PALMETTO –As children, my brother and I loved to scan the lofty branches of our favorite tree in search of the rusty handle of a knife fused into the wood. The moss-covered live oak was in my grandmother’s yard. She enjoyed telling the story of how a neighborhood boy once brought the knife over to the house and waved it around the other children, pretending to stab them. My uncle Ben Sutton, or Scooper as everyone called him, seized the knife and then climbed the tree, driving the blade into the trunk with such force so he was sure it could never be removed.
That was the kind of person Uncle Ben was. He was a sweet-natured child and a happy-go-lucky teenager, but he was also protective of his family and siblings. Born in 1946, Ben was a lifetime resident of Palmetto. He was the second of five children — four boys and a girl. He would delight his kid sister, Bonne’, by taking her around to local haunts, and he just brushed off any ragging from boys his own age. Ben liked to pack as many siblings and neighbors as he could fit in his 1959 Chevy to spend an evening watching movies at the old Palmetto Drive-in. He played varsity baseball and was in the band at Palmetto High School. The word was the girls considered Ben quite the heartthrob. Above all else, he was a friend to all. That’s what classmates who signed his PHS yearbook said — he was a great friend, one with whom they never wanted to lose touch with.
Ben possessed the same Sutton traits that marked the rest of the family — dark curly hair, narrow, laughing eyes, a dimple-enhanced smile and a small, athletic build. He breezed through life with a carefree attitude that enabled him to laugh off criticism and exude confidence. When he was 12, Ben tried out for the high school football team (high school comprised of sixth through twelfth grades back then). When he was fitted for his uniform, the coaches found the smallest shoe was three sizes too big for his size-5 feet. A newspaper article labeled 77.5-pound Scooper as PHS’s smallest player ever. After one year of football, he decided baseball was his game.
Ben rarely went straight home after school. Instead he would go to the A&W root beer stand, walk to the Boy’s Club or play in the park. He constantly left his trumpet here and there, such as on a park bench or at the soda counter. Usually someone would find the trumpet, knew it was Ben’s and bring it by the house. If he wasn’t forgetting something, he was daydreaming, once while riding his bicycle he ran into a parked car. Scooper practically lived at the park; it was just two blocks down from his home on Seventh Street West in Palmetto. My grandmother, Alice Sutton, would become irritated when she’d have to walk down the road after him when he was late for dinner.
Ben was what many would call a “man’s man;” he liked sports and being outdoors. He started hunting and fishing early on, and he would often go camping with his buddies in Parrish for the weekend, usually bringing fish or small game home for supper. Ben’s younger brother Alan was too small for hunting, and his older brother Charles wasn’t the outdoors type, so Scooper would often bring Bonne’, four years his junior, along. They would meet friends at dusk and hike along the orange groves until they spotted quail or rabbits. My grandfather, Ben Sutton Sr., taught him how to make castnets and young Ben would frequently wade Terra Ceia Bay to catch mullet.
After graduating PHS in 1964, Ben married his high-school sweetheart and became the father of a beautiful daughter, Michele. But things didn’t work out, and the marriage ended in divorce. As a married man, Ben had an exemption from military conscription. Now he was eligible for the Vietnam War draft. Ben moved to Alabama, wed another girl and started working for IBM. Nine months into the job, Uncle Sam came calling.
Ben then faced with a tough decision. He could wait and take his chances in the draft or volunteer. Ben decided to enlist in the Army, which allowed him to pick a specialty of his choice — the Army flight-training program. In 1967, he left his new wife and went off to win his wings so he could command a helicopter in Vietnam.
Two years later his wife, Harriet Jacks Sutton, received a dreaded visit from a military officer. Her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Ben Fredrick Sutton had been killed in action on Sept. 3, 1969, in a helicopter crash. At 23, he was already commander of his squadron. He was practicing maneuvers when the aircraft went down and burned. There was no way to tell what had gone wrong. Some of the men in his squadron believe it could have been sniper fire. Regardless of the circumstances, Palmetto lost a favorite son to the war.
In 1982, the Palmetto Junior Women’s Club wanted to dedicate the west side of the park on Main Street to a local veteran, so it seemed fitting to select the boy who had spent so much time there — Ben Sutton Jr., the only person from Palmetto to die in Vietnam. Sutton Park is dedicated to the memory of all veterans from Palmetto who have served in battle, ranging from the Seminole Wars in the 1800s to today’s war in Afghanistan.
At the park’s dedication ceremony, former Mayor Ken Burton Sr. said, “Ben Sutton Jr. represents the many young men and women who have given their lives to preserve America’s heritage. It is fitting that we remember these patriots on this day of celebration and renew our pledge to see that they will not have died in vain.”
My family will forever hold Ben’s memory in our hearts, and we appreciate that Sutton Park now will forever be a place of honor, a tribute to the little boy who grew into a man there.
A few months ago the old live oak that withheld the knife fell down in my grandmother’s back yard. I hadn’t thought of the dagger until after the men came to chainsaw the tree to pieces. It saddened me to think I would never again get to locate the handle among the leaves. When I walked outside to mourn the loss of my favorite landmark, I saw the section of wood containing the familiar rusty handle. The workers had saved it for me, carefully setting it on the porch steps where I would easily see it. I guess they figured there was a good story behind it.