The freedom to fish: State veterans home in Pell City takes dozens of veterans to Logan Martin Lake

Carolanne Roberts

Nobody knows exactly how many bass and catfish U.S. veterans caught when they took to the waters of Logan Martin Lake one recent spring morning. But it wasn’t about numbers anyway. It was about freedoms – a field trip away from the Col. Robert L. Howard State Veterans Home in Pell City and the freedom each of us enjoys every day because of their service.

Being out on that water was glory enough. The glisten of the sun on the gentle waves paled compared to the light of delight in the veterans’ eyes. Their attire alone read like a history book – World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and other conflicts emblazoned on T-shirts, jackets and caps. Many arrived lake side in wheelchairs, others on walkers, some attached to oxygen with the help of nearby nurse assistants. But when they boarded the eight pontoon and bass boats, all vets were created equal. And equal meant happy.

Take Hubert Craft, whose first question of the day is “Where’s my boat?” Mind you, this avid fisherman is almost 93, a veteran of World War II where, as a Navy fireman first class, he worked on engines in the Philippines. Though he doesn’t land a catch, Craft beams at the thought that his boat scored one. And that he, as the eldest aboard, is tapped for a photo with the prize. His smile is pure joy, almost as big as his cherished memory of being told on Okinawa that the war had ended.

Then there’s the delightful Raford Liles, 94, who quips, “I didn’t fish this year because I let one get away last time.” Liles, like Craft, wins the honor of posing with his boat’s “trophy,” smiling triumphantly. When this World War II vet is asked what he did in the Navy, the quips fly again. “As little as possible,” is the answer, though the embroidered details on his cap tell a different story: It reads USS Essex (CV-9), an aircraft carrier and lead ship of the 24-ship Essex class. His rank was Lt. junior grade.

Elsewhere, on another slough, the hopeful James Trawick sets out with rod and reel, aiming to improve his record from last September’s outing. “I’ll catch anything that comes near,” says the former Marine, who drove trucks from 1950-54. Trawick, 84, admits that every nonworking moment through the years was devoted to fishing; he proceeds to give a detailed lesson that could turn a novice into a champ. To prove his points, the Chilton County native pulls in a beautiful bass, then throws it back. “I give them their life. I never wanted one on my wall.”

Many of the 38 vets (a fishing trip record) are just out for the ride and the rays. Richard Parrish from Gadsden proudly wears his B-52 cap and invites us all to Maxwell Air Force Base to see “his plane“sitting on display. (“There’s a photo there, and you’ll see me under the wheel well.”) While catfish-catching was a passion – he remembers one in particular that was “thissss looooong” – he’s content to cruise today. Parrish went into the service during Korea and came out during Vietnam.

There are more veterans this day, so many more loving the breeze, the lullaby hum of the motors, the bobbing on the water.

John Sully, a former architect and World War II vet who moved to Alabama from St. Louis for our golf courses, can talk of his Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. last year. Bill Waldon from Carbon Hill offers snippets about the U.S. Valley Forge aircraft carrier. He was only 17 when he enlisted in World War II. Art Cranston from Chicago says, “I was in every branch but Marines” and describes the flat bottom utility boats he served on during Vietnam. At 90, Walter Farmer, a Talladega native who served in South Korea, France and Germany, is “here today just to sightsee.”

A trip like this doesn’t just happen. Sponsors include host site Woods Surfside Marina; Sylacauga Marine and ATV; and America’s First Federal Credit Union.

Dawn and Jeff Lovell, both Navy vets, volunteer at the Veterans Home and were instrumental in the first fishing expedition four years ago.

“It started with just three boats and just got bigger and bigger – every time we add improvements,” Dawn Lovell said. “We’re both retired and to me it’s the least I can do for someone who served our country. I hope when we’re that age somebody will do this for us.”

Ali Conn will see to that. She’s the activities director for the veterans home, dreaming up and executing events for the 254 residents (14 are women who served in active duty during wartime).

“I’m all about quality of life,” Conn said. “I’ve wheeled beds down hallways to get veterans to church services because they wanted to go. We want to help in any way.”

The robust roster of activities includes road trips to plays, concerts, museums, a casino near Montgomery, UAB football and basketball games and, most recently, a riverboat cruise in Chattanooga.

Conn reports that the veterans were upbeat, if not slightly lulled to naps, on the way back to the 27 acres they call home.

“I’m looking at the photos of the day,” she said. “And I’m seeing smiles. That’s what I’m here for. Do you realize boat drivers took entire days off from work to do this for the veterans? We are so humbled and appreciative of what people do to make the day successful.”

One important person is missing though. The late Jerry Woods, founder of Woods Surfside Marina, first suggested the fishing trip and opened his facility for those early outings. Woods, a veteran whose brother was killed in Vietnam, reached out to the vets, mingling with each during the two years of the event.

“We will continue to do this twice a year – spring and fall – to honor Jerry, who passed away in 2016,” said son-in-law Mark Hildebrant, who operates the marina with Jerry’s daughter Eva. “It’s something we can do to continue his legacy. It’s a sense of overwhelming joy that we can offer something so small, like a single boat ride, for men who gave us the opportunity to have the freedom we enjoy today.”

Lovell said the fun lives on long after the veterans return to the home.

“The boat drivers loved it, the vets loved it,” she reports. “I’ll be volunteering there and they’ll call out to me, ‘When are we going out again?’ They’re still thinking about the beautiful day, the boats and the picnic afterward.”

And, be assured, nobody remembers the fish count.

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