Walter (Eyeshade) Lorenzana, who checked himself into the California Veterans Home here seven months before Black Tuesday, 1929, is still there, 53 years later--and he is doing just fine.
He was 39 when he entered the old soldiers' home. He had served 658 days in U.S. Army uniform from Aug. 5, 1917 to May 24, 1919.
Herbert Hoover was president when Eyeshade arrived. He not only made it through the Great Depression but also through World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam war and a variety of crises and incidents. He also made it through Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and, at 92, he will probably be there through Ronald Reagan.
The tale of Eyeshade Lorenzana, who got his name because of the ever-present green eyeshade he wears to keep down the glare, is an instructive footnote to history. While he is one of a diminishing number of World War I veterans eligible for residence in this kind of institution, such homes are already expecting a crush of business. More than 12 million veterans of World War II are alive and potentially eligible. There are also the 5.7 million survivors of service in Korea and 9 million veterans of the war in Vietnam.
The overwhelming majority of those veterans will never wind up in a veterans' home. But for Eyeshade, the old soldiers' home provides comforts and a lifestyle far above anything he was used to on the outside, as well as the companionship of friends with similiar memories.
Barely five feet tall, Eyeshade lost his left leg in 1980 because of circulatory problems, but that has not slowed him down.
He owes his success and longevity, he says, to his "intellect and agility." He is a peripatetic traveler who was unavailable recently because he was on a 10-day pass to Ogden, Utah, and delayed an interview again because he was on a 22-day train trip to San Diego. He is planning another trip to Reno, Nev., as soon as he "consults"--as he put it--with a buddy he identified only as "Big John."
He is almost totally deaf although he responds readily to shouted questions inches from his ear. Personnel at the veterans' home have repeatedly urged him to get a hearing aid, but he cheerfully refuses. "It's a natural part of the aging process," he says, "to get deaf when you're old."
His ticket to the old soldiers' home came via Company C, 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Division, in France's Argonne Forest. There he was gassed, had a friend close enough to touch shot dead during an attack on a German position, and was sprayed with dirt from exploding German shells.
But he made it safely back to his native California, working for 10 years in low-paying jobs in the San Francisco Bay area. His last was in an Oakland bakery as a porter.
"I made a good living in Oakland," Lorenzana said. "Those days there was no taxes like today. Now, every time you turn around, it's taxed."
Work in the bakery got to be too much for him though, so he became a resident at the stunningly beautiful Spanish-Moorish set of buildings here among the oaks above Yountville. It sits on expensive rural real estate in what might be called California's Cote d'Azur, where most of the country's finest wines are grown. Right next to the home is the Domaine Chandon restaurant, where the average lunch runs $60 with wine and tip.
There are three criteria for entering the home. Residents must have been in the service of their country during "time of war or national expedition," the latter a provision to allow in veterans of the so-called Siberian Expedition in 1918, when the United States, Britain, France and Czechoslovakia attempted in vain to rescue the Czarist regime from the Bolsheviks.
Applicants must also be residents of California for five years before admittance, and must have some medically recognized disability.
"I had some trouble with my legs," Lorenzana said. "I thought it was rheumatism, some form of aching joints." Later, he ascribed his infirmities to "aches and pains." His medical records are private and the real nature of his infirmities is unknown.
"The doctor said, 'You're too young to be in here,' " Lorenzana said. "I know he was right. But the fact I was aching was the reason I came in."
The home, situated on 750 gently rolling acres above miles of Napa Valley vineyards, is too peaceful to be called tranquil. It is a living museum of America's wars, of leathery men with whisky-tanned faces and more tattoos per square inch than anyplace short of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels.
There are about 1,400 veterans in residence, including four members of the Siberian Expedition. There are 100 women and about 25 veterans of the Vietnam war.
"They are really busted up," said a staff member.
The average age in the residence halls is 75 and 80 in the well-equipped, modern hospital where Lorenzana lives. He has beaten the odds, if not the system.
And, while the last veterans of the Spanish-American War just recently died, the home, like the other state-supported institutions across the United States, is bracing for an onslaught of 3 1/2 million World War II veterans living in California.
Although the population had been falling in recent years to the point where there is no waiting list, actuarially, many of those veterans are headed toward the age, infirmity and poverty that will bring them to Yountville's doors. State and local agencies now occupying some of the facility's buildings will be forced to move out to accommodate at least 400 more.
In contrast to many veterans' facilities across the United States, the Yountville home is a model for veterans' care. It is an excellent gerontological center with a broad range of activities for those who served in the country's wars. The activities include fishing ponds, a bowling alley, woodworking and craft shop, tool rooms, a movie theater and dozens of others like poker games that never seem to stop.
One of the biggest problems for the vets is alcoholism and the home maintains a well-staffed alcoholic recovery center. But, while administrator Paul Battisti said firmly that no hard liquor is allowed, a walk through the neatly landscaped grounds turned up two whisky bottles hidden in the shrubbery.
That's no problem for Eyeshade. "I quit enjoying my liquor 27 years ago," he said. "Nature had something to do with that."
Today, he collects a $594 monthly pension from Social Security and the Veterans Administration. He was notified recently he would get another cost-of-living raise.
"I pretty near passed out," he said.
He pays $260 a month for his housing, although more elaborate quarters go as high as $500.
"No complaints," he said. "No complaints. Only in the United States could I get what I've been getting.
Nearby another 80-year-old veteran sat watching as Eyeshade read a girlie magazine. Eyeshade turned to a female staff administrator and asked: "Hi. Want to feel my pacemaker?"