STRANGERS AMONG US - Names on a Bench

by Placerville Newswire / Nov 08, 2017 / comments

[Jon Hendrickson]

From about the beginning of the school year in 1967 until I left home to go into the Navy in the summer of 1970, the family of a friend of mine became something of a surrogate, or alternative, family to me.  My friend’s name was Carl Hager. It still is and he’s still my friend.  We spent a lot of time together writing a satire column for our high school newspaper in my hometown of Minot, ND.  My friend’s dad was also Carl Hager, with a different middle name so they weren’t Sr. and Jr.  Carl, the dad, was an art teacher at the high school and, as I recall, one of the most senior teachers in the entire Minot school system.  His mom was Georgie, a librarian at the local college.  Together, they became mentors of a sort to me.  This was during the height of the war in Vietnam and there was not only a great deal of discussion of the events shown every night on the evening news, but also how that was going to affect those of us who were hard upon draft age.  Virtually every man I knew of our dads’ generation had served in some form of military service during WWII and/or Korea.  Carl, the dad, shared some of his experiences in the Army.  My own dad was 4-F during the war, but worked as a civilian employee of the Navy at Pearl Harbor and Barbers Point, HI.  So, I expected to similarly serve and listened intently to the experiences of our dads and their friends.

As to the conflict that was then raging, there was very little of that direct experience to learn from.  We knew people who had come back from Vietnam, but they didn’t volunteer much of what they knew about the war.  When I started college, I became acquainted with a few members of the Vets Club, but they mostly kept to themselves and weren’t much interested in conversation with freshmen straight out of high school.  The evening news on TV was where we got most of our information about the war and some of it was palpable.  This was journalism like never before, where you were watching combat in your living room within hours of its actual occurrence. 

But Georgie Hager’s brother was there, a Naval Aviator who had been flying A-4s from the U.S.S. Oriskany, and, by the time I became acquainted with the Hager family, he had already lost his arm to North Vietnam anti-aircraft fire, survived the subsequent bailout over the Tonkin Gulf, been rehabilitated to unrestricted Naval service, albeit not to flying status, and with fitment of a prosthetic arm was widely known in the Naval aviation community as “Captain Hook.”  His name was Wynn Foster.

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You may remember the 1992 Presidential election campaign, the one in which Bill Clinton became famous for playing the saxophone and Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” informed the electorate with an emotional high the night before Election Day from the stage of Clinton’s pre-victory campaign celebration.  You may also remember the fact that the campaign was a three-way affair in which Ross Perot made a big splash entering the campaign, resigning from it in July and re-joining it a couple months later.  During that particularly confusing political evolution another name appeared in connection with the Perot campaign, that of retired Navy Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale.  Stockdale’s was a vaguely familiar name to some, but his performance in the televised vice-presidential debate was almost universally remembered as that of a bewildered old man exemplifying the first words of his prefatory statement, “Who am I?  Why am I here?”  No one, otherwise unacquainted with who Stockdale was, seeing that performance would have suspected that Stockdale was far from the individual  on TV that night.  He had a Masters Degree from Stanford in International Relations, had been for years a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford and was a warrior philosopher in the truest Hellenic tradition.  His stoicism served him and his fellow captives through years of torturously brutal captivity in North Vietnam until he was released at the end of hostilities on February 12, 1973.  

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In the summer of 1972, I was about to marry a woman I’d met while I was stationed at Pearl Harbor.  She had just graduated from UC Davis when I met her the year before and had come to Oahu looking for a job.  She had no luck and was about to return to California when I met her.  There’s a whole ‘nother story I won’t go into here, but we set the date for July 1, coincidentally her parents’ wedding anniversary although I don’t know if I knew it at the time or that there was any other significance to the date.  In any case, we were going to be married on Round Top overlooking Honolulu on a Saturday and her parents arrived with her sister and a friend on the preceding Wednesday when I met them for the first time.  Her dad was a guy named Chet Locke and it turned out he was another WWII vet, a Navy guy who served on a destroyer in the Pacific and had spent a couple afternoons at Pearl on his way to and from the war.  I had taken a few days off work, so I took Chet out to Pearl to show him what it looked like 27 years after he had last been there.  That was the beginning of a mutual admiration society that outlasted my marriage to his daughter and remained as strong as ever until he died in March, 2009.

Chester, as I called him most of the time, had graduated from UC Davis as an engineer in 1942, had joined the Navy as an ensign and been assigned to the USS Hazelwood (DD-531) as its engineer while it was being constructed at the Bethlehem Shipyard in San Francisco.  He sailed to war in September, 1943 and his ship earned 10 battle stars at places like Tarawa, Kwajalein, Pelelieu, Leyte Gulf, Lingayen Gulf and Iwo Jima, until the ship was hit by a kamikaze off Okinawa on April 29, 1945.  The Commanding Officer and 77 other officers and men were killed or missing and an “abandon ship” order had been given.  Chester went topside from his station in the engineering spaces, quickly surveyed the damage, determined the ship could be saved and countermanded the abandon ship order.  He took command of the ship, directed damage control and, with assistance of other ships, kept the ship afloat and began the long journey home.

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This Veterans Day, or any other day for that matter, if you visit the Veterans Monument at the Government Center in Placerville, you might find a bench off to the left as you approach the center of the monument.  The center of the bench is inscribed “Legion of Valor” and on it is engraved the names of certain individuals awarded one of the top two military honors, the Congressional Medal of Honor and the highest award of each of the military Branches: Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force Cross and the Navy Cross.  On the bottom line, near the right, you will find “Chester M. Locke, NC.”  Directly above his name you will see “James B. Stockdale, MOH.”  The day Stockdale was shot down on September 9, 1965, he was flying an A-4 while serving as the Commander of Air Wing 16 flying off the U.S.S. Oriskany.  His wing man at the time was the Commander of Navy Attack Squadron VA-163, also flying off the Oriskany, Commander Wynn Foster.

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The tenuous connection these gentlemen have to El Dorado County, in a three degrees of separation sort of way, is me.  My own connection with El Dorado County seems just as tenuous.  Even though I’ve worked here for 30 years, I only physically moved to the county 9 years ago and this isn’t where I grew up and it may not be where I die.  So, I don’t worry so much about whether this is a place I belong or whether anyone belongs here more than anyone else.  But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this, that everyone who lives where I live has someone, knows someone, has lost someone who may have a name inscribed here or somewhere else.  And we will all, someday, be a name inscribed somewhere, even if only on someone’s heart.  And, hopefully, we will be part of a story worth telling and there will be someone left to tell it.

  Jon Hendrickson, 2017.