I joined the Arkansas National Guard in 1956, at the age of 16, and served 8 years. Shortly after I signed up the rules were changed to require new recruits to serve 6 months of active duty. Not so in the case of folks who joined when I did. We signed a piece of paper, were issued a uniform and told to show up at the old Charleston gymnasium for next week’s meeting. (We had no armory then.)
One of the more memorable incidents of my years in the Guard began at night. It was September 12, 1957. I was parked with my girlfriend, Linda Sands, in the Nixon cemetery just east of town when a friend drove up to my car and excitedly said that our Guard unit was being called up. We were to report for duty immediately!
I took Linda home and then drove to the gymnasium and learned that President Dwight Eisenhower had federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard. I was in the Army! It was a Thursday and I learned that my duty on Friday was to go to high school and, more or less, continue my life as usual. I would not only be paid as a soldier but would receive extra money because the military was not providing me with food or housing. This, I thought, was a good deal.
Eisenhower’s action stopped Arkansas Governor Faubus from using the Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Thus we were in the Army and our only real duty was to NOT take orders from the Governor. Otherwise we had nothing to do. (Actually we did meet some extra nights and do some training dealing with crowd control. I believe that we didn’t have actual weapons but were issued wooden rifles to use while training for managing crowds.)
Some days after that first night we were taken to Ft. Chaffee for a physical examination. I remember two things about that day. We were lined up around the perimeter of a gymnasium floor. Around the outside of the basketball court there were small cubicles which we entered for various tests. I was standing inside one of them waiting my turn when a nurse inserted a needle into a vein in the arm of the fellow in front of me. Just before the blood spurted into the vile another fellow stepped into our cubicle. At the sight of that gusher of blood he passed out. He fell like dead weight. He did not crumple; he plummeted downward. His head struck a 2 X 4 wall support and knocked a chip out of the board. I had not before, and have not since, seen a person fall like that. But he revived and was not seriously injured.
My second memory from that day is this. The line around the perimeter of that gymnasium moved very slowly. I don’t know how long it took, but it seemed like hours. There were several companies of guardsmen there – perhaps 150 men – and we were all dressed in combat boots ONLY! For that long wait there was nothing to do but stand in line and look around at 150 naked men. It was quite a sight. I was accustomed to seeing fellow athletes dressing and undressing in the gymnasium, but it was my experience that young boys do not ever stare at one another in a locker room. Here there was nothing else to do. I still remember one fellow in our company who had almost as much hair on his back as most men have on their head.
I don’t remember how long my “tour of duty in the Army” lasted. But it did not in any way interfere with my life as a senior in high school.
The 101st Airborne division maintained order at Little Rock Central High School for the entire year. Near the end of that year the State Track Meet was held at Central High School. I was entered in the 880 yard dash and ran one leg on our mile relay team. When the track meet ended I headed back to our van and took a shortcut across the lawn of the High School. As I neared the building a soldier carrying a rifle suddenly appeared, and in a very commanding voice said, “Halt.” I was stunned. I halted and, carrying out his instructions, retreated from the building back to the sidewalk.
Incidentally I finished fifth in the 880 yard dash. I was three feet behind the third place finisher and one foot behind the fourth place finisher. It was, for me, a bitter disappointment since they gave metals to the four runners in front of me. Fifth place finishers walked away with only memories.