Delayed Reunion

Published 7:46 pm Sunday, July 20, 2014

Robert Earl Brinkley (left) and Paul Ketchmark bid each other farewell on Friday in Ahoskie after the two US Army buddies reunited after 61 years. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

Robert Earl Brinkley (left) and Paul Ketchmark bid each other farewell on Friday in Ahoskie after the two US Army buddies reunited after 61 years. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

AHOSKIE – Up until Wednesday of last week, the last time Robert Earl Brinkley of Ahoskie stood face-to-face with Paul Ketchmark of Valparaiso, Indiana was December of 1953.

Those two U.S. Army buddies had a lifetime of memories to share when they reunited for the first time in over 60 years at Brinkley’s home at Earlys Station. And it was amazing for both men to learn just how closely their individual lives had mirrored each another since departing a US Army base in Germany.

Both men, self-professed “dirt farmers” before being drafted into the Army, each retired from the banking industry; their respective marriages have lasted over 62 years; and each fathered three children. And they’re both the same age (82).

“It’s so ironic how our lives have paralleled each other after we came home from Germany,” said Brinkley, who retired in 1990 from RBC Bank in Ahoskie and has operated REB Farms Inc., a farm management agency, since that time.

This week’s reunion was preceded by Ketchmark’s effort 18 months ago to try and locate his Army buddy.

“Paul initially got in touch with me by phone,” Brinkley recalled. “We spoke on the phone several times before Paul and his wife (Joan) decided to make the trip from Indiana to Ahoskie for a visit.”

“I knew from way back when we were in Germany that Robert Earl was from Ahoskie; that’s a (town) name that’s unique and it just stuck with me all these years,” Ketchmark said.

About five years ago, Ketchmark said he used the Internet to search for Brinkley, but with no luck.

“I tried again about two years ago and, boom, there was his name,” he stated.

“When Paul called me the first time he asked was this Robert Earl Brinkley from Ahoskie, North Carolina….the company clerk for 721st Transportation Truck Company,” Brinkley remembered. “When I told him yes, he said he needed an overnight pass to get off the base.”

While in Germany, the two men were part of “Operation Drive Away” – the movement of new replacement vehicles from Bremerhaven Port of Embarkation to various military posts and depots throughout the U.S. occupied zone of that country.

“What we did there was take a train to the Bremerhaven Port where we picked up 60 vehicles and delivered those to specified destinations,” Brinkley said. “You then get two days of rest before returning by train to the port and pick up 60 more vehicles and delivering those where ordered.”

The type of vehicles would vary…Jeeps, ambulances, 18-wheelers, etc.

A total of 14 Transportation Companies participated, to include the 721st Truck group, delivering 7,500 vehicles and 604 trailers, driving 3,620,000 miles in the process.

Brinkley served as the Company Clerk while Ketchmark pulled duty in the vehicle parts department….based on his experience of working at a Pontiac dealership back home before being drafted into the Army.

“I guess my claim to fame was that I was a fast typist, learning that in school (Ahoskie High, Class of 1950),” Brinkley said. “The Captain was apparently looking for a company clerk and I was called into his office. My First Sergeant was there and my Captain, during the interview, asked if I was from Larry’s (1st Sgt.) neck of the woods? I replied that I didn’t know because I didn’t know where he was from and that I was from Ahoskie, North Carolina.

“Well, low and behold, Larry spoke up and said he was from St. John (a HertfordCounty community west of Ahoskie),” Brinkley continued. “He (Larry) was a Futrell, but I didn’t know who he was at that particular time. Come to find out that he was my wife’s cousin. The Captain and the 1st Sergeant were tight, so I got the job.”

Brinkley and Ketchmark struck up a close bond due to the fact that Ketchmark was married and brought his wife to Germany. Thusly, the couple lived off base, requiring Ketchmark to have an overnight pass in order to leave the military compound.

“I was ordered not to let over 15 percent of the company leave the base at night, but I looked after those who were married and had their wives with them, to include Paul,” Brinkley said. “They always kidded me about who I would allow to leave the base overnight because it was a rarity to get one of those passes, especially on a consistent basis. Paul and I had a good relationship over there.”

“I never forgot abut my good buddy,” Ketchmark said, nodding his head in Brinkley’s direction. “He was mighty good to me.”

Over the past couple of days, Brinkley and his wife, Carolyn, have been busy hosting the Ketchmarks (Paul was accompanied by his wife on the trip to North Carolina). They’ve spent some time at the Chowan River, and the Brinkleys have treated their northern guests to some traditional North Carolina cuisine – pork barbecue and fried chicken at Whitley’s BBQ in Murfreesboro and a southern breakfast at O’Connor’s Restaurant in Ahoskie.

“It’s beautiful here; the food is delicious and the weather has been fantastic,” Ketchmark said. “We’re leaving here Friday for Concord (NC) for my wife’s family reunion and then we’re headed to Tennessee before heading back home.”

A native of Boone Grove, Indiana, Ketchmark’s family eventually moved to Valparaiso, a city of roughly 32,000 citizens southeast of Chicago, Illinois. Returning home after his hitch in the Army, Ketchmark went into business at a NAPA parts store, selling out his share to his partner in 1969. He then went to work for First National Bank, saying he spent the early part of that career path, “raising the flag each morning and chopping paper.”

He eventually rose to the rank of a teller, then to branch manager before ending his career in 1983 by retiring as an official with the installment loan department.

In retirement, Ketchmark says he enjoys playing golf five days a week.

“I use to play seven days a week, but at my age now you have to cut back on something,” Ketchmark said with a sly smile.

His wife is the retired treasurer of Orville Redenbacher, the world-famous popcorn company based in Valparaiso.

Brinkley said he and his wife have discussed a future visit to the Ketchmark’s home.

It’s a safe guess that 60 years will not pass by before that return visit takes place.


About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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