Stories I Tell To Friends
By Robert S. Davis Jr.
My father, Robert S. Davis Sr., served as a civilian at Camp Holloway from 1967 to 1973. He was a welder with Dynalectron Corporation, and had his welding shop set up in a CONEX container at the edge of the airfield. That was Pop’s office where he and Bozo held court. Bozo was my brother Mike's dog. On his second trip to Vietnam as a member of the Army's Huey Cobra NETT team, Mike brought with him an air conditioner, guitar, bass fiddle, Bozo, the team’s mascot, and other essentials. Pop adopted Bozo who obviously had some dachshund blood although he was white with black spots with one black spot around his left eye. Bozo was trained by Mike, Pop and countless numbers of GI friends to perform a remarkable series of tricks. Pop and Bozo made a hell of a team.
Pop was a very common man with a very unconventional style. Raised in rural Oklahoma, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, when he was in the 7th grade. Within a year he quit school to become a street hoodlum, where he developed tremendous street smarts and interpersonal skills. I compare him somewhat to Will Rogers, who was able to analyze a situation and look at it in a slightly different way that always seemed to bring a smile and teach a lesson. He could think on his feet and had a very creative mind. He was a kind hearted man, who in his own words, “Turned out to be a pretty nice old man.”
My father was known by my brother and me as “Dad” but to the world as “Pop Davis.” Robert S. Davis Sr. was entitled to be called “Pop” by his friends and family. Given that no such entitlement existed outside of our family, there is only one possible explanation for my father having the nickname “Pop,” and keeping it until the day he died. He earned it.
Many of my friends in school used to say, “I wish your dad was my dad. You’re so lucky to have such a great dad.” My father invested an enormous amount of time training, teaching and just being with Mike and me. He loved us totally! We were the center of his world. It was obvious to the world, as we were always included in his conversations. We were always on his mind. Mike and I tried hard not to disappoint him. He trained us to be obedient and we understood right from wrong. He hated stealing and lying. He gave me more chances than I deserved. I thought he walked on water. Mike and I learned how to walk like him and talk like him, and consequently Mike and I have very similar qualities and characteristics. To this day, our own family members often cannot tell Mike and me apart on the telephone. As young men, we would often call our Mother and she would think we were Pop. My handwriting also closely resembles his.
My best memories are of the life skills Pop taught me. I recently found a small stainless steel shield Pop made for our Boy Scout patrol. On it he engraved each of our names followed by “Troop 98, Owasso, Oklahoma, 11/18/1953.” He was our advisor and helped us win the Scout-O-Ral in Tulsa. A bunch of hicks from the sticks that practiced until we knew how to tie eight different knots in a rope, send a message via Morse code, build a flint & steel fire and demonstrate various first-aid techniques. The key was not to show that you could do it, but that you could do it FAST! For example, my task was to build a fire with flint and steel. Pop worked with me for weeks on that task. We started out learning how fire was actually made. Pop made an appointment for me with a chemist who explained in great detail exactly what happened to get the material up to its flash point. We then studied the composition of flint, the steel, and the materials we were going to use. We put the cedar bark in the oven to make sure that it was very dry, and learned how to burn cotton T-Shirts to catch the spark, etc. There wasn’t anything about the subject that we did not study. Then we started developing various techniques to actually make a fire. After what seemed like a hundred tries, I could start a blazing fire in three seconds! Pop took the other three boys in our patrol—Mike Davis, Jerry Easton and Rodney Cooke—and trained each of them in their respective skill with the same attention to detail. Each boy refined their skills with Pop as the teacher, mentor and judge. When we finally got to the competition, we left the other participants in the dirt. And that is the story of how we earned this award. The award isn’t that valuable, but the techniques and methods Pop used to train us were something I’ve used almost every day of my life.
I also remember one Saturday when Pop spent almost all day helping Mike and me fix a bicycle. Our neighbor came over and said something like, “With all the money you have Davis, I would think you’d just go buy those boys a new bicycle rather than taking all that time to fix this old one.” I’ll never forget what Pop said. He said, “Bill...you don’t understand…I’m not saving money here…I’m raising boys!”
Building upon what I said when I compared him to Will Rogers, Pop was able to use simple stories with very few words, and select these stories to inject into a conversation with someone that created a laugh AND made a strong and powerful point without offending.
“Have I ever told you the story about the fellow and his wife that were setting in the football stands? The man said ‘Look there Ma…that whole high school marching band is out of step except for Johnnie.’”
“Did you hear about the guy that was training his horse not to eat? About the time he got him trained…he died.”
Pop had an entire library of material like that. He used the stories to teach or manipulate or turn a conversation to prove a point he wanted to make. He was definitely an entertainer, but he was in his glory working with the young men in Vietnam that were like ducks out of water. Many didn’t have an anchor or reference point. They needed someone to talk to. Pop provided that base and invited everyone into his welding shop for a friendly chat. Bozo would be the ice breaker or as Pop would say, “The Bait.” Everyone was uplifted and many took advantage of those little talks to redirect their focus and behavior. I was not there with him, but I’m quite sure that he changed or influenced lives every day.
Pop wanted to see the Base Commander one day, but his aide would not let Pop in to see him. Pop took off his hat and threw it into the Commander’s office, who then shouted out the door…“Hey Pop…come on in here…I need to talk with you.” Pop had access or could obtain access to anyone he wanted to talk with regardless of rank or position.
I may be embellishing this next story a bit, because I’ve told it so many times that I no longer know how much of it is pure fact and how much is fact-based. However, I can assure you that the event was real. Here’s how I remember Pop telling me the story. General Westmoreland was conducting an inspection at Camp Holloway in Pleiku, and everyone was lined up for inspection. The general and his entourage walked the line and occasionally stopped in front of an individual. The grunts had made up a uniform for Pop, replete with his own Dynalectron patches. It was kind of official looking, but very unique…definitely not regulation. The general stopped in front of Pop and asked the Base Commander to explain who this man was with a beard and all his getup. Pop spoke up first and said, “General…I’ve got the best job on the base. My job here is to make sure all these boys write their mothers and I’m having a hard time getting some of them to follow my orders. Do you think you might be able to help me out?” When General Westmoreland asked him specifically what he needed, Pop replied, “Well Sir…I guess after you finish your inspection and you have your little talk with everyone, you might mention that if they don’t write home at least once a week, that you’ve asked Pop Davis to inform you and there’s going to be hell to pay!” The general got a great laugh out of it and he did exactly what Pop asked him to do. They became great friends and Pop corresponded twice with the general, and the general replied with hand-written letters to Pop.
In 1967, when I was fresh out of College, Pop introduced me to a Dynalectron VP and I was soon hired as their Southeast Asia Manager based in Saigon. When my contract ended nine months later, my family and I started Davis Distributing Company (DDC), headquartered in Saigon. Pop contributed $38,000, which was every cent he had saved up. We used that money along with funds contributed by my wife Kaye, who worked for Pacific Architects & Engineers (PA&E); my brother Mike’s military pay, and money loaned by my Uncle John, who also worked for PA&E. We started out selling whatever we could to the U.S. military in Vietnam…air conditioners, refrigeration equipment, walk-in freezers and reefers. Later on we branched out into pizza…we made thousands of pizza pies each day at various military bases. We contracted the Pizza operation out to the various military bases and worked out of their officer and enlisted clubs. Each day we made pizzas until we ran out of ingredients…then we shut down and waited for the next shipment of cheese, etc. In 1969 we moved our corporate headquarters from Saigon to Okinawa, where our manufacturing plant was located.
In Okinawa, DDC made walk-in freezers, beer coolers, thousands of stacking chairs and supplied all kinds of material to Vietnam from Okinawa. There I was joined first by my wife Kaye, then by my brother Mike and his wife Marty, and finally by Pop. DDC was eventually sold to a Japanese company in 1975. We paid our debts, split the money up and moved back to the good old USA.
Pop married Loan, a Vietnamese lady, in 1970. Shortly before Saigon fell, Pop traveled to Vietnam to unsuccessfully try and get Loan out. He left Saigon a few days before the helicopter photo was taken as the last evacuees left the American Embassy. After quite some difficulty, Loan made it to Guam and eventually to Lawton, Oklahoma where she joined Pop in 1975. They were married again as Pop said, “For real this time.” The first time, they went to the police station in Saigon and registered their names to live together.
Pop, Loan and Grandmother moved to a little town just south of Springfield, Missouri called Clever and bought a farm. Pop died in 1989 and is buried in the family cemetery located across the street from his home. Loan continues to live on the farm where she works as a cook at the High School and is a valued member of her community. She received the Homemaker of the Year award from the county extension service in recognition of her unique homemaking skills and numerous contributions to her community. Mike and I honor Loan and respect her highly for her many accomplishments and especially for her devoted care of our Grandmother until her death at 98 and Pop who lived to 81. They were a great team.
I always called my father “Dad.” until he went to Vietnam. Since his tour there and Southeast Asia, he’s always been Pop.
I’m sure a lot of guys think a lot of their father. My “Pop” was a whole different bag of tricks. He was a father to thousands of boys. And that sets him apart from just any father. I’ve tried all my life to be like him. Just like the lines from the song, “The Leader of the Band,” I’m just an imitation of the man. He was the real deal and there will never be another like him.
(page last revised 08/20/2003 09:06 AM -0400 )