I had a list of questions I wanted to ask Richard Overton, a lifelong area resident who, at 108 years of age, is America’s oldest living World War II veteran (he served from 1942 to 1945 in the Pacific theater as a member of the all-black 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion).
What was it like to fight in that war? How has the world changed since he was born in 1906? What’s the secret to his longevity?
But, as I sat down at the edge of a comfortable sofa in Overton’s East Austin home — a house he built, by the way, and has lived in since he left the Army in 1945 — and leaned toward the easy chair he had reclined in to begin our conversation, I kind of tossed that stuff out the window.
At my age, I rarely meet somebody who’s more than twice as old as I am. And, when I do, I’m inclined to let that person choose the topic of conversation.
A simple “How’s your day going?” was enough to set off the lucid and rail-thin (but remarkably fit) Overton on a near-monologue that lasted close to a couple of hours.
He talks, as men and women less than half his age are wont to do, about his aches and pains. His only real ailment seems to be a foot problem he claims resulted from surgery “Uncle Sam” performed on him when he went into the Army in the early 1940s. The pain has recently required him to use a cane for the first time in his long life.
“I’m nearly 109. If you fall and break a hip, they don’t fool with you no more,” Overton says, chuckling. “They just put you in a wheelchair and let you ride.”
The veteran has no time for that. He’s been up since 6 a.m. today, he says. “And if I’m feeling alright like I am now and it ain’t raining, I get my broom and I sweep this whole driveway.”
Then he grabs a rake and cleans the dead leaves away from the bushes on his front lawn. He refuses to use a leaf blower or riding lawnmower.
“You don’t get no nudge,” Overton explains. “You got to strain and nudge, push. And when you get through pushing a lawnmower, you feel good. But if you go out there just sitting there riding, you never do nothin’,” he says.
Overton’s met a lot of people, including governors and presidents. Their pictures with him line the walls of his dining room. And he gets calls and letters daily from people who want to talk to him and meet him. The table is littered with correspondence and photos from people all over who want to share their experiences, get an autograph or learn the secret to his longevity.
“God give it to me,” he says. “They tried to kill me in the Army, but God wouldn’t let ’em. I stayed for nearly five years and I didn’t get a scratch on me.”
There is one health tip he will share.
“Sometimes I’ll get up and put a little whiskey in my coffee,” he says. “And at night when I go to bed, I put two tablespoons in my 7 Up. It makes you sleep soundly.”
Overton’s daddy — “he drank a lot of gin,” the veteran says — told him that the heart is a muscle and that the lubrication would keep that muscle soft and able to pump blood faster.
Overton, who outlived 10 siblings and a pair of wives, talks about the years he took care of others, ending with a stint as a runner at the Capitol, where he retired at 65. He points to the wall across the room where a Capitol lawn photo of his coworkers hangs. “I took care of that whole bunch; they called me back four times,” he says. “A lot of them are dead, but lots of them still living and they come here to see me now.”
It’s their turn to take care of him.
He’s missed church for a few weeks because he’s been under the weather, and he says that his fellow parishioners — worried about his lanky frame — keep sending over full dinner plates.
“I say, ‘Don’t bring that dinner. I don’t wanna’ get fat; I wanna’ stay slim.’ I figure I go to gettin’ fat, then I go to gettin’ problems,” he says.
He takes three little pills a day, he says, but smokes a dozen cigars. “I don’t swallow none of the smoke. If I do, I don’t know it; my lungs are perfect.
“I enjoy it; it keeps me company. I’ve had five already today.”
I have to prod him to talk about his military service, which makes sense once I hear a few stories of Japanese snipers hiding in trees and holes in the ground; dead bodies booby-trapped with explosives; and the way he had to position his body on the ground so that incoming bullets would deflect off his helmet instead of ripping into his shoulders.
“I was a good soldier,” he says. “I was afraid they wouldn’t let me come back home. I didn’t mind being in the Army, but I’d had enough of the fighting.”
These days Overton’s only opponent seems to be the notoriety he’s gained in the past few years due to his age and historical status.
In 2013, he traveled to Washington to meet President Barack Obama.
“When I come back, everybody wants to know what he said. But I ain’t said one word. I ain’t no tattletale and I don’t talk tales,” Overton says, noting that when the Army sent him to Hawaii shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor while the wreckage was still smoldering, America’s first black president hadn’t yet been born.
He’s appeared in many stories on broadcast news programs.
“And everywhere I go now, somebody know me,” he says. “Every time I go to a store, somebody say, ‘I seen you on TV.’ I say, ‘No, you didn’t.’ ‘Yes I did, too,’ they say.” Soon, he has half a dozen people surrounding him, wanting to take pictures. He always accommodates them.
“I say, ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’
“I like it,” he admits.
Overton’s lost a lot of friends over the years. Maybe that’s why he greets every person he meets as a new one.