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.

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