What was to have been a parade in honor of U.S. Navy Lt. Nathan Dobbs’ 101st birthday on Tuesday became instead a celebration of his life.
Regrettably, the honoree died Monday, one day shy of the big event. Nevertheless, his socially distanced parade went forward as scheduled, albeit with a change of mission.
His daughter, former MacArthur High School English, Spanish and drama teacher Rita Arze, said her father would have enjoyed the parade because he loved being the center of attention.
Her cousin, Tammie Cook of Lawton, was there with her to watch the parade. Her mother was the Navy pilot’s baby sister. They came from a brood of 11 children. Nathan had outlived all the rest, she said.
Both cousins broke up laughing when asked what they remembered most about Dobbs.
“He liked to joke,” Arze said. “He attributed his longevity to laughter. And everywhere he went — he had an exercise class in Duncan — and instead of breathing in and out, he said, ‘Let’s just all laugh.’ And so they did.”
Cook said her uncle was always laughing: “He’s always told jokes. Some of them were inappropriate, but they were all funny. So you just kind of had to watch.”
“He had a quick comeback to anything you said,” Arze added.
She does not know if he was looking forward to his parade because all residents of the Lawton-Fort Sill Veterans Center have been under a lockdown to keep out the COVID-19 virus. Her only means of communicating with him was by phone, and the subject never came up in conversation.
Still, she’s sure he was looking forward to it. One of the staffers sent the family a picture of him looking happily at the birthday board they made for him.
“He got a kick out of that,” Cook said, adding he would have loved the parade because “he loved to be celebrated. He liked being the center of attention.”
His 100th birthday party at the center was a huge celebration, with members of his large extended family coming from all over. He was also one of three residents inducted into 2nd Battalion, 20th Field Artillery’s Wall of Heroes on June 13, 2019.
“He was an awesome man. He knew everything. If you asked him, he knew everything,” the cousins agreed.
On Dec. 7, 2013, The Lawton Constitution devoted an entire Neighbors page to his derring-do during World War II. According to the story by Steve Metzer, he was part of a crew pulling heavy, greasy pipe out of the ground at an oil well drilling site near St. Louis, Okla., the day the news broke about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
He told the guys, “This is my last job I’m going to do with you,” and by Dec. 18, 1941, he was at a Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, learning to work the controls of a scout plane.
A 60-foot catapult launched such planes from the deck of a Navy cruiser. When the reconnaissance mission was completed, the pilot would land the plane in the ocean to be picked up by a crane and reeled back aboard.
By 1944 Dobbs was flying fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes. He served in the Pacific Theater for 16 straight months. He left the Navy on Sept. 26, 1946, with the rank of lieutenant senior grade.
After the war he returned to the oilpatch as an employee of Williams Brothers. Later he worked for Bechtel, Fleur and Brown & Root, traveling to countries all over the world and half of the 50 states.
“He laid pipeline. He did the Alaska pipeline but he didn’t finish it, because he turned them in. He did not like what they were doing, and he thought that they were not putting the pipe right or using the right materials,” his daughter said.
Fired for blowing the whistle, he went from temperatures of 40 below to 140 above at his next job in Saudi Arabia. At age 82 his bosses stopped sending him outside the country, but his career wasn’t over yet. A company desperate to find a specialist on bending the tube went to Brown & Root for help. They said, “The only one who can help you is Nathan Dobbs.”
So at 85 he rode in a pickup to Mexico for what would be his last job, but far from his last hurrah.
During Tuesday’s parade Oklahoma Army National Guard Spc. Derek Griner, a trumpeter with the 145th Army Band, played “Taps.” Afterward, Vietnam veteran and former Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kenneth LookingGlass performed a memorial song for the family members. Assisting him were former Marine Corps Cpl. Leland Parker, also with the Comanche Indian Veterans Association, and former Army Staff Sgt. Kristopher Killsfirst of the Apache Native Warriors Society.
Mackenzie Thomas, president of the Key Club at MacArthur High School and a senior in the Class of 2021, said the reason they came to the parade is because “it’s such a great opportunity. There’s not a lot of service right now. And especially with the whole pandemic going on, it’s really important to find all the opportunities we can throughout Lawton and everywhere else, just to see where we can help out in any way. I think this is a really good opportunity to thank one of the veterans for his service.”
Sgt. 1st Class Kellin Banks, who will be retiring from the Army at Fort Sill July 1, is president of C3 (Chargers, Camaros and Challengers), and that club brought nine or 10 cars to the parade.
“What we like to do is stay really involved in the community, and we got a request to do the parade before Lt. Dobbs passed away so we were already going to do it anyway. Now, this just makes it that much more important,” Banks said.
Billy (“Five Dollars”) Hope and his wife brought the Patriot Guard Riders to the parade. Normally they guard military funerals from outside interference, so this “Celebration of Life” parade was a natural for them.
“We heard about this, and talked about this, and I thought, ‘Hey, this would be a great thing. We can do this and at the same time maintain all the social distancing.’ So I got on board and I sent a message out to all of our people,” Hope said.
He sent word to the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, and they showed up, too. Kimberly Chapman and Tammy Gandy, both of Lawton, came as directors of Ladies of Harley, a subset of the Harley Owners Group (HOG).
Tom Fortner, pastor of First Baptist Church of Mill Creek and director of the Mill Creek Faith Riders Chapter, brought his group with the intention of honoring the WWII vet. He admitted they had no idea until they got to Lawton the plans would be changing.
“We also ride with Patriot Guard Riders, so we do a lot of military funerals in southeast Oklahoma. We came here because it’s been a miserable time being locked up for the last 10 weeks not doing anything. So this is a great excuse to get out, ride with the kids, have a wonderful time and honor a military vet at the same time,” Fortner said.