My old friend Vic Davis called last week after reading the column "The last ride I had with him" in the Ellijay Times-Courier. The column was a summary of recent profiles that have been published of the Whitfield and Murray County men who were killed in Vietnam, including one born in Gilmer County.
Vic said it brought back memories of when he was 9 or 10 and watched his father cut a young boy's hair for the first time. The 2-year-old was Kenneth Jerry Williams, and just over two decades later he would be killed in Vietnam.
“We lived about a mile apart as the crow flies,” said Vic, who noted the Williams and Davis properties adjoined before Jerry and his family moved to lower Whitfield. “There was 'trail ways' between everybody's houses back then. His daddy was known as J.I. — I didn't know that his name was Joseph Isaac till I read it in the (column) last week. He played the guitar, and that was right down my alley. My dad played the fiddle, so we'd jam a lot.”
Vic's late brother, Larry, was quite a guitarist himself, and once wrangled a personal jam session with guitar legend Chet Atkins. Their sister is Opal Gudger, who told this writer a couple of years ago she remembered as a girl her Mountaintown neighbors calling out “all over those hills” to God for protection of their fighting men in World War II.
As Vic recalled, little Jerry “pitched a fit” when it came his turn in the barber chair. Vic's father, Willie Davis, was the community barber.
“He'd cut men's hair on Saturday morning and it'd be 25 or 50 cents back then,” he said. “Sometime along in there, he got electric clippers. Before that, you just had the little hand clippers. They would pull about as much hair out as they cut, especially if you tried to cut too fast! You had to cut, then clip. I can't swear to what he used that day, the hand clippers or the electric. Anyway, something made a noise and he started crying, but they finally got it cut.”
Jerry was born in the Clear Creek community, but moved away to the Dalton area with his family around 1948. Vic said going from Ellijay to Dalton in those days was “a big deal.”
“People didn't run back and forth between Dalton back then like they do now,” he remembers. “I had relatives back then that lived in Dalton too. My uncle, Reynold Greenway, was a head machinist at Crown Cotton (Mill). He had a son, Reynold Jr., that worked in the machine shop also. I saw Jerry after he was grown from time to time, but I kinda lost track of him when they moved to Dalton.
"I knew about him getting killed. Alvin Reece and Jerry were first cousins, and we knew all the families around in the communities. I probably learned about Jerry getting killed through them.”
Vic also knew Jimmie Lee Plumley, 23, the first Gilmer County man killed in Vietnam on April 20, 1966. In fact, he may have been one of the last people from Ellijay to see him alive.
“I was going south on Old (Highway) 5 and picked him up when he was hitchhiking,” he said. “I didn't know or didn't care where he was going, it was none of my business. But I didn't know where to let him out. So I said, 'Jimmy, are you going further down the road?' because I was just going down to Whitestone. He said, 'Well, I'm going to Atlanta. I'm going to join the Army.' He had already pulled a tour in Korea and got out, and he was going back right then. The next thing I heard he was killed. I guess I was the last one (from Gilmer) that gave him a ride.”
Now 87, Vic also knew “two or three guys” from World War II who were killed.
“Jerry's mother was a Buchanan, and we were friends with all of them also,” he related of more close-knit communities in those days. “One of the Buchanan brothers, L.C., got killed in World War II. That would have been Jerry's uncle. I was talking to my brother-in-law, Larry Charles, just today (July 28). He was over there (in Vietnam), and because this article was fresh on my mind, I said, 'Larry, we lost a whole lot in Vietnam, didn't we?' And he said, 'We sure did,' and I said, 'I don't know if we ever gained anything much,' and he said, 'No, I don't think we did.'”
A former Army man himself who served in peacetime, Vic considers himself “pro-veteran.”
“I'm not saying this to brag, but I never considered myself a draft-dodger,” he said. “I didn't do nothing much in the Army, but I did what they told me to.”
And so the stories of veterans who were killed in Vietnam continue, with memories of those days surging to the fore in the minds of many readers. Almost to a person, those who knew the young men who died over there say the era — when many of our troops were verbally abused and spat upon when they returned home — comes back to life.
It also appears the profiles have been therapeutic, and even cathartic, for some. Many times, whether in person but most of the time over the phone, family members and friends have become very emotional, even tearful. I've found my own eyes getting moist as well.
More than anything, writing about these veterans whose lives and promise were cut short is humbling. They went to a war, and finished it up, just before I had to go.
There are a few more stories to tell of the young men who joined or were drafted into the Army or Marines, and the pattern will continue — pray, research, talk to those who knew them, then write — and finally, pray again for the heartbroken families who gave so much, and did so one more time in retelling their loved one's brief, yet valorous, life stories.
Mark Millican is a former staff writer for the Daily Citizen-News.