Bob Ramos is about to celebrate his 99th Fourth of July.
In just a few weeks, he's going to be 100. The good news for all of us is that living to be 100 is not really news these days. More and more Americans are doing so, and in the Niagara region, we have plenty of people who make it to 100 and beyond. I often wonder if it's something in the water.
I've interviewed many vibrant, successful people in their 80s, 90s and 100s in my career as a journalist. And I'm particularly fascinated by those who age well. Often I find there's no rhyme or reason to how they did so. You ask centenarians to what they attribute their longevity and often they just shrug. Is it fitness? Good genes? Whiskey? No one ever really knows.
I went to see Bob Ramos because his niece, Barbara Fleming, told me he was full of stories about growing up in Niagara Falls. She said his memory was sharp and he had lots of stories. She was not wrong. He remembers more details about his life than I do of my own.
He is a World War II veteran and I typically love those guys. They're a special breed, many of them, full of a certain kind of boyish charm and loveable swagger that never leaves them.
At 99 years old, Bob's living well. Friday he spent all day digging in his garden. And he bakes. When his great niece got married, he made 1,000 pizelles for her wedding. He drives all over town visiting friends and family. And if you ask him how he's doing, he says, good, because he knows nobody really wants to hear about other people's problems.
Stories? This guy is a living, breathing time machine.
I went to visit him in his small cape cod house on South Avenue, the same place he first brought his young bride, Marge, about 70 years ago, and where he raised his only child, Cynthia. He's not a big man, but he's feisty. He punctuates his sentences with the word, "Yeah," in the vernacular of tough guys in those old black and white movies.
Talking to Ramos for more than an hour, I got a sense as to why he has lived so long. I think that Bob Ramos just loves life. He keeps busy. Not much bothers him.
He clearly loves an audience. When he talks about his life, he brings the city to life, remembering his boyhood on Ferry Street, near 19th, where his mom had a big house and rented out rooms. The city streets were just dirt back then. When Ferry was finally paved, it was such a sensation of modern transit, that people would come from miles around to roller skate down the sleek roadway.
"Did you roller skate?" I asked him. "Nah, I didn't have skates," he said. His wasn't a childhood of plenty, but it sounds like there was enough.
His parents, both immigrants from Spain, had met in Niagara Falls at a rally to raise money to help the Spanish people during the Spanish Civil War.
Born in 1921, Ramos remembers his boyhood during prohibition when the federal "dry agents" would chase the bootleggers through city streets, riding precariously on the running boards of touring cars, and shooting pistols at the lawbreakers on the run. Ramos and his young friends thought the "shoot 'em ups" were great fun.
"We'd go running down the street chasing after the cars," he told me, his eyes light with the excitement of the memory. When the agents would bust up the neighbors' illegal distillery, he and his buddies would watch in awe and sometimes go poke around in the rubble afterward, just to see what was there.
As a young man, Ramos went to Trott Vocational and studied welding. It took him far. He got a job in a shipyard in Buffalo, building landing crafts for the war effort. A superior welder, he was selected by Hooker to work on a secret project that he learned later were pieces of the atomic bombs. He recalls going past a half dozen security stations to get to work.
He was drafted into the Navy and worked the boiler room on a light cruiser called Oklahoma City. His ship was nearby when Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan and was in the harbor when the Japanese surrendered. The devastation of the bombs upon civilians -- bombs that he helped to create -- upset him so much he couldn't eat for a week. It would have been different if it had been a military target, he said, but he saw firsthand the damages the bombs inflicted upon the Japanese children and families. "I felt so bad to think I was a part of that."
This guy remembers everything and can recount in detail the jobs he did for Hooker, who rehired him after the war. He often worked on projects involving atomic energy and when Three Mile Island nuclear plant was shut down, he went with a supervisor to Chicago to help problem-solve through the aftermath of that disaster.
His niece tells me that Bob was a devoted husband and father. When his wife was in the nursing home suffering from Alzheimer's, he went there every morning and stayed to tuck her into bed at night before returning home alone. His daughter Cynthia lives in Spain with his two granddaughters and two great-grandsons and she and her father speak every day by phone. He's looking forward to seeing them all when they come to celebrate his 100 birthday on Aug. 21.
If you ask me, at some point in the celebration, somebody in Bob’s family should sit him down in front of a video camera and capture all his stories for posterity. His head is full of first-hand accounts of history that will leave with him when his long life is over.
Maybe within all his stories, someone could get a better sense of how he was able to live such a long, good life. And maybe there will be some clues there for the rest of us, who are all trying to do the same.
Contact Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263 or email her at email@example.com.