At 96, he’s planning on a camel ride

March 28, 2014 

Red Herring

When I mentioned 96-year-old Leon “Red” Herring in a column this week, I didn’t realize his name would come up again so soon.

Red is the oldest volunteer at the Cherry Blossom Festival. He will be 97 in September. He has been a bus dispatcher at Central City Park for 26 of the 32 Cherry Blossom festivals. When tour groups arrive at the park from out of town, Red is often the first to greet them.

Late Thursday afternoon, Loretta Hencely, a program and vendor coordinator with the festival, said Red had been persuaded -- without much arm twisting -- to become the oldest person ever to ride Oscar the camel.

Darrell Stanley, the owner of Carolina Camel Rides, said the oldest to ride Oscar has been a 94-year-old woman from North Carolina.

That’s when Red was persuaded to climb aboard to set the record. He was supposed to be a Red Rider on Friday afternoon. But the springtime showers turned the park into a small lake, and Red had to take a rain check on his camel ride.

Besides, Stanley prefers not to take Oscar outside in a downpour for safety reasons. He could get hurt. He could get sick.

Plus, it mats his hair.

“Even camels can have bad hair days,” Loretta said, laughing.

Today’s forecast doesn’t hold much promise, either. So, Lord willing and the Ocmulgee River don’t rise, Red will report for duty to establish the nonagenarian record aboard Oscar early Sunday afternoon.

I have some familiarity with Oscar. I rode him at the festival in 2011. It was a Wednesday. Not coincidentally, it was “hump day.” Telegraph photographer Jason Vorhees took a picture of Oscar giving me a slobber kiss that might be the most talked-about photograph of me ever run in this newspaper.

Oscar is 14 years old, so he could qualify as Red’s great-great-grandson. He is 6-foot-11 from the top of his humps to the tip of his toes. He weighs a hefty 2,800 pounds and, because camels have a huge tank capacity, carries around enough of a reservoir to irrigate that end of the park. If called upon to do so, of course.

Red told me he has ridden plenty of horses and mules in his lifetime, but never a camel. He once went bareback on a mustang.

He has even climbed aboard a bull. (No, not a Red Bull.)

Red has been somewhat curious about the camels since Stanley began bringing them to the festival a few years ago.

The “camel lot” is only a few yards from the post where he directs the buses, so he doesn’t have to walk a mile for a camel. He has observed folks taking rides inside the 50-foot ring.

Some might ask why a 96-year-old man would ride between the two humps of one of the animal kingdom’s most unique creatures.

Well, Red has picked cotton, shelled peanuts, worked in the paper mill and served his country in the Navy in World War II. He was in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, and he can claim to have been one of the first Americans to set foot on Japanese soil that day. He has even written a book about his experiences.

He has probably chopped down more chinaberry trees than anyone in Macon. And, even though he’s only 1,264 days from his 100th birthday, Red still goes square dancing twice a week. (And ballroom dancing on other nights.)

So why not ride a camel? Life is not a spectator sport.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com

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