ST. LEO — Like his lovable, dim-witted character, Forrest Gump, Winston Groom Jr. keeps his composure no matter how awkward the circumstances.
Even when he's getting soaked in iced tea.
"It's all right," the famed novelist drawled sweetly to a flustered server who committed the faux pas with the pitcher. He took the napkins offered to him and calmly wiped up the spill, not missing a beat.
He was visiting Saint Leo University for its Veterans Day program Monday. After the luncheon, he chatted with fans and signed copies of his books, which in addition to the bestselling novel-turned-blockbuster-film Forrest Gump, include his latest, The Aviators, a biography of three heroes who returned to aid in World War II even though they were firmly established in middle age.
"These guys could have sat it out on the sidelines," Groom said over chef salad. "But they didn't."
In addition to Groom, 70, the program included remarks from those currently serving in the armed forces, recognition of fallen heroes and patriotic songs from student performers. The school was also commemorating its 40th anniversary of offering educational opportunities to veterans at military bases and online.
A 1965 graduate of the University of Alabama, Groom served in Vietnam as an Army 2nd lieutenant, mostly with the 1st Brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division from July 1966 to September 1967.
He regaled the crowd with stories about his role in the war.
"Because I had edited the college humor magazine they thought I belonged in the psychological warfare program," Groom said. "I learned every dirty trick in the book."
Groom recalled an incident in which he was on a ship with troops when a typhoon struck. The ship, he said, "was bouncing around like a cork" and the commanding officer ordered all the lower-ranking soldiers confined below deck for their safety.
But Groom went below to find everyone violently seasick. He asked his superior to have them sent up to the dining room. The answer was no.
Groom ended up defying orders and brought them up anyway.
"I guess I should have been court-martialed for that," he said.
Groom's job was to send up an airplane to drop leaflets on the North Vietnamese encouraging them to surrender.
A loudspeaker played "spooky music" intended to send enemy troops scurrying away.
It worked, but a bit too well.
"The South Vietnamese — they would run away, too," he said.
When he learned the leaflets were being used as toilet paper, Groom got an idea.
He asked "if we could get leaflets with itching powder in them."
In 1967, Groom met someone who would inspire his future career, notable author Charles Bracelen Flood, who was working on a book about the war.
"He was the first real writer I'd ever met," he said. "I wanted to write books but didn't know much about it back then."
The two found a helmet on a pole. Every night, a sniper shot at it. Years later, while giving a talk at a Hilton hotel, he noticed "a little old guy" in the back of the room. It was Flood.
"You remember that helmet?" Groom asked. "What happened to it?"
"I have it," Flood said. "I keep it on my desk."
Groom said he drew inspiration from a San Francisco store called Gump's, where he bought a suit when he returned stateside and realized women no longer swooned over men in uniforms.
After returning home from war, he worked as a reporter for the Washington Star.
But at age 32, Groom decided he wanted to write books. It was too difficult while juggling a newspaper job, so he up and quit. About three years later, his first novel, Better Times Than These, was published.
Old reporters, he noticed, had three things tucked away in their desks — a pack of Lucky Strikes, a brown paper bag with a bottle of VO whiskey in it and an unfinished manuscript.
"I didn't want that to be me," he said.