Who says you can’t go home again? Jim Cook could have told Thomas Wolfe a thing or two.
Dreaming of travel even as a small boy, he didn’t let grass grow under his feet as he satisfied an itch for wanderlust throughout his highly productive life.
But as he reached the waning chapters of his journey, nothing appealed to him more than the green, green grass of home.
At 83, back within the welcoming boundaries of his beloved boyhood stomping grounds, he now obliges that call to far-away places through hiking trips with his wife, Jewell, an inveterate walker. Their treks cover 37 countries. So far.
His lifelong travelogue started when he signed up for jump school. Twenty-six years in the military -— two in the Army and 24 in the Air Force — included duty as a parachuting meteorologist reporting on weather conditions for upcoming battles.
He survived all this while battling acrophobia, a mentally crippling fear of heights. A parachutist with acrophobia? Apparently it worked. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.
Certain words in his biography pop out — Cape Canaveral, CIA, degrees in psychology and meteorology, trips to Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Nothing ordinary about this guy.
Before retiring at 72, he oversaw a military counseling program for the state and worked in health care planning for Gov. Gaston Caperton.
He’s pleased with his life, especially the realization of his teenage military dream. Sometimes the best-laid plans do pan out.
“My dad worked for a traveling construction company and came through here, and this was in the middle of the Depression.
“The story goes that [my mother] went into a speakeasy one night where you could get booze, and there was this big man on the floor rolling dice. That was my dad.
“He was here for several weeks and married her, and they were immediately on the road — Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Atlantic City Birmingham, Savannah, all over Florida, 26 states.
“This was in a day when there were no Holiday Inns, just boarding houses, trailer courts, where we could find a place to live.
“When I was ready to start school, they thought they might settle in Tampa, and I started first grade there.
“Something bad happened after my first semester. Pearl Harbor. We came back here where Mom was from, and I spent all my school years here on the West Side of Charleston and went to Stonewall.
“I grew up during a good bit of the war years, and they had these propaganda movies out — the ace fighter pilot, Audie Murphy, all that — and I decided I wanted to be an officer in the military. I wanted to travel, another motivation for going into the military.
“I couldn’t afford to go to college, a prerequisite for being an officer. So I went in the Army for two years and got the GI Bill and went to Marshall and got a degree in psychology.
“I wanted to go back in the service then, so I went through officer training in the Air Force. I spent another 24 years in the Air Force.
“It was unusual. I went to jump school and wore the jump wings. A lot of Air Force pilots would look at the wings and say, ‘You mean you would jump out of a perfectly good airplane?’ I worked with Army units, the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces and other units.
“I went to Texas A&M under auspices of the Air Force. They needed weather officers, meteorologists.
“I had just enough math and science to get into the program. It was the hardest two years of my life. I ended up getting a master’s in meteorology, a specialty the Army doesn’t have.
“Most military operations are weather-sensitive. D-Day, for example, was a weather-sensitive operation.
“The first Army general I worked for wanted to know which direction the winds would be blowing in the morning. I said from the south. He said, ‘How do you know that?’
“I drew a map of a low pressure system. The winds come counter-clockwise. We are here, so winds will come from the south. He wasn’t sure about that.
“I heard later that he helicoptered out with some of his staff and went to a hilltop and threw out a smoke grenade. If I had been wrong, he would have canned me.
“I made 102 jumps, more than I had to because I wanted to overcome acrophobia. I thought if I did it enough, maybe I would get used to it, but it never seemed natural to be a thousand feet in the air in a plane going 140 miles an hour and jumping out the door. I never did get over it.
“It was a varied career, I spent a lot of years working with the Army and jumping out of planes. They like to broaden you, so I did a short tour with the CIA doing something technical, not cloak and dagger. They were monitoring nuclear testing in China.
“I worked in the space program at Cape Canaveral, the initial work on the space shuttle program.
“In the mid-’70s, I got to work in ROTC at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Gettysburg is a wonderful place. I was privileged to live there.
“I spent time in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, a week or so there and there. I retired and married Jewell, and we’ve been to 37 countries.
“Growing up in Charleston on the West Side in the ’40s and early ’50s was an idyllic time. I came full circle. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. My son in Florida said, ‘But you did.’
“Hiking is something I came back to with Jewell. I hiked when I was a kid. Before Little Creek was even a park, I hiked and camped in those woods and learned to swim in the creek there. Jewell is a prolific walker. We ended up getting married in the woods.
“We’ve pretty much covered our bucket list. The next thing is a tour that follows the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.
“We’ve hiked all the major national parks. We aren’t tent campers. At the end of a good day hiking we like to end up at a bar at the Holiday Inn with a glass of wine.
“Our favorite place was the Snowy Range in Wyoming. It was stunning.
“Toward the end of my Air Force career, I had picked up another master’s in psychology. The military was losing a lot of people to alcohol. They felt they could save money if they could rehabilitate someone they had already trained. We had 35 officers across the country. I was in charge of a bunch of counselors.
“I came back to West Virginia and worked for the state, first for the WVU branch at Parkersburg as director of counseling. But I wanted to come back to Charleston. This is home.
“Here, I was the liaison between the health department and the department of education. I worked for the commissioner of health.
“I also did a two-year stint with a health care planning commission put together by Gaston Caperton. He wanted to reform health care in the state.
“My final job with the state was as special assistant to the commissioner for school health. I retired at 72.
“The last 10 years have been the happiest of my life because I’m retired and we travel and hike and I play seniors basketball, which I love.
“My friends all played football at Stonewall. I weighed 110 pounds when I started at Stonewall and wasn’t big enough for football. While they were practicing football on an autumn afternoon, I was up in the hills running. That and the hiking and the basketball has kept me fit.
“I got to do what I wanted to do. When I was 14 or 15, I decided I wanted a career in the military. I’m thankful that it worked out.”