Reuben’s Raiders gather for 47th time

Published 9:49 pm Monday, November 24, 2008

Reuben’s Raiders ain’t what they used to be.

The years have polished the heads and rounded the bellies of the soldiers of the Alabama National Guard 900th Maintenance Company who marched off to serve their country in October 1961.

Nametags identified the soldiers one to another at the 47th year reunion of the 900th Maintenance Company on Saturday night at Lake Simmie. Those who had not seen each other “in a coon’s age” squinted at the nametags. But, for most, it was instant recognition and a handshake that gave way to a husky hug.

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The 900th Maintenance Company was activated during the Berlin Crisis and served 11 months at Fort Polk, La.

“The reunion was a heartwarming affair,” said Reuben Lawrence Bowden, then a captain and commander of the 900th. “We were all glad to see each other and reminisce about what happened to us. I take great pride in being associated with this group of men. They were tremendous soldiers and the high standards they set have had a tremendous influence on the 900th Maintenance Company and on the Alabama National Guard.”

The guest speaker for the reunion was the Rev. Rick Hayes, who recently retired from the Alabama National Guard. He commanded the 900th for about three years and served one year in Iraq as an Army advisor.

Hayes thanked the former Guardsmen for their service and told them that the power of the United States military is “an awesome thing.”

Hayes said that the United States military has made a lasting change in Iraq.

“Iraq will never be the same, not even long after the United States military is gone,” he said. “The 4,000 U.S. troops that have died did not die in vain. They died doing their duty and helping to make a change that will be forever lasting.”

Although Hayes did not go to Iraq as an Army chaplain, he did have opportunities to baptize soldiers.

“I got to baptize a soldier in Saddam Hussein’s swimming pool,” he said. “I hope Saddam knew that before he died.”

The men of the 900th spent time sharing their memories of Fort Polk where their time was consumed with training.

“We didn’t know what we were training for and we didn’t know what duties we would be asked to perform,” Bowden said. “But the men trained hard to be ready for whatever they were asked to do.”

The first unofficial duty of the 900th was to “head ’em up and move ’em out.”

“We had to move the cows out so we could get in,” Gus McLendon said, laughing. “There were cows everywhere.”

Fort Polk had been closed and the land leased to farmers, who contended that they had grazing rights for their cattle. Uncle Sam had the upper hand and the cows were moved to the far side of the base.

Lee Mobley said when he was told to report to Gate 6, he reported to the place that was tagged 6, but it was a cattle gap.

Bowden ran a tight ship and demanded much of his Raiders, so much so that one wife, who attended the reunion, said she thought Capt. Bowden “had horns.”

From the laughter in the room, the Raiders thought so, too.

There was a much talk about the “fun” things that made being away from home, young brides and babies almost tolerable.

There was talk of trying to get out while the getting was good.

Simeon Wilson signed his “Guard” papers a “whisker” before the unit was activated.

“I went back in a hurry and asked them to tear up the papers and I was told that my papers were sent of ‘yesterday,’” Wilson said, laughing.

Newton Ryals was living the life of Riley and two days later he was strapping on his boots and wishing that he was Riley again.

There was talk of a juke joint where the troops gathered for “sarsaparilla,” and of knocking out a deputy sheriff there.

Just thinking back on his active duty times made Leo Calhoun shiver.

“Capt. Bowden called us to formation and it was so cold that I couldn’t stop shaking,” Calhoun said. “Capt. Bowden said, ‘Quit shaking. It ain’t cold!’”

KP wasn’t often a welcomed assignment but Don Reddoch could sit and grin as he looked out the window at other Raiders drenched in rain and shivering from the cold.

Calhoun also remembered a hog the soldiers commandeered and was fattening with “takings” from the kitchen.

Ben Farmer was AWOL from the reunion so he was saddled with introducing the armadillo to Pike County. The pesky critters were native to Texas but foreign to Alabama. But, thanks to Farmer and friends, they were on the move.

Ryals confessed to putting a dead armadillo in the foot of Harvey Lott’s sleeping bag. And, he probably wouldn’t have done that if he had known that Lott’s wife, Carolyn, was in charge of cooking the turtle that had been wrestled from Old Mother Nature. That’s another story.

Rayvon and Polly Graham were newly weds and her grandmother went to Fort Polk to “visit.”

“It was so hot that my grandmother couldn’t stand it,” Graham said. “She said Fort Polk was as close to hell as she ever wanted to be. A lot of us felt like that.”

Lee Mobley is still “tormented” by his tenure there. He stood in the back of the pavilion Saturday night and made a plea to his comrades.

“Every night, I have a dream that wakes me up long after midnight,” he said. “I’m at Fort Polk and standing ready for inspection. It’s just torture being there so I’m asking Capt. Bowden, Coon Ryals and all the others, please stay out of my dreams.”

When all was said and done, Larry Godwin said the greatest things about the American soldier are his or her intellect, courage and sense of humor.

“The 900th has long been an outstanding unit,” he said. “And it’s been so because of the outstanding leadership and the outstanding soldiers. The 900th has set the standard.