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Billy Reed: Proud of military service, however miniscule, where important life lessons were learned

On the Fourth of July weekend in 1967, I was in U.S. Army basic training at Fort Ord, CA, a picturesque place hard by the Pacific Ocean just south of Monterey, home of a famed music festival. I didn’t know why I was there instead of Fort Knox near my home in Kentucky, and when I asked an officer, the only response I got was, “Reed, you have a bad attitude.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that summer in recent weeks. It was perhaps the most difficult time in American history between the end of World War II and the attack on the American system of government. Some remember it as the “Summer of Love” because the so-called “flower children” organized non-violent protests to the war.

Like my fellow Louisvillian Muhammad Ali, the Selective Service system, which registered all Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 for the Army, initially classified me as 4-F, or unit for military duty. In Ali’s case, he had failed an aptitude test; with me, it was my horrible eyesight.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

But as the Vietnam War grew and the need for warm bodies expanded, the Army reclassified both of us. Ali famously refused his new orders on the grounds he was a Muslim minister (the U.S. Supreme Court eventually vindicated him). But my options didn’t include that. I had the choice of (a) accepting the notice and joining the Army; (b) renouncing my American citizenship and moving to Canada; (c) going to prison; or (d) going to graduate school and starting a family.

I was saved, in a sense, by J.B. Faulconer, a former University of Kentucky play-by-play announcer who then was the public-relations director. He also was second-in-command for the 100th Division, U.S. Army Reserve, and he offered me a position in the division’s public relations office. Naturally, I accepted immediately. It was a compromise with which I could live. I joined the 100th in 1966 and was shipped out for basic training in May, 1967, just after Proud Clarion had won the Kentucky Derby.

It was my first time away from home and I got a bad case of homesickness, mainly for my job in the Courier-Journal sports department and for the lovely Alice Shephard of Bardstown, to whom I was to be married on Oct. 1 of that year. But basic training proved to be so demanding that I didn’t have much time to feel sorry for myself. Every night, I fell into my bunk, exhausted and knowing our training would begin again at 4 a.m. the next day.

Our company include blacks, whites, and Hispanics. We even had a couple of Eskimos from the Alaska National Guard. Besides being our best athletes, George Pastinak and Patrick Phillip were nice guys who offered to share some of the smoked whale blubber they got from home. I declined, the smell being overwhelming, but I made sure they knew I appreciated their generosity.

We were quarantined to our company area for the eight weeks of basic training because Fort Ord had just gone through an epidemic of spinal meningitis. So we didn’t get our first weekend pass, allowing us to leave the base, until July 4.

We first went to Monterey, a lovely fishing resort, and then moved up the coast to San Francisco. Naturally, we had to go to the Haight-Asbury neighborhood, then the world capital of the “flower-child,” or “hippie,” movement.

Our military buzzcuts and lack of facial hair gave us away as soldiers. In Haight-Asbury, we were both insulted for being tools of the American war machine, or embraced by flower children hoping to entice us to defect. Both groups made us feel uncomfortable so we didn’t stay long.

Being a sportswriter, I convinced our group to go past the Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, home of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and major-league baseball’s Oakland Athletics. We also drove by Candlestick Park, home of baseball’s San Francisco Giants. Alas, the baseball teams were out of town so we didn’t get to catch a game.

Back at the base, we entered the second part of our training, known as AIT (Advanced Individual Training.) As a clerk-typist, I had to take several hours of typing classes. I went to the officer in charge of the program to tell him I could already type 80 words a minute and ask if I could use those hours for something else (reading magazines is what I had in mind). But he refused and said I had to take the classes.

When it was time for the final examination, I led the class with – you guessed it – 80 words a minute. I had to laugh to myself when I got a plaque as the group’s honor graduate.

During the entire time at Fort Ord, I kept up with the news by reading the San Francisco Chronicle whenever I could find a copy. One of my favorite writers was Ron Fimrite, with whom I later worked at Sports Illustrated, I also remain eternally grateful to the late Earl Cox, then the executive sports editor of The C-J & Times, who arranged the have the C-J mailed to me.

I was especially interested in two stories. In August, the Cincinnati Reds called up a young catcher named Johnny Bench. The experts agreed he had the tools to be special. Also in August, Charlie Bradshaw’s University of Kentucky football suffered a stunning loss when Greg Page of Middlesboro, a sophomore-to-be who was ready to integrate Southeastern Conference football along with Nat Northington of Louisville, suffered practice injuries so severe that he died.

This story really caught my attention because I was scheduled to be the Courier’s UK beat writer when I returned home in mid-August. I got letters from Jim Bolus and Dave Kindred, friends as well as colleagues, giving me their takes on the Page tragedy.

After catching up on what was happening at home, I shared the papers with fellow Louisvillians Bill Ronay and Steve Striegel, along with anybody else in the barracks who was desperate for sports or other news.

Our company was put together from four groups – enlistees, draftees. National Guardsmen, and Army Reservists. That didn’t become an issue until the final days. When the Guardsmen and Reservists were preparing to return home, many of the enlistees and draftees were being sent straight to Vietnam. It created tension in the barracks.

As the years have unfolded, I have become proud of my service, miniscule though it was. I learned how to fire a weapon, throw a grenade, and thrust with a bayonet. But far more importantly, I learned much about teamwork, diversity, equality and patriotism.

I have never been to the Vietnam War Memorial in our nation’s capital. But I’ve promised myself that if I ever get that opportunity, I will take along my Fort Ord yearbook to study the list of casualties in search of some of my basic-training buddies.

God bless them all.

God bless America.

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