Larry Mahan is an American eight-time professional rodeo world champion. He won six World All-Around Championships and two Bull Riding World Championships in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit at the National Finals Rodeo. The Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inducted him in 1979 in the all-around category
This Memorial Day weekend, more than ever before, I found myself thinking not only about family members who have passed away, but of the many brave men and women who served their country more than half a century ago.
I am a part of that generation, the last of the then-young men who faced the real possibility of being caught in the military draft. The draft was part of our lives, those of us who earned the “1-A” status and were at the mercy of our local draft boards.
Some were fortunate to receive deferred status for one reason or another — they were sole bread winners of families, they were married with children, they were employed in critical civilian jobs. Most, however, faced the real possibility of one day receiving a letter from Uncle Sam that began “Greetings …”
I’m one of the fortunate ones of that generation. I mourned the loss of a couple friends who went to Viet Nam, only to return in a body bag, but I was never sent to Viet Nam. However, I tasted the tension of those times when I served in the Civil Affairs Group at Fort Gordon, just outside Augusta, Ga.
Fortunately, perhaps, I was assigned to Headquarters Company of that unit, which also had Company A and Company B, each undergoing an intense eight-week training course and each bringing in a new group of recruits when those periods ended. The companies were off-set by a four-week period with a new class coming in each month.
Soldiers in those companies, we all knew, were taking courses, including learning the Vietnamese language. That were designed to prepare them all for eventual deployment to the war zone.
Those of us in the headquarters company weren’t immune to being sent to Vietnam, but it wasn’t the certainty that soldiers in A and B faced. I was sports editor of the company mimeographed weekly “newspaper,” called CA Spotlight. My best friend at the time was a young soldier named Rich Lindenmuth from Philadelphia and we spent hours tossing around a football in an alleyway just outside our barracks.
I had brought my stereo with me when I first went to Fort Gordon in 1966. I set it up near my bunk in the middle of the second floor of our barracks and would listen to my music hour upon hour when I was free from my military work. I had all the best — The Mamas and The Papas, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and even The Beatles.
My song of choice was the first cut on the Rolling Stones album “Aftermath.” It was a song that lasted more than 15 minutes, titled “Going Home.” Over and over, I’d listen to that song. I shouldn’t have because each time I listened I became more homesick.
Often, I’ve heard it said that you don’t have “friends” in the military; you have “acquaintances.” I don’t believe that, not for a second. I had some friends and one in particular I’ve kept in touch with more or less regularly for the last 30 years.
I’ve learned that two of my Army pals from that time have passed away — Phil Bucher from Oakland, Calif., and Paul Kirk, from Nampa, Idaho.
Phil was the consummate “hippie” of CA Group, but he was also a baseball fan. Paul was Idahoan through and through, a real “hick” to even someone from Iowa.
In 1966, the national American Legion baseball tournament was held in Orange, S.C., not far from Fort Gordon. Oakland was in that tournament and Phil’s dad was involved somehow. I recall that Phil somehow coerced me into taking him to the tournament as I had my ’65 Corvair with me in Georgia. One of the players on the Oakland team was Steve Brye, who went on to play for the Minnesota Twins later.
In the mid-1970s, I wrote to Brye, c/o The Twins, and asked if he could help me find Bucher. He did and I wrote to Phil, telling him I planned to visit California and would love to get together. I’ll never forget Phil’s response because, somehow, I expected his answer.
“I’d love to see you again Bill and you’re welcome to come visit,” he wrote all those years ago. “Just be aware, though, that I’m a real hippie now. I have long hair, I work as a groundskeeper for the city and I live in a sort of commune. Oh, yes, and I smoke marijuana, too … but come on out.”
I never made that trip. Phil passed away a couple years ago, but I have no photo of Phil. That’s okay, though, the photos of him with long hair are best left to the imagination.
Paul Kirk was unforgettable. As a group of us sat around one evening, we named our favorite athletes. Most of us gave names like Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Bill Russell, Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr. Kirk said, “Larry Mahan.”
“He’s the best rodeo rider in the world,” Kirk told us. And, he was. If you look him up, you’ll see that he’s about our age and is and eight-time rodeo world champion. Of course, that meant nothing to anyone of us except old Paul.
Paul’s gone now, too.
I’ll never forget neither Phil nor Paul.
The last of my real friends from there is Rich Lindenmuth. I vow to reunite with Rich before the time comes when one of our names — mine or Rich’s — appears in an obituary in Philadelphia or one of the papers in which you’re reading this column.
Those of us from that era are slowly riding off into the sunset.
Bill Haglund is a retired writer for the Boone News Republican and Dallas County News. He can be reached at Bhaglund13@msn.com.