He Soldiers On

The oldest U.S. veteran still eats and says what he wants, remembers what he can and welcomes the attention that goes with being 110.

April 30, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

STONEWALL, N.C. - The oldest known veteran in America lives with one of his daughters in this little town on the marshy coast of North Carolina. He lives in a house painted blue and trimmed white, and for many years he could see those colors and know, when he came to the end of his road, that he was home.

Inside his house, in nearly every room now, are citations honoring him for serving during World War I and for living to the age of 110.

In the front room, in a corner, is his favorite chair, an old recliner covered with a beige afghan. Above the chair hangs the highest civilian commendation the governor of North Carolina can bestow: The Order of the Long Leaf Pine. Beside that is his induction into the American Legion, and beside that, his membership in The 100 Year Club, and beside that, a plaque from the town honoring him, "Mr. Robert Hodges," its most famous son.

Even if four years of schooling had been enough to teach Mr. Hodges how to read, he is blind now. He cannot see the plaques on the walls or the stack of those that have appeared since the last oldest known veteran in America, 112-year-old John Painter in Tennessee, died last year.

In Mr. Hodges' house, more awards and proclamations are kept in boxes in the back rooms, but like so many of his memories, he could not find them if he were asked.

"You get to the age I am, you can't think like you used to think," Mr. Hodges says. That he can still talk amazes some of the reporters, photographers and dignitaries who come east down Highway 55 from New Bern to meet him. Some of the time his voice leaves him before he has finished what he set out to say. Like a passing train, the sound becomes fainter and fainter until it is gone.

Most days, Mr. Hodges can be found in his chair, not facing the TV but sitting beside it, listening to Pat Robertson in the morning, soap operas in the afternoon, the news at night. When his great-grandchildren change the channel after they think he has fallen asleep, he reminds them he has not. "Put it back over there," he says. "Nobody told you to turn that television."

On balmy days, his favorite place is outside the house, on the screened porch where he sits in a rocking chair that is nearly the same walnut color as his skin.

He gets outside by holding on to the arm of his daughter, Helen. He is short and thin, stooped from age, dependent on a cane. He wears slacks and a long-sleeved shirt, a belt and suspenders, and up close his face is not so much wrinkled as it is speckled with dozens of tiny dark moles.

When he could see, Mr. Hodges sat on his porch and looked through the shade of two green cedar trees, across the road, to the red-brick Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church where he was treasurer for 60 years and his late wife, Malinda, was a deaconess.

Nowadays, he sits with his hands laid one atop the other on his lap, his head leaning slightly forward on his chest, and he moves only to rock. He likes to sit out here where the breeze carries scents from the Bay River behind his house. Somewhere near, although he is hard of hearing, a rooster crows and a dog barks.

When the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in March declared Mr. Hodges the oldest known veteran receiving VA benefits, he moved so little during the ceremony that some of the people in the audience at Pamlico County Community College thought he had fallen asleep. But after the ceremony he proved that he'd heard every word when he asked his daughters about the gift certificate promised him for fresh shrimp.

That he can still eat whatever he wants amazes the people who take him to the doctor for a checkup once a year. He takes one pill for high blood pressure and one tablet for iron, and when his arthritis bothers him, one or two Tylenol before he goes to bed.

Although no one can say definitively when Mr. Hodges was born, the VA uses June 18, 1891, the date his mother Mary provided in an affidavit in 1952. Some of his children rely on an old family Bible that says he was born three years earlier, in 1888.

Either way, he spent his earliest years on a plantation in nearby Beaufort County, in a community near Bath. He grew to manhood in a three-room house that had a chimney made of sticks patched together with clay and mud. One of 10 children, he told a local historian in the early 1990s that some members of his family slept in the kitchen because there was nowhere else.

His grandparents were slaves, but no one can verify a line in a framed copy of the Congressional Record that says his father was a runaway slave who died at 112.

What is known is that Mr. Hodges lived most of his life in a time when black men did what white men wanted them to do. "I ain't had no trouble," he says. "I don't care who he is, white or colored, if I could do him any good, I'd do it."

He helped his father stack wood at age 3, and by 8 or 9 was working on a white man's farm. He raised corn, cotton, tobacco, peas, beans, potatoes and peanuts. He had no time for hobbies, only chores.

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