Deacon William James Sr. of Eutawville loves his country and his family, but he also loves the God who has kept him on this earth for a century, including through his military service.
James, who turned 100 on May 28, was still celebrating nearly a week later as friends and family dropped by his 337 Yearling Drive home in Eutawville to give him cards and well wishes.
“Everything is working out beautifully for me. I’m really doing well for my age. The Lord blessed me, and I’m grateful,” he said.
‘God has been everything to me’
Other than occasional knee aches, James said he feels good and appreciated the family members who came from near and far to help him celebrate his birthday, which included a drive-thru parade complete with a police escort on May 29.
The oldest of seven children, James is the lone survivor. He and his late wife of 66 years, Mary Lee, had 10 children. His large family also includes 20 grandchildren and 45 great-grandchildren.
What is it like to be 100 years old?
“It’s just like any other day to me. It's just normal. I don't feel no different. I’m celebrating it and having fun with other people. So many folks come from everywhere. I got families all over the world. They all come to see me,” James said.
James lives with his daughter, Evangelist Bertha Jamison.
She said her father eats just about anything, with sweets among his favorites.
“Sweets and coffee. Those are two of my favorites,” James said.
“I can drink coffee all day, every day. I don't like no rice. I can eat grits every day, and that's what I mostly eat. I eat everything else: bacon, eggs, sausage, pudding. I ain't got no really special food because everything is special, but I can't eat much of none of it,” he said.
He loves his children, all of whom pitch in to help in his care.
“My wife died, but she used to do everything for me mostly when I wasn't working. Now the children are taking care of me, and I don't have no problem with that either. I can call anyone anytime. Every one of them will help me in any way they can. I got a pretty good size family. So they keep me going all the time," James said.
His oldest son, William Jr., said his sisters have enjoyed taking their father to various places, though James said he would rather stay home at times and let others enjoy themselves.
“I appreciate it, but I just can’t go on all those trips like I used to, but the Lord has been good to me. I do everything for myself. I just don’t cook,” said James, who only recently stopped driving because of his vision.
“I probably would have been driving some yet, but I got where I couldn’t see. I let my license expire. Now that I don’t have no license, I don’t drive nothing,” said James, who also enjoyed fishing as a favorite pasttime.
The Eutawville native was raised by his mother, Lydia, and his beloved grandmother, Diapie.
What was it like growing up as a child?
“Well, it was common and ordinary, just like any other kid. I look at how kids get along now. The things they do now, I just to do the same thing, but I was disciplined a whole lot. I couldn't do anything I wanted when I was growing up," he said, noting that he did farm work as a child.
“He started out at 11 years old. He was out working. He had to stop school and go to work,” Jamison said.
James said, “I used to work for people for $25 a year. If they make some peanuts, they would give me a quarter a peanut. If they make some peas, beans or anything they make, if they want to give me some of it, it was all right. Most of the time I used to have to live with the people who I worked for.”
A member of Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Eutawville, James said his son, William Jr., makes sure he doesn’t miss a Sunday.
“God has been good, I would have to say that. I was traveling a little slow one time and didn't care nothing about church or anything like that. But when I did get interested in it, I got where I couldn't hardly go.
“My oldest son carries and brings me everywhere I go. I go to church every chance I get now. I enjoy service. Everything is beautiful,” he said.
The centenarian doesn’t have an answer for why God has allowed him to live so long.
"Well, I can't hardly answer that. Everybody asks the same question. They ask me sometimes, 'What do you eat? What do you drink?' I eat and drink anything I can get, anything they give me, or anything I can afford. I don't bother with a lot of things, but I can eat anything,” James said.
He continued, "God been everything to me. He was carrying me when I couldn't take care of myself. I realize now that things I used to do, I just wished I had not done it, but I hope I don't be punished too much for it. ... I get along with everybody. I don't have no problem.”
‘I was blessed’
James is a World War II veteran who was drafted into military service in 1942 during the administration of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He served in the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft mechanic and vividly remembers his service to his country.
“I was an airplane and engine mechanic. I didn’t have no other choice at that time. I made it all right. I enjoyed it because I went across the states several times from different places,” James said, who was first stationed at Fort Jackson, which at that time was serving as an induction center for all military branches.
“I started right there in Columbia. I’ve been to Fort Bragg, and I left there and went down to Keesler Field, Mississippi. I’ve been to Luke Field, Arizona, and I’ve been out in California. I was out there in the service for 19 months at Bakersfield. I enjoyed it all, but some of it was scary,” James said.
Used to working on small planes, James said he had to get accustomed to the larger, much faster planes that had been built and would occasionally fly over where he and others were working.
“When the jets first came out, they buzzed the field where we were. We didn’t know what it was. We were out there working. We used to service planes, wash them and put parts on them and everything, and then those things would come over and buzz the field sometimes. We didn’t know what it was, and we’d try to run and hide,” James said.
“We figured the people were going to hurt us. They were just flying up there just like they do now. They were brand new and fast planes just like they are now. You lost your mind for a minute because you really didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
He also recalled having to go up for the test flight on planes he had worked on.
“That’s just the way it was. If it failed and you up there, that’s why you had to fix it right. It ain’t like now. You go to a garage to have a car or something fixed, you just pay them what they charge you and go on about your business. But there you didn’t do that. When that plane left that ground, especially when you worked on it by yourself, you were going up with it. Then when everything work out alright, they’d come back down, put you off and then go on about their business,” James said.
He recalled having to go overseas to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, at the end of the war.
“I was going overseas when the war ended. I was on a boat for three days out in the seas. The captain took me over there. We got orders to turn around and even come back before I even got over there, and he wouldn’t let us come back. He took us on over there anyway,” James said, noting that he never forgot the sight of seeing his captain killed when the airplane slated to carry him back to the States crashed.
“He had an airplane waiting on him to take him back to the States. We got on a big GI truck and were waiting for everybody to get on so we could go wherever we were going. I never will forget that.
“The plane took off and we were sitting right there looking right at it. We’re seeing him get on the airplane, and the plane took off and never did leave the ground. It crashed and burned up and burned him up and everything right there,” he said.
James said his stay in Manila was not met with any fighting.
“It was right nice when I went over there. Everything was just about over with. It was kind of torn up and things, but the people and everything over there that was left were doing fine,” he said.
James continued, “I had a nice time over there. Bob Hope and all those fellas, they were overseas and would go over there and play for us and have music just like they do now.”
While he said it was “no problem” for him to serve his country, he was soon ready to come home.
“I was blessed. I always tell my children I was in the service and I worked on planes and did some of everything. I had a chance to stay over. They wanted me to stay overseas, but I had to stay over there for seven years before I could come back to the United States.
“I said, ‘No, that ain’t gonna work there. I’m going back home.’ I got back here and everything worked out beautiful. I didn’t have any problem. I didn’t really learn anything by it, but I worked on airplanes from the time I went in there to the time I left. After I left, I hadn’t had my hand on an airplane since,” James said.
“I hope not,” William Jr. said, laughing.
Jamison said discipline and orderliness were two things that she could say her father learned from the military.
“I’m that way yet today,” James said.
“I like people, they like me, and I did what they said to do. I always did what I was told to do while I was in the service because if you didn’t, you would have had trouble, and I knew that,” he said.
James received a Commendation Medal among his military service awards, but most of his pictures and other memorabilia from the service were lost to fire.
After leaving the service, he worked in brick masonry for 22 years.
“I was fortunate enough to come back and get on the same job I had before I left. I finally winded up doing the brickwork myself. I then quit that and started working with the school district,” James said.
He retired from the Charleston County School District as a maintenance supervisor.
“I’ve done some of everything in the school district: brick, cement, plastering. You name it, I done it. I’m enjoying life now. I don’t have to worry about nothing, and I don’t worry about anything. I got plenty of friends and family. I’m doing well, and I thank the Lord for that,” he said.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD