By: Jerry R. Barksdale

It was the mid-1970s when an RV with Kentucky plates and escorted by two motorcycles headed south on I-65 and crossed into Alabama. Limestone County Deputy Hargis (not real name) sat in his patrol car watching for speeders when the RV caught his attention. Why was it being escorted by motorcycles? He decided to check it out. He followed for a few miles before turning on his red light. The RV pulled over on the shoulder, and a middle-aged man wearing shorts and beach shirt stepped out.

“What’s the problem officer?”

“What’che haul’n?” asked Hargis.

“Nothing.”

“I’m gonna take a look-see,” said Hargis

.

“Not if you don’t have a search warrant,” said the man. “I know the law, and you don’t have probable cause to board my vehicle and search.”

“I don’t need a search warrant – and don’t get smart,” warned Hargis. An argument ensued. Hargis boarded the RV and walked to the back, the man protesting all the way.

“Well, well, lookey here,” said Hargis. Stacked in back of the RV were several cases of Kentucky beer. Alabama taxes hadn’t been paid, and that was a crime. Hargis explained that Limestone County was “dry,” and it was illegal to possess alcohol. And more seriously, Hargis was charging the man with transporting alcohol, which if convicted, could result in one to six years imprisonment, not to mention his RV would be confiscated and sold.

“You got to be kidding me!”

“Don’t get smart with me,” warned Hargis for a second time.

Deputy Hargis wrote out the tickets charging the man with speeding, transporting, violation of the prohibition law, and possession of alcohol on which Alabama tax hadn’t been paid.

Later that day, when Hargis filed the paperwork with the court clerk, he placed a small star in the upper right corner of each ticket. The cases went to Judge David L. Rosenau for eventual trial.

I was in my office when my secretary buzzed. “Mister Wayman Sherrer is on the line.” Why would the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama be calling me? I wondered. Perhaps it was a social call. I had known Wayman, Marine, FBI agent, and lawyer from Oneonta, Alabama for at least 10 years. When Nixon was elected President in 1968, Wayman was appointed U.S. Attorney. Over the phone, we exchanged pleasantries, then Wayman said, “One of my fellow U.S. Attorneys in Kentucky has been arrested in Limestone County and charged with a host of crimes. He needs a lawyer. He’ll probably run for Governor of Kentucky and the Alabama charges will ruin him.”

“What are the facts?” I asked.

“Well, he and his staff were going to Gulf Shores on a working vacation. They were preparing to prosecute a big criminal case in Kentucky and wanted to get away, enjoy some sunshine, and prepare the case, all at the same time. They were carrying beer, and he is charged with transporting. They are threatening to take his RV. I’d consider it a personal favor if you would help him out of this mess.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.

I visited Judge Rosenau and related the facts. “Judge, they were going to the beach for a little relaxation and at the same time prepare for a big criminal case they’re about to try,” I said.

“Your client got smart with the deputy,” said Judge. “There was a star on the complaint. That means he caused trouble. I don’t like that.”

Judge Rosenau didn’t cut any slack with anyone just because they were high and mighty. I have heard the story about the governor’s cabinet member busted for speeding in Limestone County. The governor’s assistant called Judge and said the governor would appreciate it if he would dismiss the case. “You tell the governor to run Alabama and I’ll run my court in Limestone County. Have a nice day.”

I knew I faced an uphill battle.

Judge finally said, “Well, it’s the sheriff’s case, talk to him.”

I visited Sheriff Buddy Evans and explained what had happened. “He’s law enforcement just like you,” I said. “Anyway, he’s planning to run for governor in Kentucky and this case will kill his chance to win.”<?p>

Buddy wasn’t impressed.

“And there’s another reason,” I said. “The deputy didn’t have probable cause to stop the RV and search it without a warrant. All evidence of the illegal search will be excluded from evidence.”

Buddy saw the problem.

“The only case left to prosecute is speeding.” I said.

I never sent the would-be governor a bill for my services and don’t know if he ever ran for governor; he never called and thanked me for snatching him from the clutches of justice.

“Getting smart” is not a crime, but we older Southerners know that getting smart with your mama will get your jaws slapped. My advice is don’t be a smarty pants with your mama or with a policeman – no matter who you are.
By: Jerry R. Barksdale
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By: Jerry Barksdale

It was our sixth “man trip,” this one to Shiloh Battlefield near Savannah, Tennessee. In two bloody days – April 6-7, 1862 – over 24,000 men fell dead and wounded, not from fighting a foreign Army but Americans killing Americans. “The ground was strewn with the dead of the enemy and our own, mangled in every conceivable way,” wrote Captain Samuel Latta, CSA, 13th Tennessee Infantry.

Today the killing field is serene, peaceful and beautiful.

Retired Athens cop and Alabama Veterans Museum president Jerry Crabtree drove and served as our official wisecracker and rumor monger. Visiting a historical place of great tragedy didn’t prevent us from having fun. As always, women weren’t allowed on the trip. We didn’t have time to engage in petty gossip. We talked serious gossip…useful gossip…maybe even life-saving gossip. For example, Crabtree pointed to the house of a prominent church-going woman near Elkmont. “They say she carried “The Judge” in her purse,” he said. That’s a combination – shotgun and .45 pistol that will disable a tank. What if we had invited her on our trip and she became angry because we wouldn’t stop at a shoe store? Instead of reaching in her purse for lipstick, she produced The Judge…BANG – BANG! Our caskets couldn’t be opened. A man will shoot a neighbor because his dog craps in his yard and that’s understandable. A woman is liable to shoot you just because she’s having a bad hair day. Fair warning.

Museum board member Bill Ward, a retired mathematician, appointed himself navigator and backseat driver. I sure hope he could cipher his figures better than he navigated and backseat drove. However, he did test our knowledge of distance.

“How far is over yonder?” Bill asked.

It’s a question that no Yankee can answer and every Southerner knows the answer. “It’s just a little bit from here.”

Ewell Smith, Museum board member, former Athens volunteer fireman and retired business manager at ASU, told us the harrowing story of how Athens Fire Chief Mutt Bumpus saved Brownsferry from a possible melt down in 1975. Bumpus told TVA engineers how to extinguish the fire, “Spray water on it.” Because he was a small town fire chief with the nickname “Mutt”, they ignored his advice. When the TVA “Brain Trust” finally ran out of options they turned to Mutt. He sprayed water on the fire and it was extinguished.

Lt. Col. Joe Rogers (Ret. Army) from Athens, is a Vietnam combat veteran and recipient of a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars. He recently retired from Calhoun College as an economics professor. You might think he’s a typical egghead, constantly jabbering about economic charts, interest rates, and the stock market, who can’t tie his shoes laces (I’ve known professors like that). Not the case with Joe. I wrote a three-part story about Joe’s combat experience in Vietnam, titled “Where Hell was Green” (Nov. 2015, www.jerrybarksdale.com). I knew that he had lost his best friend during a bloody battle and Joe gathered up his scattered body parts.

I rounded out our group, and because I take three Lasix pills a day, was given the front passenger seat so I could jump out and dash behind a tree for an emergency pee.

We departed the Veterans Museum at 7:30 a.m. and headed north on AL 127 to Pulaski. Crabtree said it was the scenic route. He was correct. No place is more picturesque than Giles County, Tennessee. We took Hwy 64 over to Lawrenceburg, former home of Davy Crockett. His motto for living is still good today. “Be always sure you’re right then go ahead.” Then over to Waynesboro, birth place of Western gun fighter Clay Allison. He was so crazy that he was kicked out of the Confederate Army. Later he rode with General Nathan Bedford Forrest. It’s said that he killed many men. Following the Civil War, he went west. Wayne County is beautiful country, hardwood forests, empty spaces and excellent roads.

At Savannah, a sign on the edge of town proclaimed: “Catfish Capitol of the World.” I didn’t know the catfish had their own country, much less a capital. Savannah’s also home to the Tennessee River Museum that looked interesting. May need to visit it in the future.

Shiloh is 7 miles south of Savannah on Tennessee 22. The trip took 2 hours and was fine all the way. We began our tour by watching a 45-minute movie about the battle. The theater was filled with 7th and 8th graders from Tupelo, Mississippi. What a bummer, I thought. A houseful of noisy kids. Was I wrong! The lights went down, and they grew silent. The film was instructional and realistic with actual guns firing, men groaning, and dying. Joe was seated next to me. I wondered how he would react to the battle scene. The lights came on and the kids cheered. Joe was quiet and teared up. “Two words I always heard was “Mama and God,” he said. I put my arm around his shoulder and gave him a squeeze.

Two great armies, one from the South under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston and the other under the command of Gen. U.S. Grant, met near a small log church – called Shiloh – to determine with iron and flack, who would control the Tennessee River and nearby railroad, and ultimately the Western theater of war.

The Confederates carried the first day. Gen. Johnston, age 59, was shot behind his knee and bled out. I’ve read, but can’t locate my source, that General Johnston’s corpse was pickled in a barrel of whiskey and shipped to New Orleans, then on to Texas where he was buried in Austin. Gen. G. T. Beauregard failed to follow up on the victory. The next day, he was forced to retreat to Corinth, Mississippi.

We toured the battlefield by car (a map is provided marking 20 stops). I noticed that the Yankee monuments are large and plentiful, the reason being is that when the Battlefield Monument Commission began in 1893, Southern states were too poor to purchase large monuments.

Afterwards, we ate at nearby Hagy’s Catfish Hotel on the bank of the Tennessee River. It’s been in business for 80 years and the food is excellent. I asked our waitress if catfish actually overnighted there. No they don’t. I ordered the small catfish filets, each about the size of a shoe sole, along with hush puppies, slaw, and baked potato. Never had better food and at such a reasonable price.

Our return trip was on Hwy 69S to Florence. We discussed important events that occurred in Athens when we were kids. Do you know that cowboy actor Lash LaRue personally appeared at the Ritz Theater? Ewell went to see him and bought a bullwhip for a souvenir. He never learned to use it and ended up whipping himself.

“Who was Gabby Hayes?” someone asked. “Roy Roger’s sidekick.” Correct.

I stumped them. “Who was Gene Autry’s sidekick?” I asked. No one knew the correct answer. “Frog Millhouse,” I said. “And who was his sidekick?” No answer. “Tadpole.”

Roy Rogers also put in a personal appearance at the Ritz and when it was over, he went to a nearby pool hall and shot pool with, as Mama called them, “no account, good for nothing lazy bums,” who hung out there.

As they say, knowledge is power. It was an educational and interesting trip. I recommend you take your family, especially your children, and enjoy a day of good living.
By: Jerry Barksdale
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By: Jerry R Barksdale

It was nearing 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 1, 1959, in the tiny community of Gourdsville in northern Limestone County when evil struck. The Limestone Democrat proclaimed it “the county’s most brutal crime in history.” It guaranteed 17-year-old Joe Henry Johnson a seat in “Yellow Mama,” Alabama’s infamous electric chair. He would be the last person from Limestone County to be put to death at the hands of the State. This most odious crime would set my life on a new course.

Johnson, who lived nearby with his parents, raped and brutally murdered Miss Dicie Boyd, age 60, in her barn. He then entered the family home and savagely beat her 89-year-old mother, Rowena Boyd. She survived.

Johnson, with innocent blood still on his hands and underwear, signed two confessions. Bruce Sherill and David Patton, both WWII veterans, were appointed to defend Johnson. The best they could hope for was to save his life. I turned 19 two days after the rape/murder and at the time was a senior at Athens High School in the Diversified Occupation Program, working 70 hours a week at McConnell’s Funeral Home. My goal was to become an undertaker. But Johnson’s trial on January 20, 1960, changed my life and sent me in a different direction. I wanted to become a lawyer like Bruce Sherill. Struggling to save a human life in court seemed romantic and exciting to me at the time. Carrying a briefcase chock-full of mysterious law books and wearing a pinstripe suit looked pretty cool too. On trial date, Johnson plead guilty and asked for mercy. None was given. Twenty-four months and 23 days later, just past midnight, he was electrocuted.

At the time, I knew Bruce only by reputation and sight. His wife, Mary Kate (Garth), had died 9 months earlier at age 37, leaving 7 minor children. Bruce, who never remarried, raised them in the old antebellum Tanner-Garth house (1845) on N. Madison Street. Bruce was handsome with thick gray-blonde hair parted slightly off center, spoke with a cultured Southern accent, and had great command of the English language. He had attended George Washington University before WWII and graduated from Alabama Law School in 1948. I was to learn that Bruce also had a mercurial temperament as well as a humorous side.

In 1971, I met Bruce for the first time in court. It didn’t go well. He had scheduled a deposition before a court reporter on a Saturday morning without consulting me. I called and told him I had two young boys and spent my Saturdays with them. I requested that he reset the deposition to another time. He gave me a lecture. “No sir! Young man the law is a jealous mistress and he who would pursue her must woo her.”

I moved for a protective order and the hearing was set before Judge Newton Powell. Bruce and I were seated across from each other at a small table. He began lecturing me and pretty soon we were standing, nose to nose, shouting at each other. The judge reset the deposition. I won. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t. I knew what I had to do. I called Bruce.

“Bruce, hear me out.” He was silent. “I apologize for my conduct. I’m just a young whipper-snapper and I disrespected you. It was your representation of Joe Henry Johnson that captured my imagination and motivated me to become a lawyer – just like you. I wanted you to know that.”

“Is that all?” he asked.

“Yes sir.” I didn’t know what to expect.

“Whyyy, Jerreee, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.” And that day we became friends, as close as courtroom gladiators battling each other can be. Bruce was full of great stories. The “keeper of the lore,” I called him.

While he was attending George Washington University, WWII broke out. The clerk of the local draft board summoned Bruce home. “I’m already contributing greatly to the war effort,” he told her.

“Doing what?”

“Operating the elevator part-time for the Department of War,” he replied.

“Pack your bags, Bruce.” And he was off to war.

I loved Bruce’s humor. In his later years, Bruce talked loud, like someone who had learned to whisper in a sawmill. During the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the end of WWII, I interviewed and wrote over 65 stories of local WWII vets. One day at lunch, I asked Bruce about his war service in the South Pacific, thinking he might have a hair-raising tale of life or death with Japanese. He said that Charles Lindberg, America’s hero who flew the Spirit of St. Louis non-stop from Long Island, New York to Paris in 1927, was at his base. Lindberg, a civilian, was there as a consultant for United Aircraft Company, who manufactured the Corsair Fighter. He was helping squeeze more performance from the airplanes. “My buddy and I were sitting in our tent with the flap rolled up,” said Bruce, loudly, “when Charles Lindberg walked past carrying a roll of toilet paper, headed to the latrine. I said to my buddy, ‘Who back home would believe I saw Charles Lindberg on the way to take dump?’”

Every head in the restaurant turned our way. “That’s the most interesting thing that happened to me during the war,” Bruce added.

“Bruce,” I said, “I don’t think I’ll write that story.” The truth is Bruce was a Lt. Col. In intelligence.

The last time I confronted Bruce in court was during a heated divorce case. He represented the husband, a rather subdued fellow, and I represented his wife who had a volatile temper when angry. And she was angry that day. The judge ordered us into a witness room to work out a settlement. That’s not going to happen, I thought.

“Bruce,” I said to him privately, “my client will go off like firecracker on you and your client. For goodness sake, don’t say a word when she does or we’ll never get this case settled.” And I was correct. She verbally attacked her “sorry” husband and his “crooked” lawyer. Bruce never uttered a word. Finally, after she vented, we settled the case. I couldn’t believe it. Afterwards, I said to Bruce: “You just sat there and never said a word, I just don’t understand.”

“Whyyy, Jerreee, you asked me not to.” I like to think that phone call I made to him 30 years earlier, apologizing for being a young whipper-snapper, contributed to his silence.

Bruce served as Chairman of the City Board of Education, Scoutmaster of Troop 21, Director of Athens Housing Authority, President of Limestone County Bar Association, Alabama Bar Commissioner, and member of the Rotary Club. He was an elder and Sunday school teacher at First Presbyterian Church of Athens. He represented both the Limestone and Athens Boards of Education during the turbulent days of school integration. His steady hand helped bring about a peaceful end to school segregation in Limestone County. Bruce died in 2008 at age 87.

Good lawyers are like chicken teeth. Scarce. Bruce Sherrill was a good one.
By: Jerry Barksdale
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By: Jerry Barksdale

Why do men make a “bucket list”? It’s mostly a male disorder. Sky diving and running with the bulls in Spain top the list. Why does a man want to jump from an airplane and break his leg? Why does he want to try outrunning a bull? It can’t be done.

The idea was popularized in the 2006 movie, The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, one rich the other poor. Both were terminal and in same hospital room. They decided to make a bucket list of things to do before they kicked the bucket. Women snicker at such foolishness. You never hear about a woman who wants to wrestle an alligator or go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. No sir! Women aren’t that dumb. They dream of owning 100 pair of shoes with matching leather purses, sleeping late, Bloody Mary’s with breakfast in bed, weekly massages, hairdos, pedicures, shopping seven days a week, and driving an SUV with a butt warmer. Very sensible things indeed.

The male disorder begins at about age 16. All he thinks about is dating a cheerleader, playing football, wearing Izod shirts and Nike shoes, driving fast, and playing in a rock band. It makes him feel manly. He finally snares a cheerleader, marries her, and they have three ugly kids with buck teeth and big ears. He maxes out his credit cards paying for braces. Unfortunately nothing can be done about the car-door ears. The kids have an average of three car wrecks each, too many speeding tickets to count, at least one DUI each, and spend a couple of nights in jail. A king’s ransom is paid for their college tuition, but they flunk out. The daughter gets a booger catcher through her nose, tattoos on her ankle, and marries a dude she met at rehab, who is unemployed. The boys live in the basement, won’t work and won’t leave home. Thank God they are all normal kids. Is it any wonder that a man wants to outrun a bull? Just for distraction, if nothing else. One morning the man looks in the mirror and his teeth aren’t his, he’s balding, has a double chin and a turkey neck, his prostate is enlarged, and he has ED. He takes action. He begins wearing $150.00 Ray-Ban sunglasses. No help. He’s still bald. He grows whiskers, shaves his head, buys running shoes at Walmart, and takes up jogging. Pretty soon his knees and hips are killing him from pounding the ground. He has knee and hip replacement for which the insurance company refuses to pay.

Meanwhile, his once beautiful cheerleader has gotten fat. She takes action too. She goes on the latest starvation diet, gets a $50,000 bondo body job, along with new bumper gadgets, dresses fashionably, and wears red high heels that match her red toenails. She frets over whether her new dress matches her underwear. Younger men begin paying attention to her. She buys a new SUV with a butt warmer. She purchases more shoes on QVC. Then she gets a tattoo of a feather on her ankle. Running with the bulls is the farthest thing from her mind.

Husband panics. He doesn’t feel manly anymore. He begins consuming mega doses of ginseng. He has more hair growing out his ears than on his chest, and it takes him 30 minutes to pee. Life is fleeting. That’s when he decides to make his bucket list. One would think he has grown wiser with age. Nope! Dumber. He buys a $100,000 bass boat. His little Ford pick-up won’t pull it so he spends another $65,000 on one that is larger than a house trailer with 4-wheel drive. Now, life is really exciting. The bank calls every day demanding payment, he considers suicide. Too chicken. He vows to play every Robert Trent Jones Golf Course in Alabama. It gives him no satisfaction.

He needs to live closer to the edge. He considers making a pass at a checkout lady at Walmart, but thinks better of it. Her boyfriend is a former Green Beret and a bouncer at a strip club. Maybe that’s living too close to the edge. Life is passing him by. It’s time for a real bucket list.

I’ve made my list. It’s not what I want to do in the future, it’s what I don’t ever want to repeat.

1. Never pee on an electric fence. Electricity isn’t racist, sexist, homophobic, liberal or conservative. It doesn’t care. It will burn your butt to a cinder. I won’t do that again.
2. Never challenge a yellow jacket family and say such things as “Come out an’ fight like a man.” You can’t outrun a bull and you sure can’t outrun yellow jackets. I won’t do that again.
3. Never mess with a married woman. Some are married to men who have never attended anger- management class, are jealous and unchristian-like and won’t turn the other cheek. I won’t do that again.
4. Never become delinquent with the IRS. They’ll slap you with a 10% penalty and charge you 12% interest. They will file a lien against your home and levy your bank account. They are the most uncaring, insensitive bunch of non-Christian bureaucrats in our government. You can’t beat the IRS. I won’t do that again.
5. Never play Tarzan by swinging on a fuzzy muscadine vine in the woods. Muscadine vines aren’t fuzzy, poison ivy is. It will cause your hands, arms and face to swell with itchy blisters and send you to see a physician who practices euthanasia. I won’t do that again.
6. Don’t ever purchase a parachute by mail order and pack it yourself. No matter how carefully you read the written instructions you can make a mistake and the chute won’t open. Having a properly packed reserve chute packed by a certified rigger is essential and will prevent you from splattering on the ground. It’s good to have that when you are falling at 120 mph and your main chute won’t open. I won’t do that again.

Nowadays, I get my kicks from riding my zero-turn lawnmower. It makes me feel manly. I feel like Attila the Hun leading a marauding Army across the plains of Eastern Europe as I fly across my pasture slinging grass clippings, pine cones, and fire ants. Now that’s living!

Afterwards, I lay back in my Lazy Boy knock-off and daydream about my favorite high school cheerleader from 50 years ago when I was single. Ah, yes! Then, I am rudely jerked from my daydream.

“Will you please get off your lazy ass and take out the garbage?”
By: Jerry Barksdale
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By: Jerry Barksdale

We were off on another “man trip” (our fifth), this time to the Aliceville Museum in Aliceville, Alabama. During WWII the small, rural town of approximately 1,500 hosted the largest German POW camp in America. More than 6,100 soldiers of Field Marshall Rommel’s once vaunted Afrika Korps were imprisoned there. Another 1,000 American military guarded and cared for them.

As always, women weren’t allowed on this trip. As I’ve written before, we didn’t have time to stop for pedicures, shoe shopping, engaging in petty gossip, and arguing about where the fork and napkin go on the dinner table. We gossip about major stuff. And men don’t give a darn where a fork and napkin are placed. Just set a bucket of fried chicken on the table and move back.

Retired Athens cop and Alabama Veterans Museum president, Jerry Crabtree, was driver and official wise cracker.

Museum board member, Bill Ward, retired mathematician and native of Pickens County was guide and color commentator.

Ewell Smith, Museum board member, former Athens Volunteer Fire Fighter, and retired business manager at Athens State University told us a story about an Athens “fire bug” who had numerous blazes that conveniently began when the firemen were at church on Sunday morning. The blaze was always extinguished and the rental house saved, but all contents were damaged. The insurance company stopped paying claims and the fires stopped. We talked about other things, but that’s none of your business.

Aliceville is 45 miles West of Tuscaloosa. There are two routes to get there. One is I-20 west from Tuscaloosa. We took the scenic route through Bankhead National Forest. Both routes are about the same distance, but you won’t see beautiful kudzu, endless trees, spattered squirrels, and trashy front yards along the interstate. I recommend the scenic route.

Bill Ward was also our trip humorist. Knowing that I take two Lasix pills a day, and sensitive to my needs (when you gotta go – you gotta go!), he pointed out trees large enough for me to hide behind and pee. Good friends are invaluable. If we had been on I-20, I could have been arrested for answering nature’s call. A retired mathematician, Bill once worked out complicated formulas before computers did the work. I tested his knowledge.

“Hey Bill, can you do long division?” He’s quick.

“Sure, bring down your nought and carry the zero.” Wow! He knows his stuff.

In Fayette, signs were posted along the curb that said, “Peace be to these streets.” We figured the mayor was planning to install “squeeze chutes” and “tire busters” around their square like in Athens. Once peaceful little Athens where folks attend church three times a week, the women carry guns, and there is no sin (until the sun goes down) has become a divided town. Many citizens complain they can’t circle the courthouse like they used to.

“We need those signs in Athens,” quipped Crabtree. I agree.

We stopped at the Pickens County Courthouse in Carrollton where Bill showed us “the face in the window.” According to Bill, after Henry Wells was arrested for burning the courthouse in 1876, he was placed in the garret of the newly constructed courthouse for safe keeping from a mob. While looking out at the mob, lightning struck and imprinted his likeness on the glass. I saw the image but can’t swear it was Henry since I never met him.

Aliceville (pop. 2397) is quiet and friendly, reminiscent of earlier times in the South when folks sat on their front porch in the evenings and gossiped about their neighbor. Gossip is far more reliable than the evening news and certainly of more interest.

John Gillum, executive director of the museum, was our tour guide and, an excellent one at that. “The POWs had been told that New York City was in rubble and the Statue of Liberty was twisted metal,” John said. “They rushed to the ships railing to see the destruction. Instead they saw a pulsating and vibrant city.” Many POWs thought they would be shot. Such is the power of propaganda.

The first group of POWs arrived in Aliceville by train on June 2, 1943. Locals turned out to gawk. Instead of seeing a “super race” they saw malnourished, bedraggled, and disheveled men in worn out uniforms. They were marched two miles to the 400-acre barb wire enclosure. Still, many thought they were going to be shot. Instead, mess halls were opened and they were fed. It was their first time to eat peanut butter. They squeezed white bread into a blob (Germans ate brown bread) and rubbed on peanut butter. They liked it. Who doesn’t like a peanut butter sandwich?

Over the years, many of the POWs returned to Aliceville bringing with them memorabilia, now on display. They also told many stories. Food was rationed during WWII and the POWs often ate better than the locals. (See Alabama Heritage, Winter 1988, No. 7 for an in-depth account of the POWs.) Corn was plentiful in the area and it was fed to the POWs. In their mind this was an insult, since in Germany, corn was fed to hogs. They didn’t want to eat it, yet they didn’t want to offend their captors. They hatched a plan. They buried the corn in numerous places to conceal it. Corn began sprouting up all over the compound. The locals thought they liked corn so much they were planting their own crop. They sent more corn!

Many of the POWs picked cotton, gathered peanuts, and worked in sawmills for which they were paid. The officers and NCO weren’t required to work pursuant to the Geneva Convention. All lived well. However, two POWs were shot and killed while trying to escape.

The POWs organized an orchestra, produced plays and concerts, wrote poetry, painted and promoted the arts, and pretty much lead a good life, except for being away from home. The museum is also chock-full of American military memorabilia, including a display of Pickens County’s two Medal of Honor recipients. There is also a large display of 1920s clothing.

Following our excellent tour, we lunched at Angie’s Place on pulled pork, smoked chicken, and fried catfish. Fine eating. A meat and three with a drink was $11.00.

It’s a good day trip and I recommend it. You can visit their website: www.alicevillemuseum.org or phone: 205-373-2363.

And for those of you taking Lasix, don’t worry there are many large oak trees along the scenic route.
By: Jerry Barksdale
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By: Jerry Barksdale

Back in the1950s “Ol’ Miz Doctor Powers” (called Pie-eers by locals) was one of Athens’ most colorful characters. Her name was Mabel Claire Gray, born in Elkmont, and the wife of Dr. A. D. Powers, one of Limestone County’s most prominent physicians. They lived in a rambling white house at the corner of 1st Avenue and North Jefferson Street one block north of Powers Hospital, now known as Powers Apartments. It was the first hospital built in Limestone County.

Ol’ Miz Powers was creme de la creme of the Athens social set, but that never interfered with expressing herself in the clearest terms. According to the authors of Gray, Powers, and their interelated [sic] families, Descendants of Col. Thomas Holden Wade, Miz Powers was attending a Presbyterian revival where the sermon topic was sin and going to hell. “You’re going to hell if you play cards and you’re going to hell if you smoke,” said the preacher. Miz Powers had heard enough. She stood and said, “I like to play bridge, and I’ve been smoking since before it was decent for a lady to smoke. And I’m not going to hell!” Then she huffed out.

She often went to the Limestone Bank and cashed checks. Instead of making a deposit, she rolled up the bills and stuffed them down her bra. “I’m depositing them in the Breast National Bank,” she would say.

Ol’ Miz Powers drove a Fleetwood Cadillac, a 2½ ton, 8-cylinder land yacht, which she parked wherever it was convenient, which was usually in the middle of the street.

It was said that she could out cuss a sailor. Mama was sitting in the hospital waiting room when Dr. Powers returned from a medical conference to find that Miz Powers had redecorated the waiting rooms with new curtains. Dr. Powers didn’t approve and snatched them down. Miz Powers took offense and an F-5 cuss fight ensued.

Athens installed parking meters that had to be fed coins. They hired young McElyea to ride around on a red, three-wheel motorcycle and ticket violators for illegal parking. Locals called him Red Ryder. The sound of Red Ryder’s motorcycle sent shoppers scurrying to feed the meter. He was ticketing Ol’ Miz Powers Caddy when she walked up.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m writing you a ticket, Miz Powers.”

That’s when she introduced a new phrase in the English lexicon of cuss words. “You are nothing but a revolving son of a bitch,” she said.

Red Ryder was puzzled. “What’s that, Miz Powers?”

“You are a son of a bitch anyway you turn!” she said, ripped up the ticket and threw it on the ground.

The introduction of parking meters sowed confusion among some members of the Athens “brain trust.” For example, which meter did you have to feed? On Saturday mornings, country folks sat on their haunches in front of State National Bank, rolling their own, spitting on the sidewalk, and discussing boll weevils and cotton picking. An elderly gentlemen parked his pickup, got out, walked up the street a few yards, and fed a meter. Red Ryder wrote the old fellow a ticket.

“Now that ain’t right,” said one of the loafers. “I seen him put money in it.”

One of the more intellectual loafers weighed in. “Well, maybe he was supposed to feed the meter where he parked.”

They all agreed that the old gentlemen had been wrongly treated. Anyway, who ever heard of having to pay to park your vehicle?

In addition to inventing new cuss words, Ol’ Miz Powers was handy with a pistol. According to her great granddaughter (steemipatina.com), it was a hot summer night and Miz Powers was home, doors open, trying to catch a breeze when she saw someone lurking in the yard. Dr. Powers was at the hospital a block down the street.

“Get outta here!” she yelled. That was the only warning she gave before opening fire at the lurking figure behind a tree. Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow! The trespasser went down groaning in pain.

“Don’t shoot, Miz Powers! It’s the police.”

Doc Powers heard five shots ring out and figured it was Miz Powers’ .32 Smith & Wesson speaking. “That’s Mable’s gun,” he remarked. “I guess I better go see about it.” He found the wounded policeman, carried him to his hospital, and removed the bullet…no charge.

When I was a kid living in Booger Town, I walked past the Powers’ home on Saturday mornings headed to the Ritz Theater. During the fall, a small, wiry, black man was usually raking leaves and piling them between the sidewalk and curb. Miz Powers would be standing on her front porch, fists on hips, directing the little fellow and making sure no leaf was missed. I was afraid of her and always hurried down the sidewalk.

The Sutton boys and their Booger Town gang also walked to the Ritz on Saturday mornings. The first to see the leaf pile would yell, “Last one there is a rotten egg!” The boys would take off running and jump into the leaves, scattering them over the lawn and sidewalk. They would run off laughing and hollering before Miz Powers made the scene. Oh boy! What fun. It was a Saturday morning ritual.

There was a fire plug located between the sidewalk and curb by the Powers’ home. One Saturday, the Sutton boys, seeing the leaves neatly piled, took off running and laughing and jumped in. Bam! Bong! “Aahgg!” The leaves had been swept over the fire plug. That ended the Sutton boys’ leaf jumping careers.

Several years ago, I told a friend about having seen Miz Powers on her front porch, fists on hips, directing the small black man sweeping leaves.

“Do you know the rest of the story?” he asked me. “When he became ill, Dr. and Miz Powers sent him to the Mayo Clinic where he received the best medical care in the world. They took care of him until he died.”

Dr. Powers died in 1963 at age 80, and Miz Doctor Powers died 8 years later at age 80. They are buried side by side in the Athens City Cemetery.
By: Jerry Barksdale
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By: Jerry Barksdale

I have a lot to worry about nowadays. A groundhog has homesteaded in my garden and eaten my cabbage, my chainsaw won’t crank, and I have an enlarged prostrate. And I just learned Earth will perish in 12 years. My kind of luck. That’s according to New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, alias AOC. She’s a smart woman – an intellectual – and wears big owlish glasses to prove it. Since Earth has been my only home since birth, I would like to continue living here. Aside from Bama losing the National Championship, it’s the worst news I’ve heard in a long time. The stock market will tank and real estate prices will fall. There goes my retirement.

On the positive side, it will be a good time to buy real estate, and paying alimony and having to file income tax returns will cease. Thank the Lord! As Mama used to say, “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

Privileged rich people are already planning to bug out to Mars. Elon Musk, a privileged, old, white guy billionaire is building a spaceship to fly his wealthy friends to Mars – for a hefty fee, of course. I suspect they will live in a gated community behind a wall to keep out the Martian riff-raff and pay them minimum wage to clean their space suits and tend their rock garden. Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Streisand, and Jon Stewart have been threatening to leave America for years. I’m sure they will be aboard. Cher is waiting for a ride to Jupiter. Bon Voyage to all. I would like to go, but I won’t be able to afford a ticket. Only the rich, privileged class will go. Anyway, I won’t leave Earth without my good friend, and sometime red-head, Pat. They wouldn’t let her on board with 150 pairs of shoes, 50 purses, and 25 pair of sunglasses.

Recently, Miss AOC proposed her Green New Deal to save Earth. Again, thank the Lord. She suggests we need to stop birthing babies. I agree. They are nothing but trouble. The little burping, defecating, diaper soiling snots just grow up to smoke pot, drink beer, get arrested, wreck cars, and flunk out of college. Then they cart us off to a nursing home. Zero babies can be achieved in one generation. But we may have to outlaw Viagra to accomplish it.

Miss AOC says that methane gas eliminated by cow flatulence is a major cause of climate change, which according to her, will contribute to destroying the earth in 12 years. She suggests that we should give up eating meat and become vegetarians. She’s wrong there.

Polite society doesn’t use the street term for flatulence. But folks living in Toney and Flat Rock, Alabama, may not know what a flatulence is, so I will translate. It’s a ten letter word to describe a four letter word – fart. For religious folks and English teachers, I assure you that it’s not a swear word. It’s one of the oldest words in the English language and can be used as a noun or a verb. If you feel more comfortable calling it a “poot,” “toot,” or “passing gas,” I understand. For the purpose of this white paper, and to accommodate sensitivities, I’ll call it “cut’n cheese.” There are 1.5 billion cows on Earth cut’n cheese, every day, all day long. They produce 150 billion gallons of methane a day. Holy cow! All animals cut cheese and produce methane gas: deer, bison, elk, horses, elephants, sheep, goats, all wild life – and yes, dogs. Termites are the worst offenders; even cockroaches pass gas. I’m for killing all termites and cockroaches. All cockroaches are good for is to make exterminators rich and scare women. Citizens, we have a real emergency on our hands. Humans also produce vast amounts of methane gas. The average person cuts cheese 14 times a day. Believe it or not, women cut cheese just as much as men! It’s hard to believe, but Queen Elizabeth cuts cheese. They say that Nancy Reagan did too. I doubt that Miss AOC does, even knowing the danger that methane gas poses to our survival.

Methane gas is also highly flammable. Several years ago, an Athens man cut an extra-large slice of cheese while sitting on the commode. He lit a Marlboro and blew himself up! There are over 7 ½ billion people on Earth cut’n cheese 14 times a day and producing billions of gallons of methane gas daily. Add that to billions produced by cows, animals, insects, and termites, and you can see the danger. If a critical mass is reached and someone lights up a joint – Boom! The Earth will erupt in a fiery conflagration.

I’ve laid out the problem, now what can we do to save our planet? Miss AOC says vegetarianism is the solution. Wrong. Many years ago I decided to go vegetarian and ate a diet of broccoli, beans, cabbage, etc. My stomach rebelled. I cut cheese all day and all night. My wife threatened to divorce me. I returned to eating fried chicken.

Eating vegetables produces methane gas. Cows are vegetarians. They eat grass almost exclusively, and they expel enormous amounts of methane. Solution: Feed them meat – preferably armadillos, groundhogs, dogs, and house cats. There are far too many of them. I’m especially jealous of dogs. They don’t work and don’t pay taxes or alimony. Dogs chase bikers, joggers, and mailmen, and act like they own the planet. We’re all in this crisis together. We must unite as a nation, and Congress should enact a methane tax similar to the carbon tax. The more you cut cheese, the more you pay. Similarly, if you don’t use all 14 of your daily poots, you could sell them to a rich vegetarian who lives miserably surviving on bean sprouts, pintos, and broccoli. A simple app on your phone would measure your flatulence. The tax proceeds would be used to find a solution to passing gas and help us save the planet.

We must all sacrifice. As for me, I intend to give up my favorite dinner – pork-n-beans on crackers – and cut back on poots.

A national ad campaign should be immediately launched by the Trump administration informing citizens of the danger of cut’n cheese and encourage us to cut back at least one flatulence a day – just one. We can do it. T-shirts, lapel pins, and bumper stickers would proclaim, “I’m a 13.” A National Day of Prayer and reflection should be declared. Ministers should mount their pulpit and encourage their flock to be a 13.

Another plank in Miss AOC’s Green New Deal is to guarantee an income to every American, whether they work or not. Many people will sign up for no work.

“Hey Joe, where you not working nowadays?”

“Oh, shoot I’m just lying on the couch drinking beer, watching reruns of the Three Stooges and sleeping. What about you?”

“I got an offer to not work as a taster in a pie factory. It just makes me tired thinking about it.”

“I know what ‘ye mean. I feel sorry for them fools who get up at 4 a.m. and go to a real job. Suckers.”

“Yeah buddy, I’ll drink to that.”

Some will say they should be forced to work before being paid. No way! It would be discriminatory and violate the “pursuit of happiness” clause in the Declaration of Independence. They have rights too!

Miss AOC also proposes that a rail system replace airplanes. Fine with me. I’m afraid to fly. The Air Force hasn’t weighed in on the proposal. They will probably whine that they can’t fight a war from a train. Whatever. Constructing a bridge to Hawaii will employ a lot of people, assuming that anyone will work. It has been estimated the Green New Deal will cost each household a mere $600,000. (Sounds like a green new steal). So what? It’s just paper. Print more money. Come on folks let’s get behind Miss AOC and save our planet. It’s the only one we have. I’m a 13, will you be one too? Just some thoughts from an old fart.
By: Jerry R Barksdale
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By: Jerry Barksdale

December 14, 1970, began like most days for chopper pilot, Warrant Officer Hal Baker stationed at Can Tho, South Vietnam. He would fly another dangerous mission, something he’d become accustomed to over the past ten months. Christmas was approaching and with a little luck he would spend the New Year holiday in Sydney, Australia, for much needed R & R. His first R & R was to have been in Bangkok, but a gunshot had put him on crutches and he didn’t want to go there hobbling around. Good luck didn’t always favor Baker.

A chopper pilot’s average life expectancy in Vietnam was 19 minutes. If Baker survived another two months, he’d be leaving this green hell hole for sweet home Indianapolis. Today would be different.

As a member of C Troop, 16th Cavalry, Baker flew one of two Loach (OH58) choppers at near ground level — one of the most dangerous helicopter assignments in Vietnam. The Loaches were scouts and marked the targets. A Huey flew at 1,000 feet as command, control, and rescue. Two Cobra gunships were at 1,500 feet providing covering fire. They were a hunter-killer team. They hunted the enemy and killed them. C Troop averaged over 120 kills a month. It was dangerous work. Life expectancy dropped to only 11 seconds once contact with the enemy was made.

It was a nice day in the Mekong Delta. Baker was flying 10 feet above ground when the Cobras spotted two enemy soldiers running through tall elephant grass. “They guided us to their position after we agreed to give them any war trophies we found,” says Baker. “They would trade them to the Air Force for a box of steaks.”

Baker zeroed in on the targets and immediately began receiving return fire. “The elephant grass was about 8 feet tall. I couldn’t see them but could see their path by the waving grass.” Baker rolled in and squeezed the trigger on his mini-gun that spit out 2,000 rounds per minute. Both men dropped, one on top of the other. They were NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and one carried a leather pouch over his shoulder. “We wanted the pouch. It could contain intelligence or at the least, it could be traded for steaks.” He slowly descended over the tall elephant grass and landed his right skid on the bodies. The left skid remained suspended a few feet over the ground.

The door gunner stepped out on the skid and grabbed the leather pouch. Then, the nose of the chopper slowly turned to the right. Baker thought the tail rotor was tangled in the grass. He saw blood and small pieces of flesh in the cockpit and on the left side of his face and helmet. Someone had been shot! He looked down at his left thigh and saw a hole the size of a silver dollar. “I’ve been shot!” He exclaimed. He was bleeding out. “I knew I had to get my gunner out before I passed out.” He lifted off and landed in the middle of a rice paddy and a hornet’s nest of enemy coming at him. They were at point blank range and firing.

Unable to walk, Baker hung onto his gunner with one arm and fired his .45 pistol at the charging enemy. He kept firing as he struggled aboard a rescue chopper. They lifted off and headed to the hospital. A South Vietnam medic aboard attempted to administer morphine and treat his wound, but Baker refused. He was concerned about infection. “I didn’t want his dirty hands on me.” So, he treated himself.

Later in the hospital, a bullet form a WWII Mauser was found lodged in Baker’s body armor. That’s when he learned that the enemy who shot him was in a spider hole just a few feet beneath him. If he had been firing an AK-47, like they usually did, the outcome would have been different. Again, Baker’s luck had held. That was the ninth time he’d been shot down. The other three crashes were mechanical.

Baker’s commander of Delta Aviation, a colonel, came to visit him in the hospital and asked if he was going home. “No sir, I’ll be back in 2 to 3 weeks,” replied Baker.

“We’ll see about that Thirteen. I don’t have time to keep coming here and checking on you,” the colonel said.

A few minutes later, the doctor came in. “You’re ordered home,” he said.

“They either don’t want me on their conscience or else I’m costing them too much money,” Baker quipped.

For gallantry in action, Baker was awarded a Silver Star, our nation’s third highest decoration for bravery.

Baker missed R & R in Sydney, instead he was going home.

He was confined to a stretcher on the flight from Tokyo to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. “They told us if we could walk into the hospital, we could go home,” said Baker. He was flown to Ft. Knox, got off at the hospital, but didn’t have any clothes. His nurse whose husband was a pilot, brought Baker clothes and drove him to the airport in Louisville. “My twin brother, Carold, picked me up at the Indianapolis airport, and I arrived home on Christmas Eve.”

Baker’s departure to Vietnam was far more pleasant than returning home. He was on crutches and a young lady asked him, “Why are you limping?”

“Got shot in Vietnam,” he replied.

“Baby killer!”

Says Baker, “The next girl that asked me what happened I told her I was shot by the police. She was sympathetic and thought that was cool.”

Baker moved to Huntsville in 1972, and still pushing his luck, worked for Huntsville Police Department for about a year as an undercover drug cop. His long black hair was matched by a bushy mustache. He hung around bars and became acquainted with drug dealers — and even bought them drinks with his expense account. Baker worked about 30 cases during this time. Before making a buy, dealers always asked him if he was an undercover NARC. “I always told them I was,” says Baker, “but they never believed me.”

During this period, Baker met Karan Thornton, daughter of former Athens Dodge dealer, Franklin Thornton. Her grandmother was Birdie Thornton. They have been married 44 years and have one child, Jeff, a Vanderbilt Law graduate and Associate Law Professor at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California.

Baker spent 32 years crop dusting and 10 years flying a med flight chopper — you’ve probably heard him fly over Athens many times.

In addition to a Silver Star for bravery, Baker holds 5 Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism above and beyond the call of duty during aerial flights, 3 air medals for acts of heroism while in aerial flights, 2 air medals for meritorious achievement during flights, 2 Purple Hearts for combat wounds, and several lesser decorations.

“I’m proud of all the awards, but being a flyer, I’m prouder of the five Distinguished Flying Crosses,’ says Baker.

Nowadays, about the most dangerous activity that “Crash Baker” does is climb a ladder. He and Karan will occasionally purchase a house in the Athens Historic District which they upgrade and re-sell. They live on East Street.
By: Jerry Barksdale
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By: Jerry Barksdale

If you met Hal Baker walking near his home on East Street in Athens, his unassuming appearance and quiet demeanor wouldn’t hint that he holds two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and seven other medals for heroism in battle. To my knowledge he is the most decorated Vietnam veteran in Limestone County.

Baker has to be the luckiest, unlucky helicopter pilot that ever flew in the Vietnam War. His call sign was “Darkhorse one-three” and his nickname, “Crash Baker.” A sign in the operations room stated, “Fly with Crash Baker at your own risk.” He survived 3 crashes and went down a total of 12 times, 9 of which he was shot down. Cats must be envious of Baker.

Harold “Hal” Gene Baker and his twin brother, Carold were born on July 3, 1948 in a share cropper’s shack in a cotton patch near the small Arkansas Delta town of Swifton. He was too young to pick cotton, but not too young to ride his mother’s sack while she picked. Times were hard. His father moved the family north to Indianapolis seeking work when Hal was three years old. His interest in flight came early in life. When he was a first grader, he jumped out of a barn loft. Being unlucky, he severely injured his hip requiring traction for 6 months and crutches for 2 ½ years.

After graduating high school, he worked for Allison Motors manufacturing airplane props. He yearned for adventure. In the dead of winter, February 1968, at age 19, he joined the Army and was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO, for basic training. “Ft. Misery” he calls it. Afterwards, having received a top secret security clearance, he was assigned to Cryptographic School, Ft. Meade, MD. He didn’t like it. “We were to be located in a small compound in Vietnam guarded by MPs,” says Baker. “If our compound was overrun by enemy, the MPs were supposed to destroy all crypto-equipment and kill the personnel. I didn’t think much of that.”

Living on the edge made Baker feel alive. He completed parachute school at Ft. Benning, and was assigned to the famed 82nd Airborne Division. Meanwhile, he tested for both the Green Berets and Flight School. “I weighed wading through rice paddies versus flying over them.” He chose flight school.

Unlike the other services, the Army didn’t require pilots to have a college degree. Baker was accepted and began 9 months of primary flight training, the first half at Ft. Wolters near Mineral Wells, Texas. It was brutal and the harassment never ceased. “We weren’t allowed to look up at a helicopter when one flew over,” he says. Then on to Ft. Rucker, Alabama, where he graduated and was commissioned warrant officer.

Following a 30-day leave, Baker flew to San Francisco, headed to war. The United flight attendant moved him up to first class. “I told one of the young hostesses that I wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge before I died, that I was going to Vietnam and had no expectations of coming home. She drove him across the Golden Gate at 2 a.m. “That’s the nicest we were ever treated.” He adds, “Coming home from Vietnam wasn’t all that great.”

On February 17, 1970, Baker landed at Long Binh, a mosquito infested wet area in the Mekong Delta not far from Saigon. “I woke up next morning never to forget the smell,” says Baker. “It was damp and mildewy and smelled like a rice paddy.” Roads were clogged with motor scooters darting through the streets. The appearance was peaceful but deceiving. Soon, he would learn that it was a smelly green hell where ordinary looking people wanted to kill him. Over 40,000 Americans had been killed in the conflict to date. The average life expectancy of a chopper pilot was 19 minutes. By war’s end, almost half of the 12,000 helicopters sent there were lost, and approximately 5000 pilots and crew members were killed. That doesn’t include those injured.

A few days after arriving, Baker was assigned to the 162nd Aviation Assault Company at Can Tho. Initially, he flew a “Slick” (transport chopper without external weapons) often ferrying combat troops to “hot” landing zones. “I was scared to death,” he says. Later, he flew a Huey gunship armed with 72 rockets and machine guns manned by two door-gunners whose job was to suppress enemy gunfire. There were no gun sights on Hueys. The pilot marked an X on the windshield with a grease pencil and flew toward the target from 1500 feet, firing. “Below 500 feet you couldn’t pull out,” says Baker. “Some pilots got “target fixations” and flew into the ground and were killed.”

Bad luck stalked Baker, but good luck always saved him. The first time he was shot down was while inserting South Vietnamese troops on the ground. They began taking enemy fire. Baker went in to cover them, and his rotor blade was hit by AK- 47 rounds. The blade began shaking, and he went down behind enemy lines and was rescued. His luck held.

The pilots had to operate within strict rules of engagement. “I got in more trouble about that that than anything else,” says Baker. At the end of the runway at Can Tho, was an enemy bunker. “They shot at us in the morning when we flew out and when we came back in the afternoon. We couldn’t return fire. One evening I flew over and saw five enemy soldiers.” He rolled in and squeezed the trigger, killing three or four. The door-gunner was shot in the foot. He called for Cobra backup, but they told him he had to quit. “I kicked out the radio and told them I didn’t know what they were saying. Finally, I ran out of bullets and quit.” He grins, “I got chewed out.”

On another occasion after completing a firing mission, with two rockets left, Baker decided to practice on two water buffalo near a tree line. They swooped low and opened fire. Suddenly, bullets ripped into the flight control. “We splashed down by a dike on the other side of a rice paddy,” says Baker. “One of the door-gunners jumped up on the dike like John
Wayne and raked the tree line with bullets.” The enemy zeroed in on him. Baker, armed with only a .45 pistol, was no match for AK-47s, and moved away from the targeted machine-gunner. The fire fight lasted for 45 minutes, but again luck intervened. A recovery chopper from Can Tho rescued them.

A close friend invited Baker to join a “Hunter-Killer” team which consisted of 5 choppers. Two Cobra gunships armed with rockets, mini-guns on the nose, and a door-gunner, flew overhead at 1500 feet. A Huey flew at 1000 feet and acted as command and recovery. Baker’s 5’9”, 165 pound frame fit nicely into one of the two Loaches (light observation choppers) that flew no more than 10 feet above the ground. They were scouts looking for targets. His door-gunner, attached to a “monkey strap,” hung out the door and manned an M60 machine gun. It was dangerous and very stressful. The Hunter-Killer team averaged killing 120 enemies a month. “Our life expectancy as a Loach pilot was 11 seconds after we made contact,” says Baker. “We flew two missions a day for 3 days, then off.” However, most of the time he didn’t take his off days. Instead, he flew door-gunner or front seat on a Cobra gunship. “I figured if anybody was going to get killed, it’d be me,” says Baker. “We were young. I really didn’t care. Most of us didn’t care.”

Often Viet Cong hid in sampan boats in the river. Baker spotted an enemy and went in for the kill. The VC returned fire and shot out the chopper engine. “I splashed down in a rice paddy on the other side of the sampan,” says Baker. “The left skid broke off, and we flipped over.” Again, good luck intervened. The other Loach sank the sampan and rescued Baker and crew.

The first time Baker was wounded by enemy fire was when he was shot down with an M-79 grenade launcher. It was his ninth crash. He had a new door-gunner. They spotted three sampans turned over in the water. Enemy soldiers were hiding beneath them. “Water was so clear at times we could see people on the bottom breathing through a reed. Command and Control wanted to capture and interrogate them.” Baker dropped down to provide covering fire. Suddenly his chopper was hit on the left side knocking out his flight control. “We were going inland. All glass, airframe, everything on the right side was blown off.” It seemed Baker had finally run out of luck. “I stomped the left pedal and we crashed, rolling over, end over end, five times. My door-gunner was hanging on the monkey strap and wounded. I got out of my harness and jumped into the water and unhooked my door-gunner. Bullets were flying everywhere – water splashing around me. I saw blood streaming down my arm and I had been hit, with shrapnel in my arm and leg.” After rescue, they were flown to a hospital where pockets of shrapnel were removed from his body. “I never felt getting shot.”

Afterwards, Baker learned that a turncoat South Vietnamese soldier had fired the M-79 that shot them down. The turncoat was stood up in front of a brick wall and machine gunned by his fellow soldiers. In Vietnam, one never knew who was friend or foe. The barber that cut the men’s hair during the day was a Viet Cong fighter at night. He was killed coming through the barbed wire that surrounded the compound. On another occasion, a “friendly” pulled the pin on a hand grenade, wrapped a rubber band around it to hold the plunger down, and dropped it in the chopper’s gas tank while the crew was temporarily absent. Fortunately, the gas ate through the rubber, and the grenade exploded before the chopper was airborne.

To be continued…
By: Jerry R. Barksdale
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By: Jerry Barksdale

Early morning coldness lingered in the high mountain valley slowly giving way to the rising sun. Pat and I had spent the night in a small log cabin on the edge of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The welcomed sun warmed our faces while we watched the Wyoming sky gradually turn turquoise blue. The day held great promise and adventure. After breakfast and camp coffee, we saddled up.

“It’s a long ride up there,” our outfitter said, gazing west at the Wind River Mountains. Leading a pack horse carrying our camping gear, we rode toward granite peaks that thrust upward over 13,000 feet. Our destination was a mountain lake not far from the Continental Divide said to be teeming with brook trout. I couldn’t wait to try out my new fly rod.

Pat, an Arkansas native and former Huntsville surgical nurse, was a single mother of two daughters when I met her following my divorce in 1985. Two years later she said, “Barksdale, I’m the prettiest thing in Southeast Huntsville, maybe Southeast United States, and you need to stop looking around.” She was right, of course. A brown-eyed beauty with long raven hair, she was fully equipped with all the accessories that a man likes. And she had a wicked sense of humor. I took her advice and married her in 1987.

Earlier in the week we had flown to Jackson Hole, rented a car and drove near Dubois, turned onto a dirt road, and bumped across the Indian reservation to a small cabin and corral of horses on the edge of the national forest.

Stuffed inside two Army duffel bags was a tent, air mattress, sleeping bags, novels, flashlights, and our kitchenware. Mama’s old No. 7 blackened cast iron skillet was just the right size for frying brook trout. We had potatoes, Wesson Oil, cornmeal, and plenty of Maxwell House. Coffee, coughing and gurgling in my dented and smoke stained camp pot would bring great joy to our cold mornings. All we needed was good weather, hungry trout, and a little luck.

As we rode toward the high country, the only sound was clanging horse shoes and creaking saddles. As we climbed higher into thin air, the horses blew and caught their breath. We would be dropped off at a lake and picked up several days later. It was grizzly country. No radio, no phone, no problem, I could outrun Pat. I did have a Marine fighting knife for dressing trout and peeling potatoes. If I got in a knife fight with a grizzly, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it. If that didn’t work out, I’d put on my glasses. Down South a gentleman never assaults a man wearing glasses. Well, that’s what Mama always told me. I wasn’t sure grizzlies knew that Southern custom.

“Look!” Pat pointed toward a pinkish red field. As we rode closer, I saw that it was a small glacier inhabited with algae. We began a steep climb around switchbacks. The sorrel mare I rode and the pack horse I led were blowing and snorting. The trail was narrow, a wall of granite on our left and a deep chasm on our right. One slip and airborne! At the bottom of the abyss, I noticed a line of white bones strung out in row. “What’s that?” I asked our guide.

“I was hoping that you wouldn’t see that,” he said. “A cat spooked pack horses that were tied together. One slipped and pulled the others over the edge.”

Midafternoon, we arrived at a small blue lake and set up camp. When the last clanging horseshoes died out, I realized that we were totally alone.

Pat organized the inside of our tent like it was her kitchen, got a fire going, and made coffee. By late afternoon, I had caught a mess of trout. I chopped off their heads, gutted, and cleaned them; battered them in cornmeal; and dropped them into the sizzling skillet. We ate them like corn on the cob, washed down with camp coffee. Greasy and delicious. When the sun dropped behind the peaks, coldness came. We sat around the campfire watching as it turned to glowing coals. Pat zipped our sleeping bags together so we could share body heat. About the time I stopped shivering and got warm, my enlarged prostrate grew larger. I had to pee. I crawled out of the bag, unzipped the tent flap, and walked into the freezing night and peed. I was like an icicle. I scrunched close to Pat. She jumped. “Get away!” If we even went to divorce court, I’d remember that. Something was crawling on me. Was it a tick? Then I heard animal sounds nearby. My imagination ran wild. Was it a grizzly snooping around looking for dinner? I finally got warm and was almost asleep when I had to pee again. I crawled out; it was even colder. After crawling out a third time, I remembered the coffee pot. Hmm… The following day wind howled incessantly, and we remained inside the tent, read and slept.

I followed a clear mountain stream that fed the lake and saw trout. I made a few casts and caught my line in a willow bush. As I worked to untangle it, I noticed large paw prints in the soft earth. Bear tracks! No doubt about it. Between getting up to pee and thinking about a bear eating me, I didn’t sleep much that night.

I lay awake thinking about a TV program I’d seen several years earlier where a Department of Interior employee drugged a grizzly for tagging when suddenly the bear woke and mauled him. He drew a 44 Magnum and killed the bear. When and if I ever returned to bear country, I’d be packing a .44.

The following day got real spooky. Three men appeared and set up a camp nearby. They weren’t the standard skinny, pig-tailed, trail mix-eating hikers. They looked more like escaped cons. They looked at Pat with interest. I sensed danger. Thereafter, I carried my fighting knife on my belt. I lost interest in fishing. Pat and I were packed and sitting on our duffel bags when we heard horses approaching. It was the outfitter. Thank the Lord.

“Did you guys have a real adventure?” he asked.

“Yep, that’s an understatement.”

When we returned to Huntsville, I purchased a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum at Larry’s Pistol and Pawn. The next time I went to the mountains I’d be packing it, just in case. I’d also be carrying an empty fruit jar — my version of a camper’s bed pan.
By: Jerry Barksdale