Three meals and a cot

Madison, AL

Otwell is a small town in Indiana. In the 1930s most of the residents were of German ancestry. It was a place with few businesses, but it provided the people with most of their needs. The town had a drugstore with a soda fountain. In the corner nook of the hardware store was a post office. There was a white frame schoolhouse and Lutheran church. Behind the church was a scanty graveyard where their ancestors rested for eternity. A main highway ran through the middle of town. Houses scattered along the route had well-maintained lawns enclosed in picket fences. It was an ideal place to grow up. Children could go anywhere at any time and feel safe. It was not unusual to see a boy running an errand for Mr. Whaley, the town druggist, or helping around the church yard. When there was no school, boys and girls rode bicycles down the neighborhood's side street. In the winter they gathered at the community's frozen pond for ice skating.
People living in Otwell loved their picturesque town without apology; however, Otwell was a dying town. After all, there had been a depression. It offered little opportunity for a young man right out of high school. Strip mining was where most of the boys found work and their lifelong career.
Morgan grew up in this Norman Rockwell kind of town. He was next to the youngest in a family of five brought up by a single parent. His mother, a beautiful woman, was a seamstress. Her pittance of an income was barely enough to keep food on the table. A much older sister, Alice, was a housekeeper in Saint Louis and when she could spare a little money she would send some home.
Growing up Morgan was small for his age, but a good-looking kid. He was well liked, especially by his schoolmates. The class was a two-year combination with a total of 12 students, including his sister Helen and two cousin. There was a tight bond between the classmates because they had been together since first grade.
By the time Morgan reached high school he had grown to medium height. He was a handsome, energetic young man with big dreams. In 1936 he graduated high school with honors. College was the answer to those dreams, but expensive, and after one semester he left.

There were many towns just like Otwell in 1936, but in 1955 it was not much different. Concord, N.C., was supported by cotton mills, and Charlie Cannon was king. He owned most of the town property and the mill houses, which he rented to his employees. His mill produced towels and sheets with little competition throughout the United States. He lived in a stately home with fragrant boxwood lining the sidewalk to his front door, and at that front door a maid was there to greet his guest. Concord was a slow-paced southern town where everyone knew each other. On a summer afternoon kids got together to play baseball. In the evenings they played hide and seek while grownups sat on the front porch passing away time exchanging heartaches with one another or laughing over a joke or two. The town itself was laid out with the courthouse in the middle surrounded by a department store, a dime store, furniture store and eating places. The Tribune, the local newspaper, was published across from the courthouse.
Sometime between midnight and dawn on a snowy morning, while the roads were still iced and the townspeople slept comfortably in their warm beds, a young boy raced through the cold dark on his bicycle to deliver newspapers. Jerry was scared of the dark, but he was a kid who faced adversities. He took a job delivering newspapers for the Tribune when he was 9. He worked after school and Saturdays. Every Sunday morning he rolled out of bed at 3 o'clock, hopped on his bicycle, and arrived at the Tribune to insert advertisements and fold papers. It was still dark when he threw the latest news on the doorsteps of some of Concord's finest homes.
Jerry was not a shy kid. Everyone knew him. Storekeepers could set their watch by him. They waved as he rode past their storefronts. He didn't stop to visit, because it was the best time to see his customers. During daytime he could collect their weekly debt and get to know them at the same time. After he turned in the collected money he was free to spend his percent up and down the street right outside the Tribune. He liked stopping at the bakery, where he could treat himself to a nickle cupcake. Sometimes, if he was lucky, the girl behind the counter offered for free. Jerry didn't spend all his money. He kept some safely hidden in his shared bedroom. He would scoot aside his bed with its worn footboard and slip his operating money under the linoleum floor covering. It was safe from temptation and would be there when his bicycle needed tires or a chain. The boy was a young entrepreneur. He had other ways of making money. He mowed yards and discovered that he could add to his savings by selling ointments he ordered from the back of comic books. He ordered packets of seeds, knowing the ladies on his paper route grew flowers. Most of Jerry's earnings went to buying his own clothes and schoolbooks, not surprising since money was not something floating around the two-bedroom apartment the housing authority rented to his single mother struggling to raise eight kids.
Young Jerry floundered through school not because he was not smart. He was quite smart and thanks to his salesmanship, math was his best subject. But how could a kid work seven days a week and be expected to keep up school work? With his grades, college was not in his near future; it would come later. The cotton mill was the last place he wanted to go to work. He had seen firsthand how a cotton mill town kept people down and out. It was a big world and he hoped there was something out there, to where he could escape.

Ryan was born into a fast-changing world. He was born in 1977 in Ohio; although Kentucky was home for his first few years, he would tell you 'home is everywhere' because he never lived anywhere more than five years. His father worked at turning chemicals into paint for industrial use and was transferred every time there was a buyout or a need for getting a factory out of the red.
His sister was 10 years older and like another mother to him. She was missed when she married a West Point graduate. When she got married Ryan was 10. From that day forward he was brought up similar to other children where there is only one child in the family. His needs were happily met and then some! Although he did not grow up in one place and go to school with the same kids all 12 years or live near cousins, his upbringing was unique nonetheless.
With every move came a new adventure. In New Jersey there was soccer, basketball in Texas and Cessna lessons in California. He got his first computer in South Carolina and always, always new friends, which he kept thanks to the computer age and his companion computer.
He graduated from Little Rock High School, and while he worked in a factory he attended the University of Arkansas. One day when things were not going good, he stopped by an Air Force recruitment office to talk with a recruiter. He learned about the adventures of being an airman.

Shortly after leaving college, Morgan took a big leap for a boy who never went anywhere outside his hometown. He walked into the post office one early morning and saw a red, white and blue sign. It drew his attention to the words 'Join Up-Free Meals and a Cot.' The next morning he packed a toothbrush and a change of underwear. He was too young to have a beard, so there was no need to pack a razor. He told his mother goodbye and hitchhiked to Fort Knox.
The Army was changing. Horses were being eliminated. It was becoming a modern mechanized military with big trucks and heavy equipment. In maneuvers, soldiers slept in tents. It was camping out. He liked the Army. He got paid for having fun. Morgan made friends easily and smiled when he trained side by side with boys his age. Yes indeed, he liked the Army. He met a country girl, got married, and they had a son. The Army afforded Morgan a comfortable life. He was even able to send a little money to his mother.
Everything was going his way, but in 1941 at the age of 22 his life took a big turn. Somebody had to put a stop to German aggression, and Uncle Sam had trained boys in the 13th Calvary to help do the job. Morgan left in the spring of 1942 with his newfound buddies to Fort Dix, N.J., where he boarded the Queen Mary to Ireland. It was not long before he found himself on the coast of Algeria/Morocco. His division was the first to land in Operation Torch in the North African theater. Digging in and shooting guns was not practice. The operation was real, but that was what he was trained to do.
It was hardly more than six months of fighting when he and his buddies were captured in Tunisia. The prisoners were separated, and Morgan was sent to a German prison camp in Italy. Shortly after being captured he escaped. He stole a bicycle and raced through town, but was caught and badly beaten. April was cold when the Germans put him in a boxcar along with other prisoners and moved them to Germany. The train chugged and whistled through the desolate countryside before reaching its destination, Stalag B 111. The place with strands and strands of barbed wire around it was a different kind of prison camp than the one in Italy. In Stalag B 111, it was common to see old men stripped naked picking lice from their bodies. The straw beds they slept in were crawling with them. The prisoners were subjected to spans of starvation. Sometimes the soup prisoners received had maggots or rotten meat from dead horses. Out of desperation, some men ate grass when they could find it and even bark from trees. The place did not have the kind of meal and cot he had in mind when he joined Uncle Sam's team.
While Morgan was away his wife worried about her husband missing in action. She filled her days working in a munitions factory and his 6-month-old son grew into a strapping 4-year-old. Morgan missed out on a lot of precious years. When he came home, he struggled to live in a changed world with a changed family. He made one more tour of duty, Korea; it was during the Korean conflict. After serving 20 years he retired, having made a comfortable living in the military and raised seven good kids.

When Jerry was 17 he walked into an Army recruiter's office and signed up. He heard the Army was an adventure. He could continue his education. A doctor would always be available. He would have room and board, he could travel, and with all the amenities get a regular paycheck.
After basic training he spent three years in Germany. His next travel adventure was tank practice on a reservation firing range at Fort Knox, Ky. It prepared him for his biggest trip: Vietnam. He was 22 and it turned out to be the trip of a lifetime, if not exactly one he would have chosen. He saw and did unforgettable things. But he was trained. When duty called, he went. He left behind his wife and month-old baby girl. While his wife watched the war unfold on television and protesters demonstrate their dislike of America's involvement in Southeast Asia, Jerry was busting the Agent Orange jungle as lead tank commander. A year later he came home, a man standing tall, proud of his uniform and stripes on his shoulders. However, the country he fought for had changed and did not accept veterans. Jerry quietly returned to civilian life after serving six years.
His time in the service not only changed the boy into a man but afforded life-changing opportunities. He took advantage of the G.I. Bill educational benefits and attended the University of Kentucky. He came away prepared to face challenges in a new career. He worked his way up to becoming director of operations for an American company. He and his wife (Morgan's daughter) added a son, Ryan, to the family, and eventually Jerry retired from his civilian job.

Ryan found a career the day he talked with the recruiter in Little Rock. Today he is in the Air Force doing something he enjoyed as a kid, working in communications. His friendship with computers took him into the cyberworld of the 1990s. Traveling as a kid did not change much in his adult life. The Air Force keeps him on the go. While serving his country he has met challenges he never expected. He helped clean up the Pentagon shortly after a plane crash on 9/11. He went to Qatar, then set up communications before troops landed in Afghanistan. One duty station was in Dubai, another in Korea. He has spent a good deal behind the scenes in Langley, Va., and is now in San Antonio. He continues to travel, attending computer training classes to fight cyber aggression. The military has been good to him. His daughter was born with only half her heart. The military gave him the best doctors they could find to make her whole. They continue to watch over her. When his second daughter was born, his wife and newborn were cared for by good military doctors. As a military benefit, he purchased a nice home by obtaining a low-percent veterans loan. He and his wife will always have health care. His tuition for furthering his education will be there when he retires.
His 20 years with the Air Force will come to an end in two years, but he plans to continue working in some capacity for his country.

Morgan, Jerry, Ryan and his sister's husband Michael, the West Point graduate who gave the country four years after his graduation, and Michael's son-in-law Curtis who now serves in the Navy, have no regrets for serving their country. These men will tell you they got more than three meals and a cot for their service. They grew in maturity. They became leaders. And the pride for serving their country is irreplaceable. These three generations, four counting Curtis, have something in common: 'Patriotism.' they will tell you America is the best country in the world.

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