In 1929, the Great Depression swept across America, devouring its resources like a horde of locusts, leaving millions unemployed and financially decimated in its wake. Food was often in short supply, and winters seemed to take on a more brutal element. In September of 1933 during this the severest of economic times in American history, Charles Newton Blackwood was born in Oakman. And like many children in Walker County who were products of the Depression, Charles was the son of a coal miner.
This afternoon, Charles sits at a small table inside the basement of his home, a blue binder containing his military documents opened in front of him, his wizened face lit by a single incandescent bulb overhead. “They told me that when I was still a baby, they put me in a shoebox to keep me warm and put me in the stove oven,” he says with a wry grin.
When he completed the ninth grade at Parrish High in 1950, Charles joined the Army, partly because he wanted to see the world; but there was another reason. “In the summer, I was working at the sawmill. That’s one reason, to get away from the sawmill and cutting timber,” he says in a soft, gravelly voice.
Charles, known to his family and close friends as “Newton,” went through basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and advanced training at Fort Bliss, Texas, before reporting to Washington State on the eve of the Korean War. “From there I got my first airplane ride and went to Tokyo. Then I was on a small boat to Busan, Korea,” he says.
His first job was laying wire for communications. “When I left there I went back to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas and worked as a switchboard operator at the range.”
By 1952, Charles was serving with the First Infantry Division in Aschaffenberg, Germany. There, a couple of his unit buddies introduced him to a young German girl named Rosie. “He was smitten,” says his youngest daughter, Sandra Grace.
But the feeling wasn’t exactly mutual with Rosie’s family. “Mother’s parents weren’t too fond of her dating an American,” she says. “They had to sneak to see each other at her sister’s house.”
Fortunately, their skepticism was temporary. “Once they got to know my dad, they loved him!” Sandra says. “Dad, Oma (German for “grandmother”) bought your first car, didn’t she? A Volkswagen?”
“Yeah, she bought us a car. They were really good to us,” Charles nods.
Charles and Rosie were married in May of 1955.
With the sound of war drums beating louder in Vietnam, Charles received orders to leave Bamberg, Germany in 1962 and fly to Fort Benning, Georgia with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, followed by training in Shelby, MS.
“And then we was on a boat for Vietnam,” he says, his voice rising and falling on the last two words.
Charles continued working in communications, rising through the ranks, and was eventually promoted to First Sergeant. “We had what they called the Saigon Perimeter,” he says. “I was the Battalion Communications Chief.”
Much of his job involved traveling to various units around Vietnam. “It was one hundred something miles riding that Jeep through Saigon. It’ll run you nuts. That’s a bad place to get around in,” he says, shaking his head.
In 1971, Charles retired with twenty years of military service and moved to Jasper. The war was ending and jobs were not easy to find. “And you know, the first job I got was down here at Birmingham Forestry Products at the doggone sawmill!”
Twenty years had not diluted his distaste for cutting timber, so Charles found a job in which he could put his training to better use. “I hired on with Hilton Communications for a few years. They treated me real good,” he says.
Then one day Charles got a call the director of People’s Hospital. “Clyde West wanted me to come down and work for him at the old hospital,” he says. “It had a few more benefits.”
Charles accepted and worked as plant engineer until he retired in 1996.
These days Charles has more time to relax and enjoy life. He and Rosie still live in the same Third Avenue home they’ve had since 1971. They enjoy spending time with their three daughters: Helen, Marion, and Sandra, and one son, Joe, who lives in Germany.
If you’re looking for Charles, often you’ll find him in a rear nook of the basement, sitting at a desk with all sorts of radio communications equipment, all very neatly arranged and meticulously labeled, the ideal station for an amateur radio hobbyist.
“I used to chat with James Spann,” he grins.
Just don’t look for him down at the sawmill. 78
Images by Blakeney Cox