They have known the violence and pain of long lives.
Clarence Davis, 75, survived World War II, then lost a leg to diabetes. Dorris Blue, 72, mothered 11 children; four died, two in Vietnam. Chlora Jones, who celebrated her 107th birthday recently, has outlived every member of her family.
Agnes Senegal, 80, and Minnie Lee Adams, 63, were living in Watts in 1965.
And just when they thought they had seen and survived it all, the world broke apart for 36 hours last week around these and 115 other residents of the Vermont Knoll Retirement Center at 83rd and Vermont--almost epicentral to the riots.
But the senior citizens refused to roll over.
Those who could walk and were willing to fight back formed a ring around their building and told looters not to set fires that might engulf the center. Some residents were pushed and one center employee was shoved to the ground. But, ultimately, the raiders obeyed. The retirement home was unscathed by the riots, while many businesses in the area were razed.
For a day and a half, the senior citizens--who could count about 5,000 years among them--held on without lights, telephones, a radio or hot food. Buildings burned on every corner and intersection surrounding the center. Gunfire was constant throughout the siege.
Center residents ate from cans and for three days slept on blankets on the lobby floor near the front door in case there was a fire. Would-be looters tried windows, climbed to the center's rooftop to fire automatic weapons and, in an apparent search for drugs, tried breaking steel doors protecting a clinic attached to the building.
Luther Johnson, 70, a tiny Jamaican, faced down a dozen men raiding a tropical fish store next door. "I told them not to set fire to the store because it was underneath apartments for the elderly," he said. "They said: 'No fire . . . no fire,' and kept to that."
The seniors held their fort until 3 a.m. Friday when the cavalry arrived--literally. Protecting the center were 12 National Guard members from the 1st Squadron, 18th Cavalry.
"We drove straight down Vermont for five miles of pitch black except for the smoldering light from fires," said Bravo Troop commander Capt. Alan Skidmore. "It was like going down the pirates of the Caribbean."
Most of the residents were in nightwear, sleeping on the lobby floor when Skidmore and his men arrived.
"There were cheers, then there were tears," he said.
The officer has no doubts about the outcome had his platoon not arrived: "In my view, it is a pretty likely assumption that had they (rioters) got in (the clinic), they would have burned the place and killed 60 people."
The residents practically adopted the soldiers, who were young enough to be their children or grandchildren.
"I don't remember any of their names," center manager Jewell Anderson said. "But I remember all of their faces . . . young faces with a lot of compassion and understanding for what we were going through."
The neat, modern, three-story center opened last year and houses 120 retirees in 86 units. Many residents were picked up by relatives soon after rioting began. But 63 remained.
"Some didn't have anyone to pick them up," Anderson said. "Others just flat refused to leave."
That included Senegal. She did not sleep in the lobby.
"Dark or not, I'm very comfortable in my apartment and I didn't want to sleep on the
hard floor," she said. "Besides, it takes a lot to scare me."
Manager Anderson said she telephoned police as shooting exploded about 4 p.m. Wednesday. "I called 911 but nobody answered," she said. "By 4:30 the streets were filled with looters and littered with dropped merchandise. By 5 p.m., we didn't even have phone service and suddenly we were in the middle of a war."
Anderson said that she telephoned police Friday to ask for a police escort for the delivery of hot meals from a senior citizen center in Newhall. "LAPD declined our request for an escort," she said. "It hurt my heart."
The National Guard arrived, she said, after center owners appealed through neighborhood churches to the offices of City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). By Tuesday the Guard had pulled away from the center and Mary Woods, 85--"Aunt Mary" to other residents--was complaining about not having any young men to hug. Another resident remembered being in her room at night and hearing the soldiers tramping on the roof as "summer raindrops that made it easier to sleep."
Although dispatched to other missions by Tuesday, the Guard continues to call. The troop has appointed itself the center's official doorknob shaker, making security passes around the building whenever in the area. Skidmore said there are plans for his unit to have an annual reunion with the residents.
But the neighborhood will never be the same. The small pleasure of daily walks to window-shop now take residents past gutted buildings and graffiti spawned by the violence.
Many of the senior citizens are depressed now, but Anderson said she knows her charges will recover. She saw their true spirit at work during the riots.
"And that spirit is what should be infectious to America," she said, "their love, their compassion, their courage.