The Dart: Local man recounts military experience
Published 12:00 am Monday, March 7, 2016
NATCHEZ — Darrell Cox spent his 17th birthday on an airplane to San Diego, heading to the U.S. Navy and ultimately to Vietnam, a trip that would send him searching for a sense of belonging for decades.
When The Dart found him on Eastwood Road, he was more than 50 years removed from that experience, but the memories were in many ways still fresh.
The son of Protestant missionaries who had gone to Louisiana to serve as pastors in a small church, Cox had gotten tired of school and dropped out, choosing to join the Navy on what he thought were practical grounds.
Email newsletter signup
“I told my mama I didn’t know if I could fight, but I knew I could swim,” he said.
Five years and two tours in Vietnam later, Cox ended his military service feeling disillusioned, in part because of his experience overseas, he said — but in part because of the reception back home.
“I didn’t have the slightest idea what we were fighting for — I just knew they told me to get on an aircraft carrier and go to Vietnam,” he said.
“I had my chest puffed out, thinking I was doing good, but when I got back, that wasn’t what I was hearing. When the guys from World War II and Korea got home, they threw them parades. They threw eggs at us — raw eggs, boiled eggs, even rotten eggs.”
He arrived back in San Diego in 1965, just as the 1960s anti-war counter-culture was taking off. Cox threw away his military uniforms and medals, the politics behind the idea of Communist containment sitting sick in his stomach.
“Old farts in Washington decide to make war, but they send some poor redneck 17-year-old to fight it — I was completely bewildered,” he said.
“The Navy always makes you keep your hair really short, and the first thing I did was grow it out as long as I could. They had the love-ins, the sit-ins, burning the bras, and I was at every love-in and sit in I could attend. I had my hair purple trying to fit in.”
He enjoyed the youthfulness of the era, he said, seeing the Black Panthers in Berkley, but ultimately San Diego was too fast and too wild.
“I was there when they burned the south side of Los Angeles, and something in the back of my mind said, ‘If they will burn their own homes, they will burn mine,’” he said. “I called my brother and asked him to find me a job back here, and he did — as a milkman.”
Cox returned home, taking the job, but the experience of the war, the reception at home and the feeling like he and so many others had been used in a pointless political game were difficult to shake.
“I have had my whole life, from 17 until now, this feeling of trying to fit in because of the effect it had on me,” he said. “You’d dream about stepping in front of a Mack truck, and then it’s over, but then I’d think about all the people it would devastate. Your psyche is just looking to land on something.”
What he landed on in the end, he said, was family, grandchildren in particular.
Cox traveled the country with musical acts for a time, but eventually settled in Natchez in 1978 —“I came here because it was open 24-7 and I could get a drink at 7 in the morning — and operated the Bojangles nightclub, and later Dimples, bringing in musical guests such as Jerry Lee Lewis, the Allman Brothers and 38 Special.
“We opened at 7 p.m. and closed when the cash register stopped ringing,” he said. “For the first 15 years, the entertainment that came to Natchez came through us.”
Cox admits that sometimes his relationship with the city has been strained regarding his clubs, but Cox said he also loves the people here, who “are receptive and take you in.”
Now that he’s closed Dimples — “I enjoyed my time there, but it was time to get out” — Cox said he plans to retire and see family around the country.
“It’s been a hell of a life for me in this town, but I want to get out and travel while I’m still young enough to do so,” he said.