By: Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN Retired
The heat waves rose in vacillating surrealistic bands from the sun-baked tarmac. Squinting in the afternoon glare, the visual distortion reminded Benny Ray Gilbert of the desert mirage scenes often depicted in French Foreign Legion movies. He looked back down the row of neatly aligned silver SNJ trainers he had just traversed, sighed, and then turned to repeat his steps along the flight line. Having forgotten his high-top boon-dockers, the hot cracked asphalt and the unrelenting Gulf Coast sun had melted the wax from his once meticulously shined liberty shoes. He was pissed…
Shuffling along with marginal enthusiasm, Benny methodically tapped the tie-downs of each plane with his nightstick. Daydreaming as he progressed, he reflected on the recent U.S. military commitment in Korea. Hell, he wasn’t sure where the damn place was! The newsreel clips depict a race of primitive raging barbarians in a strange, hostile and forbidding land …why, why did the US want to become involved following five years of global conflict?
Whatever the reason, he would go in a heartbeat! He had asked for an assignment anywhere in the Far East. Meanwhile, the buildup and tempo of activities at Pensacola were most exciting. There were formations of khaki clad Aviation Cadets undergoing flight training at every turn. Benny was anxious to get more involved in the war that walking a stupid post. Maybe he would apply for flight training. Could he qualify?
Bumping against a propeller blade, he snapped out of his pensive fog. His thoughts took on a more whimsical air. The Gooks were some eleven thousand miles away; odds were they would not show up in Pensacola on this particular Saturday afternoon to blow up the goddamn airfield! Pray tell what was he suppose to do if they did? Looking at the scrawny knurled nightstick he was twirling, he shook his head…he felt utterly useless and emasculated.
Smiling, he jokily contrived the most logical approach; when the saboteur bent over to light the explosives he would slip up behind, ram his nightstick up the dastardly deed doer’s grommet and scream his ass off for help! Wow! Come to think of it, that’s General Order number eight… “Sound the alarm!” He snickered…the heat was really getting to him.
When he reached the far end of the flight line he stopped in the small patch of shade cast by the last aircraft. He laid his white hat, web-belt and nightstick on the wing and reached under his jumper for the handkerchief in his waistband. He wiped his neck, and then burying his sweaty face in the damp cloth heard a distant hiss, followed by an imitative Southern twang…
“HEY NUMB NUTS, yes, you Be-e-e-ney Ra-a-y! You’re out of friggin’ uniform, Shipmate! Get squared-away ASAP, or I’m gonna’ put your pitiful Alabama redneck butt on report!” Benny looked across to the adjacent flight line and spotted his buddy, Al “Hornet” Hudson peeking from behind the huge engine cowling of the Skipper’s prized Grumman F-8-F Bearcat. The nickname “Hornet,” was a play on the popular fastback Hudson Hornet automobile of the post war era. Al was one of the most likable carefree guys Benny had ever met. He enjoyed his company as he was unpretentious and had a heart of gold. A born comic, he lifted spirits and kept everyone in stitches.
They were both rambunctious going on twenty-year-olds. Hornet however, had already developed a drinking problem resulting in a recent Captain’s Mast. He got off with a lecture and extra duty…because, in his words, “I’m the number-two “wiper” [assistant plane-captain] on the Old Man’s plane. He looooves me like a son.” Benny in turn, had also attempted to turn “straight-arrow” after falling in love with a hometown Birmingham girl.
Following a brief courtship conducted primarily on weekend passes he married, and wife Mary Beth was now several months pregnant. The honeymooning was short lived as she has been hugging the toilet bowl with morning sickness. Her demeanor to say the least was from unpleasant to downright venomous. Married bliss was not at all what he expected. He was having serious second thoughts…
Benny did realize his priorities must be directed towards preparing for his future family. He had studied hard and felt being on the promotion-list for Second-class Petty Officer, was a step in the right direction. However, the opportunity to pull liberty with Hornet and his other shipmates as in the past was no longer an option. God knows he missed the hell raising and he was deeply concerned that he had married too early in life…his wild oats were still in the hopper. He missed his freedom and often felt disillusioned and trapped. With his meager salary there was barely enough money to pay the bills. The constant worry of making ends meet gnawed at his gut…not a way to spend one’s youth.
Benny putting his watch gear back on, replied to Hornet’s jovial threat, “Listen a-hole, while you’ve been playing with little Willie, I’ve already clubbed three bad guys to death…two of the infiltrators however, may have died of sheer boredom watching you mope along the flight line!” Hornet gave him the finger salute.
Benny ignoring Hornet, made a sweeping gesture with his hand, “I can see the bold headlines now; “ Petty Officer Benjamin Ray Gilbert single-handedly saves NAS Pensacola from saboteurs!” The Skipper will pin a shiny medal on my chest…there will be a full-dress parade in my honor! The mayor will give me keys to the city…I’ll be a gin-u-wine brass-balled hero! Sooo Al baby, stick your report-chit up your chocolate speedway or I’ll tell the Captain you’ve been jerking-off in his cockpit!”
Hornet grinning began to imitate an act of masturbation as a gray carryall appeared from between the hangers. “Hot diddley damn dickhead, here comes the two unfortunate bastards who are going to relieve us! Now Benny, it will be difficult but please try to assume some form of military decorum when the Petty Officer of the Watch pulls up. I don’t want to be embarrassed by association!” They both laughed…
After returning to the barracks, Benny had taken a cold shower and was putting on a clean set of whites when Hornet walked in the duty bunkroom. Leaning against the doorjamb he eyed Benny, “So your little Birmingham cutie irons your friggin’ skivvies…damn, she’s spoiled you rotten!”
Benny beamed, “Hey man, glad you’re here, I was just coming to see if you wanted to go to evening chow with me? They’re having one of my favorites, baked ham and sweet potaters.”
Hornet frowned, then with the same mocking Southern drawl, “Hell Be-e-e-ney Ra-a-y, I don’t want any damn hamus Alabamaus, mammy’s yammies, cornbread and chitterlings or whatever the hell you rednecks eat…I need an ice cold brew-ski…I’m suffering here! Agitating the asphalt for Uncle Sammy all afternoon sapped my vital fluids, so let’s meander over to the EM Club sickbay for a liter or two of plasma!”
Benny buffing his ruined shoes looked up, “Hornet, in case you’ve forgotten, we’re in the duty section…drinking is a no-no! However since our watch is over we can maybe get a “stand-by” for a couple of bucks and clear it with the Watch Section Leader. But remember, I’m a married man now. I have responsibilities, and you’ve already been to Mast!”
Hornet eagerly agreeing replies, “I have a big surprise, I bought one of those new Kaiser “Henry J” cars I want you to see the blue beauty! I’m buying the brew and will drive you to the club in style. Jerry and Rob are already there…so let’s go, go, go!” Benny thinking of his marital responsibilities paused, gritted his teeth then reached in the locker and grabbed his neckerchief. Frustrated with the frailties within, he kicked the locker shut! “Screw it, let’s go see that new car and don’t forget you’re buying the suds, I’m flat busted…”
Two hours and a number of pitchers later, the revelers were in rare form. Hornet returning from the phone booth slapped Benny on the back of his head, “Hey old buddy, I called my sweet-thing who lives a short way out Mobile Highway. She wants to see my new car and I want you to meet her. I never thought this old Detroit sparkplug would be dating some down south Honeysuckle Rose!” Benny hesitated…
Hornet rolling his eyes, “Man, she’s got legs that go on forever and a pair of knockers that would make a dead-man slobber! So let’s go shipmate, we will be back in the barracks in an hour.” Benny inebriated rose unsteadily from his seat and arms in arm they staggered outside. Laughing and shoving each other into puddles, they sloshed through the drizzling rain to the car.
A new car, an unfamiliar driver, alcohol and a dark rain-slick highway are all ingredients for disaster. The inevitable was waiting... Al misjudged an oncoming curve. The speeding auto skidded off the highway, careening into a deep drainage ditch and disintegrating on impact with a culvert headwall. Al propelled through the windshield was crushed against an overhanging oak tree. The momentum of Benny’s body ripped the passenger side door from its hinges! He was found partial submerged and unconscious in the rain-swollen ditch.
Albert Elton “Hornet” Hudson was pronounced dead at the scene. Benny spent several weeks in the Naval Hospital recuperating from force trauma, concussion, cuts and bruises.
Life’s fragile journey is a labyrinth…mysterious and unpredictable. The road is winding, with many forks and detours. One can easily take a wrong turn as the markers are often obscure. The road that leads from the carefree gregariousness of youth to adulthood and its consequential responsibilities is difficult for some to traverse. Some accept and step out smartly; some prefer not to seek it; others through tragic events never have the opportunity.
In 1980 after a distinguished career, Command Master Chief Benjamin R Gilbert hand-in-hand with wife Mary Beth was ceremoniously piped ashore…