I wrote about him the day after Armistice Day in November of 2007. His name is Frank Buckles, and he is the last World War I veteran left in the United States. He just turned 108 today and is still telling stories of his long life.
Born in 1901 when most people got around with horses and buggies, he has seen all kinds of progress in his lifetime - and even has his own web page.
His story confirms what I've figured all along - in order to live to be old you have to choose your relatives well. His father lived to be 97 and relatives on his mother's side lived to be 100. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer article linked above, he smoked "a pound of pipe tobacco and a box of cigars" each month until he was in his 70s.
The idea of living to such an old age is fascinating to me. It seems as if, as long as a person is in good health as Frank Buckles is, it would be amazing to be able to look back on what changes have taken place in just one lifetime. As it is, I enjoy reminiscing about such obsolete things as mimeograph machines, carbon paper and onionskin paper for copies, 45s that played on a record player with a thing you stuck in the middle to fit the larger hole in the middle of those records.
This man remembers trying to teach his father how to drive a Model T and having his dad forget the car wasn't a horse and yell "whoa" instead of stamping on the brake, with predictable consequences.
The really amazing thing to me is that "he can remember talking to his grandmother, born in 1817. His grandmother, in turn, could remember talking to her grandfather, who had been in the Revolutionary War." That boggles the mind. My mother likes to point out that she remembers talking to her grandmother who was born in 1832, and no doubt talked to people who had been in the Revolutionary War too. It is thus that real history is preserved, and when people like Frank Buckles pass on, we lose that human relationship to history.
Frank Buckles has given a number of recorded interviews which can be found on this Library of Congress Veterans History website. But so many of us forget to ask our elderly relatives to tell us their stories, and once they're gone we never have that connection to history again.
For instance, my grandfather, who was in his mid-40s before he fathered my mother and aunt, was born way back in 1872, only seven years after the Civil War ended. No doubt he grew up hearing many personal experiences of that war but I never heard him talk about those stories. It would have been interesting to hear his perspective about that war and the experiences of people who actually lived through it.
My mother was born the year the First World War ended so although she was not around during the war, she did hear a lot about World War I from local residents who were veterans, and grew up reading a lot of novels and other books that referenced the "Great War" as it was known then. As a result she grew up with her own impressions about that war and passed her interest in it on to me.
My father did not serve in either World War. He was too young for the first, and although he could have served in World War II he was exempt due to his tendencies to nervousness and depression. He worked instead in the Office of Censorship reading and censoring German prisoners' mail, since he had learned German in school. But he did often reminisce about the past - particularly about FDR (he once saw President Roosevelt drive by in the Presidential Cadillac and never forgot it). My brother-in-law, on the occasion of Dad's 90th birthday, videotaped an interview he and my sister had with him, asking him all kinds of questions about his life. I have a copy of it and it is great to be able to listen to his stories of the past.
I must make an effort to do the same for my father-in-law (who served in World War II and was in the 5th Army as it marched through Italy in 1944-45) and my mother and aunt, who have seen so much history in their own lives. I've talked about it before but somehow never get around to it, and time is slipping by.
So do go to the Veterans History website and listen to Frank Buckles' stories. And ask your own elderly relatives to tell you theirs, and record them. It's one way we can remain in touch with history - and as you know, if we don't learn from history we are doomed to repeat it.