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The economy was good. All the mills were running three shifts full tilt, with jobs available to those who showed interest in becoming lint heads.
As a soon-to-be 1951 graduate of Lancaster High School, I was about to achieve a milestone in a textile town; I was about to get my high school diploma.
It’s what I had been working hard for and was the one highlight for my years of schooling.
It was a good time; the 1950’s were just getting off the ground and great things were ahead, or so we thought.
But last summer, war started in far off Korea.
Some of my classmates had already joined the National Guard, not just to be patriotic, but to get some extra bucks to buy a clunker.
They never thought they’d be jerked out of the classroom to active duty.
The draft was in effect and being 18 put all of us in an uncomfortable position.
To tell the truth, some of us had already discussed our options.
I was considering joining the Navy or Air Force instead of the Army.
I figured that would probably lessen the chances of getting shot and shot at.
The whole thing had raised the tension level around our house. My parents weren’t overjoyed when I seriously mentioned joining the Air Force.
They had plans for me “to join that boy down the street at Clemson.”
But, I had the itch since some of my best buddies had already signed up for military service.
Finally, they gave me permission to talk to a gung-ho recruiter. I was a pushover.
What a glamorous life was waiting for me, he said.
Funny thing, though; looking back now, those two tours of duty in the Far East never came up in his sales pitch. Neither did that cold winter in World War II tar-paper barracks in the wilds of Massachusetts.
My exciting life as an Airman would come, but right now, there was a more important issue to deal with.
I had to sit through all this Pomp and Circumstance stuff.
Miss Maude Moore, with her eagle eyes, was overseeing the proceedings after drilling the words the alma mater into our brains.
You know, ordering these caps and gowns is a big to-do about nothing, I thought.
My excitement was somewhat tempered by the odor of the gown I was wearing. It smelled like old curtains.
My mortar board looked like it had been tossed skyward and dropped on the ground one too many times.
No matter, though; both had to be worn if you wanted to receive that diploma. I held my nose and hung in there, warped hat and all.
Sunday night, we attended our baccalaureate sermon and had made it past the final hurdle for big night.
Monday night, we gathered in the front rows of the old high school auditorium amid a chorus of hushes from faculty advisors with proud mamas and daddys looking on.
After listening to a series of speeches from the gold-scarf wearing straight-A crowd, we stood when our names were called and walked across the stage.
There were no shouts, cat-calls or whistles. After a couple of well-intended handshakes, I was handed my diploma. I have arrived, I thought.
Within minutes, the 50 members of the Lancaster High School Class of 1951 turned our tassels.
We had graduated, I thought with pride, before taking my spot for a group photo. That was it.
The next few days quickly passed. It was dawning on us fellas that we had indeed signed up for military service. It was too late to change our minds, or at least the recruiter said it was.
We may have been high school graduates, but none of us were not smart enough to realize we hadn’t been officially sworn in.
Oh well, live and learn.
We lined up in front of the U.S. Post Office and marched down to the bus station, patting each other on the back, grinning and carrying on light-hearted conversation with every step.
Then, we kissed our mother’s goodbye and boarded a bus for the unknown, like lambs to the slaughter.
We congregated again at the main recruiting station in Greenville and headed to one of the finest 5-star establishments in town, a basement lined with double-decker GI bunks. The recruiter left that part out, too.
Welcome to the United States Air Force.
The next morning, we climbed aboard an Air Trans Texas airliner for a flight to Kelly Field, which is adjacent to Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio. I have really arrived now, I thought. What have I gotten myself into?
Suddenly, the sheltered world of my parent’s Chesterfield Avenue home came crashing down.
It was replaced by a real life drill instructor and a real military life that was a quick and as painful as a thorn in the ribs at times.
I guess it took a while for it to sink in.
It also took close to 10 years and numerous flights with Capt. Lowe and his faithful co-pilot, Jack Daniels, for me to get over it, too. Somehow I managed.
Hey, I said I wasn’t very smart at the time.
Here’s wishing the graduates of 2009 the best life has to offer.
Do your best and cherish what you have.
Remember old friends. Believe half of what you see on television and less of what you hear.
Above all, enjoy life.
Work hard, laugh often and Godspeed.
You have arrived.