Ray Hazelwood still recalls the day in 1973 when his cherished class ring from The Citadel vanished.
Hazelwood, who graduated from the military college in 1967, was at work at the family dry cleaning business in Camden seven years after completing his degree in Charleston. He took the ring off to wash his hands, laying it on the lavatory. A customer came in, and Hazelwood went to the front of the store to wait on him; when he returned, the ring was gone.
He assumed an employee had stolen it.
Hazelwood waited for about six months, hoping it would turn up at a pawn shop or he would stumble across it somewhere else, but when that didn’t happen, he called The Citadel and ordered another ring, which he has worn for the last 37 years.
Since then, that second ring’s become worn smooth from Hazelwood’s putting his hand into and out of his pocket. The palmetto tree in its center, and the lettering surrounding that tree, are virtually indecipherable.
(Note from afar: OK, readers, you’re already guessing what happens, right? Right.)
A couple weeks ago, Hazelwood received a phone message to call a man named Jeff White, and when White picked up the phone in his Midland, N.C., home, he said, “Mr. Hazelwood, I’m going to make your Christmas.”
“And damn if he didn’t,” Hazelwood says, flashing a grin. White had found the missing ring and with the help of a friend, had located its owner, nearly four decades after it had gone missing.
The story is complicated, so bear with me:
In 1974, White’s father found the ring on the beach in front of the old pavilion in Myrtle Beach. They contacted The Citadel by phone to try to find its owner, but the script of the owner’s name inscribed inside the ring wasn’t clear enough to read properly, and they ended up putting the ring in a box.
The father died shortly thereafter, and White’s mother passed away last year. About a month ago, he and his sister were going through some of her things when they discovered the box containing the ring.
This time, with the help of the Internet and a military friend who had also attended The Citadel, they found out who it belonged to, and White made his call.
Let Hazelwood tell you the rest:
“He asked me on the phone how he could get the ring to me, and I said, ‘You stay right where you are because I’m coming to you.’” The next day Hazelwood and his wife, Molly, drove to Midland, near Monroe, and out of the precious metal in that ring a new friendship was forged with White.
“I can’t tell you what this ring means to me,” Hazelwood says. “It’s like being reunited with a long-lost friend.”
And no wonder: the ring and Hazelwood had been through some tough times together.
“When I was in Vietnam in the Army, I got encephalitis and went into a coma. I passed out in Pleiku and woke up two months later (in a hospital) in Tokyo,” Hazelwood recalls. “I didn’t have my dog tags on and they identified me through that ring.”
He recovered, and spent another year in the Army before returning to Camden, where he lost the original ring and began wearing the replacement.
“Every Citadel man has to wear his ring; you’re naked without it,” he said.
So what will he do now that he has two?
“I’ll wear the original one to church and on special occasions, and the second ring I’ll wear every day. I’m not going to beat it (the original) up like I did the newer one.”
White, described by Hazelwood as “one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet in your life,” says the entire episode has been gratifying for him, too.
“One thing that struck me when I talked to Ray was that this would be the best Christmas present he’d ever had,” White said. “And you know, when I gave it to him, it was one of the nicest presents I have ever had. It made me feel great.”
If you see Hazelwood between now and Christmas, chances are good he’ll have a well-worn, time-polished Citadel ring on his fourth finger. And at home, in a special place, will be one that’s even more precious.