Elmer ‘Lucky’ McGinty’s crystal clear memories of a life well lived flow with a thickness, a richness, that borders on the hypnotic.
On a sun-dappled morning, I found McGinty, 98, at his customary Sunday haunt: in his wheelchair on the terrace of the local Einstein bagels. As usual, Lucky took center stage, the irrepressible marquee attraction for an audience of well-wishers who have made soaking up every one of his insights a weekly tradition. It didn’t take me long before I found myself comfortably caught up in the swirl.
Clutching a one-page bio, I reviewed his military adventures. He served in the Army Air Forces as a Staff Sergeant trained as a waist gunner on a B-17 during World War II. From 1943 to 1944, the Pennsylvania native flew missions over Germany and France in aircraft dubbed, for instance, ‘Gremlin’s Sweetheart’, ‘Cuddle Cat, and ‘Heavenly Daze’.
“Let’s see…you flew 30 missions,” I began, a little awestruck myself in the presence of a guy so excited, robust, and willing to share. “Twenty-nine missions,” he replied softly but firmly, his voice strong and assured. When his eyes reached the next line, the one that listed his serial number, he picked up on that, too, like a bald eagle swooping down to pluck a prairie dog for supper. “That’s not my serial number.”
Sometimes during a mission, Diane said “the bombs would get crossed in the bomb bay hatch. Her dad would be forced to kick them out” of the aircraft.
Not quite. “I’d push them out,” he corrected.
He earned the nickname ‘Lucky’ in the service, following a dust up. When his superior threatened to ‘bust him’ back to private, McGinty thundered, “you can’t bust me. I’m already a private. So I hit him.” In exchange for facing a court-martial, he apologized. As punishment, he scrubbed floors for a week.
She says that he has heart issues which culminated in bypass surgery. “Was it ’94, Dad?”
“Oh, yeah,” he confirmed, all the while eyeing the bagel dressed ornamentally in his favorite toppings. “New Year’s Eve.”
The hour flew by. Diane, who had heard her dad transmit these crackling accounts her whole life, remained fresh and robust, the archetypal receiver. It was almost as if she was tuning in again for the first time.
While her dad polished off his breakfast, Diane filled me in on a one of the organizations he’s a part of. The Greatest Generations Foundation, she explained, started as a way to take World War II veterans back to the battlegrounds where they fought. Her father, she continued, has been to England and France, “where he was invited to the Le Mans auto race. He actually got to ride in one of the cars, after the doctor checked him out to make sure his heart could take it.”
I asked Timothy Davis, the president and CEO of the GGF, about McGinty. “He’s a humble man,” he said. “He’s remarkable, a walking encyclopedia.” I also learned that it took McGinty 60 years before he was given the medals he fought for. That was a shocker. Davis connected the dots.
“It was a common theme” for vets, he emphasized. War “took a tremendous toll on those returning soldiers, who, like McGinty, was anxious to transition to civilian life and to his role as a husband and father to five children. Before the official ceremony was held in 2007, Davis said all documentation relating to McGinty’s war record were verified by the Pentagon.
For his 95th birthday, Diane recalled her vision was to keep the invitation list to a manageable level. But that wasn’t to be. Soon, the guest list mushroomed. “I made the mistake of asking Dad who we should invite! Dad has a lot of friends. He belongs to the 8th Air Force Historical Society.” In addition, he served as a deacon and treasurer of his church.
Growing up, Diane remembered her father as strict. Always, though, his soft side won out. “He never hit me. He’d send me to my room. Half an hour later, he’d be coming down the hall. `You want a milkshake?’”
As McGinty s greeted more familiar faces, keeping his feet warm with a Denver Broncos blanket, Diane made it personal. Painting a more defined portrait of his bright sweetness would take hours. “He’s the most amazing father. I’m going to start crying. He’s kind and generous. I wish I could have found someone like him.”
As the sun reached its zenith, the band of admirers began to thin. The last slice of good-natured color belonged to affable John Hathoot, himself a Navy vet gazing on as McGinty scooped up the crumbs of his food. Hathoot wondered aloud why this particular hero was so fond of lox and bagels. “Is it because he’s from the east? Or, no, maybe it’s because he’s half Jewish,” Hathoot quipped, his affection, his wholehearted adoration, bubbling to the top.