On October 25, 2013 Alan Parker, a reporter at the Toronto Sun at the time, interviewed his cousin, Jimmy Parker. Parts of this interview were run on his column “Nosey Parker” over the course of several weeks. This is the first installment. It will be followed by “# 20 Best True Story,” “# 21 Why did they die young,” and “# 22 William Sullivan.”
Jimmy Parker and Alan Parker Amsterdam, Holland 2014
Alan: When I was a child, two of my favourite relatives were Uncle Earl and Aunt Vera, who lived in a comfortably sprawling house on a wooded acre lot on a hill overlooking Southern Pines, North Carolina.
It was always a fun house to visit, with kids running around and trees to climb and goldfish ponds to fall into and strange contraptions to investigate in the garage. Earl, when he wasn’t busy being a successful entrepreneur, was usually doing something truly exciting, like teaching us kids how to whip up a batch of homemade coconut ice cream from scratch.
When I say “us kids,” I’m referring to Earl and Vera’s daughters, who were about my age and with whom I hung out when I was visiting Southern Pines. As we younger kids were messing around with ice cream or playing with toys or poking snakes and goldfish with sticks out in the yard, a long, lanky Tom Sawyer would sometimes drift through the scene with a funny story here and a wink there. And then be gone again, like Tom Sawyer, into the big world outside that comfortably sprawling house on a wooded hill in Southern Pines, North Carolina.
That would be my cousin Jimmy, a teenager at the time and probably a gawky, confused teenager like most, but in my childhood eyes a young god. I was in awe of him. Jimmy was just the coolest, smartest, bravest, most with-it and altogether interesting person I knew. It was always a tremendous honour and pleasure whenever Jimmy took the time to bestow a few words on his younger cousin, me. Now, far more than half a century later, I still feel the same way.
Jimmy (I have so much trouble calling him by his grown-up name, Jim, but I’ll try) joined the U.S. Army in 1964 and deployed to Vietnam in 1965 as a 22-year-old second lieutenant platoon leader.
His unit was the first into the Iron Triangle area north-west of Saigon and the tunnels of Cu Chi. Only one man in his platoon lasted the year without being wounded. Jim came out of the experience with awards for bravery and for wounds he received (Bronze Star with “V” for combat heroism and Purple Heart) and — three decades further on — a book about those and other, later experiences in Vietnam.
Jim left the Army in 1967 and, as he puts it, “married a gorgeous North Carolina lady, went back to UNC Chapel Hill and had a chance encounter with a CIA recruiter.” As a result of that “chance encounter,” Jim joined the Special Operations Division of the Central Intelligence Agency in the summer of 1970.
After a year’s training at CIA facilities throughout the U.S., Jim was assigned to upcountry Laos, where he led Hmong mountain tribesmen in their not-so-secret “secret” fight against invading North Vietnamese who were intent on bringing Laos into the communist sphere of influence.
(I used to think Jim was involved in interrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail — that massive troop-movement and supply line the North Vietnamese ran through nominally neutral Laos to South Vietnam — but that was a different CIA operation. Jim’s Laos fight was straight-up stopping regiments of regular North Vietnamese troops, supported by armour and heavy artillery, from rolling through the Plaine des Jarres and taking the Laotian capital of Vientiane. That simple and that complicated.
Against enormous odds, the CIA army of mountain hill tribe irregulars and Thai “mercenaries” held off the North Vietnamese, though at an enormous cost to the Hmong. Eventually, as a diplomatic “solution” to the Vietnam War was hammered/weaseled out in Paris, the CIA operation in Laos was shut down and Jim moved over to the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam.
Many days after the government of South Vietnam surrendered to the North Vietnamese and the American Embassy in Saigon was evacuated in 1975, Jim was still secretly in-country rescuing Vietnamese who had worked for the CIA.
Into May, Jim was still on the ground in Vietnam, extricating Vietnamese who had worked for the CIA — and who thus faced certain death under the communists.
My cousin was among the first U.S. soldiers into Vietnam in 1965 and he was, to the best of my knowledge, the last American to leave in 1975. His experiences bracketed the American involvement in Vietnam. He knows the good, the bad and the ugly about that fight.
After Vietnam came a long career as a CIA field officer in Asia and Africa before Jim retired prior to the inauguration of the Clinton administration. He went back to work for the CIA in the wake of 9/11 and finally re-retired in 2012 after spending most of 2010 and 2011 in Afghanistan. In his CIA career, Jim received two Certificates of Outstanding Service, a Certificate of Distinction and the Intelligence Medal.
I knew about Jim’s U.S. Army service in Vietnam but, like most people outside his immediate family, was unaware of his CIA career. As far as I knew Jim worked for the U.S. State Department in some vague consular role that took him and his family hither and yon around the world through the later ’70s, the ’80s and ’90s.
Vera, Earl, Jim and Brenda in the 1970s, back when I thought Jim was some kind of embassy paper pusher
Jimmy: Well, yeah. That’s pretty much it. All that… Or maybe not. Here’s the true story, Alan, but promise not to tell.
I didn’t give much of a hoot about studying early in high school, so my parents sent me to my father’s alma mater, Mars Hill College, in the summer of ’58 to take a college level history course in hopes of jump-starting an interest in academics.
Well what it did was to bring me into contact with some upperclassmen including a couple of guys from Cuba. These two made quite a story of tequila, lime, salsa and hot rumba music under a full moon on a Cuban beach with some lightly dressed, full-bodied “chica.” They’d tell me stories and then bounce their eyebrows.
Pretty foreign and grown up, you’d think, for a 15-year-old small-town country boy in North Carolina.
However, also among the friends I made at Mars Hill was a guy from Lake Wells, Florida, and Alan Page from Wilson, N.C. Page suggested that after summer school he could borrow his father’s car and we could drive to Lake Wells, then over to Miami, visit Cuba, come back to the States and drive back to N.C. All in a week’s time.
I proposed to my parents a trip in Page’s car down to see our Florida friend and then straight back home … and maybe because I had done pretty good in that college course, they agreed.
But then Page couldn’t get the family car, so he and I sneaked off and thumbed to Florida and then over to Cuba for three days and two nights.
A pretty eye-opening experience, but more than that, it proved to me that I could get out there and get-after-things myself. Sort of coming of age.
Howsoever, my parents weren’t all that enthused about my “coming of age” and in fairly short order they sent me to a military school.
That’s the real story, Alan, but I certainly like yours better. My story does have its share of Tom-Sawyer-in-sin-city details, but I’ll save them for later.
But here’s something: I learned in the CIA that for every new thing, there is usually some untold, often surprising, this-happened-because story.
This is my this-happened-because backgrounder to that Cuban jaunt…
When I was something like — I don’t know, I was still in diapers — 1 or 2 maybe, Mom would put me in the fenced back yard of our house in Aberdeen, N.C., which was on busy US Hwy 1. She had a couple of other kids to attend and housework and all, so if I was penned up safe in the back, it freed her up to do more inside.
Well one day she put me in the back and went back inside. Not long thereafter she checked on me… and I was gone.
She ran to the back of the yard, yelling. To the front by the busy US # 1. “Jiiimmmmmmyyyyyyyy, JJJJJiiiiiimmmmmmy.” No Jimmy. Frantically she got in the car and went out behind the house, over the bridge to the next street and down three block — let me repeat, over the bridge and then three blocks south — to downtown Aberdeen, where she spotted me walking along, casually looking into windows , God-almighty dirty, with a fully loaded diaper. Just very comfortable out there.
So I think I was born to ramble. You’ll remember our grandfather Joseph Elijah Parker was bad to roam. He wasn’t necessarily the farmer everyone wanted him to be and sometimes he’d just take off, sleeping under bridges, selling Fuller brushes door to door. Getting along. Coming back to the “home place” occasionally, usually to father another kid and then he’d be gone.
Maybe with all that in mind my early travel to Cuba wasn’t that surprising, you know what I mean?