We’ve heard it all before: Veterans of the Second World War are dying at an alarmingly fast rate.
But when you consider the numbers, it’s staggering.
About 1,200 WWII veterans die every day, and in another five to 10 years, most of them will be gone. That’s according to the Web site of a group dedicated to sending Western Slope veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the war memorials, before it’s too late.
The Greatest Generation is fast becoming the Lost Generation.
“All of the World War II veterans are dying off because they’re in their 80s and 90s,” said Frank Cooley of Meeker. “They’ve all reached that age.”
Cooley, 85, is a World War II veteran himself. He recently lost one of his fellow WWII veterans and a longtime friend — Orval LaBorde.
LaBorde died the Saturday after Christmas. He had “reached that age.” He was 86.
I remember the first time I “met” Orval. Actually, I didn’t meet him. I took photographs of him.
It was during last summer’s Range Call parade. With crowds of people lining both sides of Main Street, I was taking photos of the color guard when a man wearing an old Navy uniform pulled him aside. I didn’t know the man. I had just moved to town about a month earlier.
The man in the Navy uniform pointed up ahead to another man in an old military uniform, who was sitting in a chair on the sidewalk, waiting for the parade to make its way to where he was seated.
“You need to take his picture,” the man wearing the Navy uniform said, gesturing toward the other man.
Given the serious way the man in the Navy uniform looked at me, what he said didn’t seem like a suggestion as much as an order.
So, I started taking photos of the man sitting in the chair. With the parade approaching, I noticed a woman take the man’s arm as he rose from his chair. I found out later the woman was his daughter.
When the color guard reached where the man and woman were standing, the man in the Navy uniform came over and took the other man’s hand, and together they took their places in the parade. I clicked more photos.
For the next few blocks, the two men held hands as they slowly walked the parade route. People clapped as they walked by. I continued to focus my camera on the two men.
The color guard stopped in front of the Meeker Hotel, and a woman standing on the hotel balcony sang the national anthem. The two men stood at attention and saluted. I snapped more pictures.
Only later did I learn the names of the two men: Frank Cooley and Orval LaBorde. We used one of those photographs in the newspaper the week after Orval had died. I was glad I had taken Frank’s advice.
Frank received a call from Orval’s daughter Karen LaBonte, informing him his friend had died.
The last time Frank had seen Orval was during the Veterans Day program at Barone Middle School.
“I pushed him forward and had him salute the kids,” Frank said. “I wanted them to understand who he was.”
Orval’s First Marine Division received four Presidential Unit Citations for its distinguished service in the Pacific theater during World War II.
“He was a genuine hero,” Frank said of Orval.
The two shared a mutual admiration.
“He liked me,” Frank said. “And I respected him beyond description.”
In his latter years, Orval became known for his poetry and his fiercely conservative letters to the editor that were published in the newspaper.
“I’m a nominal Republican, and he’s a zealous right-winger,” Frank said, adding he never argued politics with Orval. “I would just steer clear of that and compliment him on his poetry and let it go at that. We never had any chance to argue or disagree, because I would give in to any whim he had at the moment, out of respect and admiration.”
Frank was in Durango when he received the call that Orval had died.
Staying at the home of his son, who is an Episcopal priest, and his daughter-in-law, Frank is recuperating from a series of medical issues.
It all started when he fell and broke his arm.
“I was trying to catch the cat and I fell on these concrete steps (in front of his house in Meeker),” said Frank, who was found by neighbors. “It was a nasty break.”
His son Andrew and his wife, Terri, took Frank to their home in Durango so they could look after him. While there, he suffered a severe gall bladder attack.
“I had to go to the hospital to have my gall bladder removed,” Frank said. “While at the hospital, they said I had arrhythmia and I needed a pacemaker. So, I said, ‘What the hell, if I need a pacemaker, I need a pacemaker.’”
Then the day after the pacemaker and defibrillator procedure, Frank had a fall in the hospital.
“I got tangled up in my suspenders and it set off (the defibrillator),” he said. “It was just doing its job, but there was this lightning flash. I thought I saw lights and smelled smoke. It had a kick like a horse.”
Frank is recovering at a healthcare facility in Durango called Four Corners, where he expects to be for several more weeks. But he’s on the mend, he said.
“I’m having the best of care,” Frank said. “I get to walk every day. I’m feeling better.”
Attorney Trina Zagar-Brown, a law partner with Cooley, keeps close tabs on him.
“He has had a rough few weeks, but Old Man Cooley keeps on kickin’,” Trina said. “He is in great spirits and enjoys being close to his son and daughter-in-law. The sad news is that his eyesight has deteriorated. So for a man whose passion has been reading newspapers, magazines and books his entire life, it is a tragedy.”
As far as Frank and his friendship with Orval, Trina said, “Frank cared greatly for Orval and for all of his fellow WWII vets. It was an important part of Frank’s life as it was for so many of his generation.”
John Mack Sheridan, the 13-year-old Meeker boy who suffered a broken leg in a two-vehicle accident earlier this month on Highway 13, is doing better.
“He is ahead of schedule with his leg,” said John Mack’s father, Paul “Buckshot” Sheridan. “(The doctor) thinks he can go to a half cast in three weeks, then to a boot for two more weeks after that. Though he is tiring of the wheelchair and crutches, he is keeping the weight off the leg, so it is healing nicely. We are very grateful for all the concern, love, and support shown by John Mack’s peers, his teachers, our church family and so many others.”
After reading about my cooking skills (or lack thereof), Iris Franklin, the newly appointed member to the Meeker School Board, told me I would have benefited from taking her family consumer science “survival” class, otherwise known as home economics. Franklin taught for 20 years before retiring in 2006. Someone told me about a former Meeker heavyweight wrestler, Lee Overton, who, when he was in school, made his own kneepads in Franklin’s class. Now that’s impressive.
At a reception last week for outgoing County Commissioner Forrest Nelson, Donna Collins, wife of County Commissioner Joe Collins, was overhead asking Nelson’s wife, Connie, “Do you have all kinds of honey-do jobs lined up for him?”
“Absolutely,” Connie said.
Even though he’s no longer a county commissioner, it sounds like Forrest won’t have any trouble keeping busy. At least if his wife has anything to say about it.
Joe Collins will have plenty on his to-do list as well. He was elected chairman of the County Commission at last week’s meeting.
“It’s his turn,” said fellow Commissioner Ken Parsons.
My neighbor, Meeker Elementary School Principal Jason Hightower, who actually likes cold weather, said the minus 40 below temperatures other states were experiencing was cold, even for him. “Anything below minus 20 is cold,” he said.
How about anything below, say, freezing? That qualifies as cold in my book.
Jeff Burkhead is editor of the Herald Times. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org