Ask military veterans about their most vivid memories and you’ll likely hear about boot camp bewilderment, good (or bad) times at some overseas post, or maybe a story from one battlefield or another. I’ve got all those stories tall and small—some even true—from my own couple of decades in uniform but one I most love to tell involves a comedy ambush sprung on me by the late, great genius Jonathan Winters. The world lost him recently at age 87 but Winters’ precisely targeted humor and machinegun delivery will keep him alive in my memory and prompt a smile every time I think back on that close encounter with him back in the early 1960s.
Jonathan Winters was enlisted to serve as Grand Marshal of a Christmas parade down in Orange County and I was enlisted to serve as a Corporal of Marines at the nearby El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Those of us on duty that winter day were pissing and moaning about having to miss all the scantily-clad beauty pageant girls being paraded right outside the base gates when the Sergeant of the Guard indicated he wanted to see me in full uniform and in a hurry. He scrutinized the creases in my tropical worsted uniform with a critical eye, satisfied himself that I was acceptably squared away, and told me to call the motor pool and order up a Jeep. I was to report to the main gate, pick up “some kind of celebrity dude that used to be a Jarhead” and escort him to the base Public Affairs Office.
Fortunately, another sergeant of my acquaintance knew more about the mission than I gleaned from that briefest of briefings. Sergeant Ken Semple who ran the base audio recording studio and was no slouch in the funny story-telling arena himself, knew all about that celebrity dude and was nearly beside himself at the prospect of meeting comedian Jonathan Winters. While I waited for the Jeep, Ken played a couple of cuts from Jonathan’s hit comedy LP and I had to admit the dude was funny. When the horn sounded to announce my ride, Ken told me to hustle as he had just a half-hour to get Winters into the studio and have him read a bunch of prepared copy supporting the Marine Corps’ Toys For Tots charity drive.
Winters was waiting in the parking lot near the gate house, sitting up on the back seat of a shiny new Chevy convertible bearing the placards of a local car dealer with his arms wrapped around the only two scantily-clad beauty pageant girls I was to see that day. It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea whether the chubby little gnome with a spacey look on his face was a former officer or former enlisted Jarhead. I whipped him a snappy salute. My enlisted instincts told me there was no way this guy could have made it much beyond PFC, but better safe than sorry. Winters took one look at me standing there vibrating with my right hand cutting just the proper angle and slipped into a character I would come to know well very shortly.
“Corporal Dye, sir. Here to take you up to the Public Affairs Office.”
“Lieutenant Binky Bixford, Yale ’41…” Winters simpered and snapped off a return salute with the wrong hand. “I just love it when you enlisted scum show the proper respect.”
Climbing into the Jeep with surprising agility, Winters began a rap on the Marine Corps, slipping seamlessly from one character voice to another as he observed things that stimulated a memory from somewhere deep in that fertile brain of his. He was Gunnery Sergeant Crider, barking at a close-order drill formation we passed. He was Second Lieutenant Bixford again complaining about the fit and feel of his skivvy shorts as we passed the supply warehouse. And he lubricated his voice with regular little hits from a silver flask the size of a quart canteen. As we pulled into the parking lot, he offered me a drink and then promptly pulled back. “Better not, Corporal. You enlisted scum can’t handle strong drink. You might become a liberty risk…”
Ken Semple did his level best not to be overly star-struck and get Jonathan to read the public service copy straight but there was no chance in hell. Everything in the area seemed to remind Winters of some aspect of his service as a Marine. He looked at Ken’s Purple Heart ribbon from Korea and instantly became Maude Frickert begging her nephew not to join the Marines where he could get a serious boo-boo. He spotted a framed recruiting poster featuring a Marine Drill Instructor and was suddenly Recruit Elwood P. Suggins of Dayton, Ohio (Winters’ hometown) asking Gunny Crider stupid questions about sleeping with his Teddy Bear at boot camp.
The microphone in front of him became the public address system of an assault landing ship over which the captain begged the Marines about to land on hostile shores to leave him all their money and valuables. There was so much more. The half-hour turned into two hours and I can’t remember if we even got the required recordings. Most of the time, we were hooting and rolling on the deck and our reactions just spurred Jonathan to further lunacy. The guy was brilliant. There’s just no other way to describe that strange and hilarious encounter.
Some sort of agent or handler finally arrived and hauled him away but not before we’d given him all the little emblems and souvenirs we could find or afford. Jonathan Winters actually made Corporal in the Corps before he was discharged but he was a king that day and the small crowd that gathered to hear him riff paid homage, laughing uproariously on their knees.
Over the years that I enjoyed his comedy, I felt a personal connection with Jonathan Winters. I did some research and found out that he’d been a seagoing Marine aboard a battleship (USS Wisconsin) and an assault carrier (USS Bon Homme Richard) where he served as an anti-aircraft gunner in the battle for Okinawa and the assaults on mainland Japan. His service was honorable all the way and I read several interviews in which he reflected—with his usual comic take—on his service as a Marine. There was humor but there was also respect. Jonathan Winters was proud to have served and he knew that there are no ex-Marines.
Years after the El Toro event while I was serving in Vietnam, I took a long-shot and wrote to him through his listed show-biz representatives reminding of him about our meeting at El Toro. It was just a whim, prompted by hearing a cut from a new album he’d released, and I never expected a response. Three weeks later, at mail call outside a soggy tent at Phu Bai, I got a package that contained a picture dedicated to Corporal Dye and signed by Second Lieutenant Binky Bixford, Gunnery Sergeant Crider, and Corporal Jonathan Winters USMC.