Vietnam veteran and McPherson resident Gary Parker will take part in a Kansas Honor Flight in May.
Gary was teased for being skinny and chased home from school while he was growing up. In his efforts to escape the taunting of his classmates, he became a daredevil — doing things like rolling underneath slow-moving tanker cars to get to his friend's house and trying to fly by jumping off a loading dock.
He and a friend also practiced rather unusual self-defense techniques.
"We'd stand on each end of a field, take a bow and arrow, shoot them up in the air and see how close we could come to each other," Gary said. "I got him in the leg and he got me in the arm one day."
Gary enlisted in the Marines in 1969.
"Some of my friends were enlisting, so I figured I might as well, too," Gary said. "...Dad didn't mind it; mom cried."
Gary hadn't been outside of Kansas and Oklahoma before going to basic training in California, where he said he was turned from a child into a man.
"When I first went in, they could beat you up. They could do anything they wanted to and they did," Gary said. "...I had a sense of humor and I found they didn't."
The athleticism he gained as a young man served him well as a Marine.
"When I was in the Marines, I ran about nine miles a day. Most of the time, the drill instructor was running right after me," Gary joked.
Gary served in the U.S. Marines from 1969 to 1971 and again from 1974 to 1976, attaining the rank of lance corporal.
"When they asked for volunteers to go to Vietnam. I said, 'put me down,'" Gary said. "I got down there and never got shot, so the next time they asked for volunteers, I figured the first time was alright, the second time would be the same."
Gary did two tours of duty in Dan Nang and Chu Lai, Vietnam, where his main duty was to "got shot at."
Though he made for a tall target, Gary was never injured in combat. The same could not be said about his free time.
"I got hurt more in Okinawa than I did in Vietnam," Gary recalled. "This other guy and I went to play miniature golf. He swung at a rock and (the club) came back and hit me in the head. ...He didn't mean to do it, my head was just in the way."
Gary ended up with nine stitches from that incident and has acquired several others from bar fights, trying to crush a steel beer can on his forehead and being hit by a brick thrown during a game of hide and seek.
Admitting he never plans to grow up, Gary tells tales of riding on the hood of a truck down country roads.
"It was fun until you fell off," Gary said.
There seemed to be no challenge that would cause him to back down — especially when he was drinking.
"I ate a live frog for $50 one time," Gary said. "That was one of my drunker moments."
Gary worked for Schmidt Water Conditioning for 25 years.
"He'd bend over backwards for anybody. If anybody needed help, he was right there," said Gary's wife, Susie Parker.
Until recently, Gary worked at Walmart as a greeter, earning the 2016 Front-End Employee of the Year award. Then in February 2018, he had a stroke that left him unable to walk.
"He was always one of those who didn't miss work for anything and he'd cover when somebody couldn't (work)," Susie said. "When I had to call them and tell them he wouldn't be there, that was hard."
While he is recuperating at McPherson Health and Rehab, Gary still goes to Walmart every few weeks to see friends, visit with coworkers and get hugs.
Gary, still proud of the country he fought for, noticed the American flag flying at the rehab center needed to be retired.
"The one that they had out there was all torn and he said something to the guy who runs it and got them to put a new flag up," Susie said.
"I still salute the flag every day," Gary said.
Gary's son, Joe, will accompany him on his first trip to Washington, D.C.
"I was pretty tickled when I heard he was getting to go," Susie said. "Not a lot of people get to do it. It's going to be pretty interesting to hear the stories when he gets back."
"A lot of people take this country for granted. I figure it's worth fighting for," Gary said.
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her stories on Twitter at @MiddleSentinel.