At the Veterans’ Home in Bangor, the work of preserving memories is a long-term project. I took some time to read through a compilation of life stories, a memory book prepared by activity coordinator Shirley Shannon, volunteer Martha Seavey and veterans’ families.
It takes encouragement, Shirley told me.
“One guy thought he had nothing to tell, then out came this amazing story.”
One striking aspect of the book is the straightforward approach to life in these elderly Mainers. There are interesting war stories, to be sure, but there are also moving accounts of simple, hard working lives.
Shirley introduced me to John “Robi” Robinson who is 90 years old. Here is Robi’s story, based on our chat and the memory book.
”I was born right at home in my mother’s bed,” his story begins. Robi lived with six siblings on a small farm in Danforth. One of his jobs was to keep a fire going during the winter, so he slept next to the wood stove. They ate food from the hundreds of quarts of fruits and vegetables his mother canned in the fall.
In summer, Robi remembers chasing the iceman’s cart. If they were lucky, a chunk of ice dropped into the road and they ran home to make ice cream. He enjoyed a neighborhood cricket-like game called “French Knocker” and liked to go fishing with his buddies after school.
After high school, before World War II began, Robi enlisted in the Air Force. It was a great disappointment to him when poor eyesight disqualified him from becoming a flier.
“But, I guess that may be why I survived,” said Robi. “Not many fliers did.”
Nonetheless, Robi did eventually serve on an aircraft in another capacity, which almost cost him his life. At first, Robi was stationed in Panama and served as a courier. He flew to many parts of the world with top secret documents in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. The only key was held by the recipient of the case.
Later, Robi was asked to serve in another way. Old B-18 bomber planes were used to deliver supplies and humanitarian aid, but the enemy kept shooting them down. There was no room for a regular gunner on the planes, but they constructed a tiny space in the tail end of a plane, about 18 inches wide, that would fit a small man. Robi was not only small, he was also a sharpshooter.
“A lot of guys had never seen a gun before they went into the service,” he said. But Robi had been shooting all his life. “ I cut my teeth on a rifle.”
So Robi flew on the B-18. One time, his plane crash landed in enemy territory. Robi was thrown from the plane and landed in a tree, where he hid until a rescue helicopter picked him up. Another time, he shot down a Japanese plane. I asked if that was a difficult memory. It was not, he said, because he had seen too many of his own get killed.
“I knew a lot of guys … then they’d be gone.”
“Was it hard to put the war behind you?” I asked him.
“Well, we were too busy trying to make a living to fret over what was.”
That simple, honest approach to life has sustained Robi for 90 years. He married and had three sons, whom he talks about with loving pride. He worked at many jobs to support his family — he built houses, filled wood boxes, worked as a cook and baker.
I was struck by Robi’s answer to the last question in the veterans’ memory book. It seems to capture the spirit of many a Mainer who lived through the Depression and World War II. It is not just the heroics of war that are worthy of our attention and memorials, perhaps it is also the quiet perseverance of living.
“I just don’t know how I want to be remembered. That is a hard question. I guess I feel that I was someone who never went looking for trouble. I was always hard-working and took pride in being independent.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org