Tuesday, September 18, 2012

TOP STORY >> Memories stay alive in old-timers’ group

Leader executive editor

The old-timers meet most afternoons at McDonald’s inside the Jacksonville Walmart.

Most people just walk past the small corner restaurant as they enter the store. But if they looked left, they’d see a handful of older men and a couple of their wives seated near the middle, talking quietly about old times and politics and troubling news from around the world.

The oldest in the group is 93 and the youngest is 75. The group includes veterans of three wars: the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam.

The men might not hear as well as they used to, and they all have medical problems, but they’re sharp mentally and are as trim as they must have looked 60 years ago.

“This used to be a much bigger group,” somebody says.

They used to celebrate their birthdays with cakes and candles. But now they joke they need so many candles, they’re a fire hazard, so no more cakes or candles.

About 35 seniors belonged to the group when they first started meeting more than 20 years ago in the old Walmart across the highway.

Now only six or seven show up on most days, some with their wives, who sometimes go shopping while their husbands talk. Some of them are widowers, so hanging out offers them companionship and a chance to gossip.

“Our day’s not complete if we don’t meet here,” somebody says.

This may be the last generation that gets together without iPhones or texting. Over coffee and tea, they discuss the election and turmoil in the Middle East. Sometimes there’s just quiet, as if they are lost in their thoughts, thinking about starting out life almost a century ago.

Odes Goodsell, who is 83, and his family all worked at the Jacksonville ordnance plant during the Second World War when he was 16.

He was born in a shack on Republican Road north of Jacksonville in 1929. “A bootlegger’s wife delivered me,” he says.

Many of them met their wives while they were in the military. Bob Hall, who at 93 is the oldest in the group, met his wife, Doris, at the Pine Bluff Arsenal during the Second World War. He was from Michigan and she was from Nashville (Howard County).

He is a retired school superintendent and a prolific letter writer to newspapers.

Hall wrote recently about growing up poor, like most everyone else in his old-timers’ group: “We were living in a small community in northern Michigan and owned our home (purchased for $400).”

His father died in 1929, a few months before the Depression started, leaving his mother to raise three boys. She sold woolen socks door to door. They grew their own vegetables, and Bob had a paper route.

Then they hit the jackpot in the 1930s: “During my junior year in high school, my father’s mother, who lived in California, died and left each of us boys $300,” Hall recalled.

“All three of us decided to go to college. After the first year, both of my brothers decided to take other full-time jobs. I stuck with it for four years, graduating with a bachelor’s of science degree. During those years, I held down three part-time jobs while carrying a full academic load. It didn’t hurt me one bit.”

He’s an unabashed liberal and a New Deal supporter. Although he gets some ribbing for his left-leaning views, most of the group grew up benefiting from the New Deal’s many programs, including health care, Social Security and more.

They or their families had jobs with the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.

“They were the backbone of the military,” says T.P. White, who, at 91, is the second oldest in the group.

He says his initials don’t stand for anything, but when he went to work for Douglas Aircraft in California 70 years ago, they said he needed a first name, and he came up with Thomas.

White just had facial surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and was wearing a bandage on the left side of his face.

He talks about growing up in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and moving to California with his family when the war started.

White moved here after the Second World War and helped demobilize Camp Robinson. The only place he could rent a home was in Jacksonville, and he’s been here ever since.

The city named the access road along Hwy. 67/167 T.P. White Drive. A retired car dealer, he was an alderman and was on the Jacksonville Planning Commission for 34 years. He helped plan new subdivisions and Hwy. 67/167, which was built in the 1960s.

He’s frustrated that the North Belt is still not completed, although it was on the drawing board when he served on the planning commission.

Dana Browning, 80, a Korean War veteran and a former ROTC instructor at Jacksonville High School, is from West Virginia. He met his wife, Fran, when he was stationed in Amarillo, Texas.

Delano Jolly, 75, also met his wife, Sharon, when he was stationed in Texas before heading out to Vietnam in 1964. He was there, on and off, until 1970.

“It was dangerous for those military boys to go to Texas. They’d get captured,” says White, grinning.

Jolly used to fly on reconnaissance planes in Vietnam. Six years ago, he was inducted into the Hall of Honor at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

“Others here deserve that honor,” says Jolly, who’s originally from South Carolina. “We used to be the strongest military in the world. Now we’re weak.”

“We’re all Republicans,” somebody says.

“No, I’m not,” White says. “I’m not obligated to any party. I vote both ways.”

“This is the sloppiest (presidential) campaign I’ve seen in 70 years,” says Jolly.

But nobody gets upset in this group. Looking back on his long life, Bob Hall says, “I can’t complain about the way they treated me.”