In Memoriam: LTC J. Boone Emmons

This will be an atypical post and one tangential to fencing in some degree. I ask the reader’s pardon if it is too off topic and self-indulgent. The losses in life, though natural, are important to face and face head on, especially when that loss is the passing of a parent and teacher.

On December 21st I received a call I had been expecting, but a call no one looks forward to: my father’s wife rang to inform me that he had passed. It was a mercy to hear he had died in his sleep, because between Alzheimers and his failing body he had been miserable for months. Among the eccentricities common to that side of the family is a penchant for eschewing funerary rites, memorials, etc. I’ve been told it is to save people trouble, but since funerals are for the living, a way to process loss, that has never really made sense to me. However, that was my father’s wish and it’s important to honor it. This said, there is nothing stopping one from honoring his memory on one’s own, and so in honor of my father, my first martial arts teacher, I am celebrating him here.

Arms and the Man

My father’s family has been in the States since the early 18th century. His namesake and mine, James Emmons, took his elder brother’s place in the army and fought in the Battles of Cowpens (17 Jan. 1781) and Yorktown (28 Sept. to 19 Oct., 1781). After he demobbed, he and several other families headed west. This small collection of families—mine, the Shortridges, Kirks, and Duncans—stuck together, over several generations, and ultimately ended up in the Oregon Territory. His mother’s family arrived early last century from Cork, Ireland, where another ancestor, from Scotland, had settled after retiring from the 72nd Regiment, Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders. [1]

Pvt James Olin Emmons, preparing to ride out with Pershing, 1916

My grandfather joined the US Army in 1916 at the age of 19—joined or was offered a choice between the army and jail according to another version. A cavarlyman, he served with Pershing in the Mexican Campaign and then in France. I’ve yet to verify this, but some of his old notes from the days when he was teaching equitation at the St. Francis Riding Academy near San Francisco list time spent at the famous École de cavalerie at Saumur, France. He was still teaching mounted combat, State-side, up to 1942. My father was born in 1938 and began his military career as a reservist while at Lewis and Clark College.

Vietnam

Having majored in Latin, and finding teaching less to his liking, he joined the regular army and spent thirty-some years on active duty. Easily the turning point for him, like so many men and women his age, was the Vietnam War. His unit was there in 1968; they arrived just in time for the Tet Offensive. The helicopter taking them to the front was shot down and he spent his first day in country bogged down in rice-paddies fighting his way out. One thing I didn’t learn until later was that several times he had been hit by shrapnel, but because the men under his command were hurt far worse or killed, he refused commendation. [2] There were still flechettes in his back the last time he had spinal surgery.

My father, then a captain, Aug. 1968, somewhere in Vietnam

The war changed him. It changed so many people. His father and adopted brother, Bobby Ringo (who served in the Army Air Corps as a bombardier), had done their part to fight fascism in Europe, and my father like so many of his generation joined up in the belief that they too would protect the world from evil. As he put it, fighting Communist encroachment made perfect sense, assisting another country against great odds was laudable, but discovering that our involvement had less to do with any of that so much as it did with retaining a port in Southeast Asia seemed a lot less noble and worthwhile (South Korea and Thailand both have coasts after all…). [3]

The Art and the Man
After the war, he served for a year in South Korea on the DMZ, and while there began studying Korean martial arts. It is the one thing he spoke about from his assignment there. I know it was an important aspect of his life in Korea, because it remained important to him the rest of his life. When I was down to visit him this past November we chatted at length about various aspects of the Art. Not surprisingly, he was keen to have my sister and I learn too. I don’t remember it, but apparently when I was three I had trouble with some other kid on our street. My father taught me some fundamentals of Moo Duk Kwan and according to my mother’s account that seems to have solved the problem. When I began my own formal study of martial arts at the age of 11 my father was not only supportive, but also helped my sister and I train at home.

My father and I didn’t always see eye to eye, as happens, but when it came to martial arts, to the Art, we spoke the same language.  If nowhere else we shared certain values and worldviews thanks to that training. Martial arts did a lot for me—like many kids full of rage it was a more appropriate avenue to process all that, and, learn to manage it. The years I spent in full-contact tournaments did a lot to help me cultivate the specific calm important before a fight, and, prepped me for having to handle the unfortunate moments in life when we call upon those skills. Happily there have been fewer such occasions because I had good teachers. [4]

As a late teen I was working on joining the army myself. Between academic interests and a crippled right-arm, however, military aspirations were not going to work out. What little time I spent studying military science, as the courses were called, I loved, especially map-reading. This was one of three subjects my father had been adamant that we learn in case we had to serve: know how to shoot well, know how to read a map well, and know how to use a bayonet. Since his family had been ranchers in Oregon, where a rifle while riding the fence can be a good idea, and because of the family’s military background I grew up learning to shoot. I still enjoy hitting the range, but these days the cost to do so is prohibitive, never mind the political and social associations one must navigate. [5] I have always been grateful that my father stressed these studies. Map reading I’ve used frequently, but I teach bayonet and might not have had my father not advocated that it was still an important skill. It had, after all, saved his life more than once.

Post-Demob

Having spent his life in the military it was tough for him to adjust to civilian life, a struggle so many Vets know painfully well. One casualty of that adjustment, and the onset of late PTSD, was that my folks, like so many of their generation, didn’t survive as a couple. [6] They split up during my father’s assignment to Ft. Ord, Monterey, California, and thus in high school I split time between northern Virginia and the Bay Area. Life asa base-brat means travelling, seeing different people, different cultures, the positive and the downsides of life (such as severe economic disparity), and it’s a valuable education. It wasn’t easy, but looking back it prepared me well for all the travel I did as a teenager. I’m grateful for those solo flights and chances to navigate the world on my own.

A whiz at organization and logistics, my father found work with a variety of tech companies in the late 80s and early 90s, from NEC to Intel; this was a prime time be in Silicon Valley. He also operated a company of his own, one that used many of the team-building exercises he had learned in the army to help staff at everything from businesses to fire departments work better together. He maintained that company, and taught on the side, until he was physically no longer able to. A life-time of stress on his body, from ranching to combat, will eventually out.

Gratitude

There is much I don’t know about my father; much I’ll never know. He was an intensely private person and even more introverted than I am. He was, however, a kind man, despite some of the things he had seen and done; maybe he was kind in part because of them.

We spent a number of years without communicating much. One plus of this is that I got to know my father twice, once as a kid, and again later as an adult interacting with another adult. This isn’t to say the intervening period was a picnic—it wasn’t—but one of the few advantages to aging is that our own life experiences can temper our views and understanding. I look on my father, his choices, all of it, differently than I did as a younger person. Understanding is a necessary ingredient for empathy.

My father and I, November 2021


Though I am relieved that he is no longer suffering, I am sad that he is gone. Reserved though he was the man was a great conversationalist, he had a real eye for fine scotch, and he had brilliant stories. I will miss all of it. I remain grateful for his instruction, advice (good and bad), laughter, and deep appreciation for so many things, and he will be sorely missed. Requiescat in pace Pater/Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Notes:

[1] See https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/72nd-regiment-foot-duke-albanys-own-highlanders

[2] My father was a Captain and thus in charge of a platoon. He was far older than most of his men, 3o to their 18 or 19, and felt personally responsible for them. He also had some old-fashioned ideas and a few stitches or band-aids seemed poor reasons to accept a medal. In the US those wounded in combat can receive the purple heart.

[3] As a GenXer I grew up on stories about fighting fascism and as a base-brat the idea of a Soviet strike was very real. Even now, the Cold War doesn’t feel like history to many of us–if the missiles are still there the threat is still there (wherever they are and regardless of who commands them). My intense disgust for any semblance of fascism should explain why I find the white-washed fundamentalist sort that grew in strength under the last administration so detestable and dangerous. The irony that so many on that side keep raising the specter of a Marxist threat is comical, but then people take it seriously. Outside of the two actual Communists in the nation Marxism is a straw-man State-side, an idea that creates an instant reaction and motivates those easily led to support the fear-mongering the alt-right enjoys so much.

[4] The goal of marital arts, outside a combat context, is to avoid a fight; if that is unavoidable, the goal is then defense.

[5] My nation is notorious for its cult of the gun. My father’s generation looked on firearms as tools, dangerous ones, but tools. They have specific and limited uses. The NRA, damn them, has done much to create this sense that citizens must be armed–and thus many people have selectively interpreted the 2nd Amendment of our Constitution. A “well-regulated” militia we have–it’s called the US Army. No one outside of the military needs anything more than a simple rifle or shotgun. I do not talk much about target shooting because I do not wish to be associated with the nutters who whine about their “right” to semi-auto combat rifles. If someone needs such a weapon to feel safe or manly then they have a lot of issues to work out.

An old friend of mine, one who teaches law enforcement marksmanship, once said that if he had his way the only firearm anyone would have is a single-shot, .50 caliber muzzle-loader. Bet the literalists would twist in their pants on that one. Jokes aside, for those who need some macho prop, I issue the following challenge. Buy a .50 musket and learn to load and shoot on the run. This was a popular event in the mountain village where my mother grew up, and to me far more impressive than the couch-warrior who unloads his mag into targets when playing Johnny Tremain at his militia camp.

[6] PTSD is hell. Even a small amount affects a person’s life severely, but combat stress is something else all together. As a kid my father didn’t talk about the war, not with anyone who hadn’t been there or who hadn’t fought in wars prior to Vietnam. One summer, when I was in the Bay Area, he opened up at a family dinner… and no one knew what to do. Luckily, they listened and were super supportive. He spent a lot of time with other Vets working on this stuff, but it never left him.

GenX came of age at a time when the divorce rate was high. When I think on it, or on the trials I see people go through now, I’m always reminded of a line in “Next Stop Wonderland” (1998). Several nurses at a bar listen to one relate a story of how they met their boyfriend; when the latter goes to the bathroom the same nurse opens up and tells them that they actually met through a dating service (this was before dating apps lol). One asks where the mystery is in going that route, and the nurse replies: “Oh honey, it does not matter how you meet Mr. or Mrs. Right. I will tell you what the real mystery is. The real mystery is:
What keeps two people together after they meet?”

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

4 thoughts on “In Memoriam: LTC J. Boone Emmons”

  1. I will light an offering to his memory tonight. Though I never had the chance to meet him, he had a hand in creating one of my favorite people and that deserves thanks.

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  2. Jimbo, hugs from afar. I remember many tales about your father and your upbringing, both of which I am thankful for helping craft the man that you are today. I will raise a toast of remembrance, gratitude, and grace in your father’s honor.

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