Patriotic Car Salesman

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If you need a better car, go see Cal.

For the best deal by far, go see Cal.

If you want your payments low, if you want to save some dough,

Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.

If you grew up in Southern California anytime from the ‘60s until just recently, and if you watched any television at all, you couldn’t get away from Cal Worthington. He was on TV all the time. ALL THE TIME. He was the big cowboy in the big cowboy hat, aw shucks-ing all over the place to sell you a car. He would “eat a bug,” he would fly upside down on a biplane, fight alligators, whatever it took. His commercials were annoying and I got to hate him. But that was because I never knew him. I only knew the crazy, folksy character he created for himself.

Cal Worthington, the car dealer whose off-the-wall commercials, first broadcast in the 1950s, bombarded California television viewers for more than half a century and made him a pop culture legend, died last Sunday at his ranch in Orland, Calif. He was 92 years old and undoubtedly still wearing that big cowboy hat at the time of his death. Cal sold a lot of cars — more than a million of them, by his count — and at his peak in the 1960s ran an empire of 29 dealerships from San Diego to Anchorage. There’s no question that it was that annoying way he sold those cars that made him a fortune and a reputation for being crazy like a fox.

“But there’s another side to Cal Worthington that most people never knew.”

But there’s another side to Cal Worthington that most people never knew. At the beginning of World War II, Worthington enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Commissioned a Second Lieutenant, he was the aerobatics champion at Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas. He saw combat as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 390th Bomber Group, flying 29 missions over Germany. He was discharged after the war as a captain. Worthington was awarded the Air Medal five times, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was presented to him by General Jimmy Doolittle.

Cal Worthington’s military service has been written about in recent years in various aviation magazines, noting how he had trained pilots who would become some of America’s first astronauts. That’s right, that obnoxious overgrown country boy who would eat a bug to sell us a car wasn’t just a marketing genius, he was a verifiable American hero.

How many other famous people have served in the military that we know nothing about? Plenty, it turns out. Of course everyone knows the story of Jimmy Stewart, American actor and U.S. Air Force Brigadier General. He was by far the most decorated actor in the armed forces. Stewart’s original attempts to join the Army were rejected because he didn’t meet the height and weight requirements to become a fighter pilot. But he found an alternative route by joining the U.S. Air Corps, where he would quickly rise through the ranks and become a Colonel in just four years. He flew many crucial missions in Nazi Germany. He received two Distinguished Flying Cross awards for actions in combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He also received the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He retained his “active” status for many years after the war, and would later fly B-52 Bombers through Vietnam. After 27 years of service, Stewart retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968. He was promoted to major general on the retired list by President Ronald Reagan.

Remember the whimsical and charming TV chef, Julia Child? Long before she conquered the culinary world, Child entered the battle for peace when she enlisted as a spy in World War II. According to military reports, the future cuisine queen was a valued member of the unit that would later become the Secret Service for the United States Military in both India and China, posing as a desk clerk in order to secure classified information that would eventually lead to the fall of Nazi Germany. Julia Child actually invented shark repellent for the Navy during that time.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that actress/comedian Bea Arthur was a U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant, comedian Drew Carey was a U.S. Marine Corporal, and Hall of Fame baseball great Ted Williams was a U.S. Marine Second Lieutenant, Fighter Pilot in WWII. Before Gene Roddenberry created the Star Trek TV show, he was an aeronautical engineer who served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He flew 89 combat missions throughout his tenure and was awarded the prestigious “Flying Cross” and “Air Medal” for his service.

Many others have served their country in uniform including Bill Cosby, George Steinbrenner, Gene Hackman, Hugh Hefner, Paul Newman, Ed McMahon, Elvis Presley, Mel Brooks, and Willie Nelson. The list goes on and on.

So the next time you’re watching TV and some dopy-looking guy comes on selling you a retractable garden hose or something, just remember … that crazy character might just be a war hero.

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