Prairie Talk: Chance encounter changes his course | Columnists

Sometimes, and for no real reason, we make a decision that turns out to be life-altering.

In May of 1956, I was about to graduate from Decatur High School. I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to do after that. College? Doubtful. Where to go? What to study? And the biggest drawback, how to pay for it?

When I daydreamed, I thought about being a doctor. Unlike most of my friends, I had taken, and succeeded in the college track – two years of Latin, four years of math through Trig and College Algebra, chemistry and physics, four years of English including college prep. I had the grades, but not the blessing of my counselor. According to her, and some testing, she thought I should work with my hands, outside!

The track season was about over. One late afternoon, we were jogging back to DHS from the field at John’s Hill and talked about grabbing a Coke at the Wayside Inn. Almost in passing, Jack said he had to go to the Navy recruiter to sign some papers.

On the second floor of the Post Office building on Franklin, I met the recruiter. Jack, who I knew from track, but wouldn’t really call him a close friend, quickly signed his papers. “What about you, young man?” Before I could answer, he continued, “Why not take the test?”

“Not a problem. You could go in on a ‘Kiddie Cruise,’ and get out a day before you turn 21. No harm in taking the test.”

Why not, I enjoyed taking tests. Jack said he’d wait for me at the Wayside. I was hooked.

I must have done pretty well. He gave me a booklet listing all the possibilities for training. Whether it was true or not, he told me my score was the highest he had in his three years of recruiting. Also, since I was just 17, my folks would have to sign for me.

Mom, bless her heart, started crying. My uncle, her husband, was a veteran of WWII. “Are you sure this is something you want to do?” I wasn’t. But, in the materials the recruiter had given me, aviation was mentioned. Why, I don’t know, but I was always interested in flying.

My uncle had been a waist gunner in B-29s, and almost gave his life a couple times. He rarely talked about it. He and Mom stayed up a little late, talking about it. The next morning, he had already left for work at Staley’s and Mom was about to leave for her job as a presser at John W. Shaw’s. “If you decide you want to, I’ll sign.”

I took the materials to school with me and looked them over. It was true, I could indeed fly, under certain circumstances. I took the chance and signed.

The Navy kept their word. I did get to fly, and learned a valuable lesson – always read the fine print. I was guaranteed a school. After finishing Aviation Prep school, I wanted to go to Aviation Electronics School. Even though I was honor man of my company, they turned me down. I had two years and almost 11 months to serve. The electronics school required three years. But I was guaranteed a school. You got it, meaning Aviation Prep.

So, I could go to the fleet or sign up for another year. I signed. But even with that, the only way I could fly was in squadrons that had enlisted crew members. When it came time, I lucked out and chose VAH-5. Even there, another road block was in the way. There were only 16 to 18 crews. To make a long story short, on April 4, 1958, I roared down the runway in Sanford, Fla. and “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” and all because Jack had to sign some papers!

Joe Trimmer is a Decatur historian.

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