Cumberland Times-News

Columns

August 24, 2013

They said they would call if they needed him

“He loved America,” said his sister.

Yes, I replied, he did. As much as anyone I’ve ever known ... and a small, but significant, segment of America loved him in return. I know, because I was part of it.

You might have been part of it, yourself. If you’ve spent much time in downtown Cumberland around the Liberty Street parklet, you’ve seen him.

On warm and even not-so-warm days, when his health allowed it, he sat across from the fountain in a white plastic chair.

“I hate cold weather,” he told me each year as it grew closer. That’s when he had to stay home.

Home was a considerable hike away. When I asked how long it took him, he’d say “Forty minutes or so.” I never believed this, because it would have taken me far longer, and my legs were considerably better than his.

He walked with a four-footed cane. On its shaft were an American Flag, a U.S. Army flag and a POW/MIA flag.

His jacket bore patches that said “Dec. 7, 1941,” “June 6, 1944,” “Sept. 11, 2001” and other dates, plus one that was “In Memory of 58,479 Brothers Who Never Returned From Vietnam.” Elsewhere on the jacket, you could read some of their names.

It irritated him when people didn’t know what the dates meant.

His sister said someone had read about him and asked if he was the guy who fed the birds.

That was him, a loaf of stale bread at a time, and he caught hell for it more than once. Didn’t faze him any more than it did the birds.

“What are they gonna do?” he asked me with a grin. “Send me to Vietnam?”

His sister said they would have dressed him in his Army uniform, but it burned up in the fire that destroyed his home a while back.

I never expected to see him in a suit, but he looked good in it. He also looked at peace and vigorous; a lion, just resting for a spell.

It pleased me that they didn’t shave off all of his whiskers. He’d done that a few times for medical reasons, and I always told him he looked naked.

“Won’t take me long to grow it back,” he’d say, and it didn’t.

When he started calling me “Brother,” I called him “Little Brother.” He was by no means a tall man.

Before long, I decided there was nothing little about him and changed that to “Brother.” (Goldy’s Rule 147: The size of the body does not reflect the size of the person who lives in it.) If he ever noticed, he never let on.

He asked about my neckwear — a POW/MIA choker that consists of alternating black and white beads, with a POW/MIA pin hanging from it.

I’d bought the pieces at the store operated by Chapter 172 of the Vietnam Veterans of America on Liberty Street, and a jeweler friend of mine put them together.

I told him I’d worn a POW/MIA pin since the day I went to Arlington National Cemetery for the burial of a man who’d been Missing In Action in Vietnam for more than 30 years.

“I like it,” he said, “and I like the reason you wear it.” A few days later, I gave him one like mine, and he began to wear it.

Once when we were by ourselves, he said he didn’t think anybody cared about him. I told him he had no idea how many sets of eyes were watching out for him, including mine.

If he didn’t show up for a few days, regulars to the downtown would ask me or his other friends if anything was wrong with him. They hadn’t seen him and were concerned.

I asked if he remembered the night he had to carry a bunch of money to such-and-such a bar and noticed that four guys he didn’t know were following him. He did.

“And do you remember that when you got to the bar, one of them came up to you and asked if this was where you were going, and would you be all right, now?” He did.

He let it slip one time that he wasn’t receiving any benefits from the Veterans Administration, even though he qualified.

We asked him, “Why not?”

“Other guys need it more than I do,” he replied. It took a while, but his friends at the VVA chapter convinced him he was wrong and helped him get what he had earned.

We called him “The Rat” because he was a tunnel rat in Vietnam. That means they gave him a flashlight and a pistol and sent him down into tunnels to see if the Viet Cong were hiding in them.

He said he’d done it three times, and volunteered each time. From what I’ve heard, this was one of the fastest ways to get yourself killed in a land where death waited at every corner.

I asked him why he would do such a thing.

“All of my buddies had wives or girlfriends back home, and I didn’t,” he said.

Greater love hath no man than this ... .

On Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks, he went to the Army Recruiter’s Office and tried to re-enlist.

“They were polite,” he said, “but said they couldn’t take me. They said they’d call me if they needed me. Made me mad as hell. I can still sit there and fire a Ma Deuce (a .50-calibre machine gun).”

“Tell you what,” I said. “If they decide they need you, you give me a call and I’ll go with you as your crew.” I would have, too. Nobody else I’d rather have my back, and I’d be damned proud to have his.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about him or mentioned him in a speech, nor will it be the last.

“I heard you wrote about me last Sunday,” he once said. I told him that was true, but I hadn’t said who he was. When I write about one of them, I’m writing about all of them ... with the exception of times like today.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’m proud that you would do that. I’ll have to get it and read it.”

The only other thing you need to know about Bobby Divelbliss is that he had more guts and was beyond question tougher than any other human being I’ve ever met.

He probably should have been dead 30 years ago, but never stopped putting up a fight when he had to. He never gave up — not on America or himself or any of the people he cared about to the point where he put them first ... even if he didn’t know them.

Most of all, he had a heart that was as big as the country he loved.

That’s why a small, but significant, segment of America loves him in return. I know, because I am part of it.

Welcome Home, Brother.

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