Carl Farris doesn’t watch television shows or movies about Vietnam. He doesn’t need to be reminded, visually.
Farris, 70, was there in 1967 and 1968, after being drafted in the Army.
He was only 21 and a country boy, having grown up in rural China, in Kennebec County, where he helped on the family farm, milking cows, haying the fields and cleaning out the barns.
But his three-year stint in the military would change that life forever.
“I went to South Carolina, to Fort Jackson, and then Fort Knox, Kentucky,” he recalled. “From there I had a month off and came home and then went to Vietnam.”
With the rank of specialist, Farris was sent to Xuan Loc, right into the rice paddies. He and his group then went to Saigon, where he was wounded when a rocket propelled grenade struck the vehicle he was driving with a tank commander and two gunners on board. The tank commander and one gunner were killed.
“They flew us out of there with a chopper and I was in the hospital for two weeks with shrapnel in my chest. When I got out of the hospital, they sent me to the Ho Bo woods in Binh Durong Province. I said, ‘Is it dry there?’ They said yes, so I said, ‘No problem.'”
Again, he found himself driving, but he sensed something was not right and soon learned why. Land mines all around him exploded and he thought a tank had fallen on top of him.
“I was back in a chopper and went to the hospital. My eardrums were impacted and I lost my hearing, temporarily. It loosened all my teeth. After that, it was my choice whether to go back out in combat or go back to base camp. I had about 15 days left. I said I don’t want to die over here, so I went back to base camp.”
For his actions and for being wounded, Farris was awarded two Purple Hearts, but he has trouble coming to terms with the war in general.
“Fifty-nine thousand men dead in Vietnam — for what? Just to say we did it?”
As Farris told me these stories, we sat in his business, Lakeview Lumber, on Lakeview Drive in China. He recalled being called a “baby killer” when he returned to the U.S. from Vietnam nearly 50 years ago and landed in California, but now, as he wears his Vietnam Veteran’s cap at the store, people are respectful and thank him for his military service.
He has owned and operated Lakeview Lumber with his wife, Phyllis, for 30 years.
They started it together, in 1987 after he stopped working as a building contractor, building houses, and decided to do something different. The Farrises built a two-room store on what was then a hayfield overlooking China Lake. The business has grown over the years into a 40,000-square-foot building with many huge rooms and outbuildings and draws a loyal clientele from a 50-mile radius and beyond. The business carries lumber, doors, steel roofing, tools, paint, plywood, lawn and garden supplies and hundreds of other items.
Carl Farris still works seven days a week, though he has multiple sclerosis and cannot use his right hand and leg. About 12 years ago, he could no longer walk, and now he gets around in a motorized chair. He also is a cancer survivor and had surgery to remove cancer in both his neck and tonsils, he said.
That doesn’t stop him from working about 70 hours a week, answering the phone, helping customers, and making decisions for the business. Gene Cowing, his general manager, has worked with him for 35 years — first building houses, and later at the lumber business.
Cowing says Farris is indefatigable.
“Ain’t nobody any tougher than that old critter,” Cowing, 64, said affectionately. “If I have half his spunk, I’ll be doing good.”
Cowing, who drives Farris around and serves as his right-hand man, says he has learned a lot from Farris over the years.
“He taught me all about building and all of that stuff. I was a truck driver. I couldn’t even walk when I started working with him.”
Farris said he enjoys the business. He and his wife live in his grandfather’s house, about a mile away. After marrying in 1972, they had two daughters, Bryann and Lindsay. Lindsay lives in Orrington and Bryann owns and operates Bry-Ann’s arts and crafts shop in the lower level of Lakeview Lumber. She is married to Ronald Mattingly, who works for her parents.
Herbie Shores, 52, of Clinton, has been yard foreman at Lakeview for about 18 years and says Farris is and always has been a hard worker. Where some people may give up because of smaller health ailments, Farris forges on, despite more challenging problems, according to Shores.
“Nothing stops him. Nothing slows him down. He’s done good for himself.”
A genial man, Farris said he enjoys his work and attributes the success of the business to his strong and dedicated wife, his employees — and being able to provide customers what they need without worrying about competition from big-box stores.
“We sell 6,000 doors a year,” he said. “We know what we can’t beat Home Depot on and we know what we can. I don’t believe I’ve ever been to Home Depot. I’ve never been to Wal-Mart.”
Farris said he doesn’t let his disease get him down, preferring instead to focus on the positive.
“Sometimes the MS acts up on me a little bit, but it’s not bad,” he said. “It is what it is.”