When Les Ames turned 90, he decided it was about time to walk his first Bloomsday. He nearly gave up halfway up Doomsday Hill, but managed to push his walker across the finish line in just under three hours.
“I’d have made it if it had killed me,” he said. “I walked that sucker.”
Now 96, the World War II veteran still refuses to slow down. He’s a member of a half-dozen civic organizations and clubs in Spokane and uses his computer and iPhone to keep in touch with his three children, 12 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
“When I got to be 96 years old, I thought, ‘Why has the good Lord left me here on earth?’” he said. After some reflection, he decided it was so he could serve others by sharing what he’s learned in a book. With help from co-author Eufemia Munn, Ames’ memoir, “Happiness is Life,” tells the story of his service in the Pacific, his career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and his insights on living a happy life.
The book will be self-published through Amazon later this year.
Ames grew up on a farm in Hand County, South Dakota and went on to South Dakota State College. Unable to afford tuition, he worked in the college’s chicken hatchery, eating broken eggs for most of his meals to save money.
He left college soon after to work for a hatchery and feed company, intending to return to school someday. Instead, he met his wife-to-be, Marie Berkolo, and married her in 1940.
“That ended my formal education,” he said.
Soon, Ames was working as a poultry inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When World War II began, he initially was granted a deferral because he worked for the government. Ames was drafted in 1944 and told to report to the base on Christmas Day. He showed up a day late, deciding he wanted to spend Christmas with his family.
“All they can do is send me overseas, and that’s what they’re going to do anyway,” he reasoned.
Ames sailed for New Guinea with the 6th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and was soon sent to the Philippines. He sent his wife a Valentine’s Day telegram because he wanted to make sure it arrived on time, not knowing a solider would deliver the message to her front door. He later found out she thought he’d been killed before she opened the message.
“My wife said, ‘Don’t ever send me another one of those!’” he said.
By the spring of 1945, the division had been ordered to the front lines to fight the Japanese army in the Philippines. Ames remembers sitting in a foxhole in the middle of the night with a heavy machine gun, listening to the bamboo around him snap and pop.
“If somebody had said something to me, I would have fainted I was so scared,” he said.
But Ames got lucky. His platoon was never attacked, and he was in the Philippines to witness the Sept. 2, 1945 surrender of Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, a few months after Gen. Douglas MacArthur declared the country liberated.
His role in that campaign led to a lifelong interest in the Philippines, and from there, to his co-author Munn. Munn, the retired principal of Blair Elementary School at Fairchild Air Force Base, is Filipina and remembers viewing the American forces as liberators as a child during the Japanese occupation.
“He’s a liberator, and I’m a survivor,” she said. “When Les asked me to write his book, there was no question I would do it.”
Some of the proceeds from the book will support Munn’s nonprofit Christian school on the island of Mindanao.
After the war, Ames was stationed in Korea and eventually returned to his work as a poultry inspector. He came to Spokane in 1963 after the government offered him a job as an in-house inspector at Armour Company and decided to stick around – in part, he said, because he likes living in a different state than his children so they can’t tell him what to do.
The feeling is apparently mutual. After Ames got his driver’s license renewed this year, his son told him, “Good God, I’m glad I don’t live in Spokane.”
Ames now lives in an apartment complex in northeast Spokane where he moved after his wife of 66 years died in 2006. He says he wanted to live there instead of a retirement home so he could be surrounded by young people and focus on “life, not death.”
He credits his long life to near-daily trips to the gym.
“There’s nobody over there my age,” he said.
To keep his hands busy, Ames stitches needlepoint canvasses: some showing snow-covered Scandinavian cottages, others simply proclaiming “Uffda,” a Norwegian exclamation.
He’s not Norwegian by blood, but considers himself adopted into the culture by way of his late wife. After he retired, she told him he couldn’t sit at home idle all day and encouraged him to get a hobby.
He was the only man in the needlepoint class, but that didn’t faze him. For inspiration, he looked to former NFL star Rosey Grier, another enthusiast who wrote a book on needlepoint for men.
“I said, if that sucker can do it, well, so can I,” Ames said.
Getting his memoir written and published has been a labor of love among Ames and his friends.
“I’ve got so many friends I can’t ask for anything more,” he said.
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