President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sergeant Treadmill - Redneck Tale # 49
Bill Treadway was the "old man" of the outfit. He was tall, of serious demeanor, and had kept himself in great shape physically. He was of a type – a country fellow who showed that he had always worked hard and played little. To be in his presence for five minutes assured you that here was a man who had never sipped whiskey, who learned the ins and outs of his trade as a senior sergeant in the Air Force, and who did what he was told to do by those placed over him. Other than for those things, Bill Treadway was a fine human being.
We all called him "Treadmill" both because we liked him a lot and because he worked with treadmills day in and day out. In fact he was a regular whiz with the things.
One tough test after another!
Back in the early 1960s he was assigned as one of the non-coms in charge of the big cardiac-testing laboratory at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine in San Antonio, Texas. That was the era during which the candidates for assignment as "Project Apollo" astronauts were being physically tested for spots in the moon-landing program.
Bill’s big cardiac testing laboratory was loaded with electronic-recording treadmills (from which Bill got his nickname, Treadmill). There were all sorts of other devices in the laboratory, all of which added to the grueling routines through which the astronaut candidates were put. In its time, the cardiac laboratory and all of the rest of the many other laboratories and departments of the school’s Clinical Sciences Division were likely parts of the most complete and modern medical testing complex anywhere in the world.
"Sergeant! Let me pass!"
Some years earlier, Dr. Lawrence E. Lamb, now the civilian head of that Division, had been a young Air Force officer assigned to medical duty at Randolph Air Force Base, a large training facility close by San Antonio, Texas. He was on call at the base dispensary the evening that then Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, had his first heart attack. Dr. Lamb treated him in that emergency. LBJ made it through OK and forever after credited Dr. Lamb with having saved his life – and, quite likely, that is what actually occurred. Thus, when Dr. Lamb applied for the post at the school, he was an obvious choice by the one man with the most say about things – now U.S. President, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Every year LBJ would routinely arrive at Dr. Lamb’s Clinical Science Division for a physical examination. It was always quite a show. His helicopter would land up front on the lawn, and LBJ and his entourage would descend upon our building for LBJ’s physical. When they got to our building, armed guards would stand at all of the hallway junctions and we were warned to remain inside of our laboratories and offices or risk having our noses shot off.
Sometimes LBJ felt a heart twitch or a tummy ache in the making. Whenever that happened, here he came, helicopter, working buddies, armed guards and the whole show along with him. He knew that Dr. Lamb was the very best and that Dr. Lamb would never let him down. Furthermore, he, LBJ, had made certain that Dr. Lamb had the very best equipment and staff that the U.S. Treasury could provide.
On one occasion of LBJ’s coming along with one of those not infrequent twitches, he showed up at our Division. The word came through to us that, this time, the visit was to be totally secret and unreported to anyone anywhere – particularly to the news media. This time there were no news people in the crowd accompanying LBJ.
Dr. Lamb directed that the entire cardiac laboratory be emptied of any people who did not work there, after which LBJ was to be escorted into the laboratory for testing. His twitch this time seemed to be a bit out of the ordinary even for LBJ twitches.
Before closeting himself in the cardiac laboratory with LBJ, Dr. Lamb ordered Treadmill to stand in front of the double doors to the laboratory and to not admit anyone – anyone (!) – unless Dr. Lamb gave his personal permission.
I can remember our comrade, staunch warrior and sternly purposeful Treadmill, standing in front of those double doors, arms folded on his broad chest, legs spread out somewhat for extra sturdiness, with his "Yes sir! Dr. Lamb," resounding up and down the long hallways. My guess was that anyone who wanted to get into that cardiac laboratory minus an OK from Dr. Lamb to Treadmill would be quite stone cold dead before he could pass.
Along came the commander of the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Colonel Blount, a fellow who was just as serious a man as was Treadmill. The colonel reached for the doorknob. Treadmill stepped in front of it.
The colonel told Treadmill, "Sergeant, let me pass."
Treadmill said, "Over my dead body, SIR!" (Treadmill was always up on his military manners.)
Colonel Blount left, bright red of face, and returned to his own office. From there he put in a telephone call to the cardiac laboratory. A few moments after the phone had stopped its ringing, Dr. Lamb opened one door from the inside and told Treadmill that it was OK to admit Colonel Blount to the laboratory whenever the colonel showed up again.
And – here came Colonel Blount once more. Still red in the face and still unhappy with being turned away earlier by one of his sergeants. Treadmill jumped to attention, saluted the colonel, opened the door for him, and said, "Colonel, SIR (!), you may enter."
Well, it seemed as though the colonel was about ready to say some reasonably harsh things to our Treadmill, but he caught himself. Instead he turned to Treadmill, patted him on the shoulder several times and said, "Good work, son!" Then into the cardiac laboratory he went.
Not too long after that, Treadmill retired from the Air Force. At his going-away ceremony in our Clinical Sciences Division, Colonel Blount showed up to shake Treadmill’s hand and to wish him a happy retirement. He also slipped Treadmill a little note.
I caught up with Treadmill before he headed for his hometown up there in Lufkin, Texas.
"What was that note that the colonel gave to you, Treadmill?"
"Gus, it was from LBJ."
"What’d it say?"
"It said ‘Sgt. Treadway – Thanks for your help in controlling the crowd that day I was having my astronaut exam. Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States.' "
Now, I don’t believe that Treadmill was married or had any children from days past, but if not, and if there is a library in Lufkin, there is a reasonable chance that Treadmill’s note from LBJ is sitting in a fancy display case in the library. The next time I go through Lufkin, I am going to remember to take a look.