The Tavares veteran has doubled as an aeronautical technician and a railway engineer
It was 1955. Billy Powell, a native of Tavares, was a senior in high school when the draft came around for the Vietnam War. While on Christmas vacation, he attended boot camp, graduated from high school the following May, and joined the railroad crew while awaiting his orders in the United States Navy.
“I was sent to a boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland, the coldest place in the world, it seems,” Powell said. “That icy wind got through you. Luckily, afterwards, I was stationed in Jacksonville.
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Powell worked as a railroad employee, which was considered a first line of defense as they were tasked with transporting equipment like milk supply trains during the war all over the United States.
When Powell’s number was called, he took a leave of absence from the railroad industry and spent two years on active duty as an aviation electronics technician.
“We had planes that flew at 1,800 mph and we used the same technology that we use today to forecast the weather, but it was top secret at the time,” Powell said.
Powell remembers visiting Leesburg International Airport in the late 1950s, when it was a naval reserve.
After Powell completed his active duty, he returned to the rail yard where he learned how to do every job, which eventually led him to become an engineer.
“A funny thing that happened to me was when I was already in the Navy, I was drafted again,” Powell said. “I was told I won the lottery, but I was already in the Navy, so someone made a mistake. The lady in the office rated me 5A on my card, which basically meant that I would be called after women and children.
Although his salary at the time was $78 a month, a low salary even for that time, Powell said he was able to live debt-free. It would take him another 50 years to be able to say it again.
Powell worked for 47 years on the railroads, working for Seaboard Air Line Railroad and Atlantic Coast Line after they merged.
“Basically my job was to get the train from point A to point B,” Powell said. “The trains ran from Miami to New York, three trains a day.”
Powell met his wife, Lunette, at a skating rink and later on a blind date he was unaware of.
“She chased me until I called her,” laughed Powell. “We’ve been married for 63 years and working for 64.”
The two have lived in the same house in Tavares ever since, enjoyed traveling together to places like the west and Cuba. They also had two daughters who graduated from Tavares High School and three grandsons.
“I’ve been blessed,” Powell said. “It’s been a good life.”