His historical footnote
- Troy Foster
- Madras Pioneer - Opinion
Expecting this to be his last Memorial Day, the reclusive Dean Lewis reveals his little place in U.S. military history
May 21, 2003 — Dean Lewis was just 18 when he pulled out his ruptured duck and showed it to the father of the girl he loved.
It was 1946, the fighting of World War II had just ended, and the older man thought he was pulling a swift one on the younger man.
He didn't want Lewis to court his daughter, so the military draft board member was going to solve his problem by sending the newly eligible 18-year-old into the service.
"He wanted to get rid of me, and I said, `Sorry,'" recalls Lewis, now 75.
The ruptured duck — a cloth insignia depicting an eagle inside a wreath, worn by WWII servicemen and women — looked more like a water fowl than a screaming eagle, hence its nickname. It was issued to military personnel who received an honorable discharge.
"He asked me how I got it," Lewis says. "And I said, 'I earned it, where do you think I got it?'"
His girlfriend's father couldn't believe it.
So begins the story of this Metolius resident's small but interesting place in history.
Sitting at the closest thing that resembles a kitchen table in his modest home off Sixth Street, Lewis pulls out a musty folder of aged documents that prove his story.
When he was inducted into the military on July 22, 1942, he was the youngest American in modern history to join the services.
The baby-faced kid from Corona, Calif., was 14 years old.
The month prior, Lewis was homeless. His mother and father had done the unheard of thing back then of divorcing, leaving Lewis on his own. He spent part of his summer doing farm work for 20 cents an hour during the days and finding refuge among citrus trees at night.
"I was sleeping in an orange grove those days," Lewis recalls. "I didn't have to worry about no heat and I had plenty of fruit to eat."
But an itch for something different led him and a friend to seek a job in the services. They hitchhiked to San Bernardino where they signed up for the Navy.
The 14-year-old Lewis had no choice but to lie about his age. The military officers were wary. They sent a routine telegram to where he told them his parents could be reached.
"I beat it home, signed the telegram and sent it back," Lewis says.
Shortly thereafter he was inducted in Los Angeles and sent to boot camp in San Diego. He and his hitchhiking buddy were separated into different units.
But that buddy of his eventually would rat him out.
As Lewis continues to tell the story, his scratchy voice reveals his purpose.
This is his own eulogy.
Some of his close friends have told him to write a book about his life -- 75 years of intrigue, adventure and mistakes.
But he doesn't have the time or the strength to write that book, and he only now is sharing his small place in history because he believes he'll soon "kick the bucket."
"For me it's been a long hard life," Lewis says. "There's some things I'm not too proud of, but there's nothing I've done that I'm ashamed of."
This Memorial Day, he'll will visit the grave of his son Brett, who died in a 1982 car accident while attending West Point.
By next Memorial Day, Lewis figures, there's more than a good chance he'll be lying beside him. That's where he plans to be buried.
Everybody has their little place in history, Lewis believes. Such is the case with his father, who Lewis says was a world champion fiddler in the 1930s.
So with time winding down, Lewis is compelled to at least add some context to the man many in these parts might have considered a recluse over the years.
"My wife doesn't even know much about me either," Lewis says. "She's too busy volunteering to know anything."
After military service, Lewis had a wild career as a musician on the cusp of fame before he fizzled. Along the way he developed agoraphobia -- a fear of public places.
That phobia still lingers today. Lewis traces the roots of his condition back to his small place in history.
"I started my life too damn young," he says.
After 12 weeks of boot camp, Lewis was assigned to the Navy Medical Corps.
Still 14, he began serving his country at the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego in a role he says was equivalent to being a nurse.
At that time, the Navy wasn't planning to deploy him overseas, but he was witnessing some of the horrors of war firsthand.
"I had to take care of guys who'd been blown up over there," Lewis says.
He spent eight months working at that hospital before asking for a transfer.
Lewis then joined the Fleet Marine Force at Camp Elliot in the San Diego area.
At 15, he was one of the few servicemen with the privilege of being allowed to wear both Marine and Navy uniforms. That privilege even landed him in the brig once, after military police arrested him at a dance hall he frequented.
They'd seen the strangely young-looking man wearing different uniforms on different nights, and assumed the fresh-faced boy was an impostor using a military ensemble to impress women.
"It just depended on which uniform I had enough money to send to the cleaners that week," Lewis says.
After that mixup, a colonel ordered the arresting officers to take the microphone at the next dance and publicly apologize to the kid in front of everyone. Lewis also received a few extra days off.
"I got a lot of favors from the military police after that," Lewis says.
He underwent training to become a combat medic with the 5th Marine Battalion and was preparing to be deployed to Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
But one day his commanding officer summoned him from his tent. He knew what was coming.
"They told me they knew how young I was and they told me I couldn't serve anymore," Lewis recalls. "I was just kind of bewildered. You don't know what to think about it. And when the military makes a move, it's swift."
The friend he'd joined the military with a year earlier had deserted — gone AWOL (absent without leave), as they call it — but was caught. He tattled on Lewis in the process.
Now that 61 years have passed, Lewis can't remember the name of the so-called friend who ended his military career. But he remembers vividly how his innocent lie was revealed.
"They told me he did it," Lewis says. "I was ratted on by someone who was jealous. And if he hadn't ratted me out, I would have stayed in the military."
But just one small chapter
Lewis holds up his honorable discharge paperwork, dated May 5, 1943.
"If I had been able to stay in the military," Lewis says with a sinister grin, "I could have retired at 44 with a hell of a pension plan."
But he also knows he might not have seen his 75th birthday had he been shipped overseas into combat. Or be here, now, sitting at the table talking about his little place in history.
Despite misrepresenting his age, Lewis qualified for an honorable discharge. But his full name is spelled incorrectly on the paper as "Geral Dean Lewis."
When Lewis turned 32, his grandfather gave him a Bible that had the correct spelling, "Jerrell Dean Lewis," engraved in gold letters.
"I didn't even know my name was spelled that way," he says.
There was a lot Lewis didn't know about himself when he was forced into manhood at age 14.
The military has not been a big part of Lewis' life since he was discharged. Several years later, he was given Veterans of Foreign Wars status, but he said he's never been compelled to join the local VFW.
His military experience was but a small part of an fascinating life. He believes it shaped him — for better or for worse — into the person he is today.
Lewis went on to become a successful musician, traveling around the country hanging out in circles that included Tennessee Ernie Ford and Spade Cooley.
Guys like Merle Travis used to sleep on his couch, and Lewis' picture once shared the cover of a songbook titled "Stars on the Horizon" with Sonny James and Ray Price.
Lewis has been married four times and has had eight children.
"Two of them, I haven't the slightest idea where they are," he says. "When you're bumming around the country playing music, you just lose track of things."
When he was 25, Lewis fell off a bandstand while performing and couldn't get back up as a wave of fear overcame him. He became petrified of crowds and left behind his career as a professional musician.
Agoraphobia has lingered with him since. At times, he's been afraid to get his hair cut at the barber shop. Sometimes he has trouble walking through the door at Bi-Mart.
His wife of 42 years, June, has often been the the face of his family and their business operations. They owned and operated the Metolius Market for a quarter of a century after he built it in 1972.
"I got the ideas and had her do the groundwork for me because of the agoraphobia," Lewis says. "She was her class valedictorian, so she's no dummy."
Lewis says years of health problems associated with his agoraphobia, plus scores of ill-advised medications that did little to improve it, have caught up with him.
These days, he's passing his remaining time working on his favorite hobby: refurbishing classic cars. Outside of his home is a '68 Volkswagen bug, a '51 Chevy truck and a beautiful '55 Ford Crown Victoria, among other vehicles.
Not long ago, he though he might spend this Memorial Day buried next to his son.
"When I die, I don't care if I have a military funeral at all," Lewis says. "I just want all my buddies and their classic cars to drive by and look at me one more time."
But he does want people to know about his little place in military history. He believes many people have their own little places in history, and those stories are worth sharing before time's up.
"You're only here once," Lewis says, "and look at the billions and billions and billions of people that have been here before.
"Heaven is going to be an awfully big place."