At 5:30 p.m. May 5, 1969, Fulton resident Allen Nelson boarded a bus at the Callaway County courthouse.
He'd been drafted to go to Vietnam.
"I joked that I spent six months picking out the splinters from under my fingernails after they dragged me off the porch, but I went," Nelson said during his Tuesday evening talk to the Fulton Evening Rotary Club.
As the bus picked up more and more unlucky men on the way to St. Louis, Nelson began spotting anti-war protesters along the route. Many of them turned their ire against the men on the bus. And the negative attitude toward Vietnam War vets didn't stop when they came home, either.
"Anyone who had on a uniform, they weren't very kind to you," he said. "People harassed you. It was twice as bad at airports."
That's why, when Nelson began receiving invitations from the Central Missouri Honor Flight about four years ago, he turned them all down.
Founded in 2008, CMHF is a highly active chapter of the Honor Flight nonprofit. Honor Flight began flying World War II veterans in 2004 to see the then-new World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. Today, each flight is chartered and is accompanied by dozens of volunteers and two physicians who assure participants' comfort and safety.
Honor Flight has given free trips to more than 200,000 veterans nationwide, while CMHF will cross the 5,000 mark with its Veterans Day flight next week. After offering flights to as many WWII and Korean War veterans who were well enough and willing to go, CMHF and Honor Flight began reaching out to Vietnam War vets.
"If you're a World War II or Korean War veteran who wants to go, they'll get you on the next available flight," Nelson said. "Most Vietnam vets who sign up will go within the next year."
After years of throwing away Honor Flight's letters, Nelson's daughter finally came in one Sunday with an application and made him fill it out. Nelson did so under protest, and after being accepted, he attended a weekend orientation to complete more paperwork. The following Sunday, his wife drove him to Columbia to drop him off for his flight.
"I was supposed to get there at 11:30 p.m. That's after my bedtime," Nelson said. "Up until I got out of that car, I still didn't want to go."
Each flight consists of 110 veterans, plus 50 volunteers who pay their own way. The group ate a late-night breakfast together before loading up on three buses for the drive to the Lambert Airport in St. Louis.
"You think you're going to get a nap in, but they talk to you all the way there," he said. "When we passed the Denny's at Warrenton, at probably 2 a.m., there were 30 or 40 people out there waving flags."
The vets didn't have to deal with security at the airport. Walking through Lambert, they were met with cheers from their sleepy fellow travelers.
"I'd never had that before. It was nice," Nelson said.
He said the vets weren't allowed to sleep on their way to Washington, D.C., either. In fact, they didn't get a wink of shut-eye during the entire experience.
"They build you up, try to get your emotions running, and the best way to do that is to get you tired," Nelson said.
"After we landed and went through the airport, people were clapping and cheering, and you can't help but get emotional," he said. "I've talked to plenty of friends who've done the flight before, and they don't talk about that part. You have to experience it to know how it feels."
With a police escort, the veterans zipped through town without stopping for a single red light. They visited the new women's memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, watched the changing of the guard and the wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and stopped by all the various war memorials.
If the vets wanted to visit a particular name on the memorial walls, a volunteer would look up its location in advance. The volunteers were also ready with wheelchairs in case veterans became fatigued.
"They pamper you, they really do," Nelson said. "I tried to help push someone's wheelchair once and the volunteers ran me off."
After supper at the Air Force memorial, it was time to head home but not time to rest.
"They had a mail call on the plane," Nelson recalled. "I've gone through many mail calls but never one like this. They gave me a folder of letters from my wife, my girls and my grandkids. And this came with it," he said, holding up a packet of Honor Flight-branded tissues.
The vets got their loudest cheers yet while heading back through Lambert and then were handed even more letters once they reached their buses.
"They keep you wound up," Nelson said.
At Kingdom City, the convoy was met by 300 motorcyclists, plus around two dozen Missouri Highway Patrol vehicles. The buses passed bonfires surrounded by flag-waving supporters.
"From Kingdom City to the Courtyard Marriott, we owned that highway," Nelson said.
Finally, at about 9 p.m., the buses pulled into the parking lot.
"And I looked down, and there stood Mary, my three girls, four grandkids and two sons-in-law," he said, voice thick with emotion.
Nelson said he highly recommends taking the trip.
"I'm glad I went — I'm glad my daughter made me go," he said.
To learn more about CMHF, donate or download applications to join a trip as a veteran or volunteer, visit centralmissourihonorflight.com.