The man whose job is pulling spent artillery shells from the cannon went down in the first wave. James, the NCO in charge of the gun crew, jumped forward and took his place. Telling me the story, he glanced down at the bandages and said, "No time to get the kid's gloves, so I pretty well cooked my hands, but we held on, and I didn't lose another man."
More than thirty years later, with the help of my first wife and some old high school friends, I came into possession of James' phone number. I carried it for a week before I took a deep breath and called him. Within minutes we were kids again, friends no longer separated by time and never separated by color. I told him that the next time Christina and I were in Florida I would look him up. It was a moment before he answered. When he did speak he simply said, "If that happens, Carson, don't tell people you knew me from Vietnam. Everyone here just thinks I was out of town for a long time."
Coop is one of the finest men I've ever known. If he ever had any dues to pay, they've been paid in full for years, yet he's still carrying a double load of stuff that by rights isn't his to carry. I close my eyes this Christmas night, almost fifty years after we were in Basic Training together, and I can see him carrying three packs and two M14's as we double time through the rain and mud of south Georgia. The extra gear belonged to members of our platoon who were too weary to carry it. With Coop’s help, they had the energy to make it back to the barracks.
I met Paul "Bear" Bryant, Alabama's legendary football coach and had a one-on-one conversation with him that lasted almost a half hour, though he didn't know me and had no reason to give me any time less than two weeks before the start of football season. Click here to read that story.
My friend, Carl Touchstone was a runner, a marathoner, and an ultra-marathoner, who, over thirty years ago, took the time to introduce me to the joys of running and made sure I stuck with it. That was no easy task, but Carl didn't understand "difficult" and he took the job on. Now, I never go for a run without thinking of him. Though he's been gone a long time, he has never left my heart. In the interest of brevity, you can read more about Touchstone by clicking here.
To keep this post a reasonable length I’ve intentionally left a number of men out. However, more than introducing you to a large group of men who had a hand in shaping my life, I’d like for you to think of a man who did the same for you, and mention him in a comment to this post. Thanks for taking the time to do that.
This was number 10 in my Norman Rockwell inspired blog posts. Tomorrow I’ll publish number 11. I call it masks and I’ll use one of these two paintings to illustrate it (or maybe both).