“I’ve got one staked out for you with your name on it,” Marty Knell said. “I sure hope that will keep it from being stolen!”
Marty was talking about the watermelons he was growing in his back yard, part of his annual garden. Thin and spry, he is a ball of energy. Always moving, always clasping and unclasping his hands, he’s bound and determined to stay healthy and independent so he will always be there for his number one priority — Penny, the love of his life now for 65 years.
Willing to do a story only if I would train with him for a day, it seems the fitness routines he learned in the Army really did do him good, and all because he couldn’t fly.
Marty was born in Scranton, Penn. — Polish to the very core.
“My daddy ran from Poland because the Russians were overrunning the countries,” Marty said. “According to my daddy, they called themselves Cossacks. They would come with swords through the town. If you were in their way, you were killed. He got on a boat and came over, but he left his wife until he could bring her over.”
Life was tough back then.
“My daddy kept moving around to different places where he could make a living. I remember being in Ithaca, N.Y. I don’t know what we were doing up there. All I know is I was swinging a blue stick and hit my sister in the head,” he said, laughing. She lived to a ripe age of 92.
Eventually the family landed in the coal mines of West Virginia.
“Word would get around from one refugee group to another. They would hear there’s a good job here or there and would all end up in the same place looking for work,” Marty said.
Losing his mother during his early elementary school days, his father picked up the slack and Marty was secure in his father’s love. However, living in a coal camp brought constant anguish.
“I worried about daddy going into the mines,” Marty said. “He was in two explosions. Both times he got out, but I knew others who didn’t.”
“Coal camps had people from all walks of life and from what many of them called the Old Country,” he said of life in the camps. “We had Spaniards, Yugoslavians, Czechoslovakians, Polish, Hungarians, blacks and whites. Coal miners never got rich because you could never get ahead. You would work two or three days a week sometimes and five or six days at other times. The company store would loan you money and there was never a time to catch up and get out.”
Marty thanks the Good Lord the day he left to join the Army, though his wife didn’t want him to go.
As the high school basketball team captain, Marty was well known in high school. Though the girls followed him, he claims innocence.
“We had always met girls before the bell rang! In those days we weren’t very bright. Boys were not bright — period! I was one of the dumbest ones of them all,” he said, laughing heartily.
On the day of graduation rehearsal he and a team buddy were leaning against a wall, watching the goings on when he spied two girls. One he knew — Claypool — from being in class with her and her good looking legs — but he didn’t recognize the other, though she knew of him as the captain of the team.
Telling his buddy he could have Claypool, because, “This one here is going to be mine,” he said. Then he asked the second girl if she would like to march in with him, a tradition at their school. She said yes. After they marched in, they began talking and Marty told her, “I’m going to marry you.”
“I just knew it. I just knew it,” he said, with a sigh. “And she had a feller!”
In fact she was engaged, but two years later Penny was wed — to Marty — and they began their long life together in the coal camps where Marty was working until his escape into the Army.
“I had an extraordinary Army career,” he said. “I wore many hats.”
First assigned to the 82nd Infantry Division in Louisiana, he was part of a new experiment. They split the division in two and Marty went into the 101st — the Screaming Eagles. After being told they were going to learn to fly gliders, he decided he wanted to learn how to be a pilot.
“I told them, ‘If I’m going to be flying, I’m going to be in control!’” Marty said. Taking the test, he passed and when the 101st shipped out, Marty stayed behind for pilots training.
“It hurt me a little bit because those were my buddies from my town. They were looking at me and I was looking at them. I asked, ‘I’m not going to see ya’ll anymore?’ That bunch ended up in the pocket at the Battle of the Bulge. They were surrounded by the Germans and the Germans sent a message, ‘You’d better give in or we’re going in and annihilate every one of you.’ The Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe replied, ‘To the German Commander - NUTS. Signed, The American Commander.’
“I don’t know how many of the 101st died. They would tow them to the other side of the enemy lines and cut them lose. When the glider was cut loose, it has no engine so you’re entirely dependent on the pilot to land the best way he can. I understood that a lot of them did die flying into trees and not landing well.”
Knowing many were lost, Marty muses, “I often wondered what would have happened to me if I had stayed with them.”
Marty did have the good fortune to be a good second base baseball player. Consequently, it landed him at bases where the commanders wanted a winning team. Good thing it was because after some time training to fly, it was time to take a Check Ride to see how he was advancing. Told he was pretty dangerous, Marty was definitely grounded.
“I had to accept that,” he said, chortling. It was at the Southwest Training Command in Pampa, Texas, where he became an athletic/physical training instructor and manager of the post baseball team. With his athletic background, this suited him perfectly and was something he would fall back on late in life.
From the service he had a short career in baseball then served 30 years with the United States Postal Service going from a clerk to a Window Service Technician in charge of the window clerks and handling the accounting.
At about age 80, he began to think about health and longevity. Knowing he wanted to remain independent and able to care for both Penny and himself he set out to develop a fitness regime for himself, one he sticks to today. One hour every day, six days a week — without fail.
A mixture of aerobics, yoga, calisthenics, cardio workout with a little isometrics thrown in, Marty’s routine covers every inch of the body.
“People can’t do the things I do,” the 90-year-old said. “You have to treat your routine like an appetite, like you want to eat. You have to eat. You want to eat. You have to train, train, train, train!”
Taking us through his routine, he’s right. I can’t keep up, but I do give it my best which, at least, impresses Marty. However, his motivation factors are strong.
“I - don’t - want - to - be - dependent!” he said. “As long as I can have my independence I’m going to work for it. I want to manage myself, I want to be in control. There are days I don’t want to do it then I tell myself, ‘Get your butt up here and get it done!’ After I get it done I’m gungho. It makes you feel better when you exercise.”
His other motivation is Penny, who has had some health issues in the past.
“That’s what’s driving me. Number 1 motivation is to take care of Number 2. If I’m in good shape I can take care of Number 2. I don’t want to go to a home. She doesn’t want to go to a home. I think what we have here is a romance novel. We’re singing a lot. Next thing you know I’m giving her a good hug, I’m giving her a good kiss.
Marty’s had a motto he follows — “I don’t like mediocrity. I always want to be better.”
So he and Penny can be found every morning walking their two miles, eating their fruits and vegetables, working around their house.
Has it been fun?
“Yes,” Marty said. “I’ve had her.”