PRELUDE: As the legislative session is now history, I would like to tell you about a friend of mine who has simply has disappeared? No. Not lost track of. Disappeared! This friendship wasn’t one of those created by buddy systems created in the military primarily among the enlisted. This guy was an officer. I wasn’t, just a very young, enlisted airman like hundreds of others a long time ago on the small supply depot of Sealand RAF Station near Chester, England. The friend, Gentry, Robert J., Chaplain, Captain, USAF.
IT IS ABOUT THIS TIME every year I think of Chaplain Bob Gentry, for it was about this time of year when he vanished, disappeared. It was also about now when I last saw this great friend.
Apparently, I was sort of adopted by Chaplain Gentry and his family way back then. Their home on the base was my second home, of course, never forgetting my roots back home in South Dakota. For nearly three years I probably had as many meals with my adopted family as I did in the chow hall.
I remember most was that during those nearly three years, the chaplain collected old books, mostly religious and philosophy, nothing newer than the 17th century. Also, over that time he collected from a nearby “seconds” store of Wedgewood China a near-perfect dinner set of 12. Both were worth fortunes.
WHILE HIS MINISTRY was important to Chaplain Gentry, his greater interest was in helping people with serious problems. Besides his clergy degrees, Bob had also picked up a master¹s in clinical psychology, but he wanted his doctorate as well. He resigned his Air Force commission and went after his doctorate at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
A few years passed before seeing the family again. I had an opportunity to attend a conference in Tulsa where we met up again. It was a great reunion seeing his wife, Clair, their daughter, Anita, and the boys, Jon and Sean. In between, there were the usual Christmas cards, a rare telephone conversation and a more rare letter between us. But they, too, also started to fade until one day a British bloke, a common friend of the chaplain and myself, called on the phone looking for the Gentrys, but they were no longer in the Tulsa area. The Englishman was coming to this country for a wedding of a niece and he wanted to stop off and see the Gentrys, but they were gone, gone, gone.
This perked my newspaperman’s curiosity, so I joined the search. First, I contacted the chaplain’s former psych department. At first, a secretary had no idea where this doctoral candidate had moved to. Tight lipped as I have ever met. But as we visited, and as I gained her confidence, her lips loosened with a most bizarre description of what had taken place.
CHAPLAIN GENTRY went home one late afternoon from school, to discover his home cleaned out and his family no where to be found. His books, gone. That Wedgewood dinner set, gone. All attempts to contact his wife and kids failed. Days went by with nothing, until divorce papers arrived by courier. They were from a nameless commune in Oklahoma City. Then the demands for alimony started and that was when he started his running from this commune’s and his wife’s attorney and, I suspect, from the law. The secretary at the psych department said she was sworn to secrecy of his next stop. But as in the World War II poster, loose lips sink ships.
He had found a counseling job at a mental health center in Tennessee, until that attorney, and maybe the law, started closing in on him. Again, with my curiosity, I found the center and who had been his secretary there.
“He doesn’t work here anymore. I believe he has gone fishing in Florida,” she finally told me. That story was fishy from the start.
So, in response I urged her, if he ever called back to the center, to have him give me a call here in Watertown.
IT WASN’T THREE DAYS later when the phone rang. It was Bob, calling from Council Bluffs, Iowa. He was again running, but this time it was going to be right through Watertown and he wanted to stop for a while to rest. The next day about noon he pulled into the Spies Super Market parking lot, with another man, an old pickup, and an overloaded trailer. They were headed for British Columbia to look for their pot of gold and to get away from that attorney and all the woes that had befallen him over the past few years. He had given up.
He had lost his family, his profession, his self. Even his beloved books and china dinner set. He was tired of running and British Columbia, he thought, was his best answer, to pan for gold, but not a dime, ever, would go to his wife, or the commune she substituted in place of their marriage and their future lives together.
After a couple of days’ rest at my cabin on Lake Kampeska, the duo departed for Canada, never to be heard from again. When they were leaving, I asked, “Bob, can you let me know where you¹re at when you finally settle?”
“No,” was his retort, fearing that commune, or that attorney would somehow find him. “But I will always know where you are.”
That was a long time ago, but the memories of that guy still hang on….
Gordon Garnos was long-time editor of the Watertown Public Opinion and recently retired after 39 years with that newspaper. Garnos, a lifelong resident of South Dakota except for his military service in the U.S. Air Force, was born and raised in Presho.