In 1940, American author Ernest Hemingway wrote a book named “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” It wasn’t his best book, but it had a few passages that reminded me this past week that he certainly had a way with words. The title of the book in question was derived from Meditation 17 of John Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” (1624).
“No man is an island,” Donne observes. “Entire of itself; everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” That’s sobering.
I had read these words many times as I am a fan of Hemingway. Yet these words were of paramount to me this past week, as I suffered the loss of one of my very close friends and an acquaintance of over 59 years.
I met Dick Eaton one cold night in February at the Battle Group Headquarters of the 187th Battle group of the 82nd Airborne Division. I and another couple of privates were sent to clean up the building. This wasn’t my usual duty, but I was a lowly private and low man on the pole. Sgt. Eaton was the clerk typist of the headquarters, his rank was staff sergeant.
If you have never been in a military organization, I want to assure you that the difference between a private and a staff sergeant is immense — especially since this was the first time I had stepped into the headquarters building. Dick wasn’t there to oversee our work; he was busy finishing up paperwork due the next day.
He could have been a real jerk, but he was so cool. He spoke little to us, but he also didn’t harass us by having us spit shine the floor as most NCOs did to lowly privates. The army was still very new to me as I had been in training until about three days ago. Dick was super cool and even told us to take break and stay out of his way. I saw some magazines on his desk about Hot Rods. That was my introduction to one of the best men I ever met.
I quizzed Dick about the magazines because even then I was hoping to save enough money to buy a car. It was very hard to meet anyone if you didn’t have a car. Dick sat back and told us to start saving right then because a car was a lot more expensive than we thought. I was 17 years old and the only car I ever had was a 1953 Plymouth that I had bought on time just before I joined the army. Because I missed a payment to my dad, he sold the car before I came home on leave.
Dick talking to us was a refreshing break from the yelling and pushups we all had to suffer if we were to ever be paratroopers. For whatever reason, he singled me out and told me to put in to be driver for the Assistant Battle Group Commander. He set up an interview the next evening for me to meet Lt. Col. Skip Sadler. I guess I impressed Col. Sadler as I was called up the next day and assigned to be his driver. This was a great job! Not only did I not have to stand guard duty, I didn’t have to go on KP (kitchen police). That’s a terrible job.
I spoke to Dick every day and he showed me photos of his car. It was a 1932 Ford two-door sedan. Just about the coolest car that has ever been made. We talked a lot because I was on standby sitting in a little closet, where I shined the colonel’s boots. Dick and I became friends and I met his wife and he picked me up occasionally on the weekend to work on his car.
I wasn’t doing very well saving money and told Dick I didn’t think I would ever be able to save enough. He asked what my training had been and I told him medics. He looked at his paperwork and said I was qualified to receive a pretty hefty re-enlistment bonus if I reenlisted early. So I did.
I took the money from my enlistment bonus and hitchhiked out to California, and with my dad I bought a 1958 Corvette. It was an automatic shift and small V8, but it was like a gold mine to me. My dad said I should tune it up before I left to go back to Fort Bragg, but I only had enough money for gas back to North Carolina. Never the less, I took off with the corvette missing some parts, the engine needing new spark plugs and the carburetor being dirty. I was 18 years old, what did I know?
Thank goodness that payday was shortly after I returned. I asked Dick to help me get the car running right. He told me what to buy and come over to his house and he would service the carburetor. I bought all the needed stuff he asked and we sat on his back porch and he took my carburetor apart. Not being well versed on how a carb works, I was aghast as he started throwing springs and screws into his yard that was about 8 inches high with grass. I’m on my hands and knees looking for those parts when Dick started laughing and said all the parts I needed were in the kit.
We would cruise up and down the main road in Fayetteville and trade cars occasionally. The first time we ever traded cars was one day when we had been in this little garage that had a dirt floor and the oldest tools I had ever seen. I asked if I could drive his car. The ’32 had a Hemi engine and was way faster than my Corvette. That was the first time I had ever been threatened with arrest.
Next week: the arrest, court case and the rest of earthen time.