From Small Town to a Life in the Air
Don Parker b. 1934
I was born in 1934 on a small farm in a small northeastern North Carolina town, Murfreesboro, population about 1200.
it was a rural farming community about 45 miles from Norfolk, Virginia. Looking back, it was wonderful, as life was uncomplicated and I fit the profile of everyone else who had a similar beginning: Saturday movie westerns, usually a double feature, plus the great “continueds” Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy, Don Winslow of the Navy, Green Hornet, and of course Superman and Bat Man.
Our parents were products of the depression……strict and caring.
We moved into town in 1941 when I was seven. My father built a house and I remember him saying that it would take a very long time to pay for it – the total cost was $5500 including the lot. It still stands today.
Our school was in a three story building about 1000 yards from our home and I walked to school every day. The first and second grade was 1/2 below ground so from our chairs we could see the feet and legs of everyone who was outside through the windows. The cafeteria was on that level. Grades three through seven were on the second floor and grades eight through twelve were on the third floor. Stairs only. We had excellent teachers. I even had a teacher who had taught my father many years before when they only had one room for the whole school. She taught math and Latin and was one tough cookie.
In those years following Pearl Harbor, until early 1946, life changed for us in what we had or could get via the rationing program which included most everything. It was put into place for just about everything that you needed soon after Dec. 7th. But being seven years old was still rather uncomplicated.
Being so close to Norfolk and the huge Naval presence we had many blackouts and air raid drills. We had an airplane spotter shack right in the middle of town and it was manned during daylight all the time. I used to sit after school with the men who manned it and when an airplane would come overhead the spotter would have to attempt to identify it as best he could and call someone in Norfolk and give a report with his best estimate. The direction of flight was very important.
German POW’s worked in the fields and I remember they had military clothing. We would ride our bicycles out to where they were working and they would wave at us and we could hear them laughing and talking. We were in total awe.
We had, as did all of the small towns, all the sports programs like basketball, baseball, football and of course inter mural of everything – if you could find enough people who wanted to participate. As I remember, most everyone had a “Letter” in something, not that they were necessarily that good but they were all who were available.
Everybody-and I mean everybody- was a Democrat, which looking back, I remember the adults talking politics on Sunday afternoon while sipping iced tea and, as I recall, I would now assess their philosophy as having a strong conservative belief somewhere between General Mattis and Rand Paul. Self sufficient, strong Christian belief, a keen sense of community and great pride and most were of high moral character and integrity.
Boy Scouts were a big thing at 12, and I took it seriously and earned 32 merit badges. I never made Eagle Scout because I couldn’t swim and you had to have the Lifesaving Merit badge to get it. I made Life Scout, however, and I have always regretted not being able to become an Eagle Scout. Such is life I suppose. We had about 20 Scouts and we had a great time doing all the things Scouts do. The Scout Master was home from the Navy and the War and had the biggest influence on me because he was a Navy pilot. I had known him as a neighbor three doors away when he went in the Navy in 1942.
After the war, he made arrangements with the Navy at his Reserve unit in Norfolk bring the entire Scout troop to Norfolk for his drill weekend. We arrived and they assigned a 1st class Petty Officer to be with us from Friday afternoon until Sunday. We had an agenda of planned activities which, as far as I was concerned, put me in heaven or as close to it as I would ever get. We even each got to fly in a
TBM simulator. (It actually was a Link trainer but they told us it was a TBM.) The Navy treated us royally and, as I look back at it, what fantastic PR for the impressionable minds we all were. Sunday afternoon the final event was….. we all piled into the back of a P5M seaplane and they flew us around Norfolk and Virginia Beach for almost an hour returning for a water landing and a talk from the pilot. There had never been any doubt about what I wanted to do, but this sealed the package. I was in the 7th grade and kept that enthusiasm from then on. That was 1947.
I finished college at Univ of North Carolina in 1955 and as fast as I could get to the US Navy I did. I had taken the tests during my senior year and the physical just before June, so I went to Norfolk and I was in. The recruiter gave me a ride in an SNJ and told me it would be the last free ride. He did all the acrobatics he knew and I was in total heaven. They shipped me to Pensacola on a train, which was my first train ride ever, for Class 19-55. Most all you know what happened after that, as your life was taken over by the Navy. I enjoyed every minute of the training.
The single most surprising thing that ever happened to me took place two or three weeks before we were to finish the 16 weeks of pre-flight and head out to Basic. The Battalion Commander, Captain Lewendowski, had instructed the Sgt. to call out all in the class who had finished college and had a degree. I believe that there were about 10 or 12 of us and we went to his office wondering “what now ?”
He had a document in his hand and he proceeded to read it to us telling us that the Navy was instituting a new program that would give us a commission upon graduation from pre-flight which was 2 weeks away. The class in front of us, Class 18, would be the first and we would be the second. He congratulated us and we left his office speechless. It happened that way and of course it became known as the AOC program and as far as I know still exists. So, we finished as Ensign’s and it did make a great life even greater. The downside was that we, like us all, had formed a close bond with all the guys in Class 19, but then we separated and went our separate ways for the rest of training.
Many years later, in early 1990’s, one of the guys got together with USAA and they mailed a letter to everyone who was still insured by them telling them that we were going to attempt a reunion for Class 19-55 at Pensacola. He got an excellent response and we did in fact meet there for a few days. Through a real happenstance we found the DI, Sgt. Paul Haynes, and he and his wife attended. We subsequently got together each year for several years and we still communicate regularly. Great bunch of guys !
Left the Navy in 1959 to American Airlines got laid off in late 1960. I went back into the Navy at Corpus Christi as a flight instructor in P2V’s for 2 years in VT-31. I returned to American at the end of 1962 and remained there until retirement in 1994. CV 240, DC-6. DC-7, L-188, BAC-111, B-727, B-757, B-767.
Do it all over? …………YES!