Veteran, soon to be 100, didn’t feel old until about 5 years ago
Published 11:00 am Sunday, January 29, 2023
By Rita Lebleu
Centenarians make up less than one percent of the population of the United States. Later this month, Allen Landry of DeQuincy will join their ranks. “I really didn’t feel old until about five years ago,” he said.
After Hurricane Laura, his neighbor saw him on the roof, and told his daughter Lynette about her and her husband keeping an eye on him until he crawled down.
“Yeah, I wasn’t able to stand up and walk around like I usually do,” he said, responding to the neighbor’s use of the word “crawling” rather than their concern that a man in his 90s was on the roof.
“He was 83 when he told mama he had climbed his last tree,” his daughter Lynette said. Up until that time, it was nothing for the trim, bright-eyed perpetually smiling Landry to shimmy up a tree to top it or saw off a limb. He learned the tree climbing skill Landry at a young age.
“I didn’t get in trouble with daddy much,” he said, “but I didn’t always wait around for him to get the belt off when I did.” The offense, he explained, might have been something like failing to pump water for the animals, a least favorite chore. “I would take off running, jump a wide ditch, climb a tree and stay there a good part of the day, hoping that when I finally came down Daddy would have changed his mind about whipping me.” Often, his father had changed his mind and one of Landry’s siblings said he was spoiled.
Landry reflected on the circumstances of his childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, remembering that even when his father was a sharecropper bringing in very low wages, his family ate like “millionaires.”
“Daddy milked a cow every morning. Mama made butter. We had homemade biscuits she baked on the wood stove for breakfast. Her biscuits were so good. We knew we couldn’t find anything better in town or anywhere else,” Landry said.
“I don’t remember how old I was when someone gave my mother a coal oil stove,” he said, “but I do remember it was hard for her to get used to cooking on it. She was a little afraid of it at first because it made that whooshing sound.”
Some foods didn’t have to be cooked by his mother, or anyone else. Every family had a garden those days, and when the potatoes were ready, he and his brother would dig one up, wipe it on their shirts and eat it raw, “a real treat.”
The family lived on a 100-acre sugarcane and corn field in Jeanerette. They lived a mile from town, so the school bus didn’t pick them up. That was considered close enough to walk to school. The road was muddy so the boys would take off their shoes until they reached the sidewalk – two-by-fours laid side by side – then they would wash their feet in a ditch and put their shoes back on.
Once a lady asked Landry and a few other boys why they weren’t in church, and they told her one of them didn’t have any shoes on. Landry said one of the ladies told him that didn’t matter because Jesus didn’t always have on his shoes when he went to church. Landry couldn’t confirm this, as he didn’t have a Bible until later in life. When he did get one, he committed verses to memory. His daughter said discipline and advice often involved one of these Scriptures.
The bedroom where Landry slept had two beds, a single and double (full-sized) for the three boys. When his uncle came to help bring in the crop, he got the single and the three boys shared the double.
His mother was known for her sewing prowess, and when she made a dress she was paid handsomely, according to Landry, adding “an enormous 35 cents to the family’s income.”
He remembers picking cotton as a youngster, but the crop didn’t do well so his father started planting the sugarcane. He also delivered newspapers as a boy. “It didn’t matter if you were a kid or a 100-year-old, you were paid five cents, and I held on to that nickel so tight, the buffalo squealed.” (The Buffalo nickel or Indian Head nickel was minted from 1913 to 1938.)
“My dad didn’t have much time to read and I think he would have read more if he had more to read. I do remember when it would rain and he couldn’t work the fields, he might come in and lay on the floor and read every word of the newspaper.”
His father was a part time barber and a faith healer, a Cajun traiteur, and there were others who were similarly gifted in the family. Once a girl sought his father’s prayer after receiving a bad cut while dehorning cows.“She stopped bleeding before she got home,” Landry said.
His house, like most others at the time, had no indoor plumbing. At the age of 14 he “wired” the house for electricity. “
I pulled a wire through the attic and drilled a hole so we could drop a light in the kitchen,” he said. When asked how he knew what to do, he chuckled and answered, “I didn’t.”
He joined the Marines before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but he said he was grateful not to have seen any fighting or death. Instead, he helped build ships, and later was able to accompany “big wheels” overseas on one of these ships. He explained that the rest of the world knew, including China and Russia. The United States would win a war because it could keep its troops supplied with ships and arms.
“Remember what the Japanese admiral said after the attack on Pearl Harbor,” Landry asked. “ ‘I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.’ ”
Landry recalled the meeting of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and the collapse of the Chinese Nationalist government to communism.
His marriage to Joyce Hebert Landry (August 1929-August 2011) was a simple affair in front of the Justice of the Peace. “
Everybody in Jeanerette was a Landry or an Hebert,” he said. Landry’s job at the time was roustabout on an oil rig, and he met his future wife when his co-worker told him he was going to a dance and if Landry would come along with him, he’d fix him up with his cousin.
He was six years her senior. She was 18. If he hadn’t been older, he said, he didn’t think he could have “tricked her” into accepting his marriage proposal.
The honeymoon to New Orleans left him and his young wife with an olfactory memory so vivid, it impacted future New Orleans visits.
“As soon as they got there, they walked down Canal Street and followed a delicious smell, found out it was roasting cashews and bought some. Every time they went to New Orleans after that, they had to buy roasted cashews,” Lynette said, “even after all of us came along and we were on family vacations, the first thing we would have to do is buy roasted cashews.”
She called him crazy, Lynette said. He said she was the smarter of the twosome. He was crazy about her, and she was crazy about him. Even her candid comments about a woman that she thought spent too much time talking to her husband on one occasion – he was friendly and kind to all – came out of her mouth as a comedic routine because she was a little 80-something spit fire with a Cajun accent.
If Landry could go back to any age, he would not pick a certain age. He would want to go back and choose from certain business and occupational opportunities, “if I knew then what I know now, I would have acted on some of those opportunities, but you know what they say. Hindsight is 20/20. He said he was happiest as a boy, especially during one point in his life when he decided he would run, literally run, to do his parents’ bidding.
“If mama told me to go to the store and buy some salt, which cost a whopping five cents by the way,” I’d run all the way to the store and all the way back.”
He discovered this nugget of wisdom long before retiring from tree climbing and roof walking. “It’s a waste of time to argue with experience,” he said. He’s talking about the experience that comes from years, and then some. Experiences aren’t accidental,” he said.
And then there is the question that every centurion is asked, “What is the secret to your longevity? Running and climbing? Cajun roots? A raw potato a day? He pointed up and said, “To God be the glory,” and repeated, “to God be the glory.”