Surrounded by family and friends, 95-year-old Gibson native Francis Bullard could hardly take a break from smiling last week as he recalled his time as an Army train conductor during World War II.
Dozens had assembled in the special events room of Captain Larry’s Seafood Restaurant in Laurinburg to celebrate the birthday of the man known to everyone simply as “Francis.”
Before the food orders were made and the cake was brought out, Bullard examined a photo of himself from the war, identifying the three other men accompanying him in the photo snapped of him sitting behind the “wheel” of a large Army train.
Though some of his memories of the war have been clouded by the 70 years that now stand between him and his heyday running transports hither and yon across the USA for the Army, one recollection has not been lost to the decades: “It was fun,” said Bullard, eyes gleaming in the reverie, missing only a reflection of the hulking, smoke-billowing iron transport engine he once bore responsibility for.
Earlier in the day Bullard visited the construction site of the Post 50 Veterans Memorial Wall to see for the first time the brick placed there in his honor earlier this summer.
Such visits now require that special arrangements be made for the wheelchair-bound Bullard. The man who spent his war years ferrying America’s golden generation now depends on the kindness of others and the retirement community staff at Scotia Village for his own movements.
One of those kind others is Whit Gibson, who came to know Francis as a “cousin” (although the family tree reveals only a very distant connection) several decades ago.
“He is the definition of a gentle man,” says Gibson, happy to be talking about the “Cousin Francis” he has come to know and love.
It was Gibson who met Bullard at the veterans memorial and Gibson who pointed out to Bullard the brick bearing his name, rank and time of service.
“He is a man who has meant a lot to us,” Gibson said.
While the war still looms large in Bullard’s memory, the family and friend’s now hunching over to greet Bullard in his wheel chair and meet his gaze remember him from a different time.
For his sister Kathryn, the memories are of a “sweetheart” of an older brother who was always “very thoughtful, caring and helpful when I was a child.”
“He is the most accommodating man I have every known,” she said, recalling a time when, while serving as maintenance director for Scotland County Schools, Bullard was faced with the challenge of finding a critical boiler component that had become obsolete.
“He made the entire thing himself,” she said, describing the difficult fabrication process that creating the replacement part required. The boiler part would later become a retirement gift for Bullard.
Bullard returned to Scotland County in the 1950s after working for a rail company in Raleigh following the war. Upon his retirement from the school system in the early 1980s after more than 25 years of service Bullard graduated to become a kind of de facto handyman for local widows.
“It was about that time that Francis and I kind of inherited each other,” said Gibson, whose uncle BP Lytch was one of Bullard’s closest friends.
Bullard carried on his work as a do-it-all craftsman who could be counted on to cook chicken for charity or to change a light bulb for an elderly neighbor until February of 2008 when a stroke robbed him of his mobility and some of his memory.
“Until he had that stroke, he was every bit as with it and could do more than men much younger than he was. He could mechanically fix things amazingly well,” said Gibson, recalling a time when Bullard helped him install foot holes in a kayak — tough work in a cramped space.
“He crawled in and did the drilling, totally independently.”
Asked to describe how he felt, sitting in the midst of those to whom he has meant the most, Bullard struggles for an answer.
“I don’t know how I feel to tell you the truth,” Bullard said.
“But I do appreciate it.”
The recollections are now mostly left to Bullard’s friends, who say that on bad days he sometimes still believes he works for the school system.
But the day at Captain Larry’s was a good day for Bullard. Even if his own memory wasn’t up to the task at the birthday celebration, his past was all around him in the form of the people whose lives he touched.
From those who remember his time as the conductor of the small train at the John Blue House to those he helped fixed some broken appliance, it was they who did the work of remembering for Staff Sgt. Francis Bullard that afternoon.