Huntington native tells of his unique childhood and honorable career
As a teenager growing up in Huntington, 91-year-old John Adkins worked for spending money making peanut brittle at the Carney Candy Co. along 6th Avenue.
During those teenage years Adkins and a few of his enterprising friends had the most reckless pastime activity of jumping into slow-moving railway boxcars near Heritage Station. When the train began picking up speed, the last one to jump off was the winner. Adkins waited too long to jump one day and rode the train for 300 miles until it stopped.
About the only thing he could do to top that activity was falsify his mother’s signature on his enlistment papers to become an underage Marine.
“I was born in Huntington,” said Adkins. “I have the distinction of being the youngest of nine kids, and now I’m the only one left. My father operated a neighborhood grocery store until the 37 flood destroyed the building and everything inside. After that he went to work for the Works Progress Administration helping to build the floodwall. We’d swim in the Ohio River long before the locks were built. Back in those days there were locations in that river you could almost walk across. When the snow started we’d go to the grocery store for cardboard boxes we used as sleds. Each piece would last five or six rides down the hill until it became too soggy and just came apart.”
Their father would borrow a truck on Christmas Eve and head for the woods with as many kids who wanted to go. They’d cut a tree and a few bags of branches to decorate and help bring out the aroma of Christmas.
“My best Christmas present I ever received came when I was 6 or 7,” said Adkins. “My oldest brother, Buddy, built me a model airport from plywood. There was even a runway with an aircraft hangar, it was a perfect gift because of a few plastic airplanes I had.”
“I can remember walking to Simms grade school with the snow up to my knees,” said Adkins. “Course, back in those days my knees weren’t very far off the ground. Mom gave me a dollar each week to ride the bus to school, but walking provided a way for financial assistance for the movies on weekends.”
The thing Adkins remembers most about Lincoln Junior High School was playing basketball for a coach whose main philosophy was to dribble less and shoot
more. The other thing he remembers was losing a lot of games.
“I graduated with an asterisk from Huntington East High School/′ said Adkins. “Technically that’s correct, but I needed to complete a few summer classes which I did before the principal let me assume total ownership of my diploma.”
Adkins, along with a few of his teenage friends would often find a weird sense of excitement jumping into railway boxcars along the tracks at Heritage Station. They would ride for a few blocks, jump off and walk back to wait for another train. He waited too long one time to jump and the train didn’t slow down until it reached the Crawfordsville, Indiana, train yard.
“I had too much pride to call home,” said Adkins. “So I worked for the railway long enough to get an inside train seat back home. Dad had little to say, but my mother’s words lasted for several days.
“I suppose Mom went to her grave wondering how her signature ever appeared on my enlistment papers allowing me to join the Marine Corps under age,” said Adkins. “The military taught me discipline, respect, responsibility and all those other qualities that help a kid mature. Much of the crime and drug-related problems we face today could be solved with the reinstatement of the military draft.”
Adkins began his career in the Marines in October 1945. It would become a way of life that lasted over 24 years, a career that began over an incident that occurred in a tavern.
“This is a true story that began when I was still a teenager working as a dishwasher in a night club,” said Adkins. “One evening two U.S. Marines stopped by for an after-hours drink. They were both sharply dressed in their blue uniforms and spit-shined shoes. An individual with too much liquor started downgrading the military and America in general with a loud obnoxious tone. This went on long after his speech began to slur indicating he was totally inebriated, finally he passed out. At his point, the Marines carried the man next door to a tattoo parlor and paid the owner to tattoo the American flag on his chest with an inscription beneath that read “God bless America.” That’s when I decided I was going to become a Marine.”
Adkins did indeed make a distinguished career while serving with the Marine Corps, a career that took him on jungle patrols in Vietnam while living in isolated camps. He also had assignments in Korea and the American Embassy in Russia. His last stateside assignment was near Modesto, California, where he decided to stay after he retired.
“Making the decision to stay in California meant periodic trips to West Virginia for visits/′ said Adkins. “I’ve enjoyed tent camping at times while traveling back to West Virginia. Sometimes I’ve made the trip with relatives but always enjoyed the freedom of the drive. Now that I’m 91, flying home for the holidays may be a better way to travel.”
After a bout with cancer at 76, Adkins began to take a proactive approach to his health, and it seems to be working. Three or four times a week he now visits a health club for a 45-minute cardio workout. Breakfast is mostly a blend of assorted fruit mixed with whey. Lunch is usually a bowl of soup with half a sandwich.
So there you have it — a career that created enough memories to last to the moon and back, a true story about a kid who ate 5 pounds of bananas just to meet the minimum weight standards during his enlistment physical to become a Marine.
This ends the crunched-down version as told by a delightful, inspirational 91-year-old who kept me on the edge of my seat listening to an endless barrage of unforgettable stories that I was privileged to hear.
“The military taught me discipline, respect, responsibility and all those other qualities that help a kid mature. Much of the crime and drug related problems we face today could be solved with the reinstatement of the military draft.”