Veteran Vignettes

In advance of Veterans Day, I was once again invited to visit the New York State Veterans’ Home in Oxford. I always feel privileged to spend time at the facility, which is home to 242 residents, all of whom are either veterans themselves or the spouses or parents of a veteran. I treasure the chance to sit down with these individuals, for it is the opportunity to learn about our country’s history from those who have lived it. It is my distinct pleasure to recount the tales of two of these distinguished veterans today, as we honor our service men and women, past and present, for their toil and sacrifice on our behalf. Let us never forget those who have served our country, and especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, so that we as a nation may live free.

Ralph Westgate, Renaissance man

Clad in a starched blue shirt, crisply pressed dark slacks and a dapper waistcoat, Ralph Westgate cuts a dashing figure. His blue eyes sparkle with intelligence and humor as he recites a favorite John F. Kennedy saying.

“There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension. So we must do what we can with the third,” he intones, with an intensity which belies his age.

In fact, the long-time Sidney resident will turn 91 on Dec. 26.

“I have many more years behind me than I have in front of me,” he admits. And what years they’ve been.

Westgate, a native of Susquehanna, Pa., was drafted into the Air Force in February of 1942. He reported to Biloxi, Miss. for basic training, following which he received additional training as a parachute rigger. He spent two years practicing this trade at an air base on the Canadian border before being transferred to Manchester, N.H.

“My job was to inspect parachute riggings and life saving a equipment,” he said, on as many as 30 new B-17’s a day. “I (was) in seventh heaven.”

His next posting – to Goose Bay, Labrador – wasn’t as much to his liking.

“Bah humbug,” he said, recalling the frigid temperatures at the Canadian base. There was excitement though, as he was part of a rescue team which dropped supplies to downed aircraft, as crews worked their way across the ice.

Goose Bay turned out to be Westgate’s final posting, as the war ended while he was there and he was discharged in of January 1946.

“I don’t lay claim to any heroics,” the veteran said. “Like anyone else, I did my job. Now that it’s in my past, I’m glad that I did it.”

Returning home, Westgate found work at Bendix in Sidney. At the beginning of what turned into a 32 year career, he commuted from Pennsylvania each day with a group of other Bendix employees. It was during this commute when he first laid eyes on his future bride.

“One hot summer day, I stopped in Ninevah to get some ice cream for the group,” he recalled. “When I came out I told them I had just met the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Six months later he finally made her acquaintance, when she started training for a job in his department at Bendix.

“I just fell in love with her,” he said, of Margaret, Peggy as he calls her.

The couple made their home outside of Sidney, raising Peggy’s two children and two of their own. Westgate described their life as filled with “the laughter and the tears, and all that goes with marriage.”

The tears came when they lost one of their sons in a motorcycle accident at the age of 22. And when Peggy began showing signs of Alzheimer’s.

Her devoted husband was her caretaker until her condition worsened to a degree which required her to be admitted to the Pearl and Everett Gilmour Nursing Facility in Norwich.

Westgate himself fell into poor heath when living on his own, and after a bout of pneumonia this past summer.

“He was Sidney Poitier, with a little more class,” said Westgate, who speaks highly of A.O. Fox Hospital doctor who both helped him get well and helped him enter the Vets’ Home following his illness.

“I’m really blessed to be here,” he said, commending the facility’s dedicated staff and praising the view from his window. He visits his wife at every opportunity, and harbors hope that one day she will be able to join him at the veterans’ facility.

Until that time, Westgate is reminded of his lovely wife every time he gazes upon a sepia tone photograph he took of her when she was 32. He recalled how an assistant shone a flashlight on her hair while his wife lowered the shoulder of her dress to bare her shoulder, all so he could capture the image just so. He said he took it specifically to fit an antique frame, now nearly 100 years old, which had belonged to his parents.

Photography is not Westgate’s only artistic skill. Pulling out an old sketchbook, he paged through drawings he had done in both his youth and later in life, of old movie stars and the like.

“My wife was more beautiful,” he said.

While his hand isn’t as steady as it once was, Westgate hasn’t abandoned his creative pursuits. His arts supplies are stacked in one corner of his space, next to a box of blank canvasses which are his latest endeavor. Yes, at 90, he’s starting to paint.

And these are not his only talents. A true Renaissance man, he is also an accomplished vocalist and actor. He spent 40 years as a soloist and member of the choir at Sidney Methodist Church, and starred in numerous Tri-Town Theater productions.

“I was pretty good,” he reported, adding that since becoming a resident at the Vets’ Home he’s enjoyed the opportunity to play “second banana” to Activities Director Allan Hopson during events.

Hopson is quick to call him on his modesty, which elicits a smirk from the thespian.

“In order to be on the stage, you have to have a pretty good ego,” he admitted.

He delights in entertaining those he meets.

“I try to make people laugh, and it works,” Westgate said.

Patricia Jones, lady veteran

Of the NYS Veterans’ Home’s 242 residents, only around a dozen are female veterans. World War II Army veteran Patricia Jones is one of that elite group.

Jones, who was stationed at the Pentagon for the duration of her four years in the military, speaks of her time in the service with humor.

The Binghamton native was 21 when she enlisted in 1943. At the time, she was working for Frank West printing company, she explained, and had chosen not to inform her employer of her decision until after it was a done deal. She realized however, as her coworkers broke into a chorus of “You’re in the Army know,” that the cat at somehow gotten out of the bag.

Her brother Jack, four years her senior, was already serving overseas. He and her parents were supportive of her decision to join the military.

In March of ‘43, Jones reported to boot camp in Oglethorpe, Ga., which she remembers as a “lovely” base. When questioned about the aptness of her description, she laughs, and explains what could be construed as her philosophy on life.

“If you work hard enough, you can find the good in anything,” she said.

The worst part of her Army introduction, as she remembers it, is the olive drab underwear she and her fellow recruits were issued.

Upon her completion of boot camp, her printing experience helped secure her a highly coveted, top secret assignment in the nation’s capital. She said she remembers her drill instructor telling her, “I can’t tell you where you’re going, but I wish I was going there.”

“It turned out to be Washington and the Pentagon,” Jones explained.

She spent the next 2 1/2 years in a basement printing office, supervising two other WACs.

“I felt like I was in the heart of things,” she said.

Don’t bother asking Jones about the highly classified material they printed.

“I didn’t read it, because I didn’t want to know anything,” she reported.

She and her fellow female service members were housed at Fort Myers Army Base in Arlington, Va.

She remembers when she first arrived the base hadn’t received its regular delivery of rations, so the cooks made do with what they had on hand: hot dogs.

The last straw, she said, was when they served hot dog soup.

“I said, ‘oh, good night,” she laughed.

What she remembers most about her time is the camaraderie she had with the other women.

“I enjoyed the girls,” she said. “We cried together; we laughed together.”

She rose to the rank of Sergeant, making $78 a month, and was the recipient of a Good Conduct Medal.

Jones was separated from the Army in January of 1946, and returned home to marry her sweetheart, Robert Marshall Jones.

“If I hadn’t been engaged, I think I would have stayed in, because I enjoyed being in the Army,” she said, remembering how a friend had tried to recruit her and others to stay in.

She returned to work at Frank West for a short time, but left to start her family.

“One thing at a time for me,” she laughed. She and her husband had two sons, Alan and Philip, and she kept busy with Cub Scouts, the PTA and other involvements.

Her husband of 63 years passed away in December, and a few months later her daughter-in-law Noreen encouraged her to enter the Vets’ Home. On Halloween, she celebrated her 89th birthday. Her family visits often, she said, and she is surrounded by family pictures Noreen framed for her.

Her razor sharp memory and quick wit has made her a favorite of her fellow residents, as well as the facility’s staff.

“I usually have fun no matter where I am,” she said, flashing her signature smile.

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