Raymond Smith is what they call a natural born storyteller. If you were to put him alone in an empty room for an hour, after he came out, he’d tell you a story about what happened in there. And it would be a good story, probably one that would leave you both chuckling.
He starts by saying he’s going to tell me two stories about his 1921 birth in Brownsburg, Ind., but that the first story is “not for print.” After he tells that story, a funny one whose only fault is that it’s either true or not true, he proceeds to say that on the east side of Brownsburg, there’s a bronze plaque inscribed: Raymond Smith was born here. “You can print THAT one because it’s a COMPLETE lie!” He finds that idea funny, and so do I.
Ray says the place he was born was not exactly a farm, it was only a couple of acres and, like lots of folks did back then, his folks kept animals and a garden so they could supply the family with food. This subject causes Ray to remember his grandpa on his mother’s side, a man who was an excellent carpenter and who also farmed 40 acres.
“He never cussed,” says Ray. There’s a pause.
Then Ray says, “I have to change that a little.” Another pause. “Grandpa had three Jersey cows. His son-in-law, my Uncle Carl, he raised Holstein cattle but Grandpa liked the Jerseys because their milk is rich and he liked rich milk. But after a while Uncle Carl somehow managed to talk Grandpa into buying a Holstein, which is much larger than a Jersey cow.
I was out in the barn this one day when Grandpa was getting ready to milk. He was in between the Holstein and one of the Jerseys when the Holstein sidestepped onto Grandpa’s foot. Grandpa hauled off and walloped the Holstein on the side and shouted, ‘Get off me, you big #*%&!’
Then Grandpa saw me standing there and he said, ‘What you just heard you didn’t hear and you won’t hear any more.’ ”
We reflect on that for a minute, then I ask Ray if that’s a story we can print. He laughs and allows that it’s probably OK because “everyone who would care is dead now . . . even the cow.”
When Ray was six years old, the family moved to Indianapolis, where Ray went to grade school and later learned printing at Emmerick Manual Training High School. Emmerick was built in the shape of a triangle, and the front point was a filling station where boys were taught to gas up and service cars as well as to keep track of money. Just behind the gas station was a forge where students learned to make small items likes knives and hinges.
Ray didn’t have anything to do with the gas station or the forge. “I studied printing.” He pauses and smiles, then adds, “Chased girls. That’s something that started in my childhood and hasn’t changed in 80 years.” Pause. “Make that 88 years. I forget that second 8 sometimes!”
Ray got married at the age of 20, and he has some stories to go along with that event. The way he describes meeting his wife, he was getting ready to go to work one day when his brother came in with a girl he was dating. Ray stopped what he was doing while the introductions were made, greeted the girl (of course!) and then, because he had to get to work, went back to getting ready. His watch had been sitting on a stand in the room where everyone was gathered, and now it was gone! Not there! Then the girl – her name was Edith — promptly offered it up and playfully admitted to “stealing” it. Things took off from there and, after a few more stories, Ray and Edith were married.
Not long after, on the morning of December 7, 1941, Ray was waiting to hear from the owner of a grocery store he was hoping to buy. Instead, he heard the news: Pearl Harbor had been bombed. He knew right away that he’d be called to war; instead of taking over a grocery store, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force (as it was then called), got his pilot’s wings and began flying B-25s.
“They kept me Stateside, patrolling the Gulf side of Texas. The planes had no guns, no bombs, they were stripped down B-25 bombers. If we saw anything in the Gulf, subs or anything, we’d radio the Coast Guard and they’d take care of it.” It turns out that there were a number of German submarines cruising in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico during the war, but not many people knew it at the time and plenty don’t know it now.
After the war, Ray and Edith moved to Roachdale, Indiana where Ray went into the grocery business with Edith’s father and brother. One day a neighbor walked into the store and asked Ray how much money he was making. “I don’t remember now what the figure was, but I knew then, and I told him.
He said, ‘How would you like to double that?’ and when I asked him how I would do that, he told me to go to Indianapolis and apply at Allison Engineering to be an inspector. I said I didn’t know how to be any kind of inspector and he said, ‘We’ll train you, and I’ll be your boss.’ “
Ray interrupts his story with an aside: “All I knew at the time was flying and girls. I still remember the flying but I can’t catch the girls any more. And if I did, I wouldn’t know what to do with them!”
Ray had a 25 year career with Allison Engineering, afterwards retiring to Florida where he made his home to the east of Ocala until he was widowed. At that point, his daughter Sherry, who visits him regularly and shares his warm and witty disposition, convinced him to move nearer to her home in the Williston area.
Four months ago Ray broke a hip and was admitted to Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center where he has been recovering, exercising and starting to walk again. “Yesterday I walked the length of the building, out the front door, around the parking lot, and back again,” he announced. He’s pleased with his stay at the nursing center and says he has no complaints.
While we’re talking, his lunch tray is delivered by a staff member who looks as happy to see him as he is to see her. They banter for a minute and when she leaves, he turns to me and says, “They’re all so nice to me. If I go down the hall, any one of them I asked would give me a hug or a kiss.”
This from the man who sums up his 88 years of experience with this advice: Live it up to the fullest and don’t be afraid to take chances!
If you or someone you know enjoys listening to or swapping stories, you’d have a fine time visiting with Raymond Smith. Please call to make arrangements through Activities Director Penny Moore or Social Worker Carmen Wagner at Williston Rehab & Nursing Center at 352 528 3561. Williston Rehab is located at 300 NW 1st Avenue, behind Hardees.
Raymond Smith was photographed by Donna Mitchell, who also interviewed him and wrote this article. Donna is the Community Liaison for Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center as well as Parklands Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Gainesville; she also serves on the board of Friends Across the Ages (AcrossTheAges.org), a Gainesville organization whose volunteers make friends with people living in nursing homes.