If more of us spoke French, I’d introduce my father, Eugene Palmer, as a raconteur, a great storyteller. He qualified in this category by being around a long time, having many opportunities to meet a lot of characters, and possessing an appreciation and talent for public speaking. Although I sometimes believe I’ve already heard his really good ones, I’m not sure anymore. Either there are still new stories to hear, or they just sound new to me with my slipping memory. For example, the other day, we were talking about a long-time friend of his, who’s a decade or so older than him, and I asked about his health. Dad reported that, last he heard, his friend was still around and kicking. In fact, he said, he’s probably getting ready for his yearly celebration of Hitler’s birthday. I was surprised to hear this and responded (as any sane person would), “You have got to be kidding!”
But no, he wasn’t. This friend, you see, is known to say, “If it weren’t for Hitler, I would have been making a living selling tacos in East Austin.” But WWII came along, he was drafted, became a fighter pilot, and returned to Austin to graduate from college and law school on the GI Bill. I guess gratitude takes various forms.
The subject of the GI Bill prompted me to bring up Lawrence O’Donnell’s promo for his show on MSNBC, which I described to him (since MSNBC is too liberal to make his watch list), O’Donnell explains how his father used his GI benefits as a World War II veteran to attend college, which enabled him to earn a living that allowed him to send his five children to college. O’Donnell ends by saying, “It’s the most successful educational program that we’ve ever had in this country — and the critics called it welfare.”
“So, as a recipient of GI Bill benefits,” I asked my conservative father (provocative child that I am), “did you consider yourself a beneficiary of government welfare?”
I’m not sure what I expected his response to be, but I was surprised when he said “No, but I was initially inclined to refuse the benefits because I didn’t feel worthy.” Explaining that he had an easy time of it, while men he had trained with were dying in Korea, he tells the following about his military service:
I was a Speech major at SMU until I made the truly dumb decision to drop out of college at the end of my sophomore year. That led me to being invited (drafted) to join Uncle Sam’s army. The first stop was Fort Riley, Kansas for infantry basic training. As we trained in 1952, the second year of the Korean Conflict, everyone was worried about being sent to Korea on a ‘one way ticket.’
One of my buddies was a guy named Jack Straus, a former basketball player at Texas A & M. One day, he and I were among several small groups firing live rounds from mortars. We were among several assigned to the same gun and, at some point, got thirsty in the heat of the summer afternoon. Our canteen water was warm, so we asked the drill sergeant for permission to go down the hill to the tent where the noncoms had cold water. He suggested that might be a court-martial offense, to which Straus responded, ‘And how does that compare with Korea?’ The sergeant looked at us disgustedly and barked resignedly, ‘You college guys are all alike. Just go get the water.’
When we neared the water tent, we heard an explosion and looked around to see many of the guys we were training with lying on the ground. In fact, as we ran back, we could see that the very gun we had been firing appeared to have exploded, hitting fellow trainees for 20 to 30 yards away.
The first person we reached was our Field First Sergeant (who we didn’t even know was in the vicinity) lying on his back, moaning and bleeding from shrapnel to the groin area. We whipped off our belts to make a tourniquet and bandaged as best we could with our handkerchiefs. In his pain, the sergeant told us, “Boys, if you get me through this, I promise you guys will never serve a day in Korea.”
A few days later, it came time to get shots, and the whole company, including Jack and me, was sent to get Far East inoculations. Of course, we figured the sergeant had forgotten. But then, when everyone got their orders, the entire company, except for the two of us, was sent to Korea. I was assigned to the German occupation army and Jack remained at Fort Riley to play on the post basketball team.
After learning of our assignments, we went by the hospital to thank the sergeant. We began by telling him that after being sent to get the shots, we figured that he had forgotten his promise to keep us from being ordered to Korea. At this, he raised up on his elbows and bellowed, ‘Well, I can change the orders back if you want me to!!!’ We very quickly told him that we weren’t complaining and that we had come by to tell him just how thankful we were that he had remembered. We were very, very grateful, we assured him.
Upon my arrival in Germany, the personnel placement officer saw that my last civilian occupation was as a radio announcer and told me that there were no openings in that field. Instead, he thought he had information and education positions (involving research and public speaking), but I wasn’t too hopeful that this would work out, imagining that I’d arrive at an infantry division and find that such jobs were filled, resulting in placement in the walking infantry.
Instead, I was ordered to the 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, a large, 1,000-bed facility, where I spent a relatively pleasant 16 months preparing and delivering talks to the hospital personnel. I was ordered to present talks on an array of subjects that included U.S. government and civics, the Russian army, the black market in Germany, and venereal diseases. Even while there was fear that the Russian troops, stationed in East Germany about 50 or 60 miles away would invade Frankfort and perhaps capture some of us, I knew other conscripts like me were battling and dying in Korea.
When I was released from active duty, therefore, I was reluctant to avail myself of the GI Bill to continue my education. After all, the most dangerous episode I experienced was at Fort Riley in the aforementioned training exercise from which I was saved by a fortuitous thirst for cold water. I discussed this concern with my fiancé’s wealthy uncle , Meyer Donosky, who basically gave me the 1950’s equivalent of ‘that’s just crazy talk,’ pointing out that I was just as worthy as many other veterans. Benefits, he noted, were not offered on the basis of some level of suffering and sacrifice. I finally decided to accept the government’s financial assistance to complete my undergraduate degree at SMU and obtain a law degree from the University of Texas. So much for the radio announcing career that served me so well (along with some very good luck).”
As an interesting epilogue on good luck, he kept up with his buddy Jack Straus, who never played much more basketball after the war. Instead, he made a living playing high stakes poker (a skill he undoubtedly perfected at Fort Riley) and won the World Series of Poker in 1982 and was known for successfully pulling off one of the best bluffs in the history of poker.
So, while my dad did not consider the GI Bill to be welfare, I’m sure there were many politicians then who sat on the sidelines and railed about the “dole” to GIs, just like there are those today who complain about anything with a scent of a giveaway (like veteran health care) — even though they have never served a day in this country’s military. Guys like my father or his friend who throws the Hitler birthday party know that their own lives better, but more importantly, that this country is a better place because men such as themselves were able to get educations after their return from military service.
In conclusion, let me take this opportunity to warn him that I will feel free to use this information as ammunition next time he accuses me of being a socialist. And come to think of it, he receives Medicare and social security. So let’s just face the facts, Dad — we are all socialists now.