Ten miles north of the Florida state line, wedged between Thomasville and Valdosta, the small farming community of Quitman, Ga., welcomed Bill Spivey into this world on July 25, 1930. The Great Depression had the country in its grip.
Spivey recalled: “Times were tough, but we were lucky. My dad owned a barbershop with five chairs that provided our family with a dependable income. There was a bathroom in back with showers, and the farmers came in on Saturdays to bathe and change into fresh clothes. If money was a problem, the farmers bartered with what they raised or grew, like eggs, beef, pork, fruit and vegetables.”
During World War II, Spivey and his mother volunteered to keep watch for enemy aircraft in the “spotter tower” at the American Legion.
“We were close to submarine bases on the Atlantic Coast,” he said. “Plus, there was war-related activity going on in the Gulf, so people were just a bit jittery after Pearl Harbor.”
After graduating from Quitman High School in 1948, Spivey decided to attend North Georgia College in Dahlonega.
“I knew early on I wanted to be a pharmacist,” he said. “But truthfully, North Georgia was also a military college and I realized the Army was not my cup of tea. I made two decisions: (to) attend the Southern College of Pharmacy in Atlanta and, if in danger of being drafted, (to) join the Navy!”
Join the Navy is exactly what Spivey had to do.
“The Korean War was in full battle mode, and I was in danger of being drafted, so in August of ’51 I volunteered to be a seadog.”
Assigned to San Diego for basic training, Spivey spent five days traveling on a train across the southern part of America.
“That was a fascinating trip,’’ Spivey recalled. I’d been to Florida a couple times, but seeing the southern half of the country was a thrill for a young farm boy.”
Spivey learned the basics at San Diego. He said, “We marched, went to the rifle range, attended seamanship classes, learned how to pack and roll uniforms for a sea bag, tied a few knots, and learned about a ship aboard the USS Neversail” — actually, the USS Recruit.
The USS Recruit, in fact, never sailed. Used in dry dock for training, the ship’s moniker became the USS Neversail.
Spivey’s three years of pharmacy school easily earned him a posting to train as a hospital corpsman. Assigned to Bainbridge Naval Training Center at Port Deposit, Md., Spivey once again boarded a train to travel cross-country. But this time, the train crossed the northern part of the United States.
“It was gorgeous,” he said. “I was mesmerized with the beauty of our country.”
His training lasted six months.
“There were about 50 sailors in the class and a couple of WAVEs. We studied nursing care, medical procedures, pharmacology, and so forth.
“A chief petty officer selected me to assist him in the pharmacy lab, and that experience created good things later in my career.” Graduating fifth in his class, Spivey was offered his choice of duty stations.
He said, “It was either Memphis or Camp Lejeune for me.”
When asked why he considered only those two, Spivey replied, “Well, my girlfriend lived in Atlanta.” Camp Lejeune was the closest.
For the next 2½ years, Spivey worked at the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune.
“Marines were coming and going to Korea,” he recalled. “But luckily, I didn’t have to go as a combat corpsman.” A friend finagled him a part-time position in the pharmacy.
He recalled, “I had ward duties at night and what we call ‘dirty surgery’ during the day.” (Dirty surgery comprises, well, the “unmentionable” type of operations).
Lo and behold, the same chief petty officer from Bainbridge ended up at Camp Lejeune. “It was déjà vu,” Spivey said, grinning. “The chief had me permanently assigned to the pharmacy, then helped me obtain a pharmacy and chemistry technician rating.”
In December of 1954, Spivey was transferred to Chincoteague Naval Air Base, Md., to operate the dispensary of a small, six-bed infirmary.
Across the bay, wild ponies ran free on Assateague Island. Spivey said, “That was a great way to complete my last 10 months in the Navy. The area was fantastic, like being on vacation.”
He continued, “Each year, the Saltwater Cowboys round up the ponies on Assateague Island for the ‘swim’ across the shallow bay for a ‘pony penning.’ The ponies are owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, and proceeds from the auction keep the fire company and the ponies equipped and safe for another year.”
The 1947 classic “Misty of Chincoteague,” by Marguerite Henry, relates the story of a mare and her foal. The book is still a favorite nighttime storybook of young children.
Bill Spivey left the Navy in August 1955.
“I was too close to being the pharmacist I wanted to be not to finish school,” he said. “If it weren’t for that, I’d have made the Navy a career.”
Pharmacist Bill Spivey practiced his trade in Forest Park before coming to Rockdale County to work for Ralph Beasley at Beasley’s Pharmacy in Old Town Conyers. He bought the drugstore in 1972 and operated the popular apothecary until 1994, when he resold the store to Vince Evans, who recently sold the store to Ora Bailey, the grandaughter of Ralph Beasley.
Spivey also served on the city council for 17 years.
His final thoughts: “I enjoyed my military service; it’s an experience you never forget. Even a six-month training course for young men would do the world a lot of good, in organization, discipline, and knowing that respect is not mandatory ... it’s earned.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and writer. Reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.