ASHLAND – David E. “Gene” Cox of Caroline County wanted to go into the wild blue yonder one more time.
The 88-year-old veteran of the U.S. Air Force – and former private pilot – wanted to go to his family reunion in Lebanon, Virginia, on Saturday, July 7, but he’s gotten to the point where his body can no longer handle the 6-hour (one-way) trip in a car. His pilot’s license, frayed around its edges from decades of stowage in his wallet, was not going to be of much use, either.
When he told his younger brother Eddie – the last remaining sibling from a brood of 10 – his brother called one of David Cox’s daughters, Pam Hoy of Mechanicsville.
“I can’t imagine my brother not being at the reunion,” Eddie Cox said. “You have got to do something!”
Hoy wanted to see David Cox – called “Pop-pop” by his family – get to Scott County, so Hoy and her sisters, Debbie Powers-Reynolds of Mechanicsville and Tracy Wright of Caroline County, cast about for a solution. It came in the form of another veteran, Marcus Simmons, who continues to serve in his own way by helping people out when he can.
It seemed extra appropriate given the timing: the week of our nation’s birthday. The two men, while in different services – Simmons was in the Navy – served in largely similar circumstances. Both worked on keeping things working: Cox kept the Air Force’s F-86 jet fighters in the air; Simmons helped keep the Navy’s ships – specifically the USS Dominant, a minesweeper, and the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier – operating properly.
Their foreign deployments were during unpopular conflicts. Cox served in a still white-hot Korean Peninsula where a state of war still technically exists – but things where much more tense when he was there in 1953-1954, even after the armistice pausing hostilities was signed at Panmunjom. Simmons served during the Vietnam era, 1969 to 1971, although the Navy kept him out of the combat zone because he was an only son.
Despite the tens of thousands of U.S. casualties in each conflict, the two were officially referred to as anything but wars for years afterward. The veterans were often the targets of public anger over policies the veterans had nothing to do with.
“It’s the ‘Forgotten War,’ I guess you’ve heard that,” David Cox said of the Korean War. “We here hung up and nailed to dry.”
Simmons remembered more direct hostility.
“Going through the airports, people would throw stuff at you, especially the people that were your age,” Simmons said. “It was just a tough time back then. Everybody was against the war. Those of us that wanted to serve, but still had doubts about whether the war was the right thing to do, were just into serving the country. … The stars could never line up where everybody was kind of on the same page as far as what we should or should not be doing. It was just tough, a tough time.”
Still, both are proud of their service and how it changed them as men.
“It served me well,” Simmons said. “I don’t regret it.”
The other parallel is that both learned to fly after their time in the military. David Cox, while living in Caroline, usually flew out of the Hanover airport, taking family members on joy rides. While not as fast as on the F-86’s he worked on, it was still a lot of fun for them – even as they learned some hard-won Depression-era wisdom from the pilot.
“We were in a small Cessna preparing for takeoff, I felt comfortable knowing Uncle Gene knew what he was doing – I admired him so,” said his nephew Frank Kauffman. “We started heading to the runway and uncle Gene started gaining speed, but we were not on the runway. We were rolling along on the grass parallel to the side of it. I asked him why we were not on the actual runway and he responded, ‘I am saving the treads on the tires.’ ”
Hoy found Simmons through a mutual friend. She explained the situation the family faced – which was good enough motivation for the flight – but if he had harbored any initial doubts about the flight, learning that David Cox was also a veteran made his decision obvious.
“The fact that he was a veteran is what made the difference,” Simmons said. “Then, after I met him and got to know him a little bit, it became even more obvious that we’ve got to do this.
“He’s just a very nice man, and, from what I see, the quality of his daughters and grandchildren, he did a pretty good job. When I grow up, I want to be just like him.”
The party – Simmons, David Cox and Hoy – originally planned to leave on Friday, July 6. A host of family congregated at Hanover County Municipal Airport, Simmons fueled and performed pre-flight checks on his Rockwell Commander 112, and checked the weather one last time. While it looked like scattered thunderstorms might leave an opening to get to their original destination, Virginia Highlands Airport in Abingdon, visibility conditions in the region ruled it out. Weather ruled out alternate airports nearby.
So the group reconvened at Hanover County Municipal Airports the next morning. Persistent fog scratched Virginia Highlands off the landing list, but conditions at Tazewell County Airport were suitable. They found another group of family members awaiting them in Tazewell and made it to the family reunion in time.
Simmons, who had not requested nor expected any payment for the flight, left the family reunion with a good selection of freshly canned – as in Mason jar, not tin – fruits and vegetables.
“It’s not that often you can get freshly canned goods right from the farm,” he said. “It was a nice treat.”
As for Cox, he got the star treatment at the family reunion.
“It was an experience, an opportunity, that nobody thought Pop-pop would have,” said Debbie Powers-Reynolds. “This man (Simmons), through the blessings of people, they brought this dream to come true for Pop-pop to make it home.”