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One busy day at the office I could hear my new C.A. having some difficulty on the telephone with the caller insisting on talking to me so I motioned to her that I would take it. The voice on the other end said, "Bob, this is Debbie Spillers," I said "okay," not really knowing who I was talking to. She said, "I found your website, read about what you have been doing, and tried to e-mail you, but it wouldn't go through. I have the letters you wrote me while you were in Viet Nam." Then it hit me, I hadn't heard that name or her voice in 43 years. Debbie said that in the process of going through her old things she came across the letters and after rereading them, her children thought I should have them for my children. She was attending her granddaughter's wedding in a neighboring town and would like to bring the letters to me. We arranged a day and time and I told her I would take her to lunch so we could have time to talk. After hanging up, my brain was spinning. It's not every day you get a phone call from someone you haven't heard from in over 43 years, much less your first real love and the girl you had planned to marry.
For the next three days, try as I might, I had no idea what was in those letters. After 43 years you tendto forget most of the unpleasant things that you went through in Vietnam. Did she hate me for refusing to set a date to get married? Did she think I hated her for breaking up? We never did exactly have an argument, and I never got the traditional "dear John" letter. She just quit writing. I had so many questions. How could two young people so much in love just part company without talking or seeing each other?
As that Tuesday grew closer, I got more nervous about seeing Debbie again. I thought about how all of this started in the first place. I guess all of the decisions you make through life are influenced by your life experiences. I had plenty of experiences even as a young boy, being an Air Force brat. By the time I reached high school, I had been to 10 different schools in seven different states, some more than once. I was raised mostly by my mother as my father for the most part was always gone until their marriage ended in divorce. We were never poor; we just didn't have any money. I can't remember a time I didn't have some kind of a job. Cutting grass, delivering newspapers through Forest Hills, working at the Forest Hills Gulf station and at the Mathers' hardware were all great learning experiences. When I was 14, I built my first motorscooter, a Cushman Eagle that one of my neighbors had given me when he went to Auburn. I went through a couple of English scooters with lesser success before trading for my first Harley. By the time I turned 16, I started buying 49 and 50 Fords and Chevys, cleaning them up and reselling them. I remember how disappointed my mother was when I traded a really nice 1950 Chevy for a 1939 Ford coupe. She tried to tell me you trade up, not down, but I loved that car. The neighbors called it Thunder, probably because of the lack of mufflers.
Early one Sunday morning, the highway patrol pulled me over and informed me that my car was an ex-moonshine car from Chilton Co., never mentioning the fact it had no mufflers. Not long after that, the engine went south and I wanted to put a Corvette engine in it. There were not many people to ask about engine swaps back then , but Mrs. Kelley , out on the far end of Fairview Ave. had a junk yard and was chief mechanic on a dirt track car and she knew engines and told me step by step how to change engines. How could this be so easy and classwork be so hard? I had difficulty with reading and even more difficulty with numbers. It seems as if I would just stare at the pages while my mind would wander all over the place. I hated those little cue cards for spelling and the multiplication tables, but I could build almost anything, and if someone ever showed me how to do something I never forgot it. I guess I just marched to the beat of a different drummer. I joked, bluffed, and slid through a lot of my class work, but I loved to go to school. I don't think I ever missed more than a couple of days all through school. Being a product more or less of the Montgomery, Alabama school system, I graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 1962. School, for 'reasons I didn't understand then, it was really hard for me, but there were a few teachers along the way who saw more in me then I saw in myself. Coach Renfro at Capitol Heights Junior High knew my circumstances and that I couldn't play sports because I had to work. He was always there to encourage me. At Robert E. Lee there was Mrs. Blackshear who later became poet laureate of Alabama, who never gave up on teaching me English literature, which for some strange reason I can still quote today. Ms. Anacile Riggs my DE teacher taught me more about working with people than she will ever know.
My mother married a really great man who became a doctor of chiropractic and took me, a little sister and brother and raised us as his own. We were never stepchildren; we were his own. He taught us through hard work and determination we could be anything we wanted to be. In 1961 my family moved to Georgia and I moved down the street to live with my favorite aunt and uncle so I would not have to change schools again. Growing up Cherokee, I had many aunts, uncles and cousins that seemed like additional moms and dads and brothers and sisters, so moving in with Uncle Bill and Aunt Lee wasn't a big deal.
When I graduated from high school, instead of looking at college, for which many people had told me I would not be a good candidate, I joined the Air Force. Not wanting to be drafted, this seemed to be the best option. And in my way of thinking, everyone going into the service in Montgomery was being sent to California or somewhere up North, so I went to St Louis and joined; they sent me to Mac Dill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
As I think back to when I first met Debbie, I had a great aunt and uncle in Tampa, Florida that thought I needed to meet some nice young girls, So Aunt Jane took me to church with her one Sunday, the first Christian Church of Tampa. Just as she had told me, there were some good-looking girls there. You had to watch it though. If your mother, aunt, friends, or even your Dad wanted you to meet someone they knew; they could introduce you to some real "duzzies". This was different, Aunt Jane really did know some good-looking girls. I spotted one in particular in the choir, actually the only one facing me during the service. When church was over and after some coaxing from her mother, Debbie came over and introduced herself. She was still in high school and although I had just finished high school two years before, my introduction to Tampa at Mc Dill Air Force Base started with the Cuban crisis which made you grow up real fast. The age difference only seemed to matter to me, Debbie, her mother and Aunt Jane didn't seem to be concerned. My first impression was she sure is young; my second thought was this pretty little rich girl from Davis Island was way out of my league. What could she possibly see in me? Davis Island was an exclusive man-made island just off Bay shore Dr. in the heart of Tampa at the mouth of the Hillsborough River. Built in the 1930s, it was a mix of Mediterranean style to modern style houses. It had its own airport, park and yacht club. The only place I had ever seen houses like those was in a magazine. This little country boy from Alabama was definitely out of his league.
Usually if I met a girl, I would borrow my uncle's 1949 Chevrolet truck. I thought if she would date me in that, she would be interested in me and not my car. I drove a 1959 Triumph TR-3 sports car at the time, but I only made $78 a month and paid $38 a month car payments. I had it figured out; if I didn't smoke or drink, I could afford the TR-3. It just didn't leave a lot of money left over for dates. It didn't seem to matter to Debbie; a drive to the Colonnade on Bay Shore Boulevard was just fine with her. They served their Cokes with a green olive which we thought was neat. The theater at the base was only 25 cents, gas was 25 cents a gallon, and sitting out on her dock was free. I do remember where I didn't take her.
President John F. Kennedy was scheduled to come to Mc Dill Air Force Base and I had access to the flight line. I wanted Debbie to go with me to see the President, First Lady, and Air force One. It was okay with her mother, but when I showed up at school to pick Debbie up, they would not let her go with me. Debbie cried and I went back to the base alone. I saw the President, First Lady, the Lincoln convertible, and Air Force One. I got some really great pictures; it was really a great opportunity. I watched Air Force One take off on the way to Dallas, Texas. The next day, November 22, 1964, when they announced that the president had been shot and killed everyone remembered where they were and what they were doing.
Things were so different in the early 60's as I think back now-before the hippie free love generation took over in the late 60's. There seemed to be a time of innocence, a time of romance. People actually talked to each other, not on the telephone but Face-to-Face. There were Rides to the beach, lying on the dock at night looking up at the stars, holding hands, making up funny stories, laughing with each other, listening to that special song you heard on the radio, and talking about future dreams, these things built a closeness to each other, a bond that was not based on sex and would last a lifetime.
Once we got the F4-C, (WE WERE THE FIRST SQUADRON IN THE AIR FORCE TO GET THEM,) we were gone all the time. Sometimes we would fly support for the 101st at Fort Campbell, Kentucky or Warner Robins, in Georgia or do missile testing at Port Mc Goo, California or NATO war games in Norway. Juggling all of this while I was trying to go to the University of Tampa was, to say the least, a full-time job. I will have to say the Air Force was interested in your getting an education so they went out of their way to make sure you went to school. I remember one time flying my homework back to Tampa. I sure don't know what that must have cost. It was at the University of Tampa that they first discovered I had dyslexia, the reason I had always had problems with numbers and reading in high school. At last, I was not dumb and I could be and do anything I wanted. I wanted to be a doctor of chiropractic just like my new Dad. Dad had given me a copy of Joe Maynard's book "Healing Hands", and after reading it, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.
I know the married guys on my crew must have secretly hated me for volunteering for every exciting assignment to come along, but I was single and loved the excitement and adventure. Through all of this on-again off- again relationship, Debbie and I grew closer and closer. We had our favorite songs and Debbie remembered after meeting me, Nat King Cole was singing "That Sunday That summer" which has to be one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Whether we were together or apart, we would always have our music that would bring our thoughts back to a certain time and place. I would always bring Debbie something back from each trip, even if it was just a picture. When we got orders that read "top secret Southeast Asia" and were issued passports ,I thought just when did US service people need passports and what is this top secret stuff; they're sending me to Vietnam. Part of us opened up Ubon, Thailand. The only thing I knew about Thailand was watching Yul Brenner in "The King and I." The rest alternated flying early warning alert out of the Philippines. Officially we were not there. We just got used to telling people we just drove a truck. We didn't want them to know we were there with the F-4 group. You know the old saying ",loose lips sink ships". When we rotated back to the states again to McDill Air Force base, our sister outfit the 12th TAC fighter squadron just got orders for Vietnam. We were all giving them a hard time about having to go when the powers to be transferred us to the 12th and sent us back to Vietnam. I only had seven months left on my enlistment and told them I had to have a year left to get a permanent assignment. It didn't work; I went anyway.
This sure was putting a dent in my plans to go to Chiropractic College when I got out. The Air Force had bent over backwards to see me get my class work at the University of Tampa, but when we shipped out, I had to drop out. I made a promise to God that if he took me over and brought me back I would finish school, go to Palmer, become a Dr. of Chiropractic and devote my life to helping people. I don't take commitment lightly. Debbie had gone to Atlanta to attend college and as I came and went and she came and went we somehow grew closer together. I cautioned her about life in the big city and how she needed to be careful. When I got my orders for Vietnam, she told me she would wait for me forever but she wanted a commitment. Man, I was going to Vietnam. I didn't even know where that was, didn't really know if I would ever return. It just wouldn't be fair to put a girl through that. We were so close and wanted to be with each other, but I couldn't marry her and then ship out and leave her. So we parted and promised each other we would write everyday.
On that Tuesday in March, after 43 years we finally had a chance to sit down and talk. The time difference between Georgia and Alabama and daylight savings time, Debbie arrived an hour early but it was great to have the extra time to fill in what had been going on in our lives over the years. She wanted to hear all about my family and was anxious to tell me about hers. She had raised the two babies she was nanny to, and had two children of her own, a son and a daughter whom she was immensely proud of. I had two daughters, the first being about the same age as her oldest and the second about five years younger than her youngest. Debbie had pursued a career in nursing, earned her R.N. and had worked at Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta with children. I had followed my dream of becoming a doctor of Chiropractic.
As we talked between seeing patients, Debbie would look at the pictures I have on the wall and the babies I have taken care of over the years. We finally got a couple of minutes to sit down and talk when she told me, "you know I was really hurt at the time we broke up, but I see today you made the right choice, you have helped so many people". I learned so much about Debbie in those two hours. She wasn't the little rich girl that I knew. Her dad had one of the biggest modular home businesses in the country and then lost everything. She made all of her own clothes. She even put the little Izod things on her shirts, and would take a razor blade and cut her loafers so they would look like Weejuns. While Debbie was in college, her family was financially unable to help her, and she lost all the support group she knew. Life in a big city can eat you alive. You just have to do what you have to do to survive. As we talked about where we were at different times, it was amazing that after I finished Palmer I took some classes at DeKalb College-art and political science in 1970. She said, "DeKalb College, I went there in 1969 and 70, did you take art from that weird guy?" And I said, do you mean Mr. Mason? She said "yes, I took art from him too". This was in the 70s and art was a little strange, but Mr. Mason was one of the most talented artists I've ever met. We also took political science from the same teacher at the same time, but different classes. Debbie said, "you know when I told my son-in-law I was coming to Lineville to bring you the letters he said; Lineville, I go to a car show over there every year". It just happens to be the one Tommy Hicks and I have been putting on for the last 21 years for the Shrine Hospital.
Excerpted from Letters from Vietnam by Bob Steele Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Bob Steele D.C.. Excerpted by permission.
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