Gary Lewis Elmore was born in Detroit, Michigan on September 26, 1942 to Lawrence and Mildred Lancaster Elmore. Like many Limestone Countians, his parents had gone north seeking employment. After his mother became deathly ill, he and his younger sister, Diane, were sent to live with their maternal grandparents, Coffman and Elvie Hargrave, near Jones Crossroads in Limestone County, Alabama. Gary attended Wheeler Elementary School and later Tanner High School where he was manager of the Tanner Rattlers football team.
“Tink” Haney, quarterback of the team and a wounded combat veteran of Vietnam, remembers Gary with fondness. “We call ‘im ‘Winky Dink,’ a name given him by my cousin, Horace (Haney). He was smaller than most of us, but he was real tough,” says Tink. “The players picked on ‘im – some people might call it bullying nowadays – but Gary was tough and could take it. It didn’t bother him. He enjoyed it. He was fun to be around. He didn’t have a ride to football practice; he’d be walking and we’d pick ‘im up.”
Elmore, hazel-eyed, brown headed and standing at 5 feet 5 inches, was a firecracker in a small package. “He was small,” says his sister, Diane Mefford of Athens. “Gary and I were coming home from work and ran out of gas. He took a can and started walking toward the gas station. Well, a tow truck came by and pulled me to the gas station. I was sitting in the back seat with the window rolled down when we passed Gary walking, I yelled loud as I could ‘Hey Winky Dink!’ He stopped, his nostrils wide and open and I could read his lips.”
“Gary was happy-go-lucky and full of mischief,” remembers classmate Gary Carter. “He’d get a paddling and laugh it off. We had this math teacher, S.A. Thomas, an ex highway patrolman from Illinois. He wouldn’t allow chewing gum. Gary tested him a number of times. He’d cut his eyes at Gary and holler, ‘Elmore out!’ He ran Gary out of classroom many times.” One day Gary walked into Mr. Thomas’s math class chewing gum. “OUT THE WINDOW AND OUT THE DOOR!” shouted the teacher, meaning, throw your gum out the window and go stand in the hallway. “Gary throwed his gum out in the hall and jumped out the window,” says Carter, chuckling.
Horace Haney, who played football at Tanner, smiles when he remembers Gary. “He was little bitty, a good agitator, and liked to be around football players.”
On another occasion, the students were supposed to be attending a pep rally on the football field. “Gary and Brenda Marsh sneaked back inside the classroom and found teacher Barney Pressnell’s jacket hanging on the back of his chair,” says sister Diane, smiling. “Gary put an arm in one sleeve and Brenda put an arm in the other sleeve. They were just huddled together walking down the hallway and Mr. Pressnell caught ‘em with his coat on.”
When Gary turned 16, he quit Tanner High School in the 10th grade and went to work at Charlie Jones Cotton Gin at Jones Crossroads. He was a strong-headed boy and full of mischief. His grandmother Hargrave was exasperated with him. She called his father in Detroit. “Come down here and get ‘im,” she said. “He won’t listen to me anymore.” Gary moved to Detroit and worked several years with Service Sales Gasket Company. When he turned 18, he came back to Athens and registered for the draft. He was drafted in March, 1965 and quickly enlisted in the Army. It was the month that the first American combat troops landed in Vietnam.
On July 4, 1964, Gary went to Michigan to visit with his dad and sisters. “He had his uniform laying on the bed and I touched it,” remembers Diane. “He got really upset about it. I thought ‘Well that is really nice.’ He was proud of that uniform.”
Following eight weeks of basic training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, Gary volunteered for Airborne and was placed in a holding company for a couple of months. That’s when he met Shelby Huey, an Arkansas farm boy from the tiny town of Newport. “There were three of us and we were really tight,” remembers Huey, a plain spoken former paratrooper of the 173rd Brigade who saw combat in Vietnam and now lives in Huntsville, Alabama. “We had a lot in common,” said Huey. “We were poor white boys, in the Army and away from home.”
“Gary was cotton-top headed and mean’er a snake and don’t think he wouldn’t fight,” added Huey. “He was a good guy and we called ‘im ‘Dennis the Menace.’ I thought his real name was Dennis.” Huey joined the paratroopers and was sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia for three weeks of jump school where he ran into Elmore again. “We were in the same training platoon but didn’t get to see each other much,” says Huey. “I heard that Gary broke his leg on his last jump and that is the last contact I ever had with him.”
Gary went to visit his family in Athens just before shipping off to Vietnam. His sister, Diane, married and working in Michigan, drove down to visit with him. He asked Diane to borrow her car. “He was little rough on cars,” says Diane, “and I had to have it to get back to Michigan to go back to work. I wouldn’t let him have it.”
“You are not my sister anymore!” exclaimed Gary and stomped off. “He would always do that to me to get what he wanted,” she says. Diane returned to Michigan and quickly realized the seriousness of Gary’s forthcoming tour in Vietnam. Her sister and friends in Michigan organized a going-away party for Gary. Gary called Diane. “Are you coming to my party?”
“Who is this?” she asked. “It’s your brother,” replied Gary. “Remember, I don’t have a brother and don’t know who you are,” she said and hung up the phone.
To Be Continued . . .
By: Jerry Barksdale