I fought for this country and I wanted to own a piece of it

December 7, 2019
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I fought for this country and I wanted to own a piece of it

I fought for this country and I wanted to own a piece of it

“My grandfather was a sharecropper in Jefferson, Alabama, near Selma. I plowed with mules, picked cotton, and rode horses when I was four or five. I can still hear my grandfather saying, ‘keep in it the ground and keep it in the row.’ I milked cows and made buttermilk. If you were old enough to walk, you were old enough to work. We had an outhouse and a big tub where five or six of us went through one tub of water. I was an only child, but my mom left me with my grandparents and I grew up with cousins. My grandmother taught me to pray and love the Lord. My grandfather died before we moved to Mobile when I was 5. l learned how to read in the third grade

I was in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam for 13 months. I enlisted when I was 18 because President Kennedy said, ‘Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ That stuck with me. Kennedy was killed and President Johnson said he needed men to go to war. They showed videos Vietnamese raping and killing. I wanted to go to war to stop that.

After boot camp, I was sent outside of Danang, Vietnam. My MOS was 3051 and said I would be shooting mortars from a distance, not fighting directly on the ground. I felt good about that. On the plane they changed my orders to 0311. I was going to be a grunt, a rifleman. I was sent on patrol and into the war zone the night we arrived and was shot at that first night. Nothing in boot camp prepares you for this. It was so dark and raining so hard that I couldn’t see in front of me. You just beat the bushes to get to the next place. We were told to get some rest, but how were we going to rest in all of that rain? I lay down with my M16 beneath my poncho to keep it dry. That was the first day. I started learning from there and become salty. Every time a round came in, I jumped in the bunker. A salty old white guy hit me on the shoulder and told me to calm down, if one comes in here, I won’t have to worry about anything. I learned when rounds come in sounding like bees they are close by.

I was often the point man looking for problems and ambushes. If I could see him before he could see me, I was going to win. The only thing I was afraid of was booby traps because you can’t see those. I saw so many men killed right next to me that I felt guilty for being alive. Why him and not me? I quit making friends because you knew the next moment he could be gone. It is still hard for me to get close to people.

Sgt. Marino and a couple of us had just been dropped out of helicopters into tall grass up to our waist. He switched places with us and walked the treeline, putting us in the middle because we hadn’t been there that long. Our M16s were up as we looked for the enemy. I glanced at Marino and heard a big bang. I went in the air. I landed and looked where I heard the bang and I thought Marino fell into a hole, but he stepped on a landmine that blew him apart. I looked down and saw blood on my flight jacket but it wasn’t my blood. Someone said I was alright. I wanted to kill those who killed Marino. We fought from 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening. It was the Tet Offensive and one of the toughest days for me in Vietnam. After that day, I always had pain in my chest but kept it to myself because they trained us that Marine’s don’t have pain and don’t cry. I lost vision in one of my eyes during the war and I am still fighting the government for my rights. I am 72 and they still haven’t paid me for my eye.

I also have peripheral neuropathy that limits movement in my legs. It is from Agent Orange in Vietnam. Imagine looking at green trees and grass all around you. The next day a plane drops white powder on the trees, turning everything brown. The Agent Orange killed the foliage so you could see the enemy or know where to drop the bombs. On patrol, we knocked back the dead leaves but that covered us in the white powder. The poison.

War is hell. Freedom is not free. Vietnam was one of the toughest wars you could fight and when we came home no one cared about us. They called us baby killers. That has changed and most people are thankful they didn’t have to go to that war to fight for their freedom.

I met my wife when we went to rival high schools in Mobile. She wrote letters while I was in Vietnam and stuck by me. There is nothing like getting letters with perfume on them in the war zone. She didn’t know how bad it was, but she always prayed for me. She helped me through the nightmares and hollering through sleepless nights. She still does. We have been married for 52 years.

As a black man in Mobile, Alabama in 1967, I was restricted to where I could live. I went to war and fought for this country. I wanted to own a piece of it. Vietnmese would say ‘black man why are you here? You don’t have a country. They don’t want you in the United States. Why are you fighting us?’

After the war, I planned to get married, buy a house, and settle down in Mobile. In 1970, we looked at a nice house with a white picket fence on Padgett Switch Road. I had the down payment I needed from my military service. I heard some white people say, ‘I hope them n’s ain’t moving out here.’ It was also hard to find a job in Mobile and I didn’t want to stay here. My mother lived in Philadelphia, PA so we moved, married, and started our family there. I got a job as a shoe salesman. I became the top salesman and they made me manager of the department and then the store. Then they told me I made it a high as I could go. In the city of brotherly love, I realized they would hug you during the day and stab you in the back at night. We moved back to Alabama because in Alabama if a person doesn’t like you, they are going to tell you. My grandmother taught me If a person doesn’t like you, leave him alone. There is discrimination everywhere. Why people are like that, I don’t know. I was taught not to hate.

On weekends in Philadelphia, I cooked ribs, chicken, fish, and potato salad and everyone came over. I learned how to cook from my grandmother. I didn’t realize I had been paying attention until she was dying and I had to cook. She could tell by the aroma what was ingredient was missing. Chicken, cornbread, and red beans were a staple for us. I watched my grandfather skin a hog and cut the meat. He cooked the meat over a fire with vinegar and added a little ketchup. That was my first barbeque sauce.

We moved back to Mobile and my wife went to nursing school. I started selling barbeque sauce at the flea market in 1998. A lady told me the sauce was good but there was too much vinegar. She was right. The name Saucy Q Bar B Que came from the song ‘Suzy Q.’ I put the q in barbeque. I knew God was guiding me but I eventually outgrew myself and opened too many locations. We closed all but this restaurant on Government Street after the BP oil spill. We have been in this building since 2005, but in the area for 25 years. We have won numerous barbeque awards and our bottled sauce is sold in grocery stores in Mobile.

I am thankful for the support of Mobile and believe in giving back to the community and customers. I had a chance to be on a few non-profit boards and learned so much from working with the Child Advocacy Center. We need to nurture and pay attention to our kids because they can still be saved. I try to mentor to my employees. We pray in a circle every morning before we open and again when we close. I am thankful my sons want to carry on the business and I am still around to guide them, but I worry about the future for them. I was raised without a father and don’t know who he was, so I have tried to do much better for my sons. Over 50 years later, I still have nightmares about Vietnam and I dreamed of something crazy last night. But God and my family make each day worth living.”

Elbert Wingfield

(This is the sixth story in the series “The Souls of Mobile,” with people nominated because of the good they do for the city. Their faces will also be a part of the mural “The Souls of Mobile” that Ginger Woechan is now painting on Hayley’s Bar. This mural is a collaboration with the Mobile Arts Council.
An Unveiling: Celebrating the Souls of Mobile by Ginger Woechan and block party is Sunday, December 8th from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. with music by the Excelsior Band and Harrison McInnis.)

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