By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Each week I am Dash the Wonder Dog’s Uber driver to work.  The job doesn’t pay much but it has a great perk –  I get to meet a lot of wonderful senior citizens.  I love old people, partly because I’m not too far off myself from soft foods and hearing aids.  Many of the residents in the care center he visits are now well into their 90’s, which means they are part of the much-admired “Greatest Generation”.  I love talking with them about their lives – most of them are so cheerful and love to talk about their life experiences, especially those events that occurred during the “Good War”.  Of course, memories being what they are, I’ve heard a lot of the same stories over the past two years but the recollections are always told with such enthusiasm that it’s easy to be enthralled time and time again.  When Dash first  started his job there were three men who served in WWII.  Last month the last of them, who was my favorite resident, passed away.  Currently, the WWII generation is dying at a rate of 400 per day.  So for today’s post I want to remember the special men Dash and I have met.

General Seth McKee

The oldest, and certainly the most senior of the former military men was Four Star General Seth McKee.  During WWII he held many group and division positions and in November 1944 he assumed command of the 370th Group.  He  served in France, Belgium and Germany, and logged more than 190 hours in 69 combat missions in the P-38 Lightning aircraft.   Over the ensuing years he held increasingly responsible positions until finally, McKee was appointed assistant vice chief of staff, U.S. Air Force. On 1 August 1969 he was named commander in chief of North American Air Defense Command and Continental Air Defense Command (NORAD/CONAD).  So he was quite a guy.  By the time I met him he was 100 years old but was still pretty darn sharp.  I was told that the general had been a dog lover all of his life so I took Dash into his room whenever he was awake.  Shortly before he died I took Dash to visit and put him on the bed.  General McKee petted him and told Dash what a good looking guy he was.   So in addition to being a war hero he liked dogs and thought Dash was handsome – makes him pretty perfect in my book!

Mack Shumate

Mack Shumate made no secret of his WWII service – as soon as you entered his room you couldn’t help but see the huge poster of him and his squadron taken during one of their missions in Europe.  Mack navigated numerous B-24 squadrons during the war and then returned to begin a successful career in the coal industry.  Whenever Dash would visit him, Mack’s aide (a Vietnam vet) would be in the room to attend to his needs.  Usually the aide and I spoke and Mack would give Dash a quick brush of his hand.  But on the final time I saw Mack he was all alone in the room.  I asked if he wanted to pet Dash and he said he did.  Dash laid down and it was the first time I saw Mack really touch him – he had a huge smile on his face the entire time.  He died the next day and I like to think that Dash helped him have one last great experience – petting a dog.

             Bill Hallas


The resident I was most fond of was Bill Hallas.  The first time Dash visited him two things became evident – the love for his wife and his pride in his service.  There were pictures of his wife and family – and dog – scattered around the room but the one that intrigued me was one of him with his wife taken during the war, he in his snappy uniform and her in a beautiful outfit with an overnight case in her hand.  I asked him if it was their wedding picture and he told me “No, it’s when we were on our way to a celebration in Miami honoring returning war veterans.”  That said, he whipped around to his nightstand and handed me a list of his WWII missions.  It was impressive – 50 missions all over Europe.  He said, “It was a good time to be 19 and not know any better.”  His bookcase was overflowing with books about WWII and I never walked in his room that he wasn’t reading one.  He also was sharp as a tack, with a great sense of humor.  Due to a paralyzing stroke on one side he pushed himself backwards in his wheelchair everywhere he went.  A few weeks ago I found that he had pushed himself down to the dining room at 10:30 in the morning.  Lunch wasn’t served until noon so I asked him, “Mr. Hallas, are you down here waiting for lunch?”  “Well,” he said, “I sure hope so or I’ve wasted a lot of energy!”

Over the past two years we’ve talked a lot about the war but he always told me something about his family too.  He was so proud of all of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – I could tell he must have been a great dad.  But the real connection between us was that we both loved dogs and we shared a birthday.  Last summer Dash brought him chocolate on “our” birthday and he was thrilled.  Shortly after that he installed a huge aquarium in the facility and dedicated it to his wife, who died several years ago and was a big animal lover.  Last month when we visited him he was not in his room, as usual, but out in the common area staring at the aquarium.  That was the last time we saw him.  The next week I came around the corner into his room only to find it empty except for an attendant making up the bed.  I cried that day and cry still when I think of him.

This generation of men, honed by the Depression and the War, are idols to me.  Common, ordinary guys who thought it important to defend their country.  They became the Citizen Soldiers that won the war, and then returned home to build successful lives and communities. I’m not sure we Baby Boomers ever truly appreciated all that they did, quietly and without fanfare.  I worry that the Millennials, who require safe spaces, may not grow up to be quite as admirable.  I hope they do – in their own way and in their own time.  They need look no further that the “Greatest Generation” for inspiration.


The Incredible ‘Earnie’ Earnhardt

by Bob Sparrow


‘Earnie’ Earnhardt

     The window on being able to sit down with World War II veterans and hear, first hand, about their combat experiences is closing very rapidly (They are passing on at a rate of about 600 per DAY!). The window on sitting down with WWII vets who are as sharp as ever and remember everything is significantly smaller. I had that rare opportunity last week when friends Jack and Chuck and I traveled to the small, California high desert town of Llano (pronounced, Yon-oh), outside of Palmdale, where I was introduced to the incredible, unassuming Adam ‘Earnie’ Earnhardt. Earnie is 88 years old and is in amazing shape, both physically and mentally. He plays golf four days a week and has 8 Hole in Ones to his credit . . . so far! He makes award-winning jams (He just won 7 blue ribbons out of 8 entries at the recent Antelope County Fair) and gives them away – the three of us walked out of there with over a dozen jars of ‘blue ribbon jam’! He makes lots of other stuff too; he greeted us with some delicious homemade zucchini bread. When he’s not putzing around in his kitchen, he is an avid reader – he just finished reading Killing Lincoln and is now reading Killing Kennedy. He loves working on jigsaw puzzles (difficult ones), and he proudly displays his large collection of Playboy Magazines (He used to have every edition ever printed, but some were mistakenly thrown out when he moved). He laments, “The one with Marilyn Monroe in it was in the group that got thrown out. Damn, it’s worth about $5,000 today, not that I would have ever sold it!”. His younger years were spent growing up first in North Carolina and then in Pennsylvania; he is related to the famous Earnhardt car racing family.  He explains his leaving the south this way: “I had to move out of North Carolina to keep from marrying someone I was related to.”



     He was drafted right after high school in 1943 and was asked what service he preferred. “I told them I wanted to go into the Army Air Corp, so they stamped my papers and said, ‘You’re in the Navy’!” He lights up when you ask him about his military experiences. He fetched a couple of old scrapbooks for us to look through and talked about his time as a belly gunner in a Navy B-24 bomber. While he did on occasion fire the two 50 caliber machine guns from his bubble turret on the belly of the aircraft, mostly he was on unescorted reconnaissance missions taking photographs of enemy territory. His base pay was $21 a month. Flying out of Wake, Okinawa and Kwajalein, he flew missions over China, Korea and mostly Japan and in fact was in the air and personally witnessed the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. He attributes his inability to have children on the radiation he was exposed to that day. But in salty language, befitting a sailor, he says he never sought compensation for any disability and has little time for today’s whiners or those concerned with political correctness.

Honor Flight

WWII ‘Honor Flight’ attendees

     After the war he became a carpenter, but when it was discovered that he was an expert at reading blueprints, he was recruited to help build hydroelectric dams all over the world, which he did for the remainder of his working life. He was married for over 50 years; his wife died 17 days short of their 51st wedding anniversary, and although he lives alone, he has a constant stream of friends calling or stopping by his home that overlooks the vast Antelope Valley. He says back in the days of the Space Shuttle, he used to sit on his back patio and watch them land at nearby Edwards Air Force Base.


‘Blue Ribbon’ Jam

     When asked about the secret to his long, active life, he says, “My wife said that grocery bills were cheaper than doctor bills, so we always had 3 good meals a day”. Of course I used to drink a lot of scotch and I smoked for 45 years, so I guess I’m just lucky.” It was noted that while the three of us sat for about a hour and half asking questions and listening to his stories, he was always moving, getting something for us to see – he never sat down! How remarkable to be active, relevant and so engaged in life at 88. Last summer he was flown back to Washington DC as part of the ‘Honor Flight’ that recognized and thanked the surviving heroes of WWII. Aside from being a hero, he’s just an all around good guy – a Great Ambassador for the ‘Greatest Generation’.  Thank you Earnie for your service to this country, for your example as a great American and for some damn good jam.

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By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

So good it has its own Facebook page

So good it has its own Facebook page

The other day I was slumped over the kitchen counter, fork in hand, eating a Costco pumpkin pie straight out of the container.  It started innocently enough – I bought the pie on my weekly trip to Costco for purely scientific reasons.  Thanksgiving is at our house this year so I wanted to make sure that Costco’s pumpkin pie was up to snuff.  A pinch too much nutmeg or a surplus of cinnamon can throw off the whole dinner.  So really, it was in everyone’s best interest that I officially test it out.  Of course, I’ve been buying the pumpkin pie at Costco for about ten years and it has remained amazingly consistent.  But still…you never know when some genius is going to mess with the recipe.  Think “new coke”.

When I brought it home my husband’s eyes lit up – pumpkin pie is his favorite.  We each had a piece that day and again the following day.  Then the paragon of virtue that I’m married to says, “Well, I’ve had enough.  You can throw the rest of it out.”.  THROW IT OUT?? I was stuck with a dilemma that would have tested Solomon.  Throw out more than half of a perfectly good pie or, on behalf of all the starving children in China that I heard so much about growing up, save it for another day – or two.  Being the good Samaritan that I am, I opted for the latter.  So that’s how I found myself at the kitchen counter eating pie.  At first I just cut the tiniest of slivers but then the pie was uneven, so I had to cut a bit more from the other side.  Which of course was not at all even so then I had to go back to the first side to even it up.  Before I knew it, I had eaten a quarter of the pie.  But at least it was symmetrical by the time I was finished.  Don’t judge  – I know you’ve all been there.

As I waddled away from the kitchen I began to feel guilty about my gluttony.  I calculated how many hours I was going to have to spend on the treadmill to make a dent in my caloric intake.  Apparently I would have to walk for three days.  And then it struck me – why are we the generation that feels so darn guilty about food?  I  thought about my parents and my in-laws – all four of them lived very long lives. I don’t think any of then ever worried about eating too much. In fact I think the only time they worried about food was when they didn’t have enough. To them, the worst sin was when a hostess served “skimpy” portions. They never heard of gluten-free, cleansing, cardio workouts, sat fat, vegan diets or a gym.  Truth be told, I’d venture that the  only “gym” they got near was Jim Beam.

A thing of the past - the dreaded Jello mold

A thing of the past – the dreaded Jello mold

I think my relatives were pretty reflective of that entire generation.  Maybe it was the deprivation of the Great Depression or the sacrifices they made during the war, but they didn’t seem to obsess about food and exercise the way we Boomers do.  They were the Greatest Generation not only because of all they accomplished, but because they also perfected the sour cream/onion dip and knew how to make a splendid Manhattan highball.  When I think about the Thanksgiving tables of my childhood there was no non-fat gravy or “skinny” mashed potatoes made with cauliflower.  No, we had creamed corn, jello molds, and stuffing loaded with sausage.  Our pies were topped with real whipped cream – and lots of it. In fact one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories is brother Bob and I taking the bowl of whipped cream and embarking in a food fight at the table.  And no, we weren’t little kids.  We were both in our 30’s . It’s possible we had consumed a bit too much wine.  But back to my point – our parents lived long lives despite their love of fatty foods and arm chairs.

So what was their secret?  It’s probably not practical to come up with just one hypothesis for an entire generation so I’ll stick with my own family.  When I think about my dad and my mother-in-law in particular they both were just a little plump, they both loved a good party, they both loved to eat and they both enjoyed a daily cocktail.  Sometimes more than one.  More importantly, they were two of the most happy, fun, positive people I ever met.  They were too busy enjoying life to let a few calories get in their way.  And, no surprise, everyone enjoyed being around them too.  And why not?  They were either eating, drinking or laughing.  Not a bad way to go through life.

After giving this some thought I’ve decided that just having a positive attitude is the best recipe for growing old.  So this week on my trip to Costco I’m going to pick up the apple pie.  Purely for testing, of course.  And when my disciplined husband has had his fill, I will happily slump over the counter and eat the rest.  I’m calling it “The Greatest Generation Diet”.