McKinley Weems asked if I’d ever seen the crocodile-skin purse he’d bought my grandmother.
“No,” I said. “Where’d you buy it?”
“Havana, Cuba,” was the surprising answer.
“You’ve been to Havana?” I asked, suspicious.
“Sure, took a cruise there.” My mind went to a Love Boat-type cruise, which didn’t sound like something he’d do. I think my confusion amused him.
As it turns out, he and a group of sailors from the local U.S. Naval Reserve unit had travelled from New Orleans to pre-Castro Cuba on a training exercise. As odd as it may seem now, for nearly two decades, Eureka Springs hosted a United States Naval Reserve Electronics Division unit on the third floor of the McVay Building at 55 Spring Street.
For the 18 years of its existence, the unit was commanded by Tillman Morgan. He and Forrest Binall, a retired Chief radioman, started the unit in 1948. Harry Hussey was the first Station Keeper. Over time, more than 300 men trained at the unit, coming not only from Carroll County, but also from Bentonville, Harrison and even Point Lookout, Missouri. The medical officer was Commander Neil Compton, the Bentonville medical doctor, who became famous for saving the Buffalo National River from being dammed.
My father Donnie Weems was the active-duty Station Keeper for two years. He said that some unit members from dry places, such as Harrison, were attracted to joining because they could get a beer at the Hi Hat while in town for the Wednesday night meetings.
As surprising as McKinley’s trip to Havana was, it doesn’t compare to the time we were talking about guns. I knew McKinley had firearms and was a good shot. I’ve heard his aim was accurate enough to win the turkey shoot one year and that he used to hunt squirrels and elk. However, he seldom talked guns like some men do. He told me the reason why: “I’m skittish about guns on account of that time my brother shot me.” I think my jaw dropped open. I’d known him for almost five decades and I’d never heard about this? But, that’s another story.