At 97, World War II fighter pilot Mel Hays is still leading his crew home
By TOM HALLMAN JR. | The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. | Published: October 11, 2019
PORTLAND, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — All his life, Mel Hays was a man with a mission. He’d finish one and move onto the next. These were not jobs or tasks, but something from which he discovered purpose and meaning.
And then – at age 93 — he lost it in a world that too often has little use for those marking time in their twilight years.
Four years earlier, his wife of 68 years died, and he left Grants Pass and moved to the Portland area to live with his daughter, Barb Johnson, and her husband, Mark. Then it was time to transition to a small apartment in a Washington County senior living community, Laurel Parc at Bethany Village.
While he wasn’t mentally failing, his body had betrayed him. Hays had undergone multiple surgeries. He had back and heart problems. A World War II fighter pilot with the Army Air Forces, Hays had flown 35 combat missions, survived a crash landing and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Now, Hays could no longer walk. The pain in his legs was excruciating and he had little sensation in his feet. To get around, the once athletic man required a sit-down mobility scooter.
His favorite song, “My Way,” embodied his spirit, and he didn’t want to live in a retirement and assisted living community. He so often asked his daughter why he was still alive that she gave him two books — “Half Full: Meditations on Hope, Optimism, and the Things That Matter” and “Living With Purpose in a Worn-out Body” – along with a handwritten note.
My greatest wish for you is that someday you see your glass half full. I hope you will read a page a day & see your glass a little fuller. Life is what you make it! I love you with all my heart, Barb.”
He barely glanced at the books.
Hays, who’d never wanted to be what he called an “old fart,” accepted his fate, knowing how his long life would end.
He was wrong.
While puttering through the Laurel Parc lobby on his scooter one afternoon he noticed a man with an upscale model scooter. Hays introduced himself to Ole and Bert Barker, a couple in their 90s who’d lived there for several years. Ole Barker said her husband, who had early-stage dementia, longed to leave the building for something other than doctor’s appointments.
On the spot, Hays made a decision, telling Ole Barker to have her husband in the lobby the next day. Hays offered to take him outside and ride with him around the neighborhood on their scooters.
During the 30-minute jaunt, Bert Barker told Hays he savored the scenery and fresh air, how good it felt — if only for a moment — to be free. Two days later, Hays took Barker out for a second ride.
That night, Hays thought about other residents with scooters. While he liked the amenities, food and staff at Laurel Parc, it could also be a velvet coffin.
What could he do to change it?
During World War II, Hays’ mission was to protect allied bombers. He studied air routes and enemy tactics. The men who flew those bombers depended on him. After every successful trip, Hays quietly uttered four words to himself: I got them home. Now, sitting in his apartment, Hays had a crazy plan to start a scooter club for residents. He’d lead the group, find a safe route and then bring them home.
The hell with those self-help books.
At 93, Mel Hays found his final mission.
Hays was raised by alcoholic and abusive parents. His father moved the family from town to town, state to state, during the Great Depression, finally settling in Grants Pass where he and his wife worked at a farmer’s market, leaving Hays behind in Downey, Calif., to finish high school. After graduating, Hays joined his parents in Grants Pass.
One day, Virginia, the daughter of the couple that owned the farmer’s market, threw a raw egg at him. He caught it with one hand. Virginia said he was a good catch. That he was. They fell in love. Four days after meeting, though, the war forced Hays to leave Virginia. He sent an engagement ring to her from Italy and named his fighter plane “Ginger” in her honor.
After the war, Hays returned to Grants Pass. Mel and Virginia were married in the city’s first wedding ceremony held after the war. They had three kids, and he vowed to give his family a stable life. He started a construction company, which he used to rewrite the past. He hired his father as a carpenter to give the man a measure of dignity. He paid his parents’ medical bills. At the end of their lives, he told his parents he forgave and loved them.
When Hays moved into Laurel Parc, he knew he needed something to keep him busy. Cards, jigsaw puzzles and movie nights held little interest. He spent most of his time, mildly depressed, in his apartment watching television. He had to do something and thought it would be fun to supply power tools and lead a woodworking class for residents.
The administration thought otherwise.
Was forming an official scooter club nuts?
He had to try.
He made his pitch to the administrator, a woman younger than his daughter, telling her about Bert Barker’s reaction to getting outside, and mentioning that other residents had heard about the outing and said they’d like the same experience.
Hays got a yes.
He called the group The Laurel Parc Scooter Club. He remembered the power that came when World War II pilots climbed into planes with names and insignias, reminders they were fighting for something bigger than any one of them.
And, the way Hays saw it, this club was also engaged in a fight: For independence and joy, for a bit of dignity when it seemed so much had been taken away because they were old.
Always a businessman, Hays figured the scooter club would be good advertising for the community and he got Laurel Parc to pay for flags to attach to the scooters. Printed on the flag was the name of the facility along with the designation, scooter club.
Hays wasn’t satisfied.
The flags were too stiff. He drew up a bigger flag that would be printed on soft blue fabric that flutters with the slightest breeze.
Twelve people joined the group, a number that made it possible for Hays to keep an eye on all of them. They rode through the neighborhood once a week. Then Hays decided to take them to a nearby pub where they could have lunch and coffee.
And, somedays, a beer.
Some of the riders quit for health or memory reasons. But word spread in Laurel Parc and Hays always had 12 residents with scooters who wanted to go outside. Even Ole Barker, who didn’t need a scooter, bought one so she could join her husband.
Hays stopped watching so much television and began studying maps to find places the group could explore. The Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District maintains a series of paved trails around Bethany. Hays learned the rules — his group would have to stay on the right and go single file – and drilled them into his club members.
There were occasional issues. Some riders had memory problems, and Hays had to repeat instructions. He was a stickler for telling people to charge the scooter batteries the night before a ride. If a battery lost juice and died – and it did happen a few times — Hays would have to make arrangements to call someone with a car to haul the rider and the scooter back to Laurel Parc.
The club has been in existence four years now.
No one calls it The Laurel Parc Scooter Club.
It’s simply called Mel’s club.
Hays has settled into a schedule that scooter residents know by heart. Ole Barker, whom Hays designated as the club’s official secretary, is his wing woman. Each week, she calls residents to see who is interested in going on a scooter ride with Hays.
Every Friday – except when it is too cold, hot or wet – he leads a tour that starts with military precision at 1 p.m. The trips, between five and 10 miles long, can last up to two hours. Residents show up on their scooters, the official flag flapping, on a driveway behind the facility. They laugh and joke, the decades slipping away in an instant, as if they’re grade-school kids let out for recess.
Yet they are all aware of the reality.
A rider is missing because he had to be taken to the emergency room twice in the last two weeks. A woman, so vibrant, fell and feels frail, too nervous. All of them have aches and pains, their own feelings of loss that might not make sense to their children or grandchildren.
This is better than playing cards.
I had to give up driving. But when I’m outside on the scooter I feel I like I’m driving again.
Young people don’t realize what it means to be independent. They take it for granted. Mel’s club makes me independent.
You get claustrophobic living in an apartment. No one comes down to the lobby. They go to the bistro at 5 p.m., and before long people are pretty much in their own rooms.
When I’m outside, I feel uplifted.
The chatter ends the moment the ride starts. A seriousness falls over the group, the only sound coming from the whirring of the scooter motors. They are in a group, but still alone, all lost in thought.
They notice the little things that the young, with their futures stretched out before them, might miss: Ducks in a pond, a man walking a dog, people on healthy legs jogging the path, a couple walking hand in hand, kids throwing a ball to each other, golfers on the green, a mother pushing a baby stroller, the clouds, the sun, the wind, the changing seasons.
They know it won’t last.
They are old.
And that painful truth makes what they see and feel and experience all the more beautiful.
Earlier this year, Hays felt it was time to say goodbye to Lola, his oldest living friend, his high school girlfriend. They met when they were 16-year-old high school students in California.
They broke up, met other people, got married and had families. From time to time over the decades, Hays and his wife traveled with the woman and her husband. Both lost their spouses. In her later years, the woman’s family moved her to an assisted living community near them in Monmouth.
On the given day, Hays’ daughter loaded his scooter onto a rack on the back of her vehicle and they headed south. Hays brought his high school yearbook, hoping to talk about old photos. The only thing the woman could remember was Mel Hays. They talked the best they could, both of them saying they could not believe they had lived so long.
And then it was time to go.
They held hands.
She laid her head on his shoulder.
He wrapped an arm around her.
They both cried.
That night, back in his own small apartment, Hays turned reflective. Now nearly 98, he thinks the scooter club will disband when he’s gone. He’s tried training a few people to take it over, just the way he once taught young pilots during World War II. One rider wanted to but had to back out because of medical issues.
Coordinating the trips, looking out for fellow riders and taking care of all the little details is work. People get sick, dementia steals the person they once were, or they just plain get worn out.
All good things, he tells himself, come to a natural end.
He’s not afraid to die.
He’s had a great run.
He’s picked out his tombstone, had it engraved with the song lyric, “I did it my way,” and made arrangements to be buried in a Grants Pass cemetery next to his wife.
For now, he has that last mission.
He has routes to plan.
Friday will be here soon.
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