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Veterans Home Is a Quiet Corner Far From Shot, Shell

Times Staff Writer

The two World War I Army veterans sat side by side at the 40th annual Veterans of Foreign Wars Picnic and engaged in lively conversation.

“You got some age on me,” Martin De Young said to Homer Holmes, who turned 100 last February. De Young celebrated his 100th birthday in May.

“How come you live so long?” Holmes asked his younger friend.

“It’s the cigars,” De Young laughed, puffing away and revealing a toothless smile. “Cigars are the greatest pleasure of my life now. I smoke three White Owls a day, one after each meal.”

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Asked if smoking isn’t dangerous to his health, De Young laughed again and replied: “You must be kidding. I’ve been smoking cigars 85 years.”

Both men are residents of the Veterans Home of California, which houses 1,275 veterans of both world wars, the Korean conflict and Vietnam. Widely heralded as the country club of America’s veterans homes, it is also the largest with a spacious park-like setting that includes putting greens, a theater, library, bowling alley, heated Olympic-size swimming pool, picnic grounds, fishing ponds and arts and crafts centers.

One of the oldest veterans homes in the country, it first opened to Civil War vets on April 1, 1884. The choice 910-acre Napa Valley parcel was purchased for $17,700, and is now embraced by vineyards and wineries.

The Spanish-Moorish buildings have been home to tens of thousands of veterans. De Young and Holmes are members of the Century Club, two of 117 veterans of World War I. Also here are 876 veterans of World War II, 215 who served in Korea and 67 Vietnam vets. Average age is 72.

There are 18 married couples (in some cases, spouses also are vets) and 130 women. Until the early 1950s, only male vets were eligible to reside at the home. Applicants must have served in the military during wartime, be old or disabled and have lived in California at least five years. For those with no income, room and board is free; others pay on a sliding scale, with a $900-per-month ceiling. There is a waiting list.

Picnics given by the VFW, American Legion, AmVets and Disabled American Veterans are traditional events at veterans homes across the country.

But William McMenamie, at 102 the oldest veteran here, opted not to go to the VFW picnic on a recent Sunday afternoon, one of the “big treats” of the year, residents say.

“Forget it. I don’t like picnics,” he told a VFW member who stopped by to take McMenamie to the band concert and lunch prepared by the VFW auxiliary.

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McMenamie has a stubborn streak. When asked to cut the ribbon at the dedication of the home’s new $9.5-million hospital wing, he retorted: “I’m too busy. I’m afraid you’ll have to ask someone else. Since I became the oldest resident you always seem to have something for me to do.”

He is the home’s ancient mariner. A licensed engineer at the age of 21, McMenamie renewed his chief engineering license on his 100th birthday, making him the oldest maritime ticket holder in the U.S. He served in both World War I and World War II.

More than 400 California VFW and VFW Auxiliary members recently visited the home for the picnic and to distribute gift packages and “chits” for goodies.

James Rowoldt, 44, came from North Hollywood. A Vietnam veteran who fought at Long Binh, Rowoldt is state commander of the 103,000 VFW members in 500 posts throughout the state.

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“This is always a special day for the VFW and a special day for the veterans here at the home. We’re here to honor the retired and disabled vets, to renew acquaintances and to show them a good time,” Rowoldt said.

Battle Zones Overseas

Marion Davies, 59, Jean Clark, 58, and Molly Burton, 68, wives of World War II veterans who served in battle zones overseas, drove to the picnic from Placerville. Their car was loaded with salads, hamburgers, hot dogs and dessert as well as 11 lounging robes they made for residents of the home.

Visitors and residents sat at the picnic table swapping war stories. Residents Joe Meiers, 65, and Herbert Garrison, 67, were joined by Lloyd Funkner, 69, and Fred Droneske, 75, who came here from Citrus Heights, as they have for nine previous VFW picnics. All four men served in the Pacific during World War II.

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Several VFW overseas caps were maroon in color, signifying a member of a prisoner-of-war chapter. California has 42 VFW prisoner-of-war chapters, said Bob Caruth, 63, of Redding, who was a prisoner of the North Koreans at Chang-Song.

Caruth said American prisoners of war are still living in North Korea. “I’m going to North Korea later this year with several others to meet with North Korean officials to try to find out about them,” he said.

Mildred Wallace, 67, came from Novato. She used to make the annual pilgrimage with her late husband George, who died two years ago. He was an Army Air Corp pilot in the China-Burma-India theater.

From Red Bluff came retired schoolteacher Ernie Sanford, 62, of the 32nd Army Infantry Division, a Wisconsin National Guard unit that spent 365 days of solid combat in World War II and saw its ranks decimated.

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Spending the Day

“The veterans at the home love company and members of the VFW, like myself, have a ball coming here spending the day with them at this picnic,” Sanford said.

Resident Catherine Ashby, 68, a first lieutenant in the Army Nurse’s Corp, served in France, Germany and Africa during World War II. Now in a wheelchair because of arthritis, Ashby works in the library as part of the home’s employment program.

“It’s amazing how many members of the VFW, the American Legion, the AmVets and other veteran organizations care about the veterans here, " said Ashby, who moved to the home 4 1/2 years ago, after her husband’s death. “Members of the veterans groups constantly go out of their way to make our life more pleasant. Bingo parties. Visiting those confined to beds in the hospital. Bringing gifts. Holiday parties. They never forget. . . .”

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