Veteran cast savors Point Lookout trip

September 16, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

POINT LOOKOUT STATE PARK -- Standing side by side on the fishing pier, generations met where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay, some old warriors of Vietnam, Korea and World War II, others with the battles of Iraq still fresh on their minds.

Friday's sky and temperature hinted at the autumn to come, and the stiff breezes made fishing lines wiggle and shirtsleeves snap.

The outing for veterans and their families was, by turns, recreational, instructional and inspirational. As everyone got acquainted, it was like the merger of a history book and yesterday's front page. The gathering place, too, had its place in military history.

Point Lookout, at the tip of St. Mary's County was the site of Fort Lincoln, a Civil War fortification and a prison camp, where more than 50,000 Confederate soldiers were held, often guarded by African-Americans in the Union Army. The graves of the dead servicemen and a memorial are at the entrance to the state park.

In 1965, to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the Department of Natural Resources began development of the 1,000-acre state park.

Friday, first-time visitors among the fishermen marveled at the vastness of the bay before them.

"Is this the ocean?" asked Army Spc. Mackie Keller, as he got off the bus from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, stretched his legs and gazed east.

"There's more to Maryland on the other side?" said Gloria Altman, whose son stayed behind at Walter Reed to be fitted for a new artificial arm. "Wow, I'm impressed."

After a quick geography lesson, Keller grabbed a rod and some bait and headed for the far end of the 700-foot pier, where he set up shop. Altman stayed closer to shore.

Keller, 25, was in the first months of his tour in Iraq earlier this year, when a 2.5-ton toolbox broke free from its chains and fell on the mechanic, damaging his spine, knee and ankle.

An avid freshwater fisherman back home in Amory, Miss., he expressed surprise each time his rod bent and he carefully reeled in another resident of the bay: striper, bluefish, flounder, spot and even a crab.

"These are some strange fish you got around here," he said, grinning as he eyeballed a toadfish. "I'm used to catfish, crappie and bass."

Keller fell into easy and playful banter with his mentor this day, Bill Dozier, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. Each man boasted of his fishing prowess and his service branch's superiority, toughness and smarts.

"The Marine Corps, that's the men's department of the Navy," said Dozier, ending one round of one-upmanship by laughing and pointing to his brass belt buckle emblazoned with USMC.

Later, as Keller rebaited his rod, Dozier turned serious.

"I served from 1966 to 1970. Those were tough times in this country for servicemen and veterans. We want to make sure what happened to us doesn't happen to them. We won't forget them," said Dozier, a member of the three organizations that put together the outing: VFW Post 2632 and the local chapters of Coastal Conservation Association and the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association.

Altman, from Valarico, Fla., said she was as grateful for a day on the water as her son was to be on his own.

"He said, `Mom, go,' " she recounted, smiling. "He wanted to get rid of me for a while."

Spc. Jake Altman, 21, lost his right arm and suffered damage to his legs in May when his convoy hit roadside bombs. The young soldier had dodged injury in a previous explosion, but not this time.

Right-handed, he is getting an artificial arm that will be controlled by his shoulder muscles, a sophisticated device he hopes will allow him to drive a standard transmission car, learn to fly-fish and, most important, stay in the Army, his mother said.

"We're a military family. My husband was career Coast Guard," Gloria Altman said. "When Jake was 11, he wrote to all branches of the service and said, `Take me.' All of them wrote back and thanked him but told him he was too young."

Recently widowed, Gloria Altman temporarily relocated to Washington to be with her son while he receives outpatient treatment. Jake Altman's wife is a German national who is arranging for her and their 1-year-old son to come to the United States.

"It would be nice to bring them all here," Gloria Altman said.

The contingent from Walter Reed was joined by residents from the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home, just up the road from Point Lookout.

For Charles Alexander, it marked his first fishing trip in 25 years. But the World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps showed no signs of rust, landing several fish in rapid succession.

He asked questions about the latest fishing gear, like fish finders, and shook his head at the answers.

"The technology," he said. "I was a radar operator. Radar was such a secret word back then that you could only say it in class. Radar was top of the line. Now, a third-grader knows more and I don't know anything."

Dozier said the VFW and the fishing clubs would like to broaden the dialogue among the generations by making next year's outing bigger and inviting active-duty servicemen and women.

"It does the heart good to hear this," he said. "It really does."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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