Perhaps it's not so strange that a wealthy young Frenchman born in Spain who became a cowboy in America would have been sent by his adopted country to fight Bolsheviks in Siberia.
Cesar Pares does not find it odd at all. But after a long life with many such twists and turns, the World War I veteran is content now to sit in a wheelchair in his small room at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Northwest Washington, waiting to join his beloved wife at Arlington National Cemetery.
"I had an interesting life," said Pares, who at age 98 keeps himself neatly groomed, his white hair combed back neatly atop his aristocratic visage. "I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I gave it up. Money never meant anything to me. Maybe that's why I lived so long."
Pares had a front-row seat for a century that saw the two worst wars in history as well as a global economic depression.
His father was a wealthy French antiques dealer, with shops in Paris, London, New York and Madrid. Cesar was sent as a teenager to America, where he attended a boarding school near Philadelphia and was trained to help with the New York operation.
Cesar had other ideas. "I decided to go west. I wanted to see the country." In New Mexico, he got a job punching cattle. Then he heard there was excitement in Colorado and got a job there with the railroad pounding spikes. "I guess I loved it because I didn't have to do it," Pares said.
In a bar in Denver, he ran into one of his cowpoke buddies, who had just enlisted in the Army. "They're fighting like hell in Siberia," the friend said. "Why don't you come along?"
Three weeks later, Pares found himself aboard a transport to Vladivostok. The United States had entered World War I in 1917, and the following year sent the 31st Infantry Brigade to Siberia to join an international force trying to bring order, support pro-monarchist White Russians and protect allied war materiel in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.
Pares was assigned to help guard a hospital train on the Trans-Siberian Railway against bands of Russian Bolsheviks, Cossacks and Manchurian bandits. "It was exciting, little skirmishes here and there," Pares said. "We did our job."
Pares picked up Russian to add to his French, Spanish and English. "There were very nice-looking girls," he recalled earlier this month. "You learn fast."
After the U.S. force--by then known as the Polar Bear brigade--pulled out of Siberia in 1920, Pares served with the unit in the Philippines before he was sent back to the United States and released from the Army.
He worked for a time in his family's antiques business, but it didn't last. "I missed something, so I reenlisted," he said. "I loved the Army. I loved the camaraderie."
Pares found something else to love in 1929 while riding a horse during a training exercise in the New Jersey pine barrens. "I saw this doggone farmhouse, and saw someone on the doggone porch, and spurred my horse over the fence," he said, describing the event in his still slightly French-accented Americanisms. He courted and soon married the woman he found on the porch, Grace Shelton.
When World War II broke out, Pares was a personnel officer at Camp Upton on Long Island, and he quickly rose through the ranks. In 1944, he was dispatched to North Africa and Europe to help devise a system for keeping track of wounded soldiers. Accompanying the 7th Army as it moved up Italy, Pares came under German artillery fire. Pares raced out from cover to rescue a wounded soldier, an act for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.
Pares stayed in the Army after the war for several years until he retired as a major. He shifted to reserve status and retired again as lieutenant colonel. He then worked for Grumman Aircraft Co. until retirement at age 62.
"I don't regret anything I did," Pares said. "I tell you one thing, it was a better life."
He said he feels sorry for young people these days, consumed with their stock options and Internet shopping. "I don't give a damn how much money they make," he said. "They don't have the fun we did. I don't think people are happy. They work like mules, make a lot of money, but they spend a lot of money. So actually, they're in the same shape we were in the 1930s."
Earlier this month, Pares donned a French beret and visited the Pentagon for a Christmas party with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his first time there in more than half a century. "I was in this building when it first opened," he told the young soldier escorting him on a tour.
The soldier expressed incredulity, noting that the Pentagon was built during World War II. "That's what I said," Pares said curtly. "I was here when it opened."
Grace died in September after a long illness, and 70 years after Pares first saw her on that porch in New Jersey. He visits her whenever he can find someone to drive him from the Soldiers' Home to Arlington Cemetery. "That's why I'm here," he said. "That's the nearest I can be to her."
CAPTION: A lust for life--and not money--is "maybe why I lived so long," says 98-year-old Cesar Pares. A veteran of both world wars, Pares lives at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home.