He was an 18 year old Hoosier high school hotshot. In the Spring of 1950, young Neil joined the US Marine Corps. Six months later he was on the frozen killing ground of The Chosin Reservoir…… Mike would leave his young wife and two young children on Monday morning. He could not say where he was going or when he might return. He was going undercover in the very real, very dangerous world of international drug smuggling…… Horace and I played semi-pro baseball together in the mid 60s. That was before he became a Green Beret and before something called Tet….. Clark was a police detective in the deadliest city in the state…….
These are real people. They are not fictional characters in a Hollywood action movie adapted from a novelist’s imagination. Our paths have crossed thru fate and circumstance. I bet you know some like these. I hope you do. Why we are who we are can often be explained by as simple a matter as…… a choice of heroes.
Young Neil loved “playing ball” and he was very good at it. Sports was his anchor in a childhood that was anything but traditional. In Indiana in the 40s, long before Bobby Knight and Peyton Manning, sports “mattered”. Men named Everett Case and John Wooden emerged from that world. Neil was of their ilk.
It was 1950. Neil’s first choice woulda been to wear Yankee pinstripes and that was not as far-fetched a dream for him as it would be for the rest of us….. but he wasn’t quite “that good”. In the Spring of 1950, his second choice was to serve his country as a United States Marine. Neil and a buddy “joined up”. America was engaged in what would be known as “the forgotten war” – aka The Korean Conflict.
Six months later….. following an accelerated basic training, he was far removed from the hardwood courts and sandlots of Indiana, 18 year-old Neil was in a frozen foxhole (-30 degrees F) at a place called The Chosin Reservoir. It was not The Halls of Montezuma or The Shores of Tripoli. It would never be as “famous” as Iwo Jima. It was a frozen hell in a forgotten war….. and Neil and his fellow Marines were outnumbered 2-1 by 60,000 well-armed Chinese Communists troops. Neil was a combat Marine in Korea. What were you doing when you were 18 years old?
Visit a Marine base or talk to any career Marine. The Corps will never forget those two weeks in December 1950 and their fellow Marines of The Chosin Reservoir. It was two weeks of the bloodiest fighting in US military history. Casualties would match Gettysburg and Antietam. Neil was “lucky” or whatever one calls “surviving” hand-to-hand combat when men are dying all around you. He survived The Chosin Reservoir but his combat wounds ended his Marine career.
Neil wasn’t the only 18 y/o kid on either side during those two weeks, but he is the only one I know. He told me the story (the parts he can talk about) as we drove across East Texas a few years ago.
That 18 y/o combat Marine became a coach and a teacher for the next 50+ years. His advice was sought and valued by the greatest names in Basketball – Rupp, Wooden, Riley, et al. He knew Dean and Knight and Tarkanian…. and they all knew him.
But Neil has never been on the cover of Sports Illustrated….. or made a million dollars/year.
Mike graduated from UNC in the mid 80s. He was a frat boy. His fraternity brothers chose business, law, banking, medicine. Etc. Mike chose law enforcement and the State Bureau of Investigation.
I don’t know why Mike made that career choice and won’t venture a guess. He could have gone a much safer roué for sure. It was his choice. If excitement and adventure is a part of that choice, it soon is replaced by another reality. .
In the 90s Mike was assigned to an undercover drug task force. On Monday mornings he would kiss his young wife good by and “become” a motorcycle gang member. He could not tell his wife where he was going or what he would be doing or when / if he would return. He was submerged in the dark deadly world of the international drug trade….. the Colombian cartels and all the frightening images that conjures up.
Mike lived the real world that we only know thru those straight-to-video movies we’ve all seen. The real world with real bullets and real deadly consequences for the careless or the unlucky. A very long way from a UNC fraternity house. If Mike had ever been “outed” he would have been killed.
Mike retired from the SBI several years ago. He, like Neil, reads these silly columns and tells me I have “a gift”. If I have “a gift” it’s that I know incredibly brave men like Mike.
The President never called to tell Mike he was a Hero.
Horace loved playing ball but he wasn’t as talented as Neil. He was a few years older than I was but we were “running buddies” in the mid 60s. We started up a semi=pro baseball team one summer. He attended NC State but not sure if he graduated. The mid 60s…. and America was in a dirty messy war….. again.
Horace, like many of our era, found himself “in Sam’s Army”. He chose a new branch called Special Forces and earned a beret….. a Green Beret. Horace was a Green Beret in Viet Nam in the late 60s.
I have seen that John Wayne movie dozens of times and always wonder how close that was to Horace’s real world back then. He was home on leave in the summer of ’68 and we went squirrel hunting down on “the river”. Sure, I was curious but didn’t know what I should ask.
Maybe he sensed my curiosity or maybe he just needed to talk. This was all in the moment without the retrospective we have now. Horace describing “a rice paddy” and phrases like Montenyards and fire fights and VC didn’t mean that much to me then. He was not “bragging” or reciting a script.
Like Neil….. Horace was a combat soldier on the front lines. Years later I saw that Mel Gibson movie – We Were Soldiers – and I recalled Horace’s descriptions as we floated down the river back in 1968.
Horace would later join the FBI. We lost track during those decades. He is retired now and lives on the coast. His hobby is Civil War battles.
Horace’s name was never in an above-the-fold headline.
Clark was a police detective in the most crime-ridden city in North Carolina. It is “in the Triangle” and isn’t Raleigh or Chapel Hill. You do the math. Durham has more drive-by shootings in a week than Coach K has rings.
Clark worked his way up from beat cop to detective over his career. Oh, have I mentioned that Clark, like Mike, also spent time “undercover” trying to stem the illegal drug trafficking and gang violence in America. I cannot imagine what that must be like. I deal with idiot board monkeys who are crazier than hoot owls but they don’t carry 9 mms and sawed-off 12 gauges (that I know of).
When we are together, Clark likes to talk local college sports. Clark is a die-hard Wuffie, but not so die-hard that he can’t count Prince Albert Doctor Danny and yours truly among his good friends.
As with Horace back in the day, I never ask Clark “what was it like” but, yes, I am curious.
Clatk has never been lauded and applauded on ESPN Sportscenter.
Jason Collins plays pro basketball for the Washington Wizards. He is paid $1,300,000.00 a year to do so. He has played pro basketball and made millions of dollars for 12 years. Jason Collins announced last week that he “is gay”. He prefers sex with other men rather than with women. Jason Collins bemoaned to a voracious mainstream media what “a difficult life” he has endured being “in the closet” about his sexual preference.
Jason Colllns was immediately “on the cover” of SI proclaimed as “ a National Hero”.
The President of The United States personally called Jason Collins to applaud his “courage”.
Jason Collins has dominated both sports and mainstream news for almost a week for “coming out” that he is gay. The mainstream media cannot get enough of Jason Collins and cannot find adjectives to adequately express his personal “heroism”.
To Barack Obama and to his disciples including the mainstream media Jason Collins is “a National Hero”…… for being gay. ??????
Neil, Mike, Horace, and Clark are to my knowledge, not gay so I guess they can’t be “heroes”. They are to me.
Certainly not all “heroes” are in combat or life/death situations. Rosa Parks was certainly “a hero”. But a millionaire pro athlete for being gay ???
I may have the World’s Most Disfunctional Gay-dar. I am the last person to notice that so-and-so is “gay”….. I simply don’t think about peoples’ sexual preferences, religion or barbecues preferences Its not a matter of “approving or disapproving”. I simply don’t think about it.
Not unlike how I am when meeting a sports fan. I accept Carolina, State, Duke fans all the same. OK, me being who I am and all….. people meeting me seem to think it imperative to declare their sports partisanship early on. Sure,,,, darn few UNCers carry Skoal cans around in the back pocket of their Levis….. but none of my Wuffpals do either.
Maybe you have noticed that I (and AgentPierce) have rather pronounced “political preferences”. I don’t like the term “political” because I think it is much more than that. Politics however it is practiced and by whom it is practiced is a “black art”.
Rather than by my “politics”….. I would rather be known for who I am and how I relate to my fellow man (and women). But if you must pigeon-hole me (I hope that is not a gay term !!!) you can measure me by……
My choice of heroes.
PS: I’ll discuss “those silly rings” at a later time. Silly rings and goofy parades….. WHY don’t they ASK ME before they do stuff like that……. sigh.