From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR
At a party celebrating his 90th birthday, Fred Price was so slouched back and relaxed down in that leather high-backed swivel chair that I thought he’d slide out and onto the floor, like eggs out of an omelet pan and onto a plate.
When you head into your tenth decade, service in a World War and almost 30 years with the Shreveport Fire Department in your rearview, you deserve to kick back. Somebody complained to Sam, one of Fred’s many friends, that Fred hadn’t been faithfully doing the exercises the doctor had ordered him to do. Fred got up one day and said he just didn’t feel like it.
“The guy is NINETY,” Sam said. “He’s had risky jobs all his life. If he doesn’t want to do the exercises, he just doesn’t. What’s the big deal?”
The big deal is, after all, not what Fred won’t do but what he has done. And the way he’s done it, with a certain amount of wit and good-naturedness and humility, is probably the main reason his friends wanted to throw him a party, with punch and cupcakes and teacakes and visiting, with Fred and with some of the people his life has touched around Ruston and Arcadia, Simsboro and Shreveport.
We were in the kitchen/fellowship room at First Presbyterian Church in Ruston on a spring Saturday afternoon, Fred and a few dozen family and friends. Fred was not the center of attention and didn’t care to be. At ease in jeans and a polo, he smiled and thanked whoever visited with him. When really young people approached him, his face lit up a bit more. There were no presents to open; he didn’t want any of those. His life’s been filled with them already.
His friend Monty Russell, guitar player and singer, and entertainer and lover of stories, put together and extensive history of Fred’s life as part of a folklore presentation and Veterans Oral History project two years ago (when Fred was “only” 88). It covers Fred’s eventful life beginning in a house in a cotton field between Simsboro and Arcadia. It covers his being drafted into the Army at age 18 in 1944, two years after he wanted to volunteer (and his parents wouldn’t let him) but soon enough to fly 34 missions over Germany in the first months of 1945. Then came 27 years of firefighting in Shreveport.
“Fred cracks me up when he comes out to hear me play because even at 90 years old, he requests ‘The Fireman’ by George Strait,” Monty said. “He says he spent a lifetime putting out old flames on two continents.”
To hear Fred tell it, he was just an American boy doing his duty when he manned the tail gun of the B-17 from his swivel seat, looking down on Germany through a Plexiglas bubble. At first he was “scared to death.” Later he’d sleep in the bubble while his 25-year-old “old man” captain flew the crew of their ship, the “Miss Lucy Valves,” over the English Channel.
“Always having known of the sacrifice my grandfather and his brothers who were gone from Union Parish for four years made (my mother was two before she met her father), I am moved to tears when I hear Fred tell his stories because it reminds me that these guys were just boys when asked to do so much,” Monty said.
Last year when Fred was in a wheelchair for a bit, a couple of his friends took him by helicopter to the air show at Barksdale Air Force Base so he could revisit a bomber. Fred said it felt like seeing a piece of home again, for the first time in a long time.
So happy belated birthday and thanks to Fred, the last living crew member of Miss Lucy Valves. The sacrifices that Fred and so many overseas and at home made gives us something interesting to think about, here on the 71st anniversary of D-Day Plus One, the 70th anniversary since Fred’s final mission/flight over Germany – the early spring of 1945 -- and only two months away from the 70th anniversary of V-J Day, effectively ending WWII.