My Dad (also named Joe Kirby) still lives at home in upstate South Carolina (with second wife Betty), still drives (albeit a lot slower than before) and still is sharp of mind and spirit.
As for sharpness of body, he was never athletic, but did most of his own yard work until five or six years ago and still peddled his bicycle around the neighborhood until his early 80s. Last year he apparently got tired of my nagging about the need for exercise, and so joined the new YMCA nearby where he lifts weights several times a week and enjoys the “Silver Shoes” senior jazzercise class. He also makes a point to walk up the stairs there rather than ride the elevator.
His computer room is piled with books (as is mine), and few things interest him more than biblical history, South Carolina history and our family’s genealogy. The Pacolet, S.C. native has written one book on the Kirby family, has finished another on my mother’s family tree (the Saunders) and last year completed the memoirs of his World War II service (“From Pacolet to The Philippines (And Then Some): Invasion and Japan Occupation Duty With the Army Air Force, 1942-1946”).
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Dad a “first adopter,” but he did own a personal computer before either of his children did. And my sister, Susan, told me last year that when she dropped by his house one afternoon he was at the computer with a big “How To” book on his lap teaching himself how to make a Power Point show for an upcoming Sunday school lesson.
Dad has the occasional “senior moment,” but what senior doesn’t?
What’s especially remarkable about my Dad is that few expected him to live this long, after having battled cancer and several other serious illnesses in his middle years.
He was diagnosed with a severe kidney disease in the early 1960s while working for the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C., and then became part of a study group of 25 or so similarly afflicted patients that doctors monitored closely for years. But he survived, never needed dialysis, and when he retired from the federal government and went back for his annual checkup one last time before moving back to South Carolina, was told that he was the only one of the patients who was still alive. In fact, they added, he also had outlived all of the doctors who had originally taken part in the study!
Luck was with him during the war, too, when he survived being shelled, bombed, (briefly) cut off behind enemy lines, as well as being tossed around by a typhoon while aboard a small ship (an LST) — a storm so fierce that it sunk three destroyers nearby and killed most of the sailors on them.
“(Our) ship would ride the crest of a wave, the bow would fall into the wave’s trough, while the stern with two rudders would slam into the next crest with a furor that caused the ship to vibrate violently and make a terrible noise,” he wrote in his memoir. “Waves were up to 60 feet high. One of the huge waves knocked our front gun-mount loose and also cracked the ship’s hull. We spent 12 days riding out the storm, staying about 400 miles from the eye. ...
“Throughout this awesome ordeal of howling winds, mountainous waves and torrents of rain one could only think of how violent the weather was and how insignificant was man. Mariners throughout the centuries had encountered this same philosophical question. One thing that helped calm my fears was the words of ‘The Navy Hymn’: ‘Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm does bind the restless wave ...’”
Dad still is singing hymns, these days at his church in its “Young at Heart” seniors’ choir. They often entertain at local nursing homes there — where in most cases many of the residents are younger than my Dad. So I guess what to us is an “old folks home” is to him a “young folks home.”
My family and I are blessed to have had this “young at heart” man with us for so long, and to him, we wish a very special “Happy Birthday!”
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Bell Bomber Plant” and “The Lockheed Plant.”