Not fading away 

The 2005 holiday season was very different from what 81-year-old John J. Morrison, a retired longshoreman, experienced the previous year.

Although he enjoyed Thanksgiving Day at home with his family, he spent Christmas and the bulk of the holiday season with what might be called his new adopted family at the Tara Nursing Home in Thunderbolt.

The plan had actually been for Morrison to go home for Christmas as well. However, when his 78-year-old wife Gladys suffered a fractured hip and was rushed to the hospital on Christmas Eve, those plans were canceled.

The adjustment Morrison had to make from the privileges of living independently to residing in a nursing facility is one that more and more Americans have to make every year. Advances in healthcare and more active lifestyles have allowed many of the country’s nearly 37 million senior citizens to maintain independence by receiving assistance in private residencies.

However, the American Health Care Association estimates that some 45 percent of those 65 and older will likely spend extended periods of time -- anywhere from three months to five years or more -- in a nursing care facility.

Even in a year without the depressing super-catastrophes of tsunamis, hurricanes and war that marked 2005, residents in nursing homes can find themselves giving in to the blues rather than celebrating cheerfully during special occasions.

As the resident director of social services at Tara, Sue Gahagan is charged with insuring the “psychosocial well-being” of the home’s residents, family members, and staff. Both she and James Hardy, the facility’s administrator, acknowledge that the change from independence to dependence can prove very challenging.

Residents receive some relief from those challenges with increased visits from family members and friends, the exchange of gifts, special meals, and other activities.

However, says Gahagan, “It’s important to remember that our residents are here throughout the year and can always benefit from positive interaction with the community.”

While such interaction allows residents to remain connected to the larger community, Gahagan notes that it also allows members of the community to benefit from learning the stories of the residents’ lives.

“That’s probably the part of my job that, if it isn’t at the top of what I enjoy most, it’s very near the top, and that’s sharing people’s stories. They have a lot to teach us,” she says.

In the case of John Morrison, he does indeed have a lot to teach. Few would assume so watching him maneuver his way down the corridors of the Tara, steering his wheelchair with one hand and balancing a cup of ice cream with the other.

Born in Charlotte, N.C., on Oct. 11, 1924, Morrison grew up in Savannah, Philadelphia, and New York City.

Ask about his life as a teenager in the late 1930s and one receives the startling answer that Morrison joined the U.S. Army at the age of 15! By the time he was 25, he had participated in at least two major American World War II military operations in two very different parts of the world.

As a member of the all African-American 388th Battalion/Engineer General Service Regiment, Morrison was among those who provided critical support for the construction of the Alaska-Canada (or Alcan) Highway.

Considered one of the great engineering feats of modern history, the highway stretches 1,619 miles. It was built in less than a year by seven U.S. Army regiments consisting of approximately 10,607 engineers, or soldiers, total.

At a cost of $110 million, the finished product included some 133 bridges. The highway runs from Canada’s Dawson Creek to just outside Fairbanks, Alaska, at Delta Junction.

“We were all over Canada, building roads and transporting fuel,” says Morrison, who drove jeeps, trucks, and other vehicles to transport supplies and personnel.

As a transportation specialist, he was true to his regiment’s motto: “Hic Et ubique,” which means “Here and Everywhere.”

During that time of his life, he was nicknamed “Pee Wee.” Morrison’s role in building the highway was as a member of the team that constructed the Canadian Oil Pipeline, which provided fuel for the massive operation as well as for U.S. bases in Alaska.

Previously, the fuel had been brought in by ship across the Pacific. However, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and its invasion of the Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan coast on June 3, 1942, convinced the U.S. to secure an oil source that would not be vulnerable to enemy attack. The government found that source in the oil fields of Canada’s Northwestern Territories.

“The soldiers in my regiment could do all kinds of things,” says Morrison, or Pee Wee. “They built houses, hospitals, schools, stores, whatever was needed.”

Listening to Morrison speak, it sounds simple. But building the facilities he describes also entailed clearing miles of untamed wilderness, creating pathways where none existed.

Ironically, because Morrison was part of an all African-American unit –– with the exception of white commanding officers –– his own shelter in Canada consisted of a “pup tent” that barely insured survival. Being the young soldier that he was, he took it all in military stride.

Among Morrison’s favorite memories from that period is coming upon a bear cub whose mother had died.

“We took the bear back to camp and adopted it as a kind of pet,” he says. “It always wanted to hug somebody -- which I didn’t too much care for -- but he wouldn’t leave you alone until you gave him a hug.”

The Canadian Oil Pipeline on which Morrison worked became the first major pipeline in North America, and during the war carried fuel over 600 miles. After serving in Canada for almost a year, Morrison returned with his regiment to the United States.

They soon shipped out again. Morrison’s assignment this time took him and the 388th to England, and then France, where they participated in the deadly and crucial Battle of Normandy in France.

Morrison was scheduled to arrive on France’s Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Although he was spared the bloody chaos of D-Day, his regiment landed several days later while fighting was still in progress and dead bodies floated on the waves.

“I had to walk through the water holding my gun over my head,” he recalls. “On the beach, we had a hundred yards between us and enemy fire. It wasn’t easy but we did what we had to do.”

Morrison jokes that he spent his Christmases in Europe “trying to run and hide. We celebrated as much we could but it was wartime so it was dangerous. Usually we would have C rations out in the field, but on Christmas the whole regiment would get a Christmas dinner with real turkey.”

In 1945, he spent the final months of his military career as a prison camp guard. Ironically, he befriended one German officer prisoner, named Wilhelm, whom he would later get to know under very different circumstances.

After leaving the military with a bronze American Campaign medal commemorating his wartime service, Morrison worked a number of years in Philadelphia and New York City.

It was in New York that he re-united with a childhood friend from Savannah named Gladys James. The two married in New York before eventually settling back in Savannah, where he began working as a longshoreman.

To his surprise, Morrison was at work one day when he met the former German officer who had been his prisoner during the war. With the conflict long ended, the former prisoner Wilhelm had started making annual trips to Savannah as part of the crew on a cargo ship.

“He came off that ship, walked right up to me and said, ‘How you doing, Pee Wee?’ We got to be good friends,” Morrison remembers.

“I would send him things from Savannah for his wife and family and he would send me things from Germany for my wife and family. I would see him every year around Christmas time ‘cause they’d be bringing in German products for the holidays,” he says.

“Then his shipping route got changed and I didn’t see him anymore.”

Morrison remained a longshoreman for 35 years. Reflecting on the 81 years of his life, he notes, “I’ve seen some beautiful things and I’ve seen some ugly things. I’ve lived on the good side of the knife and the bad.”

The “good side of the knife” includes childhood memories of families that seemed to him more supportive of one another and their communities than what he sees now. He laments what appears to him as increasing violence, not only between countries but between communities and individuals.

For that reason, he hopes “to see people get together more than they do, and love each other like human beings instead of attacking each other like animals.”

Although Tara Nursing Home administrator James Hardy can’t promise Morrison an end to violence or apathy in the world, he is doing something to acknowledge the veteran’s battle for freedom and peace during World War II.

Upon learning that Morrison’s name had not been entered into the National World War II Registry of Veterans, he agreed to submit the appropriate information so that Morrison’s contributions and legacy are not forgotten.

“That’s a small gift to him from us,” says Hardy, an Air Force veteran himself. “After everything he’s done for everybody else, he deserves it.”

Aberjhani is co-author of the award-winning Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and the author of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry.

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