Like a once young, vibrant and robust flower that has come to the end of its days, I too have come to mine. Like the vast majority of seventy-five-year-old has-beens, I have also passed my prime. But I have accepted it, it’s not a surprise to me, I see it all the time. Getting near the end of my life does not saddened me, but the way our country has changed since I was a boy does.
My mother and father, my brother and two sisters, and my grandmother lived on Magnolia Drive, a quiet street, in Augusta, between Eisenhower and Azalea Drives. I was in the first group of kids to go to T. Harry Garrett Elementary School, one block over and behind our house. There were over twenty kids within three years of my age in my neighborhood. We survived though our mothers smoked and drank while they were pregnant. Our mothers put us to bed on our tummies with covers colored by lead-based paints. There were no childproof lids on medicine bottles, no locks on cabinets, and when we rode our bikes we had on baseball caps, not goofy helmets. As kids we rode in cars without seat belts, or booster seats, or air bags. We never locked our cars in our driveways.
We drank water from the garden hose or from the tap at the kitchen sink. We shared soft drinks from one bottle with our friends. We ate cupcakes and white bread and drank Kool-Aid with real white sugar, and we weren’t overweight. Why? Because we were always outside playing. On Saturdays and during the summer, we would leave home in the morning and play all day, coming home only for lunch. Then we went outside again until suppertime. On nice weekdays we left the house as soon as we got home and changed and took to the streets and woods. No adults were able to reach us when we played, and we were fine. We would build wagons out of scraps and ride them down a hill scared to death because we had no brakes.
We had no video games, no cell phones, no personal computers, no internet and no chat rooms. We were on a party-line which meant we shared a phone with someone else. Each of the two families had their own ring tone, and we could tell which house was being called by the different sound. We didn’t have to have a phone with us every place we went, like our lives depended on taking every single text or call ever made to us, every single second of every day. We could only get a few TV channels, and we adjusted the picture with our rabbit-ears antennae. After school and on the weekends, if the weather was bad, we would watch the Three Stooges, the Little Rascals and the Lone Ranger on TV. And Gene Autry, the Cisco Kid, Superman, Howdy Doody, Amos and Andy, and Lassie. We had friends, and when it wasn’t raining, we went outside and found them. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones, and none of that caused any lawsuits.
We would get spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping-pong paddles, metal flyswatters, or just bare hands. No one called child services to report child abuse. Most boys owned BB guns, and, although we were told it would happen, we didn’t put out any eyes. I killed blackbirds and robins, and momma cooked them for me. Some of us got .22 rifles or single-barrel shotguns on our tenth birthday, like I did. I killed dove, quail, squirrels and rabbits, and my whole family ate them. I lived miles out of town, right across from the Augusta National Golf Course. A few of my friends had a horse but I only had two feet.
My first bike was an old second-hand contraption daddy had painted dark green with house paint. That was sweet, but it was very obviously a homemade job, and sometimes a boy appreciates getting something that is brand new. Usually we just walked over and knocked on a friend’s door to play, or we just yelled their name and they came outside. We were in a quiet, friendly neighborhood and were seldom led into temptation. Little League baseball had tryouts and not everybody made the team; those who didn’t had to learn to deal with disappointment. The idea of a parent bailing us out if we broke the law was total fantasy.
Our parents actually sided with the police and our teachers; it was that long-ago time when only a very few of those did not earn our respect. It was that lost time when you could get a whipping at school and then another at home. Our parents actually believed that if you spared the rod, you’d spoil the child. What has happened to our country? I drove my first car one morning in 1961 in Yemassee, SC. Daddy was recovering from too much whiskey during a fishing trip and needed a nap. He sat down on the passenger seat in our old Chevy and said, you drive. Me drive? I was only fourteen.
I had never driven anywhere at any time before and I told him so. He said, I know, don’t worry. Just pick a spot on the hood of the car and keep the middle line of the highway on it. I was scared to death and tried to change his mind, but he was too hung over to listen. He told me how to get home and went to sleep. I slowly pulled the car and our little Jon boat onto the highway. He was right; there was nothing to worry about. I bagged groceries at the A & P in National Hills for three years during high school.
After Langford Jr High, I graduated from Richmond Academy in 1965, attended Georgia Tech two years, and then served in the U. S. Navy from 1967 through 1971. On the USS Constellation and the USS Forrestal aircraft carriers, I worked as a radar/computer specialist on fighter-bombers. [I know ship names should be italicized but they come out too weak to read in newsprint.] Although I served honorably in the United States Navy for four years, one on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin on an aircraft carrier, I still feel funny calling myself a Vietnam veteran. But that’s what I am; I’ve got the medals and the paperwork and the combat pay to prove it. I know being on a floating ammo dump loaded to the brim with fighter and attack jets is not as dangerous as being shot at in-country by Viet Cong or ARNV soldier, but many American sailors also died off the coast of Vietnam and in its coastal waters.
More importantly, there were no greater heroes than the courageous Navy aviators and aircrewmen who daily risked their lives bombing enemy targets and supporting our ground troops. The American men and women who served in Vietnam and stared death right in its face are the real Vietnam vets, not me. Those feelings, if even misplaced, may be the reason I’ve never joined a military service group or have ever attended a ship or squadron reunion. I’ve thought about the war every day since I left the service in 1971.
Joining the Navy in August of 1967, I suffered through boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station and then attended Aviation School in Memphis in early ’68. I was there, 20 miles away, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. My initial operational assignment sent me to NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, VA to a squadron that trained Navy aviators, flight officers, and aircrewmen for their future permanent duty. I was an enlisted aircrewman training to install, operate and repair the computer and radars in the Grumman A6A Intruder All-Weather Fighter/Bomber.
Whenever we were off duty, a fellow sailor and I would travel to Washington to date some college girls. Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross, sheltered in a quiet part of DC, was an exclusive and expensive all-girls Catholic school. I met my wife JoAnn there. My first fleet orders put me into the Western Pacific combat theatre in 1969 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation. We sailed from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to the U. S. Naval Base at Sasebo, Japan and then took our place on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea. In September of ‘69, we began flight operations to support sorties into South Vietnam and a few other classified places.
My fellow aviation fire control technicians and I knew where our jets were heading because we entered their coordinates into their computers before each flight. At the end of our combat tour in the Pacific, I headed home from San Diego. Two military flights took me to Macon, and I took a bus to Augusta. As I stood outside the Greyhound station on the corner of Greene and 12th Street, waiting for my daddy, I noticed a large dark column of smoke coming from downtown Augusta. It was the beginning of the 1970 race riots in Augusta. Daddy drove me to the police barriers to get a close-up view of it. In June of ’70, JoAnn and I were married in Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Emsworth, PA.
Father Ferris, the priest who married us, was a family friend only ten years older than JoAnn. Our reception was at the University Club near Pitt; JoAnn’s deceased father had been a member. We lived happily as only young lovers can in Virginia Beach in Oceana’s base housing. But happy times were drawing to an end; the week arrived when we crewmen loaded all our stuff on another aircraft carrier, the USS Forrestal. Early on the morning of January 5, 1971 we pushed off for our relatively short six-month cruise in the Mediterranean And then, low and behold, on July 2nd, the Forrestal rounded Sewell Point in Hampton Roads, VA at around 1300 hours, or one o’clock in the afternoon for you landlubbers.
Two giant tugs quickly pushed her to Pier 12 at the Norfolk Naval Ship Yard, and my military career was over, just like that. That four year experience instilled in me a love for my benevolent country and the knowledge that nothing proud and honorable can exist without a system of fair and balanced responsibility, morally and fiscally. I also have a love for my family. I was blessed with a wonderful wife and two fine sons, all of whom I do not deserve. I am proud of the three of them and our two daughters-in-law and our six grandchildren. I am proud of my heritage even though my ancestors were not rich and famous. They were better than that; they were American Patriots in the American Revolution and Confederate officers in The War Between the States.
My mother’s people all lived in the northwestern part of South Carolina around Lowndesville and McCormick. They were all farmers and poor as church mice. My grandma Bessie May Edwards Scott lived from 1883 until her death in 1941. When Bessie’s parents died, her little sister Minnie Kate Edwards had no place to turn except to her family, which is as it should be. It was only fitting that Kate joined grandma’s family. Aunt Kate, as she was called by my generation, was accepted like she was grandma’s child, like one of my mother’s sisters. Kate brought the number of mouths to feed up to nine girls and five boys. That was fine, grandma was used to being around lots of kids; she was one of nine herself. Through all the economic burdens caused by having that many warm bodies to clothe and feed, the Scott family as a whole still maintained its dignity. They had no great wealth, there was very little of that, but they were very respected for being decent, dependable, God-fearing human beings who cared about other people.
Grandma and the rest of her Scott family lived in a rented three-story house on the corner beside Tubman High School on Walton Way in the thirties. The girls went to Tubman and ARC got the boys. The adult and teenaged siblings pitched in to help support the family. The Scott sisters only had a limited supply of decent clothes between them, and they often shared their clothes with one another. Frank E. Smith, my tall, good-looking daddy, was a country boy from Batesburg, SC, and loved to hunt and fish. As big, strong teenagers, daddy and his two brothers threatened my granddaddy bodily harm if he ever hurt my grandma again, so he snuck out one midnight in the late 30s. No one saw him again until 1965, when he suddenly dropped in to see my daddy at his bar.
Daddy told me an older man came in and looked around. His long beard was streaked with tobacco stains like an old soul who has lived through too much turmoil. He took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. After finishing his beer, during which no words were spoken, the old man quietly asked, “Boy, don’t you know your own daddy?” Daddy stared at him coldly for a long minute, waiting for the words to come that he wanted to say. Finally he answered, “My daddy died to me a long time ago.” What sad words are those, how final they sound. Grandpa dropped a dollar on the counter and walked out. He knew at that moment there could never be enough excuses or explanations to reach across the chasm that divided them.
He could never say or do anything that would change daddy’s opinion about him. Nothing could ever make up for his absence for all those years. Grandpa died six months later without trying to see anyone in the family again, his attempt to make that one final connection had failed. I married that beautiful Dunbarton girl from Pittsburgh in 1970 and settled in Augusta after the Navy. After graduating from Augusta College, I worked with JoAnn in my CPA firm and we expanded into Thomson. Our two fine sons are both CPAs, and I retired in 2009 when my older son Jason bought my successful practice.
Brian is the Accounting Manager for residential and commercial projects for the Howard Hughes Corporation in Honolulu. In 2017 my first book “J. Edgar Thomson: the Georgia Rail Road Years: 1833-1845” was published, documenting the construction of the railroad from Augusta to Atlanta. I next wrote a family history of my grandma’s folks called “Fanny’s Family” and then a published memoir of my four years in the Navy titled “Neither an Officer nor a Gentleman.”
In 2020 JoAnn and I compiled 220 stories into a book for the 150th anniversary of our county’s founding in 1870. After nearly 15 years as a volunteer, I am stepping down in February 2022 as the Director of the Thomson-McDuffie Museum.
In conclusion, I am proud to say that I’ll be 75 next month and take no prescription medicines. I do take a multivitamin and two Osteo Bi-flex pills each morning just for the hell of it. The numbers from my lab work every six months run straight down the page with a slight discrepancy or two even though I’ve had colon surgery, chemo-therapy, skin cancer and eye surgeries. I suffer from sore joints in the morning and some forgetfulness; I go into a room sometimes and come out empty-handed.
I am a conservative, a patriot, a Navy veteran, and a proud American who thinks this country has always been the most benevolent of any on Earth at any period of time in world history. I think anyone who doesn’t believe that should leave and never come back. I am against anyone, foreign or domestic, friend or foe, infiltrating my country and my state, bringing their sick ideas and their tarnished money to tell us what to do. So, I say farewell to you. If you see me it’ll be at a restaurant or church or at home, sitting by the fireplace in my living room chair like I’ve been doing for the last 41 years, wasting my time, writing on my computer.