“Quit spending all your money on beer and use it to take some pretty girl out to dinner.”
And that’s when the young man, who had been through some of the most harrowing naval battles of WWII in the Pacific, decided this pretty girl at the cash register was going to be his bride.
They’re both in their mid 80s now and as JC greeted us on a recent visit, beaming with his beautiful bride beside him, “I’m happy to tell you that Helen’s been sleeping with me for 62 years, 4 months, 2 days, and last night.”
His introduction to Helen at the lunch counter in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the cold late winter days of 1950 is as clear in his mind as his memories of Japanese kamikazes hitting the ships during the battle of Okinawa when he was but a teenager quickly becoming an able-bodied seaman. Like many of those who served in WWII, he recalls those harrowing days as though they were yesterday.
Fortunately for all of us, Helen turned out to be the true “divine wind” in his life, though. She was a young lady from Roanoke who had just graduated from a business college and was asked by the owner of the small cafe if she could help out at the cash register during the evening meal after she finished her day job.
Her recollection of their first meeting differs ever so slightly from JC’s, though. She claims she definitely was not flirting, although this fit young man who came in for supper every night after working out at the nearby YMCA did catch her eye.
JC had dropped out of high school at 17 to enlist. When he was mustered out of the service after the war, he returned to finish his schooling and receive his high school diploma. He must have been quite “the Man” as seen from the eyes of the younger guys in his class, not to mention the coeds. But he claimed he had become a serious student and had little time for diversions.
By 1950, though, he was ready for the ultimate “diversion” of his young but already experienced-filled life. He and Helen were married some 4 months later, although he claimed he proposed on their first date and wanted to get married right away. A man of conviction and decisive action.
JC is the ultimate self-sufficient man. Although a bit frail and shaky on his pins today, he still pumps iron and has many pictures of himself in earlier days when he was a body builder. His artistic grandson did a sketch of JC posing Charles Atlas-style with muscles bulging and an “attitude” in his expression. Sweet man that he is, I certainly wouldn’t want to arm wrestle him even now, let alone when he was in his prime.
My buddy Ed met JC a number of years ago at a knife show. Making knives is just but one of JC’s many skills. We make a point of visiting him a couple of times a year, working with him in his shop, and then taking him out to lunch.
Ed is also a man of many accomplishments, a professor of graduate psychology at James Madison University, a published author, raconteur, and excellent wood turner. He also is a wannabe knife maker and takes his steel in progress to JC when he has a problem or needs help finishing the blades and handles. JC’s motto when in doubt is just “Grind it off” and start over again. Yesterday, he took us to his ill-lit shop and quickly demonstrated how to correct some problems. Bingo, in no time, Ed had his knife in finished shape and back in the leather scabbard JC had also made.
Thinking of JC as the man he is today, one could almost see him transported back in time to that ship off Okinawa, repairing damaged superstructures by just grinding off the ragged and flayed metal and getting the steam back up to fight on.
If Carl Sandburg had known JC, he would have modeled his great poem about Chicago after him:
“Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.”
JC and Helen will be driving to Richmond this Saturday to enjoy a pre-Christmas dinner with their three daughters and families. But he made the point that he and Helen will make the 3-hour drive back home that night. He said he had to be home to spend the night where he’s most comfortable. Another night for the old sailor to be with his bride in the privacy of their own home and bed.
And I’m sure he’ll stand the first watch before sunup, too.