My Old Man


The past year or so I have been visiting an old man who lives on the outskirts of St. Stephen.  I originally got connected through Hospice (an organization I have been volunteering with), but as I started back to school while still working full-time it seemed I could no longer give the time needed and I resigned. However, I asked if I may still visit ‘my old man’ as it seemed that we had become friends. They agreed and so, even though our visits were few and far between, I continued to see him.

He was 82 this year. He had congestive heart failure and so was constantly attached to an oxygen machine. He never left his small bungalow house in the country and his younger wife enjoyed the chance to get out to the grocery store when I came to visit.  We would sit in his living (which smelled rather like a hospital) and he would tell me his stories.  He had immigrated from Eastern Europe with his family at a young age and settled out west. During WWII he joined the Canadian air force (he said it was because he noticed that the girls went after the guys with uniforms), and eventually became a pilot and then an aero-mechanic. Airplanes were his whole life.  He particularly like to tell the story of when he learned how to land a plane on an aircraft carrier. He was sent to Florida for training and learned along side a man who later became very famous. His name was Bob Barker! Then he would say “of course he was nothing special in those days.”

After the war, he moved to the states with his family, though reluctantly. The Korean war was just beginning and he was afraid he would be conscripted.  Sure enough, he was and spent his time as a combat pilot in the war.  Painstakingly he would tell me about a day that would change his life forever.

He was given orders to bomb a village. He and another comrade weren’t given much hope of coming out alive.  He was given the coordinates and somewhere in translation something got confused. They dropped the bomb on the village only to find out a short time later that it was the wrong place.  His eyes would fill with tears as he related his responsibility in killing so many innocent people. I don’t know if he ever forgave himself for that mistake.

After dropping the bomb he was quickly pursued and shot at.  He remembers hearing his comrade radio him saying there was a guy right on his tail and then before he had a second to think his plane was shot down. The entire back end was blown off and he was ejected. He remembers nothing more but apparently he landed in the ocean where he floated for 20 hours before a Japanese ship picked him up and took him to Tokyo.

He stayed in Tokyo for 11 months, most of the time he was in a coma. It took many more months to get his memory back.  He would speak bitterly of the US government often to me, and it seems with good reason. For when he immigrated to the US he had to sign a declaration saying he would not be a liability to the government for five years. He also had to give up his Canadian citizenship. This all led to the US government refusing to accept him back into the country and without a Canadian citizenship he was stranded. His parents ended up having to move back to Canada in order to sponsor him back into the country. He was forever grateful to the Canadian government for the good treatment he received.

If you can imagine, this is just a small part of his story.  82 years gives you a lot of life experience!  The last time I saw him was just before Christmas. He told me he was going to build a plane piece by piece in his basement. He got out the blue prints and went over them with me (I pretended I knew what he was talking about). His mind was as sharp as ever! Unfortunately his heart wasn’t and just this last weekend he passed away.

I am so grateful for the time I got to spend with my old man. I wish I spent more time with him and his stories and his wisdom. I wish I didn’t let my life become so busy that squeezing in an hour here and there was so difficult.  It is sad to me how we let the wisest people in our society waste away without notice.  How after so many years of triumph, struggle, action & adventure a man can sit in his living room day and night alone, just waiting to die.

I think the elderly are our greatest treasure, our biggest asset, and our best resource. I think that we are a lost culture in part because we have lost our connection with our past, choosing Wikipedia wisdom over personal relationships.  We have a lot to learn if we could only take the time to learn it from the people who know best.

To my dear old man, thank you.  May you fly fast and high in your new plane.


5 Responses to “My Old Man”

  1. 1 becks January 22, 2008 at 4:20 am

    You are genuinely lucky and blessed to have spent time with that man. It’s true that we are a lost culture, if only for the losses we experience due to our passivity. I have lost all of my grandparents and my step-grandma, and in Korea there are very few old people in my life. I miss old people. I loved going to church with Charlie and Mary Preston, and meeting with all the facinating and wonderful old people with them. I loved their stories and learning from them and I deeply regret not spending more time with them. Thank you for sharing this blog and this story.

  2. 2 Tim January 22, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    “I think that we are a lost culture in part because we have lost our connection with our past, choosing Wikipedia wisdom over personal relationships.”

    …well said Shelley. Nothing more that I can add except well said.

  3. 3 sweetlybroken January 27, 2008 at 12:57 am

    I am so sorry for the loss of your old man.
    Somewhere right now is an old man flying high and being grateful for the hours he spent chatting with a young woman who took the time out of her busy life to sit and listen to him relive a life that will never be forgotten.
    Good on ya girl.

  4. 4 chris February 28, 2008 at 12:03 am

    (i’m a little behind on commenting but,) i really liked this blog. i’m sorry you lost such a friend, but i’m glad that you were able to share in each other’s lives like you did. i’ve been thinking about the importance of history and our old people since Gregg’s history class my third year. And i think you are right about how amazing it is how, after so many years of experience and life, we forget about our elders. Moving on with our own lives and repeat the same mistakes as those who lived a generation before us.. kind of depressing.. but i like this blog.

  5. 5 becks February 13, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Well Shelley, I’ve been rereading old blogs lately. You have written some fantastic ones, but I’ve forgotten a lot of them. so I thought I’d check some out again. I love this story, Shell. You may or may not see it, but you are very ‘people-wise’. Thank you for sharing this.

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