In the beginning he was small, but only in stature. Even in grammar school you could sense the toughness, physical and mental. On the field he launched himself into the game—baseball, football—with lip-biting abandon and an eagle-eyed look came over his face and anybody with eyes to see could tell this boy is in the game for keeps, not just to win, but to give it everything he had, which, to my way of thinking is a posture more to be admired than the man who is only out to win. That kind of intensity rubs off on you, speaks volumes, and leaves a mark. It tells everybody here’s a boy with dreams; but, then lots of boys have dreams, don’t they? The difference was Bobby Jones had the stalwart heart to make his come true.
Riding identical red Schwinn bikes (You read that correctly!) Bobby, along with Floyd Busbee, and myself and Floyd’s little brother Ben Bob, rode the hills of Kingsley, Corbin and Adrian Place. On a crisp fall Saturday we pumped up to Ingleside to Bill’s Book Store where we loaded up on junk food and drinks, then pumped back to Bobby’s or the Busbee’s yard where we spilled out onto the grass and stuffed ourselves with M and M’s, Tootsie Pops and Butterfingers. Or we might shoot baskets up at Steve Lewis’ or we might build a dam on the creek that ran back of Ellis Waters’ house. Or there was the long, high concrete driveway out of Berry Moody’s house where we dared each other on a Flexi-Racer, the equivalent of a few shellacked wooden slabs on wheels, your face about six inches from the concrete. Later, we checked out the Ga. Tech football game on the radio. Buddy and Ben Bob’s dad, a Tech grad, had stolen home in 1938, winning the Tech-Georgia baseball game, so we were Tech fans. If there were enough boys at hand, we’d play football in Ben Whitley’s yard on Kinglsey Ave. or the Busbee’s. If we lucked out, Mrs. Busbee made Kool Aid and asked us in. Once we even rode those Schwinns over to see a hog slaughter in the black community—which was just across Pierce Ave. Baseball we played everywhere, in everybody’s yard. Football in the fall; basketball in the winter/spring; baseball in the spring/ summer. Nobody, nobody stayed inside.
One cold Friday night in October of 1956 Bobby’s dad let us sit on the bench amid the Lanier High football team. Macon GA, Friday night, bright lights, green grass, the band playing “Are you a poet, are you a poet…” Danny Minor at half-back in the old Porter Stadium against Robert E. Lee of Thomaston: Bobby and I were in sixth grade heaven! Lanier was an all-male school and the students called Mr. Jones-“Fess”—with unswerving respect–because he taught chemistry, but Mr. Jones taught off the field, as well. He did what Christian fathers are supposed to do. He mentored and guided and, yes, sometimes, he kicked Bobby’s tail. Standing shoulder to shoulder with her husband was the ever-gracious Mrs. Jones, arguably the best baker in the state of Georgia. I can still remember wanting to tarry in her kitchen where there was always a birthday cake to keeps a ten year old boy’s nose quivering like a blue tick hound. And lest I wax on too sentimentally let me sound a harsh note of truth: these folks didn’t play around. The sound of Mr. Jones’ raised voice sent chills down my spine as did one of Mrs. Jones’ withering stares—especially if I got too close to the icing! But in those days we didn’t divide parental discipline from parental love. If you loved your child, you played hardball. Mr. and Mrs. Jones weren’t Bobby’s friend. They took their calling much more seriously. They were his parents.
Enter Sister JoAnne. Every male child probably needs a sister to bring his ego down to earth. She drives you nuts. She nags. She wants to be like you, but every now and then, if the brother is as lucky as Bobby, she turns out to be attractive and intelligent, hard-working and, above all, tenacious. When Bobby and I were in the seventh grade, JoAnne, who was younger, served as a student helper for my mother, Mrs. Levens, who labored in the second grade vineyards at T.D. Tinsley for twenty years. Mother talked about that “cracker-jack JoAnne Jones” for years.
Lanier High was military, public and all male, a high school anomaly in today’s educational landscape. Bobby not only took his studies seriously; he also took ROTC seriously. Quite a few did not. By the time he was a senior he had attained the rank of second in command of the school corps. Spit shined shoes, polished brass, starched and shaved—those were the sine qua nons of ROTC success. But more important was attitude and solid grades and commitment and Bobby had those in spades. His childhood tenacity was beginning to pay off, as were his strong family support and firm Christian values. Looking back from the year 2011 I understand now how blessed Bobby was, indeed, how blessed we all were. In our elementary school classes it was rare child who came from a broken home. Crime was negligible and even though somewhere in America I’m sure someone did drugs, I doubt many did them in Macon GA in the fifties.
1959-1963 Bobby and I drifted somewhat apart. In 1961 I enrolled in the newly-formed Stratford Academy, so he and I ran into each other only at social gatherings; but there was always that sense with Bobby that, sure, he would go to the party, he would stand around and look as if he were having fun, but don’t expect him to run wild. Don’t even expect him to hang around long. The young man was serious. He took a summer job digging ditches and he wasn’t allowed to drive until his senior year, another wise decision on the part of his folks. In Macon in those days an automobile in the hands of many teens was simply a lethal weapon.
In 1963 he enrolled at the University of Georgia where he roomed with childhood Macon friend, Wade Raczynski, and learned to team up for study sessions with another Macon buddy, Russel Holland. Resisting the constant temptation to neglect studies and to party, Bobby, like most pre-med students I knew, became an academic monk. I visited Wade and Bobby in the trailer they shared in Athens on at least one occasion. He continued to call me “Chief” which was a nickname I’d picked up by virtue of being the head of our high school fraternity. We all clung to the past, I suspect, even as the future was bearing down on us, full-speed.
Med school competition was and is tough, but so was Bobby Jones. In the fall of 1967, he entered The Medical College of Georgia in Augusta where, the hard work of early discipline and strong family support began to yield the kind of fruit we read about in history books.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer and endured a radical mastectomy, Bobby was one of the first visitors she received. We caught up and he kidded me about my beard. The year was 1971, the last time I would see him.
Med school costs money so Bobby eventually joined the Air Force to alleviate financial burdens, but he also joined because of who he was. Now I don’t pretend to know his heart—as I said earlier, we had drifted apart–but I feel sure he joined to fight with other young Americans against America’s enemies. Period. No point in analyzing one bit further. At any rate on Nov. 28, 1972 he was en route in an F4 from Thailand, where he was stationed, when 20 miles outside of the airfield at Da Nang his plane disappeared off the radar. He was twenty-seven years old, just graduated from four years of college and four years of med school and a stint at Baylor Hospital. For many of us there was a powerful sense that what had happened just wasn’t fair, that after years of hard work and self-discipline and self-denial, a young man’s life shouldn’t end this way.
Of course, it’s too easy and even somewhat glib for me to be recounting this story about events that took place what seems now almost an age ago, but the story isn’t over, at least not for JoAnne Jones Shirley and Mrs. Jones. Bobby’s remains were never recovered. He was declared Missing in Action. JoAnne and Mrs. Jones have spent the last thirty-nine years trying, at times, fighting, to locate Bobby’s remains and bring their son and brother home to Macon Georgia where he grew up. Thirty-nine years. Perhaps you’re asking yourself if you would devote that much time—essentially a life—righting a wrong. Only God knows that answer. Only He knows our deep hearts and only He knows how each of us would answer when called the harsh way JoAnne and Mrs. Jones have been called. As for human motives, we all need to know that our loved ones are treated right, that the hearts who share our hearts receive justice, that we have done the very best anyone could do to show Bobby the honor he deserves. Remember I said that Mr. and Mrs. Jones were not to be trifled with? The love that shaped that family is still at work today, albeit the task is different and the stage is different. They’re still fighting for their brother and still fighting for their son, just as before he crossed the Pacific Ocean to fight for them.