Day that brought everyday heroes into focus

Tom Oliver

Much of my early childhood was spent expecting to find heroes, and failing to encounter any. Only later did I realize that the heroes were always among us, far nearer than I realized, and many of them had familiar faces.

I was born in the opening days of WWII, as the Germans swept across Poland. My earliest memories, real or reinforced, are of the inconvenience and discomfort surrounding my father's induction into the Army of the United States. Like many young physicians, the "Doctors' Draft" reached out for him in 1940. As a result my mother and I spent much of the next two years traipsing back and forth across the Western US in trail.

Places like Brownwood, Palacios, and San Diego became way stops, strange to my young eyes as were Waco or Galveston, my mother's home town. Along the way, my exclusive claim to my mother's full time attention and the off duty presence of my father was lost to the inconvenient addition of a baby sister. Not only was she a terribly high priced and attention-starved extra mouth and voice, she cause me to be greatly reduced in status. Worse than that, with the wartime housing shortages, I often had to accept her as a roommate.

The first house I actually "remember" was atop San Diego's Point Loma where at Christmas, 1942, I recall a bow, rubber tipped arrows and a great view over then undeveloped Mission Bay (and survived a P-38 crashing across the street). For a while, we lived in Del Mar, in Fred Astaire's summer house. I do not recall Mr. Astaire, only the driveway. Dad's "Outfit" (a popular term at the time), a coast artillery regiment converting to an antiaircraft role, was headquartered in the infield of the Del Mar racetrack. I was on occasion brought to visit and was much at ease and relaxed among the uniforms, having traveled a couple of times to and from Texas by trains packed with troops, marvelous journeys when you're young, horrific to adults.

All of a sudden, the world that I had known changed overnight. Dad was shipped out to the China Burma India theater in mid 1943. He did not consult me for permission to depart, brief me on the duration and nature of trip, and failed to provide much lead time. He simply packed and left, many tears, a jeep at the curb, and he was gone. At three, I took great exception to his departure and the massive alteration to even the uneasy routine to which I had become accustomed.

My mother hauled us back to Waco, my sister in her arms, me on a leash. Frequent trips to Galveston (by a ghastly bus to Bremond, then a crowded train), where there was an upstairs sleeping porch, a beach open to the young and hardy (including my young aunts) most of the year, and a cook of "salty" demeanor, great skill and a weak spot for a little boy helped make the strange times passable.

Things were equally accommodating in Waco, down in the Dutch Colonial on Washington St. I was the man of the house, had my own room, was depended on for small tasks, and pulled a little wagon to and from the Piggly Wiggly for groceries. The public library was only blocks away, an easy walk with my mother, with my sister secure in her stroller and easily pacified. Despairing of keeping me busy, my mother taught me to read at that year. Though limited in estate to only a backyard and a stretch of sidewalk from 18th to 25th, I was the lord of all I surveyed and mostly master of my fate, pretty sizeable assets for a boy turning four.

Close by on West Ave. were my father's parents who had a basement and a third floor, while we only had a fish pond and a stile over the back fence. Dad was an only child, born late in his parents' married lives, and much spoiled. I became his surrogate, stand-in and center of attention, subject to no little spoiling. Not only that, but Mr. Hobby, already working for my grandparents since 1918, came most days after his shift hauling cotton for a local war industry. Mr. Hobby could do anything, from expertly conjuring warts to wringing chickens' necks to imparting folklore and less recognized versions of history and the physical sciences.

Well, come August, 1945, my world and status crumbled about me. Home comes my father, and all of a sudden there was great disruption to schedules, attention, diet and privileges. Favorite dishes like Spam and bread pudding disappeared from the dinner table. Even my status as a public school student at Sanger Avenue Elementary meant little, as the principal who had served in the same office in my father's days there could only compare me to him, a comparison by which I suffered. The streets and neighborhood businesses such as Wimpy's where we occasionally dined, were filled with veterans. Preferences went to veterans, the social contract was adjusted for their convenience and the get the country's peacetime economy restarted. Little boys were simply abandoned to play touch football in the front yard or to sneak off to bait crawfish from Waco Creek.

All those men or even some of them on the streets and on both sides of the counter couldn't have been heroes. They were cleaner and more neatly dressed than the men in the newsreels and certainly didn't talk much about military action. I had one uncle, always a bit taciturn, who didn't say ten words in my hearing until about 1955, after he had spent a refresher in Korea. Heroes were the stuff of movies, books and magazines, and military equipment and activities were too familiar to hold much mystery. Out of emulation and imitation most small boys were adept at the basics of close order drill. My Cub Scout troop routinely met at the local National Guard Armory, where one of our fathers was a Warrant Officer who controlled the firearms. At age ten, I was as familiar with an M1 or a .30 M1919A6 machine gun (with bipod and shoulder stock) as I was with my grandfather's Model 12 Winchester. I never realized (nor did any of them remind me) that among the men at the Armory, on the street or in downtown businesses were National Guardsmen who had come ashore at Salerno, fought through the terraced olive groves of Italy, and survived the crossing of the Rapido. They didn't mention battles or advertise heroism. I did not believe that I knew any heroes, and that somehow Audie Murphy, the men holding the flagstaff on Suribachi or the characters portrayed by John Wayne were far removed from Waco and from the men with whom I was familiar.

Nor did my father or the other doctors whom I saw frequently exhibit many of the imagined ingredients of heroism. They went to the hospitals, their offices, managed social lives, went to football and baseball games, talked about cars and houses, and occasionally took time for hunting and fishing with their sons (adventures which often started late and were subject to interruption). Worse yet, I kept getting new sisters, awkwardly spaced so that there always seemed one or more needing maximum attention and care.

Only on a dark evening in May of 1953 did I come to understand that heroism alone could not win wars or save communities, but that a virtue of even greater importance was required. When the old and often deservedly maligned general spoke to Congress at at West Point, he didn't mention heroes or heroics, but of the virtues of "Duty, Honor, and Country."

The notion of "Duty" encompasses the personal responsibility of individuals to commit their abilities and talents to the service of those around them. On May 11, 1953, I saw men and women do their duty and beyond, not for praise or reward, but simply out of personal will and commitment, heroes of circumstance, not intent, the most genuine manifestation of heroic conduct.

Most of my May 11, 1953 passed routinely, and it was only after walking home from West Junior High up Colonial Hill that my world and waco's history began to change. By soon after 4PM, From my hilltop vantage point, an upstairs bedroom window toward downtown, the sky had gone from dark grey green clouds to a dusty, glowing metallic bronze. Then came the sirens, all the sirens in town and maybe more. Dad, home early because of bad weather, headed back to Providence Hospital. There was no local radio (or TV!). I don't recall power being out, and the phone must have been working, because within a half hour or so, Dad called with news of the tornado, and my mother gave me his back brace, one of those war souvenirs, to walk the few blocks to deliver to him. I cannot recall the scene which greeted me outside Providence, only the sirens and the rush of people, shocked faces, stretchers and blood.

No war movie or cinema portrayal of the London Blitz could have prepared me for the actual confrontation with ambulances and every other vehicle operable attempting to deliver many hundreds of walking and litter borne casualties for treatment (while the same number must have been swamping Hillcrest). Having been around the then "new" wing at Providence enough to know back doors and short cuts, I made my way to the 5th floor, site of the Surgery wing, and delivered Dad's brace to a nurse, as he bent over a patient on the operating table.

Who knows how many physicians practiced in Waco in 1953, but certainly they all must have been there or at Hillcrest. Doctors of every age and specialty dealt with triage and treatment of minor injuries, but much of the actual surgery was being carried out by "graduates" of WWII, doctors who had spent a part of their lives confronted by wounded in desperate need of attention and treatment. Alongside them worked surgical and other volunteer nurses, some of whom were veterans also. I recall an almost eerie silence in Surgery, no shouting, no clamor, an occasional call for a type of instrument or specialized assistance, but with dialogue between surgeons, nurses and attendants as subdued and unexcited as if the situation was routine.

I started to leave, but Dad stopped to draft me for what at thirteen seemed a task more than simply routine. Old Dr. Crosthwait, father of one physician, grandfather of one in training , "old" in that he had served as a combat surgeon in France in WWI, was in the long 5th floor hallway, both walls lined with stretchers down its length outside Surgery. He was giving morphine to the injured, and I took the place of a real nurse, needed elsewhere, carrying a roll of adhesive tape and a marking pen to note the morphine dosage and time of injection, significant when the injured could finally be treated.

I don't know how long it took to clear the hall. Sometime late in the night, I must have fallen asleep in a chair, but by morning, all the stretchers and waiting wounded were gone. Doctors and operating rooms were still busy with the more seriously injured, and rescue efforts brought a continuing stream of casualties up the elevators. There were some truly ghastly sights and horrible injuries, with some requiring extensive surgery lasting several hours. Although the first rush had ended, the injured continued to arrive. Among those later arrivals came Wacoans dug from the ruins and suffering the sort of crushing injuries that required amputation or substantial reconstruction. Other than occasional cat naps, a snack or a clean scrub suit, the medical staff simply kept on working or took time check on those injured already treated and hospitalized.

Since, I have heard on several occasions the reasonable claim that none of the many hundreds of injured who were still living when they reached the hospitals died of their injuries, an amazing statistic even with today's medical advances. Legend though the claim might be, as legend alone it adds to the collective dedication to duty and responsibility displayed by the heroes among us, the heroes I had so easily and so long failed to recognize. There, right in front of me, among physicians, nurses, volunteers, stretcher bearers, the drivers of ambulances and the passenger cars and trucks which substituted for them, clerks and housekeepers were more heroes than could be counted were a lifetime supply of heroes and heroics deeds.

For me and for some of my contemporaries, all of a sudden, our fathers who had seemed to so callously desert us in our early childhood, and worse, upon their return from the war to cast us from our privileged status, achieved the status we had never before been willing to accord them.

On that long night of May 11, 1953, heroism became the common virtue, and fortunately for the injured and for all Wacoans, there was no shortage of heroes.

Tom Oliver Jr. is a Waco is a consultant and member of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

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