Sapphire, NC (April 17, 2008) - I'm out on a short solo loop from Gold Hill through northern Georgia and southern Tennesse. The plan is to see how much better time a lone rider can make as opposed to two of us sharing the road. So far I find myself much more contemplative and focused on the task of documenting memorials. I'm also learning that it's pretty easy to walk away from the bike and follow a mountainside trail down to a waterfall or other natural attraction.
Yesterday at one such spot, Whitewater Falls, on the North / South Carolina border I found another spectacular waterfall and another old veteran with which to pass the time of day. I wasn't looking for a story, but I got one from a U.S. Navy veteran of the Korean era, Wilbur Bazemore.
Wilbur is well into his 80's and was standing at a viewing platform, cooling his heels as he waited for his wife, who not only had the engery, but the desire to walk about 150 steps down to another platform that offered a better view. It was hot and I wasn't feeling up to a 300 step round trip, so I decided to ask, "Are you a veteran, Sir?" Eagerly my new friend responded that, yes, he was. When I explained my Ride Around America mission Mr. Bazemore felt compelled to relate how he knew that mine was an honorable goal.
Just after the Korean Conflict started to really heat up in summer of 1950 Wilbur was in a store in his hometown and was spied by the local postman. "Gotta letter for you, Wilbur, and I'm not sure it's good news," said the letter carrier. The two quickly figured out the letter was probably a greeting from President Truman, and that accepting the envelope would start the first domino falling and the last one would be Wilbur finding himself dressed in Army greens.
"Uh, can you drop that at my house and just not tell anybody you saw me here?" The postman agreed and young Bazemore fled the scene. He went looking for the doorway of the nearest Navy recruiting station, where upon arrival he made it well known they had a fish on the hook and should not waste time landing him.
The Navy recruiter naturally asked about Wilbur's background. Bazemore disclosed that for the previous 18 months he had made a living as a pitcher for a semi-pro baseball team. The recruiter stopped his story mid-sentence and picked up the telephone. Wilbur, like most recruits, was clueless that his fate was being decided right then and there.
When the recruiter put the phone down he casually related that if Wilbur wanted to be a Storekeeper he could spend the next three years after recruit training in Hawaii. "WooHoo!", responded Wilbur, "what's a Storekeeper?"
A few months later Wilbur reported aboard at Naval Station Pearl Harbor as part of the permanent detachment - still not knowing what being a Storekeeper really was all about. But that didn't matter, his true assignment was to travel with a Special Services detail throughout the Pacific area. In short, SK3 Wilbur Bazemore was a 'ringer.' It seems somebody in the chain of command didn't want to field a losing softball team and the word had gone out that the Pearl Harbor nine would field only the best players the Navy could muster.
As I laughed and envisioned what it must have been like to just travel to naval outposts at Japan, Guam, the Marshall Islands, and South Korea as part of an entertainment gig. Wilbur then began to tell me the reason he wanted to share 'his' story.
"During my down time when the team wasn't traveling," said Wilbur, "I was assigned to the color guard detail for the USS Arizona." Suddenly I was quiet and attentive as Mr. Bazemore told of his duties each morning and evening. He and the rest of his detail would clamber into a small boat and motor out to the sunken hulk, a ship with the main mast and yardarms still upright and which was technically still in service. Every sailor knows a ship of the line must fly the colors and there is a routine to follow at 8 AM and dusk each day.
The color detail would arrive a few moments before 8 AM and moor the small boat. At the stroke of the hour the men would hoist the colors and render honors. At dusk the procedure was reversed as the colors were struck and the small boat returned to shore in the falling light.
Frankly, I was impressed and I told him that I guessed it was probably a pretty happy time in his life. "No, it wasn't. It was very depressing and I was glad when I no longer had to be there for that duty." Astonished, I asked why. "Because I found it impossible to stand over the bodies of 1,200 men who will never be recovered and not cry."
Wilbur's wife had made it back to our platform level and it was time for all of us to leave. I shook their hands and they bade me well. As I packed my camera aboard the motorcycle I thought of the emotions that frequently overtake me during my memorial visits - and I understood what Wilbur was telling me. A military may suffer a loss, but it's the men of the organization that must endure it. Collectively we can overcome anything, but days, months, and even years or decades later it's the individuals who continue to endure and remember the taste of their tears.