Victoria veteran receives high school diploma at 74
May 18, 2011 at 12:18 a.m.
You're a good man, Charlie Brown, but you're also the unluckiest kid on the block.
Troy Howard could sympathize with you.
The 74-year-old Victoria resident and Air Force veteran has traveled an exhausting path en route to his high school diploma.
Along the way, he has been kidnapped, worked as a migrant worker as well as in a prison stockade.
If you think it sounds like hell, it was - at least that's how Howard describes some parts of it.
His story begins in 1941 when his father kidnapped him and his twin brother, Roy, along with his two sisters. Together they traveled in a caravan with migrant Mexicans and some blacks from farm to farm, picking cotton.
"We lived together like we were gypsies," Howard explained.
Their annual treks started from Bowie, Texas, and ended in some farms in New Mexico. Howard can't name most of the cities they lived in because he doesn't remember anything but farms.
Well, that and the 500 pounds of cotton he and his brother had to pick every day unless they wanted to rile up their 300-pound father, who Howard said partied the money away.
"A person cannot imagine the hell we went through on those fields with my dad," Howard said. "He was a slave master."
But the hard field work wasn't the twin brothers' only problem. Since the farms paid more during the fall, his father made the two work instead of go to school, making them fall behind.
Things got so bad that Howard couldn't spell by the third grade, not even his own name. (He spelled it as Toy.)
It didn't get much better when they did attend school. The brothers had to commandeer used paper and pencils from trash cans like scavengers and even played with used Crayolas.
Their father also bought clothes that were too big for them. That may have kept them warm in the fields, but it didn't help them in the cruel popularity-quest that is childhood.
Luckily, relief came when the brothers turned 10 and their mother found them. They got full years' worth of education from the fourth to seventh grade, and were able to finish the eighth-grade.
Yet the damage from falling behind by two years was having an effect on the brothers' psyches, who were already big for their age.
"I was embarrassed," said Howard, who told of how the younger kids snickered at him and his brother Roy. "We had an inferiority complex."
That's when the black cloud of misfortune hovered over another from their clan. His cousin, Tommy Ray Howard, was drafted into the Army to fight in Korea and came upon some Chinese soldiers with his unit.
As Tommy Ray tried to get away, he was hit by a grenade that mangled his face and blew away his sight. Howard and his brother always looked up to Tommy Ray, whose spirit was forever broken after the ambush.
The two got their mother to allow them to enlist in 1952 at 16 years old, threatening to run away if she didn't. They trained in Texas, but as they were going through combat training as Air Police, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an armistice, ending the brothers' chance of going into combat.
They were sent to England in 1953 where Howard had to deal with military prisoners in the stockade.
It was during this time that Howard and others like him started wanting something that had eluded them for so long, a high school diploma.
The military told them that if they got 20 men together that it would pay for a teacher. They did and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, they went back to high school on the base.
The guys from Texas had to get 15 units. Howard, figuring since he trained in that state, tried to fulfill its requirements. He even did what many college students do today, taking as many easy courses as he could by enlisting in three science units.
"They didn't tell us (anything). We had to figure it out ourselves," said Howard, who needed just unit more when he got shipped back to Victoria. "I was cramming to get that because I was fixing to be discharged."
Then Charlie Brown found another rock in his Halloween sack.
Turns out since he enlisted in New Mexico, Howard had to fulfill that state's requirements of 16 units. And he was only allowed to take one science unit.
An education administrator told him to go after his GED, but that was never enough for Howard.
"To me, what it means is accomplishment," said Howard of the degree he'll soon receive. "I wanted my high school diploma. I don't want a GED."
Fortunately, New Mexico hasn't forgotten men like Howard. It passed a law in 2003 allowing those who enlisted during the Korean War to receive their high school diplomas.
Jelayne Curtis, executive assistant to the superintendent for Clovis Schools, received a letter about Howard from the state of New Mexico. Together with his wife, Linda, she persuaded Howard to come to the Clovis High School commencement ceremony on Saturday to accept his and Roy's diplomas rather than just having them mailed.
"I just think it means something to them irregardless of their age that they are able to have that piece of paper," said Curtis, who has talked to other veterans about receiving their diplomas.
Linda Howard said her husband is excited but a little down that he'll miss the Warrior's Weekend ceremony on Friday.
Good grief, Charlie Brown just can't catch a break.