Volunteers flank a long table adorned with red and blue sheet cakes that read “Happy 104th Birthday Alyce” as hospital staff and fellow veterans at the VA Medical Center on Irving Street NW beam at the stately lady clad in red at the front of the room.
They have gathered to celebrate a WWII veteran, as well as the spitfire, comedienne and resident cheerer-upper known as the “Queen Bee.” Things are just about to get started, and no one is quite sure what to say.
But Alyce Dixon has seen France in wartime, saw the Pentagon before it was completed, experienced racism and sexism, and had a leg amputated because of infection. She has overcome it all.
So with ample jokes, stories and goodwill at her disposal, Dixon’s happy to fill the void.
“I tell them I want to go to a nightclub so bad,” she says to volunteers around the table. “It’s so wonderful. Ain’t it something? I’m this old and I can still talk!”
On Sunday, she celebrates the day of her birth — Sept. 11, 1907 — and Dixon is relishing her health and her friends. Volunteers from HandsOn Greater DC Cares, participating in one event of many as part of a 9/11 Day of Service, on Friday helped put together Dixon’s hospital birthday bash, complete with balloons, cupcakes and cakes.
What’s her secret? “If you share, you feel good. And God will help you, too,” she’ll tell you.
The cupcakes start to filter through the room, but Dixon doesn’t want any sweets just now. She says she’ll enjoy some later, around 2 a.m., when she plans to be up reading. She said she pays 75 cents for the newspaper every day and in the course of a conversation mentions recent flooding, terrorist threats and wildfires in Texas.
She remembers Sept. 11, 2001, when she was at home in Washington celebrating her birthday with friends. And while her birth date has become synonymous with terror and tragedy, she says sharing the day with the Sept. 11 anniversary makes her birthday take on even greater importance.
“That’s terrible,” she says about the events of that day. “Because, you see, I love New York.”
She was terrified that the Pentagon would be hit, the place she worked as a purchasing specialist, buying everything from “pencils to airplanes” in the 1940s and then again after WWII. In 1943, she enlisted in what became the Women’s Army Corps.
During the war, Dixon served as one of the first women — and one of the few African American women — to go overseas, and she remembers well the warehouse in France where she and hundreds of employees were charged with sorting what she calls “900 billion” packages of mail.
“We got it done,” she said.
Her Army career lasted from 1943 to 1945. Dixon says she entered because she hoped to get surgery for a skin condition called vitiligo. At first, Dixon said she just had white spots on her neck, but the condition, which doctors told her was untreatable, spread across her body; her face appears mostly white today.
Some in the hospital think that because of her New York-sounding accent, she must be Jewish.
“We’re all mixed up anyway,” she jokes.
She likes to tell those stories, and she’s happy she can still be heard. But now it’s about time for the party to end, and other hospital staff and well-wishers are clamoring for a joke. Her famous sense of humor and encyclopedia of quips is often sought after.
So she tells a crowd-pleaser. It goes something like this: A priest is sitting next to a boy on a bus, and the boy pesters the priest incessantly about his collar being “turned inside out.” The boy says that his father doesn’t have his collar like that, and the priest replies, “Well, I’m the father of thousands.”
The boy says back: “Well, then maybe you should turn your pants inside out instead.”
Dixon laughs, and so does her friends. The party is over. The well-wishers have watched a DVD interview in which she’s talked about her life, and hospital nurses and staff express their thanks for Dixon helping them.
Maybe that’s why everyone sticks around, even after all the cake is passed out. After all, Dixon has more stories to tell, and friends want more of her time.
Looks as though she’ll be staying awhile.