At 99 years old, Carl “Kelly” Carlson is still sharp as a tack. The near-centenarian rattled off dates and cracked jokes throughout a recent hour-long interview at Liberty Village in Peru, where he has called home the past decade with his wife of 78 years, Helen.
Carlson certainly hasn’t fallen behind the times. He keeps up his driver’s license and uses a personal computer (he learned how at age 85) for online banking and trading stocks. Not bad for someone born Oct. 4, 1919, on a farm west of Magnolia.
Life on the farm
When asked about his boyhood home, Carlson launches into a vivid room-by-room description — from the porch to the parlor — ending the virtual tour with the four bedrooms upstairs. He was the middle of three children, with an older sister Ella and younger brother Wallace, both who have passed on.
“I rode horses and as soon as I was able, I started picking corn,” Carlson recalled.
“I started cultivating corn at eight years old, with horses,” he said. “The horses knew more about it than I did. We’d get to the end of the row and I’d pull up the shank. They’d turn around and be on the other rows to come back.”
“I enjoyed my life on the farm. You can take the boy off of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.”
To make it to 99 years old, Carlson had to survive several brushes with death during World War II.
He was drafted into the Army in 1944, at age 25 with a young family in Magnolia.
“I didn’t feel like volunteering and leaving a wife and young son at home. But when I got drafted I was kind of happy, cause all my buddies were gone and I felt like a slacker,” he said. “I went overseas as a buck private.”
Not long overseas, he survived his first potentially-deadly scare.
“At Metz, France was a replacement depo. There were about 20 of us assigned to the 89th Division. They put us in a truck and we started down the road.
“Here comes a Messerschmitt (German warplane), guns right at us. I give the driver credit. He wheeled us over in the ditch and (the plane) went by. I thought he’d turn around and get us, because we were sitting ducks now. He must have spent all his ammo, because he didn’t come back.”
Carlson said he eventually joined up with “Patton’s Army” as a BAR gunner in the 89th Division.
“I threw away the tripod because I could fire it from the hip and got it down to 19 pounds,” Carlson recalled about his time handling the Browning Automatic Rifle.
“My ammunition bearer was 19 years old, from Sioux Falls South Dakota. Francis Wessendorf was his name. Being I’m 25 and he was 19 he looked up to me like I was a father figure. Oh, did we get along well.
“One other time we were taking this town. It’s in the morning and it’s in March and it’s been raining and awfully wet. And here comes this German 88 shell.... They had to hit something hard before they explode. The shrapnel missed above our heads about (a few feet) high (because the ground was) wet.
“So I escaped death twice, by a hair you might say,” Carlson said.
“So far as I know, I never saw that I killed anybody, which I’m very happy for. I didn’t want to kill anybody,” Carlson said. “I wouldn’t take a lot for my experiences in World War II. I’d give a lot not to do it again.”
When he returned from the war, Carlson kept his old job as a fuel salesman for Standard Oil for the rest of his career, eventually moving to McNabb in 1950. Along the way, he and Helen’s family expanded to four children, with three boys, Don, John and Phillip, and one girl, Christine.
Carlson says his nearly eight-decade long marriage to Helen has been perfect.
“I always say If I’d have ordered Helen out of a catalog I’d have had her the same,” he said.
The family who cheers together stays together
Both he and his wife are huge sports fans, said Carlson, whose favorite athlete of all time is Michael Jordan.
“Helen likes sports as much as I do. She hollers at them when she thinks they made a mistake,” he said with a laugh.
He said he was an avid athlete growing up in Magnolia.
“During the Depression we couldn’t afford gloves so we played softball instead of (baseball.) And the first basemen and the catcher were the only ones who had gloves.”
As a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, Carlson said he was very excited when the North-siders finally claimed a World Series crown in 2016, the first of his lifetime.
“I never thought it would happen,” he said with a chuckle.
When asked for any advice he’d like to share, Carlson responded with some wisdom passed down from his father.
“My dad always told me ‘Eat the best you can. Have all the fun you can. You’re only going to be here for a short while.’”
Editor’s note: Thanks to Bo Windy of Peru for arranging the interview with Mr. Carlson.
Chris Yucus can be contacted at (815) 220-6934 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_ChrisYucus.