ONALASKA — For Jim Lamke, some memories are clear as crystal.
Like the time he bumped into a pretty girl at the college library, the tension dissolved by her smile, or the time that same girl, on their first date, had her boots catch fire while ice fishing.
But for Jim, who is a day shy of 90, other memories have started to dim and disappear.
Like the details of his time in the Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy — stints that sent him all over the world, working on ship engines and neutralizing underwater bombs.
“You have to remember that I am old-school,” said Jim, one of roughly 90 veterans heading to Washington, D.C., on Saturday as part of the Freedom Honor Flight out of La Crosse. “Who can remember all that? It was a long time ago.”
Sitting by his wife and library acquaintance, Ruth, in the couple’s home in Onalaska, Jim speaks of his service as if it were one part misery and one part vacation.
He remembers long, trying months in Adak, Alaska, where the ground was “like soup,” and where you couldn’t go anywhere “without walking in the mud.”
He also looks back, a little more fondly, on a visit to Cartagena, Colombia. With Ruth out of the room for a moment, he starts a story that he says he shouldn’t, seeming to wink a little.
“We’d been out at sea awhile, and the boys drank too much rum,” he said. “Cartagena had a statue of one of their heroes, Simón Bolívar, on a horse. Well, the guys climbed onto the horse and peed on his head.”
The incident made the news, angering the leaders there.
“The troops were called back onto the ship, and we pulled up anchor,” Jim said. “Never went there again.”
“Are you telling that horrible Cartagena story?” said Ruth, back in the room, smiling and shaking her head. She turned to a reporter. “I meant to warn you about that.”
Other memories, over the years, seemed to fly off into the night.
Jim struggles to recall some of the places he was stationed, how long he was stationed there, what exactly he did there.
Ruth, who met Jim after he left the service, fills in the gaps when she can. But she can feel those gaps getting wider, and, sometimes, she has a hard time remembering herself.
“We try to match these things up, because it’s been so long,” said Ruth, who keeps a record of important dates during Jim’s time in the Navy — like when he was discharged in November 1949.
“November of ’49?” Jim said. “I’m glad you wrote that down.”
Jim and Ruth got married in 1952, a year and a half after they met. They ran several businesses over the course of their careers, including the well-known Lamke Christmas Tree Farm and a concession service that supplied popcorn and candy to the old Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium in downtown La Crosse.
Now, they spend their days almost exclusively around the house; construction on their street has made it difficult for them to go on walks.
Jim likes to sleep in. Ruth likes to talk to the kids and grandkids. They both like to see their Meals on Wheels driver pull up to the house.
“We’ve had a good, full life,” Jim said.
He views Saturday’s Honor Flight, which will take him to war memorials and other notable monuments on his birthday, as a chance to see what so many veterans of his age have seen. Thinking about the day, he feels more curious than emotional, he said.
“I’m interested to see it because of the way everyone talks about it,” Jim said. “It must be great.”
His feelings toward his service are less raw, less visceral, because he served between World War II and the Korean War, avoiding combat.
But he never shied away from fighting — quite the opposite.
Jim ran away from home at 16 in hopes of doing his part in the war effort, but he was too young to see action. Then, after his first two-year tour, Jim had a chance to call it quits and phase back into civilian life.
Drinking beer with a friend one night, a little depressed about a lack of job prospects, he decided to re-enlist.
“I have no idea,” he said, “why the hell I did that.”
With the luxury of hindsight, Jim can think of two reasons why he made the right decision.
One, serving in the Navy allowed him to see the world, to visit exotic places that he’d only read about in books while growing up in Highland, Wis.
Two, after returning from his second tour, Jim met up with a friend who convinced him to attend college through the GI Bill. Not long after, he stumbled into the library.
“I met a good-looking girl,” he said. “God, what a romance.”