Faces of the Front Range: WWII veteran David Howie prepares to turn 100 with laughter
David Howie liked being in his 70s.
His 80s weren’t too bad either.
But his years as a 90-something, have felt “too much like (being a) grandma.” So the 99-year-old is looking forward to becoming a centenarian on Tuesday.
Howie has no particular aches or any pains. He only gave up his nightly Manhattan (his recipe called for two ounces of bourbon, a dash of bitters, one ounce of red sweet vermouth and a maraschino cherry served over ice) three or four years ago when he noticed he became a bit more wobbly than he used to be.
His mind is sharp; he can recite poetry (and dirty limericks). He recently started using supplemental oxygen, but he said it’s OK. He’s a glass-is-half-full type of man, and the glass has plenty of room for more wine.
Howie was born in Orange, New Jersey, on Nov. 9, 1921. He’s mostly avoided hospitals since that day.
“If I had known I would live this old, I would have taken better care of myself,” he joked one October afternoon from his room at Rocky Mountain Assisted Living in Wheat Ridge.
Howie wanted to be a printer as a child and to follow in Benjamin Franklin’s footsteps when he grew up. His mother gave him a copy of the founding father’s autobiography when he was in the seventh grade and after reading he wanted to be just like “Ben” as he called him.
Howie loved paper, printing and proofreading. He ran the mimeograph copying machine in grammar school. And in high school, he took a printing class. He and a friend eventually bought their own hand press, along with ink and paper, and started their own print shop in 1938.
By the time he graduated high school in 1940, he had made $200 from the printing business– more than enough to buy a blue Pontiac roadster with a rumble seat and red wire wheels. The car only cost him $60, Howie said.
“The way to get girls was to have a car,” he said.
So after buying the Roadster, Howie drove to the Finger Lakes region in New York. He had met a girl named Betty Jane during vacations to the area and “courted” her that summer after school.
Howie and Betty Jane began considering marrying in the summer of 1941.
The naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, and the United States was officially plunged into World War II.
“That changed my life,” Howie said.
Becoming a WWII veteran
Howie’s story of what happened after he was drafted in 1942 goes like this: He received a letter telling him to report to the Springfield Avenue Armory in Newark, New Jersey. The night before Howie left, he said goodbye to his grandparents, mother and sister.
He and about 500 others were sworn in, but an officer told them that Fort Dix was not ready for them. Everyone was told to go home for two weeks.
“I said, ‘Captain, I said goodbye to my family,’ ” Howie recalled. “I don’t want to go home for two more weeks. I’m in the army. You take care of me.”
The officer, according to Howie, replied, “There’s always one guy that causes all the trouble.”
He told him to go to Fort Dix, but Howie didn’t have any money. The officer handed him $5 to buy a train ticket.
When Howie finally arrived at the train depot near Fort Dix, nobody was there to greet him. He found a phone and called for transportation. The car belonged to the commanding general.
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The driver was supposed to cover the flags on the front of the car but had forgotten. So, as Howie rode through the post, people on the base began saluting him.
Naturally, he saluted them back.
“I wore out my right hand so I’m saluting with my left hand,” Howie recalled.
Howie joined the 346th Field Artillery Battalion in the autumn of 1943 and went overseas as a second lieutenant in 1944.
Howie was promoted to first lieutenant while serving in combat in Italy. He spent four birthdays while in the army, but it was his 23rd birthday that was “the most harrowing.” His battalion had fought their way from Rome to Florence and was near San Clemente when he heard “loud whines.”
Howie jumped into his foxhole, shells falling around him. His hole raised and lowered. It split into cracks and water drained up from the bottom.
A 365-pound shell of steel and TNT had hit the ground outside of his hole and buried itself about 12 feet before exploding underground, beneath Howie.
A fellow soldier later told him, “I guess that one did not have your name on it, sir.”
“Life’s too short to be serious”
Howie finally married Betty Jane after the war on July 5, 1946. They had six children — Dave, Dianne, Barbara, Brian, Beth and Deborah. They were together until Betty Jane died in 2010 with Alzheimer’s disease.
Howie opened his own print shop in New Jersey, which he ran until 1966, when the family moved to Florida, where he taught. During the move, the family drove down the East Coast, staying in a tent each night.
What advice Howie has for younger people is unknown. When asked, the 99-year-old offered a few jokes that are probably best left unprinted in a family newspaper.
His daughter, Dianne, urged him to answer the question seriously. But he only replied, “Life’s too short to be serious.”
“Inside of me there is a stand-up comic trying to get out,” Howie added with a grin.
Oh — Howie did finally say there is one thing that everyone should do: read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.
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