by Luther Knight
We were young—mostly seventeen and eighteen-year old small town boys barely out of high school. The Korean War was about to enter its second year and we were reconciled that we would be going into harm’s way. Life had taken on a faster pace because of not knowing where tomorrow would find us. With the taunting waiting, free time was filled with urgencies unknown before when we were carefree. Every moment was devoted to getting in as much living as possible before the inevitable orders came.
Radar Team 1 was deployed to an abandoned Air Force base south of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Except for a small cadre of seasoned troops, the men were fresh out of radar technical school at Keesler AFB, Mississippi. On their new assignment at Myrtle Beach they were expected to hone the skills acquired at Keesler by tracking air traffic along the Atlantic seaboard. Ostensibly, this was to prepare them for pending deployment to front line duty in Korea.
The old adage of “hurry up and wait” has always been the byword of service men and women of any nation’s military. The men of Radar Team 1 lived by that rule. Training was stressful with the need to operate twenty-four hours a day with the only exception a one-hour downtime for routine maintenance
Young minds under field conditions must be kept busy to reduce opportunities for mischief. Experienced leaders insure against misbehavior by assigning seemingly trivial work details to keep off-duty personnel occupied. Even with this rigorous schedule, individual airmen enjoyed considerable free time.
Given time and a sunny beach any red blooded young airman can find something entertaining. And with those opportunities laid out before us, we spent a good part of off-duty time eyeballing the beauties sunning on the ecru beach, cruising the streets of Myrtle Beach looking for action, or tooling along the highways and back roads in our 1940s flathead Chevys and souped up Ford coupes.
Charlie, a classmate at Keesler and my best friend, was proud of that 1947 maroon four-door Chevrolet Fleetmaster sedan his daddy had given him the day before he enlisted in the Air Force. The original paint had worn thin in the salty air of the Carolina coast and several spots of rust attested to rapid aging of the car. Disturbed at the deterioration of his prize, Charlie found a paint shop a couple of miles west of Myrtle Beach. He was a wheeler-dealer and after some serious bargaining conned the owner into knocking a few dollars off the regular cost of a paint job. Charlie agreed that surplus paint from another job could be used on the Chevy, but in his haste to get the car painted failed to ask about the color. The finished product was an unbelievable shade of pea-green that clashed with the car’s original maroon interior. Charlie complained vehemently, but seeing further protest was useless accepted what he couldn’t change and reluctantly paid the tab.
Charlie approached me one night as my shift was ending with an offer to sell me the Chevy. Fifty-eight years have passed and I still can’t believe I bought that car. But since we were buddies, I let him talk me into the sale for $900 for what he insisted was a bargain. With that handshake agreement I owned the ugliest four door sedan in South Carolina.
Bad luck doesn’t always come with loud fanfare. More often it slips right in before the door can be closed. The ink was hardly dry on the title before a troubling number of mechanical problems with the Chevy came to light. The radiator leaked, the car was an oil burner, and all four tires were bald. To his credit, though, Charlie enlisted the help of a friend and together we repaired those defects and rebuilt the engine, turning it into a respectable car. Straight pipes were added and the old car was ready to roll.
It may have been the uniqueness of the old Chevy’s bilious color, the resonant purr of the engine, some subliminal attractiveness it had that drew the local beach bunnies, or the fact that an old country boy had his first automobile. For whatever reasons the old ‘47 Fleetmaster Chevy sedan became an integral part of the life of a lonely young airman awaiting deployment to an overseas post.
Charlie shipped out to Japan six weeks after selling me the car. We kept in touch for a while, but like so many military friendships ours faded with the passing months. The last I heard of him, he had transferred to a base near Seoul, Korea. I left the Air Force a couple of years later and never heard from Charlie again. I’ve often wondered, though, if he sold me that danged ole Chevy knowing it was a lemon.