E. Lowell " NO SWEAT" / "Robbie" Robbins, Jr.
Back in the 70's when I was writing for THE IRVINE TIMES-HERALD in Irvine, Kentucky, I heard about a man that lived out in the country that had a little grocery store on the Winchester Road. His name was Shirley King and he had been on the PT boat with John Kennedy during World War Two.
Having grown up in the 50's and 60's it was impossible not to know who John Kennedy was. And my grandfather, DaddyMack, was the owner of our town's one picture show. I had seen PT 109 three times and doing something like that almost made me an expert on the Kennedys.
I grabbed my camera and some film that our poor newspaper afforded and jumped into my van and headed down through Main Street out past my high school and out along a curvy road leading off into into a late summer of goldenrod and goldfinches. The sun-and-shadows messed with my soul as I passed through the countryside until I came to a stretch where I spotted a grey, wooden building owning corrugated sheets of rust around its base, faded signs on its side and out front, "KING'S GROCERY." Entering, I found myself in the den of dim-lit wooden shelves loaded down in canned goods and on the floor stacked against the counters, burlap commodities that my beloved Estill County occasionally bought. Occasionally, as there were those nefarious mid-nights when begotten outposts such as this were delicious palaces to rob.
Back off in the store, in a corner behind the counters, a man in coveralls and a worn farmer's cap was messing around, acting like he was paying me little notice. A minute passed and then the man spoke, asking if I needed anything. I told him that I was a writer and that I wanted to do a story on Shirley King and what he had done with John Kennedy.
The man said that he was Shirley King and then grabbed a chunk of quiet. You could see I had hit on something that took a hold on him. His stare went straight out the door to a world of long ago.
Shirley walked back from behind the counter. Though he was dressed like some farmer just in from fixing fences, I sensed that there was more to him that a barn full of tobacco or a cow that lost her calf. I saw William Holden. Having grown up in a small apartment over the top DaddyMack's theater, I identified people by the way movie stars looked and acted. For me, Shirley King was a lonely William Holden.
"Kennedy was younger than any of us. We called him Uncle Jack. He might have went 120 pounds. We weren't on the 109. Ours was 59."
"Yeah, it came after the 109. We called her 49. Joked it would be 1949 before the war was over. PT stood for patrol torpedo. Motor patrol torpedo boats. They were suppose to get in close to torpedo ships. But it didn't take long before the Navy found out that PT boats were useless. They'd get blown up before they could do anything. Our boat was one of the few that ever torpedoed a ship. Unfortunately, ours. The Capella. It was an accident on a training run off Narragansett Bay."
"What was Kennedy like?"
"I liked him. Allowed he loved to hear me talk. Late in '43 we had our torpedo tubes removed and mounted machine guns in their place. The boys liked me because I was from Kentucky and kept a still on the boat. The Navy had this stuff called Pink Lady that was used to propel torpedoes. They put that pink stuff in it to keep us from drinking it. After '43 we never had any torpedoes. Kennedy knew that. But Uncle Jack kept right on requisitioning.. I'd run it through my still and what came out would make you slap your grandma. Made a smooth drink mixed with pineapple juice. Some liked it with coconut but I preferred it like Uncle Jack did --- straight. After we'd lower the flag in the eve it was Pink Lady time."
"Did he ever talk about the 109?"
"Said if he hadn't swam in college he'd-a never been able to save one guy. Some of our crew had been with him on 109. Kennedy's back hurt all the time. Allowed he'd had trouble with it before 109. After what happened never helped any. We'd go up in and around these little islands and he'd never let us go any place where we couldn't fast turn around. I guess 109 made him like that."
"What did you ever do on 59?"
"We saved forty marines one night. You should have seen them. Their boat had sunk just off shore. God knows what would have happened if we hadn't come along. The island was loaded with Japs. I pulled one in and he kissed me. Got 'em all on our boat and after we got 'em out of trouble we ran out of gas. Luckily, another PT Boat threw us a line and towed us back to Lambu Lambu. One of 'em died in Kennedy's bunk."
"I heard you saw Kennedy in Kentucky?"
"Yeah, during the presidential campaign. Kennedy came through Louisville. Spotted my sign: 'HELLO 49ER!' He had the motorcade stop. Sent two secret service men over to fetch me. When I came up to him he grinned and asked if I had any Pink Lady. I told him I might if I looked right hard. He bust out laughing and got me to ride with him."
"Did you have it?"
"I'll never tell."
And Shirley King never did.