Years after his military service ended, Bucky is still giving back
ADDISON — Addison resident and Rutland native Clifford Douglas, better known to all as Bucky, has donned clothing of many colors for many duties over the course of his 76 years.
As a successful John Hancock insurance agent from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, mostly working out of his North Main Street home in Vergennes, Douglas stuck with business casual attire.
Over many decades he has worn bright red and white as Santa Claus during annual holiday festivities in Middlebury and elsewhere.
During his many appearances as Shriner clown “Bucket,” Douglas’ costume included white greasepaint, orange hair and sky-blue eye shadow — and of course the traditional red nose and bowtie.
But from 1964 to 1969 Douglas wore uniforms with a more limited color palette, one based on white and Navy blue.
In 1964 U.S. men of a certain age were hearing from the Selective Service System as the war in Vietnam began to ramp up under the Johnson administration.
Douglas, then 22, was no exception, but rather than the draft he chose the Navy.
“The Army was after me and almost came into the house to get me because they figured I knew something,” he recalled.
Well, what did he know?
“Got me. I sure as heck didn’t know too much,” Douglas said with one of his ready laughs.
The truth of the matter was the Army recruiters really didn’t stand a chance — Navy blue blood ran in his veins, inherited from his father and grandfather, both U.S. Navy veterans. Rather than wait for the draft, Douglas signed on.
Sitting in the Addison home he has shared for the past 27 years with life partner Effie Cole, Douglas poked fun at his decision.
“I was so sharp in those days that I got my notice from Uncle Sam that we want you for two years, and I said, no you’re not going to get me for two years. So I signed up for six in the Navy,” Douglas said. “Now that’s sharp.”
IN THE NAVY
According to Douglas, his first step in the service was discovering hidden talents.
“I just went in there and took my test, and took my battery test, and fared the best in electronics, and I didn’t think I even knew how to put a battery in a flashlight. And they said you could be an electronics technician. And I said, well, yeah, OK,” he recalled. “And math was my worst subject in high school, but I gained a lot while I was in the Navy. I learned all that good stuff.”
Then came boot camp and a series of schools in fields such as electric power, nuclear power and nuclear recovery. The schools lasted until late 1965, a period during which he made stops in Illinois, Maryland, New York and Idaho.
“And then they turned me loose, right on the ship in Little Creek, Virginia,” Douglas said.
That ship was the USS Pulaski County, an almost flat-bottomed World War II-era ship designed to carry tanks, vehicles, cargo and troops directly onto shorelines that lacked docks or piers.
Of his service on the Pulaski County the longtime American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars member prefers to say little, other than sleeping on the boat during stormy passages, such as a trip from Virginia to Panama, was not easy due to its lack of draft.
“It was rough. You had to tie yourself to your rack,” Douglas said.
His duties varied.
“I was an electronics technician, machinist’s mate, and anything else they wanted me to do,” Douglas said.
In 1967 Douglas was assigned to the USS Austin, a newer amphibious warfare ship designed to transport troops — 300 marines and their gear, in the case of the Austin — and equipment for expeditionary warfare missions.
Among the tasks the Austin performed was helping to recover Apollo space capsules when they splashed down in the Caribbean, guarding a fuel depot in Puerto Rico, chasing a Russian submarine up the East Coast from the Caribbean almost all the way to New York, and thwarting plans for an island dictator to steal cash.
“We had to put explosives around his ship. He had a ship full of money,” Douglas said. “We put explosives around it in case he decided to take off with it.”
Another trip was arguably less vital for the national interests.
“We took an admiral fishing. We had a 600-foot boat with 300 Marines and they had their exercises, and we took an admiral off fishing in the middle of the ocean. That was exciting,” Douglas said.
Well, did the esteemed visitor catch anything?
“I don’t know. I was just a peon. They don’t talk to us,” Douglas said.
After his service years Douglas was immediately hired as a John Hancock agent, served a couple terms on the Vergennes City Council, and did well enough to retire about two decades ago. He has kept busy as a collector, by playing Santa Claus (he and Effie Cole laugh and spin anecdotes about being recognized in diners by kids who sat in his lap) and applying his Bucket makeup for appearances that inevitably include driving mini 4-wheelers in parades.
He also developed a love for music at a young age, and played all along in Navy bands. Although he grew up in Rutland, he spent summers at his grandparents’ Lake Champlain camp, and inherited the music gene from his grandmother — he would sit on her lap while she played piano and learn songs.
“They’d have a bunch of people come in, like the old-timers. One played fiddle, one would have a box, or whatever, a washtub base and the whole nine yards,” he said. “And they’d sit around, and my grandmother would play her piano, and then she’d get her violin, and she’d get her accordion out. I used to enjoy that.”
Now he collects as well as buys and sells accordions, and also teaches the accordion to the next generation. And although he no longer plays at many dances, he still performs twice a month at Middlebury’s Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center with a repertoire that ranges from polkas to The Beatles.
And the military is still part of his life. Douglas remains in touch with many of his friends from his Navy years.
“I haven’t seen any of them, but I call them. We talk on the phone three, four times a year,” Douglas said.
Cole — whose husband, also a veteran, died almost three decades ago at the age of 54 — said some bonds can’t be broken.
“You can have that relationship for 50 years. They’re like brothers,” Cole said.
Sadly, there are fewer of those friends. Douglas said in the past year three friends have died from mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused in their cases by exposure to the asbestos insulation used in older ships.
“We were always fixing pipes and valves and putting new insulation on the turbines,” he said. “I’ve had three of my shipmates die of it. On one ship that’s kind of unusual.”
The veterans’ organizations also play a role in Douglas’ life, although he worries about excessive drinking among some members.
He signed up for the American Legion before he got out of the Navy and Vergennes Post 14 was set to bestow 50-year membership honors on him on Nov. 3.
“My father was a member in Rutland,” Douglas said. “He just said if I was in the service I should join the Legion because they do so much for veterans. And I’ve always wanted to help out the veterans.”
Douglas said over the years he has supported veterans’ causes and helped individual veterans when he could, and he appreciates the organizations that do the same.
For example, he cited Post 14’s support for youth baseball and the city’s Memorial Day parade, and its dedication to installing ramps for local handicapped citizens.
Cole noted Post 14 also offers wheelchairs and walkers to those in need.
“A lot of people don’t realize that,” Effie said. “You ask and you receive. They’ve got a storage shed full of that kind of stuff.”
And, she said, the Legion clubhouse offers veterans a place to share what only they can truly understand.
“I do think in this era, with coming back from Vietnam and this war we’re in now, that the closeness of some of these younger fellows that go there, and like he said they do a lot of drinking, but they’re together with their peers. And I think they feel better when they’re there,” Effie said. “There’s therapy in it.”
As for his time in the Navy, while Douglas since then has worn many hats — and different kinds of clothes — he regards those six years in uniform as crucial as any to forming who he is today.
“I look back at it as an experience that could be surpassed by none. You run into circumstances where you grow up in a hurry,” he said. “It made me more responsible, responsible for my actions. I learned a lot that I probably never would have learned in other fields.”
Douglas also believes everyone should serve.
“I think every young man should go in the service and do his obligation, because freedom is not free,” he said. “I’m not saying everybody should be involved in combat, but do your duty if you can.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].