Rebecca West: Words & Music

My First Military Assignment

by Bob West

It would seem very unlikely that a bashful country boy who had grown up in a small town in the rural South and who was a member of the non-instrumental Church of Christ would ever meet and marry a Roman Catholic girl who lived in a large New England city. However, God has a way of making the improbable probable.

Sylvia Buteau childhood photo

Sylvia Norma Buteau was born in Warwick, Rhode Island, on November 2, 1934, to John and Grace Buteau. She was the youngest of five children. Her parents were members of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore Sylvia became a member too, and attended Church every Sunday. She also attended the instructional classes, took part in what is called "First Communion" and was confirmed in the Catholic Church.

When she was 12 years old and in the seventh grade, Sylvia moved with her parents to West Palm Beach, Florida. They attended the closest Catholic Church, which was in the next town, Lake Worth. When her parents stopped attending, Sylvia took the bus to the Catholic Church each Sunday alone.

Nellie Hansen, who lived nearby became her best friend. Nellie invited Sylvia to attend the First Methodist Church with her. Sylvia's parents eventually allowed her to do so. Sylvia said that while in the Methodist Church, she learned to read her Bible and pray to God.

Now it was March 1952. Sylvia was a senior at Palm Beach High School and I had finished two months of basic training in Texas and three months of technical training in New Mexico. I was ready for my first assignment and it would be at Tampa, hundreds of miles across the state from West Palm Beach.

En route to Tampa, I spent a few days vacation with my parents and siblings in west Tennessee.

Bob's parents & siblings

My parents and siblings. Left to Right: Gaylon, Dad, Janie, Linda, and Mom

When I arrived at MacDill AFB in Tampa, I was assigned as a clerk-typist in the 2156th Air Rescue Squadron (Amphibious) headquarters assisting the First Sergeant, who assisted the Adjutant. I took care of Morning Reports, Special Orders, Military Correspondence, Filing, and the Mail Room for the instructors, staff, and about 500 Air Rescue and Survival students.

I really enjoyed this work, and the tropical location was great. However, I found my off-duty time to be boring and lonely. I remember going into Tampa with another airman, but it wasn't long before he wanted to stop in a bar to get a "cool one." I told him I did not drink alcoholic beverages. "That's okay," he said. "You can get a coke."

So we went inside and sat at the bar. The small amount of light in the smoke-filled room seemed to be coming from the neon liquor advertisements on the wall. And the smell of liquor permeated the air. My friend ordered a beer. I ordered a coke and was surprised when the bartender charged me a dollar, because at that time a bottle of Coca-Cola was selling everywhere else for a nickel. I was glad when my friend finally agreed to leave and go somewhere else. The next place he wanted to go, however, was to another bar, and then another. My patience ended and we went our separate ways.

It was after dark now and I was miles from the base, so when a car stopped beside me and the driver, who was a civilian, offered me a ride I thanked the man and got in the passenger seat beside him. I was naive. Just before we got to MacDill's main gate, to my surprise the man put his hand on my knee. I pushed it away. He stopped the car. I got out and hurried on base.

Looking back, I can see that I had God's protection in both situations and He was teaching me to make wiser choices.

Three months after I arrived at MacDill, my squadron moved to the base at West Palm Beach. After I got settled in my new environment, "attending church" came to mind, but I still had no transportation. Some other airmen wanted to go to church too and one of them had a car. They invited me to come along.

Over the next few weeks we visited various churches. At the First Methodist Church we found a youth group with others our own age who were enjoyable to be with. But Sylvia was no longer there. She had graduated from high school and had moved to New England to attend the Rhode Island Hospital School of Nursing in Providence.

A2C Bob West

A2C Bob West, circa 1952

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