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Local veteran refuses to get old

 

Submitted Photo

Last summer Lewis traveled to Portland, Ore. for Fleet Week, an annual celebration of fleet-related vessels at Portland's waterfront, allowing Lewis to relive old memories. This picture was taken aboard a PT boat like the one he served on 70 years ago, he even spent time steering the boat during the celebration.

Tom Lewis recently celebrated his 94th birthday, it was a Monday, and the fact that it was his birthday didn't change his Monday routine. Every Monday morning, he takes a cake or pie up to the residents at Long Term Care. He refers to the residents as "inmates." The term isn't meant to be offensive, quite the opposite, it's just because he is so active and full of life.

Lewis lives on his own, cooks for himself, and still has a driver's license and drives himself around town or out the road to pick berries in the muskeg. He uses a cane, usually one he whittled out of diamond willow, and he shot his last moose when he was 84. The only reason he stopped hunting moose was because after shooting the last one he says he "realized how big they really are." However, he still drives his silver Chevy Trailblazer around during moose and deer season trying to spot wildlife. Lewis even keeps a rifle in the back seat just in case he sees something, although it's more ceremonial than anything else.

Last May, Lewis and two other Petersburg WWII veterans were part of the Honor Flight that traveled to Washington D.C., to tour memorials and monuments. Lewis says he really enjoyed the trip, and the stop at the National WWII Memorial was especially meaningful. For Lewis, the toughest part of the trip was being restricted to a wheelchair, because evidently, it's easier to keep track of old people that way, he says.

When he was 21, Lewis joined the service while working as part of a cutting crew in Oregon. The entire crew, but one, signed up to join the Navy on a whim.

"One Monday morning, why, we were a little hungover I guess, and somebody thought they'd go join the Navy," Lewis says. "I said, 'if you're serious get back on the crummy we'll go join.'"

Fourteen men all signed up that day, all of the crew except for one kid, whose parents refused to sign his papers. Lewis says his first choice of duty was Pharmacist Mate, and his second was Machinist Mate, puzzling his commander, who couldn't find a connection between the two.

"I told him, you either keep people going or machines," he says laughing.

From 1942-1945, he worked as a Machinist Mate on an 80-foot Patrol Torpedo boat, or PT boat, in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Lewis vividly remembers how long it took to fill the PT boat's 3,000 gallon tank with 50-gallon drums and a hand pump. He also remembers the night his boat almost launched a torpedo at the USS Denver, a lightweight cruiser they thought was the enemy. Thankfully, the crew learned the USS Denver was a friendly vessel moments before actually firing.

"We had a little action," Lewis says referring to his years of service.

When he left the Navy, the war was about over, but he could not help but want to stay over there. Lewis says he wanted to stay, because he didn't like the idea of having young kids with no experience take his place and being put in danger. That's just the way he thinks–selfless and honest.

Lewis jokingly says the Navy kicked him out, but he was in the reserves, and readily admits he wouldn't have passed the physical for the active Navy. He had gotten married after he joined the Navy on his first leave. The pair had been going together before he enlisted, but he had no idea if he was still married once he got out and got stateside.

"Like a lot of the guys, we got Dear John letters, I thought I was single when I got back from overseas," Lewis says with a fond slow laugh. "I didn't know I was still married, I thought she had gotten a divorce."

However, the couple would separate years later when Lewis decided to move north.

"She wasn't going to come up and live in an igloo in Alaska, so she made other arrangements," he says. "Then I married a girl that was born and raised in Petersburg, her name was Mildred."

Mildred passed away in 2008, but her name is still in the 2014 phonebook next to Tom's. At the end of her life she lived in Long Term Care, and Lewis would visit her every morning and every night. Lewis would often bring her big containers of blueberries he had picked, or baked goods and sometimes he would even bring salmon that he caught to give away.

"He is really special, and such a good role model on how to keep living your life and stay active," says Jo Luczak an Petersburg Medical Center employee. "I get choked up thinking about him."

Lewis' daughter bought him a laptop a couple years back, and he will get on it every morning to check for emails from his children or play solitaire. Luczak says his willingness to learn how to operate a laptop in his 90's speaks to his zest for life. Lewis still shovels snow, mows his own lawn, plants potatoes in his garden every spring and enjoys making kelp relish.

"He comes to all the Long Term Care picnics and brings half the food. He makes a big pot of baked beans and a big bowl of potato salad," Luczak says. "He's a real subsistence guy."

Lewis has lived in Petersburg since 1954, and has seen the community change a lot through his many years here. He's changed with the times, and impacted the people around him. If it wasn't for Lewis, Luczak wouldn't be picking berries. He motivated her to get out and learn the skill. Of course, it didn't hurt that Lewis is showing her all the good blueberry patches, but that's just his way of passing it on and refusing to give in to time.

"I haven't thought about quitting yet, I just slow down, that's all," Lewis says. "It's inevitable that you get old some time, but I haven't yet."

 

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