Lifetime of stories

Inside the walls of Room 33 stories are being told &

stories of passion, stories of excitement, stories of pain and stories of love.

Kenneth Oldaker gazes from his wheelchair at two portraits in an 8-by-10 picture frame on his nightstand. One is of himself and one is of his wife, Diane. The 88-year-old man takes a deep breath with the help of a dark green oxygen tank and speaks about his life. He is a diabetic and has been dealing with dizziness, soreness in his legs and several falls at his mobile home near Emigrant Lake. For the past four months he has spent his days inside Linda Vista Nursing and Rehab Center telling stories and waiting to go home.

"The first thing I'll do when I leave Linda Vista, is look at my dogs and give them a huge hug," says Kenneth. He has two purebred yellow labs, Cheechee and Cecil. "I love those dogs like I would love a child."

Kenneth was born in Boston, Mass., on Oct. 1, 1918 &

the same year the Red Sox won their first World Series championship against the Chicago Cubs. The oldest of five siblings, he had a religious upbringing. His father, Josephus, worked as a fireman for the Boston Elevated Railway, which operated buses, streetcars and rapid transit. Stationed in the center of the control tower, Josephus controlled the phone lines, the lights, set the fire for steam engines and mastered Morse code.

When his father wasn't working, he was a stand-in minister at a local church. As many as 200 people attended Kenneth's Sunday school class any given week.

"I remember sitting in the back of the church on Sundays with this really little guy around my age. I would grit my teeth back and forth, again and again. My friend hated it but it always made me laugh," Kenneth recalls. Josephus' first church he ministered at was in New Hampshire, just across the border off Highway 101.

In October of 1929, on Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. Only 11 years old at the time, Kenneth remembers seeing lawyers, doctors and businessmen standing in food lines just to survive.

"My father always found a way to support us," he says. "No matter how tough things were during the Depression, we always had food on our plates." Sometimes his father even made the food. He would drive to the other side of town in one of his two Reo's &

he had both a sedan and a convertible &

to buy baked beans for the family. Kenneth swears Josephus made the "best baked beans and French bread in Massachusetts."

The other chef in the family, Kenneth's mother, Doris, was known for her pasta dishes &

especially her spaghetti. Doris was a stay-at-home mom who enjoyed raising her children and spoiling them at times.

"My mother used to give me an empty milk bottle and a nickel so I could fill it up with candy from the grocery store. Instead, I would buy as many cookies as I could. And believe me &

I could get a lot of cookies for a nickel back then. But then I would have no milk to go with the cookies."

Kenneth shared a room with his only brother, Warren, who is two years younger. Warren is now 86, a retired scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency who lives by himself in Annville, Mass. Although Warren is still married, Parkinson's disease has taken his wife away from him. The only time he gets to spend with her is during weekly visits to the local nursing home where she lives. The two brothers haven't seen each other in three years, but they still remain close through telephone conversations every few weeks.

"I had the most enjoyable time of my life the last time I saw Warren," says Kenneth. "We were fishing with Warren's son David, and we used hellgrammites which we found under rocks for bait, just as we had in our childhood."

His heroes ranged from his brother and father to gunslinger John Wayne, the United States' 34th President Dwight Eisenhower and famous cowboy Tom Mix. Kenneth wasn't much of a music fan, preferring opera to popular tunes. He remembers taking several young ladies to the opera and being told once that he resembled the actor Clark Gable.

"I thought about acting in Hollywood and I really thought I had a shot," he says. "But I never got around to trying out." Like Gable's role as Rhett Butler, Kenneth's dreams of being an actor were soon "Gone With the Wind."

Hard times

Not all of his memories are pleasant. At age 16, Kenneth was working in Vermont as a foreman in the Civilian Conservation Core and was cutting down a tree about a mile from camp. "I took one last chop with the axe and sliced right into my knee," he says. The doctor told him he would do everything he could to save his right leg. But he never said it wouldn't hurt. Gangrene set in and the pain was soon unbearable. Every few days the doctor would put a dab of ether on his wound and dig around with a chopstick-like wooden tool and swab underneath the flesh to clear the cut from puss and infection. "That was painful, but my legs have worked great ever since the accident." He laughs.

The biggest tragedy in his life came when his son, also named Kenneth, fell off a two-story balcony when he was just 17 months old. He hit his head on a cast-iron furnace and survived, but suffered substantial brain damage. Little by little Kenneth Jr. got worse. He died at age 37. Kenneth Sr. was crushed.

He also lost a sister six years ago. Betsy was 10 years younger than Kenneth &

a caring woman with four beautiful daughters. For reasons Kenneth says he will never understand, Betsy's boyfriend shot her and then turned the gun on himself.

As he sits and talks, his memories span the spectrum of life. At the age of 8, on a summer day in New Hampshire, Kenneth and his cousins were playing down by a local river. "Tijo's drowning! Tijo's drowning!" screamed Kenneth's cousin, Felix. From his place inside of his grandmother's boat house, Kenneth sprinted to Tijo's rescue, pulling him from the water and saving his life.

Kenneth's own life was saved years later by Cheechee, his youngest yellow lab. Kenneth had fallen asleep one night with hot water boiling on the stove for coffee he was going to brew. When smoke started rising Cheechee sensed something wasn't right, made his way into Kenneth's bedroom and started licking the palm of his hand until he awoke. Luckily, the fire was still in its early stages and no damage was done.

"Cheechee saved my house and my life too," Kenneth says with a smile.

Two of his sisters are still alive and he makes contact with them every now and again. Dorothy, 84, lives in Las Vegas and Lillian, 82, lives in Stanton, Calif.

"One of my fondest memories in my childhood was when I built toy cars for my three sisters and my brother Warren to play in," he says.

He's always been a whiz at fixing things. During his teenage years, Kenneth would attend his normal high school classes by day and take classes at a trade school by night. Soon enough he had his first job: working on cars at his high school. The enjoyment of taking something which was improperly running or broken and making it new intrigued him.

"A lot of kids my age were hanging out in gangs, but I was able to keep busy with mechanics," he says.

Living well

Fresh out of school Kenneth fell in love at the age of 19. Marion was 13 years older and the idea of marrying at such a young age didn't sit well with Kenneth's father. So, out of respect, Kenneth dated Marion for two years, until he was 21. They got married in front of 200 friends and family members at a Catholic church in Salem, Mass.

Like most men his age, Kenneth enlisted in the service to serve his country in World War II. After passing his apprenticeship test in South Ferry, N.Y., Kenneth served in the Army, Merchant Marines and the Coast Guard from 1942 to 1945. He started out transporting supplies and troops by the boatload to Europe and found his ability to fix things came in handy as he was the only machinist in the engine room.

While in England, Kenneth became a smalltime entrepreneur. He bought flints for a penny each then sold them all over Europe for two pennies a piece. While other troops were selling cigarettes, Kenneth was doubling his profit and making thousands of dollars on the side. "I seemed to always have flints on me," he says. "I stuffed them in my shoes, my socks, my hat."

The call finally came for his ship to make its way for combat, but halfway across the Mediterranean Sea, heading toward the Suez Canal, the troops were told the war was over. Kenneth says the only balloons the troops could inflate to celebrate were condoms they had onboard. The party began, and Kenneth was coming home.

He brought back a sense of adventure. Intrigued by the idea of flying, Kenneth bought his first plane, a metal Swift, for $1,200.

"I took five lessons at the Santa Ana airport, and fell in love with it," he says. He remembers flying over telephone lines and landing perfectly on the 600-foot runway each time. Before long Kenneth bought his second plane: a small-engine Clipper.

He satisfied his need for speed on the ground by riding motorcycles. His first was a German bike he fixed up on the ship he was stationed on during the war. He would buy different parts from different countries, and work on it while at sea. The German bike didn't quite do it for Kenneth; he soon traded it in for an American classic &

a Harley Davidson.

In 1945, after the war, Kenneth took off on his Harley "to see what the West Coast had to offer." From Massachusetts to California, Kenneth embarked on a journey which brought him a new way of living and a new outlook on life. He fell in love with southern California and moved to Riverside. He left behind his first wife, Marion.

Kenneth opened up his first automotive repair shop, Bargain Motors, in Santa Ana Calif. He met his second wife, Diane, when she brought in her son's car to get fixed. After the initial fixing, Diane wanted the faucet at her house to be fixed as well. When he arrived at her house Kenneth says he sensed she wanted more fixed than a faucet.

"We were walking out to the garage, and she looked ready to be kissed. So, I smacked her a good one on the lips," he says. "We were flying high in the air like a couple of birds."

They got married in Tustin, Calif., and moved to San Diego where Kenneth continued working on cars and took up scuba diving. The deepest Kenneth ever ventured was 60 feet during a dive in Point Loma, Calif. Although the great whites were gone for the day, he still remembers seeing sharks.

"I didn't have a ruler to measure them," he says.

Beneath the surface, Kenneth says he was in a world of his own &

a world with no interruptions.

In 1984, Kenneth retired and moved to southern Oregon with his wife after living in San Diego for 24 years. He liked the cooler air here and the chance to go hunting and fishing. He bought 15 acres and a few head of cattle, which he enjoyed taking care of.

"I used to give a loud whistle, and all of my steer would stampede towards me. They knew it was time to eat."


Like the daily whistle he used to give his steers, every morning at Linda Vista Kenneth's telephone rings. The voice on the other end is Charlie, an old fishing buddy and WWII veteran. Charlie lives in Medford and is blind in one eye and has diabetes, but he doesn't let that affect his determination to go fishing. They have their share of fish stories, but their favorite memory is reminiscent of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in a scene from "Grumpy Old Men."

As Kenneth tells it, the story started when Charlie took the anchor and threw it over the side of their fishing boat. The problem was that the anchor had never been connected. It sank to the bottom and was never seen again. Minutes passed, and the two got over the fact that their anchor had sunk into the murky depths of the lake. Soon, Charlie felt a bite on his "top of the line" rod reel. With all of his strength, he tried to reel the giant fish in. The fish wasted no time pulling Charlie's fishing pole out of his hand and into the water. Charlie not only lost the fish; he lost his fishing reel and his pole.

"I told him I would get my scuba gear and look for his reel someday," Kenneth says. "But I never got around to it."

Seafood is a must-have for the Massachusetts native. "Once I get out of here, I want to go to Hometown Buffet on popcorn shrimp night. This way I can eat as much as I want," he says.

The art of catching a meal himself intrigues Kenneth more than just grabbing a plate at a buffet along with 100 others. The fishing guru can't wait until the days he can hook a live one again.

"I would love to get out fishing and catch some trout at Howard Prairie," he says. "Then I would grill them up in the skillet."

Married for the past 29 years, the last three have proven to be the most difficult. Diane was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and her son Charlie (from her first marriage) took her to live with him and his sister in Texas.

"Charlie is nothing but a liar and a cheat," Kenneth says of his stepson.

Diane doesn't remember many things and is very limited by Charlie when it comes to talking with her husband.

"Charlie told me I'm supposed to call my wife every other Sunday from — to 5 in the afternoon," Kenneth says. "He's a crook; all he wants is our money. I hope he doesn't get a dime."

Although Kenneth has no family in Oregon, he has made good relationships with his neighbors. Doug Hoxmeier has lived next to Kenneth for almost 12 years.

"At first we had our typical neighbor problems, but lately I've found out what a remarkable man Kenneth is," Hoxmeier says.

It was Hoxmeier who insisted Kenneth move to Linda Vista.

"He couldn't get out of bed or go to the bathroom by himself anymore. I had to show Kenneth tough love under the circumstances."

The two have become close friends who both love to fish, boxed as younger men and flew airplanes.

Jeremy is another one of Kenneth's closest friends. A 46-year-old local glass-blower, Jeremy has handled Kenneth's mail while he is as Linda Vista, paid his bills and taken care of his dogs. "I think the world of him," Kenneth says. "He has such a kind heart. I wish he was my son."

After checking into Linda Vista, Kenneth learned who his true friends are. He knows the nurses, staff and med-aids have been there for him when he has needed it. Phone calls and visits from friends have helped put a smile back on his face.

Home again

He still contemplates his life, still reflects on his regrets and basks in his accomplishments. But since checking into Linda Vista, Kenneth has also improved his lifestyle, assessed his problems and regained his strength.

He still tells stories, but also performed a feat that amazed the other residents of Linda Vista this summer: He walked out the front doors and went home.

His months in the nursing home are now just another adventure on his long list. The World War II vet, the scuba diver, the pilot, the mechanic, the biker, the fisher, the entrepreneur, the husband and one-time loving father has a second chance to live his last years on his own piece of land. What he has learned is based on 88 years of experience, 88 years of joy and pain as well as 88 years of wisdom.

"Live life honestly," he says. "Be honest, follow a plan and find your road. Plan ahead, and follow it."

Oh, and don't give up hope. Kenneth remains humble after leaving Room 33 at Linda Vista and makes sure he hugs his two pals Cecil and Cheechee as often as he can. "They were so excited to see me. I didn't realize how happy they made me. I hope to enjoy another 10 years with them." He laughs. "I'll only be around 99."

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