Fred Gomez traded a walking cane for his favorite pool cue after blowing out the candles on a 104th birthday sheet cake. It now was time to break a rack of eight in the billiard cove they named after him when he turned 102. Fred is hard of hearing and nearly blind. But he shoots pool like a killer. And he plays it twice a week in Doylestown, rain or shine.
A World War II veteran who was born during World War I, Fred leaned over the table Wednesday like a guy half his age. He pointed the cue at a diamond of balls, fired, and ... missed. He cued up for a second try. He hit the rack with a blast that sent a purple ball into the side pocket like a piece of shrapnel.
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Be like Fred.
This is the takeaway after watching this longtime Glenside man be celebrated for his longevity, his endurance, and his staying power on God’s sometimes awfully dysfunctional green earth.
Be like Fred, and it may get you far in life. Or, at least, keep you around longer than most.
“He’s beaten me four times a day,” said pool buddy Colin Hitchman, a Vietnam War veteran a full generation younger, at age 75. “His attitude is, keep life on the lighter side, things aren’t as bad as they seem.”
It’s how Colin tries to be, too. Both war vets saw bodies in bloody combat. Both have found meaning by focusing not on what has been lost, but on all that remains unknown in the years to come.
When Fred entered this world during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, he was granted the name Ferdinand. But Fred is how he rolls.
He used to help his dad deliver mail by wheelbarrow in West Philadelphia’s Kingsessing neighborhood. He graduated from Central High School during the Great Depression. By his early 20s, he was helping build the Hoover Dam near Vegas. This was Civilian Conservation Corps work — Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal-era heroism of fixing the decimated economy through public-works projects.
It was a terrifying moment at the dam that remains the singular haunting memory of Fred’s lifetime.
I had asked: What was the hardest thing he had faced and overcome in his life?
He grew quiet. Said that no one had ever asked him that before. Then, an answer.
Fred was behind the wheel of a Reo truck filled with about 15 men. Its controls were hard to figure out, so he accidentally brought the truck to the dam’s edge before stopping it somehow. Fred wasn’t sure how to put the thing into reverse. He took a guess and yanked a gear shift. It went into reverse.
“If I had pushed the wrong lever on that truck,” he told me as his son Mike Gomez listened from a few feet away from us, “we would have all got killed. It was lucky that I happened to hit the gears the right way."
Fred joined the Navy, served on a destroyer out of Pearl Harbor, and saw action during World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He married an Italian girl named Mary, raised a son and daughter in Glenside, and made a living as a proud plumber.
Today, living with his son’s family in Maple Glen, he keeps to a rigorous schedule of his own making. He shoots pool twice a week, goes swimming on other days, and loves to eat.
The gang at the senior center, led by a fellow Central graduate and military veteran named Jerry Fox, loves Fred’s spirit so much that they gave him a bash Wednesday ahead of his Sept. 9 birthday.
“He still likes the girls,” said Amy Fite, who refused to share her age. “Everyone has been kissed by Fred.”
Surely a man is more complex than what he shows strangers late in life. Indeed, Fred is not all sunshine and roses. On more than one occasion, said his 70-year-old son Mike, he confronted U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter at a senior center meeting before Specter’s death. His gripe: What Fred saw as unacceptably shabby treatment of younger veterans by the U.S. government.
In the little bits that I was able to glean from Fred during a break at the pool table, he kept coming back to the same theme. Living long and living well are about enjoying life while you’ve got it. He goes to bed every night expecting to wake up the same time the next morning.
“There is no secret at all,” he said. “The thing is, take life as it is and I think you’ll be better off.”