Kermit Dyke graduated from high school in 1932, at the peak of the Great Depression. A block from his house near downtown Los Angeles, scores of men lined up each day, looking for work and finding none. He didn't want to end up like them. So Dyke, tall, blond and handsome, joined the National Guard.
It drilled just once a month, but it gave him three things: A little spending money; a bit part in a Hollywood silent film ("They needed someone to stand there in a uniform with a rifle; I got five dollars"); and an entry into what he describes as "probably the most honorable profession there is."
In 1936, he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and today, at 103, he is its oldest living graduate. Sitting in the home he shares with his wife, Bobbe, in Solomons, Md., the retired colonel cradled an old album stuffed with black-and-white photos of young men posing in jodhpurs and Shako hats, sitting on horseback, or just goofing around in T-shirts and shorts.
"That's me, throwing a paper bag full of water on an upperclassman," he said, pointing at one. "And here's my graduation class." Of the three dozen young men in the photo – the class total was 450 – few are still alive.
Dyke's family history of service spans more than 100 years, from his grandfather, a Union soldier in the Civil War, to his son, also a West Point graduate, who is a retired major, and extends to his father-in-law and brothers-in-law, who also served.
He was born two days before the start of World War I – too late to have met his grandfather, Robert Dyke. "There's Grandpa's sword," he said, pointing up at the wall. Sliding off the leather sheath revealed a blade with delicate engravings of flowers and an image of a woman, and, at the base, crude notches whose meaning could only be guessed at: XXXIIII.
He was first attracted to his wife, a chemistry major and science teacher, because, as she explained, "I'd read all the books on his required-reading list."
Those books were about atomic energy and nuclear power. The attraction was mutual; since Bobbe also came from a military family, she said, "being around him worked."
After marrying in 1951, the couple had postings around the United States and Canada – including 15 years in McLean, Virginia, where their three children attended high school. Bobbe, 91, was one of the first docents at the National Air and Space Museum when it opened in 1976, and she continued there until last year, with her husband driving her the 130-mile round trip route every week until the year he turned 100.
Looking over his photos, Dyke recalled things he liked and didn't like about West Point. He liked firing guns. He didn't like getting up at 6 a.m. Or the fact that "when you were a plebe, you couldn't look down at the food you were eating; you had to look straight ahead. They didn't want you to feel like you were being pampered."
But there was plenty of fun. Part of cadet training included learning to waltz and fox trot, and photos showed Dyke and his classmates dancing in a stage production alongside attractive companions with long hair, glamorous makeup and flared skirts.
"These are all men," he noted – fellow students at the academy. West Point did not admit its first coed class until 40 years after he matriculated.
The album also contained artifacts from World War II, during which Dyke served as an Air Force officer in North Africa, Italy and France: an authorization paper from the Arrondissement Maritime d'Oran, issued in 1942. A picture of him standing beside a guide in front of the pyramids in Cairo. A 1944 ration card, good anywhere in the North African Theater of Operations, U.S. Army, that entitled him to weekly allotments of items such as candy bars, tooth powder, pipe cleaners, beer and cigarettes.
Dyke stopped smoking decades ago, and so did his wife.
"I stopped at midnight, Dec. 31, 1967," she said. "We had just moved to McLean to a bigger house and he had bought me new bedroom furniture. He said, 'I don't know why I bought you new furniture. You're only going to burn holes in it like every other piece of furniture."
The ex-smoker with perfectly coifed white curls grinned at her husband of 66 years. "You were so right, and I was so embarrassed that I stopped."
Drinking is another matter, though. The couple faithfully go out for a drink every evening, at the bar and grill at Asbury Solomons, the continuing-care retirement community where they live, or at the nearby Solomons Island Yacht Club, where they were members for years and still frequent.
They always order identical drinks.
"We used to do martinis on Mondays and Thursdays, Manhattans on Tuesdays and Fridays, Old-Fashioneds on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and Sundays was something special, like old Scotch," Bobbe said. But as they got older, they simplified things. Now it's martinis (her preferred cocktail) on Mondays and Thursdays, and Manhattans (his favorite) on other nights.
They are also active in Asbury's Wii bowling league. Both were longtime bowlers, and for a while they dominated the Wii tournaments.
"Till the young whippersnappers came," Bobbe said, referring to 70- and 80-year-old neighbors.
"Kids," Dyke spat out.
Looking at the faces of his old classmates, he mused about the direction the country has taken in the decades since they graduated – not a good one, in his view. "I just think that the way things are going now, it's not a matter of everybody helping everybody else to survive, it's a matter of who's getting the most money," he said, adding that discipline – including the discipline to balance the national budget – is disappearing.
But not for him. The same man who could stand on his hands as a cadet still goes to the fitness room every day for a workout. He had no apparent problems hearing a reporter's questions or peering through his glasses to identify people in tiny 90-year-old photographs.
"People are always saying, 'You don't even use a cane,'" Bobbe said.
Dyke grinned. "My secret is, 'Don't make any changes if things are working right,' " he said. "So if you're drinking Manhattans, keep going."