I’m a sucker for old men. They have great stories, and I am a big fan of great stories. Plus they have lived through so much and accomplished so much more. Harry Rubin is an old man — chronologically speaking. He was born in 1925, which was 85 years ago. You’d never know it by looking at him, however, or being around him. He is younger at 85 than I am at 58.
Harry Rubin has a bounce in his step and a twinkle in his eye that belies his years — and boy, does Harry have some great stories. I recently had the opportunity to spend a week with him and enjoyed every moment that I was in his company. Little by little, I was able to piece together the story of his quite remarkable life. Well, if not the whole story, at least a good part of it.
Harry was born and raised in Philadelphia, which happens to be the birthplace of our nation. At least that’s the city referenced on the birth certificate. Harry was a member of the Knothole Gang as a kid and could pay a quarter and see the Phillies or the old Philadelphia Athletics play. Harry told me he was a National League kid and only occasionally watched the A’s.
Harry left Philly in 1942. Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he and his high school class went en masse to the local enlistment office and joined the Army. Of course, being only 17, he had to lie about his age, but his Uncle Sam didn’t seem too concerned at the time.
After the war, Harry would never return to the City of Brotherly Love — at least not to live. He made the Army his home — and his career. Harry Rubin remained in the Army for 33 years and fought in three wars on behalf of his country — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — and eventually retired to Hinesville. He lives, in fact, just a stone’s throw from the front gate of Fort Stewart.
Our paths didn’t cross because of his service to our country — although I admire him for that service and appreciate it more than words can express. Our paths crossed because Harry is a very talented writer and a very insightful observer of human nature. Three years ago, I had the pleasure of serving as an instructor at the Southeastern Writers Association’s annual seminar, where I met Harry Rubin for the first time. He was my kind of guy, and I spent as much time with him that week as he could tolerate.
This year I was lucky enough to be invited back to the same conference and was delighted to learn that Harry was there again, just as he has been every year since 1983. This year I ate virtually all my meals at Harry’s table and coerced him into telling me a whole new batch of stories. Some were hilarious — like the one about how in Vietnam that he and his buddies would commandeer helicopters to fly to the nearby pineapple plantation and gather fresh pineapples for the mess officer to serve. The only problem was, the Viet Cong liked pineapple, too, so the GIs had to go in with guns blazing.
He also told about how the men in his company liked to fly over the Michelin rubber plantation at low altitudes because the French plantation owner had a beautiful daughter who had a propensity for sunbathing topless by the pool.
There were a lot of darker war stories, too, of course.
The morning before we departed, Harry told me a quite different story — a love story. It was about how he met his wife on a blind date. He even showed me a picture of her, and she was stunningly beautiful. He claimed that as soon as she opened the door to greet him he made up his mind that he would marry her. Fourteen hours later, according to Harry, he popped the question — and she said yes.
They were married in Louisville, Ky. — on Derby Day. For the next 59 years Harry knew that when it was time for the ponies to run at Churchill Downs, it was time for him to buy an anniversary present — and they always celebrated their anniversary by watching the Derby together.
On May 1 of this year, they repeated that ritual — and then shared a frozen pizza. Little did he know it would be their last meal together. The next day, as she was preparing the morning coffee, a loose blood clot — a residual effect of an April 1 surgery — struck Harry’s wife, rendering her unconscious. The ambulance came and rushed her to the nearby hospital, but there was nothing that could be done and she passed away — one day short of their 59th wedding anniversary.
So there was a little less bounce in Harry’s step this year, and the gleam in his eye was a little less bright. But despite the heartache, he soldiered on — as old soldiers and those of his generation always do — regaling us all with his limericks, funny stories and gentlemanly charm and railing against the current state of political affairs in the nation he fought three wars to preserve.
Harry Rubin — American Hero and charter member of the Greatest Generation. Embrace those who are left today. We don’t know how many tomorrows they will enjoy.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.