Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
WEATHERED SOUL IS RUSTIC AND REAL, EVEN IF HIS AGE IS IFFY
WEATHERED SOUL IS RUSTIC AND REAL, EVEN IF HIS AGE IS IFFY
By Fred Dickey Feb. 3, 2014
A reader sent a note asking if I’d like to interview a 110-year-old man.
One hundred ten? Tell me where and I’m halfway there.
I’m following a Google map to the address of this man whom I’m told has added two score years to the biblical three-score-ten. It takes me into a tucked-away mobile home park in Guatay in backcountry East County. Guatay is the sort of place to which people move to escape the bustle of nearby Descanso. If society is a flowing river, then Guatay is an eddy off in the shallows with its own slowly swirling current.
The mobile home park I eventually find is rustic, which just means it hasn’t changed since, well, a long time. The fellow I am visiting is named Ebony Angel, and for that name alone I would drive to Guatay.
I find his tiny place and fumble with the gate latch to enter the patio. It’s a lean-to attached to the small trailer he calls home. The patio resembles a workshop that long ago stopped working. It’s a repository for dog food, broken furniture and small tools misplaced in 1980.
Ebony awaits me on the patio in a vintage powered wheelchair. If an ordinary old man is a senior, Ebony is postgraduate. He is leaning back and wearing loose bib overalls and a long-sleeved polo shirt. Each could use laundering, but you can’t fault an ancient man for that. His face is startling because he could be Father Time’s stand-in. He says he’s part Indian and that he’s been adopted into the Lakota tribe. His eyes are alert and his voice a resonant bass. He’s very much aware of his surroundings, and his thoughts are cogent. His power of recall, as it turns out, slips and slides like a jogger on black ice, but it would be unfair not to expect that.
Next to Ebony is a walker that is used when he wants to move a few feet. For longer distances, such as a trip around the park where he is an elder statesman, he maneuvers the wheelchair out the door and through the gate.
First, I have to ask about the name. Ebony Angel sounds like a character in a Kwanzaa pageant.
He says it was suggested by his birthing Indian midwife for reasons known only to her. He was born Oct. 31, 1903, “someplace in Arizona.” Soon thereafter, his parents moved to Mississippi, where the Army had transferred his father. The family eventually grew to 10 girls and 10 boys, of whom he was the eldest.
“I was born with epileptic. I used to have seizures all the time. See, back then, they didn’t have no medication for it. Whenever you had a seizure, somebody had to turn you over on your side and stick something in your mouth to keep you from chewing your tongue off and swallowing it.”
As he starts to recount his life, Ebony skips through the decades as a pigtailed girl would a game of hopscotch.
“When I was 12 years old, my mother taught me how to drive the tractor. Then I took care of the farm.”
You must have had a very early tractor. Almost all farms at that time worked with horses or mules.
“I had the mules, and then later on when they got tractors, I got one. I had 2,000 acres — 1,000 under cultivation and 1,000 in woods. Me and my girlfriend, we got married and I farmed for quite a while, and then I moved away. I went to L.A. and started working in the garment industry: women’s evening wear, sportswear and unmentionables.”
What year was that?
“Oh, that was a long time ago. I don’t know. Around the ’30s, something like that. At the time, I had four daughters and one on the way, until my wife, we got in an argument, and I said, ‘To hell with it.’ I let her drive. Then she tried to beat one of these 18-wheelers in an intersection, and they died.”
“Well, I had two daughters. No. Yeah. No, three daughters (and) one in the bread basket, and my mother-in-law. One (other) daughter was visiting some friends”
So, three daughters, your mother-in-law and your pregnant wife died, and one daughter survived?
“Yeah. I was injured, but not too bad.”
What year was that?
“I don’t know. Around ’40s, ’50s, somewhere around there. I don’t remember now. The stuff that bothers me, I try to forget about it.”
Ebony says he was in World War II as a pilot stationed in Europe, where he flew bombers and fighters.
“I flew everything they had. I went from Flying Tigers and everything else, and the transports. I flew them all. The Flying Tigers was bombers. Everything they had in World War II, I flew. I flew the fighter planes … I got out of the war. I got out of the service. I had something happen to me — a mental problem. Well, they gave me a psychiatrist to talk to me. He couldn’t help me. I seen too many of my friends die.”
What year was that?
“Around ’27 or ’28, somewhere around there.”
As the years progress in his recounting, Ebony’s memory grows even more uncertain, perhaps due to a decline of dramatic or catastrophic events. He says he did a lot of hitchhiking and worked at small racetracks across the country.
Ebony says he married again and believes his wife is in a home in San Diego, but isn’t certain. He is presently assisted in shopping and household chores by a relative of vague connection who lives in the area.
He has lived in this park for 25 years and, over time, has become a seer among his neighbors. “When I moved to this park, everybody thought I was an idiot. But, I had people come over here to pick my mind. Now, everybody, they’ll be talking to a friend about something, so, ‘Let’s go see Eb, he knows about it.’ ”
Ebony says he has had arthritis “ever since I could remember,” and consequently, “I don’t walk. I shuffle. Other than that, I’m in fine health.”
What do you want to do with the rest of your life?
“Well, see, the thing about it is, I’m used to working all the time, you know? But now I get frustrated because I can’t do nothing, you know?”
He says he doesn’t get veteran’s benefits — “somewhere along the line they lost a bunch of records” — and no Social Security because he fell four quarters (of earnings) short of qualifying. He does, however, get (Supplemental Security Income) benefits due to disability.
SSI pays him a few hundred dollars per month, and at least half of it goes for rent and utilities. What remains buys little. Meals on Wheels drives a long way to give him hot food.
Do you have any living children or grandchildren?
“Well, I don’t know if I do or not. My daughter asked me to buy her a car and I told her no. I said, ‘Get your husband to buy it.’ She told me, she said, ‘Well, if you don’t buy me a car, I ain’t going to speak to you again.’ ”
I assume that was the daughter who was not in the auto accident?
“Yeah. Let’s see. I become a papa when I was 16; and 17, I had another one; 18, I had another one; 19, I had another one; and I had one on the way. She was probably, let’s see … this daughter was the second one. I think about them all the time, and my brothers and sisters. I tried to find her, after I quit with the race-tracking. I tried to find her.”
How far did you go in school?
“Me? I never went to school a day in my life. My mother taught me to read and write, and after that there was no stopping me. Everything I’d get my hands on, I’d read.”
Do you find people who don’t believe you’re 110?
“Oh, all the time. They said, ‘I don’t believe you’re that old.’ I said, ‘Well, you know what? It’s your prerogative to believe me or not.’ Even when I was not as old as I am now, but I was getting older, everybody asked, they said, ‘What’s the secret to staying young?’ I said, ‘Well, I drink sociably, I chase women and I work.’ Now, when they ask me, I says, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I don’t drink anymore and I can’t chase the women, they’re too fast for me. I don’t work, so I don’t know what the secret is.’ ”
I ask to see his three Chihuahuas, because I’m fond of dogs. They are inside the trailer, so I open the door and enter. What I see is no discredit to Ebony, just as it wouldn’t be to millions of other old people who live on pennies and don’t have a nickel to spend.
The trailer is like stepping into a tunnel — gloomy and dank with age. The floor feels rotted underfoot. His bed is squeezed into the end of the trailer, just a few feet from the entrance.
The bathroom fixtures are stained with rust, and the kitchen sink is piled with (clean) dishes. If he turns around in the narrow walkway, it has to be in stages. I’m forced to call it squalor, and I do so with no disrespect. This has been Ebony’s home for a quarter-century, but he does not complain. He has his few dollars, his dogs and a long trail of years to savor and regret.
Ebony sits on his patio in winter chill and summer heat, doing what the Bible predicts: “Your old men shall dream dreams.” No matter that he sees time in a kaleidoscope and many events have become age-warped, his memories are his treasure. He does no harm and is a respected neighbor.
Given his great age, whatever the exact year, he can boast of one undeniable achievement: He survives.
To accept that Ebony is 110 requires a dollop of faith. The Gerontology Research Group maintains a list of American “supercentenarians” (those at least 110), both verified and unverified. Ebony Angel is on neither list.
Ebony says Social Security declares him to be “only” 90. He cannot produce a birth certificate from either Arizona or Mississippi. However, both states did not officially begin those statistics until several years after 1903. He says the Army lost his World War II records, so he does not get VA medical care, which he should otherwise be eligible for.
Records, schmeckords. Ebony doesn’t worry about it.
If you think Ebony’s story is too strange, well, the world is full of strange things. But few things are “too strange” unless they violate gravity or mock the calendar. All we can do is listen and then try to figure it out.
Social Security can make mistakes, can’t it? If Ebony says he’s 110, I want him to be 110.
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