The other day I was thinking about a couple of people I never got a chance to thank, but would have liked to. One was my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Atkins, and the other was Bob Hope. I narrowly missed an opportunity to thank Mr. Atkins when my friend Paul and I went back to Ferguson in 2002. We walked around the old neighborhood and then over to Lee Hamilton Elementary School which we both attended in the fifties. School had just let out and as soon as the kids left the building, we got a chance to go in and talk to some of the staff. When I asked about Mr. Atkins, the secretary told me he had died recently. She said he spent his whole teaching career at the school and that he had been retired for a number of years.
I don’t remember anything specific Mr. Atkins said to me, except that at a time when I was having trouble in school, he made me feel like I had great potential and could do anything I put my mind to. I was a poor student as a kid and at times, a nervous wreck. In the sixth grade my anxiety about school became so bad my parents took me out of public school and placed me in a private one. But I had no problems in Mr. Atkins’ 5th grade class. When the secretary told us about his recent death, it hit me that sometime during my life I could have at least sent him a letter or a card. He was right there at Lee Hamilton School the whole time, I’m sure helping kids feel better about themselves. I hope some of them made the effort to thank him.
I don’t think Bob Hope needed my thanks. He was arguably the most popular entertainer in the world for many years and he received numerous awards. I know there are and have been thousands of veterans like me who feel immense gratitude toward him. The love and concern he felt for the men and women fighting America’s wars was genuine and it came through in the shows he put on for the troops. He said once that his greatest honor was becoming an honorary veteran.
I recently read one of his autobiographical books called, Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me. It was about his show business career with the focus on the USO shows for military personnel. It all started in May 1941, when he was asked to take his popular radio show to March Field and perform live for the Army soldiers. He said at first he resisted the idea, but eventually was talked into it. This was before Pearl Harbor and our involvement in WWII. He realized early that these men and women were desperate for familiar sounds and sights from home and what they needed more than anything was to laugh. For that first show, he brought along Ray Milland, but soon realized the men in the audience wanted to see girls. So he started bringing along popular starlets of the time. He states in the book, “We represented everything those new recruits didn’t have: home cooking, mother, and soft roommates.”
From that very first show Hope felt he had been transported to comedy heaven. Even mediocre jokes got big laughs. After one so-so joke he comments, “The laughter was so loud I had to look down to see if my pants had fallen.” After returning to the civilian audiences, “The memory of the generous laughter at March Field haunted me…” He was hooked.
He headlined more than sixty USO tours over a span of fifty years, taking his troop to Europe and all over the Islands of the Pacific during WWII, later to Korea during the war and then to Vietnam. He even did shows for the troops during the first Gulf war. His entourage had many close calls, but this only seemed to make him more determined to continue bringing shows to the fighting men and women. He started calling the soldiers and sailors he entertained, “my kids” even though at the time, he wasn’t much older.
I got the opportunity to see the show in Chu Lai, Vietnam, Christmas of 1967. My buddies and I took a cooler full of beer and drove up Highway 1 to the Americal Division Headquarters outdoor amphitheater. We were pretty far in the back, but the acoustics were good, so we didn’t miss a thing. This 1967 Christmas tour was made into a documentary film and can be viewed on you-tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzOsLRT7d5c.
He had four women performers with him that year, Raquel Welch, Barbara McNair, Elaine Dunn and Miss World, who he introduced by saying, “I just wanted you to remember what you’re fighting for.” Also with him was Phil Crosby, one of Bing’s sons. Some of his jokes were about Bing and you could tell how highly he valued their friendship. This was the first overseas show without his lifelong friend, the comedian Jerry Colonna. The music was provided by Les Brown and his Band of Reknown. Bob characterized himself as a big chicken and made jokes about how scared he was when the firing started or the bombs fell. We all laughed uproariously at these jokes not daring to admit to our fellow soldiers that we were all just as scared much of the time.
On that tour, Hope and his troop did shows at 22 bases in 15 days. Some of Bob’s jokes were specific to each area they were in and that included Chu Lai. These were the jokes that got the biggest laughs. At the time, much of the country was against the war and it was hard for us to think about the lack of support at home. For a little while anyway, Bob Hope’s USO show countered all those feelings. They closed the show with Barbara McNair leading us all in the singing of Silent Night. I know there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.
I consider this show to be one of the highlights of my life. Watching parts of it on you-tube now, my appreciation certainly wasn’t because it was the best entertainment I’d ever seen. The music was mostly from the previous generation. And I didn’t realize at the time that Raquel Welch doesn’t sing or dance very well. She was out performed by Elaine Dunn and Barbara McNair who were great entertainers. But Raquel was probably the biggest hit because she looked so hot in her skimpy blue and white knit mini-dress. I know that’s what I remember most from the show. The guys in the photography section of our Intelligence detachment took pictures of her from all angles, blew them up and made quite a bit of money selling them to other soldiers and sailors. Indeed, she represented what we were all fighting for.
So I wish I could have thanked Bob and Mr. Atkins, two men who made me feel cared about at two very stressful times of my life.