I’m always looking for new reasons to shamelessly shill for Honor Flight, the program that takes World War II vets to Washington, D.C., to see the monument a grateful nation built for them.
Today I have an old reason, a few days over 107 years old, to remind you about Honor Flight. His name is Richard Overton, and he’s booked on Friday’s Honor Flight.
(FYI, this newspaper normally does not use courtesy titles such as Mr. and Ms. But today I’m announcing my new personal policy: If you’re over 105 and not under indictment, I’ll give you the courtesy title.)
Mr. Overton turned 107 last Saturday, which the Austin City Council proclaimed as “Richard A. Overton Day.” A day earlier, I chatted with him and his friend Arlene Love and his great-nephew Kevin Jackson on the front porch of the neat East Austin home in which Mr. Overton has lived since he built it when he came home from World War II.
My colleague Helen Anders wrote about Mr. Overton back in 2009 when he was a mere youth of 103. He told her he still enjoyed driving. And he still does now.
Mr. Overton was born (in 1906!) in St. Mary’s in Bastrop County. Married twice and with no children, he worked in Austin furniture stores for many years and became well-known at the Capitol, including a stint handling mail and deliveries for then-Treasurer Ann Richards.
“That was my buddy,” he said of the late Richards. “We were big friends. I knew her when she used to drink.”
Mr. Overton’s World War II stories are typical for the greatest generationers who did so much for us and asked so little for it. He was in the Army. He served in the South Pacific. He landed, under fire, on too many beaches on too many islands for him to recall. The records show he served from September 1942 until October 1945 and made stops in Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Palau, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
“We got in the foxholes, and bullets were coming over our heads,” he said matter of factly of one landing, adding vivid memories of clearing dead bodies from the battlefield.
As we chatted, I noted that Mr. Overton’s cigar seemed affixed between the index and middle fingers of his right hand. He’s been smoking them since he was 18, and he estimated he goes through 12 a day. (Do not try this at home.)
“I don’t inhale,” he insisted. “It’s not a cigar. It’s just a company keeper. I just smoke it and blow it out, smoke it and blow it out.”
Mr. Overton’s never been to Washington. I cautioned him to rest up for a fast-paced trip during which he’ll see a lot of D.C. in a short time. He seemed unfazed, though a bit concerned about why they planned to move him around in a wheelchair. I told him all the vets are put in wheelchairs for their comfort.
“I feel like I did when I was 40 years old,” Mr. Overton told me.
“He acts like it too,” Jackson joked.
I’m pretty sure I want to be Mr. Overton when I grow up.
Thirty-five vets are on this weekend’s Honor Flight, the fifth such trip since the program began last year. Twenty-five more are going on May 31. All go for free.
The math is not complicated. World War II vets are members of a dying breed. Two whom I got to know during an Honor Flight last year — Travis Budlong and Vic Mathias — have since passed away. According to the City Council proclamation, Mr. Overton is Texas’ oldest vet. If he’s not the nation’s oldest, he’s got to be near the top.
There are many worthwhile causes in search of your money. There can’t be many as sure to bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your heart as Honor Flight does. I urge you to kick the tires on this one and see if you think it’s worth a few of your dollars.
A great way to check it out is to be at the Austin airport when one of these trips leaves or returns. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. The welcome home for this trip will be 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Southwest Airlines counter on the airport’s upper level.
For more information, check out honorflightaustin.org or call 888-530-8880.