Sunday, February 01, 2009

Like the Energizer Bunny, He Keeps on Going!

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.


Christopher said...

Amazing story.

To think Mr. Buckles is the last surviving WWI veteran in the U.S.

I'm fascinated by senior citizens and the scope of history they've witnessed.

My grandparents came to this country from Italy in 1902, 1906, 1910 and 1919 respectively, with their parents. I have my paternal grandfather's birth certificate. Many Italians from "communes" didn't have birth certificates, so I treasure his.

I used to ask my grandmother about all the changes she saw over her life and the one thing that she said impressed her the most was NASA landing on the moon. She flew in airplanes to Hawaii, to LA and to Vegas and she wasn't impressed but the moon landing really impressed her. She said she never thought she would live to see it.

Dave Dubya said...

It's great to talk to the old veterans if they feel like reviving the memories.

Mrs. Dubya's father was in Patton's Third Army, but didn't like to talk much about it. When he passed we found his old army jacket with 3 bronze stars on it. We may never know how he won those awards for bravery.

Since he was in a front line unit we can trace his steps across Europe in history books. We know where he spent Christmas during the Battle of the Bulge.

Beyond that all we know is he was a kind person to the German POW's he captured. He really was a great man and a hero to me.

Annette said...

My granddaughter has an assignment to talk to my uncle, who is a WWII vet about his memories and make a living history book about his time in the war and use it as her lesson. I am so thrilled they are doing that, what a wonderful thing for her and for her teacher to use. This is great. My dad used to talk to me some about his time in the war and it was so neat, but hard for him to talk about it..yet part of the healing needed too.

Dad was one of the 20th Armored, Patton's Army..and was one of the ones who liberated the one of the POW camps..yeah one of the Jewish death was hard on him.

lisahgolden said...

I was lucky enough to record both my grandmothers before they passed away. I interviewed them about life, the family, etc. I need to dig out those tapes and type up the transcripts! I totally forgot about that until I read this post. My paternal grandmother just passed last year at the age of 100.

Thank you for the reminder, Maui. It will be nice to hear their voices again.

Life As I Know It Now said...

Amazing. Also it makes me a little sad. I have no surviving grandparents to ask questions of. When I was younger I didn't think to ask these questions and now it is too late.

thailandchani said...

I can't imagine living that long, to be honest about it. The changes would be fascinating to watch... but life itself is so unpredictable. As long as I'm in good health and am financially secure, it would be alright.

It's hard to imagine the changes that man has seen.. or his thoughts about all of it.


Randal Graves said...

My story is like liberality's. My grandfather served in WW2, but he died before I got interested enough in history to ask him the billion questions I wish I could now.

Anonymous said...

My father did not serve in WW2 either because of a medical deferment, but I recall many of his childhood stories of life on the farm in Puerto Rico and his experiences of starting a new life in New York City in the late 40s.

On my wife's side, her dad did serve in the WW2, and was part of an armored battalion attached to the 29th Infantry. When he was alive, I asked him loads of questions about his war experiences, to which he would respond with fondness for some and with reluctance for others. He hated to talk about the killing.

I have memories of my experience with my maternal and paternal grandparents, but I don't recall them ever telling me stories much. I wished now that I had the forethought to ask.

Mauigirl said...

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your memories of your parents and grandparents. I'm glad this post brought back memories or reminded us to ask questions while we still can.

Even those of us who didn't think to talk to our grandparents when we could, can consider talking to elderly neighbors or starting an oral history project in their town.

I have a neighbor who is 99 and DH took her to the polls to vote on November 5. (Sadly, she is a Republican!).

She was reminiscing to him about how she remembered coming home and going to bed the night of the Dewey-Truman election and telling her mother that "Mr. Dewey has won the election." Then the next morning her mother had to wake her to go to work and broke the news that "Mr. Dewey has been upset and has lost the election." It's great to hear about things like this from people who actually lived through them. (She went on to tell my husband to keep an eye on those poll workers so they don't try to steal the election from Mr. McCain!)