Memorial Day memories of a young ballplayerby J.W. Miller on 05/28/18
We have plenty of things to talk about today in the sporting world; take your pick. LeBron James’ domination of the favored Celtics in the NBA Eastern Conference finals or tonight’s Warriors vs. Rockets Western Conference title game? LSU lost the SEC baseball championship to Ole Miss, but it looks like the Tigers could be peaking at the right time. Or how about the historic NHL finals where the most successful expansion team of all time – the Las Vegas Golden Knights – will take on the Washington Caps.
All worthy topics, but on this Memorial Day I want to talk about a young baseball player I knew a half-century ago. J.L. Travis and I played against each other in a summer baseball league, and I remember one game when he was playing first base and I took a too-long lead off the bag and the next batter hit a line-drive right at J.L., who caught the ball and touched first base with a big grin.
J.L. was a handsome boy with chiseled features and coal black hair that fell over his forehead when he smiled. We were in the same class at Shelby County High School in Kentucky, played on the high school baseball team and we went our separate ways after graduation. I might never have thought about him again until someone else brought up his name later. I was in college and had come back to my high school to watch a basketball game, and at some point during the game, our principal, Bruce Sweeney, took the microphone and said he had tragic news to announce. The last time I had heard Mr. Sweeney say those words was during my sophomore year when he announced to a disbelieving young audience on November 22, 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
But this night’s announcement hit even closer to home. Mr. Sweeney announced that our classmate, J.L. Travis, had been killed in Vietnam. He died exactly four years after the President’s death, on November 22, 1967, which was Thanksgiving Day half a world away. That might have been the moment that I was taken from a protected childhood and thrust into an unpredictable and threatening world. Until then, I had lived in the cocoon of youthful innocence, aware of things like wars but dismissing them as subjects that occupied the evening news and happened to somebody else out there. We were oblivious to their tragic call and the fact that bad things do happen to good people.
After high school, J.L. was inducted in the U.S. Army in March, 1967, along with his best friend Hubert Waford, who had graduated a year ahead of us. They were both from rural sections of the county, sons of farmers who spent their lives in the tobacco patches, hay fields and dairies of a rural county. They underwent infantry training together and were assigned to A Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division.
On August 22, 1967, their unit arrived near Binh Dinh, South Vietnam, a coastal province about 220 clicks south of Da Nang. Three months to the day after landing, J.L. Travis was killed by enemy fire. Hubert Waford served as military escort to bring J. L.’s body back to the United States for burial at the Dover Baptist Church in Shelby County. Hubert returned to Vietnam on December 8, and rose to the rank of sergeant. He was killed on Good Friday, April 12, 1968, in a battle in which he earned the Silver Star for bravery.
A couple years ago, at the 50th anniversary of the Shelby County High School Class of 1966, the surviving classmates got together to reminisce over the "glory days," remembering the best part of our youth and to honor those who were no longer with us, like J.L. Travis. We also remembered other classmates such as Billy “Twink” Hall, leadoff hitter on our state championship runner up baseball team, who died at 36 from cancer. And Barry “Buck” Cottrell, who might have been the funniest boy and man I ever knew until his death at 43 in a car crash. Prior to the reunion, we also lost Hugh “Turkey” Smith, who hit the key free throws in a state tournament semi-final game on our way to the 1966 state basketball championship. The star of that team and my all-time best friend, Mike Casey, died in 2009 after a long struggle with congestive heart failure.
There were others, but on this Memorial Day, I reserve special memories for my classmate J.L. Travis and his buddy Hubert Waford. They were two young Americans from the heartland who fought and died so the rest of us could grow to adulthood, have families and live free.