I think somehow we learn who we really are
and then learn to live with that decision. -- Eleanor Roosevelt
I was born on a hot August day
in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1938. Of course it was hot. It was Oklahoma in
August. I was lucky not to have been born earlier. Too soon, and
I would have suffered through the Great Depression and the Dust
Bowl, two disasters we Okies were just beginning to climb out
of, along with many other Americans. Born even earlier and I
would surely have volunteered or been drafted for the great
conflagration of World War II.
As it was, my timing was pretty good. I turned seven just a few
days before V-J Day, when America and the world were just
post-war mend. My father, R.B. Butler, had served in the war
first as a civilian instructor for the Army Air Corps, in
Chickasha, Oklahoma, and then as a co-pilot for Braniff
Airlines, in Dallas, Texas. At the end of the war, he felt both
loyalty and opportunity to return to Tulsa and join his mother
in a budding real estate business. It was to be a decision he
regretted later in his short life.
In many ways I was just a normal boy growing up. I had buddies I
played sports and of course war games with. I had paper routes
for five years that taught me responsibility and put a little money
in my pocket. I learned how to hunt and fish. Independence was
always my goal. But I wish I could say the same for my parents. Effie
Mae and R.B. Butler had problems, themselves and with each
other. My mom with prescription drugs – or maybe her head just
wasn't right – and my dad with alcohol. When I was in my early
teens, they divorced. I lived with my father, and essentially
wound up caring for him when he should have been caring for me.
There were some unusual aspects to my childhood. I didn't fit in
with the racism and anti-Semitism of the local Southern culture
the time, and of my relatives. In fact I was still in grade school when I chastised my family for using the word
"nigger." I was relentless enough so they stopped, at least when I
was around. I also got punched by a school bully when I told
him not to call my friend Leonard a "dirty Jew." And I didn't fit
in with the Southern Baptist religion that everyone in my family
ascribed to, actually rejecting it when I was 13 years old.
But I certainly wasn't a purist. I accepted my father's rather severe
teachings of homophobia. They seemed to fit with his macho
repetitions to "not be a sissy." Manliness and patriotism were
huge, coming out of the war years with all the returning veteran
fathers. There was a lot of macho jingoism about how great our
country was, and with it a desire in almost every boy I knew to
join the armed forces when we were old enough and to be a hero. Or
at least to serve our nation. I also accepted the cultural
norm that women were
supposed to stay at home, take care of the kids, and obey their
Speaking of the nation, I knew only a small part of it back
then, in terms of people and geography and climate and thinking.
But I had an aunt who had gone to California, and when she came
back for a visit, she gave grand accounts of how wonderful was
The Golden State. I was ten at the time, but I knew as clearly
as if it had been written on a stone tablet that my dream goal
was to go there.
It would take me 14 years to get to California. First I had
to get through high school, and start college with a NROTC
scholarship at Oklahoma University in 1956. That year my very savvy
Naval Science professor steered me onto a new path and out of the rut I was digging for
myself. His direction and support resulted in me competing for
and getting one of
the two hundred presidential appointments to the United
States Naval Academy in 1957.
I'm skipping over a lot here, including my baby sister who is
one of my best friends to this day, learning to play the piano
and the love of music that I also have to this day, and learning
to fly, which helped me to become a Navy fighter pilot, until
April 20th 1965, when I was in the skies over North Vietnam,
and...well, we'll just leave this part of the story here. The
details are in a forthcoming book.
There are some photographs from that time, my growing up,
my family, my Naval Academy years and my Navy pilot stint. Plus
there's a copy of President Kennedy's brilliant speech to my
Naval Academy graduating class in June of 1961.
And take a look at the short summaries I’ve written about
my Vietnam experience, and about
the post-war period. Both stories
have photographs that chronicle this incredible time in our
nation’s history, and as it happens, my own.