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Jacksonville: Hayes Tate, Rotary and Roasted Potatoes

Working in the computer business, I have always been fascinated by the human brain. If computers can access stored data in a millisecond, how could the brain trump it by accessing information instantaneously from multiple areas of the cerebellum in real time?

Do you remember the last time your smelled a rose? Not just any rose, but the one with a scent so specific that it transported you to a specific time in your life? Maybe it reminded you of your first date or prom. I can still smell one particular scent of powdered makeup and visualize my great-grandmother. I can see her applying that powder with a big powder puff.

My Tuesdays for over the past 25 years are filled with one of the joys of my life – Rotary. Founded in 1905, Rotary is currently the largest charitable organization in the world with 1.2 million members. It number one mission is the elimination of Polio worldwide which it may accomplish soon.

When my children were young, they called Rotary “Rodeo” and “the old man’s club.” Each week I meet with my special extended “Rotary” family (young and old, men and women, local business leaders) and listen to a speaker. For thirty minutes, we are entertained and informed by political leaders, business leaders, educators and non-profit administrators. Even entrepreneurs, athletes and a few explorers could be on the agenda.

We usually hear about a topic that we know little or nothing about. One week, we might hear about “sailing solo across the Atlantic,” the next week it might be “Mr. Bulls Chips” (Potato chip manufacturer and still one of the best speeches ever), and one week we even heard from Miami football Coach Jimmy Johnson – in person.

But before the speaker takes the podium, the first half of the meeting is reserved for food and fellowship and a few business matters. I enjoy lunch with a combination of seven men or women who randomly sit with me at a table for eight.

This past Tuesday, only three others graced my table because of its location. I’ve noticed over the years that for some strange reason, people are not apt to sit at the first table in the meeting room – the one closest to the video screen. I have speculated that it is because they don’t want to be called on, like those days in high school and college.

To my right sits Hayes Tate. Now one of the oldest members of the club, Hayes is a treasure. His quick wit and amazing brain could keep me occupied and entertained for weeks. During my years in Rotary, we’ve had approximately three men in our club that have nearly 100 percent recall of everything they read or hear. Hayes is one of those three so gifted. Every once in a while he’ll walk to the podium to recite the entire Gettysburg Address or Preamble to the Constitution – all without notes.

His hearing is weak, and his back is letting him down, but his brain is as active as the day he was born. When he speaks, I have to lean in to him to grasp every word – which I hang on to because I know a fascinating story is about to be told. He still works every day, and I am positive his clients are grateful for that. Just to be in the same space as Hayes makes you feel inspired.

Sitting to my left happens to be one of my favorite college professors, Dr. Tomlinson. In Rotary, you are encouraged to greet fellow members by their first name, but “Tom” is and always will be Dr. Tomlinson to me. Still standing erect long after retirement, he commands the room like a four-star general. Interestingly, he is not in my club but in another Rotary Club across town. When I asked him what brought him to our club today, he quickly replied, “Make-up.” This means that he had missed his weekly meeting at his Rotary Club and was doing what all dedicated Rotarians do - they find another meeting (In Jacksonville there are 14 weekly clubs) and
attend that meeting.

My late friend and well-known Jacksonville realtor, George Linville, had 47 years of “Perfect Attendance.” This meant that he had not missed a single weekly meeting (50 meetings per year) in 47 years. While this attendance record is incredibly outstanding and notable at one time we had over six members with that record, and ten others quickly closing in on that number.

To view the podium, I had to look directly over Hayes’ head. I observed how he ate and what he chose to eat. After he consumed half his meal, I saw him select a single roasted potato from his plate. When he took a bite of it, he exclaimed, “Wow, I was just transported to 1943.”

“What Hayes?” I asked.

“These, roasted potatoes. They taste exactly like those that I had in 1943.” He paused to take a drink of his iced tea. “I had just arrived in London and was a young ensign. By coincidence, I was seated next to a famous British war airman. He had been seriously wounded in his final conflict. Hot shrapnel and flames had burned away most of his face. The doctors did what they could to reconstruct it but it was still hideous to say the least.”

Hayes stopped and paused again to breathe and place a few sautéed green beans on his fork.

Hayes began his story again. “He stared at me for a moment and then I realized he was looking at my ribbons above the pocket of my shirt. I had one ribbon which represented Valor.”

While still listening intently, I wanted to stop Hayes right there and ask just what he had done to achieve such recognition. But, before I could ask the question he began speaking again.

“I was so embarrassed that I had it in his presence. I wanted to rip them off right there. Hell, I was just in a conflict – I did not sacrifice like he had done. I was going to find the first person to remove that ribbon when I left the table.”

Hayes repeated, “I was so embarrassed.”

“The pilot in a squeaky kind of voice asked me, ‘Young man, just how old are you?’ Twenty-three sir, I answered: His head dropped. When he lifted it again he had visible tears in his eyes, and exclaimed, ‘My God, you’re just too damn young to witness this type of carnage. We’ve got to stop this war – now!’”

Hayes put the bite of beans in his mouth and started to chew. He was emotionless as he spoke. It sounded so matter of fact. He was not bragging. That was the end of the story. It ended rather abruptly.

Our club President, Dean Scott, stood to the podium and stated, “Everyone please rise. We will begin our second meeting of the year with Dinkins Grange leading us in the Anthem and Prayer.”

After the prayer, President Scott said we had fifteen minutes to talk to each other before the meeting would resume.

Hayes continued his story. “Days later, I was on the bridge of a US Supply Frigate heading toward the shore of Normandy, France (Normandy Invasion). Standing next to me was the most famous New York Times reporter. It was cold and wet, and the waves were high. When we came within five miles of Normandy, I noticed a large bomber in the distance. Focusing my field glasses on it, I noticed that it positively was an enemy German bomber.

I pushed the alarm button and shouted, ‘Battle stations – All men to their stations.’ I learned later that according to the New York Times reporter, we had witnessed the first military action of the Normandy invasion. In fact, my sounding the alarm represented that first action of the battle. He recorded it for posterity in the March 1953 issue of Time magazine. It actually had my name in print.”

Our club president started the meeting, and Hayes turned to listen. To Hayes, it was just another conversation, but to me, he had enthralled my curiosity for the next adventure.

I can’t wait until my next Rotary meeting and my rendezvous with Hayes Tate.

As I always assert, everyone has a story!

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