As a young boy in tiny Royalston, Alan Bowers learned early the value of hard work.
He lived across the street from the town library and his great-grandfather – a stern and burly man who ran the local general store – led him there one day in the late 1940s.
“Come with me,’’ the older man told him. Then he presented the kid with one of those old push mowers. Cut the grass, he was told.
That was his job, and that’s what he did, recruiting a handful of other neighborhood customers. “I’m making money,’’ Bowers recalled this week. “And I am smiling.’’
When he got out of Athol High School in 1955, he got an offer from General Electric to join an apprenticeship program for draftsmen and tool makers. His future seemed set. On a lark, he accompanied a pal who was taking an Air Force entrance test in Chicopee.
A free day off, he figured. What the heck. He took the test, too.
The last thing on Bowers’s mind was a military career. Then, a letter arrived. The Air Force wanted him. And, in an instant, Bowers’s life diverted toward a path that would take him to Lackland Air Force Base and beyond. He climbed the military ladder quickly and found himself in the navigator’s seat of some of the fastest aircraft on earth.
“The mission was to put the bomb on the target,’’ Bowers told me this week at the VA Medical Center in West Roxbury.
And that’s what Major Bowers was doing on Sept. 17, 1972, when he was part of a two-man crew in an OV-10 aircraft over Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail, guiding bombers to their targets. One of the plane’s engines lost power. Bowers and his pilot ejected into the jungle’s triple canopy.
“I come down through the first layer of the canopy of the jungle and my parachute hits that and starts to come apart,’’ he recalled. “By the time I get to the third one, there’s no parachute left. I hit the ground.’’
The impact crushed two vertebrae. Bone fragments ricocheted through his spinal cord. Instant paralysis.
A few months later, Bowers, who had scaled many of life’s mountains, lay in the Chelsea Naval Hospital. “I’m reaching down and there’s no muscle there. There’s just skin,’’ he said. “And that’s when I realized I’m not going to climb this mountain. We’re going to have a totally different life now.’’
What Bowers has done with that life is nearly as remarkable as the combat mission that shaped it. When the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans helped him negotiate the thicket of bureaucracy that lay between him and his benefits, he made another life decision.
“I said, ‘OK. That’s the DAV.’ They can’t get you something that you haven’t earned, but they can get you what you have earned,’’ he said. “I want to be part of that.’’
So Bowers went back to work. He climbed through the state organization and, in 2003, began a one-year term as the DAV’s national commander, testifying before Congress about America’s solemn duty to wounded warriors who preserve our freedom.
“Cut in stone and shaped in bronze are words of wisdom and statues that define our creed and remind us of those who gave us this great gift,’’ he said then. “Certainly, we must include among those who have allowed us to become who we are the many that personally paid the high price of freedom with their arms, legs, eyesight, or mental well-being.’’
If his treatment at the VA hospital goes well this week, Al Bowers, now 79, will be at Castle Island on Saturday morning for a 5K race in honor of disabled veterans.
He’ll be there to give — not get — a salute, a grateful nod, a pat on the back.
“It’s a rare opportunity to say thank you to all the other guys and gals who went into the service and did the same thing I did,’’ he told me. “And more.’’
More? Hard to believe. But that’s Al Bowers.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.