Like father, like son
“Damn, 365 days and I’m still in country,” was my brother’s, Zach Davis Cox, Jr.’s (“Buddy”), first thought as he awoke on the first anniversary of the beginning of his tour in Viet Nam. In March 1969, my brother was waiting in Da Nang for a flight back to the United States. Buddy had volunteered for both the Navy and Viet Nam, but he was ready to come home. The premonitions of death which servicemen suffered in Viet Nam were inversely proportional to how much time they had left “in country.” When a tour of duty was involuntarily extended past one year, such premonitions increased exponentially. Buddy’s year in Viet Nam had been hazardous enough without overstaying his tour. As a weatherman, his tour of duty had been in two month segments: two months in the Naval Weather Station in Da Nang (known as the White Elephant), two months at some godforsaken Marine fire base taking weather observations, two more months back at the White Elephant, two months back out in the boondocks, and so on for the entire year.
Waiting in Da Nang was as safe as anywhere in Viet Nam, but safe was a relative term. The previous year Da Nang had been nearly overrun by North Vietnamese sappers during the Tet Offensive. But in the Spring of 1969, the major danger in Da Nang was from the Soviet designed and Czechoslovakian built 120 mm rockets that the North Vietnamese would periodically lob into Da Nang. While these wildly inaccurate rockets were tactically worthless as a military weapon, the sight of them wildly careening about the sky, alternately heading directly towards and then away from you, was enough to give even the most hardened veteran pause. While every man in Viet Nam was prepared to give his life for a buddy, to get killed by one of these rockets would have all the dignity of being run over by a bus whose driver had fallen asleep.
On his 366th day in country, Buddy awoke with no more idea about when he was going home than he had the previous day. But late that afternoon, Buddy was told to be at the airfield at 5:00 a.m. the next day to board a plane home. That night Buddy borrowed three mechanical alarm clocks to make sure he didn’t oversleep. No electric clocks--he wasn’t going to let a power outage delay his trip home. As it turned out, the alarm clocks weren’t needed. Buddy never slept more than fifteen minutes at a stretch the entire night. The time crawled by so slowly that once he became convinced that all three alarm clocks and his wrist watch inexplicably had stopped at the same time. Panicked, he arose and checked the time with the NCO serving as Charge of Quarters. Eventually, time inched near enough to 5:00 a.m. so that he could saunter over the landing strip, yet still maintain the studied nonchalance of a veteran.
A long line of Sailors and Marines waited in anxious silence behind a long chain-link fence next to the airfield. The hush of the predawn darkness was interrupted only by the sporadic roar of F-4 Phantom jets, fully loaded with bombs, lumbering off under full afterburners.
Finally, a big plane landed. But because it showed no lights, no one knew whether it was their plane. It taxied near the chain link fence and then a single light illuminated the rear tail stabilizer. On it was the globe logo of World Airways, the charter airline that transported so many men to and from Vietnam. Without bothering to turn off the engines or refuel, a fresh new batch of servicemen from the United Stated unloaded.
These neatly pressed replacements walked into the Da Nang terminal on the opposite side of the chain link fence from the ragged, gaunt men waiting to board. It was like looking at a demonic mirror in Satan’s own fun house, the arriving and departing troops saw reflections of themselves, a year hence and a year past. As one group exited, the second group hustled aboard the Boeing 707.
By this point in his life, Buddy had ridden on many passenger planes. Without giving it much thought, he had always assumed that the slow, gradual, and graceful climb that passenger jets made when taking off was due to engines being unable to move such a large object any quicker. But in truth there were two reasons why passenger jets take flight so smoothly. First, it is for the comfort of the passengers. Second, the slow acceleration is much easier on the engines and greatly extends their life. Engine manufacturers provide extensive warranties for engines, provided that they are operated within tightly controlled guidelines governing thrust, speed, and altitude during take-offs.
Just before the World Airways’ pilot started down the runway for take-off, he paused and stared in amazement at a North Vietnamese 120 mm rocket wildly stitching a zig-zag arc across the dawn sky. The rocket slammed into the far end of the runway at exactly the point where the pilot had planned to be in less than sixty seconds. This was the first 120 mm rocket the pilot had ever seen and he didn’t know their accuracy was measured in miles rather than yards. For all he knew, the North Vietnamese gunners had found the range and were preparing to pump half-dozen more rockets into precisely the same spot as where the last one had landed.
In the next minute, that pilot voided every warranty the engine manufacturer had ever given.
That big 707 jumped off the Da Nang tarmac like a Piper Cub taking off in a fifty knot head wind. In the back, Buddy had an experience not dissimilar from what an astronaut undergoes while strapped atop a Saturn V rocket. It seemed as though the pilot had stood the plane on its tail and was accelerating straight up. Eventually the pilot reached an altitude he deemed to be out of range, leveled the plane off, and eased back on the throttles. The first stop was in Japan, where the plane refueled. From Japan, they proceeded to Norton Air Base in San Bernardino, CA.
The plane ride home was another reflection in the demonic fun house mirror. In contrast to the long boisterous party on the way to Vietnam, the trip home was made in silence with each man lost in his own thoughts and no man speaking more than a dozen words. However, once the wheels touched down at Norton Air Base, a wild cheer erupted in celebration of getting home safe.
The bus ride from Norton Air Base to out-processing station at Long Beach Naval Station was something of a cultural decompression for Buddy, no check points, no razor wire, no tanks, and no helicopters. Out-processing took two weeks, both for the administrative aspects of getting out of the Navy as well as providing a period of observation to determine who might need additional help in making the transition home.
Eventually, the day came for Buddy to be cut loose from the Navy. Instead of a taking a plane home, Buddy wanted to see some of the country and took the bus. He checked his sea bags through to Mt. Olive as freight and began a leisurely trip home. Buddy’s last stop on his way home was Atlanta. Unfortunately, he was out of cash by the time he arrived in Atlanta. He still had his final separation pay check, but no way to cash it. Always one to try the most direct solution first, Buddy marched into a bank and presented his check.
Not surprisingly, the bank refused to cash a government check from an unknown 22-year-old man. Then, almost as an afterthought, the bank manager told Buddy that they would cash the check if another bank would guarantee it. Buddy thought for a moment and suggested that because he had a saving account at the Bank of Mt. Olive (now known as Southern Banking and Trust Company) they might vouch for his check. Never expecting that Buddy would take him up on the offer, the bank manager then added that Buddy would have pay for the long-distance call to Mt. Olive. Buddy agreed and the Atlanta banker was soon talking with Clay Casey, the president of the Bank of Mt. Olive. As the Atlanta banker explained the situation, Clay’s mind flashed back to 1942 when he helped out another serviceman named Zach Davis Cox.
In early March 1942, my father, Zach Davis Cox, Sr., had borrowed $100.00 on a six-month note from the Bank of Mt. Olive. My parents were married on March 6, 1942 and everyone in town knew that the wedding had been moved up from June at Dad’s insistence. While he couldn’t say why, everyone assumed that it was because Dad was headed overseas. In addition to a myriad of other problems caused by the hurried wedding, Dad hadn’t saved enough money for a honeymoon trip. But, the president of the Bank of Mt. Olive, Clay Casey, understood and readily agreed when Dad came in to request a loan. The due date on the note was September 6, 1942.
By September 6th, Dad was besieged on Guadalcanal with the rest of the First Marine Division. Never one to let little things like a blockade by the Imperial Japanese Navy interfere with the discharge of his financial obligations, Dad wrote a personal check for repayment of the loan, enclosed it in a letter, and gave the letter to a Marine pilot who was leaving the island. After changing hands untold times, the letter eventually reached Hawaii. In Hawaii, the United States Postal Service took over the relay and delivered the letter to Mt. Olive on Friday, September 4, 1942, the last business day before the note became due.
Clay Casey was astonished to receive the payment in such a timely manner. He had already quietly made arrangements to extend the loan for another six months on account of Dad being on Guadalcanal. At the Rotary meeting the following Tuesday night, Clay Casey mentioned to my grandfather, R. L. Cox, that he had heard from Dad. R. L. was surprised by this because neither he nor his daughter-in-law, Mary Gwin, had received a letter in weeks. Clay laughed and revealed that it really wasn’t a letter, just a check satisfying the $100 note that Dad had signed six months earlier.
Clay Casey remembered all this as the Atlanta banker was explaining why it simply wasn’t possible for him to cash Buddy’s check. Clay also thought about how Dad had become one of his best customers as the owner of Cox Brothers Wholesale Grocery. Clay knew he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by helping Buddy.
Clay interrupted the telephone conversation by emphatically stating that he would personally guarantee Buddy’s check. The Atlanta banker stammered that he hadn’t even told Clay the amount of the check and that Clay hadn’t had time to check the balance in Buddy’s account. Clay told his Atlanta colleague that it didn’t matter how much Buddy had in his account, the Bank of Mt. Olive would guarantee any check from Zach Davis Cox, Jr., regardless of the amount and furthermore, if Buddy wanted more, then he was authorized to draft as much as needed on the Bank of Mt. Olive.
Once again, Dad’s business responsibility and reputation for honesty and fairness earned dividends for his children.