As Time Goes By

Last night I had the opportunity to visit with Parker’s grandfather. In Central Pennsylvania we more often not call these folks “Pap.” Pap Am (aka Don Ammerman) is 91 years old. He still drives but not so much at night. We sat around the dining room table for awhile after everyone else had dispersed.

I had asked him at dinner if he still walked every day, something he has now done for over thirty years. Now he sat and told me how much he attributes his continued good health to this daily habit. The same stalwart friend who has met him every one of those mornings except for the ones that are under 20 degrees when he sometimes even ventures out alone for a short distance. They walk 3 miles through a development and down a road with no sidewalks. They welcome other friends to join them and some have but no one has had the staying power of the first two. At 91, Pap admitted it’s getting harder to keep up with his 71 year old friend. “I tell my body to do the same things,” he said. “It just takes longer now.”

In their family, Pap’s good health is the stuff of legend. How does he stay so sharp and healthy? Is it in the genes? Is it something he eats? A few years ago when it was shared that Pap drinks apple cider vinegar and honey every morning, it caught on throughout the family for awhile as a possible elixir of eternal youth. Asked about it now, Pap replies, “Oh I got out of the habit of doing that.”

Last night he told me he got started walking every day when he walked to work. For nearly his entire working life, after his military service in Texas, cracking four eggs at a time at the end of WWII, he was employed by the West Penn Power coal plant that served Milesburg, PA and the surrounding area. In the vast scheme of humans, it was a short-lived endeavor, a coal plant so close to town it occasionally covered the place in a fine layer of soot.

After the war he moved back to Milesburg where his now a few years gone sweetheart Joyce grew up. He grew up in Bellefonte, which is a short trip by car today but then it was a long walk he remembered making to her house many a time. After they married, he trained as a machinist and spent awhile commuting by bus to State College. As soon as he heard the plant was hiring he applied and worked his way through the ranks over the years, eventually becoming the superintendent charged with maintaining the place as it was shuttered and eventually demolished. He told me about watching them pour the 250 foot tall concrete and brick smoke tower with a slip form mold, and he told me about watching from a distance as it was knocked down with a great ground shudder and dirt cloud.

He drove his car the 3/4 mile every day to work until he said he got sick of paying for a new muffler every six months. Apparently the car would warm up but not enough on the short drives across the bridge and over the river, which resulted he said in frequent holes in the muffler that failed to pass the state inspection. So, he decided to start walking to work and did for decades. He said it got a lot quicker when he found a shortcut across the railroad ties. Although he said it did get interesting a couple times crossing the trestles with the train coming.

It turns out he had also taken the trains we had taken only 50-60 years earlier. We talked about the differences between then and now and the fact that it used to be possible to get as close to our Bald Eagle Valley as Bellefonte by passenger train.

With nearly every change I have found there is something lost and something gained. Today the boys and I had a blast curving through the Pennsylvania hills in the Thompson’s Honda Accord (which has over 300,000 miles!). Noam was as excited as if he was on a roller coaster, shouting “whee!” in the back seat. Driving is fun. And there is no way of getting from Howard to the uncles’ house in State College by public transit that I know of. The opening of major highways cut the drive times from our valley to the University by a significant amount. But it also meant there was less need for rail and bus transport.

Pap Am has seen these changes happen. In some ways, what we’re trying to do by lightening up our car usage harkens back to an earlier time and reconsiders what was lost and what was gained by mass converting to the car as a primary means of transportation. For me, it’s fun to consider how something that might be thought of as new is really something from an era gone by, reimagined for the times in which we live now.

I don’t know if active transportation will give either Parker or I Pap Am levels of health into our 90s (though it might). I’m just hopeful that it will make whatever years we have more enjoyable. Last night’s conversation about walking to work in another era was a good start.


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