Henry Smithers and Roxann Smithers
DescriptionRoxann Smithers (39) interviews her father Henry Smithers (68) about his childhood in West Virginia, his time serving in Vietnam, and his 33-year career as a truck driver.
Subject Log / Time Code
- Henry Smithers
- Roxann Smithers
Recording LocationAtlanta History Center
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00:04 My name is Roxanne Cherie Smithers. I'm 39 years old. It is May 24th 2006. I'm at the 2016. I'm at the storycorps booth at in Atlanta, Georgia, and I'm here with my father Henry Smithers.
00:23 I am Henry Smithers on a 68 today is
00:28 Nathan May 24th 2016. I'm at the store storycorps booth at Atlanta, Georgia and talking to my daughter.
00:41 So Daddy tell me about where you were born and where you grew up.
00:47 I was born in West Virginia live in West Virginia 1948.
00:56 A small place very small place not listed on the map really but this there what was it like living there at the time of the greatest place in the world growing now that I look back it was a hard place to live.
01:16 What made it hard?
01:20 There wasn't a whole lot of money. There was a lot of people mostly relations or people that you threw up WellStar.
01:34 There wasn't a lot of people here. So.
01:39 I had my grandmother Claudia for my mother my brother and sister Frank and Mary was grandma's name Claudia your mother's name and no husband. She was so rough. She didn't take a lot of stuff, you know, especially with two boy. She was harsh, but she gave us some good training.
02:20 What sort of things did she do with you guys when you were a little nervous energy and her day was to be busy. So that was our main objective to be busy. We worked hard and that was her whole thing one.
02:43 Nobody owes you anything you have to work hard to survive. So that's what we did sort of work that she do. Well, she did some housework for four people Neighbors in
02:57 I took your ass Ricky. It's funny when I tell people my family from West Virginia. They're always surprised they always say I didn't think there any black people in West Virginia are there a lot?
03:09 Well when we grew up with Elsa that's quite a few but sometimes you couldn't tell you her family was sort of mix and blend.
03:24 It wasn't a bad place to live, but it was harsh.
03:29 I know whenever we go back for the homecoming. I was joke that you did walk uphill both ways to school. It was based upon the mountain cash his heel.
03:46 Like I said, it was just somewhere we living at that time, you know until you know different nice place beautiful country.
03:56 Everybody was closed everybody helped everybody, you know, it was a time when you you know, if somebody needs something done you helped and they helped to
04:09 That's the way to survive.
04:15 Well, you know, it's mainly Gores are correlated Goins Davidson's I was several families, you know, almost everybody was related to The Gorge in one way or the other.
04:33 I think that goes back to the slave owners. They were they were gorgeous. So almost everybody was related least by name Hannah
04:47 That's the way we serve. I I know the most places you have a family reunions. It's one family, but they are we have homecoming and it's all the families get together for homecoming. Do you know how long they've been doing that? I can remember which is I'm 68, so long time.
05:10 How often do you get to go back for homecoming pretty much every year not that often?
05:21 I did spend some time living there, you know, probably a couple years. I was basically living there and but other than that not every several years we did.
05:37 Who is your dad?
05:40 Paul Smith
05:43 Which I didn't really know what I know of him. Didn't really know it.
05:49 And he had a bit of a drinking problem. So he wasn't part of the family.
05:58 I know more of his brother, you know, they sorta every once in awhile came by to see and check on me. You know, what was his brother's name? I don't really know what's real name. We called him pick and you said Smith Smith Smith. So how did we end up with the others? I have a cousin. So how they are really don't know most of that was some things I learned from older people.
06:34 I didn't really know fully but they were cousin so.
06:38 How long did you live in West Virginia?
06:41 Till I was 18.
06:44 Which was unfortunately 50 years ago.
06:50 What what made you move or what? What was the reason for the move graduated from high school and needed a job. So we moved.
07:00 I move first and then I move my mother and brother and sister. Where'd you move here, Ravenna, Ohio?
07:09 Why Ravenna, Ohio because we had relations are you know, what happened cousins and people live in movie for us, you know, and that's when we move there.
07:23 Denver live that long but I asked where we moved that they always talk about the Great Migration earlier, but there's so many waves of the migration of black people moving from the south to different cities in the north and that's just sort of kind of an example of that. So you moved their first how long were you there before you move your brother and your sister and your mom 6 weeks less than 2 months.
07:58 That was my intention to move.
08:02 They were you know, I just wanted well not being away from him. I didn't want to be away from him. I don't necessarily think my mom really liked it at first she didn't like being out of West, Virginia.
08:18 But you can wear you the oldest what's the age difference between you and a merry and Uncle Frank Greer's older than Frank?
08:33 Go sees I'm 68 piece turn 65 this month.
08:39 Mary is one year less than him to know.
08:44 That's it. How did they like it when they moved to, Ohio?
08:51 I didn't really like it and you know, they had a hard time adjusting. My sister was a bit of a fighter so that way is she got a few problems.
09:11 So what was it like?
09:15 In terms of moving to Ohio with a lot of black people. What was the community like
09:26 Yeah, it was different and that you know the community been being an outsider wasn't it's closed near this we were in West Virginia people didn't seem to help you. If you don't go there everybody helped everybody if you need it food if you needed something somebody knew about it than they prefer tried to provide or help you that we didn't get in.
09:52 Just seem like more for frana seems like the big city compared to Luverne will.
09:59 It seemed like
10:04 Country without the PIN a country in Illinois
10:09 It was different, you know.
10:13 But I went about trying to figure out a way to get somewhere to stay and find a job.
10:22 My intention was to find a great job. Well that didn't happen. But what kind of work did you get Factory?
10:31 And I worked a couple different factories, but I was draft day. So I had to transfer my draft notice from West Virginia to Ohio, which actually helped me it.
10:47 It changed.
10:49 My Draft date. I wish I was about four draft when I left West Virginia being 18 and probably would have been drafted earlier and in Ohio. It was a year-and-a-half before I actually was drafted which will I guess was a benefit. I'm sure it was cuz it change the direction of I went into the service where I went.
11:19 It was I know it was a hard time for my mom and hard for my brother cuz they had never you don't get away from me more then.
11:30 Few weeks, you know, like I said less than 2 months.
11:33 And this was more permanent or I could have been definitely permanent and Evergreen on Frank. He didn't take it really well.
11:44 Mom played it all she was a strong lady. I don't think she did either.
11:53 But that's what you know how to do what I had to do.
11:57 What did you think about it when you were drafted?
12:00 Well, it was something that was going to happen. I was only in for 3 days and I took an extra year, which the soon as I sign my name. I thought man you made a mistake. This is this what I was done. Why did you do that? Why did you decide to do that?
12:19 Do you know they gave you the spill that you can get a better job and that was so rude before that. They were trying to win the draft down. So they gave you the illusion that you could get what you wanted by volunteer. It was only an illusion, but I fell for it to which you know as time went on. I realize it wasn't a bad decision but at first and it was being in basic and it was
12:54 Dora hard because you think you made a mistake and your vag has another year.
13:00 They gave me a choice. I thought I was going to be a psychiatric aide. That's what I thought. I didn't read. Chloe. Actually, I was prevented Madison, but I didn't realize that.
13:16 And I thought when I got I thought it was White Plains New York was my first assignment out of basic, but it wasn't was White Sands, New Mexico.
13:28 A little bit of a different depending on the time of year where you know my policy everything works together for you. God has a plan. Sometimes we don't understand it. Didn't know what it was.
13:49 Grandma caught it was a prayer and a few days before I was to believe her and her friends. They had a serious prayer meeting that you like all day. Not a couple hours all day long.
14:05 And at the end they told me that I wouldn't get a scratch in Vietnam. Why didn't know if I actually believe that but it was true. I spent a year and 4 days and never got one scratch. Never.
14:25 And they were
14:29 I work always thought from them old ladies. They just talkin but now I realize they've had a serious prayer me.
14:42 I win.
14:45 And I did what I was supposed to do it was.
14:52 What's a hard time?
14:54 It mainly because you think about home.
14:59 And you can't remember not one bad thing about home and everything's good. The food's good the people who that everything is great.
15:13 Take some getting used to is totally different from anything that I've ever encountered even to know. It's not a day goes by that. I don't think about it in some way or another on your crosses my mind.
15:29 In ways, I'm glad I wear wouldn't want to do it again.
15:36 It was a learning experience cuz I never interacted with a lot of people.
15:43 Really shy with a steel ants.
15:47 I'm at the job. I had gave me confidence to speak to people.
15:54 So that's what I did. I did what I had to do that was here in the states and why saying I love out west and that's why I do today how long you're out there. They're five months.
16:09 And I gained almost all of my ranking US five months.
16:13 I came out a basic didn't gain any rank. When in the cat came out the same way. I went in to eat nothing they say
16:23 But it was a platform for me to move and the job I got when I got the Vietnam at wasn't Kombat wasn't Transportation. I wasn't to cook replacement a civil Affairs unit. So I did some work as preventive medicine, but mostly we were just there to so to win the people over.
16:48 And take care of their knees as best we could.
16:52 And the training I got that by saying.
16:57 Gave me that ability to to reach out to people to talk to people take information to gather things and it was it was good the whole thing turned out to be better than hot dog, cuz I was upset when I found out I wasn't going to be what I thought about what we ran around with mosquito Nets and
17:19 Train looking for insects and checking diseases.
17:25 That but that was in Texas and I ended up at Fort Sam Houston and Texas which is where all medical Corps in the service goes through in the Army. I doctors specialist. Everybody goes through the same place all Special Forces drain there so it turned out a lot better than you know, but being young man, what did you get into but I turned out all right.
17:58 Where were you stationed when you went to Vietnam my company was in?
18:07 But I moved up north to quandary and way that was an experience, you know.
18:16 When I first got the Vietnam it was they had thousands of troops coming in cuz they thousand the guys move back and forth every day cuz it's at point that we had about 350 for 10,000. Troops are what year was it? It's a 68 or 69 first hit was
18:37 You look at the city of man green and the older ones telling Tales exaggeration The Young Ones fighting like you are we wanting to Danang in it seemed all right, it didn't seem as all the things. I've heard about it. It seems all right, but then we flew in the country.
19:01 And we started taking fire on the plane there.
19:05 And now you reality sets in you here.
19:10 And I know you're going to have to deal with it. So it landed in the Hudson salt to where we had to go and you get there and it's hot tents and Hooch has to know it was Firebase is where they bring stuff in all the truth move around from areas in the fire, baby.
19:30 Asgard Mouse and it's a lot of noise.
19:34 Tremendous. I've never heard some of us know I learned how to sleep.
19:40 Almost impossible. It took at least two weeks for I got halfway decent night's rest because sometimes on tonight we come under attack and you have to get up and usually falls on her but you up. So now you got to go back and try to go to sleep and they constantly fine.
20:05 House where I was it was 6 miles from the DMV 6 miles from North Vietnam. So there's a lot of activity around there because they trying to block troops from, South.
20:18 And it's a lot of stuff going on all the time.
20:22 But after a while it becomes a normal.
20:25 You get used to it.
20:28 And then thank you start doing stupid stuff. I'm not wearing you dear.
20:34 I know. I don't know if you get where you're not afraid are you just stupid, but that's what we did.
20:45 Dear one by relatively fast
20:48 I started out in a bad place and they ended up in a bath play in between it was like a holiday. I was in way which was the capital for the French were there.
21:02 We had lived in a large Fila. It was nice. Sip tea, whatever little job we had to do it day is going by fast. What was your main job when you were there there we were I was going to be in preventing medicine. They let me play at my job. I will collect mosquito and take him to the lab and a testament. That was my main job done today.
21:38 My first got there. It was a like that the first place was but it's not good. We had to move out at night and being civil Affairs in those that attacked almost all the time. They raid Villages, so we had to go into the villages and take try to get some
22:00 Information on actually what it happened cuz sometimes you know and then we didn't speak to him. We're so we had to American interpreters and three Vietnamese interpreter. So if The Interpreter was linear who was well it was a guessing game as well actually was going on but this happened in the middle of the night on all the time. They get wounded in.
22:27 I would take cares shoot count families and you had to sort of figure out what's going on and get this one's it out shove them out and forgot where they were taking them. So the family if they showed up the next day you could slow to tell him or maybe their family was
22:45 Wait was just like like say like vacation.
22:50 But the last three months I was in worse than it was before because now we are we changed and it's a like a six-man team, but it's 5,000 Vietnamese in six of you guy.
23:07 That's not good. And that's where I got the monstar.
23:14 Just being where you at?
23:17 Nothing in particular just taking care of what you supposed to be doing. That's all.
23:25 It was that was a bad play. I was glad when it was over cuz near the end of your tour you start to feel like you're not going to make it things are going to go wrong cuz you seen too many things happened before.
23:41 Did you make any friends while you were there? I thought this morning when you know, if I can you remember your friends and I can't remember I could if they walked in I know their faces, but I can't remember their name and I don't know if that was by this time. So you didn't want to remember my don't know but sometimes it crossed my mind. I don't know their names, but I know their faces and I wonder if they made it like I did that made it home in one piece and a reasonable mind, you know, anybody in particular for the stick out of your mind and in the eniac interactions that stick out in your mind really good friends, and we're on a Firebase and we started some initiatives that I think you know, it made me feel stroller.
24:39 I'm glad that I went to as we did some things we work with North Vietnamese refugees. They didn't have anything they had just came from the north and they were there we started a laundry and we pick the clothes up everyday and let the design of women do the laundry for the truth and I feel good about that and
25:06 Jack was a good friend of mine. He really why do you remember, Kentucky?
25:12 Yeah, and then after I left his dad passed and that you had to go home.
25:20 I don't know what happened to him after that. I don't know. I know we had to go back and don't know.
25:27 But he's one friend that cuz he was a friend. I have another friend of Mexican fellow Estrada. He was crazy.
25:40 He just crazy. I meant he was a good candidate for War. I had to keep him calm everyday. You can't shoot people. You can't kill people. You can't help people who you know.
25:55 He came off the streets and out of Houston in.
25:59 He just was my friend cuz he was great. Maybe that was a friend. I wonder about him. You know, I don't know I was he had more time to do than I did then.
26:19 Then where he was, I don't know if you made it or not. I don't know.
26:23 I got to make a trip to the wall.
26:27 Probably can't recognize most names cuz I can't remember but I just go there, you know something might show up. I remember somebody's name.
26:40 Butter and Randy going to make the trip. I wife Coming Home.
26:56 It was it was more foreign at home. Then it was there. You know, I have to be in there and coming home with different for one thing. It was so quiet.
27:09 And I know you get so used to Choppers.
27:13 Fighter bombers in Noah's going on constantly and you don't realize that you get used to it. Then when you get home, it's like so quiet. So any noise scares, you know, it was startling you when I was driving with my cousin Lauren.
27:33 And the cop pulled up behind me. He wonder why I was going so slow cuz you didn't run over everything. You see me. If you seen something in the road you dodged it or went around it or make sure you know what it was before you cross it.
27:49 And I was just nervous.
27:53 But I want to work 4 days after I got home at home 71.
28:02 Black winter, you know, I come from Vietnam went to, Georgia.
28:08 And Fort Benning in this I got it. I came home and I went to work a day at it and they call Project transition where you supposed to come back into civilian life.
28:20 And the thing tonight the classes for I never did processing. I didn't have computers in a I cook card. So I remember I'm 68, but they didn't I didn't do that. I went into a factory and I got a job and I just went straight to work which probably was good. Cuz I've been lolling around with half the guys just set around did nothing, you know, I want to work back to mom got to work.
29:04 I sometimes I regret it, but I went to work. Why what would you have done?
29:10 Different maybe went to school. Maybe I had some officers. I really wanted me to.
29:21 They they they had reached over and over until I go back to Ohio. Just get a job.
29:27 Are they caused their I had a little rank. So I was in charge almost everybody in my unit in Port Manning. The ones that I was in charge of they had either a degree or a couple years of college. Which I didn't feel intimidated embossing you do but
29:50 Do you know the captain say man? You need to do better. Don't go back there and do that.
29:56 But I did I have no I did just what he said not to do.
30:03 So, what did you ultimately end up doing for a career?
30:08 Driving truck. Why did you get into truck driving school?
30:17 Which your mom and I had discussions about it, and that's one thing they agreed on.
30:24 Cuz we had friends intro try and they were making way more money than I was so I went to school and
30:35 And 33 years later. We finish that I thought that was a mistake to once I did.
30:44 But I Stay.
30:47 Like most things once you do it you find out everything is not bad and there's a lot of good things about it. Why did you like about it?
30:58 Being basically on my own there was lots of Vietnam best driver. I think it helped them, you know, they didn't have to deal with people constantly, you know, you're basically on your own.
31:17 How long she did what had to be done? Same thing in the server folks didn't bother you not an inner combat you do what you supposed to do when he left you alone. I was aware. That was a truck.
31:33 And now
31:35 I liked it first. I really liked.
31:40 I like moving I like being in different places seeing different people but not dealing with the same fellows all the time. Was your favorite place to go or favorite route West, Texas and Beyond.
32:01 But I like the whole country, you know, I seen most of the country been every state except, you know, Hawaii Alaska the main line Mainland States. I've been to a whole bunch of times.
32:22 It was something I like doing.
32:26 I was fascinated with truck. So Mike are not necessarily big truck, but just trucks, you know.
32:34 And there's something I wanted to do and I did it.
32:37 And I want to go on my own and I did that.
32:41 So life has been too bad. Been too bad. What did you think about when you retired?
32:52 Boys didn't really know I was going to work out. So you too many guys. It's been a lot of years on the road and they would somehow figure out how to get back on the road.
33:07 I gave up my license and I knew that that's probably what I would do to if I didn't and I'm glad I did.
33:17 I know you guys wonder why I sit and watch TV all day 33 years almost constantly moving. It just is a piece about Canada set still not worried about the next low you're in about the next bill. You know, I'm at work still have concerns about bills, but I don't have to make sure to get up and leave Sunday morning or whenever get home Saturday and leaving Sunday and that went on year in year out.
33:50 Day in and day out. That's why I you know, but it's getting to where at this time in the movie not drug drive. But you know I said for 4 years, what time is it something different but
34:06 I enjoy just being quiet. Just been gone.
34:16 I still like to get out and drive places though. Oh, yeah. I was hoping to drive to California.
34:24 But that's not going to happen. Not this year anyway.
34:29 One trip, you know where I don't have to look out the window.
34:35 And pass by if you want to stop by could.
34:39 You know, we all those years lot of it was you constantly moving. It's not a lot of stopping and not a lot of brakes. Are there any places that you'd like to go back to just visit that you were going to pass through but didn't get to really stop at sea.
34:55 Yeah, like I said places out where you know, I want to go to the Grand Canyon.
35:04 Places like that and that I can stop rather than just saw the floating through, you know, I like, Arizona.
35:14 I don't take that like the East Coast.
35:18 Like from Mom and you know go up there especially in the fall, you know things that I can slow down and do it. Yeah.
35:29 Doing stuff like that. If you weren't a truck driver, what where else would you would you have done anything else?
35:41 Auto and truck again.
35:44 I don't know how I would have probably like to want to school and maybe doing some sort of research something that you could last, you know long after you're gone. I don't know what that would have been.
36:00 Maybe something you know that, you know, you can leave something other than just you Trail through.
36:09 What's if you could think of one, you know, really important lesson that you feel like you've learned in your life. What would it be?
36:21 The thing that you looking at now, it's not necessarily what it is. You know, it's not as bad as it's the same or as good as it looks like it is.
36:33 Patience and you will realize see the big picture later.
36:37 That's the one thing I learned nothing. Most people when you get a hold of you realize I left that is no real reason to be in a big hurry have for one must say yes if your life is in your rear-view mirror. So just slow down, you know, I think that would be a good lesson when you're younger cuz when you're older time close at now, you don't see the need to slow down.
37:10 I think that's one thing that's one thing. I would have probably done different, you know.
37:16 Maybe taking a job somewhere where I didn't have to move so much.
37:24 But I didn't do that so can't change the past.
37:32 Question, what do you think about this experience as having this conversation?
37:45 Sometimes you know it brings up memories.
37:49 Some things are not so pleasant with something before you know, you realize there was a reason for almost every other reason for everything and older you get something you'll be able to realize some of the reasoning behind what happened and what didn't happen.
38:09 I always thought I should have went to school but probably not when they've been the best, dude.
38:18 I like you said I'm not an anarchist, but I do question things.
38:26 I didn't know I was where I needed to be and I got to do what I wanted to do.
38:35 Then long can train and she like the money to so.
38:40 That was good.
38:44 Well, I'm very glad that you humored me and agreed to come and have this conversation. Thank you for reminding me. I love you. I love you, too.