Recalling B-52s, embalming and that Rockette

A wave, a smile and a butt make this 83-year-old man happy

Wed, 10/10/2012 - 7:45am

Story Location:
63 Washington Street
Camden, ME 04843
United States

    CAMDEN — If you drive up or down Washington Street in Camden, chances are you've seen the cheerful-looking man in the wheelchair waving to everyone who passes by. Twice a day Kermit "Kert" Ingraham, of 63 Washington St., does just that.

    "I just started waving and then people started waving back — especially the women," said Ingraham. "Men are always on their cell phones it seems, but they wave. People walking their dogs wave and the cars honk, too."

    It has been his routine for a year now.

    Why? It seemed like a logical question.

    "Lack of anything else to do, for starters," chirped Ingraham.

    Terry Willey, the Washington Street nonprofit senior home's administrator, put it a different way: "He wanted to smoke and he can't smoke inside. He asked. 'What if I go outside to smoke?' And I said fine."

    When asked if this was true, Ingraham said with irreverence, "She's old and ugly [far from the truth] and she lies."

    A moment later, he fired up the electric wheelchair and made the sojourn to the end of the driveway to have a butt or two, and practice a little community spirit.

    The man was born on Jan. 13, 1929. He's 83 years old and in his mind should be able to do whatever he wants, even if it is smoking. His wheelchair has tobacco on the seat and sports a few cigarette burns. There's an old coffee can that sits off to the side of the driveway, behind a tree, where he deposits his butts. I think he's one of the happiest people I've met in a long time.

    Ingraham's life has been anything, but mundane. Originally from Aroostook County, he joined the U.S. Air Force and worked as a crew chief on B-29s.

    "They sent me to three mechanic schools," he said. "When I was done they asked me where I wanted to be stationed and I said anyplace where it's warm. So they sent me to Fairbanks, Alaska. My boss had been the crew chief on the Enola Gay that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He was a wonderful man. It was so cold we kept 15 B-29s in one hanger. We would put these giant heaters on and let the planes warm for two hours, and still they would spit and sputter taking off down the runway."

    Ingraham couldn't recall how many times he had flown over the North Pole. "We would fly around the North Pole and though no one ever said, we were there to shoot down the Russians in that event," he said.

    Putting the Air Force behind him, Ingraham said he went to embalming school in Boston, studying to be a mortician. He did his apprenticeship at Plummer Funeral Home in Augusta, staying for four years.

    "My boss there had been a lieutenant colonel and was called back into service when the Korean War broke out," he said.

    Ingraham moved to Bangor and bought the Greenlawn Funeral home there. Not long afterward, he bought a second one in Carmel.

    "I had a friend who had funeral homes in Millinocket and East Millinocket. He made me an offer on my two homes and I took it," said Ingraham.

    Then, he moved to Hartford, Connecticut.

    "I lived next door to a guy that built supermarkets and he told me one day he wanted to give me a job," he said. "I told him I didn't know a thing about supermarkets and he said it didn't matter, I was a damn fine mechanic. He got me an interview with Dunham/Bush out of Hartford, which at the time was the third largest manufacturer of refrigeration equipment in the country. I traveled all over the country for them."

    Ingraham spent five years in Dallas working on 15-story glass, high-rises.

    "We had to operate two systems in the buildings because one side was always cold and the other was always hot, depending on where the sun was," said Ingraham.

    He said Dunham/Bush appointed him national service manager for the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

    "It gave me high blood pressure and the doctor asked me if I had recently been given a promotion," he said. "When I said yes, he said that's where the high blood pressure came from. I quit my job and came back to Maine."

    Ingraham's wife was named Lillian, whose father was a minister in Sherman Mills, Maine. Together they had three boys and two girls. The couple divorced in 1974 and Ingraham said he never remarried. He said he stays close with his children, though.

    "One of my sons lives in Florida," he said. "He's done very, very well for himself."

    Ingraham shares 63 Washington St. with five other residents, two cats and a canary.

    About the home: 63 Washington Street is just that. The address is its name. The house was built in 1898 as the Camden Home for Aged Women and it was long known as "The Old Ladies Home." Women would give their inheritance to live there, leaving it after they were gone to help sustain the home. The home was closed for eight years and in 1983 the Congregational Church of Camden took over and renamed it 63 Washington Street. It is operated as a fully licensed, nonprofit organization for seniors. A mortgage was signed to upgrade the home and a board of directors now resides over the nonprofit that qualifies for tax-deductible contributions.

    "We're doing a bottle drive right now," said Willey. "We're trying to buy a new TV. It's just phenomenal how abundant people are with their time. People drop off bottles all the time. So far we've raised $100."

    Ingraham had just that morning placed two big boxes on the front porch to hold the bottles people had been dropping off.

    I asked him what was one of the more interesting parts of his life and he shared.

    "I worked at West Point Military Academy for two days." he said. "I went to a tavern and met a woman who turned out to be a Rockette [of Radio City Music Hall fame]. We stayed together for seven or eight months. She had a daughter and she was the nicest woman, but when she drank she turned into a complete a------. We broke up. I never did get to see her dance. Do you drink? [He posed to me.] You're alright. We would get along fantastic if we went to a tavern. I drink Bud Light, how bout you?"

    So there we stood, on the curb at 63 Washington St., on a chilly fall morning letting the sun warm us, smoking cigarettes like a couple of juvenile delinquents and waving at people. We watched them wave back while we traded stories about escapades, bourbon and beer. He's just a lively, wonderful person who likes to be friendly, whether he knows you or not.

    A couple of times up and down the street, and it's a sure bet you're not a stranger to this man, anymore.