James H. Drake on his motorcycle (click to enlarge)

At 80, ‘Chief’ has a lot to look back on with pride

by Kerry Drake
— July 8, 2014

I told my father I was going to take him to dinner for his special birthday. He turned 80 last week.

He said OK, but added there was nothing special about the day. “You keep going, and one day you get to 80. Then you keep going some more.”

Kerry Drake

But it occurred to me that my Dad has packed a lot into living into those eight decades. After writing for a living for almost 40 years, I’ve never shared any information about the most influential man in my life. I’ve decided to correct that serious oversight today, even at the risk of committing a grievous act of privacy invasion. You should know about him.

James H. Drake was born on July 2, 1934, in the small community of Slatelick, Pa. Most members of his family were short, but Dad grew to be 6-foot-3. Much to the consternation of his high school’s basketball coach, who needed such height on the team, he chose to play trombone in the school’s marching band instead. He also played in a gospel quintet at his church.

“I may not have been the worst trombone player in the world,” he recalled last week, “but I was probably runner-up for the position.”

Dad had a younger brother named Ray. Still does, as a matter of fact. One day in their childhood, Ray asked about the black pellets he saw on the ground.

“That’s candy,” his brother replied, knowing how much Ray liked candy. My Dad watched as Ray scooped up a handful and happily put it in his mouth, having no idea that it was rabbit droppings, which explains my uncle’s life-long aversion to chocolate chip cookies. The story still draws laughs at family gatherings, especially from my Dad. Ray, probably not so much.

My father joined the Air Force soon after high school, and was assigned to the military police. He married a girl, 19-year-old Bernice Helenski, from a neighboring town, and by the time he was 21, they had a son.

Mom had planned to name me David James, but Dad filled out the paperwork while she was asleep and suddenly my namesake was a popular comic strip detective at the time, Kerry Drake. For my middle name, he chose Alan, after the actor Alan Ladd, whom he admired.

I don’t think Mom was too happy about that.

The Air Force sent my Dad to Germany, where he served for a year and a half. He dutifully sent back pictures of his travels, always wearing his trademark cowboy hat. When Mom went to the train station to welcome him home, she walked right by Dad, who was no longer wearing the hat and had lost almost all of his hair, except for a little around the ears.

Our family made it to Wyoming the first time when I was about two, when Dad was assigned to F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne. Next up were several bases in California, along with a new job — he became a member of the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigation (OSI).

His orders to Vietnam came when he was 33. I still remember the look of shock on Mom’s face when he told us where he was going — it was a mix of pain, sadness and fear of the unknown. I didn’t know much about the war, and didn’t understand why it had to involve my father, but he explained to me that when your country called, you went wherever you were told and did whatever it asked, no questions asked.

During his entire year at Bien Hoa Air Force Base near Saigon, his parents thought he was in Okinawa. He wanted to spare them the pain of watching the nightly news reports from Vietnam and wondering if he was OK, and since Mom and I were already worrying enough for all of us, we were glad to keep his secret if it gave them some peace.

The Viet Cong had placed a bounty on the head of every OSI agent, which we didn’t know until he arrived home safely. He had survived 22 rocket attacks at his base and been awarded the Bronze Star, and though he never talked about how he earned it or much about the war at all, we gathered from the little he told us that like many veterans there were a lot of memories he wished he didn’t have.

Dad was once again assigned to F.E. Warren, where he finished his 20-year military career and started a new one that saw him promoted to chief of police at the V.A. Center in Cheyenne, where he served another two decades before retiring. In-between he learned how to shoe horses.

He loved living in Wyoming because it afforded him the opportunity to own a horse and a good reason to dress like a cowboy. Soon after moving back to Cheyenne he bought Lady, whom he rode and cherished for more than 20 years. When she died, he couldn’t bear the thought of doing anything with his faithful companion other than what he did, which is buy a huge plot and bury her in the city’s pet cemetery.

His other love has been riding motorcycles, which unlike most 80 year olds, he continues to do to this day — his huge Kawasaki is still a familiar sight on the streets of Cheyenne, though he took some grief from the Harley-riding, Vietnam veteran buddies in his motorcycle club when he made the switch.

The Indian tattoos on his arms are works of art, especially the portrait of a chief, which is both pride in his Indian heritage — he’s part Seneca — and acknowledgement of his nickname, “Chief,” which most of his friends still call him.

As Dad worked at the VA, I began raising my own family. In all of the time I’ve known my father, I’ve never seen him as happy as he was the day he visited the hospital to welcome his first and only grandson into the world.

In 2000, Mom’s health began to deteriorate. She had diabetes, and eventually lost her right leg at the knee. Several years later she began to suffer from dementia. Through it all, Dad was right there beside her, as her only caregiver. They had been married for 53 years when she died on July 25, 2008, and he was devastated with grief.

The next few years in his life were quiet ones; even though his wife was no longer there to take care of, he didn’t leave home often, except to help some elderly friends. He read Westerns, ate far too little and spent almost all of his time alone, to the point where we worried about his well-being.

And then, as often happens, fate intervened, and brought new hope to my Dad in the form of Lucy, a former co-worker who had moved to New Mexico and also lost her spouse to illness. She looked him up during a trip to Cheyenne, and they are now constant companions taking care of each other. On his 80th birthday, I saw a man who had lived through a lot, but one who now seemed content to keep going as long as he can, happy that he has someone to share his life with again. So are we.

They say as you grow older, you begin to notice the similarities you share with your parents. Whenever it happens to me, it makes me smile — how could I not enjoy being like my father in some ways? He’s my friend, my Dad, and he’ll always be my hero.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Mr. Drake,
    What a wonderful way to pay homage to your father. I believe it is in our lineage that we find true solace. I like the photo of him. Is there any chance your mother lived in Delaware before?

    Sharlene Mealey

    1. Sharlene, thanks very much for your comments about the tribute to my Dad. He will be 81 in two days, on July 2, 2015, and I will pass on your best wishes. He wanted to ride a motorcycle until he turned 80 and he made it, and reluctantly sold the one in the picture. But he’s still thinking about getting a smaller one. Both he and my Mom were born and raised in Pennsylvania.

      Kerry Drake

  2. Geez, Kerry, I’m bawling. What a great piece on your dad. I’ve never met him, but let him know, he’s hero of mine, too.