By Chip Womick -- Staff Writer, The Courier-Tribune
Posted: 07/29/07 - 08:58:08 pm CDT
FRANKLINVILLE — One day an Army truck parked outside Audrey McKinnon’s house prompted a neighbor to ask her what was going on.
She confided that there were 50 soldiers out in the woods waiting for her and drooling.
McKinnon, who is 75, was being funny.
But what she’d said was true.
Several times a year, for several years, McKinnon has fed soldiers involved in Operation Robin Sage, a military training exercise for Special Forces troops out of Fort Bragg that is staged in several central Piedmont counties four times a year.
The role-playing exercise, set in a fictional country called Pineland, includes mock assaults, kidnappings and reconnaissance by the soldiers in training to become Green Berets. They have limited pre-packaged rations during their days in the woods.
When the training in this area is done, McKinnon starts cooking in her small kitchen, the room in her home where she says she spends most of her time. She’ll whip up chicken and dumplings for 40 or 50, or fried chicken (with the help of her son-in-law and his deep fryer), or several hams, or some other main course. She will prepare all of the required Southern fixings — mashed potatoes, green beans, pintos, and such, and, naturally, some kind of bread.
The home-cooked food is delivered to the soldiers in the field.
And they eat like there’s no tomorrow. “They love it,” she said in a recent interview. “They’re out there about to starve.”
Her culinary contributions are appreciated. Framed certificates of appreciation from the Army fill one corner of her kitchen. There are more in another room. Soldiers have given her floppy camouflage hats, caps and even pants.
She has a hat signed by all the participants in one training group and a jacket signed by members of another. Another group of soldiers found a turtle shell, painted it gold, and signed it. Still others put their John Hancocks on a piece of wood. One creative group made her a dreamcatcher.
Last summer, McKinnon received a Commander’s Award for Public Service — and a small medal that she keeps in a box. The Department of the Army commendation reads, in part:
“As a long-serving and prominent member of the Pineland Civilian Auxiliary, your devoted effort to support Field Training Exercise Robin Sage has improved the readiness and training of every Special Forces soldier you came in contact with ...”
McKinnon appreciates the praise, but she appreciates the opportunity to serve even more.
“I feed them,” she said, “and most of the time I try to see that they’ve got a clean pair of socks, too. It’s something that I enjoy doing. A lot of people enjoy traveling or playing golf. Me, I’m doing what I enjoy doing.”
She got involved in Robin Sage after a neighbor, who had been monitoring training communications via short-wave radio, learned about “a jump” that was going to take place. He asked McKinnon if she wanted to go watch. They went and met the soldiers.
Later, they were invited to a pig pickin’ at the end of the training. McKinnon was dumbfounded when she went to the pig pickin’ and the only food was a cooked pig. She asked the commanding officer where all the “sides” were. He told her that next time, she could make them if she wanted. McKinnon has been a Robin Sage volunteer — a member of the Pineland Civilian Auxiliary — ever since.
Her husband, Neal McKinnon, died in 1992. He was a soldier. Wounded during World War II, he limped for the rest of his life. He also served during the Korean War. McKinnon said she’d like to think that someone may have helped him once like she now helps Robin Sage participants.
“I thought this could be my part,” she said. “I couldn’t be in the service now, but if I could help them a little bit, it makes a difference.”
She was raised with eight brothers and sisters in a two-story log house at the foot of Purgatory Mountain in southern Randolph County, near the future site of the N.C. Zoo. She dropped out of school to help care for younger siblings, planning to return to the books, but never got around to it. Instead, she went to work in a Randleman mill at age 16.
When she was young, the battery for the family’s radio was nearly as big as the device itself. They stored food in an ice box — kept cold by the block of ice her father bought at the ice plant in Asheboro. They kept crocks of milk in a box built at a nearby spring where the family got water.
McKinnon is amused when she hears youngsters today talk about having their own room — and some privacy. “We didn’t even know what that word meant,” she said. “We slept with a bed full. But we kept warm.”
She remembers when electric service was extended to her rural childhood home. In the beginning, a single bare bulb, hanging on a cord from the center of the ceiling, lit a room.
At 21, she married a Franklinville fellow named Neal McKinnon she’d met after her family moved to the little mill town when she was a teen. She worked at Franklinville’s Randolph Mills for many years in many departments — winding, warping, spinning.
Later, she joined the workforce at Acme-McCrary Corp., retiring after 30 years. She held a variety of jobs at the Asheboro hosiery mill, including a position in the lab, an opportunity McKinnon got, she said, because, although she dropped out of school, she has never quit learning.
After she retired, she got a call asking if she would come back and oversee the Acme-McCrary employee shop and work in the fitness center at the gym. She did that for eight years, until the shop was closed about a week ago.
She’s not likely to get bored, or be idle, in retirement.
She helps businessmen Jim Peters and Vance Davis put together a Christmas meal for area senior citizens and homebound residents in and around her adopted hometown. The effort has grown so much that others help with the meal at the Franklinville firehouse. She also is pitching in on the effort to raise money to build a new town library.
Neal and Audrey McKinnon used to collaborate in a small back-yard enterprise restoring antique furniture. She does not do that anymore, but in recent years has devoted time to making stuffed animals using socks. Her late aunt, Violet Woodell, used to make the sock monkeys so she’s carrying on a family tradition of sorts. Lately she has been experimenting with making sock hobbyhorses too.
McKinnon gives the little monkeys away, sometimes as gifts for baby showers. Some of her soldier buddies have even been recipients. If a child who knows she makes them asks for one, McKinnon says, “I’m not going to give you one, but I’ll help you make one.” That way, she said, the youngster gets a monkey and a sewing lesson.
A couple of years ago, she took advanced swimming lessons at the McCrary fitness center gym, where she still swims regularly. She also goes to aerobics classes at the center a couple of mornings a week.
She’s not averse to trying new things either. Earlier this year, she took a cruise to Nassau with her niece Linda Cagle. While in the Bahamas, she was fascinated by the parasailing. Encouraged by her niece, she took a turn up in a parachute being pulled by a boat.
“I’m gonna do the things I want to do, that I never got to do growing up,” she said.
An Army representative always calls McKinnon a couple of weeks before soldiers are due in the area for Robin Sage training.
“Miss Audrey, you want to help out?” the caller asks.
The answer, of course, is yes.
In fact, McKinnon long ago told her new Army buddies that she would be glad to keep on cooking, but that she also was interested in an expanded role during the training. Now she does more than cook during the exercises, although McKinnon said she’s not at liberty to talk about that part of her volunteer work.
She spends a few days with each group of soldiers, then they are gone. Her refrigerator is covered with photographs of family, friends and soldiers she has met, young men who are about the age of her grandchildren. She thinks about them often.
“Every time you hear of a group getting killed,” she said, “you wonder, was that one of mine?”
**Thanks to Vet66 for this great article.