Gilbert Richard Collins
West Point, 1977
Be Thou At Peace
Posted by Jerry Dittman on November 18, 2008:
This eulogy was delivered at Chip's viewing on August 27, 2008.
Some say a man's true wealth is not measured in his professional accomplishments, his accumulated possessions, or his fame, but in the number of lives he has touched and friendships he has established. I can tell by looking out at the large number of people mourning his loss this evening that Chip was a very blessed and wealthy man. Over the past week, I have spent my waking moments reflecting on the life of the most loving and gentle man I have ever known. I must have rewritten this eulogy a dozen times because I keep remembering insights and stories about Chip that I wish to share with you, his family and friends. I am honored and humbled that Maria entrusted this important task to me, but it is a task I had hoped I would never have had to accept. So it is with a very heavy heart that I take a few minutes to tell you about the best husband any woman could hope for, the best father any child could ask for, and the best friend any man could have - Chip Collins.
Chip was born on February 3, 1955 in Fort Benning, GA, as the only child to COLONEL Gilbert Collins, a career, 30 year infantry officer and Phyllis, a white glove Army wife. Chip and his parents moved around the country as Army families have a tendency to do, and after his father retired from the Army, the family settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Even though he lived near the Air Force Academy, Chip never considered attending it. The reason - because the Army was in his blood.
Instead of attending a regular high school like most teenagers, Chip chose the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. NMMI was Chip's way to assure his admission to West Point, his lifelong dream. Chip and I both reported to West Point on July 2, 1973 as members of the Class of 1977. We were in different beast barracks companies, so our paths did not cross until our first academic year when we were assigned to Company E, 4th Regiment. As plebes, we kept a low profile around the upperclassman. We did not take the same classes or socialize much, so I really didn't get to know Chip that first year.
All of that changed in the summer of 1974 when at the end of Camp Buckner, Chip walked up and said "Hey, JD, do you want to be my roommate next semester?" One of the privileges of being an upper classman was that we got to pick our roommates. I figured why not since no one else had asked. Later Chip told me that the principle reason he asked me to be his roommate was so I could help him with his math and science courses. I know that tutoring Chip made me a better student because I forced myself to learn the material so I could to explain it to him. However, Chip's motivation for being my roommate didn't really matter, because he became not only the best roommate I ever had but my very best friend.
The two of us could not have been more opposite people. Chip was an only child, and I was the oldest of eight. At the time Chip was Protestant and I was Catholic. Chip was the son of a career Army Officer, my dad was an enlisted draftee. Chip was smooth with women, I wasn't. Chip was athletic, I wasn't. Chip wasn't a scholar, but I was. Chip liked Coors beer and the Dallas Cowboys, while I was an Iron City and Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Guess you could say we made up for each other's weaknesses, and through our friendship, each of us became a stronger and better person.
As a roommate, Chip was not the neatest of cadets. I have yet to determine how Maria motivated him to pick up after himself. Back then, if you came into our room, you would likely hear both of us crooning along with Alice Cooper, Styx, or Uriah Heep which would be playing on the 8-track stereo system. Sometimes just to annoy me, Chip would play John Denver's "Colorado Rocky Mountain High" song over and over. Spades and Hearts was very popular back then, and we'd play cards every chance we got. We also enjoyed playing football on the Plain with our E4 brethren.
That year one of the first things we did was what every 18-19 year old male does in college - we looked for girls. Chip's jet black hair, easy manner, athletic build, and twinkling eyes allowed him to attract any girl he wanted. Yes, he was a real ladies man, and he knew all the angles. He even volunteered to be a cadet escort for the buses carrying the girls to West Point from the local women's colleges. He told me that the reason he volunteered was because the escort got the "pick of the litter". He dated some if the prettiest girls I had ever seen. When my first love, a spoiled general's daughter, dumped me, Chip was there to listen and console me. He worked hard to cheer me, telling me not to worry and that there would be other, better girls. How right he was. The more I was around Chip, the more I liked him. Guess that's why we roomed together our entire Yearling year.
Even though we were no longer roommates at the start of junior year, we became especially close while we were dating a pair of sisters. We'd leave West Point on Friday night or Saturday morning and walk together a couple miles to Highland Falls where I kept my illegally parked vintage 1961 Chevy Bel Air. We'd hop in, crank up the AM radio, and head south to an all-girls catholic school in New Jersey. The entire time we drove we'd sing along to great rock and disco hits and talk about life and our dreams. Chip would talk about how lucky he was that he got in to West Point, and how he always wanted to be an Army Infantry Officer. Even then he couldn't wait to get to Germany. I envied his clarity of purpose, since I had no such aspirations. I only wanted to get a free college education, serve my 5 years, and get out. We'd always stay too long with the girls and have to rush back to West Point before taps.
During our senior year, we were allowed to buy new cars and keep them on post at one of the lots atop the mountain by the football stadium. Chip and I went to the same Pontiac dealer and both ordered Brentwood brown Firebirds with buckskin interiors and 4-speed manual transmissions. The only difference between the two cars was that Chip's was a TransAm. We took turns driving to New Jersey, and I remember one snowy night when we were really cutting it close to get back before taps. We literally slid into the parking lot and tried running down the snow covered mountainsides. We tumbled and wrestled in the snow, laughing the entire time. We got back to the barracks, cold and wet, and just as the final notes of taps were played.
Graduation and commissioning were not destined to split our friendship, for we conspired to beat the system and be stationed together. Back then West Point assigned branches and posts by graduation order of merit, and the choicest branches and posts always went first. Anyone who knows anything about the Army knows that the worst post in the 70's was the home of the 5th Infantry Division - Fort Polk, Louisiana. Since we knew no one wanted to be assigned there, Chip, Chip's NMMI roommate Tres Greenwade, our E4 company mate Chris Odderstol, and I all made a pack to pick Fort Polk when it was our turn to choose so that we could be stationed together. As an added fringe benefit, the two sisters we had been dating were also from Louisiana. Classmates who were not privy to our plan gasped in disbelief and thought we were crazy as each of us yelled out "Fort Polk", the worst post in the Army, as our first duty assignment. Chip, always a man of his word, passed up the opportunity to be assigned to Germany so we could serve together.
After graduation and attending several classmates' weddings, including Les Kayanan's, on June 8, 1977, we headed home on two months leave followed by our respective 4-month basic officer courses and Ranger school. I didn't see Chip again until February 16, 1978 at Ranger school. At graduation right after they pinned on my Ranger tab, I heard the familiar "Hey, JD!" yelled across the parade field. It was Chipper, who was between Ranger school phases. We ran up to each other, shook hands, and hugged. He gave great hugs. He congratulated me, and I asked him if there was anything he wanted. Chip looked at me with those big puppy dog eyes of his and said "A big bag of peanut M&Ms". You see, in Ranger school, you are not allowed to have any civilian food, especially candy. I purchased the biggest bag they had at the PX and gave them to Chip. Chip inhaled the entire bag in less than a minute, and he went on to complete Ranger school.
Tres beat us all to Fort Polk and purchased the then infamous Leesville bachelor pad out in the country on a half acre. Tres, Chip, Chris, and I lived there together as young lieutenants. The house had three bedrooms, so we converted the 2-car garage to the fourth bedroom for Chris, the last to arrive. It was during the conversion of the garage to a bedroom where I learned how much of a handy man Chip was or was not as the case may be. Sorry Maria, I tried my darnedest to teach Chip carpentry and wiring, but he really wasn't interested.
We had great times together in that house, which was furnished with excess Army and pawn shop furniture, as well as select items from divorces to include Maria's favorite piece - the electric fireplace/bar with 8 track stereo system. We'd frequently sit under the metal patio cover listening to the Louisiana rains, smoking cigars, drinking beer, and talking about what life had in store for us. The world held unlimited possibilities for us back then. We made a pact that at some future point we would get together with our wives and children and celebrate life with a good cigar and beer. While at Fort Polk, I took Chip hunting for the first time. We went off into the wood hunting "swamp rabbits" with borrowed shotguns. Chip got very frustrated with his inability to hit those quick moving, furry little critters, but he kept after it. The evidence of how proficient a hunter Chip became can be seen by the number of deer and stag racks in his garage.
Sometime between our second and third year at Fort Polk, Chip's girl dumped him because of his career choice, breaking his heart. Seems that being an Army officer's wife was beneath her social station. Chris and I did everything we could to get him through his pain. I recall sitting out in a field off a dirt road around a camp fire, drinking beer, reading and then burning the girl's letters to Chip. My romance to her sister ended thereafter. Little did Chip and I know that living just up the street was a family that would forever change both of our lives.
Maria's sister was married to a major in Chip's battalion, and in accordance with centuries of Army wife tradition, no bachelor officer should have too much fun nor go unmarried for too very long. A date was arranged, and Chip met his Maria. Shortly after they met, we decided to celebrate our promotion to first lieutenant with an Animal House inspired toga party. Maria's mother just happened to be visiting that weekend, and being a good mother, she decided to chaperon Maria to the toga party to protect her in our den of iniquity. Obviously, Maria's mom approved of Chip, in spite of the revelry displayed at the toga party.
Chip and Maria became inseparable, making it hard for me to be with my best buddy. Since Maria was a quick study concerning the traditions of Army wives, she decided that she just couldn't have Chip living in a house with such a carefree bachelor as myself. She offered to set me up on a blind date with one of her friends, and of course I accepted. Little did I realize that I would meet my future wife, Beth, through Maria. So once again, Chip and I were dating girls at the same college.
Towards the end of our initial 3-year tour, each of us began getting orders to our respective officer basic courses, and each of us found ourselves in serious romantic relationships. The bachelor pad was sold, and only Chip and I remained. We lived in a mobile home for six months before I got my orders. Chip and I, inseparable since 1974, parted company in the summer of 1981. Some even say by living together so long, that under Louisiana Law we had a common law marriage, although we never discussed who had been the wife. All I know for certain is that our lives had been forever intertwined, and we would continue to maintain our friendship through the years.
We were each other's best man at our weddings, and we purposely set the wedding days one day apart so our families could attend both ceremonies. The Army dispersed the two newlywed couples - Chip and Maria to Germany and then Texas A&M, and my wife and I to Japan and then Michigan State. While we were separated, we both had two daughters who are about the same ages. As fate would have it, we got stationed together at Fort Hood in the early 90s and our daughters became friends, and my daughters got a chance to know their Uncle Chip. It was also at Fort Hood that Chip established the tradition of the Collins-Dittman Family Outing. Chip was always the person orchestrating our extracurricular family activities because spending time with family and friends was so very important to him.
One of our favorite family traditions was spending Easter weekend at Paul's camp in Glen Rose. Like most parents, we let our young children believe in the Easter Bunny. On one of these Easter weekends, Chip got up early to hide the Easter eggs in the field behind the cabin. Our youngest daughter, Jennifer, woke up early Easter morning, looked out the window, and excitedly exclaimed "Momma, Daddy, Uncle Chip is the Easter Bunny!" Sure enough, as we peered out the window, there was Chip, hopping like a rabbit across the field with a basket full of Easter eggs. These memories are precious, because this was also the time Chip was deployed twice, once to Kuwait during Desert Shield/Desert Storm and once to Somalia, and it was the only time both families were stationed on active duty together.
We were able to spend more time together, as families and friends, after we both retired in Texas. We both starting working for consultants. I was putting in some horrendous hours running an engineering firm's office in Fort Worth and commuting two hours a day. Chip, always the sensitive, concerned one, used to call me and lecture me on working too hard. He'd always tell me to take it easy and enjoy life because we only get one shot at it. Eventually I took his advice and changed jobs, and my life has been much happier ever since.
Chipper took great pleasure in planning activities for his family and friends, whether it be hunting trips with his Legacy group, camp outs, church activities with the Knights of Columbus, road trips, or attending class reunions. But his favorite event was his annual "Manly Man Weekend" at Paul's camp in Glen Rose. Those of you who never attended one really missed out, because they were great fun. Chip would publish military style warning and operations orders. We men would gather and do manly things, such as eat red meat, smoke cigars, drink large quantities of alcohol, sit around a camp fire telling lies, driving Paul's tractor or an ATV, and shooting guns - but not necessarily in that order. Chip once said that the reason he held these Manly Man weekends was so that his good friends, whom he considered a blessing, could get to know each other and become friends. Chip loved to be surrounded by his friends.
Chip loved and enjoyed his chocolate lab, Snickers. Every time we visited the Collins, before the big shopping center was constructed, Chipper would drag me out to the creek behind the subdivision to show me how well he had taught Snickers to fetch. He never tired of throwing that rubber decoy for the dog, and we would stay out there for an hour or two just enjoying each other's and the dog's company. Snickers gave Chip a great deal of pleasure.
When Chip was first diagnosed with cancer, these gatherings took on a sense of urgency, because we knew his time with us would be shorter than most. Chipper had a top 10 list of things to do long before they made the movie "Bucket List", and I am happy to say that he had accomplished most of them. In 2004, while Chip was recovering from his bout with cancer, we each rented mini vans for a road trip that was to end up in a visit to Gettysburg, one of the items on Chip's list. Along the way, we finally fulfilled our Leesville bachelor pact when Chip, Chris, and I, with our families gathered around us, sat on Chris's patio in Virginia, drank beer and smoked cigars while reveling in our good fortune to have such loving family and friends. As Chip's hair and beard grew back after the chemotherapy, it grew back jet black without any grey and soft as a baby's. Chip, ever the prankster, had me believing for years that his new jet black hair was a benefit of the chemotherapy when in fact it was "Just for Men".
Just a few short weeks ago, Chip and Maria drove up to our home for a visit. It was a typical Collins-Dittman weekend. Friday night we went to a rodeo, had dinner, and went home to drinks and stories into the wee hours. Saturday we drove to Canton antiquing with Chip and Maria buying a Tahoe's worth of furniture, played pool while listening to Uriah Heep and the Monkees, had dinner, and went outside for a an evening swim in the pool. Sunday morning it was early service, coffee at Starbucks, lunch, and then goodbyes. We laughed long and hard that weekend, with Chip even catching me off-guard when I explained my theory of where fairies came from. He swore he was going to tell an embellished version of that story every chance he got just to embarrass me. As always when the families parted, we all hugged, and I got a big Chipper hug before he left. I still can't believe I won't get another.
The things I will remember and cherish most about Chip are:
* His disarming smile and twinkling, mischievous eyes, the eyes of a child perpetually caught with his hand in a cookie jar.
* His sensitivity, compassion, and gentleness. He always worried more about other people, especially his family and friends, than himself.
* His selflessness and sense of service for his Knights of Columbus and the Heart of Texas West Point Society.
* His bravery in facing and defeating the demons of cancer so that he could see his eldest daughter marry and hold his grandson.
* His sense of honor and loyalty.
* His love of the Army, even when it didn't love him back.
* But most of all, his unselfish love of family and friends, whom he considered his greatest blessing and treasure.
Although he left this world sooner than we wanted him to, at least we can take comfort knowing he is with his parents, his beloved dog Snickers, and most importantly our Lord, where he can watch over all of us as we make our way in the world. Farewell my friend, and be at rest. Know that you will be loved and missed every day, and your memory will live on through the people whose lives you have touched.