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Vietnam vet, retired stone mason Richard Hemming serves his brothers on a motorcycle

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 3, 2019

Combat Vet Rider Chaplain Richard "Precious" Hemming rides his motorcycle through Spokane on June 12. The cross key chain is in memory of a late motorcycle club buddy, Art “Tugboat” Stack. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Combat Vet Rider Chaplain Richard "Precious" Hemming rides his motorcycle through Spokane on June 12. The cross key chain is in memory of a late motorcycle club buddy, Art “Tugboat” Stack. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The east-facing brick wall of Richard Hemming’s Spokane Valley home features what the 77-year-old Vietnam Navy vet calls “a collage.”

Traditional brick and mortar mesh with concrete, petrified wood and an artifact reminding Hemming of a late motorcycle club buddy, Art “Tugboat” Stack, who died in a wreck near the north fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. They form the back wall of the 1943 rancher, which has been extensively expanded by the retired stone mason.

“This one right here, that’s to remind me of Tugboat,” Hemming said, each “S” accompanied by a slight whistle as he gestured to a stone in the center of the wall. “That’s from where he crashed.”

“Tugboat used to drive me nuts, he had the weirdest laugh you’d ever heard,” Hemming remembered. “He was just a hell of a guy.”

Hemming performed the masonry work himself, using skills he learned working with his 103-year-old father, Ron, also a U.S. Navy veteran – of World War II. They live together, along with Hemming’s wife, Margie, in the house the family finally settled into in 1960.

A front porch made of pine, a dining room expansion for Margie and an addition leading to the home’s basement are all features Hemming has added to the home, many of them coming after his retirement from construction work at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Adding on to the house is a job for which Hemming only sees one exit.

“Probably when I die,” he said, smiling.

Hemming’s retirement was hastened when his father suffered an abdominal aneurism in 2002. Hemming drove from the Tri-Cities and learned his father had to take 14 units of blood in surgery.

“Mom said he had a 10% chance of making it,” Hemming said. “That journey from Hanford up here was about the longest trip I ever took.”

“He made it,” Hemming said. “He’s still here.”

The elder Hemming, who sometimes slips into the German language that was the native tongue of the grandmother who raised him in a predominantly German neighborhood, was born in Saratoga, Minnesota. He would later serve on the aircraft carrier of the same name based in California prior to World War II, then later re-enlisted and served as a submarine hunter off the Atlantic coast.

Ron Hemming was also aboard the USS Prairie as what’s known as a “plankowner” – a crew member assigned to the ship when it’s first put in the water.

After he got out of the Navy the first time in October 1938, Ron Hemming rode a 1935 Harley-Davidson VLD over Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado back to his home in Minnesota.

“Stay off them, they’re dangerous,” Ron Hemming warned, noting he broke his leg in a collision with a train.

That’s not advice Richard Hemming took, picking up the same love of motorcycles as his dad. Richard Hemming has a pair of Harley-Davidsons in his garage, and the frame of a Kawasaki bike he hopes to get around to restoring. About a decade ago, he joined the Combat Vet Riders, a motorcycle club serving veterans.

“Being a veteran myself, all veterans are my brothers,” said Hemming. “That’s just the way it is. So if I can help a veteran, I’m going to do it.”

Hemming has served as chaplain of the group for the past several years.

Pat “Panhead” Payne, a retired Army sergeant, fellow Vietnam veteran and past president of the Combat Riders, said the chaplain is responsible for accepting prayer requests and working with members on their spiritual needs.

“Part of what our mission is, as Combat Vet Riders, the biggest part of our mission is to help other veterans,” Payne said. “And it starts at home, in our club.”

In the club, Hemming is known by his nickname, “Precious.” It’s a moniker dating back to his Navy days, thanks to Margie, who wrote Hemming letters referring to him by that term of endearment.

“Some squid was looking over my shoulder and saw that. My name was ‘Precious’ all over the boat in about five milliseconds,” he said.

Ron Hemming said he didn’t mind his son joining the Navy after his own service.

“It was all right by me. I was in,” Ron Hemming said. “I didn’t get hurt. I always enjoyed my time in the service.”

Richard Hemming found himself resupplying ships off the coast of Vietnam. The boat he was assigned to would pull up next to a tanker, or a carrier, and tension lines overhead would pick up pallets of food, munitions and other supplies and carry them across the gap to the men who needed it.

“A lot of times, in sweltering heat, we’d be working 72 hours ’round the clock. No rest,” Hemming said. “The only sleep you got was if you brushed up against the bulkhead for five seconds.”

The crew had to remain alert at all times, or risk tumbling into the sea. Hemming saw it happen once.

“One time we had a seaman, on the main deck, he was in charge of controlling the lanyard and making sure it cleared the deck,” Hemming said. One time, the man’s arm got caught in the rigging and it pulled him straight out to sea.

“He was in the water for about 5-10 minutes, tops,” Hemming said. “We had a chopper in the area, and it went over and picked him up, just like that.”

“When he come back aboard, he was shaking,” Hemming said. “Well, we were in the South China Sea, there’s all kinds of sea snakes and sharks, all kinds of crap in there. He was a little nervous. But we got him back aboard.”

Hemming said he initially felt bad about serving on the supply lines, rather than being in the thick of the fighting on the mainland.

“At night, you see the starburst shells go up and come floating down in their parachutes, millions of tracer bullets going every which way you can imagine, explosions here and there, and there, and there,” Hemming said. “And I’m aboard ship, I’ve got three hots and a cot every night. I’ve got a shower every night.”

Then he began talking with U.S. Marine Corps veterans and others in the motorcycle group who depended upon the supply drops.

“They said, ‘It took the Navy. The Air Force. The Coast Guard. The Marines,’ ” he said. “ ‘And everybody, to get the job done. And if you were putting supplies on the beach for us, you did your part.’ Then I started feeling better about it.”

Payne helped start the local chapter of the veteran riders about 11 years ago. He said that while service members join the group to help out the younger generation of veterans, they often find comforts they’ve been missing after leaving the military.

“They kind of miss some of that structure, along with camaraderie and stuff,” Payne said. “They understand chain of command, they understand working together and watching each other’s six, the importance of having structure and being together as a group. This gives them an opportunity to have that again.”

And the motorcycles. Hemming said he thinks some join because they’re looking for a thrill that eludes them when returning home.

“I was riding before I went in,” Hemming said. “A lot of the GIs coming back from World War II craved the excitement and the action that wartime brought. So the way they released that was by getting a motorcycle.”

Members are also proud of their ties to other groups in the community helping make life easier for the men and women returning from Afghanistan, Iraq and other tours of combat. The riders are allied with Newby Ginnings, a nonprofit started by the family of U.S. Army Spc. Nicholas Newby. Newby was killed in combat in Afghanistan in August 2011, and the Coeur d’Alene-based charity offers free household essentials to active military, veterans and their families.

The riders have also funded their own projects, purchasing items for veterans who’ve returned home and need help supporting their families. The group also holds a charity ride each year in September to support families of prisoners of war and those missing in action, as well as supporting the Patriot Guard with the presentation of the colors at services held at the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake.

Sometimes it’s just a chat in the clubhouse basement with a veteran who’s having difficulty adapting to civilian life, Payne said.

“It ain’t about our medals, it’s about surviving and helping somebody else,” he said.

Hemming said it’s also about honoring the country he fought for. In the dining room addition he built for his wife, beneath the flags of the U.S. Navy, the POW-MIA and the United States that hang from poles mounted in masonry Hemming built, he recited the entirety of Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag” from memory.

It’s a spoken-word piece in which the Man in Black plays the part of a young man who comes upon a military veteran at a county courthouse. The man tells the veteran the flag flying out front looks worn. The veteran responds that he doesn’t “like to brag,” but points out the flag has weathered conflicts since the Revolution.

“On second thought, I do like to brag,” the song, and Hemming, conclude. “ ’Cause I’m mighty proud of that ragged old flag.”

“That’s my story,” Hemming said, smiling.

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