Read an Excerpt
January 1942–July 1963
Mapleton Farm was two miles north of Speed, a small North Carolina coastal plains town of about eighty people with a cluster of white frame houses shaded by tall old oaks and elms. The tracks of the Atlantic Coast Line ran through town. There was the post office, the train station, three stores, and the Speed Baptist and Episcopal churches.
My grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Shelton, developed a farm of over one thousand acres. He was one of the state’s first “master farmers,” recognized for introducing modern agricultural techniques, especially for breeding quality Hereford cattle. Ben Shelton and his family did well on their farm, but the Depression hit them hard. Grandfather died on August 30, 1931. He had three sons and two daughters. My uncle Henry Gray Shelton (who later went on to become a state senator) borrowed money to save the farm and provide a home for my grandmother and his fourteen-year-old brother, my father, Hugh Shelton.
Hugh would marry my mother, Sarah Laughlin, in January 1939. From the very beginning Mother was known as “Patsy,” since she’d been born on St. Patrick’s Day and lived at 1107 St. Patrick Street. Mother was a graduate of Eastern Carolina Teachers College and taught first grade at Speed Elementary School. She also played the organ at Speed Baptist Church—in fact she played it for more than sixty years, until she died on February 16, 2006, at the age of eighty-nine. My parents lived on Mapleton Farm, across Route 122 from the main house of my grandmother and my uncle Henry Gray. I was my parents’ first child, born on January 2, 1942, less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. My father and Uncle Henry were exempt from military duty due to their essential farm work. But both my maternal uncles, Buddy and Cham Laughlin, served in the Army in World War II. Like most of their generation, they didn’t dwell on their experiences, but just quietly got on with their lives once they came home.
My younger brother, David, was born in 1944, my sister, Sarah, in 1949, and the youngest, Ben, in 1956. It was a good thing we had a large family because there was always plenty of work to go around. We raised corn, tobacco, soybeans, millet, peanuts, and cotton, in addition to mowing pastures and cutting silage for the registered Hereford herd of around two hundred head.
One of my earliest memories, when I was about three-years-old, is of helping my grandmother “Mammy” Shelton feed her chickens. A speckled rooster must have seen me as a threat to his brood because he flew up, pecking at my head.
“Mammy!” I yelled.
She grabbed the rooster and wrung its neck, then dropped the flapping body to the ground, where it jumped and rolled for almost a minute.
“Can’t have that kind of chicken around here, Hugh,” Mammy said.
Sunday after church we had stewed chicken with dumplings.
My maternal grandfather was the Edgecombe County Manager and he worked at the old courthouse. Mother used to tell how I would accompany him for quick trips to work, and we would have great times together. For the most part I was very well behaved, but on one of those trips I decided to exert my independence. I was four at the time.
Granddaddy pulled up to the front of the courthouse and parked, taking the same spot as always. “Now you stay here in the car, Hugh, and Granddaddy will be right back.”
“Okay,” I said. Then I slid across to the driver’s side and had no trouble occupying myself playing with the knobs, buttons, and that great big steering wheel. I’d looked out the open window at the busy town square and pretend that I was driving the car. It was so much fun . . . for about five minutes. Then I got bored. To this four-year-old, it looked a lot more interesting on the other side of that window than it did on my side. So I opened that heavy car door and left to explore.
I crossed the street and walked around a bit, and eventually entered Mr. George Howard Fountain’s office. “I’m looking for my granddaddy,” I said, gazing up at the man behind the desk.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
“Granddaddy,” I replied.
“Any idea where he works?”
“At the courthouse,” I said, turning and pointing through the big plate-glass window.
“Well, let’s go over and find him,” the man said, taking my hand with a warm smile so typical of Tarboro in the 1940s.
Needless to say, Granddaddy was surprised, although not upset. I was the apple of his eye. On the way home he would stop and pick up The New York Times; he read it out loud to me and my brother David from the time I was two. I seemed engrossed, Mother would say. Since that time period included the war years, maybe those early newspaper sessions with Granddaddy explain my fascination with the military.
I also remember as a small child holding Daddy’s big hand as we walked among the placid, deep-chested cattle with their dark reddish orange coats and white heads, chests, and feet. The herd was stocky and fat by today’s standards, and it produced top-quality, well-marbled beef.
At about age nine, I started helping grind millet and corn-stalk silage, which we loaded onto a clanking conveyor belt into tall, cylindrical brick silos and two underground silage pits. This was a late-summer job, done before school started after Labor Day. The fermenting silage radiated heat and a sweet-sour smell. Grinding silage was tough, unpleasant work.
One summer morning I was pitching chopped silage onto the conveyer belt and my sweaty face and neck were itchy with flecks of stalk. The sun pounded down and the humidity was about 90 percent. I was thirsty—real thirsty. A big thermos of cold water sat in the shade of the tractor. I lowered my pitchfork and gazed at the thermos. Then I saw Daddy watching me under the brim of his cap. He didn’t say a word. That wasn’t necessary. The message was clear: we drank water when we took a break, once an hour and at lunch. I lifted the pitchfork and got back to work.
We also raised pigs for ham, bacon, and fresh pork. Every October, the adults would slaughter several hogs, then hoist them on a block-and-tackle to bleed out. They’d deep-fry strips of skin into cracklings and then wash the ropy white lengths of small intestines and cook them into chitterlings. To put it mildly, that produced a rather unique odor. I’m proud of my southern heritage, but to this day I cannot eat chitterlings.
Hunting was good on the farm; rabbits, squirrels, and deer were plentiful. My daddy taught me to shoot when I was seven, first with a .22, then, when I was about twelve, with my own 20-gauge shotgun, and later with a family heirloom Parker 10-gauge double barrel that kicked so hard it almost knocked me over. Years later, during infantry training, the skills of marksmanship and silent stalking became second nature to me, but they had been recreation for me as a young kid hunting on the farm.
I began raising Hereford steers as a 4-H project when I was nine and continued until I was seventeen and a senior in high school. Each year I had the responsibility of raising a young steer calf, taking the animal soon after it was castrated. The steer barn was three-quarters of a mile through woods, pasture, and over a stream from our house. My brother David and I walked to the barn twice every day in the summer heat and freezing winter rain to feed, wash, and curry our steers and trim their hooves.
The April livestock shows where cattle were judged on their condition and appearance were the high point of the 4-H year. My parents bought me a black leather silver-studded steer halter to show my calf. When the auction was over, I replaced that fancy halter with one made of rope before the steer was taken away to slaughter. Like other farm kids, I learned to be kind to animals but not unduly sentimental about their fate.
The steers were quite small in the beginning but grew rapidly during the year. Once I took on steers as a 4-H project, I acquired what city people might have seen as an unusual maturity for a child. One of the greatest lessons I learned was that the animal was my responsibility. I could ask for advice, but no one else would do the work.
The 4-H club in Edgecombe County, as elsewhere in rural America, was a wholesome focus of activity for young people. We took very seriously the 4-H pledge to dedicate our Heads to clearer thinking, our Hearts to greater loyalty, our Hands to larger service, and our Health to better living. Farming was a family-centered way of life; 4-H prepared boys and girls for a future in agriculture.
But 4-H also honed organizational skills valuable off the farm, particularly the ability to speak in front of other people at a very young age. It’s no coincidence that I have felt comfortable with public speaking since I was a boy.
When I was twelve, I joined the county 4-H livestock judging team with three other boys. We practiced under the supervision of the county agricultural agent, Charlie Lockhart, who critiqued our ability. Usually our team would visit a neighboring farm and be shown a group of four cattle we had never seen before. Individual team members would have to rate each cow or steer, writing its rank in a small notebook before declaring.
One fall day we judged Hereford steers on a farm south of Tarboro. When it came time to declare, I held up my notebook and did my best to speak confidently. But I was certainly aware of Charlie Lockhart and the three other boys. “I place number four first,” I said, using the proper judging formula. “I place number three second. I place number one third. And I place number two fourth.”
Then Charlie came forward and spoke in a kind, quiet tone. “Hugh, do you really think number four is fuller in the loin than number three? Let’s look at them again.”
What am I missing? I thought. Then Charlie took the time to show the whole team. As always, he was patient and thorough.
This was excellent training for later life: I learned to gain from constructive criticism, and because of Charlie’s respectful demeanor, I learned how to give it most effectively, too. Throughout my career I would encounter great leaders who reflected Charlie’s manner, and many others not so great who had missed that lesson.
At Speed Elementary School, I was so bored in second grade that I cried because my mother, who had been my first-grade teacher, had already taught me the alphabet, numbers, and cursive writing at home. Fortunately, I was able to skip third grade and move right on to fourth, which, combined with 4-H projects, made life challenging again.
Rural Edgecombe County was a great place to live in the 1950s. There were no drugs and no alcohol problems. Crime was almost nonexistent. In summer, unlocked screen doors caught the breeze.
Schools reinforced home values. Every morning we had a short prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. There were rules, and we followed them. If we did not, what’s now called corporal punishment (which we knew as paddling) was the quick and certain outcome.
I made it a point to be good and avoid being paddled. I knew that if I was bad I’d get my rear whacked both at school and at home by Daddy, who was an old-fashioned disciplinarian. One day in lunch line, Ray, the kid in front of me, began stomping his feet and the noise echoed loudly on the pine-plank floor.
Mrs. Hart, the teacher in charge of the lunchroom that day, strode up. “Hugh Shelton, you stop that racket.”
As soon as she turned her back, Ray grinned and began stomping again.
Mrs. Hart marched back and shook her finger at me. “Didn’t you hear what I said, Hugh?”
“Mrs. Hart,” I said, trying to explain, “I wasn’t stomping my feet.”
Lying was bad. Trying to cover up the original offense was even worse. Punishment came fast: a solid whack to my backside. Ray grinned again, but the matter was closed. Although there was no justice that day, I didn’t complain. I was learning to accept the hand I was dealt and make the best of it. But I never stood in line near Ray again.
That was far from the end of my troubles at school, thanks to a bully named Arnold—the playground tyrant who picked on everybody. Up through seventh grade, I was smaller than him. But by eighth grade I had shot up six inches and had long arms, strong from farm work. One day on the playground during a recess baseball game Arnold swaggered up and pushed me hard in the chest. I’d never been in a fight, but I wasn’t going to let this guy continue intimidating the school. My reach now exceeded his by several inches, so I got under his flailing arms and proceeded to use him as a punching bag, bloodying his nose and swelling his left eye. Unknown to either of us, up in the schoolhouse, the principal, Mittie Spencer, my mother, and several other teachers watched me pound Arnold to the grass and continue until he cried uncle. They couldn’t have been happier. Finally somebody had paid Arnold in the only currency he understood.
I never saw him bully anyone again.
I met Carolyn Johnson when I was starting fifth grade and she was in fourth. Carolyn was tall for her age with blond hair and striking blue eyes. There was an immediate spark of attraction.
She was one of six children and, like me, had grown up on a farm. Her father, James Johnson, owned and drove an eighteen-wheeler, and her family had moved from Tarboro to Speed that summer. The Johnsons were a great family and a joy to be around.
Carolyn and I began to date in the fall of 1958, when I was in eleventh grade at North Edgecombe High School. That was before I had a driver’s license, so we went on a triple date to a drive-in movie with Berry Lane Anderson and Bobby Joyner and their girlfriends. We saw the new Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Vertigo, with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. I don’t remember much about the movie, but I do remember thinking that Carolyn was prettier than any Hollywood star. After that, we began to date regularly.
My family always had three or four horses on the farm. The one that I usually rode was a white gelding named Silver. He was wild, loved to rear up, and had a very tough mouth on the bit. I often rode him two miles into Speed to visit Carolyn and watch television with her family. They all enjoyed I Love Lucy and Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. I preferred Chuck Connors in The Rifleman because he was a tough farmer defending his rights, although I thought it odd that he never did any real farm work. I sure could have used all that free time away from the barn and plowing to chase bandits and renegades.
Once, riding Silver back to the farm after watching Gunsmoke at Carolyn’s house, I started him galloping. His mane was flying when the right rein snapped. I had trained him to neck rein and could guide his direction but could not slow him down. “Whoa” did not work with that horse. Silver was at a dead run all the way to the farm; like all horses, he was eager to get home. He turned off the highway and onto the dirt road leading to the barn. Unfortunately, the gate was closed. Silver skidded to a stop but I kept going right over the gate.
In hindsight, I suppose this was good training for all the parachute-landing falls I later made in the Army, but I sure didn’t feel any value in it at the time. I was bruised, battered, and had the wind knocked out of me. Even worse, my good jeans and shirt were torn and dirty. “Okay, horse, you want to run, we’ll run.” I tied a light line to the right rein and ran Silver up and down a plowed field until he was completely winded. I felt bad about that when Silver died the next day.
I rode the school bus for years, but when I turned sixteen, during my junior year, I completed bus-driver training and became a bus driver. That eighteen dollars per month sure came in handy. The bus sat out in my yard and I got up very early every morning to start my route picking up the other kids. It was fun at first, but then I became somewhat frustrated because they had a governor on those buses so we couldn’t drive them more than thirty-two or thirty-three miles per hour. That was unless a certain mechanically inclined sixteen-year-old could figure out how to loosen the vacuum hose underneath, and then that baby could fly all the way up to thirty-five miles per hour. It wasn’t legal, but it wasn’t exactly number one on the sheriff’s list of punishable offenses. My comfort level with anything mechanical would continue to serve me well in the years to come.
In addition to driving the bus, I continued to work on the farm, meticulously completing my morning and afternoon chores all week. After the noon bell rang on Saturday at the farm, I went to my job at Edward and Eleanor Leggett’s store in Hobgood and worked for eight more hours, from 2:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M., for a grand total of $2.75, no Social Security deducted. That was my money to date Carolyn, including gas for Mother’s 1957 Ford, movies, and Cokes. All the profits from my 4-H steer sales went into savings for college.
North Edgecombe High School in Leggett, North Carolina, was a small school of about ninety students, sixteen of whom were in my graduating class. This gave all the kids a chance to participate in school plays, glee club, or sports. I chose sports.
We didn’t have a football team because it was too expensive and there weren’t enough players. But I played first base on the baseball team and was the starting center on the basketball team: I was six foot four by my sophomore year. We called our basketball court in the narrow gym the “cracker box” because the collapsible stands came right to the sideline and the old wooden backboards abutted brick walls, protected only by thin hanging mats. Knowing up front how bad an idea it was to charge in on lay-ups or dive for rebounds was what I always thought of as a real home-court advantage.
My mother drove me home from practice four afternoons a week and to the Friday games until I had my license. Our team’s record averaged five hundred since we always lost to bigger schools. My opposing center on the Tarboro team was Bill Hull. He was just as tall as me and a great athlete; he went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys. But I enjoyed the challenge of competing with him.
There is a very proud military tradition throughout North Carolina, and in Edgecombe County in particular. A large bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood on the Tarboro Common. One of the most historic homes in town was The Grove, built by Thomas Blount, a plantation owner who fought as a young officer in the Revolutionary War. The Grove was later owned by Colonel Louis Wilson, who served in the Mexican War, and by Colonel John Bridgers, the Confederate commander of Fort Macon in the War between the States (my grandmother Laughlin always used that term instead of Civil War.)
North Carolinians were known as tar heels because they dug their heels in and did not retreat during the War between the States; one version of several of the epithet’s origin concerned the 1864 Battle of Petersburg as Robert E. Lee’s half-starved Army of Northern Virginia fell back before Grant’s superior force. General Lee was overheard to say of North Carolina troops, “There they stand, as if they have tar on their heels.” The Twenty-sixth North Carolina Regiment was one of the most heroic of the war and was virtually wiped out at Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge: of the approximately 800 men in the unit, 708 were killed, wounded, or reported missing in action. But they penetrated the Union lines near the heavily defended redoubt called The Angle before they were blown apart with double-charged canister shot and massed musketry.
We had a book on General Lee at home, and I was very impressed by the dignified strength of his death mask. I still have a picture of General Lee hanging in my home today.
I had always wanted to graduate from North Carolina State in Raleigh: four of my uncles and my father had attended State. I also wanted to study aeronautical engineering and build jet planes and spacecraft, but in spite of the fact that I pulled mostly As throughout high school (without working very hard), my math SATs were not good enough. Also, my father preferred that I attend a smaller school nearby, Campbell College.
But even then, my stubborn streak was developing: “If I can’t go to State, Daddy, I won’t go anywhere.”
My parents relented. I would go to State. But I still had to do something about math. So I took a summer tutorial in algebra, calculus, trigonometry, and geometry from my high-school math teacher, Mrs. Lucille Anderson. This was tough, especially with my farm chores and the job at the Hobgood store, but Mrs. Anderson and I struggled through those courses together. I think she learned as much if not more than I did through those courses. Another valuable lesson learned: hard work paid off. I was accepted as a freshman majoring in engineering—but those straight As were a thing of the past.
The North Carolina State University campus in Raleigh was pleasant, with redbrick buildings and handsome shade trees. A train track runs through the campus. The huge William Reynolds Coliseum was the venue of the Dixie Classic Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament. Some folks joked that there were two state religions in North Carolina: the Southern Baptist Church and basketball, and I loved playing basketball more than eating. Good thing, since we called the central dining room in my old brick dorm “Ptomaine Hall.”
My actual classes were a shock. Nothing at rural North Edgecombe High School had prepared me for the rigors of university engineering.
On the first day of Mathematics for Engineers, the professor, Mrs. Bryant, turned to us and said in a calm tone, “Open your books to chapter five, page sixty-two. I’m sure you all covered the material in the first four chapters in high school.” That was easy for her to say. There was no way my North Edgecombe geometry and algebra courses had prepared me for what I saw when I flipped open the textbook.
I stared at the dense columns of calculus problems and felt a flush of embarrassed anxiety. I was completely lost. Mrs. Bryant glanced around the room and thank God she looked past me and called on a guy seated two rows behind me. Maybe she already knew he’d gone to Myers Park High School in Charlotte. “Mr. Steinberg, please go to the board and solve problem twenty-two.”
He carried his book to the blackboard. “It’ll take me a minute to derive a formula to solve it,” he said.
David Steinberg patiently worked through the equation and reached his solution in precise symbols at the bottom of the board. To me he might just as well have been writing Chinese.
“You’ve just earned an A for the whole course,” Mrs. Bryant said. “I suggest you take a more advanced class.”
I was way out of my depth in this class and I would soon find out that the same proved true in chemistry. The professor lectured for six weeks straight without assigning a single problem; they were all at the back of the book, if we chose to look at them on our own time. The first exam, however, was made up entirely of those problems without one question covering anything he had talked about in class.
By midterm of my freshman year things were looking pretty grim—with one major exception: basketball. I had grown up hearing Daddy and Uncle Ben swapp tales about Dick Dickey and Ronnie Shavlik, who later went on to play for the Knicks. In high school I loved listening to Wolfpack games on the radio and I’d think to myself, If Lou Pucillo can play like that at five feet nine inches, I sure as hell could do some damage at six feet five. My enthusiasm and motivation to play under that huge red-and-white banner translated into a performance that I was proud of, and it came down to the final three selection slots on the team when the coach called me into his office.
“Hugh, we’ve reviewed your current academic standing and it appears you’ve got Fs on the horizon in at least three of your courses,” he said. “That would put you on academic probation and you would be suspended from the team.” My heart sank. “Now, perhaps if you’d switch majors to something easier to handle, like recreation and park administration . . .” He continued, but I was no longer hearing his words.
I appreciated his attempts to keep me on the team, but as much as I loved basketball, I knew that my parents expected me to graduate with a degree in a field we believed would benefit my future. Between my heavy eighteen-hour course load and my three hours of practice each afternoon, by the time I trudged back into the dorm I was exhausted—far too fatigued to study.
I felt deep disappointment in myself and responsibility toward my parents. We were not a wealthy family and there were younger kids at home. I was determined not to let my folks down. It was my stubborn pride and overconfidence that had brought me here, and I was still determined to succeed academically. “Thanks, coach,” I said. “But I came to State to get an education, not to play basketball.”
As the coach had predicted, I was put on academic probation, and I knew that somehow I had to turn things around. I didn’t have to be hit over the head to realize that given my current challenges in advanced math, continuing to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—it would take a great deal of work and I’d look good going through the exercise, but in the end it just wouldn’t matter. I had to find alternatives.
One of the guys in my dorm was a textile-technology major. As I was looking over his textbooks, he told me how great the courses were. They combined theoretical physics and practical chemistry, the characteristics of fabrics with plant design and management. “This is the kind of major you would really like, Hugh,” he said.
I agreed, so at midyear I transferred over to textiles, and I was able to start raising my grade point average back up. I found textiles very exciting and I loved what I was doing—which was probably half the battle right there. I was intrigued by the process of how to make a loom come out with just the right type of cloth, and I looked forward not only to the classes but to using the skills after graduation, too.
Since I still had that little issue of academic probation, I took a few courses in summer school and fortunately was able to zip through them with an A and a B; so I was off academic probation and things were looking up.
Clearly appreciative of how hard I had worked to turn things around, my daddy gave me a 1950 Studebaker, one of those bullet-in-the-nose jobs: six cylinders, overdrive. I would drive the ninety miles from Raleigh to Speed to see Carolyn just as often as I could—spending a few hours with her and her family watching television and then turning right around and driving another ninety miles back again. It was a good thing that gas cost only thirty-first cents a gallon back then, and I was also fortunate that the Studebaker was ahead of its time and got twenty-six miles per gallon.
During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I worked in the shipping department at Mayo Knitting Mills in Tarboro. Columbus Mayo, the owner, and his sons, Ben and Lum Jr., were great bosses. I became fascinated with the process of making socks. The machinery was ingenious, the workers and foremen resourceful. This was my first exposure to complex work off the farm. Textiles were practically North Carolina’s state industry in the early 1960s, and I was definitely interested in the profession. I saw a bright future in this work and made official my transfer from engineering to a textiles major when I returned to school.
Because North Carolina State was a land-grant school, two years of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) were mandatory for all able-bodied male students. I became fascinated with military history during the weekly lectures and took pride in wearing the traditional olive-drab-and-khaki uniform, and in formation marching. There were around twenty-five hundred cadets in the ROTC brigade. Regular Army NCOs, several master sergeant Korean War veterans, were our instructors during twice-weekly close-order drills with heavy, wooden-stocked M-1 rifles. This was the first time I’d encountered the Army’s noncommissioned officers. They were quietly competent professionals who worked patiently and encouraged us to do well.
My friend Jack Jordan belonged to the Pershing Rifles and suggested I try out for the elite ROTC drill-competition unit.
If I’m going to be a cadet, I figured, I may as well be the best.
As always, I enjoyed the challenge and worked hard on my uniform, military bearing, and knowledge of military science and history. Senior cadets tested the other candidates and me. I found that 4-H had given me confidence to face the process of elimination. I made the cut. The best thing about the Pershing Rifles was traveling to other universities to compete. The rippling smack of the rifle butts on asphalt during precision drill maneuvers, where two parallel ranks of cadets tossed their rifles in a tumbling blur of polished stocks, were the high points of these competitions.
As my second mandatory ROTC year was ending, I had to decide if I wanted to continue. I enjoyed the training and learned that they would pay me a whopping $27.50 a month (big bucks for a kid from Speed, North Carolina back then), but taking the next two years would entail a two-year active-duty obligation as a commissioned officer. This was a decision I had to discuss with Carolyn.
After high school, Carolyn could not afford college and instead had gone to work as a keypunch operator for Carolina Telephone Company in Tarboro. As soon as the company acquired their first two computers, she was chosen to operate one of them. Special glassed-in rooms were built for them. We had already decided by the end of my sophomore year to marry when I graduated, but we hadn’t announced a formal engagement. We were in love, but neither of us had a firm idea of what the next few years would bring or a clear idea of what Army life would be like for a young couple.
But Carolyn trusted my judgment and stood beside me as she would continue to do in the years to follow, my closest confidante and greatest sounding board. “Whatever you want is fine with me,” she had said after helping me work through the pros and cons of this important decision. Later that day I signed the papers to continue into advanced ROTC.
My last two years at State were fascinating. The professors were gifted teachers, and I gained a true sense of accomplishment as I acquired the complex business and technical skills needed to be a manager in the textile industry.
That summer I went to ROTC training camp at Fort Bragg, which provided my first real glimpse of elite army troops, the legendary parachute infantry regiments of the 82nd Airborne Division. These young men had pride in themselves, their units, and their country. As we sweated through our physical training (PT) before breakfast, the troopers of the 82nd Airborne would double-time past our barracks, their spit-shined jump boots gleaming. They were sharp, squared-away soldiers.
“Airborne, Airborne, all the way,” they chanted.
During that summer camp, we got the chance to “jump” from the mock aircraft practice structure mounted thirty-four feet high and slide down the slanted cable in a parachute harness. A few of the guys around me in the boxy plywood structure looked queasy at the prospect of stepping out the door three stories above the raked gravel, feet and knees together, chin and helmet brim tucked down, hands at the sides of the dummy reserve-chute chest pack. I guess they had no intention of ever going airborne and just looked forward to doing their minimum two years as “straight-leg” lieutenants.
But as I exited the practice structure and dropped eight feet before the springy bounce of the mock reserve chute opening, I felt an adrenaline surge. This is great! I slid down the cable yelling, “Airborne!” Trotting back to climb the tower ladder again, I was already hoping to go airborne on active duty.
That summer camp drew me closer to the Army. Running in the cool morning with my fellow cadets, I felt the camaraderie of being a soldier. That feeling returned each sunset as retreat sounded and we stood at attention to salute the colors, and again when taps sounded across the base at night.
I had earlier thought that the Quartermaster Corps (which entailed clothing and equipping army units) would be the best choice of branches to prepare me for a career in the textile industry; but now I leaned toward the infantry, where I would learn to lead soldiers. In my senior year, I had to make my branch choice and listed quartermaster first, infantry second. I was appointed to infantry.
Then, in May, the Department of the Army list was posted in the North Carolina State ROTC building. “The following individuals will report . . .” I was ordered to Infantry Officer Basic Course, Fort Benning, Georgia, and I was elated.
That spring, textile-industry recruiters had come to campus. All the major companies were there: Burlington, J. P. Stevens, and Riegel Textile Corporation. I had heard that Riegel was the best company in America, so I signed up for an interview and flew to Greenville, South Carolina, en route to Ware Shoals, a company town and site of one of the largest textile mills in the country.
The company took me to lunch at a white antebellum mansion. The polished oak table and waiters in white jackets and black bow ties evoked Tara in Gone with the Wind. All the important men from the southern executive offices were there to size me up. Again, my experience in 4-H and Pershing Rifles gave me confidence. I spent several hours talking with Jim Morrow, the personnel director, who drove me back to the airport.
“Hugh,” he said with a grin, “although I’m not supposed to discuss your prospects, I have no doubt you’ll be getting an offer, one of the best we can make.”
“Sir, I have to remind the company that I have a two-year military obligation.”
“We’re willing to wait,” Morrow said.
The letter with a job offer came in a few days. I called Jim Morrow and said, “I’ll be signing the contract.”
Riegel’s Ware Shoals operation was a huge, “complete” mill: bales of raw cotton arrived by train and truck on one side of the plant, and finished textiles were shipped from the other side of the five-story brick building. Trucks drove away with pallets full of boxed diapers, flannel baby clothing, and camouflage military material. I looked forward to starting work in two years. But first I had my military obligation.
June 1, 1963, was a proud day for my parents. It had not been easy on them and I knew that; they had struggled hard to put their oldest child through college, but they had done it. There were two ceremonies that day, one my bachelor’s degree commencement, and the other my commissioning oath, which I took with several hundred other new second lieutenants. I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to bear “true faith and allegiance to the same . . .”
As I look back, I realize that these were the years that most significantly impacted the man I had become. School plays and 4-H had fostered poise and comfort in public speaking, and even that eighth-grade fight with Arnold had helped forge my resolve to stand up for what is right, no matter the obstacles. At home, in church, at school—I had been surrounded by fabulous role models who were a part of what Tom Brokaw refers to as the “greatest generation”—and it was growing up in this environment that had instilled my sense of character, integrity, and ethics. My father had taught me right from wrong and blessed me with a solid moral compass; and, in her own way, my loving mother had shown me what it meant to be a great leader.
I would have a chance to go home for about three weeks before I was due to report to Fort Benning for my initial entry duty, and I savored every minute of that time with Carolyn and our families.
When Chancellor Caldwell signaled the conclusion of the ceremonies, hundreds of caps went flying skyward and I could not have been happier. I was now a North Carolina State University graduate and an officer in the United States Army. Life was good.
8:34 A.M., March 23, 2002, Fairfax, Virginia
Lying paralyzed on the freezing ground, I was completely aware that if my breath did not return within seconds, I’d lose consciousness and in short order my brain cells would start to die from oxygen deprivation. In under four minutes I would be dead. But despite almost superhuman attempts to will my lungs to gasp, their unresponsiveness was suffocating me to death just as surely as if I’d been under water or in the airless vacuum of space.
Only three hours earlier, I’d been absorbed in the same predawn five-mile run that had started every day since I’d joined the military some thirty-eight years earlier, and had I not known better I might have believed that my thoughts during that run had tempted the fates.
Having just turned sixty a few months earlier, I thought to myself that if this was what it felt like to be sixty, I had no clue what everyone was bitching about because I felt great. Other than a few aches from more than 450 parachute jumps, I felt as strong and healthy and mentally sharp as I had twenty years earlier, and I was elated with my new corporate opportunities and speaking engagements and even somewhat curious about my new gig as a “consultant” for NBC News. I cranked it up a notch as I ran past Robinson High School and thought to myself that life couldn’t be much better; I was truly blessed.
I went in, showered, and around 7:30 A.M. or so I sat down with a fresh cup of coffee and scanned the morning Washington Post. The country was still on edge post-9/11, and I read that just the day before, the Delta terminal at LaGuardia had been evacuated because of some terrorist threat. First-class postage would be jumping three cents to thirty-seven cents, supposedly to cover the cost of new security measures as well as to recoup some of the expenses incurred as a result of last fall’s anthrax contamination. Finally, the first annual D.C. Marathon would be held the following day, and I wondered why I hadn’t signed up for it—but in any event, the way the traffic would be tied up in the District, staying in and doing work around the house would be a much better idea. It was therapy for me anyway, something I have always enjoyed.
I looked out the window and saw the hundred-year-old oak tree that I had trimmed the preceding weekend and took pride in how much better it looked. Getting out there to finish a couple of smaller trees in an hour or so would be a great start to my weekend.
There were really only a few small limbs on one of the trees that needed trimming, so I grabbed my small, twelve-inch electric Remington chain saw and ran the extension cord from the back of my house, then propped my thirty-two-foot extension ladder against the tree and climbed up to attack the limbs. The Remington sliced through a three-inch limb like a warm knife through butter, but instead of falling to the side as I expected, a dead branch broke away from above and drove it straight down into the ladder, which twisted away from the tree and left me on a direct collision course with the four-foot chain-link fence immediately beneath me. I tossed the saw to the left, out of harm’s way, and quickly snapped my ankles together to avoid being impaled between my legs on the fence. It was a decent plan, had my toes not caught the top of the fence, causing me to jackknife upside down and slam headfirst into the ground.
There was no pain, but as I attempted to move my arms to get up, they remained motionless. Worse yet, I was unable to breathe. I fought for air and thought, What a way to go.
I closed my eyes and left it in God’s good hands.
Copyright © 2010 by Hugh Shelton with Ronald Levinson and Malcolm McConnell. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.