Commentary

Saunders: The excellent overseas adventure of two Triangle nonagenarians

bsaunders@newsobserver.comSeptember 16, 2013 

“Hello.”

Clarence Whitefield answered the telephone in his apartment at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Meadows one day in early April. On the other end was his buddy, Charlie Nelson.

“Let’s go again” is all Nelson said, yet Whitefield knew immediately what his friend of more than 70 years meant.

You see, Nelson and Whitefield had hopped a military tanker plane to Europe in the 1970s for a spur-of-the-moment vacation and had had a blast. Why not do it again?

Of course, they were just whippersnappers then, both in their 50s, married but traveling alone. Wouldn’t it seem unseemly for two dudes – one 91 and a widower, the other 93 with a wife suffering from Alzheimer’s’ disease – to go gallivanting across the ocean alone?

Proving that they were no prisoners to convention, within weeks of Nelson’s call, Whitefield and he were off on what Whitefield called their “bucket list” trip or, for reasons you’ll see, “their fireball express escapade.”

As a retired U.S. Navy captain, Nelson and a guest can travel anywhere on any military plane that has space available. So they found a chartered 747 leaving Baltimore-Washington International, jumped into Nelson’s Caddy and drove up. They took off for Ramstein Air Base in Germany on April 20.

Unlike their earlier trip, this 10-day journey wasn’t meant to be all fun and games, although when you talk to Nelson and Whitefield, you get the impression that fun and games are always on the menu, too. Whitefield wanted to visit the spot where his brother died during World War II, when he had to eject from his plane and his parachute failed to open.

Three days into their trip, things heated up – literally and almost tragically.

“We were doing about 85 mph on the autobahn when the car cut off,” Nelson said. He was forced to navigate the suddenly powerless rental auto across three lanes of zooming traffic to the highway’s shoulder.

Nelson got out and walked back about 100 yards to an emergency telephone to call a tow truck, leaving his pal half-asleep inside the car. When Nelson looked back, he said, smoke and flames were coming from the car. That’s about the same time Whitefield smelled fumes rising through the floorboard and staggered out just before the Volvo became engulfed in flames.

“He got about 2 feet from the car, and it went ‘Whoosh,’ ” Nelson said. “He came about 3 seconds from being burned alive. I tell you, it shook us up pretty much.”

For evidence of the bond between these two, all you need to know is that a passing bus driver who had stopped to help had to tackle Nelson to keep him from rushing to the flaming car to rescue his friend.

That’s what true friendship looks like. It also looks like this: When Whitefield left his cane in a hotel after they had checked out, Nelson let him use his cane – “or his right arm,” Whitefield said – for support.

The men said the fire destroyed their suitcases, phones, numbers for their contacts and their itinerary.

On the road again

Did they abort the mission and return home, satisfied with knowing that they – a couple of nonagenarians traveling alone abroad – had gotten as far as they did?

No, “we did what we wanted to do,” Nelson said defiantly, sounding for all the world as though the fire had liberated them instead of constrained them. “We had a wonderful new trip.”

They took a taxi to a rental car agency where, Whitefield wrote in notes he showed me of the trip, “a beautiful young woman, with a blouse too small for her ample breasts ... arranged for us to secure a new rental car and GPS.”

Shaken but undeterred, the peripatetic pair bought emergency supplies with the money they had left. Whitefield grimaced when telling me about the $55 emergency pair of drawers he’d had to buy because the upscale boutique was the only store open.

In the grandest tradition of completing the mission, they were back on the road again.

When they finally reached Bayeux, near the west coast of France, Whitefield said, they saw a woman on the street and asked if she knew where they could get a decent hotel. (Gee. Last time I approached a strange woman and asked that, she turned out to be an undercover Atlanta cop, and the city ended up providing me a place to sleep for three days.)

The woman directed Whitefield and Nelson to a hotel up the block, where they washed off the smell of burnt car, ate a good meal and got a night’s rest. Whitefield even spotted a Kiwanis Club meeting – he’s been one for 50 years and had salvaged his Kiwanis pin from the fire – and met some new friends.

Prior to the car fire, on their first day in Europe, they’d driven to Bitburg, Germany, gone to its city hall and asked a receptionist where they could find information on how Lt. Edwin Whitefield had died. She directed them to a man who said he could help them.

Could he ever! The man emerged from a back office after retrieving a recently published book with information about Lt. Edwin Whitefield’s plane and death. The book contained pictures of Clarence’s brother’s plane, and although it was written in German, Whitefield could read his brother’s name in it. The man guided them to a local library where Whitefield bought a two-volume set of books that had even more information about his brother’s plane and death.

The books were destroyed in the car fire, and he had to go back and get another set.

At a time when many people make a daylong jaunt to Asheville seem as strenuous and taxing as an excursion to the Kalahari – and when we’ve invented a word, “staycation,” for people too lazy to pack up the car and travel – I was intrigued upon hearing of two men in their 90s who had embarked upon a trip to Europe. With just each other.

When I walked into and complimented Whitefield’s spacious apartment, he responded, “It’s a nice bachelor’s pad.”

Still hoping for Rio

It used to be a two-bedroom, but after the death of his wife four years ago, he converted one of the bedrooms into a study. On its walls and shelves are pictures of Whitefield and his wife during some of their world travels together, along with pictures of their three children. When he starts pointing out and naming the countries in which the pictures were taken, you realize it might be easier if he named the countries to which he hasn’t traveled.

One such country is Brazil, but it isn’t because Whitefield and Nelson didn’t try to get there. They had hoped to go to Rio de Janeiro on their first trip together, but no seats became available.

Nelson is a retired Durham insurance company executive who, Whitefield said, was a “wheel” on the UNC campus during the 1940s. “He was a big man on campus, a UNC cheerleader. He’s been one ever since.”

Nelson, when I reached him by phone, said he was not just a cheerleader. “I was head cheerleader. I’m the guy who put girls on the cheerleader squad” at UNC.

For that, we thank you, Charlie.

Whitefield is a former newspaper reporter for the Durham Morning Herald who later became PR director for Duke University. “I thought I was going to do that for the rest of my life,” he said.

He did it for 14 years. “I was sitting over there in my office, in one of those nice stone buildings. ... Five or six guys came in unannounced and said, ‘Our alumni director is going to retire next year and if you’re interested in the job we’d like you to apply for it.’ Then another one piped up ‘Besides, you’ve been over here in this enemy camp long enough. We need you back in Chapel Hill.’ ”

As quickly as one could say “Go Tar Heels,” Whitefield had traded one shade of blue for another and returned to his alma mater, where he served 19 years as alumni director.

I asked Nelson if he has plans for more overseas adventures. “It depends on how the spirit moves me,” he said. “A trip to Myanmar is in the back of my mind. That’s the one place in Asia I haven’t been ... I’ve traveled all over the world several times, but I’ve only been able to talk Clarence into going twice.”

I asked the same question of Whitefield, if Nelson and he had at least one more adventure in them – and if a whippersnapper four decades younger than they could come along.

“I think that may have been our last international trip,” Whitefield said.

Let’s hope not. I think we – I mean they – could have a ball in Rio.

I’m just worried that I won’t be able to keep up.

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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