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The Day I met Walter Cronkite and Ronald Reagan a remarkable story about my hippie days when I had Hair, long beautiful hair.     May 13, 2010

I met Walter Cronkite and Ronald Reagan during the Republican Convention at the Miami Beach Convention Center during August 5 to August 8, 1968. A weird chain of events led me to this meeting. Hind sight is 20/20.  All things do work together for good for those who love the Lord. That summer I was 20 years old and was in my freshman year of college at Northeast Louisiana State University for the third time. Never said I was an honor student. The summer of 68 was one of the turning points of my life. I was trying to search for myself, find myself. As Kenny Rogers samg, I was trying to check on what condition my condition was in. Prior to this point all I could dream about was baseball. I wanted to pitch for the New York Yankees. That dream ended a few summers earlier when I slid into home plate and split my knee wide open on the concrete block where the plate was mounted. After that I could not find home plate with a cannon. In my Novel Blue Bayou days – the Summer of 61 I finally realized my dream of pitching for the Yankees.

I also daydreamed about being a cop like my daddy and patrolling the streets on a Harley Davidson. Daddy discouraged this dream because he said that I could not make enough money. He wanted me to be the first person in the family with a college degree. I also wanted to be a game warden because I loved being outside and hunting and fishing. Louisiana required you to have a college degree to be a game warden. I could not pass Agronomy. The lab instructor asked me to look at a slide on a microscope and draw a picture of what I saw. When he looked at the picture, he said it was my eyelashes. I thought it was a leaf cell. By 1968 I had changed college majors 3 times. I finally realized that dream of being the first person in the Whitlow family to get a college degree in 1988 after 20 years of determination and night school. I finally brought that 1.2 GPA average to a 2.0 GPA and managed a BS in Liberal Arts with concentrations in Environmental Science and Social Studies. The moral of the story is if you are going to college, buy the books, attend the classes, open the books, and study hard. Bill Mack my all time favorite life long radio announcer says that girls worry about the future until they find the right man and get married. Boys don't worry about the future until they find the right girl and get married. You be the judge.

That summer of 68, I had a summer job for the 4th summer as the grounds keeper, press box announcer, and sometimes umpire at Bendel Stadium , a little league baseball park in Forsythe Park in Monroe Louisiana. I was making a whopping $40 a week and free popcorn and real Coca Cola in real glass bottles. To this day I swear this was the best job I ever had. After I finished watering and preparing the baseball park for the game, I was washing my car and polishing the chrome moon hubcaps. That summer I was driving Black Betty, a 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne Business Coup. Black Betty did not have a back seat. Instead of a back seat, I had a plywood platform and a twin bed mattress where I sometimes slept during deer hunting or fishing camping trips. If I got lucky I would use the mattress for other purposes, but this did not happen too often because I spent most weekends singing Another Saturday Night and I Ain’t Got Nobody. I was too shy, to dogone fat, and too datburn ugly.

The swimming pool was located across the street from the ballpark. I was on my knees polishing the hubcaps when this very beautiful girl appeared beside me in a wet itsy bitsy tinny weenie yellow polka dot bikini. She had short cropped dark brown hair, big flashing brown eyes, and a trim muscular body. She smiled picked up a rag, and started polishing the back door. She winked and said my name is Terry Smith, I am a ballerina dancer, I love your car, let’s go out. I could not believe my ears or eyes, she was the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen in my young life and she wanted me to take her out. She must have mistaken me for my kid brother Ricky, who was thin and looked like Charles Bronson.

Terry made my life wonderful that summer of 68. We did everything together. We swam, went on long walks along the river, went to the Drive- in theater, held hands and smoothed a lot. Money seemed to stretch further back then. For a dollar we could get a gallon of gas, go to a movie, eat a box of popcorn, and drink Coca-cola. Terry was a wonderful dancer. I loved watching her ballet dance. Terry was just 17 as the Beatles Sang and was a sophomore at Neville High School, the same school where I finally managed to graduate in 1966. On several occasions we drove at night under the live oak trees in Forsythe Park and sparked. One night a policeman that worked for my daddy pulled in next to us and shined a spotlight into Black Betty. “What are you up to Buck,” he asked?

“We are just necking,” I replied.

“Well get your neck back in your pants and get out of here.”

That summer, Terry’s brother Billy and I became close friends after he came home from college at

M I T. We were sort of an odd couple, Billy was on the way to becoming a mechanical engineer and I was on the way to being a college dropout who took freshman Chemistry 101 four times. I was allergic to books and going to class. I was more prone to sitting around the dormitory falling flat on Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer or Falstaff Beer, “The choicest product of the brewer’s art”, as Dizzy Dean used to say. Dizzy was my long time American Idle, fellow baseball pitcher, and play by play announcer for CBS Baseball Game of the Week. Dizzy taught me how to drink beer and how to slaughter the King’s English. I wrote a nice story about my good friends Dizzy, Pee Wee Reese, Roger Maris, and Mickey Mantle in my novel Blue Bayou days – the Summer of 61. Besides drinking beer, I was addicted to playing Battleship Gallactica in the student union building.

 

One very hot humid August day in the dog days of a Louisiana summer, Billy and I stuck out our thumb on Louisville Ave in Monroe Louisiana and hitched hiked to Miami Beach Florida. I will remember this trip all of my life. We hitched a total of 3 rides on the trip and made the trip to Miami Beach in 24 hours. In Vicksburg Mississippi we hitched a ride with a young black man driving a 1968 yellow and green Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396 monster car that was faster than greased lightening. We were cruising in a light rain at the speed of sound, 90 MPH just north of the Mobile Alabama tunnel on Highway 90. I was sitting in the front passenger side when we rounded a curve on the rain slick highway and I noticed a fire truck and an ambulance parked on either side of the road about 100 yards in front of us and we were closing fast, very fast.  There were also Mack trucks and wrecked cars and people standing all along the highway. My life flashed by in slow motion. I saw no escape so I tucked my head between my legs, kissed my ass goodbye, and braced myself to the worst. I did not think I would ever see my momma again. The black driver hit the brakes and nothing happened. Then he took evasive action that I have never seen before or since. He swerved the steering wheel to the right and tapped on the brakes. We stopped on a dime. When you hot you hot, when you not you not. When your number is up, your number is up. I should have let Jesus be my copilot. If you are listening, try to find Jesus, take his hand, trust in the Lord. It is better to burn out than it is to rust. I should have listened more to my favorite singer Neal Young sing, Old man take a look at my life I'm a lot like you. If you are not happy with the world, change it- one person at a time. That is what I'm talking about. Let me know if this story helped to change your world, email smokeschool@yahoo.com .

The summer of 68 was a summer of violence and racial conflict. George Wallace was the governor of Alabama. A few years earlier in 1966, I observed the Louisiana State Police escort the first black boy into Neville High School. People were marching in the streets of Selma. James Earl Ray had assonated Dr Martin Luther King in April. Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam and was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title for draft evasion for his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War.  Elvis Presley, the king of Rock and Roll had served his time in the US Army Reserve.  

After our near fatal accident the black driver got out in the rain and inspected his monster car and got back behind the wheel. He said that we needed to escape before they lynched him for kidnapping us. He jammed her into first gear, but the wheels just span because we were stuck in the ditch. Several men started walking towards us and he reached in front of me into the glove box and retrieved a snub nosed .38 Smith and Wesson with pearl handles, a lot like my daddy police revolver.

One of the men stuck his head inside the window and reached out to shake the driver’s hand. The man said to the driver you must be Parnelli Jones because you are the best driver I have ever seen. You saved all of our lives. Then several of the men got behind us and pushed us out of the ditch. Ever since this near miss I have tried to avoid being prejudice.

That summer in 68 I was a hippie and did not even know it. I had hair then and it was parted in the middle and down to my shoulders. I wore tie died t- shirts, bell bottom jeans with flowers along the ankles, and love beads. Give me a head with Hair. Long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen waxen, give me down to there hair, shoulder length or longer.

 

After Parnelli Jones let us out near Titusville Florida, we were standing along Highway One when the cops stopped to talk with us. They checked out our I Ds and said we were not wanted for murder or drugs. They told me to get a haircut or go to jail. Then they left. Soon we caught a ride with an 18 wheeler driver who took us all the way to Miami Beach. Billy’s uncle owned an old small hotel on Miami Beach and he gave us a free room for a week. Together we both had about $30 bucks so we found a job at night picking up the campaign posters and badges and sweeping up the floor with a bunch of Cubans at the Republican Political Convention.

During the day we swam on the sandy beaches and got sunburned. On one occasion as we were walking back to our hotel we came upon a long line of people in front of a fancy hotel near the convention center. I asked someone in a black Sears and Roebuck suit, what was going on. He turned out to be a member of the secret service and he was there to be a body guard for Governor Ronald Reagan, who was running for President. Billy and I got into line for our chance to shake hands with a movie star.

I had a brown paper bag that contained my wet swimming suit and a jock strap. The secret service dude asked me what was in the bag. By now both John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy had been assonated and they were not taking any chances. I told the city slicker that the bag had a bomb. This turned out to be a bad joke. He had us spread eagle up against the wall in no time at all. He confiscated the bag and then held up my wet jock strap. Then he asked us if we would like to volunteer to be body guards. Several of us held hands and formed two lines while Ronald Reagan exited the long black Limousine and walked into the hotel lobby and up to the podium. After the speech we shook the governor’s hand. Read about the day I met President John F. Kennedy and the King Elvis Presley in my novel Blue Bayou days – the Summer of 61.

During the first night while cleaning up the convention floor I saw a familiar face coming down a flight of stairs coming out of some sort of an elevated press box. I had been watching his news stories about the Vietnam War for years on the TV by the kitchen table. It was none other than Walter Cronkite. He was climbing down the stairs toting a large briefcase full of papers and a bottle of campaign. Walter smiled when he saw me looking up at him, shook my hand vigorously, and asked me if I wanted a bottle of Champaign. I still have the bottle. I wish I had saved some of the campaign buttons and ribbons.

 

On the third night of the convention I followed a troop of Cubans down a long hallway where I noticed a bunch of them lying on the floor taking a nap. Unfortunately I decided to join them in taking a nap. The foreman came along and fired all of us on the spot. I never did get paid for the days that I did work. After the convention Billy and I thumbed our way back to Monroe. Billy went back to M I T and graduated. Terry Smith and I broke up. Terry married some rich college music professor from Dallas. I figured I had spent too much time on academic probation with my 1.2 GPA, dropped out of college, and lost my student deferment from the draft. From daily doses of Walter Cronkite and the news from Vietnam, I knew I did not want to go to war. Daddy, a Marine Corp World War 2 veteran, said war was like a big turkey shoot but you are the turkey. I thought about escaping to Canada, but ended up signing on the dotted line for the US Air Force.

 

I remember standing in line in Shreveport in my skivvies and getting my first finger wave. The next thing you know, we were on a blue school bus headed to the airport out by Barksdale AFB. The drill instructor lined us up on an airplane and we flew to San Antonio Texas where we caught another bus to Lackland AFB for basic training. I remember looking out of the bus window in the pre dawn hours, and seeing men armed with M-16 rifles marching along a 12 foot high fence. I figured they were there to shoot us if we tried to escape. That first night I really missed my momma and cried openly with the rest of the boys for home sickness. The next morning the barber shaved my long beautiful hair. He smiled and asked if I wanted to keep my sideburns. I answered yes and he said, “Here, catch. “

After boot camp they sent me to Chanute AFB in an Illinois cornfield. Hair was important to me so I started working on growing it back out. They called us Pings when we got out of basic training because ping is the sound hair makes as it is grows and breaks through the scalp. At the time the military had limits on your hair. It had to be nearly trimmed, could not touch your collar, your sideburns had to stop at the top of your ear lobe, you could not grow a beard, your mustache had to be more like Hitler's and not extend out further than the corner of you lips. In addition your sideburns had to stop at your upper earlobe.

The next thing I knew, I was stationed near Ronald Reagan in Sacramento California at McClellan AFB.   I learned how to inspect parachutes and train pilots on air crew life support, how to survive behind enemy lines if they were shot down. There was not a lot of demand for these rare qualifications. Nevertheless I took an early out after the Vietnam War ended and moved back to Monroe. I started growing my hair long again the day I got home. I went to see my old boss Jacky Neal at the Monroe Recreation Department. He said I could be an assistant recreation center director if I would get a haircut. I refused to get a haircut, because I had my pride and was as stubborn as an old mule. I tried landscaping, building construction, highway construction, and farming on a 3,000 acre soybean field. It did not take long to figure out that I was not cut out for manual labor in the dog days of a Louisiana summer. After the first year my hair did not matter and I was back in the Air Force. I only wished that I had paid more attention in college.

 

In 1976 at the advice of TSGT Don Lane, my Assembly of God Church friend, I retrained into environmental health. The Air Force training in environmental health at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks AFB in San Antonio Texas was like 4 years of college rolled into 6 weeks. I needed the discipline (“Stare the back of that man’s head off”). The experience I learned in the Air Force prepared me to qualify for the Louisiana DEQ, which led me to smoke school and later my current business Whitlow Smoke School Nation. When I retired form the state, I was bald. Just how important is hair anyways? Hind sight is 20/20. And now I am in the Fall season of my life. I am 61. Daddy left this world at age 67. I can't began to fill in his footsteps or walk a mile in his shoes. Daddy touched a thousand lives. A cat has 9 lives. But I only have this one. What legacy will I leave behind? Will anyone remember me? Ain't no  doubt about it, Walter Cronkite and Ronald Reagan inspired me and they changed the world. So can you. I double dogged dare you. This was the story of the day I met Walter Cronkite and Ronald Reagan. Read about The Day I met Ronnie Milsap. And that is the way it is. Let me know if this story helped to change your world, email smokeschool@yahoo.com . Imagine all the people living life at peace. You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us and the world can live as one.

A tribute to my daddy, George Wesley Whitlow- the person who molded me. Written by my Uncle Maurice Whitlow for Minden Louisiana Memories. This is a historic look with photographs through North Louisiana History.

My Daddy- The Life and Times of George Wesley Whitlow This story includes pictures of daddy with his now antique Harley Davison and His 53 Oldsmobile Safety Crusader Car.

 

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