ALAMO — Imagine what it must be like. 97 years on this planet with a clear mind, a pretty good body - considering- and an intact sense of humor. Howard Willson — he calls himself the 2L Willson — has been coming to the Valley since 1974, 24 years of it in Trophy Gardens.
Howard can be found playing cards or shooting pool on Wednesdays and Fridays — he won the Singles championship in the park two times — although he says, “Of course, it’s nothing like I used to shoot as a kid. I was good then. I taught myself. All you have to do is practice.”
Starting life in the little town of Chassell, Michigan, Howard’s dad was a country doctor.
“I used to help my dad give the anesthetic. It was ether in those days. He would start them and get them under. Then he would say, ‘Give it drop by drop, Howard.’ Then he would say, ‘Now you can stop.’ I did all that and I would have to clean up too!” he said, laughing.
“We had a big shingle mill in town. Of course, in those days, there were no guards on the equipment and you were cutting fingers off right and left,” he said. “They would come into the office, once twice in one day. My old man said, ‘What the hell is going on down there?’ He would patch them up and then tell me, ‘Howard, take that thumb down and throw it in the furnace.’”
Growing up in the Depression, he remembers people not working.
“I went hunting and fishing with my dad sometimes, if he wasn’t busy. Otherwise there were a lot of people to go with. Nobody was working,” said Howard. “There were always people coming to the dock when we came in and we would give them fish. But we ate a lot of what we caught. Hunted rabbits and deer. Rabbit is delicious!”
Later in life, his wife would cook his kills, but she never did join in the meals.
“I would say, ‘You’re going to eat a hot dog and I’m having this good venison steak smothered in onion’s?’” Howard said, chuckling at the memory of his beloved wife eating her simple meal while he feasted.
In school he was a sports kind of guy.
“In high school I played a fair amount of sports — basketball, baseball. I wasn’t good enough to make the university team. I never really tried,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I graduated.”
Education was a top goal of his father’s. Insistent that both his sons go to college, both Howard and his brother graduated from the university. Howard wanted to be a chemist but he was a realist.
“I could see the handwriting on the wall,” he said. “I wasn’t going to get a job. They were firing better chemists than I was.”
So he obtained a teaching certificate and became a chemistry teacher, which he totally enjoyed. But, WWII came along and Howard went into the Army.
“They thought the Germans were going to use gas,” he said. Going from the infantry to OCS training in chemical war fare, he went from a private to a captain in four years.
“They never did use gas but they made a lot of it,” said Howard. “We had four plants going 24 hours a day, 365 days a year —- we made all kinds of poison gases. Never did use them but I think they used the right psychology. There was no secrecy at all about having the gas. We shipped it over to Africa, stored it out where the Germans could see it if they wanted to see it. I don’t know what they did with it. I got out and let them worry about it.”
Stationed at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, on one furlough in upper New York, Howard met a young girl named Jessie.
“We corresponded afterwards,” said Howard. “She was a looker! We were married 56 years and raised three boys. She just passed away seven years ago.”
After the war, Howard found a teaching position in Ironwood, Mich., at a junior college. When an opening came up at the Montreal iron mine, just over the border from Ironwood, where he could be a chemist, Howard grabbed it and finally reached his goal — chief chemist.
The mine was a mile deep and mined hematite ore to make steel. About once a month he would descend deep into the earth.
“You get used to it,” he said. “They could be dangerous like coal mines, but towards the end the safety was better. I would go down to supervise the samplers of the ore.”
When a Minnesota mining company began mining a magnetic product they processed into pellets for the steel industry, the Montreal mine was put out of business.
“It was a matter of money,” Howard said. “We were so deep that we couldn’t compete with their price.”
Teaching again became Howard’s profession — teaching math until he retired in 1974.
“I said to my wife, ‘Get packed up. We’re going to spend the winter somewhere besides here,” he said. And down to the Valley they came.
Howard says it’s a faster pace now — not like the old days.
“All I had to do was say, ‘Do you want to go fishing?’ to a shoemaker friend of mine and he would drop everything and away we would go,” said Howard. “He had a sign that said ‘Gone Hunting’ on one side and ‘Gone Fishing’ on the other.”
One of his favorite times is right before dinner.
“I take a drink everyday before I eat,” he said. “I think that helps me. Every doctor I talked to has never said to stop. I sit there and sip on that brandy and think of mostly anything — hunting and fishing.”
Not only does he sit and ponder hunting, Howard still hunts with his oldest son.
“We have hunted deer for 40 years together at the same shack on the same property by a lake. He’s 60 years old now and I took him the first time when he was 14,” he said. “I can shoot to beat hell yet!”
As he talked he remembered the early years when the ice wagon dropped off the ice at the house, lamps were used before electricity came to his neighborhood and even after since they shut off electricity at midnight, when cigarettes were 10-cents a pack.
“Those were good days, though — played lots of cards, shot pool, fished and hunted,” he said.
Asked about his life, Howard concedes it was wonderful but adds, “I’m ready to go any time. I haven’t packed my bags but I’m ready.”
This last year he finally went into assisted living after getting a bug and realized living alone wasn’t fun anymore. He only has one complaint.
“They give you too much food,” he said. “I asked them if they could cut it down because a person my age can’t eat like I did when I was a kid but they still pile it up!”
He describes one of the major changes by stating, “We hear and see a lot more things happening in the world today — the killings around the world.” He liked the good ole’ days.
“They were real good. No complaint on them,” said Howard, reminiscing. “Good wife. Good job. Good beagles to hunt with. I think back on those days. When you get old you think more of days gone by. When deer season comes I think of all those I’ve hunted with. I remember the shoemaker I hunted with for years. Now he’s been gone for 30 years. But if there is a hereafter and I meet him there, I know exactly what he’ll say when he sees me.
“Where the hell have you been?”
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