“Everyone’s talking about all the old people in the world these days, but I’m just not seeing them.” – 97-year-old Elton Cary.
My father will tell you he’s ninety-eight. He embraced aging years ago, and at ninety-four decided to expedite nature by telling people he was in his ninety-fifth year. Alzheimer’s has begun a slow creep and Dad now believes he’s ninety-eight although he just celebrated the ninety-seventh anniversary of his birth – December 28th, 1920. Dad’s goal is one-hundred, but The Alzheimer’s is especially impactful, given that Dad is a storyteller. This is a tiny sample.
Frank Cary, my grandfather, was the last of the true cowboys, running farms and ranches, feeling more comfortable in a saddle than a car. Having dropped my dad off at school one day in the first car my grandfather owned, Frank accelerated just as a boy stepped in front of the car, Grandpa swerved to miss the kid and headed nonstop onto someone’s lawn, all the while yelling, “Whoa! Whoooaa!”
It should come as no surprise then, that my dad, the oldest of four boys, and with two older sisters, learned to drive at the age of five (think about that – Dad drove nearly ninety years before giving up the keys) and was one of Grandpa’s main ranch hands. In the days of his childhood, the boys were not allowed to use the outhouse, as fancy facilities were reserved for the women folk. Dad and his brothers, therefore, annoyed their dad when he discovered evidence of a peeing contest of the side of a barn.
Dad would milk cows, mend fences, herd cattle and witnessed a stampede or two. He even had to run a mile down the road for help the night the farmhouse and all crops and surrounding acreage burned to the ground. This all occurred in Imperial Valley, California, just minutes north of the Mexico border, and Dad never traveled more than one-hundred miles from home.
Until World War II
Dad rode a steamship across the Atlantic to an air base outside Norwich on the east side of England. We’ll save for another time the story about rows and rows of toilets onboard and trying not to knock knees with the person directly across.
The setting for the movie Memphis Belle is accurate according to Dad; he even pointed out where his teletypes were maintained. The commanding officer had selected six men from which one would volunteer to keep the teletype machines constantly working. Dad stepped up and was told, “If you need anything, you come to me; otherwise I will leave you alone.” The importance of well-run teletypes was evidenced on Sunday, June 4th, 1944. Two days before D-Day, the plans came through on Dad’s teletypes and he watched as the stack of papers printed.
After Mom left us in 2016, we first learned that Dad had fancied a “Scottish Lass” he met along his R&R travels during the war (and long before meeting Mom, just to be clear). The girl’s mother must have approved of Dad, because she tried to make him feel at home by serving hamburgers and apple pie when he visited. Dad’s commanding officer found out about the girl and, once the war was over, offered Dad a deal. Dad and a friend were scheduled to ride a cargo plane home, but the officer offered Dad an extended stay in Scotland if he would remain behind on the base and manage the packing and transport of the teletypes. Dad obliged and settled for a different transport back to the states – the Queen Mary.
Dad was assigned kitchen duty (an inside joke to those of us who know his ability with a sauce pan), allowing him to be one of the first to board the ship. Destination: New York harbor. Picture having successfully served your country, and being welcomed home on the Queen Mary by the Statue of Liberty. Troops on the main deck were required to walk the same direction in a large circle around the ship, because they all wanted to view the statue and, had everyone moved to the same side of the ship at once, it would have turned over.
Decades have provided many stories of the pain, bloodshed and anguish of World War II, but now can hear Dad’s perspective: “You know, I didn’t have to shoot anybody, and I didn’t have anybody shooting at me. And the government paid for me to travel the world, so it was actually pretty fun.”
He’s just a guy
Dad returned to regular life in the U.S., working for the Air Force in civil service. He had top secret clearance, managed communications and had been on every air force base in the continental U.S.
Kids became part of his life after fourteen years of marriage. This was not from lack of trying. I guess you could say that, once he came along, my brother Danny was a miracle. Confident in their abilities, my parents decided they could improve and I came along twenty months later. As perfection is rare, Mom and Dad made the wise decision to stop while ahead and adopted my sister.
Transferred from McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, California to Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Dad was an average guy, going to work Monday through Friday, and working around the house on the weekend. Danny and I joined DeMolay, a character building organization for teenage boys, and Dad got involved on a full-time basis. It was the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s and then life moved on.
The lesson: ripples on the water
Dad just did his average thing. He provided for the family, tried to be a decent citizen, stayed faithful to God and Mom, got old, helped Mom transition from this life, and now sits with other vets and old ladies at the nursing home, waiting his turn.
It’s not much, but after posting on Facebook the picture at the top, and receiving the following sample of comments from my old DeMolay friends:
“…father of two boys, but "Dad" to so many more.”
“What an amazing influence he has had on our generation. Thanks for sharing him with all of us.”
“You are loved by many men that you helped raise including myself.”
…it makes you realize that just being an average guy can have a significant impact. For guys just doing the right thing, for the greatest generation, for Dad…many of us are Still Thankful.