For 97 years, unplanned life has worked out well
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ninety-seven years. That's a lot to look back on. From kerosene lamps on the farm of his boyhood to the computer on his desk and the cellphone clipped to his belt, Mort Talbott has witnessed a world of change.
Through it all, he tried his best to live a decent and dignified life, what some might call an ordinary life, the special kind of life that built the backbone of America.
He knows about farm work. Doing repairs around his mother's boardinghouse led to his vocation as a master electrician. He served his country in World War II. He reared two children in the home he bought in Kanawha City in 1947, his residence to this day.
As a hobby, he grew orchids. For more than two decades, up into his 90s, he worked as a hospice volunteer.
St. Peter surely waits up there with a bright star for Morton Talbott's crown.
"I was born in Clarksburg. When I was 2 or 3, my mother bought a 16-acre farm. We burned coal in the kitchen stove and in the fireplace for heat. Laundry was done in a washtub with a washboard. We got water from a hand-dug well and heated it on the stove.
"There was a smokehouse in the backyard to salt and smoke meat to preserve it for winter. We preserved potatoes in a mound of earth lined with straw and covered with tarpaper. In the summer, we put food in a bucket and lowered it in the well just above the water to keep it cool.
"My parents divorced when I was 7. My mother usually worked as a cook for workers in logging camps and sawmills, so we moved around.
"My mother came down here when I was 14 because business was better here. In Clarksburg there was no work, nothing going on. It was in the Depression.
"My mother bought a rooming house here on the corner of State Street and Laidley. State is Lee now. Workers who wanted a place to sleep rented rooms there. The back part was an apartment, and that's where we lived.
"We didn't have a car, but I could walk about anywhere I wanted to go. We were only two blocks from Capitol Street. And they had streetcars.
"My brother and I would gather up discarded soft drink bottles and return them for the 1-cent deposit. Fifteen bottles would get us a dime to go to the Lyric Theater. I saw a lot of westerns at the Lyric.
"I wanted to be an electrician. I did all the chores and electrical work around the boardinghouse. I would read and experiment to learn about electrical things until I finally took a course.
"I'd been going to a country school where they had eight grades in one room. In Charleston, I went to Thomas Jefferson Junior High, then to Charleston High. It was over on Washington Street then. I graduated in 1935. My senior year, I would get up at 4 a.m. and pass papers, The Charleston Gazette.
"Right after high school, I worked at the Rose City Cafeteria. I started out washing dishes for $10 a week and meals. The baker showed me how to prepare his work, so when he went on vacation, I'd be the baker. The short order cook wanted to go on vacation, so he showed me around and I did a little short order cooking. I was there maybe three years.
"I went to night school to be an electrician and then went to Fort Bragg, N.C., to work. A construction company was building barracks there and needed electricians. We found that all the unemployed people had rushed in and were hired as craftsmen. They hired us as helpers for less pay. I worked with two 'electricians' who didn't know how to connect three-way switches. We did it for them and we all kept our jobs.
"I came back and worked for Western Electric at night installing telephone equipment.
"When the war started, I didn't want to be drafted because the Army would just put me to shoveling coal or something. I wanted to stay with my trade as an electrician. So I enlisted in the Navy and got second-class electrician's mate. While I was in the Pacific, I made chief, the equivalent to master sergeant.
"I was on a troop transport. We would take the troops in and land them on the beaches. Up at Okinawa, there was a suicide plane headed right for our ship. Our ship and the one next to us both opened fire and he was hit. When we hit him, he went down between the two ships. They tried to rescue him but the Japanese code was death, so he swam out to sea.
"I left my ship on the West Coast and went to a receiving station to wait for transportation. I was going to take a course in gyro-compasses and it was clear on the East Coast. While I was waiting, the war ended.
"I got back on with Western Electric. I had to be traveling all the time. I had a wife and baby, and I was on the road 90 percent of the time.
"I had a friend in the heating and cooling business, so I took a job with him at less money to get away from traveling. I was there about a year when Carbide hired me. It was a busy place. They had half a dozen units with maybe 100 people in each unit. I had a little shop near the main office and traveled all over the plant repairing speaker systems and fire alarm systems.
"After 27 years with Carbide, I retired in '72 or '73.
"We bought this house in 1947. Before houses were built on Chesterfield Avenue, we were on the edge of civilization. The street was only paved one block past my house.
"While I was at Carbide, I met some people who were growing orchids, and I joined an orchid club. I had a greenhouse filled with orchids out there in the yard. I loved the pretty blooms, but it was a fair amount of work. I'd sell a few and gave some away.
"When I had just six of my favorites left, I kept them in the bay window of the dining room. In 2010, the last of my orchids died.
"I went to helping out with Hospice and stayed with them for 20 years. I visited patients and ran errands. I visited homes a lot.
"I've done some traveling -- two trips to west coast on the train and a trip to the west coast on a plane. I've been all over the Pacific, back and forth across the equator and the International dateline.
"I've seen a lot of change. When I came to Charleston, they didn't have radios like they have now. When I was about 15, I built a little crystal set with earphones. I got it to work several times.
"A few years later, I took a correspondence course in radio repair. Then I went to a place where they sold radios. People would trade in their old radios, so I bought one of the old trade-ins and repaired it so it was good as new. I think I paid $5 and got a nice console radio.
"We got our first TV in 1953, a 17-inch black and white.
"I worked at McFadden Ignition installing radios in cars. I did the antennas. At that time, they were under the running boards. They'd run the car on the pit, and I would go under there and install the antenna.
"I watch a good bit of TV, mainly 'Andy Griffith' reruns and 'Texas Ranger.' I use the computer some, but I have to ask my son for advice now and then. And I've got a cellphone right here on my belt.
"I lost my wife in 1987, but I'm getting along. I'm surprised I've lived this long. Except for this left knee, I'm fine. I've enjoyed my life. I can't think of anything I'd do differently. I just kind of planned as I went." Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.