Stephen Shoemaker was born on January 3, 1946, at Ashe Memorial Hospital. He was drafted into the Army and assigned the job of MP (military police). He served during the Vietnam Era from 1967–1969. He was an expert at rifle shooting and received a Good Conduct Medal and a National Defense Medal. His duties included patrolling Fort Bragg, Downtown Fayetteville, and Washington, D.C. He helped with riot control in D.C. after the assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr., and also was on duty for Richard Nixon's inauguration. Stephen's rank at discharge was Specialist 4th Class.
Did you make any close friends?
I had many close friends from our barracks. Bill “The Duck” Tucker is the only one I really continued a friendship with—we served during our basic training tenure together. He went to Vietnam, and I stayed in the States. He came back and joined the 503rd MP at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Do you recall any particularly humorous events?
Bill came walking back from the barracks toward the mess hall. The rest of us were in formation. I saw him coming, and I told all the guys, “When Bill gets to the door, everybody quack like a duck.” He couldn’t stand it.
Sometimes, for birthdays, we’d have a cake (which was just a box) with a candle in it. Funny times. Once we stole a deuce & a half to go into town (two & half ton truck). We rode into D.C. and picked up brewskis and headed back to the base… “commandeered” not stole!
What are some pranks that you or the others would pull?
We never beat each other up… We threatened to send some to the car wash, but we didn’t. There was the old “fire extinguisher trick,” and that was funny.
One of the guys named Lupe… Thank goodness I wasn’t sleeping next to him; he’d blow his nose in his dirty socks. He’d take them off or take them out of his laundry bag and blow his nose in them.
Did you attend any reunions?
No, not really. I’ve been back to Fort Bragg a couple of times. The barracks are still there.
What are some of your most memorable experiences?
Building a huge two-story, papier-mâché Santa Claus to stand out in front of our barracks at Christmas. We were trying to win a “Best Christmas Decoration” award for Ft. Bragg.
My most memorable thing was flying. My first airplane ride was from Ft. Gordon, Ga., to Ft. Bragg… We loaded up our whole army to fly to Washington for the riots after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. We loaded up the kitchen, armory, supplies—everything. We flew up to Washington to support the Washington Police. We landed at Andrews Air Force Base and bivouacked (camped) at Potomac Park. We put up and lived in those tents for a while, through Easter. I had KP duty, and I traded so I could have the day off to see the cherry blossoms; I wrote letters all day long. The wind came up and blew those cherry blossoms! That’s probably my most memorable moment, those cherry blossoms falling out of those trees!
What was the food like?
Just food. Whatever, nothing memorable about it. Just basics. SOS: Hamburger or chipped beef in a rue/gravy over toast. I liked it! I think it was one of the best things we had.
The steaks were so rough you could make shoes out of them. Sometimes you’d go to the mess hall, and they’d be saying, “Don’t eat the mashed potatoes!” Just for the hell of it, some guy would have put his boots in it.
If the cook left, those boys in the back would just throw those pots in the dumpster. They never got caught. You had to get dining room orderly, or side sink duty wash plates, cups, silverware, pots & pans man—washes big pots, outdoor man he cleans the grease trap outside, and the containers of trash were straight.
How did you guys entertain yourselves?
One time we all did Halloween costumes. I had a guy on my shoulders like a giant. We’d have birthday parties with box cakes with candles in them. We’d go down to the PX and get a bag of Cheetos and a quart of beer. We’d go to the movies—Ft. Bragg had a main post theater, pool, tennis courts, outdoor concerts… I remember seeing James Brown.
What movies did you see?
Guns of Navarro with William Blake. Just a bunch of movies during the 60s. Before the movie, you’d have to salute for the National Anthem.
We pulled post patrol, downtown patrol, stockade patrol… Once, I was on stockade patrol and two guys came up to me and asked if those guys in the tower would shoot us if we try to cross the line. I heard squawking and shooting. I came running around the block, and they were all tangled in the barb wire…It was just warning shots, but them boys found out real quick you don’t cross the wire.
What was it like when you first arrived?
We left on a bus and rode from Boone to Charlotte. They put us on the “group W” bench. Just the way it is in the song… infected, neglected, detected, selected… Once we got the stamp of approval, we were put on another bus and ended up at Ft. Bragg LATE at night, almost morning. They started rambling and hollering, yelling at us to get rid of everything. Then they hustled us off the mess hall (for powdered eggs), showed us how to make a bed, screaming at us about this, that, and the other…screaming at us. They break you down. Then we went to the reception station to get uniforms, boots and haircuts. We’re standing there in formation, and the Salvation Army came by and had a box for us—with a bible, toothbrush, soap, etc. Then we had to throw it all in the dumpster.
I had/have the highest respect for the Salvation Army. When my Granddaddy was in the trenches during WWI, the Salvation Army was right there.
Do you recall your instructors?
They were called Drill Sergeants and they were the ones that marched you around from place to place—they taught you how to put camo on, target detection, instruction in first aid, how to take care of sucking chest wounds… We went through many things…gas chambers, how to throw hand grenades…. “If you haven’t been gassed in the army, you haven’t been gassed.”
They made us throw live grenades. We had gas grenades we could throw in Washington during the riots. I came close, but they stopped just in time.
There was eight or nine weeks of basic training. Then, they send you off to AIT: Advanced Individual Training. Then, I got sent to Ft. Gordon, Ga., and it started all over again. I don’t know how they pick who does what, but you just did what they told you.
(We talked about the Vietnam Wall in D.C.…WWI and WWII…The horror of all of those wars…)
“We could never understand unless you’ve been there.”
What did you go on to do as a career after your service?
I came back to Ashe County and worked at Southern Devices (Leviton), then after about a year of that, I applied at Appalachian State University. I’m a Happy Appy! I graduated in 1972, majoring in Art with a minor in Philosophy and Religion.
What did you do in the days and weeks after you got back?
I bought a hotrod ‘68 Plymouth Satellite and rolled out of Ft. Bragg with Motown on the radio all the way. I didn’t come back home; I went straight to my friend’s in Henderson, NC; we were good friends.
When I was in the military, I was really anti-military and anti-everything. We had to do what we were told, or else we went to jail! I had a brother in Vietnam. A lot of guys got treated real bad. My brother never really talked about it. He still suffers a lot…. He got the shakes, he got himself a bunch of tattoos… My brother was wounded twice (it’s amazing he’s alive). He said he got to the point he wouldn’t want to make friends with anyone, because they’d be dead as soon as you got to know them. His whole platoon was killed.
Did you join a Veteran’s organization?
I joined the American Legion in Charlotte—that post went back to the WWI.
I moved to Charlotte after AppState. In Charlotte, I worked for a retail company as a visual merchandise manager—provided signage, decorating for holidays, go to NY buy stuff to decorate, etc. Married in Charlotte, had little Margie, hooked up with an art broker in Winston Salem.
Was your education supported by the GI Bill?
Yes, it was a big, big help. I appreciate it.
I came back here in about 1992. I came back single, living out of a shoe; I lived in Todd for about a year & a half. I was dog sitting and doing art. I had an epiphany when I found a newspaper in my granddaddy’s old desk—it had a picture of the Virginia Creeper, and I thought, “you know, I should paint that!” I lucked onto this train thing…the gravy boat.
Stephen has two grandchildren Jax & Evelyn and is married to Nancy.
-- Interviewed by Aurora and Vickie Randolph