No man is an island
In the middle of reminiscing about his Army days, John Olshesky interrupts himself.
"You know, one thing I've missed, by the way," he says, and he pauses, as if to stanch his emotions. "All my buddies are gone. That's the worst part of it. And I'd like to ... banter with those old pals of mine. 'Do you remember this? Do you remember that? When so and so ... ' But there's nobody anymore for me to chat with about past experiences. And that's the thing I miss a lot."
It's a sentiment often expressed by those who live into their 90s: There's no one left who shares their memories. High school friends, college friends, friends from the war, even friends from more recent years are gone, all gone. And the survivor finds himself alone with his memories, an island unto himself.
Olshesky, 95, is luckier than many: He still has his wife, Sophia (nicknamed "Sunny"), who at 86, the family jokes, is the "younger woman" he met and danced with at the Polish National Home in Hartford after the war.
"What we'd do was go down there and drink beer, and then at intermission time she and her friends came down, and as she passed by my table, I says, 'Hey, how 'bout a dance?' And she says, 'C'mon upstairs.' So I managed to get a pass and went upstairs," Olshesky says.
"That's where the dance was held: upstairs, and he was downstairs drinking," Sunny says with a wry smile.
But there is a certain irony in Olshesky's sense of the deepening isolation of age, coming as it does in the wake of his recollections of World War II. "Almost invariably, my five years' experience in the Army was on an island," he says with a laugh.
Olshesky began his service at Fort Warren, manning anti-aircraft guns on Georges Island at the mouth of Boston Harbor. From there he went to officers training school, came out a first lieutenant "and when I got through there, I chose Seattle, Washington, because some of my buddies chose it. And where did I end up? Protecting the Navy yard on another island ... in Puget Sound."
But that wasn't the end of it. He spent his last year in the service on Attu, the westernmost of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. And what he remembers most about that godforsaken place was the weather.
"You'd get the Bering Sea coming down from the north and meeting the Pacific Ocean, and they would clash over the chain of islands and raise havoc," he says. "So most of the time you're walking like this (he raises his arm as if to protect his face) with your hand in front of your eyes."
But it wasn't the hardships or hard work of military life that got to him, Olshesky says. It was the lack of freedom.
"The thing I didn't like about the Army was the fact that you always had to get permission from a superior to do something that ... in civilian life you don't have to ask anybody," he says. "The strict discipline in the Army, I never went for that at all."
As for work, Olshesky has been working since he was 5 years old.
"My father and mother had eight children. There were five boys and then the girls came, three girls," he says. "I was the youngest of the boys, and I can remember when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I was out there picking tobacco leaves off the ground."
This was in Suffield, where Olshesky did most of his growing up and his father helped a widow run her broadleaf tobacco farm. Olshesky would follow the cutters through the fields at the harvest and pick up any fallen leaves. But that was just one of the jobs he had.
"My father was strict, very strict," he says.
As a civilian, Olshesky had a career with the state Department of Transportation, starting out as a surveyor, work he truly loved.
"When you're in a survey, when we were laying out which eventually became Route I-84, at that time we would be crossing virgin territory," he says. "We'd be crossing brooks, an old canal out in the western part of the state, and then we'd have to put up with the bees and snakes and whatnot going through woods and then open areas and swamps and everything else, and you're dragging the chain along, so that was very good to do. I would say for a person who wants to always exercise all his muscles and everything else, surveying is what they should take up."
But Olshesky got promoted "to district engineer in charge of all field activities in the western part of the state," which meant he was responsible for some 500 workers - and trapped in an office.
For a man who loved tramping among the bees and the snakes, it was a mixed blessing. They lived in New Milford then, and "the place we bought out there was a lot of rocks and whatnot on the slope that went down to the brook, and I got a sledgehammer and would start splitting rocks, which came useful because then I started making a path down to the brook. That's how I got rid of my frustrations at the job site."
When he retired, Olshesky discovered another kind of frustration, the frustration of being at loose ends, until his older daughter, Janice, gave him a book.
"When I moved out to Waterford, I didn't have any rocks to split," he says, and he laughs. "So I had to find something to do.
"There wasn't much that I was doing in the way of exercise, but then my daughter, she presented me this book, and ... the book consists of a lot of the experience of people that wrote in. I could see that I'm missing out on life ... to keep all my muscles active. So what I did was I started a program of my own, and that's when I first started jogging."
He pushes an old blue paperback across the table: "The New Aerobics" by Kenneth H. Cooper M.D.
"Here it is," he says, "what changed my life."
So, at the age of 62, Olshesky started jogging. He kept that up until his knees gave out, then took up bicycling. He did that until he decided breathing in all the exhaust fumes along Route 1 wasn't good for him, then took up walking. Along the way he also got involved in aerobics classes and weightlifting.
Even though he admits he has good genes - his parents both lived into their late 80s - Olshesky attributes his longevity, in large part, to exercise.
Sunny concurs: "I think it helps to keep him going."
Lauren, Olshesky's younger daughter, agrees, adding that she thinks one axiom in Olshesky's philosophy of life has to be this: "Work before pleasure. I think to this day he tries really hard to exert himself on whatever task and face life's challenges and not back away from them."
"I remember at school they said, 'When you hit the line, hit the line hard.' Well, I guess, in a way, that's my philosophy of life. Put everything you've got into it. And don't do it sloppily."
Between 2000 and 2005, the population of those 85 and older grew by 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the fastest growing demographics. Kenton Robinson interviewed and Abigail Pheiffer photographed some of these nonagenarians.
View the entire series at www.theday.com/90thenew70.
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