Richard Woods has no teeth, but he smiles with his eyes, which are bright and clear. Except for an aching arm and leg, he says he feels pretty good. This is really something; Woods is 109 years old.
I visited Mr. Woods this past weekend at D.C. Village, a city-run home for the elderly in Southwest, seeking friendly advice on how to survive troubled times. You'd figure a 109-year-old man would know a trick or two. Mr. Woods knows hundreds of 'em.
"I'll never forget what my mother told me," Woods says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. "She'd say, 'Boy, behave yourself and do right and stay out of bad company.' "
He repeats it. "Stay out of bad company. She'd say, 'If you got to go somewhere, go by yourself and come back by yourself and nobody can say bad things about you,' " he says.
Mr. Woods is so old his white hair is turning black again. During our talk he alternately laughed and cried at old memories. He is a living link between slavery and freedom for blacks in America, a man who knew in his soul that this country was not so old and still had a long way to go.
"I been workin' and scufflin' for my livin' ever since my mother died," Woods says. "I did all kinds of work, any kind of work, because she told me, 'never steal from nobody.' "
Woods was born in a small hamlet called Lugout, S.C. in 1873. In August he'll be 110.
Check out his life:
The year he was born a depression had slowed the nation's economy to a virtual standstill. There would be another in 1884, 1893 and 1907--so by 1931 Woods knew how to handle it. "I'll never forget Hoover," Woods says. "Not after what he did to me." Otherwise, Woods adds, he never gets mad. That's part of the secret to a long life.
"I eat cabbage and greens and I don't mess with women," Woods says. "I ain't got no girlfriend. I don't want no girlfriend and I don't mind telling anybody. I had a wife and worked so hard so she would not have to work so she started going to church every night and ran off with another man. I don't have no wife and I don't need no wife either."
Collette Elliott, the social worker who cares for Woods at D.C. Village, interrupts the conversation by showing Woods a picture of himself being hugged by a young woman. "Isn't this your girlfriend?" Elliott asks. Woods is stunned. Slaps his hand to his chin and strikes a Jack Benny pose. He is speechless. So I ask Woods what about it. Was that his girlfriend?
"It's over with her," Woods says.
Well, you didn't tell her it was over, Elliott informs Woods. Woods is not about to admit he had forgotten anything, so the relationship is back on.
Woods worked as a dairyman in South Carolina as a hired hand along with a cousin. Together they would herd cows from upper pasture to lower pasture, milk them and carry the product into town.
"I really miss my cousin. He's dead now. He's been gone . . . ." Woods eyes begin to well with tears. He has seen so many deaths. A man with more than a score of brothers and sisters, he is a sole survivor. "There was this cow who always tried to bite me," he says, his tears turning abruptly into laughter. "Lord, how that cow chased us, but it never caught me. Sometimes it would catch my cousin," Woods says, his voice quavering at the mention of the long dead man. "He was the only friend I ever had."
Woods' life is, in some ways, a chronicle of contemporary American history--and a commentary on it. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb when Woods was 3, although Woods used kerosene light until he was well into his teens. In 1903 the Wright Brothers made the first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., a few miles from his home. But Woods has never flown.
"No, I never wants to get in an airplane," Woods says, laughing heartily. "I used to go and see them roll and fly, but I wouldn't get on one of them for nothing."
I asked Woods if there is anything that bothers him. "I get tired," Woods said. "I just get tired of sleeping alone."
Woods says that he has enjoyed his long life. "Lord knows I have had some fun."
Mr. Woods may be old, but he's solid as an oak.