Sometimes the larger facts slip from Neal Gordon’s mind — Johnny Carson’s name, South Carolina’s most famous city, the county that contains his childhood home.
But even the tiniest personal details remain. The pop gun he got for Christmas in 1931, the 14 college girls he met in the summer of 1942, the 46 mosquito bites he got while stationed in Guam.
“I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast,” he said. “But I’ve got stories. Oh, I’ve got stories.”
Gordon, 85, has spent most of his life in Danville where he and wife Joyce raised their two children. But his tales of Great Depression scarcity, high school pranks and World War II travels span the country and the world.
Gordon was born in Kentucky and traveled around Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Texas with his father, Neal McDougal Gordon’s, engineering job.
The Gordons continued their mobile lifestyle when the Great Depression hit in 1929, but they were no longer following work.
“I remember we kept moving around a lot, and I think it was because we couldn’t pay the rent,” he said.
At one point, the family settled in St. Joseph, Mo., where Gordon’s uncle lived and occasionally spared $1 to help keep food on the table.
An aunt in Ebenezer lured the Gordons back to Kentucky in 1931, and after a short stay in Lexington, they moved to her farm.
The property lacked running water and electricity, but it gave the family a chance to get on its feet enough to celebrate a modest Christmas.
Along with his prized cork-shooting pop gun and some targets, Gordon received an orange and a couple of English walnuts, delicacies in a time of necessity.
The older Neal Gordon eventually secured a job in Danville through the Works Progress Administration, and his son began attending Danville public schools in 1934.
Grade school English teacher Joe Hibbs still holds a special place in Gordon’s memory both for his creative teaching methods like original crossword puzzles and his high expectation.
“He gave me 10 licks for getting a B,” Gordon said. “I didn't get anymore Bs after that. I only got As.”
But the punishment didn’t stop him from plenty of joking when he entered Danville High School. Most of the jokes, including a shirtless trip to the pencil sharpener and a trip to literally “see” but not speak with the principal, occurred in math teacher Ms. Lanier’s class, he said.
“If anybody had any more fun in high school I don’t know who it was,” he said. “I can think of three teachers that quit teaching after they had us.”
Gordon’s fun continued when the school year ended, most memorably in his 16th summer in 1942. He and his friends pitched a tent on Herrington Lake near what is now Chimney Rock Marina and camped there all summer, save a few hitch-hiked trips home for food and supplies. Basketball games on a hoop nailed to a tree often left the boys covered to dirt up to their knees, but the real game occurred on the campgrounds where girls from across the state came to vacation.
“It was kind of open season,” Gordon said. “But back then, boys had a lot of respect for their dates. You didn’t try to put the make on everyone you went out with.”
However, chivalry didn’t stop him from hatching a deal with 14 Eastern Kentucky University girls, who came to the lake the last week of summer when his football-player friends had already departed for camp.
“I would wash dishes for them, and they would let me have supper with them,” he said. “It was something young guys dream about.”
Reality arrived shortly after Gordon graduated from DHS in 1944 and entered the draft for World War II. Despite an initial rejection because of a health issue, Gordon became a member of the Marine Corps in January 1945 and immediately began training in the Carolinas.
Though he saw little action as a stock record clerk, Gordon traveled to California, Pearl Harbor, China and Guam, where he formed some of his most memorable military moments. In particular, he learned the importance of mosquito netting after leaving his right arm exposed to the open air one night.
"When I woke up, I had 46 mosquito bites, and my right arm was much larger than my left," he said, laughing.
He also clearly remembers the radio station that kept soldiers up to date at the USO center— WXLI Island of Guam Armed Forces Radio Station — and the 10 p.m. sign-off of a host that sounded remarkably like Johnny Carson.
“Every night he said ‘Goodnight Emmylou, wherever you are,’” Gordon said. “I’ll never forget that.”
By fall 1946, Gordon had completed his military service and returned to Danville.
Through stints at Centre College and the University of Kentucky, a 36-year career with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and 24 years of work with Coldwell Banker VIP Realty, he kept his sense of humor and adventure. And that, he said, is why he’ll turn 86 as a happy man this winter.
“Have fun,” he said. “That’s the secret to long life.”