Updated: December 5, 2012 at 12:00 am
Lorraine Crocker recalls as a child running to the railroad tracks to wave at the passing troop trains bringing soldiers home from war.
Those would be Doughboys returning from World War I and she was a six-year-old girl.
She also recalls, a few years later, seeing revolutionary flying machines.
“We were really excited to go see the first airplanes to come to Colorado Springs,” she said with a chuckle. “Everyone loaded into the car to go see them.”
In fact, Mrs. Crocker is full of memories of an amazing 100 years. Even more amazing to me is that she spent those years almost exclusively in Colorado Springs — she lived a handful of childhood years in Eagle and three years in Denver when her company transferred her.
One question I ask most everyone I interview is: “Where you from?” I don’t meet many natives. So it was a treat to meet Mrs. Crocker and listen to her describe the Colorado Springs of her youth as she prepares to celebrate her 100th birthday on Dec. 12.
I was thrilled to find she has a clear memory from the Great Depression to the attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II to the invention of television, space exploration and the age of computers.
“I was born in a house on Cascade Avenue,” she said, describing a modest rented bungalow a couple doors north of the Glockner Tuberculosis Sanatorium, which opened in 1890 and evolved into Penrose Hospital.
And she was born in the house, not the hospital. The same house where they shoveled coal in a window to the basement and used it in a stove that heated the place.
“We didn’t have furnaces,” she said. “And we didn’t have a refrigerator. We had an ice box.”
As in, they used blocks of ice to keep food cold inside the box.
And she didn’t often get new shoes.
“We put cardboard in our shoes to keep the gravel out,” she said. “Then we got glue-on soles to keep it out.”
She doesn’t tell you these things seeking sympathy.
They are all just matter-of-fact memories of life.
“We didn’t really notice when the Great Depression hit,” she said. “We just ambled along. We were poor, but we had a lot of company.”
I met her last week at the Inn at Garden Plaza retirement center where she moved in 2005 after selling her home on Mesa Road.
While Mrs. Crocker is turning 100, don’t get the idea that she is slowing down. She gets around just fine without a walker or cane, still does her own income taxes, enjoys playing Rummikub with other residents of the center and even took water aerobics classes recently.
Her apartment is filled with photos of the important people in her life including her mother, Ethyl Essick, who worked in a print shop, tended a big garden and raised chickens while struggling to raise three children after her husband disappeared.
Mrs. Crocker repaid her by sacrificing her own dreams in a show of heroic devotion.
After graduating from Colorado Springs High School — we know it today as Palmer High — Mrs. Crocker and her mother drove to Greeley to enroll in college.
“On the drive home, a truck forced us off the highway,” she said. “My mother was seriously hurt. I gave up my dream of going to college. I had to get money to pay the hospital bills.”
She recalls it without a trace of resentment or self-pity.
It was 1930 and she found a job as a switchboard operator at the local telephone company.
But Mrs. Crocker gave her mother more than financial support. They lived together for 15 years or so until she was fully recovered from her injuries.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Crocker dedicated herself to her career as a telephone operator.
She recalls working on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in a devastating sneak attack.
“When people got the word, we lit up like a Christmas tree,” she said. “Everyone in town had to call somebody.”
In those days, telephone operators physically connected calls by plugging and unplugging wires in jacks on a switchboard. It was a crazy day, she said.
She spent the war years working as an operator and relaxing at area square dances. And that’s what she was doing in 1946 at the USO when she met Sgt. Merrill Crocker., a celestial navigator in the Army Air Force.
“I met him the day he got to town,” she said. “He was at the dance hall, sitting all by himself. One of the girls said ‘Let’s invite him over.’ And that was the start of it.”
They were married later that year and remained so until he died in 1990.
Together, they ran a west-side restaurant, MerriLaine for 18 years until the telephone company promoted her and sent her to Denver in 1964.
After she retired from Mountain Bell in 1971 after 40 years, they travelled extensively, visiting 49 states.
“We got within 10 miles of Maine,” she said. “But I couldn’t convince my husband to drive there.”
While she fondly recalls the Colorado Springs of her youth when she “knew everyone in town” and could walk or ride her bike anywhere without fear, she doesn’t long for the good old days.
And though Mrs. Crocker doesn’t have a computer, she is not put off by technology.
“I had one for a year or so before I moved here,” she said. “I kind of wish I still had one.”
But the old operator doesn’t have a cellular phone or electronic gadgets that surf the Internet, take and transmit photos and video and make phone calls.
“It took a wild imagination to come up with things like that,” she said, marveling at all the advancements she’s witnessed.
Mrs. Crocker doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about getting old, but sometimes it hits her just how long she has lived.
“I was in the first class to go through South Junior High,” she said, of the school south of downtown. It closed in 1982 as part of an urban renewal project. “You can imagine how I felt when they said that building was too old to be any good and closed it.”
Mrs. Crocker concedes there were painful episodes in her life.
“I’ve lost a lot of wonderful people,” she said, reeling off the names of her husband, mother, brother and sister. “Everyone is gone.”
Her only real regret, it seems, is that she never had children.
“I wish I’d had a couple of children,” she said wistfully. “That would have been a wonderful addition to my life. Since I didn’t, I accepted it. And I’ve had a lot of good friends along the way I’ve enjoyed.”
Again, she focuses on the positive.
“I am pretty well satisfied with my life,” she said. “I want to live as long as I keep enjoying life.”
I asked her advice for achieving longevity.
“My advice is to keep enjoying life and behaving yourself,” she said. Then she smiled and added: “Mostly.”
Happy birthday, Mrs. Crocker. And I hope you enjoy many more.