Our world is crazy. You might even call it a gigantic cuckoo’s nest. But every once in a while, one of us up and flies off it in such a spectacular way that when you look up afterwards, the escapee has somehow totally transmuted themselves into something special, something on the order of… oh, I don’t know, maybe a big Oregon prairie moon, high in the night sky, shaming all the stars around it.
With the passing of Memorial Day and the Singapore Summit between President Trump and North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un (a.k.a., Kim 3.0) still tentatively scheduled for June 12, I am keenly reminded of just such a special individual I think all Americans should look up to and get to know, and hopefully come to remember: A young American sailor named Duane Daniel Hodges, from a small town in Lane County Oregon called Creswell, just south of Eugene, who was killed in action 50 years ago this year – just doing his job.
Actually, Duane did a mite more than just his job the day he died, which the Navy duly noted, thereby awarding this handsome young white hat a Silver Star – posthumously, of course – for his valor that fateful day.
See, I’d gone to Creswell – about 250 miles south of my home in Shelton, Washington – for the weekend on Feb. 10 to satisfy something I’d been powerfully curious about for years: Just how many folks in little Creswell, the town Duane Hodges was born and raised in, still remembered this one young white hat from their community – just 21 years old at the time of his death – and the lone sailor of the 83-man crew aboard the ill-fated Navy intelligence ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2) to be KIA on Jan. 23, 1968.
Duane died on that fateful winter’s day when seemingly half the North Korean Communist Navy (six war ships, with guns a-blazing) – 15 years after the Korean War supposedly ended in 1953, mind you – attacked and subsequently seized this virtually unarmed vessel and her crew, then sailing in the Sea of Japan in international waters, well off the eastern shore of North Korea.
And since the North Koreans still illegally possess the Pueblo – still a commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy – hopefully President Trump will mention this troubling detail to Dear Dictator Kim 3.0 at any summit meeting they might get together for – should one ever come to pass, I mean, naturally.
I was delighted to discover plenty of the locals in Duane’s hometown still remembered him fondly, and sincerely appreciated his ultimate sacrifice. And to thank for meeting most of them, I am extremely grateful to the following two individuals: Roberta Tharp, city recorder for the City of Creswell, and Scott Olson, the owner and publisher of The Creswell Chronicle.
Thanks to those two, I got a chance to shake hands and spent some quality time with four of the finest American military veterans I have ever met in my life: Richard Heyman, a decorated Air Force colonel and fighter pilot during WWII and our wars in Korean and Vietnam, currently cruising above the wild blue yonder as a noted columnist for The Creswell Chronicle; Jürgen Ramil, a Green Beret who retired after 25 years of some harrowing service; Al January, Duane Hodges’ cousin, with over half a century of honorable service in uniform in the Air Force and National Guard; and Duane Hodges’ best friend since second grade, LeRoy Davis, who served in West Germany during his two years in the Army.
In addition to those four, while wandering around Creswell that weekend, looking into Duane Hodges’ life before enlisting in the Navy, I was fortunate enough to run across its current mayor, Dave Stram, who kindly handed me one of his business cards after briefly speaking with him.
Well, all good times must come to an end, so accordingly, early Sunday morning that weekend, I left friendly little Creswell, my heart swelling with pride, knowing I belonged to a country where local folks still cared a great deal for their fallen military service members, long after they had flown off our crazy world.
Yes, this lucky old white hat headed back home then, back to my beloved sweet wife, so patiently awaiting my return to our cozy little cottage in Shelton.
But since I’d be rolling past Eugene anyway, I figured while in the area, why not take a few minutes and swing off northbound I-5 to see if I could find the public spot in that fair city where I’d heard the citizens there had built a fitting tribute to one of their own favorite sons – and a favorite American author of mine to boot: Ken Kesey.
And with just a little help from the Google Map app on my iPhone, I was able to easily find what they called Kesey Square.
Well, Kesey Square was certainly aptly designed for this famous mischief-maker, as it appeared a sort of weird urban hybrid: half city park, half loony bin.
On one of the two plaques attached to the back of the curved, marble-topped, concrete bench upon which the bronze statue of Ken Kesey sits reading to three attentive bronze children, also sitting on the bench, facing him, I had to bend awfully far down to read a passage from this author’s most well known work. Below is a quote of this particular passage:
”The stars up close to the moon were pale; they got brighter and braver the farther they got out of the circle of light ruled by the giant moon.
”…I watched that big Oregon prairie moon above me put all the stars around it to shame. I kept awake watching, to see if the moon ever got dimmer or the stars got brighter, till the dew commenced to drift onto my cheeks and I had to pull a blanket over my head.
”- One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Funny, but the very first person I thought of after reading this poignant passage was that handsome young white hat and hometown hero – Duane Daniel Hodges – who left his friendly little Lane County town in Oregon half a century ago for as fine and fair a view of our crazy old world as – oh, I don’t know, maybe the man in the moon….
Bill Barker is a retired postal worker who lives in Shelton, Washington. He has written and has had several of his Letters to the Editor and columns published in the Tacoma News Tribune.