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.
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 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.
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.