UNCLE NORTON MEETS GEN. PRATAEUS – Sept. 20, 2002, in General David Petraeus’ office.
We were speaking at a small town church recently, after a special dinner they held for the local community. Later a man came up to me and told me that since he graduated from high school he had only read one book and that was the book “Ridge-Runner, From the Big Piney to the Battle of the Bulge”, the life story of my Uncle Norten.
“I read it twice,” he told me, “they ought to make a movie out of it.”
On Sept. 20, 2002, Major General David Petraeus, who at that time was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, KY, met with my uncle to tell him how much he liked his book. General Petraeus had invited us there after he himself had read it, and in his office, he inscribed one for me, with the notation… “With admiration and the utmost respect for all that you did to capture the history of a great paratrooper, an awesome screaming eagle unit and the greatest generation..” He signed it ‘David H. Petraeus, MG U.S. Army- Eagle 6’
He spent much of that Saturday with my uncle and me, and he told me that ‘Ridge-Runner’ was one of the best books he had ever read. Then he and several of his officers took us out on the grounds to look at one of the airplanes that World War II paratroopers had jumped from, and to meet with young paratroopers. My uncle was visibly moved that day. They gave him a special commendation and put his name and photo on what they referred to as the 327th division’s Wall of Fame, where he became the 27th WWII paratrooper so honored. Petraeus showed us how they had pulled up records to trace my uncle’s travels during the war, from Holland to Bastogne Belgium into the Ardennes Forest, on to Austria where he served at Bertchesgaden and was involved in returning the Lippezanner stallions, and then to Germany, marching past Auschwitz, and finally to Sans France, where the 101st was dissolved because there were so few of them left.
In France, his unit was placed in the 82nd Airborne, and in the victory parade in New York months later, my uncle marched before General Eisenhower and President Truman with an 82nd Airborne insignia on one shoulder and the screaming eagle 101st Airborne insignia on the other. He was part of the 327th division when he went to Europe, then part of the 501st division later in the war.
When I talked to Petraeus that day I felt like I was in the presence of greatness. He was one of the most impressive men I have ever been around, though quiet and unassuming. He was always smiling, but soft spoken, outgoing and a complete confidence that caused anyone around him to be at ease. Out on the grounds, you could see that young paratroopers who snapped to attention and saluted him were filled with respect for their commander. They seemed to be in awe of my uncle. Each of them knew all about Bastogne.
On the way back, I commented that maybe someday General Petraeus would be President. My Uncle shifted his cigar and shook his head. “I hope not,” he said, “he seems like too good a man to get into that crooked bunch. Eisenhower could give him some advice about that.”
Back then, no one here knew about General Petraeus. Now everyone knows him. I have been offered a lot of money for that book he signed, and the military coin he gave me with his name and rank engraved on the back. He got into politics after all, I think maybe with the wrong people. And while he is destroyed by a single affair with a woman, I can’t understand this nation’s way of looking at things. When I lived in Arkansas, our governor had several affairs, and became one of our most beloved presidents, continuing his way of doing things in the White House.
Petraeus made funds available from Ft. Campbell to hold a dinner for World War II paratroopers in Springfield on Veteran’s Day in 2002. We asked the television stations and the Springfield Newspaper to publicize it, and perhaps come and talk to the old paratroopers, but the event was never mentioned, and no news media showed up. The week before our dinner, the newspaper ran a big half-page story about a new homosexual campground opening up at Ava, and ignored those paratroopers who came from six states to attend the dinner.
Still, we had a big crowd that day, with 27 WWII paratroopers and their wives showing up,to have a big dinner at the behest of General Petraeus, who went on to Iraq only a few months later with those young 101st Airborne soldiers.
In the 10 years since, Uncle Norten’s book has received little publicity, and there are few people who know much about it. When a Springfield television station spent a couple of hours with my uncle on the Niangua river a few years later, doing a short piece on how he had guided fishermen in the Ozarks for a total of 70 years, excluding those two years overseas, they never mentioned his service and though we gave them his book, they wouldn’t mention it in their broadcast. It was as if that book and his military service was taboo.
We reprinted the book in 2004 and included the photos of my uncle’s visit to Ft. Campbell, and one of him posing with General Petraeus. Since that time it has sold about 15,000 books. In early 2003 we had a book signing at Barnes Noble in Springfield, and I took my uncle to a T.V. station there to do a 15-second interview about the book signing. The anchor, still working there today, asked my uncle, with an air of disdain, “My neighbor was at Bataan during the war, why doesn’t he have a book?”
That weekend my uncle signed about 75 books at Barnes Noble Bookstore in two hours. At Fayetteville, AR, the next weekend, he signed 90 books. Today, neither store stocks the book because of policy changes in the company. But there are places you can find it, and if you want to write or call my office we can tell you how to obtain the book. We still have, here at my office, about three or four dozen which my uncle signed.
Norten’s health is declining. He is pretty much ignored and not taken very good care of in an Ozark nursing home, far away from me where I can’t help him much. He will be 90 years old this coming year, and he still smiles when I show him the photo of him and General Petraeus. In some eyes, General Petraeus may be disgraced, but not in mine. Men have weaknesses, and we are selective about whom we forgive and whom we condemn.
I got to see firsthand what awaits old soldiers like my uncle, seeing what something called ‘social services’ has allowed to happen to him. If you read the book, Ridge-Runner, you will appreciate more what the World War II generation did for us. It seems at times as if the future will render those sacrifices in vain, as our country seems to lose the values we once had.
Norten’s book spans the times of the Depression, when he was a boy, his service in the war as a lowly paratrooper, and the years that followed when he became one of the mostly widely sought fishing guides in the Ozarks. People who read it tell me they laughed hard at parts of it, and then were moved to tears by other parts of it.
I am awfully glad we got to meet General Petraeus. I won’t forget him. And I still think it is too bad that good honest men like him never end up in the White House. But really, he might be too good for such a place.
Our office phone number is 417/777-5227, and the address is Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org You can see the photos of General Petraeus and my uncle on my website, www.larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com.