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Pharr San Juan Alamo High School

Updates



Classmates PSJA 1961:

It is time to bring your updates current. You may want to inform your classmates of where you now live, new grandkids, new hobbies, and travel. Please send to info@psja1961.com and we will post it to psja1961 under Updates. And if you haven’t done your update before, now is the time!

TW 6.26.19





Tom W. White updated 6.15.19

In 1965, I graduated from business school at the University of Texas in Austin with a major in accounting. My first job was with the Houston office of a Big 8 international CPA firm. While working in Houston, I joined an army reserve light weapons infantry unit. My unit was not called to active duty during the war in Viet Nam and I finished my six-year commitment in the states.

I met Lauryn Gayle in 1967 and we married in 1968. We were introduced by our mutual friends John Miller and John Cox at the La Cucaracha Bar in Reynosa. They were classmates with her at Pan American. She graduated from Edinburg High School and Pan American University. In 1983, she was appointed by Governor Mark White to the Board of Regents of Pan American University and served from 1983 until Pan American merged with the University of Texas in 1989. She was Chair of the Pan American Board of Regents in 1988. She actively supported the merger with UT as being a benefit for the RGV. In 2016, she was named one of the first four Distinguished Alumni of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. 

In 1969, I started my own CPA firm in Corpus Christi. Since age 25, I have always been self-employed and never worked for anyone else. I had no business connections in Corpus Christi, but things went well, and my CPA firm grew rapidly and by 1976, it was the largest local CPA firm in Corpus Christi.

In 1976, a friend and I acquired a small Miller beer distributorship in Corpus Christi. Our timing was good as Miller Lite gained popularity and our sales increased.

Lauryn Gayle, our three sons and I moved to Dallas in 1980 when we purchased the Miller beer distributorship for the entire Dallas area. Lauryn Gayle and I did not know one person in Dallas. I took over an underperforming distributorship and immediately focused on building a good organization. Within a few years, Miller of Dallas became one of the largest beer distributorships in the country. After purchasing additional Miller beer distributorships in Longview TX, Nacogdoches TX, El Paso, TX, Denver CO, Colorado Springs, CO, and Pueblo, CO, we were the third largest wholesale beer organization in the country.

In 1998, I sold the beer distributorships to focus on managing and expanding my other business interests. In 2019, I start each day before 5AM and work a full day on my business activities though I have a flexible schedule and always have time for family, especially grandchildren. I still have my ranch in the piney woods of East TX. I recently expanded it by purchasing adjoining land. Our son Parker has worked diligently to improve the wildlife habitat and the wild turkey, white-tailed deer and bird populations have boomed. We do not allow hunting and the lake is strictly catch and release.

Lauryn Gayle and I have lived in the same Dallas house since 2001. We spend more time in Dallas now and we no longer travel as much as in the past. We are both fortunate to be healthy. Lauryn Gayle works out regularly in the exercise room at home. I walk Balu, my 115-pound German shepherd, in our neighborhood at a fast pace, three miles daily at sunrise, missing fewer than 4-5 days a year. We walk more than 1000 miles each year and including my prior German shepherd, I have walked our neighborhood daily for almost 20 years. Both German shepherds were born in Germany from champion bloodlines and trained by German experts in protection and tracking.

We have three sons and four grandchildren.

Brad, our oldest son, lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is married to Lee and they are parents of our grandson Sebastian [8.26.11] and our granddaughter Vivian [6.14.13]. Lee is a registered nurse with a degree in nursing and before having our grandkids, she was a commercial airline pilot with Continental Airlines. Despite the distance from Dallas, we see our Greenwich grandkids as often as possible. Brad graduated from Harvard with a philosophy major and got his MBA from Wharton. He works as a portfolio manager with a large hedge fund and he has offices in both Greenwich and Manhattan.

Parker, our middle son, moved back to Dallas four years ago after working seven years in London, first with Deutsche Bank and then with a major hedge fund. He specialized in distressed debt and covered Europe and the middle East. He often traveled internationally on a weekly basis. Parker graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in Spanish literature, then graduated from SMU Law School, followed by an MBA from Columbia Business School. Currently, Parker manages our family timberland business in five counties in East Texas. We were thrilled this month when Parker married Joanna who he had met in law school. She is a successful attorney who worked in Manhattan before returning to Dallas to work for a major law firm. Her parents are from Barcelona, Spain and Joanna was educated in boarding schools in England. Parker and Joanna live near us in Dallas and we see them often.

Allen, our youngest son, lives in Dallas. Allen graduated from Vanderbilt in economics and joined a major hedge fund while still in college. He is currently a portfolio manager for a large hedge fund. Allen is married to Christina and they have our grandson Alexander [6.18.08] and our granddaughter Caroline [10.20.11]. Following family tradition, Alexander attends St Mark’s School of Texas where his dad and both uncles graduated. Allen and his family live near us in Dallas and our Dallas grandkids often have sleepovers with us. Before having our grandkids, Christina worked in New York for Angel Sanchez, the Venezuelan fashion designer. In Dallas, she worked for Neiman Marcus and Stanley Korshak. Allen and Christina met as students at Vanderbilt.

Over the years, I was involved in various civic and community affairs.

For 12 years, I was on the Board of Trustees and I was the Finance Committee Chair at St Mark’s School of Texas where our three sons graduated. I wrote the original investment policy for the St. Mark’s Endowment and after leaving the Board of Trustees, I stayed on as a member of the St Mark’s Investment Committee. I established an endowment to further the education of St. Mark’s teachers and another endowment to pay expenses of St. Mark’s financial aid students. Currently, our son Brad is on the Board of Trustees of St Mark’s School and on the Investment Committee.

For years, I was a member of the Dallas Citizen’s Council that is highly influential in Dallas civic affairs. I was chair of its Criminal Justice Committee. My interest in criminal justice led to my appointment by Governor Bill Clements to the State of Texas Criminal Justice Task Force. I currently belong to the Young Presidents’ Organization [YPO] and in the past, I served as a committee chair. I have stayed connected with the University of Texas and I am a member of both the UT Chancellor’s Council and the UT Hermes Society. I endowed two funds at UT, one to assist business majors with expenses and one to provide funds for the business school.

Our family in the summer of 2018.

Tom W. White

Office:                                                     Home:
8350 Meadow Road, Suite 262 10111 Strait Lane
Dallas, Texas  75231      Dallas, Texas  75229
972.386.4200 214.373.0381




Diana Trevino Benet - North America

Sometimes when I tell the landscaper in South Texas that I want a particular plant or flower in my garden, he replies that he’ll have to order it from “North America” or, less happily, that the plant in question will flourish only in “North America” and not in my tropical yard. 

Lan’s “North America” consists of San Antonio and everything above it, and I laughed the first few times he said it.  But the more I heard it, the more the expression struck a chord, because I realized the concept was one I already had, from long ago, and had simply forgotten.

I grew up in San Juan, a small Texas town (population then, about 4,000) about twelve miles from the Mexican border.  In the 50’s, when I was growing up, San Juan was a prosperous little town, with one main street divided by the railroad tracks.  Two blocks on one side of the tracks were lined with stores and businesses belonging to the “mejicanos,” two blocks on the other side were lined with stores and businesses belonging to the “americanos” or “gringos.”  (Anyone who was not a mejicano was a gringo or an Americano by default.  There were no black people in San Juan.)

In spite of what the self-segregation, the railroad tracks, or most especially the “mejicano” and “Americano” labels might suggest, if there was any ethnic tension I never felt it as a child, and, though the gringos rarely crossed the railroad tracks, we walked across them all the time.  Municipal offices, post office, hardware store, doctors’ offices, two drugstores, and (most importantly for kids) the Five and Dime store were all on the gringo side.  In San Juan, we and other children walked everywhere we wanted to go.   

“Mejicano” was shorthand for “Mexican-American,” at least in the sense that there was no doubt whatever in our minds that we were as American as anyone else in San Juan.  Many of our dads, relatives, and friends had fought in the Second World War, our parents spoke English, we spoke English in school (there was one on each side of the tracks), and watched the same TV shows that our gringo contemporaries enjoyed.  From Junior High forward, we all went to the same schools.

Most of all, though, we knew we were Americans because sometimes we traveled with our parents to the Mexican border towns where everybody, gringos included, bought sugar, medicine, cigarettes, alcohol, candy, and other necessities at bargain prices.   These pueblos across the Rio Grande and the people who lived in them looked different from their American counterparts.  Many streets were unpaved, sidewalks, where they existed at all, were crumbly and cracked, and the mostly-barefoot children dressed in faded and worn clothing.  It never occurred to me then that, elsewhere in these towns, there might be a more prosperous population than the one I saw working the market stalls or begging on the streets.  Mexicans were very poor, Americans were not; it seemed that simple to me.

San Juan especially buzzed on Friday evenings and Saturdays, because at those times, the part of the comunidad mejicana who worked the fields that were everywhere “came into town,” as we said, implying inaccurately that they resided at some distant place.  Still, the field-workers did come into town in the sense that, having put on their better clothing, they came to shop in stores that rarely saw them during the week.  You could always identify these farm-workers because the men and even the young boys wore straw hats of a particular type.   Some of these people were migrants and lived among us only from about October through March or April, at which time they (including school-age children) went “North” to work fields elsewhere.      

On Saturdays, my brothers and I usually went to one of the two movie theatres in San Juan, to “El Murillo” for Mexican movies, or to the “Rex” for American movies.  We enjoyed both and regularly got our money’s worth by sitting through the same movie several times in one afternoon.  (I had no clue then about whom “Murillo” was or what “rex” meant.)  With less than fifty cents, each of us could buy a ticket to the matinee plus soda and popcorn.  

Like the post office, Martin’s Drug and Newcombe’s Rexall were places where people congregated.  Both drugstores had soda fountains, where, after the movies or after school, we could get cherry phosphates, cokes, cherry cokes, malts, milkshakes, root beers, ice cream, banana splits, or, my particular favorites, floats combining soda and ice cream.  If we had enough money, hot dogs, hamburgers, and sandwiches were also available.  At the fountains, I learned that food cooked and served by someone else always tastes better than food prepared at home.  I believe that to this day.

For my brothers and me, Martin’s was a particular favorite because it had a large newsstand stocked with everything from national magazines to comic books.  Among other things, we read “Batman,” “Superman,” “Spider Man,”  “Nyoka, Queen of the Jungle,” and “Archie.”  We also read “Classic Comics,” and it was in those comics that I first encountered works like “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Great Expectations.”  At some point, I made the transition from comics to library books like the Nancy Drew mysteries.  But my love of pictures never diminished, and I replaced the “funnies” with magazines, an addiction to this day.  Between the books and the magazines, I conceived of North America and began wishing to live there, or at least to visit.    

The North America I constructed from books and magazines was very different from San Juan and South Texas.   For one important thing, this distant place had four seasons, and Seventeen informed me that during autumn and Winter, North American girls wore sweaters, plaid wool skirts, coats, mufflers, hats, gloves, and even boots.  I don’t know which images seemed more exotic—the colored leaves of Fall and the snow, or the stylish clothes featured in fashion magazines, clothes that would have been useless in hot South Texas, where a sweater and perhaps a light jacket or coat were usually enough protection against any “norther” blowing through.  I couldn’t wait to see read and yellow leaves, to feel real cold, and to touch snow.

The more books I read, the more magazines I pored over, the more detailed my imaginary North America became.  My ideas about myself, my own life and future, kept pace, as my reading suggested goals beyond trees, weather, and clothes.  Glamour and Mademoiselle published “College Issues” every year: ergo, I would go to college in North America, where I would wear a brown plaid skirt with a pale yellow sweater set.  Without any particular awareness, I was mapping my life, making choices, absorbing some values and rejecting others. 

Although I did eventually go away to college in North America, it was not without a sense of the environment I was leaving behind as distinctive, a feeling that has increased as I’ve gotten older.  I have many memories—of the strong ambient odor of orange blossoms, of honeysuckle, jasmine, and roses, of the distant sound of frogs on rainy nights, of tagging after my brothers, or playing cowboys with them, and of many games with our neighborhood gang.  I remember marbles, tops, jacks, and firecrackers.  I remember the red velvet Christmas dresses with ecru lace collars that my mother mail-ordered for me from Chicago (never mind the temperature), the bubble lights on our Christmas tree, the empanadas my grandmother baked, and the green chair in her kitchen that meant serious punishment.  I remember reaching way up, holding my dad’s hand as we walked up the street to visit his mother.  I have many memories of school, teachers, friends, and Sunday school.  I even remember some of the clothes I wore at different ages, starting with grammar school.     

The house that Peter and I built in San Juan recently, we’ve often said, is for our eventual retirement.  But rather than evoking the future for me, when we go there, the new house feels like the conjured past, a time and place where it’s always summer, where winter, ice, and snow are the passing thoughts of a warm sunny day.  In San Juan these days, I feel like the traveler come home, at last, from North America.




Aidan Koch

The Portrait of a Lady

By DIANA TREVIñO BENET

Published in the New York Times on December 6, 2012

“That’s amazing! You’re amazing!” “That’s astonishing! You’re astonishing!”

For a day and a half, I had been rehearsing these phrases with the proper expression on my face: a subdued, sort of quiet surprise. No big emotion, just slightly widened eyes and a bland, pleasant smile.

My husband had suggested the phrases — “amazing” and “astonishing” being words that can be construed to mean almost anything. No matter what I felt when I saw my portrait, I just had to remember my lines, and I would be fine.


About a year earlier, I had bought a raffle ticket from someone whose choir was raising money. None of the prizes listed appealed to me. Then I realized that since I never won anything anyway, I could designate anything at all as my preferred prize and, in effect, make a donation. So I picked an oil portrait to be painted by an artist with a connection to the choir. And I won.

I didn’t know what to expect when I went for my sitting. I took an industrial elevator to the fifth floor of an anonymous beige building between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. I knocked on a gray metal door, and the artist, a pretty, slender woman who looked to be in her mid-30s, let me in.

She showed me some of the paintings and portraits in her no-nonsense studio, and I was all admiration — they were excellent. After she explained to me how it would work, she sat me down in a chair by a big window and snapped picture after picture of me while we talked.

At our next appointment, we looked at the photos together. When the artist showed me the one she had chosen to work from, I was appalled. The photo did not flatter me. I sat there, unsmiling, looking straight at the camera with a small part of my face in shadow. The black top I was wearing, the way I was sitting in the dark chair and the light from the window combined to create what I saw: a tired, round face floating above a lumpy, undifferentiated mass.

She explained why, from an artistic point of view, this would make such an interesting composition. I explained why, from a human point of view, I wouldn’t like to live with this image of myself. As I looked through the photos again, I pointed out others I thought would be better. But, although she was pleasant, I wasn’t sure I had convinced her.


Several weeks passed. Why did it matter so much what likeness of me the artist had chosen to paint? Why did it make me so anxious? I suppose it’s because a portrait is an exterior view of yourself. A photograph is, too, but a photo is the product, in part, of a mechanical object. Everyone knows that people are or are not photogenic. Even those of us who “take good pictures” know that sometimes the shutter closes in the middle of a blink.

There’s also the mirror. Like most people, I have a relationship with the mirrors in my life, especially my bathroom mirror. I compose my face in front of it, but I suppose I also compose my face before I confront it. I’m so used to the images that my mirrors and I have agreed upon that I’m sometimes startled by a glimpse of myself in an unfamiliar mirror. Those images I usually ignore or forget.

A portrait is different because it reports how another person sees you. If there is something unattractive about you in a portrait by a good artist, the odds are that, sometimes, from a certain angle, that’s what you look like in real life. And I had seen before, in her studio, that she was a good artist. I thought I was on my way to discover what the world sees when it looks at me, and the prospect frightened me.


I was in the studio again before I knew it. After the briefest of preliminaries, the artist pulled a canvas out of a rack and set it on an easel.

“Oh,” I said spontaneously, “it’s beautiful.”

I meant it. The image before me was not the one I had disliked. In fact, I didn’t remember this image at all. It was a good likeness of me in profile. It didn’t look like a young woman, but neither did it look like the very tired older woman the artist had wanted to paint before I objected. It was the profile of a nice-looking woman.

The artist and I laughed together when I told her the phrases I’d rehearsed and why.

“You must think that’s weird,” I said.

“Not at all,” she replied. “A portrait is a very personal thing.”

As I think about it now, it occurs to me that if the artist had painted an image of me that I didn’t like, I could have buried it in the back of a closet. That’s what we did some years ago with a portrait of my husband that just didn’t look like him. And that’s what we could have said, that this portrait didn’t look like me.

But the doubt would have lingered. When Robert Burns wrote, “Oh, would some Power the giftie give us/ to see ourselves as others see us,” he was suggesting that it is rare to obtain such a perspective, and desirable. I wonder now whether I should regret rejecting that first image. Whether the artist’s first choice was, after all, that truer vision, the one that should have made me say: “That’s amazing — you’re amazing! That’s astonishing — you’re astonishing!”




Robert Harrington’s reply to the question of where did he live during PSJA. –impressive, but Doug Peel still has the class record

When I was five years old, I lived on North San Juan Road on the east side before reaching the home of the Cox family [Jerry-Johnny]. The Edgemans lived to the south of me. Linda Koester lived nearer town on the west side of the road. I remember there was a meat packing plant Deibelblis on the same road maybe close to Bill Spencer’s home.  Jerry Cox called me “Hicky” for some reason. I went to Sorenson in the first grade. Then, I attended Moye Military in San Antonio for the second grade, Carnahan in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Then: in the 6th grade, I attended three schools in one school year: Edison, Donna, and El Paso, then   Edison for 7th, Phoenix AZ for 8th, PSJA for 9th, Phoenix AZ for 10th, PSJA for 11 and 12th.

Over that period of time I was able to collect a lot of “nostalgia”.

By: Hicky, Mable, Happy, Bone, The Most Interesting Man, Robert, Bob, SOB (sweet ole Bob)

Reflections by Bill Spencer, July 2013:

Well, as August approaches, I remember my one experience of two-a-days in the south Texas sun and recall my total surprise at the huge difference between my "sandlot" football experience and the real thing.  I soon came to understand there was this guy that could out run me, out jump me, and actually knew the plays.  They called him "hicky" and he was pretty dang good.  They even let him punt.  I could hardly see out between the bars of my helmet (that was too big) and try to catch the ball…something that had been so natural before.  I remember once when I ran the wrong play Coach McCulloch (sp) yelling, "Spencer, you don't have the brains to fly a gnat backwards."  Well, it was a great experience because I came into that summer thinking I would probably walk onto the field and become an all-state running back, get a scholarship to Texas, and then play for the Cowboys at some point and get to know all of the people Tom later spent time with in Thousand Oaks.  But, it was not to be.  My shoulder pads seemed so dang big it was hard to raise my arms up all the way and all of the gear seemed to slow me down and jangle all around as I ran.  It seemed to take away my ability to juke and jive like I had done growing up out on north San Juan Road.  And then the small detail of actually learning what we were supposed to do on each play.  I always liked to tell people to just "go long" and I'll hit you…or cut left at the palm tree and then break back toward the bushes.  So, a career path closed in just a few hot summer months.  Reality started to set in that I would not be a star.  In fact, I soon realized that we could beat teams by 40 points and the coach wouldn't even let me on the field.  So, after the Brownsville game, I tore my nametag off my locker and told my parents that I was quitting football.  My Mom said, "No, you are not quitting football.  You are going to finish the year out no matter how much you play."  Now my Mom was always my best friend and in my corner even when I was wrong about things…which was pretty much all the time…as I later learned.  But here she was laying down the law and forbidding me to "save face" and go back to the tennis court where there were no "canned" plays I had to learn.  Where the coach thought I was smart enough to fly a gnat in any direction I wanted.  So, I finished out the year and loved the experience of being a (very, very) small part of a wonderfully successful team of great guys and getting into the best shape of my life.  I learned to work hard regardless of recognition…which was exactly the opposite of my childhood experience.  I had always received way more recognition than I had earned in most matters to that point in my life.  We shared experiences that molded us in ways that could not be measured or understood at the time they were occurring.  Life was exciting and fun and new in almost every aspect.  I miss the simplistic elements of our lives back then but I miss you guys most.  We can never go back…but we sure can "look" back and start to understand some of reasons we are who we are today and who helped make us this way.  So, that is what I ’sayeth to my best high school friends.  God Bless each one of you and your families for being my friends.  It was a kick. 

 



“Life across the Tracks”
By Yo-Yo

Since we didn't speak English, we had to go to a class called "beginners" to learn English. It was like what we now call a kindergarten. We had to be six years old to start school; hence, the so-called “Mexicans” were always one year behind the so-called “Americanos”. Since my birthday is December, I was seven years old and not in the 1st grade yet. I was fortunate enough to grasp the language quickly. In the first grade, I was in the “high” first grade. In all my grades, I was always in the "high" group. My grades were always 'A's. In the third grade, I was the only one in my class who went to the "high” fourth grade class for reading. I had an advantage since I had a sister two grades ahead of me and she always told me about her classes. When I got there, I always knew what to expect. When I was in the first grade, the teacher showed the cursive alphabet on the wall on the side of the room. I figured out it was the alphabet because it looked similar to the block alphabet in front of the room. I would finish my assignments, early and then I would copy the cursive letters on scratch paper. By the time I got to the 2nd grade, I was the only one who knew cursive. My motor skills were somewhat advanced because of my age. What also helped me a lot was when I wasn't in school I was with my dad. He was a Valley Fruit and Vegetable buyer and field man who supervised the truckers and crews who harvested the crops for the packing plant/growers. So, I was exposed to Anglos, Germans, Frenchmen, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, and all ethnic groups who were farmers and customers of my Dad.

I remember once when I went with my dad and the Glick twins in their Suburban to see their cotton fields all the way to Rio Grande City. I was about 10 at the time. I also knew all the workers at the office of Valley Fruit and Vegetable Company. I talked with Roy Weir, my dad’s boss, Rudy Ogden, and Dan Seitz, who were partners at Valley Fruit. That building is now the Rio Grande Valley Food Bank.

I always liked the word “Hispanic” better than “Mexican” because I was not born in Mexico. I was born in America. There was always the distinction and for Anglos, the term was “Americanos." For Hispanics with Spanish last names whether or not you came from Mexico, the term was "Mexican".

In the summer of 1955, my dad bought me a 1947 Crosley like the car shown in the below photo. The top of my car was the color in the photo and the bottom was pea-green.  I was 12 years old when he paid $25 for it. During cotton season, a man from Georgia would come each summer to Valley Fruit & Vegetable Company where my dad worked. This man would help to evaluate the quality of the cotton. He kept this car here so he had something to get around in. He wasn't coming back the following year; so he sold it to my dad for $25.




When I started the 6th grade in September of 1955, I drove this car to Buckner Elementary school. I had a sister in 5th grade, and we would go home for lunch about 8 blocks from the school.

I would drive around the neighborhood and run errands to my grandmothers' houses about 4 blocks away across Highway 281. I would only drive on the north side of town-the “Mexican” side. I hate that term! But that is the way it was back then. The north side of the RR tracks still had DIRT streets. The south side-the “Anglo” side of town, had sidewalks, curbs, and all paved streets. The policemen on the south side were all “Anglos” (I hate that term, too!), and the police on the north side were all “Chicanos” or “Mexicans”.

All you needed in order to become a cop on the north side of town was to own your own gun, and to not be afraid of the drunks on weekends. We had a cop who could not read, or write. When he would stop you for an infraction, he would ask you to fill out the ticket. People would put his name where yours should go, so it turned out he would write himself tickets. The cops on the north side all knew my dad and they knew me, so there was no problem for me to drive.

On the first Monday, after the end of the second six weeks (First week in December, one week away from my 13th birthday), the principal called nine of my classmates and me to the office right before lunch. He said, "turn in all your books to your teacher, bring your personal supplies, and meet me here in the office after lunch”. So, after lunch we met as requested. The principal looked at me and said "Mr. Izaguirre, you take these four students with you in your car, I will take these five students with me in my car and you follow me."

I was thinking, "I didn't even know he knew I had a car." However, I used to park in the teachers’ parking lot. Coincidentally, Joe Paul Guzman had the same birthday as I did: December 9, 1942. He would sometimes, not every day like I did, drive his dad's 1950 pick-up to school.

I followed the principal to Edison Junior High. We were "double-promoted" to the 7th grade. They had organized a self-contained class of 7th graders consisting of 14 migrants who had just arrived from up north and 10 of us "double-promoted" students from the 6th grade. Edison Jr. High switched classes for different subjects in the 7th and 8th grade. Whenever we had achievement tests, we blew the top-right-off of the tests. We always scored high! Here's the thing-our parents knew nothing about our being double-promoted. We knew nothing about it! They just did it.

Of course, for the rest of the afternoon of that fateful day, I was scared. I would have to drive on the “Anglo” side of town with “Anglo” cops until I could make it to Highway 83, and cross the tracks north, and be in the SAFE-SIDE of town. Well, I made it. Needless to say, for the rest of the year, I rode my bike to school. The next year in the 8th grade another 10 students caught up with us. They were 'double-promoted' from 6th grade to 8th grade.

My father crossed the Rio Grande in a rowboat, in the middle of the night, when he was five years old. He dropped out of school in the 2nd grade to help my grandfather support the family. He was 14 when he quit school. In those days, if you didn't master the reader, you didn't pass. There were no social promotions. My father became an American citizen of which he was very proud.  On December 9, 1949, [my birthday} he went to Brownsville to be sworn in as a citizen. He bought a silk, hand-painted, rust-colored necktie from Penny's and I still have that tie. In 1955, he was on Federal jury duty in Brownsville; and again he bought a new necktie. This time it was a black, silk, hand-painted necktie. Even with his humble beginnings, my father developed his social skills very well. He believed and taught me, "Everyone is the same, you treat them with RESPECT; and they will treat you with RESPECT." This worked most of the time, though on rare occasions when he encountered an ass-hole, he would just put in aside and not dwell on it. I am proud to say, I don't remember encountering prejudice as I grew up. We were all the same, except for where we lived, and the color of our skin.







Sally [Henderson] Eckert-our classmate and daughter of our PSJA teacher, Margaret Henderson 7.14.13:

We had disruptive  PTSD problems (from WWII) that got pretty violent when coupled with alcohol on most weekends at home, and I left at the ripe old age of 14 and got married in Mexico. I changed my classes around so that I could graduate that year (1960), and went to work after finishing high school and spending a couple of months in business school learning the 10-key and shorthand after graduation. I already knew how to type. In the fall, Geoffrey Drake (my then-husband) and I went to Georgetown, Texas, where he did well in pre-med at Southwestern University. I understand he did well afterward as a dentist in the Valley, and his daughter followed him in the profession. He's a good man.

I worked in Austin in an accounting department for LCRA on Tom Miller Dam and commuted 70 miles a day until I managed to find work in Georgetown. I loved working for Southwestern University as secretary to the president. It was from there that I left for Alaska in 1963, when Geoff and I divorced. There wasn't really anything wrong between us; certainly he was and is a fine man, and I still remember his family, who taught me quite a lot. His mother is the one who got me into business school and made sure I could work. Of course, I had to lie about my age for some years. I was a good worker, but just wasn't able to bond with a man at that stage -- and, unfortunately, it took me a number of years to heal in that respect. 

As a kid at home, I thought the problems were caused by me; children are often self-centered. However, Mother left Pharr about a year after I did, so my leaving certainly didn't solve anything. Mom later really came to appreciate my stepfather, and I also learned to do so. We (he and I) have talked on the phone and written back and forth some, and I truly love his family and still keep in touch with those who are still living. I also very much liked his second wife, Anita, who was Postmistress at Hidalgo. She passed over into Life a few years ago, but my stepfather is hale and hearty (although almost blind with macular degeneration) at 92. He and Mom gave me a little brother, Jon Paul Henderson (born 1954), whom I have adored all my life. He and I keep in pretty close touch by email and see each other now and again. He has a good career in wastewater treatment in Georgia, and he has come to Alaska to teach some of the folks from rural Alaska a couple of times. 

Mother had some very interesting men -- heroes, actually -- in her life, but they were not well suited for family life. Her first husband (and the father of my two older brothers) was an incredible pilot with Chenault (eventually Air America and the Flying Tigers) and flew the Hump for China. He was handsome as a movie star and liked the ladies a lot, and that didn't go over well with Mother. My brothers spent some time with him in Indonesia while he was stationed in that part of the world. Mother remained very close to his mother always. We visited her repeatedly over the years, and I even knew and adored her. My brothers Lad and Jim pretty well see her as their mother figure (Mommie Moore), and they are fortunate to have her in that capacity. She is a sage and a saint. 

My father was a pilot in the Air Force and trained pilots for WWII. His marriage with Mom was a war casualty; he was simply gone all the time. I think they were together less than six months in the several years of their marriage, and he eventually decided he wanted a divorce. He remarried a nurse. Interestingly, Mother ran into him again through a neighbor who had him as his commander in the military here at Elmendorf AFB (Anchorage) in Alaska. They got together and dated some after she came up here. I eventually met him up here, too.

My stepfather from Pharr (my father figure) was a war hero who had a medal of honor and a purple heart, and some fairly serious wounds that he carries to this day. He retired from the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which I believe is where he worked from the time of his discharge. He loved to cook and drink beer, and he could be quite delightful. Nevertheless, he had those battle scars that don't show on the surface -- and no one really knew what to do about them back in those days. He's actually a sweet man, his family is A-plus.  

Mom married again when she was in her 50s, shortly before she retired, to a man who worked with the SBA here in Alaska. They got along well. He was a sweetie and absolutely doted on her. They lived in Las Vegas for a few years, and then moved to Port Angeles, Washington ("Little Alaska" for retirees). She cared for him as he developed Alzheimer's and kept him at home until the last couple of months of his life. She had an incredible gift as a caregiver. She took him on picnics, read to him, let him join her little bridge parties (where he sat in silence and just watched), made Easter eggs for him, and gave him birthday parties. She had the greatest way of communicating with him; I've just never seen anything like it before or since. Anyway, she finally got her peaceful and lasting marriage late in life; and she really appreciated it. 

She moved to Georgia for a year or two (to be near my little brother and his family) after Howard died, and then she came home to Alaska for her last years. She lived next door to us for most of that time, but moved to the Senior Center in Chugiak (just north of Anchorage, near our church) for her last years. She died November 1, 2007. I guess she's pretty much always been my best pal. We sewed our wild oats together decades ago, and then we eventually both settled down and found faith. We understand each other well. 

I still work in an office and use the skills that Geoff's mother made sure I acquired. Thank God for her! I've had a little college here and there, but most of my learning has come from life outside academia. 

I studied the Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction (ECRI) method some years ago and used the tools from that to teach a couple of years in our church school (back in the 1980s). 

That was a wonderful time. I had grades 7-8 the first year, and 5-12 the second year: English grammar, literature, and study skills. I've done mostly office work, though, with a bit of bar tending, cocktail waitressing, teaching, and nurse aide work to break it up. I just had to work in a bar for a while when I finally turned 21; by that time I was sick to death of office work. It didn't take long to get back into it, though. 

I lived about 90 miles out of Fairbanks when I worked at the Clear Sky Lodge. It was there I met my daughter's father and married him. He and his partner bought the lodge, and Gary (my husband) worked the night shift until 5:00 a.m. We operated a bar and liquor store, had an airstrip, and sold aviation and automobile gas and propane. What a time! Both men eventually died in airplane crashes.   

Moving on, moving on, though, I remained the Speed Queen... I, who could not settle down, eventually married a couple more times. Very nice men. And I have finally stayed in a marriage more than 30 years. Probably more like 40 years. That's almost unbelievable to me -- and only God was able to pull it off; I know better than to take credit for it. 

It has been a wild and wonderful and shameful and terrifying and tragic and blessed life... My life only makes sense to me as a lifelong, high-speed search for God -- meaning most of my time was passed in wild ignorance of the search while He kept protecting me and giving me new chances to turn to Him. I am thankful and fortunate to have enjoyed so many reconciliations and so much forgiveness -- all very unexpected and amazing, and of which I am unworthy. Some folks tango, some swing or line-dance; I guess I'm a fair 12-stepper in my later years.  

Sally

 



Bernard Beamsley

After graduating from Pan American College in January of 1966 I continued employment as an electrician helper. But there was not enough work for me to support a family on an electrician helper's pay. Since I had done electrical work at several of the schools in McAllen I became acquainted with the principle at Travis Junior High. The principle was looking for a teacher to teach 7th grade math and to teach tennis for 7th and 8th graders. I applied for the position and got the job of teaching. And then went back to Pan American College in order to take some education classes so I could get my Teacher's Certificate. It took two years of experience and 18 hours of education classes to obtain my Permanent Teacher's Certificate. My family was growing so I needed to obtain employment that paid more than a teacher's pay. 

During my fourth year of teaching I became acquainted with a Border Patrol Inspector and he talked me in applying for a Border Patrol Inspector position. It took almost 6 months from the time that I applied and took all of the required tests, interview, background clearance and physical to get an appointment in Yuma, Arizona on April 27, 1970. I had to resign my teaching position the last month of the school year. I spent 2 weeks in Yuma and then was sent to the Border Patrol Academy in Los Fresnos, Texas for 16 week of training in firearms, physical conditioning, Immigration Law, Naturalization and Spanish. After graduation from the academy in August of 1970 I entered on duty in Yuma, Arizona as a Border Patrol Agent. While in Yuma in 1975 I was detailed to the Border Patrol Academy to teach Immigration and Nationality Law courses and related law courses. I was stationed in Yuma until July 18, 1976 and then was transferred to Kingsville, Texas. While at Kingsville it seem that I was in the U.S. Federal Court in Corpus Christi on drug cases more that on duty at the Sarita Checkpoint South of Kingsville on Hyw 77. In 1977 the Kingsville Station became short of agents as many had moved on to investigator position or other duty stations. Since we were short on agents it became more dangerous as more marijuana and drugs were being transported from Mexico and the valley up highways 77 and 281. In 1977 two agents and a supervisor were wounded in shootings involving drugs. I was one of them shot. It happened at 1:30AM on August 11, 1977 at the Sarita Checkpoint. Two American citizens were transporting marijuana which was discovered by one of the agents. The agent missed a hidden weapon on the suspect during his search. The suspect pulled the weapon on me while I was preparing to notify the McAllen Border Patrol Sector. The arresting agent was still searching the suspect's vehicle and I was asking for the weapon loud enough for my partner to hear me so he would not come back into the trailer that was used at the checkpoint. I made a move for the door and jumped through it when he shot me in the arm instead of my chest which he was aiming at while trying to obtain my gun which I was not going to give up. My partner heard me say something about the weapon that the suspect had and then the shot. My partner fired two shots at the suspects hitting him. The suspect gave up immediately and was further secured. The suspect was transported to the Kingsville hospital for medical attention as I was. The bullet was removed from my arm the next day. I went back on duty 30 days later. The suspect received an 8 year sentence for a conviction of assault on a Federal Officer.

Since it was getting more dangerous at the Sarita Checkpoint South of Kingsville I decided that I was going to move on. I applied for an Investigator's position in Phoenix, Arizona and received an appointment on December 7, 1980 as an Immigration Investigator. This position was conducted in plain clothes and not in a uniform with a target pinned on your chest. I did criminal alien investigations, immigration fraud, marriage fraud, false immigration document cases and visa fraud cases as well as employment investigation in the hiring of illegal aliens. Then I transferred to the Houston District Office in August 1980 and worked the criminal alien cases that were in the Texas State Prison in Huntsville, Texas until May of 1990. I transferred back to the Phoenix District Office in May 1990 and worked there in the criminal alien investigation section mostly prison cases in the Arizona State Prison system and the Federal Correctional Institutions in Arizona. I was detailed several times to other states by the Deportation Section to interview Cuban detainees so the Immigration Service could make a determination on releasing the ones with minor offenses committed in Cuba after serving their time for minor crimes committed in the United States. I retired as a Special Agent on June 3, 1999 after 29 years in the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

I took several months off and traveled to Alaska on a cruise and then went to Maine to visit a buddy of who retired 4 years earlier from the Border Patrol. We did lots of fishing and caught 30 lobsters in his traps in August of 1999. I then took a position on October 6, 1999 at Arizona State University doing immigration work to bring in foreign Professors, foreign workers in H-1B Immigration status and exchange students that were requested by the different departments at the University. This was very interesting work as I got to visit with foreigners from many different countries with varied customs. I was employed in the International Programs Office to ten years and retired on October 30, 2009. Now I am doing more work on my small farm just outside of Goliad, Texas taking care of 100 pecan trees and doing gardening for fresh vegetables for home use. Enjoying it but it is lots of work.

I have three daughters Stephanie Ann and Melissa Kay Beamsley still living in Arizona and my youngest daughter Bernadette Dawn Bozza living in Morristown, New Jeresy with my only granddaughter Vittoria Ann Bozza. Dawn's husband Mac Bozza will be graduating from Law School at Rutgers this May the 27th. They are planning to move to the San Antonio or Austin area if he can find a law office for employment in Texas in Business Law.

 

Oscar R. Gonzalez

Home Address:

302 Cypress Circle
Pharr, TX 78577
956-460-6765

Business Address:

208 W. Ferguson Unit #1
Pharr, TX 78577
956-787-9909

Email Address:  org110n@aol.com


I have lived in Pharr since birth, July 23, 1942.  I attended St. Margaret's Catholic School through eighth grade and completed my high school education at P.S.J.A.; graduating in 1961.  In 1963, I married Minerva Barrera who graduated from P.S.J.A. also.  I attended Pan American College and graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting in 1968.  While in college, I was a partner at Pharr Auto Parts and along with my wife, opened a bookkeeping and tax office in Pharr.  In 1976, I became a CPA and opened my firm Oscar R. Gonzalez, CPA.

Minerva and I have two children.  Our daughter, Melissa (47), who also graduated from P.S.J.A. and Pan American University with a degree in accounting and is a CPA, has 3 children - Omar (27), Danee (20) and Victoria (12).  Our son, Johnny (41), graduated from P.S.J.A. and St. Edwards University in Austin with a degree in Business and Marketing.  he is currently employed at Lone Star National Bank.  He has 3 children - 
Sebastian (7) and twins Alek and Alan (5). 

Like most citizens, I got involved in civic and community affairs.  i was treasurer for the Pharr Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of the Bridge Committee, and member of the Board of Adjustment and served the City of Pharr as a City Commissioner for six years.

In 1983, I became one of the original investors of Lone Star National Bank.  I was elected as the first Chairman of the Board of Directors.  The bank started with assets of 2 million and has grown to 23 branches in the Valley, 3 in San Antonio and assets of 2.1 billion.

I enjoy going to the movies, fishing with my grandchildren and watching them play softball and baseball.  I love playing golf with my friends and taking golf trips to San Antonio.  I thank the Lord for the blessing he has given us in this world and pray he provides us all with the strength to overcome our adversities.



Don Johnstone

2926 Meadow Green Drive

Dallas, Texas 75234

Ph: 972-243-8254 

Email: johnstone413@tx.rr.com

(NOTE: Although mailing address is Dallas, we actually live in Farmers Branch, a small suburb on the NW side of Dallas.)

My wife is Sherry. I met her in January of 1961 in Weslaco only days after she moved there from Coleman, Texas. We got married in August of 1962, just before my sophomore year at Abilene Christian College.

In 1965, after my graduation, we moved to Dallas where I got my MBA at SMU in December of 1966. Sherry then went to school and graduated from North Texas State. She taught for awhile before she went to work for Child Protective Services. After that she worked for the Attorney General's Office as a supervisor and office manager before she retired. Our son, Brent, graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a management degree. He is married and lives in Austin where he sells motorcycles, primarily over the internet.

From 1967 to 1972, I worked here in Dallas in jobs involving analysis/supervision in the controller’s office of both national and local companies. One was with a defense company, dependent on Vietnam, which built the Army Mule and parts for the Talos Missile. Another involved special projects work which included going to the "field" to analyze a problem, make recommendations, write procedures, and help train some of the regional accounting staff. This job gave me the opportunity to go to a number of places I had not visited before. Some of these places were San Jose/San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Indiana, New Jersey, and Florida. I spent 4 weeks in Manhattan on a project in 1970. One weekend I drove up along the Hudson River. In the city, I visited the stock and commodity exchanges, as well as other things in what little time I had that I was not working.

In the 1972-1973 period, Sherry and I moved back to the Valley (Harlingen) for one year. The first few weeks were enjoyable as we adjusted to light traffic and only a few minute’s drive to work. However, the heat and humidity took their toll and we moved back to Dallas in September of 1973.

In the fall of 1973, I began work with the Texas Employment Commission in the "Job Bank". After a year of what could be termed as "entry level paper shuffling", an opening came up in the same building, upstairs in the district office. It was in the Research and Statistics Department whose primary role was to provide employment, hours and earnings stats which feed into the national system through BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics). This opening was a good break for me. I had never even worked in a local office and now a job well suited to my business background was available, at a higher grade level. I got the job and about 3 and 1/2 years later, I was in charge of the unit in Dallas. I continued in this role until 1998 when many positions in the "field" were eliminated and moved into the State Office in Austin. I took a voluntary demotion and accepted a position in a local office where I worked until I retired in 2002. The Dallas newspapers, radio and television stations, real estate people, industrial development types, and Chamber of Commerce were among the regular users of what we produced.

Time since retirement has been spent in a variety of ways. Some travel, some trading in the market, some ridding ourselves of excess "stuff", Sherry helping with various things while her mother was still living, and of course in Dallas, sitting at red lights............

Some trips (non business) have included Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Arizona, Kansas (visited some places where my parents and grandparents once lived), Michigan, Boston and Maine. Also a trip which included Memphis, Nashville, Asheville, Savannah and Key West (just had to see what the little town at the end of the line looked like).





Terry Denzer

E-mail:  terry.denzer@gmail.com

I graduated from Texas Tech with a BBA in Accounting in 1965.  On graduation day I was also commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army via my ROTC commitment.  I served 2 years of active duty, fortunately for me, all of which was stateside.  

While stationed at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio I had a blind date with a vivacious, charming, pretty, smart, young (did I miss anything?) woman.  We married a year later.  Bertha and I remain happily married 42 years later.  [She retains all of the above characteristics; the jury is out as to status of mine.]

We have 2 fine married sons and a grandson (with another on the way).  Both sons are college graduates: one teaches English to foreign students in New York City; the other is a producer for cable television, also in New York City.

I began working for the chemical company, Celanese Corp., in 1967 and stayed with them my entire business career of 38 years.  I was involved in various financial functions such as accounting, planning, corporate finance, investments and real estate.  As part of the corporate culture in those days Bertha and I dealt with 5 relocations: 3 locations in Texas, 2 in New Jersey and 1 in Connecticut.  We've lived in Colts Neck, NJ since 1982.  Colts Neck is a bedroom community about 40 miles outside New York City.  

Bertha and I retired in 2005.  [Bertha was a stay-at-home mom until our last son went off to college.  To fill the void she went to work in purchasing and sales for a local garden center.]  We have contemplated living elsewhere since retirement but are reluctant to move away from our children and their families.

Bertha and I are enjoying retirement immensely.  We travel, regularly visit our children and grandson, tend to our landscaping and, sometimes, do nothing at all.  I play golf regularly with Celanese retirees. We are physical fitness advocates and exercise regularly with the hope of breaking even with the aging process.

 

The Story of Muzquiz

 

Book 1:  History

A historical recounting from “In the beginning, God created…, to the formation of the Catholic Church, the Protestant Movement, the Pilgrims Landing, the settling of Spanish immigrants in northern Mexico, the outcast of the Muzquiz clan from the settlement, the treaty between the Muzquiz clan and the Kickapoo Apache, and their intermarriage.  Now everyone can see why I look like the guy on the Buffalo Nickel and not the guys on the Aztec calendar.

Felipe Gilberto Muzquiz, my grandfather, was born in 1878 in Rosita, Coahuila, Mexico. The city was later renamed Cuidad Muzquiz after local hero, the 16th president of Mexico, Melchor Muzquiz.  The people that opposed the change moved 15 miles east establishing Nueva Rosita.  The road to Muzquiz from Eagle Pass, TX travels south through Piedras Negras, Monclova, Nueva Rosita and then Muzquiz.  After my grandfather’s assignation and my grandmother’s second marriage, Gilberto Muzquiz Hernandez, (03/31/04– 05/19/70) my father, ran away from home at the age of 8, and illegally entered the US, worked on a ranch in Littlefield, Texas.  He became a barber and met Rosa Gutierrez Rodriguez, (02/08/22 – 05/31/96), my mother, born in Victoria, Texas.  They married in 1940, moved to Corpus Christi, Texas and awaited the birth of the Golden Child.


Book 2:  He Came to the Valley

A review of how a 5 year old child guides his family from Corpus Christi, his birth place, to Pharr, Texas.  His documented travels through Buell School, Labor Camp, Napper School, Edison Jr. High and finally PSJA High School are closely detailed.  Excerpts from the university days at Texas A & I, De Paul University in Chicago and Pan American are also included.  Recollections of the legendary trials and tribulations of how a boy with hardly a trace of athletic talent fools the multitudes into believing he can actually play sports, including the semi pro season with Zougs’ Bar & Grill Football Celtics in Chicago in 1963.

 

Book 3:  The Wonderful World of Work

A sad chapter of how the wonderful boy must face the fact that the lack of talent will keep him from being a professional athlete.  He becomes a man hopelessly going through meaningless jobs as a football coach at his beloved PSJA and the Athletic Director at Rio Grande City.  Totally frustrated that the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees have not called, he spirals downward becoming a certified public accountant with national firm Haskins and Sells trying to emulate his boyhood heroes, fellow CPAs Tom White and Richard Clemens.  He continues his plight working with the National Football League Players Association and finally hits rock bottom and buys out Barzie Sports, a small sports agency, renaming it Gil Muzquiz’s Sportsworld, and becomes a baseball agent.  Now finally getting to Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, he is reminded he is an agent and too old to make it as a player. 

Frustrated he sells his business and returns home to find that he has a wonderful wife, Irma, from Rio Grande City, who he married in 1966.  They have 3 children, Yvonne, who is a Licensed Professional Counsel, Marlene, who is also a Professional Counsel, and Gilbert Rene, an Ivy Leaguer who play football at Cornell, who is the supply director for North America for an international chemical company. 

 

Book 4:  Reflections

In the end, this boy turned man…against his wishes, must now face the fact that everyone around him is getting old.  No longer stoned because he doesn’t remember where he left his stash, he sits alone and wonders:

      Why was Doyle Slayton bigger that everyone?

2.      Why didn’t Jimmy Henderson ever grow?

3.      How did Billy Spenser lose his hair and make it grow on Danny Cramer’s face?

4.      Did Yoyo get his name because that is the way his car sounded?

5.      Tommy Ward?

6.      Was Charlie Jordan from this planet?

7.      How did Robert Harrington become the “most interesting man in the world”?

8.      How could Jean and Jane Evans be twins and not look alike?

9.      Did Tom White have corrective surgery so that he can smile now after 50 years?

Did Freddy Grabner ever find out who stole his lunch every Monday?


He also remembers:

1.      Girls wearing Blue Jean on Friday.

2.      Jean Evans the prettiest girl in school…still is.

3.      Douglas Peel with a smaller vocabulary.

4.      Richard Clemens when he was funny.

5.      Clemens and Cramer wearing shorts to the school dance.

6.      Alejo Romero with a busted leg under a football light pole in Mercedes.

7.      Walking off the field in San Benito…district champs.

8.      Rene Salinas guiding him in sports since the 2nd grade.

9.      How fast Eddie Flores ran.

       Humberto Romero – tough guy.

1    Looking for girls at the movies with Manuel Rivera.

1    When Tom Kruger could still shave.

1    Singing with Ken Kolberg & Alejo Romero on the Molton “Ty” Cobb Show.   

           Graduation Night indoors at the McAllen Civic Center.

 

He misses:

1.      His mom and dad.

2.      Lunch with Gilbert Ramirez

3.      Eloy Hernandez at the pharmacy.

4.     Paul Pennington’s big feet.

5.     Felipe Elizondo at his restaurant.

6.     Charlie Gaona at the pool hall.

7.     Eloisa Rosa during political elections.

8.     Not being 16 again with all his friends at PSJA.

 

Through it all he finds he can conquer anything…except pain, fear, and hunger.  He continues his struggles.

 

Bill Spencer

Interview - April 2, 2011

Tom White: Bill, back in the PSJA days, I never thought about you having a military career. How/Why did you go that direction and why the Air Force instead of the other branches?

Bill Spencer: I spent some extra time getting a college degree…crammed a 4 year BS in math into about 5 ½ years.  So, the Selective Service Board had identified me as a very good target on several occasions, but for some reason let me stagger across the finish line in 1966 with a diploma from Pan American University.  I can remember during my very last finals at Pan American, I was involved in taking all of the tests to join the Navy pilot training program and did better on them than the ones at college.  I passed all of the written tests and physical requirements and was ready to sign the papers when I called my uncle named Dick Sorensen (his father was Alfred Sorensen who Sorensen Elementary was named after) and told him I would be joining him in the Navy soon.  Dick had always been someone I looked up to as he graduated from PSJA in 1954 and had graduated from Annapolis in 1958 (imagine getting finished with school in just 4 years!  What a guy!).  Anyway, Dick said not to join the Navy, but to fly for the Air Force.  His logic was that the Air Force’s main mission is to fly…while the Navy’s mission is all about ships.  That made some sense to me, but now I had to take all of the Air Force tests and avoid the draft until I could get into the AF flight program.  It was close, but I made it and went to Office Training School (OTS) at Lackland, AFB in San Antonio and then to pilot training at Randolph AFB, also in San Antonio. 

I graduated from a one-year pilot training program in May, 1968 and received an assignment to fly the F-4 Phantom in the Philippines.  I was elated to get a fighter out of pilot training because there was a lot of competition for fighter aircraft as opposed to flying some of the transport aircraft or “many-motors” as we called them.  I did better in this environment than the classroom in high school or college.  My class started with 41 candidates, and I think we graduated 27.  Several could not learn to fly at all, while others failed the academics, and others failed some of the physical requirements during the program.  It was a demanding year.  Then the competition within the graduates for the fighters that were available was pretty keen.  So, I was excited to get one myself because there were a lot of non-fighter aircraft assignments given to some of my pilot training buddies. 

I served about 3 ½ years in the Philippines, after a 6-month flying training program in California learning how to fly the F-4.  I loved the F-4!  It was noisy and fast.  It had two engines built by General Electric that created 17,500 pounds of thrust each in full afterburner and had a top speed of over Mach 2.  If you unloaded the aircraft to zero “g’ you had 35,000 pounds pushing you and you were weightless!  Better than the old Pontiac GTO I drove when I entered pilot training.  I once had the aircraft to a top speed of 2.3 times the speed of sound, which was 1358 knots (measured on the airspeed indicator) or about 1500 mph.  The F-4 Phantom has been retired (like me) and many of them sit in the “bone-yard” in Arizona, but that was still the fastest aircraft I ever flew.  We flew low level practice missions all over the islands of the Philippines, some of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen.  Once I got so low flying over the water around the islands that we were kicking up a “roster tail” behind us and you could see the shock wave on the water around the aircraft.  I was 26 years old when I began this assignment, and it was a very fun time in my life. 

Tom, that is a long answer to your question, but there is no other way to explain why I spent over 20 years in the military without giving you a “flavor” of what it is like to fly a fighter aircraft.  Put simply, it “gets in your blood” and you miss it when you don’t get to fly around the sky with “your hair on fire”.  I miss it right now just telling you about it...big time!

Tom White: Where were you stationed and what planes did you fly?

Bill Spencer:  I was assigned from the Philippines to Korat AFB, Thailand, again in the F-4 E, which was the latest version of the aircraft.  This version had an internal 20 MM gun that fired 6000 rounds per minute or 100 bullets per second.  The earlier version of the aircraft had no gun and we had to mount the gun on the center line station externally.  This gun had 6 rotating barrels, and if you fired the gun for more than 3 seconds it would warp the barrels because it would over-heat.  I reported to this assignment in January, 1972.  I flew 92 combat missions from Thailand (really only 91 ½) and was transferred to the Hanoi Hilton on July 5th of that year, against my will I would add…more on that later.  I was released back to US control on March 29, 1973.  I served another F-4 assignment at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and then resigned my commission and left the Air Force in 1977.  I had second thoughts and got back into the Air Force in 1980.  I later flew the F-16 Falcon and the A-10 Thunderbolt, completing assignments in Korea, Utah, Arizona and Texas.  I retired in 1992 and moved to Utah where I have been since that time. 

Tom White: Which were your favorite planes and favorite assignments?

Bill Spencer:  My favorite aircraft was probably the F-16.  It was like a sports car because it was small and a single-seat, single engine aircraft, and could turn really quickly.  It was the first “fly-by-wire” aircraft in the Air Force.  What that means is that the stick, which you use to control the aircraft, is not mechanically attached to the surfaces that control flight, like more conventional aircraft.  It is merely connected electronically to the flight control system and the computers interpret what the pilot says he wants to do and then it gets done.  The engineers have programmed the aircraft to respond to the pilots inputs according to the desired flight envelope.  So, the pilot is not the only member “of the board” here.  He could be considered the Chairman of the Board, but other “members” get to vote on what needs to be done.  Sounds crazy, but it works pretty well. It is nicknamed the “Electric Jet” because the flight control system is computer aided.  After you have flown it a few times and get acquainted with the jet, it feels like it is plugged into your brain and is reading your mind.  The weapons systems are pretty neat.  It has a “pipper” that predicts where the weapon you are about to release is going to impact the ground.  It divides a second into 50 equal parts and re-computes the solution that often while taking into account all of the variables involved like wind, airspeed, dive angle, g forces, bomb drag index, range to target, etc.  It is a very accurate system.  One of the greatest features of this aircraft for me was that the pilot sits very high in the cockpit at a 25 degree tilt and has a bubble canopy, so he can look out and see the tail section of his own aircraft.  This is very important for seeing behind you…a feature that means a lot to me given my experiences in combat.  This jet is still in the active inventory. 

The A-10 Thunderbolt, called the Warthog by the pilots that flew it, was not as complicated but had a huge gun that made it fun.  It was built as a holster for the 30 MM gun that fires a round that weights over 1.5 pounds each…the projectile itself weights about half that much and is super-sonic.  It has a rate of fire of 4000 rounds per minute and the gun was built to destroy tanks.  The gun develops about 10,000 pounds of thrust in the wrong direction, so it slows the aircraft, but only a few knots.  This is a simple aircraft that was built to take a lot of punishment and still get you home.  This is a slow, underpowered, ugly jet that is really fun to fly.  However, I was never fond of an aircraft whose best quality was “takes damage well.”  I would rather fly one that is harder to hit.  This aircraft cannot survive in a high threat environment, but was built to support the Army ground forces in a close air role…which it does very well.  This aircraft is also still operational. 

Tom White:  I think you resigned from the AF and then rejoined a few years later, why was that?

Bill Spencer:  I did resign my commission in 1977 as a result of being very unhappy with the way the military was being run at the time.  History repeats itself often and after a war, generally, the military budget is greatly reduced…not totally surprising given the cost of war in the previous years.  But, it is no fun being in a fighter squadron that did not get enough flying time to maintain proficiency…so your skill levels start to erode to the point of not really even being safe while doing your job.  Maintenance did not have enough funds to keep the aircraft operational, so you were flying “broken” jets and that adds to the frustration levels.  But the biggest discouragement was having spent so much time developing your skill levels and combat tactics and then seeing them slowly slip away.  I finally decided that if our government did not value the military, then it was time to find something more meaningful to do with my life.  I had received a “by-name” assignment to Tactical Air Command Headquarters and suddenly decided to request this assignment be cancelled and I was out of the AF in less than 30 days.  During the late 1970’s, a lot of promotable pilots got out of the services and went to the airlines.  I blamed the Carter Administration for a lot the problems we experienced, but that is probably an oversimplification.  I spent the next three years in the real estate and construction business in Kerrville and in Austin.  I enjoyed these years and the experiences, but missed flying a lot more than I expected.  When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, things changed immediately for the military.  I can remember that the US was buying 30 F-16s per year at the time, and we immediately went to 60 per year, and the next year put 120 of these jets into the AF inventory.  That got my attention because this was an aircraft I had seen at Edwards AFB when it was in a design “fly off” against what later became the F-18 Hornet that the Navy purchased (this is the aircraft that the Navy “Blue Angels” fly today).  The F-16 is flown today by the Air Force “Thunderbirds.”  I really wanted to fly that jet and at the same time, the Air Force started to reach out to some pilots and try to get them to come back into the service.  I was offered a chance to get back into the AF and did so in 1980.  I had to volunteer for a non-flying job in order to qualify for the F-16 and did get an assignment to the F-16 in 1982.  I flew that aircraft in Korea and Utah and loved it.  I think it was good for me to have been out of the service for three years…it made me appreciate what I had a lot more. 

Tom White:  Bill, all your classmates are probably aware that you were a POW in Hanoi.  Could you share some of those experiences with your classmates?  What was your location when you were shot down and what happened when you hit the ground?  Was it a populated area?

Bill Spencer:  I think it is difficult to write about some of those experiences in a paragraph or two…but I will mention some of the things that stand out more than others.  First, I was very well trained by the Air Force to be in that situation.  I had graduated from 3 survival schools and that gave me a head start on being prepared to handle the challenge.  As an aside, I would like to relate an experience during one of my survival schools.  I met a man named Nick Rowe, from McAllen, who was held as a POW in South Vietnam for about 5 years.  He had escaped, and wrote a book, and was helping with this survival school.  He was giving a lecture and during an intermission, I went up to him and asked him if he was a McAllen Bulldog…he said he was and I said, “Well, I am a Bear”.  He laughed and we had a nice conversation, and I asked him what I should do to prepare myself for the event that I might become a POW, as I was on my way to the combat zone at the time…just idle chatter, or so I thought at the time.  Some may have heard of him. His parents were kind enough to write to my parents when I was shot down.  Sadly, Nick Rowe was assassinated in the Philippines years later by communist elements in that country.  I am sure you could “Google” Nick Rowe and read about him. 

I had flown combat missions for about 6 months, so I had seen some of my friends shot down during that time.  I was 29 years old, and it is hard to fly combat missions effectively and give any thought to the fact that you could actually be shot down yourself.  But, I was shot down at about 9:30 am on the 5th of July of 1972 by a heat seeking missile from a Mig 21 that I never saw.  The missile tore off the tail of my F-4 Phantom, started a huge fire that quickly engulfed that aft section of the jet, and I was forced to eject over a country that was known to be pretty brutal.  This was an area of North Vietnam that we briefed as a “see you after the war” zone because no rescue could be attempted in this high threat arena.  I was about 30 miles north-east of Hanoi, which is a populated area.  The F-4 is a two-seat aircraft and my “back-seater” was burned across the neck before I pulled the ejection handle.  The ejection system in that aircraft is a very good system, but a bit complex in design. I always worried that this entire ejection system had been awarded to several contractors…all being the lowest bidder…and the system is only to be used when the rest of the aircraft is going to be destroyed anyway…so why be too careful in the design of this part…the pilot probably screwed up anyway…why should he be so carefully protected and allowed to get away from the explosion when he probably caused the problem in the first place.  These are thoughts that run through your mind as you fly around, mission after mission, sitting on a rocket and wondering if something bad happened, would you really have the courage to pull the ejection handle.  The answer for me was…in a heart beat!  My back-seater could not reach his handle because he was not strapped into the seat very tightly, so I initiated the ejection sequence for both of us.  Either guy can pull the ejection handle and begin the sequence, but the back-seater can only initial his own ejection, while the pilot’s handle causes both to be ejected in sequence…back-seater first.  One reason for this is because if the front seat ejection occurred first, the rocket that sends him out of the jet could warp the back-seater’s canopy and trap him there.  So, when I pulled the ejection handle, Brain Seek, (later to become a dentist in the Air Force because he did not want to fly anymore…strange reaction, huh?) went out first and then I was ejected about ¾ of a second later into a relative wind of about 250+ miles an hour.  That is an estimate as we were doing about 450 mph when the missile hit us and I am guessing we must have lost about 200 mph by the time we ejected. 

I was not injured except for a small cut in the corner of my mouth, a minor knee injury that occurred during my landing, and some other lesser abrasions.  I was coming down in a populated area and I watched as my F-4, trailing a large fire ball, impacted the ground and began to burn causing very dark smoke to rise several hundred feet into the air.  I was able to use a survival radio to talk to my remaining flight members above me.  I told them I was “A-OK” and that I would “see you after the war.”  I wanted my family to know that I was not injured and that my attitude was positive.  I had a lot of survival gear and knew how to use it.  I had a 38 pistol, extra water, two radios, and a lot of other things.  But, as I got closer to the ground I began to see people down there and realized I was coming down into an agricultural area with almost no trees or cover.  I tried to “slip” to the north, as there was an area well to the north that would provide some cover, but the wind was from that direction and that did not help.  You can pull down on two of the four risers to the chute and that dumps air out of the canopy.  In that way you can make some progress in a given direction.  However, this was not a “performance” chute that was really very maneuverable, so my efforts only resulted in tiring out my arms while I descended pretty much straight down.  In fact, I did not miss the fireball of my own aircraft by very far.  As I got closer to the ground, I began to see that some of the people were military and in uniform.  In fact, I could now see that some were shooting at me as I could see the weapons discharge.  I tried to get “small” and concentrate on landing as far away from them as I could.  I did manage to get a bit to the north and landed on a small hill with only one stupid tree on it.  I released the chute quickly and started to the north.  As I came to the edge of this small hill and looked down below, I saw about 5 or 6 men running up this little hill and they were military folks with AK 47s.  I did the same for the east and west slopes with similar results.  There were about 25 or so guys coming my way with automatic weapons.  I had a few seconds to decide if I wanted to use my weapon and be killed by them or perhaps be a POW…or hide behind this stupid little tree.   I pulled the 38 out and threw it pretty far and then kneeled down and raised my hands just as the first guy got there.  He got within about 10 yards of me and started screaming (in a foreign language) and that was when I really thought I was going to get shot because he was so excited and nervous. 

This is getting pretty long, and I think I am going into too much detail, but that is how I was captured.  I was paraded around a few villages that day by the military who were not friendly at all.  There were some tough moments during the initial phase of my capture that tested me and my training, but I really was prepared to face something like this.  Looking back, I think I did OK handling it.  I was blindfolded and tied up during most of this time.  That evening I was tied to the back of the cab of a large truck and transported to Hanoi.  I was blindfolded during all of this, so time moves rather slowly as there is no detail to the event.  That was a pretty rough trip that lasted most of the night.  I had been given some water, but not much else.  The “Hanoi Hilton” was to be my home for the next several months.  As I write some of this on paper for the first time, I find that many of the details are still very vivid…yet not emotional at all.  I feel a sense of distance without losing the “color” of the event. 

In fact, I just thought of something that happened as I was on “parade” in one village.  I was tied with my arms in back of me with a thin cord and blindfolded.  They had removed all of my clothes except my underwear.  I was pretty dirty by this time and had some blood on me, but I was taller than almost all of them. They kept trying to get me to lower my head, as if I were ashamed.  I would very slowly raise my head in order to not appear this way to those around me.  That seemed very important to me at the time.  I would receive some minor abuse for this, my head was pushed down again, and the cycle continued for some time.  I could see below the blindfold occasionally and would be able to see my feet and the ground.  All of the sudden a very young boy came up to me and looked up at me.  He noticed that I could see him below the blindfold.  He put his arms around me (in order to stay with me in the crowd of people), and did a strange thing…he smiled.  I smiled back at him and that made him happy.  So, he fought to stay with me as the military tried to push him away.  He was with me for several minutes, and I gained great strength from him.  I have thought often of how important he was for me at that time.  I could go into some conclusions I have drawn from this event, but will spare you for the time being and conclude this rambling.  I said in the prior paragraph that I was “not emotional at all” about the details of this event…the part about this young boy is an exception, as I have tears in my eyes as I relate this to you.  It seems that the young boy’s brief friendship was a more powerful force than all of the hatred and anger expressed by the other human beings I came in contact with that day. 

Tom White:  How long were you held as a POW and where were you imprisoned? 

Bill Spencer:  I was held from 5 July 1972 until 29 March 1973…a little short of nine months.  Some of the POWs who were shot down earlier in the war were held nearly as many years as I was months.  Not only were they held much longer, but their treatment was much worse than mine.  They were tortured in the purest definition of the word…much of it quite brutal.  There was a lot of solitary confinement as well.  The leader of the North Vietnamese was Ho Chi Mihn, who died in 1969.  The treatment of our prisoners improved shortly after this occurred, so maybe those events are related, but things did get better for the men in the “Hanoi Hilton” before I got there.  I was held at the Hanoi Hilton until the agreements were signed in January ’73, and then I was moved to another camp until I was released in March.  I will relate a funny story about the day before I was released.  At this new camp, we were kept in smaller groups and were given better food and more “outdoor” time.  We realized later that they wanted us to gain some weight and get some sun so we would look better when we were released.  But it was a better time for us.  We were never told that we were going home or that the war was over, but we knew that the bombing had stopped and that things had improved for us.  The day before I was released, we were separated into a small room with about 5 of us together.  We quickly decided that I was the senior ranking officer (SRO) by comparing our dates of rank as Captains.  This was always important because the guards tried to destroy any military organization or cohesiveness as soon as we were separated from our other SROs.  Now I was alerted to the fact that if something happened I would be required to make a decision about what to do as a separate military unit.  My responsibility had increased, and things were changing daily.  I was fairly certain that we were going to be moved soon as we had been issued new clothing and some shoes (for the first time ever).  Late that afternoon, a camera crew of two men suddenly came into our little room with very bright lights and started filming without explaining anything about who they were or why they were filming.  I ordered our guys to face the back wall and keep their noses against it.  I did the same.  I did not want anyone to film us as we did not want to be a focus of propaganda.  The two men spoke to each other (I later guessed that rules had been imposed that they could not speak directly to the “prisoners”) and one said, “Do you think these guys would turn around and face the cameras if they knew we were from CBS and that this would be on the news this evening?”  My guys looked at me and wanted to turn around as we had never been filmed.  It would be nice for our families to see us after all this time…if these men were being truthful.  I decided we could not take the chance and ordered them to remain with their backs to the cameras.  Well, the next thing that happens is Walter Cronkite walks into our little room with the Camp Commander beside him.  We don’t see him, but he speaks directly to us, (Walter was above following any rules) and says, “Boys, have they told you that you are going home tomorrow?”  Everyone knows THAT voice, so without my changing the orders, we all turn and look upon HIM!!  The Camp Commander is very upset with Walter and is jumping up and down and waving his arms at Walter because he is speaking directly to us.  I say, “No, are we going home tomorrow?”  Walter says, “You sure are and this is going to be on the CBS evening news…is that OK?”  I said, “Yes sir…that would be just fine.”  He then shook our hands and said something about how proud of us he was (while the Camp Commander had a fit), wished us well and left the room.  We felt like we were in “God’s hip pocket” from that time until we were released the next day…just as Walter had promised.  He was a very tall man and the Camp Commander was very short…and I still get a great sense of joy from that moment in time.  What a presence he had and what a wonderful thing it was for him to do that for us.  He was a great man…and he helped us feel special…and safe for the first time in awhile.  His was the first friendly face I had seen in almost nine months that was not another POW.  Wow…tears again…this is harder than I thought.

Tom White: Can you tell us what a routine day as a POW was?

Bill Spencer:  Before I get into the description of a “routine day”, I would like to share with you the events that happened a short time before my days became routine.  After the Vietnamese interrogated us, and were convinced that they could not exploit us further, they usually placed us in a room with other “similar” POWs.  When I say “similar”, I am referring to others that were shot down about the same time and about as “cooperative” as the others in that room.  Our Code of Conduct, which has been modified since this war, was pretty easy to understand at that time…Name, Rank, Serial Number, and Date of Birth.  We were to resist to the maximum extent of our abilities beyond this information. 

I was first put into a room which was a part of “Heartbreak Hotel” (sound familiar?)…I think there were only 8 or 10 rooms in this part of the Hanoi Hilton. This was the place where new prisoners were placed while they were interrogated.  So, I arrived in Heartbreak on the 6th of July and began a series of intense “interviews” which lasted about 5-6 days.  I was kept in solitary confinement during that time and was not allowed much sleep or food in order to make things difficult for me.  The idea, obviously, was to disorient, depress, and gain cooperation through threats and other means.  As I have explained earlier, I had been trained for this situation and had been through 3 different survival schools.  I think our military did a good job of trying to train its people for this type of event.  So, I had an eerie feeling in my first “interview” with the bad guys…it felt like I had seen this all before, and it gave me some confidence that was really helpful.  I cannot remember a lot of detail of those few days.  I was exhausted and was challenged many times during that ordeal, but I was not tortured in the same way many of the men shot down before me were.  I was content with my performance during that time and I resisted fairly well, as I had been trained to do, but I have no idea what my performance would have been given the same treatment that those shot down before 1970 were forced to endure.  I know that those men said that we all have a “breaking point”.  I am quite sure they are correct.  Perhaps the biggest asset a POW can lose is his own self respect.  That may also be true of all of us that are not POWs as well. 

Having endured those few days, I was placed into a room with other guys with similar “bad attitudes”.  As I recall, there were about 20 or so in the room where I was first assigned from Heartbreak.  My first big surprise was that the aircraft commander of the jet who was flying as Bass 04 was being escorted to the room with me.  Our call sign that day for our flight of four F-4 Phantoms was “Bass”.  I had been Bass 02 as the wingman of my Squadron Commander, who was Bass 01.  The man next to me, as we were walking to our new room, was Bill Elander, the pilot of Bass 04.  I was to find out that day that his aircraft was shot down seconds after mine by another Mig 21.  I was happy to see a friend, but sad that he was also now a POW. 

Now, the answer to your question about a routine day as a POW.  The average day for us was pretty dull.  The guards were not interested in interrogating us further, so we were now in the mode of passing time until we were to be released…if that was our fate.  We had almost no news from home.  Some of the guys were allowed to write home and others were not.  I was not.  They were only given about 11 lines to write in their letters, and they were, of course, not allowed to write about things that would reflect badly on our captors.  We never understood how they decided who was allowed to write, but we knew that they wanted this privilege to work against our esprit de corps and to cause hard feelings among our ranks.  There were reasons for this not working as there were some classified things done through these letters that allowed some information to get back to the military and to the families.  So, we all cooperated as much as possible to help others be allowed to write home.  My status was initially MIA, Missing in Action, and was later changed to POW as a direct result of letters from other POWs.  About 2 weeks before we were released, I got to write one letter, but I don’t think it was ever received. 

The food was pretty bad.  We survived on bread (more on that later), a very, very weak tea (more like of colored water), and whatever vegetable was in season.  We would eat that vegetable for a couple of months…until something else came into season.  The noon meal and the evening meal were the same.  I remember the following being the vegetables we had: kohlrabi (similar to a turnip…I don’t recommend it), pumpkin, and a green spinach-like whatever (we called it weeds…and it tasted like weeds). 

We would have some sugar in the morning, which we put in the bread and that would be breakfast.  For the noon meal, we would have a soup made from the vegetable of the day (or month), and then the same vegetable boiled as the main course.  Then we had the exact same thing for the evening meal.  Our protein was from pig fat that was served along with the main course. This consisted of small pieces of the outer skin of the pig, with some fat on it and the hair (or bristles) still attached.  The pig fat was cooked, and I ate everything that was given to me.  We only had very small portions of pig fat.  I usually wrapped it in a piece of bread so I could not see the bristles.  We all knew we were not getting enough food and we were trained to eat everything we were given in order to survive…so we did.  The bread had weevils in it.  I was sure that this was the bread that the guards did not want.  At first, I thought it was sesame seeds, but on closer inspection, you could see they were little bugs.  We ate them too…no problem.  We had pumpkin as the main course for what seemed like 3 months.  Over and over…pumpkins soup and boiled pumpkin with no seasoning whatever…and a little pig fat (with the hair on it) washed down with some dirty, room temperature water.  We did have a good amount of bread and that is what kept us going…those little weevils probably did us some good.  A few years ago, we had some friends over for Thanksgiving, and Divie found a great recipe for pumpkin soup (having forgotten about my experience with it).  She was surprised when I did not eat much of it and then she remembered my experiences with pumpkin soup.  We still laugh about that Thanksgiving.  Lucky for me she cooked a lot of other wonderful things to eat as well. 

The days were spent talking with the other guys in the room.  We had some interesting discussions about when we might go home.  All kinds of theories were given life among our little band of aviators about when the war would end and when we would be released.  I once saw a chicken on the roof of a building near our room and spent some time formulating a “chicken on the roof” theory about when we would go home.  It made no sense, had no basis of fact to it, but everyone loved to hear it.  It was just as popular as many of the other “theories” built from a total lack of information.  We had pilots and navigators from the Marines, Navy and Air Force.  We had time to share a lot of stories about our “shoot-down” experience and families back home.  These were some of the bravest, most dedicated men I would ever know.  I later had the privilege to serve with some of them again under much better circumstances. 

We were allowed to bathe about twice a week.  There was a small stucco structure that was about 3 feet wide, 4 feet long and about 3 feet tall that contained the water we used to bathe.  There was a black rubber bucket (the “rubber duckey” was what we called it) that we used to get the water out of the pool to pour over us as we stood naked in the courtyard outside.  Of course, the water was the temperature of the air outside.  During the winter it was pretty cold.  There were some very short baths during the winter.  And for all of you Seinfeld fans, I can tell you that the standard for “significant shrinkage” was set at the Hanoi Hilton in the winter of 1972.  The bars of soap were Russian and made no lather at all.  We shaved once a week or so with very dull razors that were also from Russia.  I hated to shave as it was a painful experience.  We passed the razor around (we had no choice) and all used the same razor.  Can you imagine doing that in today’s world? 

Tom White:  What would be the best part of your day and the worst part?

Bill Spencer:  I guess the best part of the day was just having the time to spend with the men in the room and sharing stories.  One of the fun things we did toward the end of the tour was play poker.  We were given a deck of cards and played poker at night sometimes.  We made chips from bread dough and put ashes in some to make the black chips, crushed brick to make the red chips and regular bread to make white chips.  They would harden into pretty functional chips.  We played nickel, dime, and quarter poker and kept track of the tallies.  We had guys who were tasked to make and take care of the chips, guys who took care of the cards, and we all kept track of how we were doing.  At the end of our tour, I was the one who was ahead the most…I think it was over $500.  There were only 3 winners out of all of those that played.  Everyone that owed me money sent it to me except one guy.  I think that was a pretty funny part of our day.  It is pretty hard to bluff a POW playing with bread dough chips, playing nickel, dime, quarter poker when your losses are only kept on a piece of paper and make him fold his hand when he has you beat, but I did it a few times.  This was years before all the rage about Texas hold-em poker. 

Probably the worst part of the day was just getting though the time not knowing anything about the outside world.  I had no communication with my family and no knowledge of what was going on in the world.  I would say that the void of information and communication with family was perhaps the hardest part of the day.  But I remember the funny things that happened and the way these men coped with all of the trials.  That is the part that “sticks” in my mind…the good parts of the experience…the bad parts have kind of faded.   

Tom White:  Did you get much news or were you kept isolated from what was happening in the rest of the world and the war?

Bill Spencer:   I think I have answered this question, to some degree already.  We were given no world news other than propaganda and tragedies.  There was a speaker above one of the windows in our room.  I should say that there were no windows as we know them.  The windows were up very high (you could not reach them) and they did not have any glass in them…only bars running vertically.  We could only observe the roofs of buildings next to us...not the buildings themselves.  There was an overhang outside which prevented most of the rain from coming in, but whatever the temperature was outside was what we had inside our room.  This speaker was used for propaganda, and they would broadcast music (their music...you would not believe how bad their music was for us to listen to).  The propaganda was some of their people speaking in broken English describing all manner of horrors to us.  Almost everyday they told us over this “box” that we had lost almost as many aircraft as we had in the entire US inventory.  It was funny for awhile, but it got old.  Every day they told us of glorious victories for the People of Vietnam and how the American “criminals” were being annihilated.  They would say that 150 US aircraft were shot down and many “air pirates” had been killed. 

There is one funny story that is worth mentioning.  They would let us read the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which was the US newspaper for the deployed US service members that we all read before we were shot down.  But they would paste it to a piece of cardboard and only show a part of the newspaper that was a story of some US tragedy.  We got to read about a plane crash in the Florida everglades, where many people were killed, and we were allowed to read about anti-war statements made by our own people such as Jane Fonda, etc.  What they did not know is that one of our guys had figured out how to get the paper off of the cardboard so we could read the back of the page and then get it glued back on the cardboard without them knowing about it.  He was one of the same guys who did the poker chips for us and was quite good with bread dough.  So, we really looked forward to all the bad things they were going to let us read about and then learn all kinds of things from the back of that page.  I found out that one of my friends had shot down a Mig 21 from one of these back page readings.  They never did figure out that we were doing that.  The only problem was that we only got a very small look into the news world, but it was better than nothing. 

I should also tell you about the “comm. team”…meaning communication team.  The POWs had devised a “flash code” that enabled a person to communicate across a pretty good distance by using signs with your hand.  Each letter in the alphabet had a symbol.  We got very good at quickly spelling words with our hands.  I volunteered to be on the comm. team.  There was a competition to see who was the fastest to send and receive flash code.  I did not win the competition, but did get on the team as a regular security member.  The purpose of the comm. team was to communicate with other rooms of POWs.  As I recall there were 4 or 5 of us on the team.  We would find opportunities to communicate with other rooms and pass information from our Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) to their comm. team and their SRO.  In this way, we were able to maintain some cohesiveness in the efforts of the different rooms.  Our SRO would ask advice of someone senior to him (in another room) and help us solve an issue we might be having.  If our SRO needed information, he would come to the comm. team and instruct us to find out what another SRO would suggest.  I really liked doing this.  It was exciting and gave us a mission.  I will tell you a story about a time when we were communicating with a room next to us and learned something that made me pretty sad.  Tom, you will especially like this story because of your close association with the Dallas Cowboys.  All of my life I was a very strong Cowboy fan.  I loved to read about their training camps, the new draft choices, etc.  Well, we were finishing up our comm. session with the guys next door and had asked all of the questions that we were supposed to ask when the guy who won the competition as our best “flasher” (not what you think) ran out of things to ask.  I should tell you that there were two of us holding him up as high as we could so he could see over the window ledge, and two others that were on a look out a few feet away.  So, he was standing on us and asked if any of us wanted to ask these guys a question.  The guys we were talking to were some of the most recent shoot-downs in the camp, so they knew things that we did not know.  So, I said, “Ask him how the Cowboys are doing”.  He said OK and started flashing the letters to the new guys.  Then I heard him as he was translating their answer.  He said (very slowly because he was getting this one letter at a time)  “Roger…Staubach…out…for…year…broken…collar…bone”  I almost dropped my friend I was so upset.  I had no other information, just those words, and we had to close the comm. session as we almost got caught by the guards.  That is the only time I ever got to ask another room for information and I got that (to me) devastating news.  Roger Staubach was my favorite player in the NFL.  I admired him for having served in the Navy and then having the skill and determination to beat out other athletes that had not served in the military and had become one of the best quarterbacks to ever play football at any level.  I had to live with that information without further explanation and missed that season completely.  It is funny now, but it was not funny then.  I was a big fan!

Tom White:  We have all heard stories of how stressful it was to be a POW.  But, I have heard that you adjusted unusually well after your release.  How did you make the adjustment and transition?

Bill Spencer:  I think most of us have done pretty well, and I will again point out that we were well trained to be in this situation.  I flew 92 combat missions and knew that any one of them could turn out badly.  So, I think you do get a little bit tough mentally as a result of people shooting at you and flying some fairly interesting missions.  We all deal with stress differently, and I think it can shorten your life if you let it.  I have always been a bit of an optimist and sort of see the good things that could happen in a given situation rather than to focus on the negative aspects.

In 2004, I was asked to take part in a research project at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington DC.  Two doctors there were doing a study of people who had experienced stressful situations.  Some had developed stress disorders, and others had not.  They paid us for our time and put us through a lot of tests in an attempt to understand how we each dealt with stress.  It was interesting!  In fact, just this past month one of those doctors contacted me and told me that they were releasing a book in about a year or so on the subject of resiliency and that a part of an interview that I did back then was going to be in the book.  He wanted me to proof it and see if I still agreed with the statements made during the interview.  I do still agree with what I said in that interview and as I write this interview, I find your question similar to his at the time.  I will quote from a part of the interview that will be in this book.  He sent a draft of the book for the parts that quote my interview, and I will include them in this answer as I think it applies.  Following is a quote from the book being published on resiliency:

“And indeed, many of the resilient Vietnam POWs whom we interviewed believed that their imprisonment, while it shattered their previous approach to life, eventually proved meaningful and in some cases positive.  Bill Spencer, for example, believes that life is a test and that our mission here on Earth is to learn lessons that lead to growth and maturity, and that many important lessons are the byproduct of adversity.”

     “In my view, life is an experiment, a test.  I think the Lord puts us here to learn things bout ourselves.  And we really grow and mature more during the trials then during the good times. When things are really going well, we start getting real sloppy and we get gregarious and we waste our time.  The job’s great, everything is wonderful!  But when things really go bad, if we concentrate, we can learn a lot.  It’s not fun.  It’s not what we ordered.  The fun times are better.  But really we mature more when we are under an intense trial.” 

I think it is interesting reading this quote from an interview some 7 years ago.  I still believe what I said then and am quite sure that we are better served by our trials than our successes if we do not let ourselves be “broken” by them…if we survive them with our self respect intact and our self confidence whole.  And with our faith in the Lord stronger than before the challenge.  

Tom White: Do you have bitter feelings about the North Vietnamese people?

Bill Spencer:  The short answer is no I don’t have any bitter feelings for them.  I feel badly for any people that are forced to live in such a government.  It is sad to imagine the lack of personal freedom they must endure.  If there is one thing I learned as a POW, it is that freedom is absolutely essential to life.  I experienced a total lack of freedom for about 9 months, and it is not something I will ever take for granted again.  These people, like so many others in this world, are without the ability to make many of the choices in their lives for themselves.  We did not like the guards at all.  We had derogatory names for them like “squinty” or “fang”.  But I don’t think I felt much in the way of hatred or anger toward them.  Again, I will caution you that I was not tortured in the same way that many of the other POWs who were shot down prior to 1970 were tortured.  So, my feelings towards the guards may not be similar to theirs. 

I will tell you a funny story about this question.  One day we (the guys in my room) were talking about what we would like to do to the guards if we could ever get them alone.  There were many suggestions about how it would be fun to beat them up or intimidate them, but the best suggestion that I remember was by a friend of mine that said that after the war, he would like to take them all home with him.  Invite them to his home for a great meal with his family.  Make some home made ice cream for them.  Take them to a professional baseball game and buy them a hotdog and a coke.  Take them to a grocery store and a shopping mall.  Take them to church on Sunday.  Give them a big hug and then ship their ass back to Vietnam. 

I thought this was the best answer I have ever heard as to what I would like to do to them.  I would want them to know what freedom feels like so that maybe they would understand what we were trying to do over there.  We were not trying to kill them as much as we were trying to get them to leave the South Vietnamese alone…long enough to teach them about being free…and what that really meant for them and their children and their grandchildren.  But, we did not get that done.  We failed completely.  They are still locked into the shackles of their lives in a communist country.  What a tragedy and what a waste!  And the ones who feel the failure strongest are the ones who gave the most. 

Tom, I want to thank you for asking these questions.  It has made me think of things that happened so long ago and helped motivate me to document some feelings and some thoughts that I was not even conscious of having.  I look forward to seeing you soon, my friend. 

God Bless,

Bill 


 

                                    

The Autobiography of Jim Henderson-Part 1


I was fortunate to be born into the family of Robert Henderson Jr. and Lujane Glenn.  What a set of parents I lucked into!  Dad was a hard working McAllen guy who also had great genes from Nana & Dadlo-- Iowa folks who came South about 1903.  More on them in the long version that will be up for sale at a later date.  My father was an extremely bright man who had a very dry sense of humor.  He was involved heavily in church and civic affairs like you wouldn’t believe.  He was, at times, hard at work trying to get my brothers & sister to amount to something.  Whata job that was.  But this is supposed to be about me, me, me.  One word about my Mother, she was a very loving person that everyone loved.  A very sweet person who was always concerned about whoever it was she was talking to.  Not a word about herself, unless you asked for specifics.  Can’t understand why she loved me the most—I mean Bob & Bill were okay and Sarah was a sweet little girl most of the time.  Anyway, that’s what she always told me.

Let’s start my life off working cause that’s what I seemed to do a lot over a lifetime.  My first recollection of a good paying job was putting an acorn in a can (different sizes), watering, and then having a very salable product along with poinsettias, and other neat plants that Mom knew would be in great demand in our Pharr neighborhood.  Then in our little red wagon they would go and so would I.  Sorry Bob, don’t remember your helping, and Billy, you and Sarah were far too little to help.

My next occupation was a lawn mowing operation on the West Side (except for our largest customer—The South Cage Motel).  Bob, I do remember your helping in this occupation for 3-4 summers.  After that, I took over the Corpus Christi Caller paper route from George Stone in the 7th grade.  Used to meet Rudy Guajardo at Piggly Wiggly at 5:00AM and then I would take the East Side of Pharr (he the West) with about 100 papers rain or shine, seven mornings a week trying to either kick back the rabid dogs in certain neighborhoods that lay in wait for little boys that were also askeered of the dark.  Could never outrun them with the heavy bag flopping behind me.  I do remember that we made 3-4 times what those poor Monitor boys used to earn.

A little aside to those of you that did not remember (or believe) the King of…….stuff, I want to ask who at Edison remembers me coming to school on a 2” X 10” X 6’ pine board powered by a 3 HP lawnmower engine.  I had a board for my back and a door hinge for my gas petal. Ropes around the front axle served as my steering wheel.  Also used a good pair of dragging my boots for my brake.  My little go-cart was before its time and would do 24 MPH on the open road of West & East Gore.  This time I do not need Robert Harrington to step forward and remember for the rest of you cause I got a picture.  Must give Mr. Carl Horn for transforming my idea into reality.  It was with this event that I learned how to find a mechanic, acquire the parts, and hand them to a qualified individual.  And he was.

I followed Bob to work at Card Co. in Pharr and spent the next 3 summers working there.  9 hours a day-6 days a week.  I think I started at .55 cents per hour and quickly climbed the ladder over the next 3 years.  They started me off putting a land leveler together (I had previously failed at my Erector Set usage) and I got promoted quickly outta that department into cleaning and sanding old farm implements destined for Mexico.  The next year found me sitting on top of cotton pickers making a delivery to farms all over creation.  Will never understand why they trusted me with such valuable equipment—got lost a whole lot. My final year I delivered some more pickers but mostly worked in Parts.  My first white collar job.  But not for long.

Oh yes.  My Christmas vacation jobs at J.C. Penney provoked a hatred for retailing.  Was not any good at waiting for customers and especially terrible at folding the messed up shirts and pants. 

Quickly got back into outside work at Tide Chemicals in Edinburg.  Mixed stuff to kill the boll weevils and it came real close to killing me 3 weeks later.  After escaping the San Juan Hospital, I went to work for the Cotton Gin on 495 in San Juan.  Worst & hardest job I ever had, running the suction from 7 at nite till 7 in the morning,7 days a week.  The first minimum wage came into effect that year at $1.00/hour.  So I was getting rich at $84.00/week.  For those of you who know, running the suction was tough—back in those days I had to jump from one trailer to the other (no reliever) and keep the cotton flowing all the time. Most gins needed two guys to keep up.  Had my worst hay fever attacks all summer.  So glad to get back to school.

My last summer was spent as a welder’s helper to my nicest employer ever, Mr. Jack Peel, (Doug’s father).  We worked 24” and 36” (that’s diameter) lines in Hidalgo, Starr, and Newton, Kansas and I good real good at buffing the welds and popping the rods into his thick gloves.  Boy was I good at both!!

Then off for Lamar Tech in Beaumont.  As some of you might of heard, they had the Number One tennis team in the World.  Go back to my pictures this time and read about 65-0 record over a couple of years.  I must admit that I was not up to the other seven’s speed, but I don’t have to tell anyone that—the annual doesn’t.  Went in studying Industrial Engineering and after 1 year I determined that I would take semester off to find myself.  Took ballroom dancing (was a flop here), piano (skated by here too—but I tried), machine tools, and other stuff like English, History, and Government.  I now had 53 hours and still did not know what I wanted to do with my life—except “See the World”.

Mr. Bill Spencer, Johnny Edson, and I pooled our funds together in January, 1963, bought our ’57 Ford and we were off for L.A.  Got stopped by the cops gawking at the big city on the freeway cause we were going too slow (45 MPH) if I remember correctly.  We all ended up selling encyclopedias (which was one of the things we were not going to do for sure) (but for sure, we were not qualified for much ).  After many adventures, I lost my friends in about 9 months.  They went back home and on to new lives without me.  So sad.  I stayed another 1 ½ years and lived in San Francisco, all over L.A., Las Vegas, New York City, Miami, and Toledo.  In those days you could get a deferment from the if you were in school so I hopped in UCLA for one semester.  My major was now Sociology and my Psychology Prof that year informed me 500 times that “Different people perceive different things differently”.   How profound was he!!  Never forget also my English teacher comparing my literary skills to Mark Twain.  I wrote a true story of my 50,000 miles by Air—Aire you going my way?   Could tell you a few stories but this is getting as long as Spencer’s, so I won’t.  Just wish I had that masterpiece now.  Boy, was it good.

My first evening “in the field” of some long forgotten suburb of LA was spent crying on a street corner wondering why I was there—I wanted to just go home.  Got my nerve up finally and knocked on my first door and said those famous words that “I was with P. F. Collier and just happened to be in your neighborhood and was asked to call on YOU.”  Then I started crying again and asked if I could please come in and let them hear my 1 ½ hour spiel.  From that moment, it was all downhill and my profession was born. 

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