So we left Tupelo and ended up here
By DICK GENTRY
I saw Tupelo’s most famous homeboy twice before we left. Elvis. I was standing on the courtyard between the junior high and the high school and there he was sitting on a table beyond a window in the basement of the junior high. A couple of guys were watching him strum a guitar.
We had talent shows at school then. Performances ranged from tap dancing and piano playing to singing. Mostly girls. But Elvis sang “Old Shep” about a dog and accompanied himself on his guitar. The only reason I can remember was because my neighborhood buddy Fred White sang it repeatedly for a few days. “…When I was a boy and Old Shep was a dog…” I didn’t see Elvis again except in movies.
When I started typing all this down a Tupelo friend who was his classmate told me Elvis used to sing and play for Mrs. Camp’s eighth-grade class during breaks. Elvis soon moved to Memphis with his mom and dad and became famous. His childhood home is now a mecca for fans on Elvis Presley Drive.
When he was growing up, his birthplace was known as East Tupelo. That’s before big Tupelo gobbled it up. Before anyone heard of him, his house was on Old Saltillo Road. With very little traffic then, it rambled through the countryside and eventually hooked up with U.S. 45 north near Saltillo, and not far from tiny Guntown, Mississippi—where an old family cemetery there, according to some of my cousins, contains the remains of John Wilkes Booth.
The road is highly developed today, but at the time I returned from the Marines in 1959. my late Uncle Leon and I could park out there on the road and guzzle bootleg beer practically undisturbed until dawn. We were lost men at the time. Spiritually.
When my Tupelo friends Jack Bowles, Billy Crabb and I graduated from Marine boot camp at Parris Island in late summer 1955, four years earlier, our first stop while waiting for the Greyhound was a bar in Beaufort, S.C. Jack walked over to the juke box and then came back with a startling announcement: “Elvis Presley has a record on this thing!”
My first assignment in the Marine Corps was Sea School in Portsmouth, Virginia. At the time the cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers had detachments of Marines aboard. I was assigned to the USS Randolph, a carrier. We provided security for the ships while in port, manned the anti-aircraft guns, ran the brig, guarded the nuclear weapons and dressed up in our dress-blue uniforms as honor guards to welcome dignitaries. I did this for 11 months and a miracle occurred which changed my life.
This is embarrassing to admit now, but I flunked typing class twice in high school.
The First Sergeant, a grouchy old bastard hanging on for his retirement, asked if anyone knew how to type? The regular administrative assistant, a buck sergeant, was being transferred. I held up my hand. I managed 11 words per minute. I won. My life changed forever. No more honor guards, no more guard duty deep in the bowels of the ship, no more midnight shifts. I managed the guard roster, the days off, the liberty roster. When one of the detachment members wanted a day off, a shift change, or a special favor, he was told: “Ask Gentry.”
The first talent required for success as a lowly grunt is brown-nosing and kiss-assing skills. I won’t explain what that means because to the novice, it sounds disgusting. But, used in the appropriate manner it can be genius. And I was. The detachment brass. Captain Heman J. Redfield, commanding officer, and First Lieutenant Franklin A. Hart Jr.. executive officer, were both offspring of Flag Officers—that means admirals or generals. They were career officers and we were frightened.
The main ingredient in the Corps is duty. If your officers believe you are squared-away, loyal and competent—even when you are conning them—then there is reasonable chance of success. Captain Redfield promoted me to corporal and I actually began to take my job seriously. After my two-year tour on the carrier, I was assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C. Most members of the detachment went to Camp Lejeune as ground pounders in the infantry.
On my arrival at Cherry Point, I reported to the administration building and was told to see the administrative chief. Somewhat bewildered, I walked in and learned the sergeant in charge was from Mississippi. Praise God.
“We’ve been waiting on you, Gentry!” he said. “That’s your desk right over there!” The enlisted men walked over and introduced themselves. My job was to assign every enlisted man below staff sergeant to a unit in the Second Marine Air Wing. And I did. And I was soon promoted meritoriously to Sergeant.
And all of this happened because I was able to type 11 words a minute back on the USS Randolph. Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington had a billet to fill in Cherry Point for a clerk-typist in G-1 (administrative) and my MOS (job description in the Marines) had been changed on the USS Randolph by Captain Redfield. It was a crap game and I won.
I never saw Captain Redfield again. He was really something. He was wounded in Korea and lying on a stretcher behind the lines when an artillery shell landed nearby and ended his manhood forever. I never knew this at the time. His marriage failed, but he kept on with his career, ending up as a covert operations expert with the CIA, as a Marine Colonel. He married again, to a woman CIA operative. I would guess platonic, but I have no idea. The North Koreans cost him his manhood, but he was one hell of a man.
After many years, I was reunited with several of my former Randolph buddies, mainly Tom Scott, a retired Georgia State Trooper, and teacher Gene Harvey of Seattle. We have had numerous reunions. I still maintain a close friendship with Lt. Hart, who performed valiantly in Vietnam and retired a decorated Colonel. I have been a guest at his Saint Simons Island home numerous times over the years.
Back on the carrier, one of my friends, Gene Cook of Beckley, Virginia, could sing and play the guitar. I bought an old one, and Gene and I would often go sit in the empty supply room where I learned to cord my guitar and sing a little. It turned out to be something akin to my 11-point typing score, because it changed my life again in ways I would never have imagined.