OKEECHOBEE — I have enjoyed and appreciated the articles about our veterans and their service, and recent happenings spurred me to recall one of our mostly unknown veterans, whom very few citizens will remember.
Some may have noticed that the little frame house on the southeast corner of Southwest Third Avenue and Southwest 21st Street is being remodeled — actually rebuilt. My subject is the builder of that little house — shortly after WWII ended.
Soon after the war, we got a band director for the high school. His name was Merle O. Kent. He was very different from the average man in Okeechobee at that time. Remember, we were pretty isolated at that time, travel being extremely difficult through the war, and we lived in a real cow town. As usual, anyone different soon had a nickname, and his was “Mo.” He was more educated and cultured than we were, calm, placid, considered, determined — rather “nerdy,” to resort to a later used description.
He was very frugal — as many veterans were when they returned to an economy which had utilized women much more than in the past. Jobs were scarce for vets. I don’t recall him ever having a car. He had an old bicycle, over-painted with aluminum paint, which he rode everywhere. He had a wife, and I think, a daughter, but he was so unassuming that I was not sure. Maybe others were, and knew him better. I remember he was taunted by the “big boys,” even to tying his bike to the chain on the flagpole in front of the auditorium and pulling it to the top every now and then.
I encountered him when he came to my sixth grade class and asked Lottie Raulerson if he could talk to me. He asked me if I would like to play in the band, and I certainly did, so I left with him, went to band practice, was set down directly in front of him, given an alto horn, shown where to put my fingers to play “G” and told to play the pah after the bass played the oom. After a while, he showed me how to play another note and we gradually worked through the staff as the songs required. Took some time. At all times I was the recipient of his swats with the baton when he wasn’t pleased with the band’s performance. The top of my head was always sore.
This, though, is about his determination and silent persistence.
Camp Blanding was a tremendous Army training base southwest of Jacksonville, near Starke. After the war, everything there was sold for scrap. It is again used as a reserve army base, and for certain other military purposes.
Not owning a car, I remember him borrowing one and a little trailer — I want to think, from Uncle Dave Coker, and spent his weekends there salvaging lumber to build a house for his family. I don’t know if he ever had any help in that task. Every Sunday he would come back with his salvaged lumber to save for the house. He built that house, surely aided by friends, but it got done. In my mind it is a war memorial of a sort. Others may have better memories than mine, but that little house is special to me and I am happy to see it improved again so that it will last and be of use to more families. It has served quite a few since Mr. Kent moved on.
He was a Navy veteran who never spoke of his service, but I recall him being reminded of something that had happened on his ship in the South Pacific. He termed it “a little ship in a big sea.” The ship was the aircraft carrier Intrepid which was in desperate warfare, surviving a kamikaze crash and now serving as a museum in New York Harbor. When I visited, I tried to locate him on the crew list, but the records were not available. However, the first airplane I saw on the deck was a McDonnell F-4B from my son’s Marine Corps squadron.
Not a heroic story, but a tribute to a good, patient, determined man. Maybe some others will remember him.