Gary Haywood was a hippie. Growing up in Oyster Bay, he dated often, smoked marijuana and enjoyed plenty of parties. But the war in Vietnam served as a backdrop for much of his teenage years.
Realizing he would be drafted, Haywood enlisted in 1974, taking the advice of neighbors who had retired from the Army. He was a mechanic by trade, which the neighbors assured him would keep him out of combat. He joined the Air Force when he was 21, and served until 1978.
Dressed in full uniform at the Celebration of Veterans, hosted by the Life Enrichment Center of Oyster Bay on Nov. 9, Haywood, now 65 and living in Locust Valley, began to reminisce.
“I remember there was a big storm, and I had to stay late because a cabin cruiser sank, and I had to get the helicopter ready,” he said. He was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, Fla. “I fixed things no one could fix, and worked on the ground equipment repair. It was bad when they’d bring a body bag.”
Haywood was so good at his job that the Air Force wanted to train him to be a bomb and rocket loader in Vietnam. “I didn’t want to kill anybody,” he said. “So I went to the chaplain and told him that, and he was able to get me out of it for religious reasons. They were so angry, I was transferred to Alaska, which was fine.”
He was 23. “The guys were so young,” he recalled. Then he laughed. “They used to call me Pop.”
Haywood and 30 other veterans from the local American Legion, Veterans of Foreign War and American Veterans Association were treated to a simple but emotional luncheon at the Life Enrichment Center. Roy Lawrence led everyone in patriotic songs, encouraging more than 100 seniors to join him, accompanied by Joan Coester on the piano. A patriotic poem was read that began with the line, “Freedom is a gift, it’s a treasure,” and later the veterans presented the flag together.
“We try to help people remember,” said Mary Frignani, the center’s executive director. “If it wasn’t for these guys, we wouldn’t have our freedom.”
Reginald Butt, 80, a past commander of the Quentin Roosevelt Post 4 American Legion, enlisted in the Navy when he was 18. He left when he was 38, having been a radio man in the Vietnam War.
Butt said he enjoyed speaking recently to Oyster Bay High School students about his service. “They don’t teach anything about it in school anymore,” he lamented. “It’s the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. One of the teachers even came up to me after and said she learned something.”
Ron Calcerano, 82, who served in Korea from 1953 to 1957 in the Coast Guard, paused before digging into the hot lunch that had been brought to him by the Life Enrichment staff. He has succeeded Butt as commander of the legion.
“I think this is wonderful,” Calcerano said. “It gives every veteran a plus and makes their heart swell that people still remember them. Even if they only remember on Veterans Day, it still makes you feel good.”