The corn is high in Harold Rooks’ garden in south Spokane. A rooster crowed from the chicken coop as Rooks checked the status of his ripening tomatoes.
A shiny red tractor sits just outside his back door. “My wife would never let me buy one,” Rooks said, and chuckled. “When I get there she’s gonna kill me!”
Rooks’ wife, Marie, died three years ago, but he still lives in the house they shared and tends the garden he started 58 years ago.
He celebrated his 90th birthday in May, but doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. A spiffy road bike sits on his back porch surrounded by buckets filled with garden bounty.
“I haven’t rode the bike yet this summer,” he said. “I got to get it out there soon.”
His pantry brims with the fruits of his labor. Rows upon rows of jars glisten behind glass-fronted cupboards. “I already canned tomatoes,” he said. “Nobody taught me to can – I just did it.”
Rooks learned self-reliance at an early age. Born in Pennsylvania, he moved to New Jersey when he was 7. A trace of his Jersey roots still colors his speech.
“I didn’t know my parents. I was told my mother handed me over the fence to the people who raised me and said, ‘You take ’em. I don’t want the S.O.B.’ ”
He said his adopted dad “knew a lot of stuff.” Rooks grinned. “He sharpened the ax, and I cut the wood.”
Rooks quit school in the sixth grade. “I figured why bother,” he said and shrugged. He found work on local farms, and when World War II started, he wanted to join the Navy, but his parents wouldn’t let him.
“I figured I’d get drafted anyway, and I did. I went in 1942. Never had basic training ’cause I volunteered for airborne.”
Rooks was part of the 887th Airborne Engineer Company. He pointed to a rendition of his company patch that hangs on his bedroom wall. “I don’t know why they put a parachute on it – they didn’t give us no parachutes!”
That’s because Rooks was assigned to the glider unit. “They called ’em flying coffins,” he said.
He explained, “A C-47 pulled the glider attached by a tow rope.” And off they went, carrying a squad of 12 to 15 men.
“I liked ’em,” said Rooks. “We invaded southern France in them.”
When asked if the gliders offered a smooth ride, he grinned. “It was pretty good until ya landed.”
The Battle of the Bulge remains vivid in his memory. “It was horrible. All we had was summer clothes. Guys froze to death. I didn’t take my shoes off for a month, it was that cold. When I did take them off, my skin came off with my socks.”
Supply lines were slow, and the troops were often hungry as well as freezing and filthy.
“When we got back to Le Havre, the Seabees had built showers along the road,” Rooks recalled. “I took about six a day.”
His tour of duty in Europe included time spent in a military jail. “I was hauling supplies from Naples to Rome,” he said. “An MP asked for my driver’s license, so I handed him my Jersey license. ‘What the hell are you playing at?’ he said. Show me your military license!’ ”
But Rooks didn’t have a military driver’s license. The MP made him pull the truck over, marched him to the jail, and told him to call his company commander.
Rooks declined. “They had good eats and everything,” he explained. Then he laughed. “It was a fun war.”
The MP’s called his company and they sent someone to deliver a military license, but not before Rooks enjoyed a good meal.
In 1945, he was sent to Geiger Field. “We were going to invade Japan, but they gave up,” he said.
While in Spokane, he met Marie and quickly proposed. Too quickly for her liking. “She said no the first time,” Rooks said, shaking his head.
He felt the rejection keenly and didn’t venture off the base again. His strategy (if that’s what it was) worked. Marie began calling the base. His fellow soldiers begged him to talk to her, so she’d stop calling so often. He agreed. It seems Marie had changed her mind, and they married in September 1945.
Rooks took his bride back to New Jersey, but she didn’t like it there, so they returned to the Spokane area in 1953. For a time, he worked on her uncle’s ranch in Creston. After the birth of their daughter, Sue, they moved to their five acres in south Spokane.
A carpenter, by trade, Rooks said he helped build a lot of the bridges along I-90.
Two more children, Nina and Steve, joined their family.
In spite of his busy job, Rooks still milked the cows each morning and evening, and gathered the eggs, too. “We had 500 layers,” he said.
He asked Marie to gather the eggs once while he was at work, but when he returned, she said she’d forgotten. He shrugged. “That was the end of that.”
They enjoyed 63 years together, and Rooks still misses her. “I turn around to talk to her and she’s not there,” he said. “It gets lonesome sometimes.”
But he stays busy, rising at 4 a.m. Somebody has to gather those eggs. Still trim and fit at 90, he said the secret to a long healthy life is simple: “You gotta work.”
He surveyed his bountiful garden. “I quit school in the sixth grade and the only time I’ve been hungry is when I was in the service. I eat good, and it all comes out of the garden.”
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