‘Captain Gene’ still serving his fellow man
For one reason or another, most of the people who live in Clay County have had to pass through the front doors of the courthouse. If you’ve passed through those doors any time in the past year, chances are you encountered Robert “Captain Gene” Johnson. They couldn’t have found a more naturally jovial and extroverted person to run the metal detector and X-ray machine.
Johnson started volunteering with the Clay County Sheriff’s Auxiliary a year ago this month, shortly after he and his partner Lucy moved here. Hayesville is just the latest on the long list of places where Johnson has lived, starting in Alaska and circling the globe.
Johnson spent 42 years aboard some sort of seagoing vessel courtesy of the United States government.
He started life in Juneau, Alaska where his father was in the Army and was stationed there. Both of his parents were from Mississippi, but until the Army sent all of the women and children away from the base because the Japanese had started bombing (this was during World War II), he had never even set foot in the continental United States.
He was still a very young child when the Army sent him and his mother and siblings back to Mississippi, so the transition from the vast wilderness to miles and miles of flat farmland wasn’t as tough as it could have been. His family moved near his grandparents in Walls, Miss. and operated a cotton and corn farm. It was not an easy life. He and his siblings worked the farm with his mother and grandparents (his father had passed away not long after they moved back south) and also worked on different farms in the neighborhood and in other jobs as well. Johnson drove a school bus during the 1959-1960 school year.
He enjoyed driving the bus. He especially liked it when he got to take the basketball teams to their away games, but because he was the one driving the bus he wasn’t able to play in the games.
He had been on the team until that year, but, “they needed their driver, and couldn’t afford for me to get hurt. How would we get home?” he laughs.
“We didn’t have time for too much fun, to be honest,” he says, but then turns around and tells a story about how this one time he and his buddies had been out running around and their car ran dry of water. They didn’t have any and weren’t near anywhere they could get any but they were very near a watermelon field. Using what some may term “redneck ingenuity” they cut open a few of those melons and squeezed the juice into the engine; they got it going, too.
“The sheriff came around to the school and asked us about it and we didn’t lie. They just chewed us out about it. The melon season was almost over and they didn’t mind that much,” he says. Johnson, while a natural jokester up until this day, was not much for getting in trouble. He was admitted into a private college in Texas but decided to enlist in the Navy instead.
He had never been on a boat bigger than one of those flat-bottomed johnboats and had never been on a body of water larger than a lake. He had certainly never even set eyes on the ocean. His older brother had gone into the Navy and when he saw how well he liked it and how well he was treated he decided to go, too. He didn’t know what he was getting into. This one decision shaped his entire world for more than half of his life, much to his delight.
“I was a sick son-of-a-gun. I thought, ‘man, I’m not going to make it,’” he says of his first weeks on his new home, The USS Brush. The Brush was a Destroyer and operated all over the South Pacific. They had operations in Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, and other smaller islands.
“The VA calls me an ‘atomic warrior.’ They check me out every two years from hair to toenail and make sure that everything’s OK,” Johnson says. While not even remotely the longest assignment he had, nor probably even one of the ones that had the biggest impact, the job that gave him that designation was one of the handful of little assignments that allowed Johnson to witness some of the most interesting times in United States military history.
“We thought the ship was going to turn over,” he laughs. In 1962 the United States commenced nuclear bombing testing in the Christmas and Johnson Islands.
The Brush was just there to make sure that everything was going to be safe. They were supposed to be over 150 miles away; they were only around 40 when the first mushroom cloud appeared. Thankfully a little shaking was the only thing the ship and its crew experienced, aside from getting sprayed with atomic materials.
In his long and storied career Johnson has been involved in just about everything where the United States military has been deployed, from the Vietnam War to sitting off the coast of Cuba during the missile crisis, to peacetime cruises in Europe and South America and running resupply missions during the first Gulf War. He’s seen just about everything.
During his time on the oceans of the world he wasn’t just associated with the U.S. Navy, but also with the Merchant Marines and the American Maritime Officers. He was on 17 different vessels with three different federal organizations until he finally hung up his hat in 2005, 42 years after he first stepped foot on a ship.
He had purchased a home in Key Largo, Florida a long time before he retired. He had taken shore leave there several times and fell in love with it. He had been married and divorced while he was on active duty and had several children from that marriage, but by the time he finally decided to retire the children were grown. He was a single man with a large pension and he decided to settle where he was going to have the most fun.
“Those girls down there wear those three piece bathing suits, one hat and two shoes,” he laughs. He was enjoying life by himself, playing the guitar at bars and going scuba diving but it wasn’t until he met his partner Lucy that he finally found his purpose.
Lucy plays the fiddle and Johnson plays the guitar. It is a skill he picked up while in church in rural Mississippi. He carried a guitar with him on every ship he was on.“They made room for such things,” he laughs. When they finally got together they set up the duo that has since become the band that they now headline at most of the musical venues around the area.
They played their music together in Key Largo until 2012, when they decided to move to North Carolina. At first they moved to Maggie Valley, where they got a gig playing for the guests of Ghost Town in the Sky. They did that for two years and played at other venues in the area but then Lucy decided she wanted to live on the lake.
“I followed her like a sick hound dog,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Lucy decided to buy a house on Lake Chatuge and when she told him this he followed her. They started getting gigs around here, started adding members to their band and volunteering with local organizations in their off time. They have quickly integrated themselves into local society.
These two are a living example of how we in this community welcome outsiders, with open arms. “Captain Gene” has given his life to the United States government, he has shown true faith and fidelity to the same, and it is very apparent, after you talk to him, that he feels the same way about just about everything he’s involved with.
“Captain Gene” loves his government, his Navy and his new county. He gives 80 plus hours to the safety and security of Clay County’s officials and gives more than that to the entertainment of the rest of the county. Next time you’re in the courthouse, stop and thank him for it.