Jack Lucas figures he has always lived two lives: Jack Lucas, that lucky dog, and Jack Lucas, the poor guy who can't get a break.
In 1945, when he was barely 17, Lucas saved the lives of three fellow Marines by diving onto two hand grenades in a smoky trench on the island of Iwo Jima.
He received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest and most exclusive military decoration, and the lifelong mantle of "war hero" -- a distinction that has proven to be both an opener of doors and something of a burden.
Last month, Lucas, now 57, was arrested by Maryland state police after they found him camping in an Elkton cornfield dotted with marijuana plants. He was charged with possession of marijuana, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and manufacturing marijuana.
Lucas, who denies the charges, spent two nights behind bars before one of his sons was able to raise the $5,000 for his bond. The newspaper headline read, "War Hero Arrested on Pot Charge."
In the intervening 40 years, Lucas said, he has built and lost a fortune, walked away from several serious automobile accidents without a bruise and survived a murder plot hatched by his second wife. Last March, his uninsured mobile home in Bowie was destroyed by a suspicious fire. He managed to save only a few belongings, including the bronze medal suspended from a pale blue ribbon.
"He's like a cat with nine lives," said his daughter-in-law, Georganne Lucas of Woodbridge.
Last weekend, Lucas and about 160 other Medal of Honor recipients gathered in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the biennial meeting of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Theirs is an elite and dwindling group. Since its inception in 1861, the medal has been awarded to only 3,393 men and one woman (Mary Walker, a Civil War doctor) who performed acts of "conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty." The ranks include Gen. Douglas MacArthur; World War I Sgt. Alvin York; Capt. James Stockdale, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam; and 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II. More often than not, the honor was given posthumously; today, only 249 recipients survive.
Lucas, a stocky, balding man, is treated affectionately by the other recipients. They are aware of his recent trouble, but prefer not to make a public issue of it.
"At first, I thought I wouldn't come," Lucas said, "and then I figured, why the hell not? I wanted to see them and there are not that many of us anymore.
"I don't want to embarrass the Medal of Honor," he said. "I love these guys. They wear the medal proudly. When I got my medal, they didn't say, 'Jack Lucas, you've got to be a saint from now on. You've got to guard every moment.' I'm not sure the other guys are all angels either. I know I've never grown any wings."
At 14, Lucas left his hometown, Plymouth, N.C., lied about his age, and joined the Marine Corps. Three years later, stationed at a supply depot in Hawaii and eager to fight the Japanese, Pfc. Lucas stowed away on a ship headed to Iwo Jima. "I turned myself in 30 days later when we were way out to sea," he said, "and they said they wished all their men were so gung-ho."
The deed that led to his Medal of Honor occurred on Lucas' second day on the island, Feb. 20, 1945, six days after his 17th birthday. He and three other Marines were in a trench, fighting Japanese soldiers at close range, when his rifle jammed. A grenade flew into the trench and Lucas shoved it into the deep soil of volcanic ash. Another grenade tumbled in and Lucas covered them both with his body; luckily, only one exploded.
Six months in the hospital and 22 operations followed. Today, Lucas still has more than 200 bits of metal in his body. His right arm is gashed with deep scars and speckled with black volcanic ash embedded under the skin.
On Oct. 5, 1945, President Truman presented the medals to Lucas and 13 other men in a ceremony on the White House lawn. Lucas became the youngest Medal of Honor winner since the Civil War, and no future recipients would be quite so young.
"I never really thought of myself as a hero, period, but they chose to decorate me," he said. "Then I was cocky after all that fanfare. It really blew my mind, women jumping on me and kissing me and half-dragging me out of the automobile. I loved it. I was popular. I got engaged four times. I was really hitting my stride, see."
In 1952, he married his first wife, Helen, on "The Bride and Groom Show," a CBS program featuring the romantic tales of couples and on-the-air weddings. He fathered three sons, worked for the Veterans Administration, opened and closed a drive-in restaurant, dabbled in real estate. In 1961, he joined the Army, and rose to the rank of captain before leaving the service in 1967. "They wouldn't let me go to Vietnam," he grumbled.
Lucas divorced Helen in the late 1960s, married his second wife, Erlene, and had another son and a daughter. He opened several butcher shops in California, then moved his growing business to Prince George's County. By 1973, he said, Lucas Meat Co. included five stores, employed 50 people, and grossed $2.5 million. He bought a 15-room house in Clinton, his and hers Lincoln Continentals, and a pet chimpanzee.
Then in 1977, Lucas's comfortable world began to fall apart. Bad advice and sloppy bookkeeping led to troubles with the Internal Revenue Service; today, the agency claims he owes $135,000 in back taxes and penalties. But even more devastating to Lucas was the news, delivered by the Maryland state police from an informer, that his wife was planning to murder him. He was supposed to die from a gunshot wound in the head on June 27, 1977; it was to look like a suicide.
Instead, a state police officer impersonated the assassin and Lucas' wife and her son-in-law were arrested. They eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy and received probation and suspended sentences after Lucas begged the court for mercy.
"Like a nut, I took her back," he said. "It was the only way to save her. I couldn't see my children having a mother in prison. It broke my heart, though. It drove me crazy. I'd go outside in the front yard and lay down and scream. I thought, 'What the hell am I driving myself for?' "
Lucas eventually sold his business and the couple finally separated last summer.
For the last few years, Lucas has lived off savings and the $200-a-month pension he receives as a Medal of Honor recipient. He had just returned from a reunion visit to Iwo Jima when the March 25 fire destroyed his mobile home. His youngest son, Kelly, 19, went to live with a friend and Lucas took up residence in a garage that escaped the fire.
He pitched his tent in the cornfield near Elkton in early August, he said.
He was helping the man who rented the property build a patio and preferred to camp out rather than commute between Bowie and the farm.
"I knew the marijuana was out there," he said, "but I didn't plant it. Anybody with any rationale knows they aren't mine. You don't grow plants 7 feet tall" in such a short time.
State police Sgt. Bill Tower said a residue of marijuana as well as a book on how to grow the plant were found in Lucas' tent.
Lucas said he borrowed the book, out of curiosity, from the man who rented the farm and that the residue was at the bottom of a bag he had borrowed for his dirty laundry. The marijuana plants were initially spotted by the crew of a Natural Resources Police aircraft on routine patrol.
"I don't even smoke cigarettes," Lucas said. "I tried marijuana once after my wife tried to have me killed and it made me silly. Any fool who would sit and laugh at a stereo for four hours. Now that's what I did and that's silly. If you can't control yourself any better than that . . . . "
A few days after Lucas' arrest, state police also arrested the man who rented the property, Larry Melvin, on identical charges.
Lucas has no real plans for his future. Because he cannot afford counsel, he will have to get a court-appointed attorney before his Sept. 27 preliminary hearing, he said. After that, who knows?
"I don't really have the heart to think about anything," he said, nursing a whiskey in the lounge of the Myrtle Beach Hilton while other Medal of Honor winners celebrated around him. "Seems like my world just keeps falling apart on me."
A few minutes later, he was interrupted by a Myrtle Beach couple who had been sitting at the bar. "Jack?" the man said, unaware of Lucas' recent troubles. "You don't know us, but we just wanted to shake your hand."
"And say, 'Thank you,' for what you did," the woman said.
Jack Lucas solemnly stood up and shook their hands, his Medal of Honor hanging from his throat.