"They like me because I never complain. I never talk about my medication or my health or my doctors. Instead, I'll tell jokes and talk about life. That's what makes me happy."
Aaron Smith is talking about the daily call he gets from his senior center to "make sure I'm still alive." The fact that he is 97 years old may seem to warrant a daily check-in call, but spend some time with Mr. Smith and you may get the feeling that he should be making rather than receiving the calls.
In a comfortable retirement community in Huntington Beach, Smith lives in a small apartment with his 16-year-old female dachshund, Tiger. "We're just about the same age," he jokes.
Tiger was a gift from Smith's daughter, Barbara, during a difficult time when he was nursing his beloved wife, Vivian, near the end of her life. They had married about when Pearl Harbor was attacked and were wed for 58 years (he has lived in Huntington Beach for 29 years).
To try to cover Aaron Smith's life in one newspaper column would be a fool's challenge, but perhaps I can offer at least a sense of this special man.
He was born in Russia in 1917, the year of the revolution. When he was 4 1/2, his family was smuggled into Romania and a couple years later made it to Brooklyn, N.Y. Along with thousands of other immigrants, a hard-working Jewish family from Russia settled in.
Remembering his time in New York City, Smith is wistful.
"You didn't have to worry about what you were going to do when you grew up," he said. "My father was a hatter, so I knew I was going to make hats. If your father was a carpenter, you were going to be a carpenter."
But in his early 20s, with the onset of World War II, his life, like those of many other young people then, was altered forever.
"I was drafted in March 1943, and by June 1943 I was overseas," he recalled.
In a frame on the wall are two Purple Hearts along with several other commendations.
"I was wounded twice," Smith said. "The first time, I begged the Army not to send a telegram to my family because I knew what that meant. When the family received a telegram, that usually meant a death."
So there was no telegram.
That first injury took place at Normandy during one horrific incident as Allied forces were pushing inland. Smith's outfit was attempting to capture a hill that the Germans were using to their strategic advantage. Smith thought the operation would include the typical artillery barrage followed by an infantry charge. However, the Germans, fearful of the artillery, retreated.
Smith's unit rushed the hill to secure the high ground, but a communication breakdown occurred between infantry and artillery. The artillery continued shelling the hill, thinking the Germans were still there. In one of the most tragic friendly-fire incidents in U.S. history, 350 men in Smith's division died in seven minutes, including his platoon leader. Smith, wounded by shrapnel, received his first Purple Heart.
The next time he was wounded, the Army did send a telegram to his family, prompting his father to have a small stroke. He had not even opened the letter to learn that his son was OK. The mere arrival of the message took its toll.
In his soft Yiddish accent, Smith is philosophical about his war experiences.
"I can't ever go back to that site at Normandy because of what I associate with it," he said. "But as hard as those times were, I always tried to be positive, to not fear death and to look at the bright side of things. I found humor wherever I could."
And he still does. Sharp, thoughtful and slyly humorous, Smith seems like he could have been a Borscht Belt comedian with his one-liners and a devilish look in his still-bright eyes. "I have good days and bad days," he said with a smile. "The trouble is, I can't tell them apart."
He will talk all day about his two children, two grandchildren and new great-grandchild.
"Family is all that matters to me," he said. "I think it's all that ever really mattered to me. And I think I have the best family in the world."
Barbara told me: "He is a true family man. It's what he has always cared most about, and I think of all the many important lessons he's handed down, it's the greatest thing he taught us — the importance of family. We're just so lucky to have my dad."
Reflecting on his life, Smith said, "I was lucky enough to grow up during some of the most interesting times in history. You can't imagine being a little boy and running outside with your friends when a plane would fly overhead because it was such a new thing to see. I never expected to live this long, and even though my body is not in great shape, my mind is still very sharp, and for that I'm very thankful."
I can certainly vouch for that.
As my son and I were leaving after our visit, I said to Mr. Smith, "I'd really like to be here when you turn 100." Pausing, he smiled back. "I'd really like to be here when I turn 100."
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 25 books, including the new "Huntington Beach Chronicles: The Heart of Surf City" from History Press. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.