By Jaya McSharma

John Carpenter is amazing.

A blend of old and new, past and present, with an ever hopeful eye towards the future, this World War II veteran radiates with dynamic personality.

His Shreveport house betrays a few things, which catch my eye: a penchant for adhered-to regimens, a love of any reason to celebrate and a wall full of multi-generational smiles fit for a patriarchal king.
I notice a sign in the kitchen proclaiming, “breathing treatment times so that no dose of medicine is missed to keep his lungs in optimal shape. A poster lying on the washer has “laundry days” scrawled on it. A home health nurse flitters in and out as called and is the only suggestion that this man, a hero who helped bring down the Nazis, is anything but completely independent at 102 years of age.

“To what do you credit your good health?” I ask, predictably. “The good Lord, baby.”

John Carpenter

John Carpenter was born on Sept. 18, 1914 in Minnesota at a university hospital. He tells me he was the middle of seven children, “three girls, three boys and me.” His father worked on the railroad and was killed in an accident when Carpenter was just 4-years-old.

“Dachau. It was a prison camp outside of Munich. 30,000 people. We saw the gas chambers. We saw the conveyor belt.”

His teacher rode a horse to school and taught 65 kids. His family didn’t have electricity until he was 26. And after all this time, he remembers that his childhood dog “was Rex, and [that] he was the best dog ever. Believe it or not, I remember that.”

When I ask him if he’s been to the World War II museum in New Orleans, he matter-of-factly responds, “Not yet,” devoid of an ounce of pessimism that his age or health would prevent him from doing so.
Carpenter moved to Barksdale Air Force Base (then Barksdale Field) in 1935 as part of Battery A in the 1st Field Artillery. “I wanted to be a pilot,” he said. “But there was no Air Force back then, so you had to join the Army to get in the sky. I wanted to fly like a bird.” (Coincidentally, the Air Force and our would-be pilot share the same birthdate — just 33 years apart.)

He has been a “converted Yankee” ever since. “I did go back to Ohio for my 50th high school reunion.” He notes that out of his graduating class of 16, 13 attended the reunion.

As it turns out, he did learn to fly among the birds, but in his last week of flight training, “I hit a tree. My face got cut up, they took me to the hospital, and there was no more flying after that,” even though he was still ranked 13 out of a class of 75.

He was honorably discharged from the Army and attended Centenary College for two years with his eye on a degree in business.

But then the Second World War started, and it was back to Barksdale.

“I got drafted, and off to England I went.”
“What was it like there?”

Carpenter recalls his deployment with remarkable accuracy — remarkable not for a 102-year-old, but for anyone, considering it has been over 70 years since the events occurred. “I deployed Oct. 27, 1943. My first child, my daughter Abby, was born while I was waiting in New York to go overseas. We spent five days on the Queen Mary, 16,000 men,” he said. “And I was sick to my stomach for every minute of it.”

When they hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, he was expected to take the lead. “Many of the men were 15 or 16-years-old, and here I was the oldest at 29. Some of them had lied about their ages to be there. It was rough. We lost all of our officers on the first day.”

“Who else survived out of your unit?”
“No one.”

Two years later, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in a combat zone.
He’s also the recipient of the EAMETO Medal (EAME stands for European-African-Middle Eastern campaigns and was created by Franklin D. Roosevelt by executive order in 1942) as well as the Good Conduct Medal, one of the oldest honors bestowed by the military. It is given to active-duty members for three years or more of “honorable and faithful service.”

He proudly displays all three medals on a bookshelf behind his Christmas tree, which his health care worker Angela notes he has no intention of taking down anytime soon. “Mr. John loves everything, every holiday, every reason to celebrate,” she notes affectionately, pointing to the beaucoup of Mardi Gras beads hanging between the tree and his medals.

I ask him what it was like after he returned.
“Aug. 8, 1945,” he recalls. “Difficult. It was difficult.”

“What was the hardest part?”
“I couldn’t get used to all the noise. Fourth of July, Christmas. It would bring it all back. I would dream about being back on the battlefield.”

“What kind of support did you get for that from the government or the military?”
“Nothing. There was nothing.”

Not wanting to harp on bad memories, I still cave into the urge to ask one more war-related question.

“Is there any moment that sticks out for you, besides D-Day, from your time there?”
“Dachau. It was a prison camp outside of Munich. 30,000 people. We saw the gas chambers. We saw the conveyor belt.”

He leaves the topic there.

Carpenter then invites us to the living room to watch a DVD of him receiving the French Legion of Honor. In my peripheral vision, I observe him help himself from his motorized wheelchair to his recliner. He requires little assistance from Angela.

His living room wall is plastered with pictures from generations of toothy grins and smiling faces, all descendants of varying ages. The wall is devoted entirely to happy memories, old and newer. Phone numbers of daughters and grandchildren are scratched in their handwriting with notes on the kitchen top. A poster of pictures above the television reads, “Remember when…”

One of his daughters actually walks in before the DVD begins. After I introduce myself and my purpose for being in her father’s living room, she smiles knowingly; this isn’t his first interview rodeo. He is loved as much as he is revered, probably even more so. I suspect that’s the way he prefers it.

There is a newer flatscreen sitting atop an older box television, now defunct but clearly not going anywhere as it physically supports the newer technology. Somehow it tells me exactly the kind of man he is.

The DVD begins. The French Legion of Honor is the highest order in France for merits both civil and military. It was established in 1802, the speaker notes, by Napoleon Bonaparte, to highlight extraordinary measures done by “ordinary people,” or those not necessarily born to nobility.

Carpenter received the distinction of Chevalier, or Knight, mandated by President Holland. The award was given to him at a ceremony in his honor at Barksdale three years ago since he could not make the trip tow New Orleans at the time.

“So you’re a French knight, Mr. John?”
“I guess so. You should probably call me Sir Carpenter from now on.”

I know he’s joking, but it is still gratifying to see him unsuccessfully stifle a smirk; his eyes can’t hide the glee of an almost perfectly executed deadpanned joke.

“You must have felt pretty good here, huh?” I ask as the camera zooms in on his 99-year-old face listening to a long list of commendations describing him.
“Yeah….but really I was just tired and wanted to go home.”
Angela pats him on the head affectionately as he instinctively reaches up to grab her hand and gives it a squeeze. They hold hands while she takes his blood pressure.

Before we leave, he motions for me to come to his den where he shows me his computer.
“That’s a nice computer,” I say, honestly. “Did you want me to turn it on to see something?”
“No. Just wanted you to see it.”

Trying not to get washed away in his sea of adorable, I ask the next question with as little triteness as possible: “So is there a particular invention over time that has been your favorite?”
He wordlessly leaves the room, and I think he hasn’t heard the question, until I hear, “Alexa, what’s the temperature today?”

I laugh and stare a little open-mouthed as Alexa, Amazon’s virtual personal assistant, gives her answer through the speaker. I hadn’t yet seen one in person.

For a man who has lived over a century, I shouldn’t be surprised at his skills of adaptation, but I am. He is not your typical senior citizen, awash in the stereotype of lingering in the past so long that the present passes him by.

He is a blend of old and new, past and present, with an ever-hopeful eye towards the future.
John Carpenter is amazing.
“Alexa, play Tom Dooley.”