From the Enola Gay to the grassy knoll

By: Douglas Smith - Contributing columnist

Imagine an American World War II veteran who visited the Enola Gay aircraft before it flew into history. Imagine a U.S. Marine sent to Japan immediately after its surrender, then, on to China and the front lines of its civil war.

Imagine a professional entertainer of the comedy, TV and movie stages with many star-power names among his close friendships. Imagine a person who was acquainted with Jack Ruby several years before Ruby murdered presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and later questioned by the FBI in the assassination’s wake.

Certainly, any of those four would claim your attention. Imagine one individual with all of those experiences to share. Here at Veterans Day, and the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s murder, it is fitting to look at the career of Dick Curtis.

Approaching 90, now, the WWII veteran and showman is semi-retired in Arizona, still entertaining guests at his family-owned inn in Sedona. Robin and I became acquainted with Dick and his wife, Misty, during a long airport layover in Minneapolis over two years ago. A few questions about his “China Marine” veteran’s ball cap unleashed a flow of stories, a visit to Sedona, and an ongoing e-mail friendship.

Dick’s stint with the Merchant Marines in 1944 led him to the U.S. Marine Corps before war’s end. While on the island of Saipan one day, a friend showed him the Enola Gay B-29 bomber before its historic mission to Hiroshima, Japan. Shortly afterward, Dick’s USMC outfit was among the first dispatched to Sasebo, Japan, as an allied occupation force. Post-war political unrest very soon ticketed his outfit to China to help protect American interests as that country’s long-simmering civil war flared into full blaze. It would not be a sort stay.

Dick remained in China with the Marines until 1948. Over time, the communists pushed the Chinese nationalists, and the Marines, out of city after city. At one point, Dick described the communists’ numerical advantage over his Marines as 11 million versus 10,000. “They (communists) didn’t want a war,” Dick noted, “they just wanted us out of the way.”

Finally, with the communist Chinese rapidly approaching, Dick was directed to assist a Catholic priest in gathering supplies with an old U.S. military truck, but he calculated that he would not have time to fully complete the task. “I didn’t want to become a guest of Mao Tse-tung!” quipped the future professional comedian. Within earshot of enemy bugles, Dick gave the priest a quick tutorial in driving the truck, finally exclaiming, “And the truck is yours!” He raced down the street, to the docks, and onto a small troop ship just ahead of the encroaching force.

Beginning in the 1950s, Dick’s stand-up comedy led him to performances in many nightclubs throughout North America. Close friends and acquaintances included Red Skelton, Jonathan Winters, Andy Griffith, Lenny Bruce, Dick Van Dyke, and a legion of others. In December 2016, CBS aired two colorized episodes of the old Dick Van Dyke show, selected for their popularity. The 1965 episode, “Coast To Coast Big Mouth,” featured Dick Curtis in an extensive role.

Dick had an interesting brush with history in 1963. His name and contact information surfaced in Jack Ruby’s personal notebook, discovered in the course of the FBI’s investigation of President Kennedy’s murder.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s era, Dick Curtis would perform his stand-up comedy act at The Adolphus Hotel’s King’s Club, “… an ‘A’ No. 1 hotel with an expensive private club,” as Curtis described it. “Celebrities came here to visit, too, because it was a wonderful club,” he added.

Across the street from The Adolphus was Jack Ruby’s Carousel club. “He (Ruby) used to come in and watch my show, then he would chase me down the street and say, ‘Dick, wait a minute. I want you to come to my club and work …’” Curtis told Ruby that he did not work ‘strip joints’ anymore, even turning down Ruby’s offers of more money. He did relent to Ruby’s pressing for his contact information, “… so I can send you a Christmas card,” as he quoted Ruby.

Dick described Ruby as a poor boy from Chicago, noting with some sympathy, “… he was always reaching for (a) higher rung on the ladder.”

In the following weeks, FBI agents came to The Adolphus to interview Dick, asking why his name was in Ruby’s personal notebook. “Isn’t everybody’s?” he returned. Satisfying the agents, Dick shared his initial observations about Ruby’s motive: “Now he thinks everybody is going to be his friend, and come to his club, because he shot the man who shot the president.”

Dick seemed a bit wistful in describing a favorite place for midday private time during visits to Dallas in the years leading to Nov. 22, 1963. He could sit in a cool, shady spot, against a fence and under a few trees. “It would get me out of the hotel … I could read, or watch the traffic.”

He was describing a spot on the grassy knoll, scant yards from the point in Dealey Plaza, on Elm Street, where John F. Kennedy died.

Douglas Smith is a Rockingham resident and frequent letter-to-the-editor writer.

Douglas Smith

Contributing columnist