Aug 15, 2014

Recalling T-Bone McDonald...

1212 Woodland Drive, Norman, OK
In 1966, I was living in Norman, Oklahoma.  I had moved there a year earlier to teach in the Naval ROTC unit at the University of Oklahoma.  As a member of the faculty bowling league, I had made friends with Forrest Frueh and Jim Mouser.  Forrest and Jim were both attorneys and constituted the entire department of business law in the college of business administration.  All three of us were bachelors and we decided to become housemates.  Forrest had just bought a house at 1212 Woodland Drive in Norman.  It was the perfect bachelor pad.  The house had been designed by Bruce Goff, a well-known architect who had been the chairman of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma.  It was constructed of redwood and glass.  It had no 90-degree corners.  Every room was either a hexagon or an elongated hexagon.  It sat well back from the street, surrounded by large trees, with a bamboo garden in back.  Except for having only one bathroom, it worked well for Forrest, Jim, and me.

One afternoon, I was the first to arrive at the house.  As I was going through the day's mail, I heard a loud knock at the door.   I opened it to find an extremely large gentleman standing there holding a small suitcase.   I asked if I could help him.  He responded, in a bigger-than-life booming voice, "Howdy.  My name is T-Bone McDonald (he pronounced it "Ma-a-a-ck Donald") and I'm an old friend of Jim and Forrest's.  I need a place to spend tonight and I'm sure Forrest wouldn't mind if I spent it with you boys."  It sounded logical.  He knew my housemates' names.  We had a spare bedroom.  I did the only hospitable thing and let T-Bone in.  He was our roommate for the next several weeks.

T-Bone knew Forrest and Jim because as undergraduates at the University of Oklahoma they had been members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon social fraternity.  T-Bone had been the chapter adviser.  When Forrest and Jim arrived home, they naturally asked T-bone what brought him to the house.  It became clear that for reasons unspoken, he had been uninvited from his home and it only seemed natural that he should move in with us.

Over the time we shared, I learned a lot about T-Bone.  His full given name was Leon J. McDonald.  He had gone Oklahoma State University, which at the time was still known as Oklahoma A&M.  As to the moniker, the NewsOK Website describes it this way: "The name originated in 1918 when his father, also named Leon, was dubbed T-Bone when he ordered a T-bone steak while on a track trip for Oklahoma A&M College, now named Oklahoma State University.

The T-Bone I knew, also an A&M graduate, was a center on the Muskogee High School's state championship football team when he graduated in 1941.  Another accomplishment, which is rare today, is that he had four years of high school Latin, according to the Website.

In the 1960s, T-Bone made his living as a traveling salesman representing Frisco Paint, a line of paints produced by a company in New Jersey.  He had a huge territory, and each week he'd hit the road in his trusty Ford station wagon.  His slogan: "Cadillac paint at Chevrolet prices."  And I suspect he sold an enormous amount of paint.   Sometimes, T-Bone would visit a local freight office in the towns he visited to inquire whether they had any unclaimed or distressed freight.  He'd rent a trailer, buy and haul the freight home, and find a buyer.  He would have really loved eBay if it had existed back then.  One time he pulled into the driveway with a trailer in tow and asked, "Bob, who uses nitric acid??"

He never met a stranger and loved to talk.  And talk he did.   He was not shy about sharing his life story.  Forrest, Jim, and I were the beneficiaries of his homespun wisdom.  What follows is my best recollection of some of those remarkable tales.

At the outbreak of World War II, T-Bone had completed two years of ROTC training at Oklahoma A&M.  He enlisted right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.   After some basic training and a series of short-term assignments, he found himself heading to North Africa where he ended up on General George S. Patton's staff.  He was with Patton throughout the North African campaign, into Sicily, thence to England, where General Patton headed up the disinformation campaign prior to the Normandy invasion.  After the invasion, Patton was restored to command of the third army in its drive across Europe.  T-Bone was there for all of this.  And to hear T-Bone tell it, Patton could do no wrong.

Forrest, Jim, and I heard all the great stories more than once.  They were so consistent that we were convinced of their credibility, regardless how outrageous.  And the following was among our favorites, told as accurately as I can remember it.  I can't swear that I recall every detail correctly and I certainly can't guarantee that it ever really happened.

After the Battle of the Bulge, Patton's third army was pursuing the retreating German army across Europe.  As T-Bone described it, they sometimes would be approaching a town and could see the retreating Germans on an adjoining hill.  The Germans, even as they retreated, would be firing mortars and artillery shells back toward the Americans.

T-Bone (by now, in early 1945, a Staff Sergeant), and his Corporal were in a jeep approaching a town being evacuated by the retreating Germans.  As the Nazis shot back toward the advancing Americans, an artillery shell made a direct hit on the vault of the main bank in the town.  As a result, T-Bone and his Corporal arrived in a town with substantial quantities of cash in the streets around the bank.  As T-Bone described it, there were "Dutch Guilders, German Marks, French Francs, Italian Lire -- just about every kind of European currency."  T-Bone and his comrade did the natural thing.  They gathered up as much money as possible and stuffed it into two military duffel bags that they had in their jeep.  They had no idea of the total value, but it was substantial.

Not too long afterwards, Eleanor Roosevelt got the brilliant idea of selecting the "High Pointers" from each unit and sending them to the French Riviera (now in Allied hands) for a little R&R.  T-Bone and the Corporal were the high pointers in their unit (I don't recall what size unit this was) and got to ride a train to Nice for a few days.  Naturally, they were accompanied by their duffel bags of cash.

The Red Cross, USO, and other service organizations had jumped at the opportunity to provide recreational outlets for the planned arrival of hundreds of the so-called High Pointers -- all combat-hardened troops, by the way.  What could be more exciting to these men than card-playing tournaments, badminton competition, shuffleboard, and lots of healthy food?  ...Not to mention water sports on the French Riviera?

T-Bone told us that the troops had learned that the center of intelligence in most European towns was the local barber shop.  When he and his buddy arrived in Nice, they and their duffel bags headed for the largest barber shop they could find.  They made a deal to trade their cash for recreational outlets of a different sort than envisioned by the "Red Cross Ladies."

The next morning was greeted by train cars of French prostitutes descending on the railroad station "with their poodle-dogs and maids" and truckloads of cognac to be distributed to the U.S. and allied servicemen free of charge.  All contributed by some anonymous benefactors.  I've often marveled that this scenario, if it really took place, never became the subject of a movie.  It would make a great one.

T-Bone McDonald speaking at
the Oklahoma City Kiwanis Club
Not long ago, I was telling a friend (who happens to be a retired army officer) about T-Bone.  I became curious whether my old roommate was still living.  After all, we have lost Jim and more recently, Forrest.  I did a Google search and to my amazement, there were 4 YouTube videos featuring T-Bone speaking to a Kiwanis Club in Oklahoma City on February 1, 2010!  There he is, bigger than life, with the same booming voice as I recall, telling part of the story.  Check him out at T-Bone 1, T-Bone 2, T-Bone 3, and T-Bone 4.  He's one member of "the greatest generation" whom I will never forget.

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