Disabled Vietnam vet adds pool champion to his accomplishments.
At his home in GreyHawk Landing, Bob Calderon pulled out an old notebook and pointed to a small hole, about the size of a dime, that went through it.
“You can still see the blood stains,” he said of the notebook he would keep in his left breast pocket while serving with the Marine Corps in February 1970 in the Chu Lai province of Vietnam.
He explained the hole was made from metal shards produced by a land mine explosion.
“We were just coming off a day patrol, coming back into a village, getting ready to relax in our tent,” said Calderon, who was 19 at the time.
It was then a fellow Marine stepped on the mine, setting off an explosion that killed him and severely wounded Calderon, who was standing about 15 feet away.
“I was awake after it happened, but I was in shock,” Calderon said. “I knew right away that I was probably going to lose my legs, because I could see the bones sticking out. It was such a large explosion that it tore them up so bad that they couldn’t put them back together.”
He did lose both his legs, and his injuries left him blind in his left eye. “(The notebook) is kind of gross, but it reminds me of how I survived, even after all of the trauma I went through,” he said.
Almost a half century later, Calderon’s writing remains clear on the pages of the lined paper.
“It’s where I kept the military location for when we camped at different villages, just in case we needed medical or air support,” said Calderon, now 66 and an accomplished pool player. “I always had it in my breast pocket for quick reference.”
With Veterans Day approaching Nov. 11, Calderon took time to tell his story before leaving for Tampere, Finland, to play in the 2017 Wheelchair nine ball World Championships.
Calderon, who was a corporal, said he never in the six months he was there grew accustomed to the stench of war-ravaged Vietnamese villages.
“There was always a stink there because people defecated in the streets, and there were animals around,” he said. “It smelled like war, gunpowder, those kinds of things.”
Although he returned to Livonia, Mich., in 1970, he didn’t feel like he was home.
“My legs were still in Vietnam, and they were destroyed,” he said. “They are there and I’m here ... that’s my biggest problem, trying to deal with that. It’s just how I feel a lot. War is terrible.”
Despite that feeling, Calderon knew he had to move forward with his life, hopefully providing inspiration to others. He became a draftsman and he picked up his favorite hobby, playing pool. He said when he was depressed, shooting pool at home or at a pool room would be therapeutic.
He began playing more competitively, and more frequently, once he retired the early 1990s. Calderon played up to 60 hours of pool a week.
“I started playing in some local tournaments and leagues, and then I met other wheelchair players and we thought we needed a group of our own, that’s when it all started,” Calderon said.
In 1997, he founded the National Pool Players Wheelchair Association, a nonprofit organization for men and women in wheelchairs. Since then, the organization has grown to more than 250 members.
“It was mainly to help other veterans,” Calderon said. “I found that playing pool was kind of an outlet for me, because if I concentrated really hard on playing pool and practiced a lot, then I would forget about all of the stuff that was bothering me. I dove right into that and left the rest of the world behind me.”
His talent allowed him to travel the world, to places such as Spain, Belgium, South Africa and New Zealand, for tournaments. In 1999, Calderon claimed the world title at the World Wheelchair Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, and he is a member of that organization’s Hall of Fame.
“I think I’m just like anybody else,” Calderon said. “Just because I don’t have any legs, it doesn’t make me any less of a person. I still have a big heart and an open mind."