Veterans dinner brings friends, strangers, pals together to reminisce

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Vernell Conley, left, and Richard Islas enjoy the veterans dinner during Yukon’s Freedom Fest Tuesday night. Local businesses and the City of Yukon sponsor the dinner each year for the veterans.

By Mindy Ragan Wood
Staff Writer

The annual dinner to honor veterans Tuesday night brought together strangers and old friends to celebrate the 4th of July as they reminisced about the past.

Several shared their favorite Independence Day memories from childhood.

Korean War Army veteran Richard Islas grew up on a farm in French Camp, Calif., but long before he fought in a war, he was a boyhood hero.

“I was about seven or eight at the time. We were at Victory Park for the 4th of July and there was a kid that fell in the lake. I got in and got him out. I was a hero and a boy, and I couldn’t understand why the men wouldn’t give me a beer,” he joked. “Everyone made a big deal about it.”

An 86-year-old veteran, who could recall the last dusty days of horse drawn wagons, remembered a startling discovery when he was about age 10.

“We were raised in the country where I grew up in Alabama,” Korean War veteran Teddy Johnson said. “I woke up one morning and the wagon was on top of the barn. Some big strong boys got it up there. I thought it was funny, but my parents didn’t think it was too funny. I don’t remember how they got it down.”

Harkening further back in time, 92-year-old Vernell Conley grew up on a farm in Illinois where she said everyone either farmed or worked at the factory.

“We would go over to the county seat and in a farm town, anything like that (the 4th of July) was a big deal. We had the fair there and anytime there was anything going on, mother would take me and my sister. She fixed batches and batches of fried chicken and everything else to go with it. We stayed all day and ate. There was a lake and we’d have fireworks but not like the kind they have today. When I came to Yukon in 1967, it was mostly farm land too. It’s really changed, like a city now,” she said.

A couple recalled a harrowing incident from their son’s childhood rather than their own.

Robert and Janice Graves piled fireworks into a Tupperware bowl, then touted as the toughest food storage containers on the market, but it was no match for their son Robert’s patriotic mishap.

“We had a bowl full of ladyfingers (firecrackers), so the kids could pick them up and light them and throw them. When he threw it, instead of throwing it forward it went backwards into the bowl,” Janice explained.

The family ran for cover as the entire bowl erupted.

“My Tupperware bowl was never the same,” she quipped.

The evening brought forward a more somber memory for a veteran who recalled a service he performed long after he retired from the military.

Jim Jones, retired U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, drove the family of a Korean War POW, Alfred Bensinger, who was returned to the Lawton National Cemetery in February. Smith and Turner Mortuary, of Yukon, performed the services free of charge and asked Jones to drive the limousine.

“I drove the family to the airport where his dad was being flown in,” Jones remembered.

“His son was only three at the time (of his death), but you could tell it really touched him. When I drove them by the Yukon High School, the students were out front with their hand over their hearts. Some of them waved. It was all I could do not to get choked up and it brought tears to his eyes. He really appreciated that the government would go to all that expense. Everything everyone did…it touched him.”

As veterans and their families celebrated the freedoms that cradled happy memories, they were thankful for the present time, too.

“It’s always good to see all the old veterans,” Johnson said.

Retired Army veteran Darrel Mitchell said in a crowd of veterans, there are no strangers.

“It’s nice to come out here. It’s almost like a family, there’s a camaraderie in the military,” he said.