Cumberland Times-News


September 8, 2012

He was more than just ‘Spam in a can’

When people ask how long I’ve been at the paper, I tell them that I landed at the newspaper several hours after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon.

July 20, 1969, was my first official day at the old Cumberland Evening and Sunday Times.

I remember Neil and Buzz, not just for July 20, but because Buzz and I share a birthday — January 20 (a birthday he has been observing for 18 years longer than I have).

At age 72, Aldrin punched a frequent tormentor who didn’t believe that he or anyone else has been to the Moon. The police refused to charge him; good for him and good for them.

It bothers me that few remember the third Apollo 11 astronaut and might not even remember there was a third astronaut — Michael Collins, who remained in orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin landed.

Dammit, he went there, too!

Armstrong played in the golf tournament Al Via held for years to raise funds for leukemia research. Al’s daughter, Vicki Via Dotson, died from leukemia, and he was determined not to let her death be in vain. Considerable progress has been made in treating and even curing leukemia because of Al and his tournament

I played in it a number of times myself, but — to my regret — didn’t do so when Armstrong was here.

One of Armstrong’s greatest legacies is the grace with which he bore the hero’s mantle that mankind set upon his shoulders.

In announcing his death, his family said, “The next time you walk out on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

He has been called “The quiet hero.” It has been said that unless you already knew who and what he was, you’d never have guessed it by talking to him. That’s a phenomenon I’ve run across more times than I can count.

It wasn’t until I read his obituary that I learned my old friend John Dougherty, a retired Times-News pressman, received a Purple Heart for being wounded while carrying a disabled soldier to a field hospital during the Korean War.

When the Collings Foundation’s B-17 Flying Fortress came to visit Cumberland, I ran into one of my golfing buddies from Maplehurst.

I told him I’d just flown in it from Warrenton, Va.

I’ll never forget the look in his eyes, or his wistful smile, as he said, “I wish I’d been with you. I was a B-17 pilot in World War II.” After that, the look in my eyes, upon seeing him, was a bit different than it had been before.

I helped my friends in the Mountainside Detachment of the Marine Corps league when they held their first “Leatherneck Ride” to raise funds for the detachment’s good works.

Suddenly, this thought struck me: “Wow! I’m standing here telling jokes with two Marines who were on Iwo Jima!” (John Dick and Bob Filkosky)

The late Bill Menges was a good friend from bowling, and one day he came to the newspaper to hand me a sheaf of typewritten pages.

“I wrote this some time ago and wanted to give you a copy,” he said. “I thought you might have use for it some day.”

I took it home and read it, learning to my astonishment that he also had been on Iwo Jima, and in the Korean War, and retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps.

I’d never have suspected that, otherwise. He was just one hell of a nice man, and my friend.

After he died three years ago, I wrote a column about his story. You can find the entirety of Bill’s account — “Here’s one day in the life of a U.S. Marine” — by calling up our website and doing an article search for “Bill Menges.”

Hearing about Neil Armstrong’s passing reminded me that I once met a man who was considered for astronaut training until they found out he was an even larger man than I am, and I’m 6-2 and 230.

Tom Colvin was a bit outsized for what they used to call “Spam in a can.” Nonetheless, he knew and became friends with all seven of the original Mercury astronauts.

I was dating his daughter the only time I met him 17 years ago, and I’ve always thought he and I could have become lifelong friends. Janet said he thought well of me, which meant more than she probably realized. His sense of humor, love of life and good-natured friendliness were even bigger than he was.

I knew he’d been an Air Force F-4 pilot in Vietnam, but it wasn’t until after Janet called to tell me about his passing that I found out more; some of it, she didn’t even know until after he was gone.

“Daddy was with some of our ground troops when they came into contact with North Vietnamese soldiers,” she said, “and he had to kill two men with his bare hands.”

He flew more than 250 combat missions, some as a forward air controller (which made him a wonderful target) and became commander of the 308th and 309th Tactical Fighter Squadrons.

To me, he was “Colonel.” Not “Tom.” He was one of nine American pilots chosen to work with the German Luftwaffe’s first post-World War II fighter squadrons. Many of the German pilots were aces (five kills) several times over during the war ... former enemies, now our allies.

Janet said he was at peace toward the end of what he told her was a wonderful life, having found a home in the country that suited him.

The Colonel’s obituary said he had married the girl of his dreams and had three daughters with her.

It said he achieved his boyhood dream of being a fighter pilot and had found out what it was like to be shot at — and missed — by very good anti-aircraft gunners, and that he had lived in exotic places and eaten exotic food.

His great-great grandfather, Mason Colvin, was a Revolutionary War soldier, and “He knew the burden and rewards of being a commander of men.” His grandson Robby, whom I knew as a gangly kid, served for a year with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

I’ve met all sorts of heroes in the 43 years that have passed since Neil and Buzz landed on the Moon, and I landed at this newspaper.

The ones I prefer — like those we’ve talked about today — are those who don’t act like it.

Text Only
  • Restore them Restore them

    There are an estimated 47,000 deceased veterans whose remains are unidentified and unclaimed throughout the U.S. A group of senators and congressmen hope to do something to
    bring these men and women some dignity after death.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Happy Easter

    For the world’s more than 2 billion Christians, Easter is the day that defines their faith.
    The exact date of Christ’s resurrection is unknown, and even the precise locations of his crucifixion and burial are uncertain. This hasn’t stopped some people from saying they know the answer to these questions and others from trying to find out for themselves, or simply arguing about it.

    April 20, 2014

  • Odds are good that you didn’t know this

    Odds or Probabilities fascinate many people. There is a special website called and an accompanying location on Facebook at /BookofOdds .This website lists 400,000 odds. Three of the people who are involved in this media display have coauthored a book, “The Book of Odds” that presents some of key odds, drawing from polls and statistics published in journals. The authors are A. Shapiro, L.F. Campbell and R. Wright. This paperback was published this year by Harper Collins with ISBN 978-0-06-206085-3.

    April 20, 2014

  • Trivial questions you don’t have to answer

    Every so often in this life, my mind, all on its own, generates questions that have no real answers. So I have decided to pass them on to you. I’m tired of them. If you come up with any answers, let me know. Remember when TV jealously guarded the time zone before 9 p.m. for wholesome shows that children could watch. My gosh, how many years ago was that? It seems like another world nowadays, when you can see murders, torture and rape, or those implied, every hour on the hour, somewhere on your public screen. It might be comforting then, to remember that most children nowadays are glued to their little machines with whole different worlds on them, that they can access all day long. Except that in these different worlds they also can view murders, torture and rape on demand.

    April 20, 2014

  • Think it’s not a small world? You’re wrong

    Yes, you read that right in the paper a couple of weeks ago. I covered a wedding as a newspaper reporter. I’ve retired from doing regular stories because my primary duties lie elsewhere, and I don’t have the time or mental energy for it. But I agreed to do it for a couple of reasons, one of which goes back more than 40 years. The former proprietor of The Famous North End Tavern told me about a wedding that was to take place at the Lions Center for Rehabilitation and Extended Care, where his wife works.

    April 20, 2014

  • No Bambi for you, Mrs. Doe

    Some people want so badly for deer birth control to work that they actually think it will, even on wild populations.
    I wish I had a couple bridges to sell.
    A week ago on the Outdoors page we ran the deer there do what deer  everywhere do. They eat the easiest food available such as gardens and ornamental plantings. They walk in front of moving cars. They give ticks and  parasites a place to live.

    April 19, 2014

  • We concur We concur

    We’re certain that Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, echoes what many Americans feel about the complexity of filing income tax returns.
    When he filed his return, Rumsfeld sent the following letter to the Internal Revenue Service:

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Library week

    Public libraries remain one of the best uses of taxpayer dollars. They are open to all. Young or old, poor or wealthy, residents can use computers and read current magazines and newspapers. Compact discs featuring a wide variety of music and
    movies on DVD may be checked out in addition to novels and other books.

    April 13, 2014

  • Terps need to move and move quickly

    The good news is Maryland will never have to play another basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Goodbye, good riddance, sayonara, smell ya, no more of you, stay classy, we won’t let the door hit us on the way out.
    Until we see you in court.

    April 13, 2014

  • Sunday hunting Sunday hunting

    Legislation that increases hunting oppportunities on Sundays in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties has passed the Maryland General Assembly and reached the governor’s desk.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo