Max Confer enlisted in the Army because he was tired of waiting to be drafted.
He says this very bluntly, not to be rude, but just because it’s a matter of fact — and honestly, what use is there in beating around the bush at 99 years old?
The year was 1942, and Confer had the distinction of living in State College, which had the distinction of being part of the United States, which had the distinction of being a part of World War II.
He was an able-bodied young man and enlisting was the patriotic — not to mention pragmatic — thing to do.
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“I enlisted because I wanted in the air corps. I wanted to learn to be a mechanic,” Confer said.
He was already working for a company that sold auto parts, so it made a certain amount of sense — play to your strengths, as they say. Still, there are people who wouldn’t understand that today. Heck, there were people who didn’t understand it then.
None of those people were seated with Confer around the dining room table on a quiet Wednesday afternoon at Juniper Village.
The other three guys — Fred Thompson, Tom Roush and Jim Powers — were already familiar with some of these stories, in part because it’s a big retirement community in a small world, but also because they’ve lived variations of them all too vividly.
You have to take care of everybody who shows up. It doesn’t matter who they are.
Roush was hospitalized after taking machine gun fire during World War II. Thompson taught courses on burgeoning radar technology at Aberdeen Proving Ground at the height of the Korean War, which ended on the day that Powers graduated from ROTC at Duquesne University.
The only reason that they’ve gathered at this spot, on this day, is because some newspaper reporter asked them to in order to see if he could cram the entirety of the veteran experience into a tight hour and a half.
It turns out that’s a little tricky — but for now, back to Confer.
When we last saw the freshly minted enlisted man, he had made a smart, forward-thinking choice in the interest of doing the right thing. This of course, should have been a telltale sign to anyone even remotely familiar with the laws of irony that Confer was about to have the rug pulled out from underneath him.
He wanted to be a mechanic, but the Army thought that he tested more like a surgical technician.
They sent him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for training.
Confer never saw any combat, but he did get seasick on the North Atlantic, teach basic medical at camps throughout the United States and run an aid station in the Mediterranean.
“You have to take care of everybody who shows up. It doesn’t matter who they are,” Confer said.
After the war, Confer returned to State College and married the girlfriend he had left waiting for him.
Other young men his age had rushed into marriage before going to war, seizing the day before something else seized them. Confer was determined that if the worst should happen, it would not entail any collateral damage back home.
“I was never going to leave a widow,” Confer said.
His was one of the lucky returns, the kind that unfolded without the aid of a physician.
After Roush took fire in Italy, he was transported back to a hospital in Charleston, S.C., where he spent the next 11 months and three weeks.
There is a noticeable divot in Roush’s right arm where a section of bone was removed. He still can’t bend the wrist.
“I was just thankful that I wasn’t dead,” Roush said.
As the soldiers of World War II were busy reuniting with loved ones and kissing American soil, a 17-year-old Thompson was just finishing up school in Bellefonte. In the fall, he would matriculate at Penn State, where he remembers the campus being overrun with students.
Veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill were seeking an education and the surplus of young scholars forced Thompson and other members of the crowded student body to attend classes in the evenings.
By the time the Korean War broke out, Thompson had already graduated with a degree in engineering.
“The Korean War surprised everyone, I think — including our own military,” Thompson said.
Before long, Thompson found himself among the rank and file of the Army, where he was assigned as an instructor of radar technology at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
Now, there were a couple of problems with this right off the bat.
The first — but surprisingly not the most significant — was that Thompson had never taught anybody anything in his entire life. When the Army told him that he would be attending classes at Aberdeen, he assumed that it would be as a student.
Next — radar was still a whole new technology at the time, meaning that the only difference between Thompson and his students would be in terms of proximity to the blackboard.
Finally — and this is really more of a twist of the knife than an out and out “problem” — Aberdeen Proving Ground was considered the most advanced radar system in the country. So … pressure.
The general consensus from his first round of student-submitted evaluations — yep, the Army does those too — was that he was a nice guy who shouldn’t quit his day job.
“The first course, I would say, was agonizing for me and the students,” Thompson said.
By the time Thompson had finished teaching his third class, the feedback had become much more positive.
After the war, Thompson returned to Penn State to obtain a graduate degree and familiarize himself with a new device that had entered into the world called a “transistor.”
His background in radar proved very useful.
“It changed my whole career for the better,” Thompson said.
Powers never made it to Korea. The war ended on the day that he graduated from ROTC.
The Army sent him to Germany, where he assumed command of an atomic cannon — or the crew, at any rate.
Out of the four veterans assembled at Juniper Village, Powers was the most eager to downplay his experiences in the service.
“People were already going through it,” Powers said. “I was just following them.”