He was born before Edison made light at Menlo Park, before Geronimo surrendered, before there were telephones or interstates or Eggs McMuffin. He sat there yesterday morning in the Cannon House Office Building with his back arched on a folding chair and his neck coming down from his jaw in strings and told a roomful of TV people and camera-ready representatives that he liked whiskey and raw eggs and chewing tobacco, and that the reason he has lived so damn long is because he has a sense of purpose without having to be sanctimonious about it.
"I bought the whiskey, it did not buy me," said George Washington White, who is 112 and moving on.
"Aren't they precious?" said a woman with a slit in her skirt, scribbling furiously.
The "they" were the other seven "centenarians" sitting like so many prized, stony, exotic fowl before Rep. Claude Pepper's (D-Fla.) Select Committee must have had a terrific idea: Haul out eight or nine 100-Clubbers from around the country and let then tell why they've lived so long. Can't miss. Pack the place.
It didn't miss, thanks mainly to the stoic grace and transcending dignity of the witnesses, who either didn't notice or mind photographers getting down on their backs in front of them to get just the right snap. The Old Ones sat there at two long tables, before microphones and ice water, tended by social workers who in some cases were 70 and 80 years their junior. The committee, gleaming from the polished dais, was framed by potted palms.
There was Lizzie Dickens, first up, who just turned 103, from Halifax, N.C., with a brown knitted cap pulled down over her fine old parchment skin. Dickens was picking 120 pounds of cotton a day 'til she was 78. Didn't hurt her none, neither. She attributed her longevity to trust in the Lord.
There was Ida Johnson, 102, from Anderson, S.C., who learned to midwife babies when she was 93 but gave it up because "women wanted me to destroy their babies and I wouldn't do it." Ida had on a red-and-black feathered hat, a beige blouse, a brooch and pendant. She looked like a million. "I get up in the morning and put on a pot of water and make me two cups of coffee, instant coffee, and grits, instant grits," she said. "I also take a bath every morning, because when you're gonna be around folks, you need to be clean."
There was W. L. Pennell, M.D., 101, who became a physician three years after the new century was born and who still gets up every morning, gets dressed, and goes downtown to his office where he ministers to the ears, noses, and throats of East Orange, N.J.
Dr. Pannell came buttoned in a gray cardigan beneath his suit. He had on argyle socks. Shafts of hair so thin and white they looked like strips of silk angled down his forehead. He got lost in sentences a couple of times. Once he started before his turn -- and cackled to himself.
"It passed very quickly," he said.
There was Nanreen Walton, 104, from Hickory, N.C., who said, "We went to the fields and we went to work. And when night came, we went to bed. I believe that's the reason I'm here," Nanreen has arthritis in her back. She lived a century without seeing the inside of a hospital.
Do you take any alcohol? A committee member asked.
"What'd he say?" Walton said to the woman half her age behind her.
Do you take any toddy or alcohol? The member pressed.
"Not now, brother. But I did when I was young."
The District of Columbia had a representative: L. Perry West, 101, whose unshaking hands were the white of piano keys, or maybe whale bone. They gleamed in the chandeliered light. He said he smoked his first and last cigarette "between 4 and 4 1/2, when my older sister offered it as a bribe to give up my kilts." During the winters of his youth, West said, he used to skate down the Potomac to Alexandria. He advocated deep breathing before an open window. He sat in a wheelchair, and when his testimony was finished, someone took him out.
"Thank you very much," said Rep. Edward Roybal, (D-Calif.).
"Beg pardon?" West said, cupping an ear. He just smiled.
But the staunchest of them all was the eldest. George Washington White started working for the Southern Railroad in 1898. He hired out on Old 97 and before he was done had "hauled" four presidents -- Roosevelt, Harding, McKinley, and Taft. He wasn't aboard 97 that fateful day she went slamming down the three-mile grade between Lynchburg and Danville at 90 miles an hour, the steam scalding the engineer to the throttle and creating immortality for herself in song. "Nope. I was on another run that day," White said.
White lives now in the 90-bed Lynchburg Nursing Home in Lynchburg, Va. You think that stops him? "He's got a bus pass," said Ellen Gilliland, activity director of the home. "He comes and goes when he pleases. Sometimes we get calls from people in town, the police and others, to come pick him up. We do."
Gilliland said White wasn't exactly sure what testifying before Congress was -- but that he was happy to come ahead anyway. He stayed in the Sheraton Park Tuesday night. Yesterday, in hot arc lights, he had on a zippy three-piece blue suit and a pale blue shirt.There was about an extra four inches in the neck of the shirt. Halfway through his testimony, Gilliland popped him a red coughdrop.
Gilliland sat next to White during his testimony, patting him on the arm now and then. She had the bemused resigned air of someone trying to calm hurricanes. Behind White sat his nurse aide, a large, Southern-voiced, country woman who looked as refreshingly cut of place in the halls of Congress as the "patient." "He trusts me," the aide said. "Until he gets mad. Then he says his heart is black and he doesn't trust anyone."
"That's because he was raised right after slavery," said Gilliland.
One could imagine having the devil to pay with George Washington White's anger.
"Mr. White, do you remember as a boy hearing about Custer's Last Stand?" asked a committee member.
"I don't think I do," White answered in just the right ornery, How-does-that-change-the-price-of-eggs tone.
Rep. Pepper, the chairman, no spring chicken himself at 79, going on 80, opened yesterday's hearing with a lofty statement that "man's preoccupation with his mortality has permeated the course of human existence." It might have been Arabic to the witnesses. They knew more about it anyway. Pepper said America is in the midst of a "centenarian explosion," that 10 years ago there were only 3,200 Americans who had hit 100 whereas now there are over 13,000.
"I never been sick a day in my life except for typhoid fever," White said, adding that that wasn't much anyhow.
"Honor thy father and thy mother," he said.
One was tempted to say yessir.