When Al Flowers was born, his grandmother brought him home in a shoe box and sat all night by the wood stove to keep him warm.
When he was 10, he went to the tobacco fields with the adults, “cropping” leaves by hand and dumping them in a cart drawn by two gray mules.
He lived in a tin roof house with no running water and bathed in a No. 10 washtub.
Coming of age, he thought: There must be something more.
He is also the longest-tenured active-duty service member in the Air Force, and the longest-serving active-duty African American in the six-decade history of the Defense Department.
For 46 years, from his days as an Air Force warehouseman, to Vietnam, where he helped gather the bodies of the dead, to his current job at the Pentagon, where he is the Air Force budget director, he has wanted for nothing else.
“Best decision that I’ve ever made,” he said of signing up at age 17.
It was good for the service, too.
“Al has been an incredible resource,” said Michael B. Donley, secretary of the Air Force, who has known Flowers for 20 years. “He’s seen lots of budgets going up and down over the years. ... We know we can go to Al to get a straight answer. ... He’s a total pro.”
Flowers’s son, Air Force Lt. Col. Alfred K. Flowers Jr., likened him to the Tuskegee Airmen, the fabled black aviators of World War II, and the 19th-century Buffalo soldiers. “This is someone who has truly defined history,” he said.
Although the elder Flowers never piloted a plane or fired a missile, he has been responsible, at all levels, for handling money that made those kinds of things possible.
As deputy assistant secretary for budget, Flowers is responsible for much of the creation, care and execution of the Air Force’s roughly $119 billion annual budget.
And raised amid scarcity as a child, he said he has been scrupulous with the dollars. “You are entrusted with the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “I’ve never taken it lightly.”
His son said the general has been exacting with everyone’s money — once, on a car trip, returning to a store with a soda that he realized he might have forgotten to pay for.
The service, for its part, has given Flowers his calling, his wife, Ida, and, he says, as an African American, a sense of fair play.
“A bullet doesn’t know color,” he said. “So black, white, brown, all of us are subjected to the same things.
“And the military, I think, has been one of the organizations in the forefront of integration and equal opportunity,” he said.
“If it hadn’t been for equal opportunity, I wouldn’t be where I am.
“I have never, ever wanted a handout,” he said. “All I’ve wanted was the opportunity to do my best. And if the door was open that’s all I needed.”
Flowers is a tall, soft-spoken man, with graying hair and metal-rimmed glasses. He wears the two silver stars of a major general on his dark blue flight cap and on his service dress jacket.
He moves with slight stiffness, from a recent hip replacement, and works in a suite of Pentagon offices decorated with a huge blue banner that reads, “Welcome to Budget Country.”
One day recently the general and his wife, who live on Washington’s Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, sat in his office and reflected on his near half-century of national service.
Flowers was raised outside Trenton, N.C., about 20 miles west of New Bern, and 40 miles inland from the coast.
He said his parents were married teenagers when he was born in 1947. So his mother’s parents took him in.
“My grandfather farmed on shares,” he said. “I have never figured out what the shares were, but I know that there were some years after we’d harvested all the crop, he’d come home and he’d tell my grandmother ... ‘Well, Lucy, I still owe the landlord $300.’ ”
“We had worked all year so hard,” he said, “and to not make anything, to still owe ... was something that I think helped motivate me ... to want to have a better life.”
When he was 15, his grandfather died of a heart attack and left him and his grandmother to work the farm. “It was more than we could manage,” he said.
So after he graduated from high school — though he had rarely seen an airplane over the Carolina farm fields — he asked his grandmother if he could join the Air Force, which had sent a recruiter to his school.
“I knew there had to be something better someplace,” he said.
His grandmother said yes. He signed up Aug. 5, 1965.
His first assignment was as a warehouseman, managing parts inventories, at a base in Grand Forks, N.D., a world away from eastern North Carolina.
It was flat, snowy and frigid. But then-Airman Flowers had $94 a month in his pocket, a roof over his head and a yen to do well. “My goal from day one was, ‘I’m going to be the best warehouseman’ ” on the base, he said.
A few years later, in 1968, came his stint in Vietnam. It was grim work. He was assigned to a “mobility team” that flew out at night on stubby, C-123 transport planes to gather the dead and wounded from across Vietnam.
His job was to load body bags on the plane and then unload them back at the base at Da Nang. “It was hard,” he said, pausing as his eyes filled with tears and his voice choked with emotion.
“A lot of these folks that you were putting on airplanes that were in body bags ... were 18 and 19 years old, and I was 19 myself,” he said.
“The thought that it could have been me, and the fact that I was out in the jungle in the middle of a war zone, that when you go out there, you didn’t know if you were coming back or not ... It was a high-stress environment.”
He developed a bleeding stomach ulcer and had to be hospitalized for a month. “Patched up,” he returned to duty for five more months and then came home in 1969.
Assigned to a base in California, he decided to retrain, and he remembered that he had always been good in high school at business math. That started him along the career path that eventually led to the Pentagon.
He met his wife, “my co-pilot,” who was also in the Air Force, at a California air base and they were married in June 1969. They were both 21.
Flowers gradually moved up, gaining responsibility for more and more of the Air Force’s money. Often, he said, his job was to make sure Air Force agencies got the money they were allotted and that they spent it properly.
On his way, he earned, among other things, three college degrees, command of the Second Air Force — a giant Air Force training branch — and the esteem of colleagues.
Asked how he had come so far and lasted so long, Flowers credited “good old common horse sense:” Always take care of your subordinates, always be honest, and always treat others as you would like to be treated.
On Wednesday, several hundred Air Force personnel crowded into the Pentagon’s Airman’s Hall where Flowers was given a top award for achievement in training and education.
“I’m sure most of you know General Flowers,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jim Cody, who introduced him. “He’s the money guy.”
Cody then ticked off the general’s accolades, as people whooped and applauded. Flowers then spoke, as his wife and son stood nearby.
“I came in because I had to,” he said. “I stayed because I wanted to. ... And if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way. Thank you all. God bless you.”