A Good Life
Tales Told By A 99-Year-Old Man
RANDOLPH — I wanted to kick off this series about nonagenarians, people who are blessed to see the ninth decade of life, with the person I know best who fits that description. He is Randolph’s beloved Merle McKimm, my dear late friend Shirley Marvin’s step-father.
Merle and his identical twin, Earl, were born in Sinnamahoning, Pa. on Feb. 18, 1920. When the babies were just two weeks old, they lost their mother to a three-year long, worldwide deadly influenza outbreak. Since their father had three other boys, one of those being a two-year old, he felt the best he could do for them was to take the three youngest to the Randolph Children’s Home. When Mrs. Laura Comstock Hogan heard about the twin babies, she contacted the facility to inquire how she could take the children and was told, their father would let her do this providing she took all three boys.
“She was little, but very strict. When it came to breakfast time or dinner time, you’d better be there or she came after you.”
When they were naughty, she would make them cut their own switch from a lilac tree in the back yard.
“If we cut a short switch, we got it even harder. The tree never had a chance to grow much.”
Their foster mother fed the engineers from the train when they came through Randolph.
“They would take us down to ride the locomotives.”
When the boys were 14, the tables turned and they started caring for “Ma” Hogan.
“We figured she took care of us and it was our turn to take care of her.”
The elderly woman was placed in a nursing home two or three years later.
As young men, they held several jobs starting with paper routes and later, after school and on weekends, working in a grocery store, Merle at Market Basket and Earl at Larkin. They upholstered theatre seats for owner, Bert Keith, so they could have free popcorn and free admission to the movies. When Howard Jones took a night off, the twins would haul the mail and hang it for the train to pick up. Merle tells about the time when the train’s arm tore through the bag as it swung to grab it, flinging mail everywhere.
“That train came down through there at about 80 miles per hour.”
The young men tracked the mail by the trail it left in the thin layer of snow.
“Once a month or so” the brothers would sub for the person who was responsible for getting the very, large canvas bags of money off the train, put it on a cart and wheel it to the depot.
“Those bags were so heavy we’d have to drag them. Once someone forgot to lock the wheels on the baggage cart. When the train hit the cart, there were wheels and parts everywhere.”
During his high school years, Merle was the manager for the basketball and soccer teams.
“If I saw an opening, I took it,” says the soft-spoken man. “I was responsible for getting the snack for the bus trips and picked up after them (the team).”
When the brothers decided to enlist in the United States Army, because they “wanted to go for excitement” they said “good-bye” to Ma Hogan and walked down to catch the train. They were always willing to lend a hand wherever and whenever needed and were often referred to as “dears” or “angels,” but from time to time, their halos became a little lop-sided and slightly tarnished.
As mechanics in the Army, who were also in the artillery, they had access to large trucks and had their own wrecker. Once they stopped to help a British soldier, whose truck was broken down beside the road. When they asked if he had eaten and he said he had not, the twins suggested he get into some of the rations on the back of his truck. He responded with, “Oh I couldn’t do that” so, the brothers did it for him and they all enjoyed some of the rations.
Merle remembers another time when he wanted something to eat and put a can of beans on the manifold of the truck, “put it in low and really poured the gas to it going up a hill.” Needless to say, those beans were red hot and blew wide open. “There were beans everywhere under that hood.”
On another occasion, after they had finished checking over the car that transported a 2-star general, they decided to have a little fun. One drove while the other sat in the back seat. As the people they would pass saw the stars on the front of the car they would salute at the imposter riding inside.
While in France they “borrowed” bicycles. The French owners were shouting at them, but since the brothers didn’t understand French, they could only imagine what they were saying. They returned the bikes before leaving the French town a month later.
When they needed transportation while stationed in Germany, they “borrowed” a little Ford by pulling it from a garage with their wrecker. As a way of protecting their vehicles from theft, many Germans would remove the rotors, as in this case, so the McKimms made a rotor for the little car. Before leaving the area, you guessed it, they returned the car.
“We weren’t without transportation.”
When they went for donuts in another European city, they always drove a big truck, often times driving separately. When they arrived, they would turn the engine off, then turn it back on so that it would go into pre-ignition, spitting and sputtering for several minutes after they got out. When asked why they didn’t leave someone with the truck they would respond, “Who’d want that piece of junk?”
The twins always had a fascination with planes. Once Merle was invited to go up in an Army plane, but when they got up the oil started blowing all over the windshield, because someone had forgotten to put the plug back in. But their Army days were not all fun and games. As their ship, one of three, was crossing the English Channel on Christmas Eve on the way to the Battle of the Bulge, the SS Leopold ahead of them, was hit and sunk by the Germans. It took the ship 10 minutes to sink and 765 men were lost. The others went to Reims, France to regroup, because they had lost so many men.
“The first night we slept in the bed of the truck and about froze, so the next night we slept on the ground where the snow insulated us and we were warmer.”
“I’m glad I didn’t miss it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. If a captain wanted something in the middle of the night, you got up and took care of it. When you’re in the Army, your life is not your own, it’s the Army’s.”
After the brothers were discharged, they took jobs at Borden’s and worked at the furniture factory in Randolph until it closed. Merle’s next and last job came to him one day when he was sitting on his porch on School Street. Harold “Tinker” Fargo, the head custodian of the neighboring school, walked over to say he needed a custodian.
“I remember just as plain as day walking over there and I knocked on the door and Tip Culver, a school board member, opened the door and said, “I know what you want. You’ve got the job.”
He worked nine years at the school, until the new Gail N. Chapman Elementary School was built behind the high school on the hill on Main Street. He became the head custodian when Fargo retired. His twin brother, who had been working at the high school, came to work with him with Merle as his boss.
McKimm tells about his afternoon State Park bus run and how he would stop on his way back to the school to pick up one family of boys so they could go back for basketball, after doing chores at home. He has several stories of his many years working under Principal Gail Chapman.
“Once when we were working on Chappy’s skis, one of the teachers came in to ask us to get her a projector. Chappy told her we were busy and she could wheel it down herself.”
Another time during a fire drill, when the principal was attempting to turn off the alarm so the teachers and students could return to the building, Earl was standing down the hall retripping it. Mr. Chapman couldn’t understand why the alarm kept sounding and finally told the teachers to bring their students back into the building.
Merle recalls the day when he was standing on a ladder to change a florescent light and asked a female teacher if she could hand him the 4-foot tube. She said, “They don’t pay me to do that.” He remembered that incident and every time that teacher needed something, her request was put on the bottom of his list of priorities.
The brothers joined the Randolph Fire Company when they were 18 years old. Merle served at 1st Assistant Fire Chief and Earl as 2nd Assistant Fire Chief.
“We would run out the door and to the fire hall on Bank Street, unless we were at work at the furniture factory. Then we would run to Hose 1 on Main Street.”
He remembers a man at work calling out “where’s the fire?” McKimm’s response was “your house.”
The McKimms were always daredevils. Once when they went up in Bob Underwood’s plane which had a hole in its radiator, the sparkplug got wet “causing it to miss a little bit. Bob just told us to watch for a place to land.”
Somewhere in his 30s, “when I was old enough to know better,” Merle raced his Honda 125 at Watkins Glen. He came in fourth with the small bike. He shared another memory of the time Doc Gardiner bet he wouldn’t drive his Harley-Davidson up the steps of his home. The daring biker said, “You leave that door open,” and then rode the motorcycle into Cecil’s kitchen.
As with most events in their lives, the brothers’ marriages paralleled when they married in their 40s. Earl was first. He and Gretta bought a house down the street, on the other side. Merle moved his bride, Ernestine, into the house Mrs. Hogan and the twins had moved into when the boys were seven.
Since “the boys,” Randolph’s pet name for the 5-feet 3-inch brothers, came to town nearly a century ago, the townspeople never took a second glance when they saw the doubles walking down the street, riding their motorized scooters or riding together in one or the other’s car. For many years they owned identical cars, trucks, snowmobiles and motorcycles and always lived on the same street. After Ernestine died, Merle made a daily trip to Wal-Mart, with Earl sometimes tagging along. They both went to breakfast daily at local restaurants after their mates passed away, providing the temperature was above 20 degrees.
Merle spent 31 years, between the two schools, cleaning and maintaining and driving school bus. Earl did the same, but for a couple years less. They credit God for their natural ability to repair watches, clocks, cars and do building maintenance. Earl passed away in 2015. Merle moved to Randolph Manor a few months before his 98th birthday, after living in the house at 3 School St. for 90 years and gave up his red Smart Car. He goes to Vern’s Place for breakfast every Saturday morning due to Roger Carlson and other townspeople providing transportation. He has good hearing and excellent eyesight and reads his small-print Bible every morning.
His granddaughter, Sharon Stillman, has reserved the Randolph Fire Hall for his 100th birthday celebration and the people of Randolph are looking forward to celebrating with him.
“I’ve had a good life,” he says.