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Local WWII veteran turns 95

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Photos of Herb “Lance” Harris and his late wife, Barbara, grace his home. He still has about half of the 5,000 recipes she accumulated over her lifetime, and Mr. Harris says he talks to her picture every day.

by Kenzie Strange

CRAFTSBURY — Herb “Lance” Harris is one of about 100,000 World War II veterans still living today, out of about 16 million Americans who served in the global conflict.  He was born on April 25, 1929, and was only 17 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at the tail end of the war.

“At that time, everybody was patriotic,” Mr. Harris said. “It was the thing to do.

“I joined actually on my seventeenth birthday,” Mr. Harris said.  “I tried to join when I was 16, but they said no.

“I was just going to lie about my age,” Mr. Harris said, “but you needed your parents’ permission” and Mr. Harris’ parents wouldn’t sign for him to enlist until he turned 17.

“When I was 16, I tried to join, and I actually went and took the physical.  I brought the paperwork home, which my parents wouldn’t sign, but when I was 16, I tried to join the Marines.”

The consequence for lying about your age could be severe – Mr. Harris mentioned a 12-year-old boy who lied about his age, was wounded during combat, and as a consequence, had to serve prison time.

After the yearlong wait, Mr. Harris said he “finally decided on the Coast Guard — it just attracted me more than any of the other services.  It was either that or the Navy.”

After some teenage brainstorming, Mr. Harris realized that “I’d rather serve on a smaller Coast Guard cutter than I would a large ship, like a battleship or an aircraft carrier.”

Mr. Harris did his boot camp training in Cape May, Florida, went to radio school in Groton, Connecticut, then was assigned to a ship in South Portland, Maine.  He finished his tour of duty on the U.S.S. Evergreen, out of Boston.

His last six months of serving on the Evergreen was after the war was over, and it was for the purposes of an “oceanographic tour” with a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts.

“Most of the time I was in the Coast Guard I was in the North Atlantic,” Mr. Harris said.

“I was the radio man.  Everything was Morse code back then,” and Mr. Harris would receive messages and weather reports through morse code.

His ship performed rescue work in the sometimes stormy and unforgiving seas of the North Atlantic.

There was one storm in which Mr. Harris’ typewriter broke away from its desk, and he put the typewriter between his legs on the deck, while he was “being thrown from one side of the radio shack to the other side.  I was bouncing off the walls, but I got the report.

“There were times we saved crews and would take crews off a ship downed during a storm,” Mr. Harris said.

“We were at sea constantly,” he said.  His ship would be away from port for months at a time, with just one land stop to refill supplies.

“You can imagine how tired you get of each other at sea,” he said, adding, “it seemed like six years after a while,” rather than just six months.

“My tour was actually up before we came back to Boston and they certainly weren’t going to send a helicopter to get me off the ship and bring me back just because my tour was up.”  He was officially discharged a month after his tour was over.

Mr. Harris said he has seen patriotism change greatly during his lifetime.  Back in his younger years, he said this country was “all for one and one for all,” and now it’s just divided.

“Vietnam changed everything,” Mr. Harris said.  “People lost faith in the government — because we were there, and we shouldn’t have been there.”  He thinks “Vietnam veterans deserve more recognition than they have.”

Veteran community events are important to Mr. Harris, and he highly enjoys the Orleans golf fundraising event.  As of last year he is the only World War II representative in attendance.

There are veterans representing every subsequent war there, and the event is meant to honor their collective service and current needs.

Mr. Harris believes if everyone in the country had to serve one or two years, everything would be different, and probably better off.  There would be more people trained in the trades, and patriotism would increase.

“I would like to see it mandatory.”

Mr. Harris grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, as Herb Harris, but prefers the name Lance nowadays.  “My mother actually wanted to name me Lance,” he said laughing.  “I wish I had that name. The rest of the family objected.”

Mr. Harris likes Lance as his name now and said, “My daughter calls me Lance, and a few others in the family.”

He grew up in a three-decker that his parents rented.  “That house could have probably sold for about $5,000, doing good by those years.  That same home today would be worth a million or a million and a half,” he said, remarking on Boston’s sky-high real estate prices these days.

He went back to his childhood neighborhood a couple of months ago and thought it looked “exactly the same.

“There’s only four houses on the street,” and while Mr. Harris said, “everything was well-kept and the homes looked nice,” he was surprised that “it all looked so small.”

“The streets seemed so narrow, and everything seemed so small in comparison to what I grew up in.  As a kid everything looked so much bigger.”

He still remembered the names of all the nearby streets.

“Some things have changed, but nothing that major.”

Mr. Harris dropped out of high school with enough credits to graduate when he was 15.  He knew he wanted to serve his country; he was just waiting until he was old enough to join.

“I just wasted a couple of years until I was old enough.  I think in that two years I had half a dozen jobs with no intent of staying.

“One of them was a weaving outfit, and we would weave clothes.  As for any of the others, I don’t even remember.”

After his discharge from the Coast Guard he went to study and play football at Arizona State College.

Playing football was “one of the reasons” Mr. Harris went to Arizona State, now Arizona State University.   The coach was from Massachusetts and often scouted players from his home state.

“The thought of it just attracted me, and I believe in fate, and I think fate brought me, because if I hadn’t gone, I never would have met my wife.  I met my wife there and we got married while we were still in college.”

At the time the college had 6,000 students, while the university today boasts roughly 75,000 students.

The football player, met Barbara, the cheerleader, and love quickly followed.  The couple were married for 63 years, staying together until her death in 2014.

“Something that kind of sealed the relationship though, was when the football season was over, some of the football players and some of the cheerleaders would play softball on Saturdays,” Mr. Harris recalled.

“We’d go to one of the local restaurants where we could get something to eat or drink.  I got to know her a lot better then, than I did during the football season.  One time she mentioned that she was having trouble with her physics.  I was pretty good with physics, and I said maybe I can help you.  So I used to meet her every night at the library and help her with her physics.

“So that’s where our relationship really grew.”

The couple stayed in Arizona for 11 years, with Mr. Harris teaching physical education and coaching, while his wife worked as a bank teller.  From there they went to Massachusetts, where Mr. Harris taught sixth grade history and geography in Norwood, Massachusetts.

It was around that time the couple decided to take a two-month long road trip to figure out where they wanted to retire.

“There’s so much to see in this country,” Mr. Harris said, “and we finally ended up in Vermont.  We both really, really liked it.  We went back a number of times to different places in Vermont and we pretty much covered the entire state.”

The couple moved to Vermont in 1982, after one of Mr. Harris’ daughters bought a home in South Albany.

“That kind of influenced us,” he said.  “We originally rented a condo in Essex, for just about six months,” but both knew they wanted to be closer to the Kingdom.

One day they took a back road to The Willey’s Store in Greensboro to meet their daughter.  On the way they went by a house with a for-sale sign.

Of Willey’s, Mr. Harris said, “It’s a general store like you’ve never seen before.  You’re missing something if you haven’t had the opportunity to go.”

The couple went back to look at the house.  The owner showed it to them, and they went right to the real estate agent and bought it.

Mr. and Mrs. Harris lived in Greensboro until 2004, then moved to Craftsbury.

“My wife got pretty tired of living on the back road,” Mr. Harris said, and they bought the house right across the street from the general store in Craftsbury from good friends.

Mr. Harris thought he’d like to continue teaching when he moved to Vermont, but after subbing for a year, “decided there was no way I want to get back into education — it was awful.  The kids and parents didn’t respect you, the discipline was terrible, so I figured absolutely there’s no way I want to get back to education.”

Instead, Mr. Harris went into the automobile business.  He had some experience from Massachusetts, where often he juggled three jobs to support his family.

One of the jobs was at the Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury dealership in Foxboro, Massachusetts. He was in sales for six or seven years, then a sales manager for a couple of years, and then ran the leasing department.

After moving to Vermont, he worked at a small used car operation in Morrisville for a couple of years, before working for Hayes Ford in Newport as the rental and lease manager.

“I was 68 when I retired,” Mr. Harris said, “and I retired fully for six years and loved it.

“My wife and I did a lot of traveling, a lot of places we were talking about traveling to we did, but then after six years that was enough.

“I had too much time, I wanted something else to do,” Mr. Harris explained.  He went to work for Bond Auto Parts as a driver, which he did for 11 years, before retiring for good.

“I didn’t really trust my driving skills, and I decided, well, it’s time to hang it up.”

Mr. Harris quit personal driving at the same time.

Now if Mr. Harris wants a ride, he often uses Rural Community Transportation as a resource.  Just recently, his driver was Chris Braithwaite, the former publisher and owner of the Chronicle, who drove him to the Morrisville Hannaford’s.  Amazon Prime comes in handy for many household needs, and Mr. Harris spends much of his time keeping his house in order.

Mr. Harris still lives in the house in Craftsbury, across the street from the general store. It’s quaint, photo-filled, music-filled, and beautifully fake flower-filled, with a white painted exterior, a half-moon shaped second story balcony, and a wild, inviting garden.

Art and memories are everywhere in Mr. Harris’ home, and his demeanor couldn’t have been more calm or welcoming. Soft classical music played in the background, and the generous host offered a visiting reporter a warm cup of caffeine-free tea, with honey. He wore a Canadian Tuxedo for the interview, was upbeat, affable, and full of enthusiasm.

Mr. Harris has been living on his own for the last ten years, since his wife, Barbara, died.

“Every day I talk to her picture,” Mr. Harris said.

Of his wife, Mr. Harris said she was a wonderful cook.  While she was a bank teller for some years, she really took off after working in the kitchen at Sterling College.

“She used to try out all these new dishes, and she would try them out on me.  I would tell her if they were keepers or not,” Mr. Harris said. “When she passed away, she had two trays that have at least 5,000 recipes, and she had them all catalogued — Mexican, Italian, whatever,” and said he still has about half of them left.

“I’d love to find a home for the rest of them,” he said.

“The last ten years or more she would spend the first two hours of every day copying recipes either out of a magazine, a book, or somewhere.  That’s how she started every day.”

It’s not easy cooking for one person, and Mr. Harris has challenges doing it every day. “Cooking, I struggle.  It’s at least four hours every day,” whether preparing a meal, eating it, or cleaning up after it.

Mr. Harris still thinks “you are what you eat,” and  he said he believes one of the secrets of his longevity, beyond good genes, is eating well.

For him, right now, that means no salt or sugar, and limited potassium, among others.

He sees his doctor every four months and is in good health coming into his ninety-fifth birthday.

He likes to stay on top of the cleaning and has a system of doing certain sections at a time.  He said he can’t go to bed unless he knows all the dishes are clean.

His next-door neighbor is the fire chief in Craftsbury, ex-Navy, ex-Vermont State Trooper, and a “great mechanic” who can “repair anything.”

“He’s there whenever I need him.  In fact, most of the time I don’t even have to ask him, if he knows I have a problem with something, he’ll fix it.

“I don’t rush things,” Mr. Harris said of his life now.  “I try to do things on the slower side purposely, so that I won’t run into a problem — fall or lose my balance. I take my time.”

His family did get Mr. Harris a LifeAlert bracelet, but as the roof of his Craftsbury home is metal, the bracelet doesn’t work there.

Mr. Harris has close relations with his four children, who are scattered around the country.  One daughter lives in Vermont, while one son lives in California, another in Ohio, and one more residing in North Carolina. He has 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Golf is one of Mr. Harris’ main retirement hobbies.  He is a self-proclaimed “avid golfer,” and he plays whenever he can.  He said the sport brings him great joy, by allowing him to get outside with friends.  He plays often, weather permitting. His favorite spot to tee-off?  The Orleans Country Club.

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