SAN MIGUEL — Just the other side of the Monterey County line, 18 miles out Indian Valley Road an unusual event brought visitors out over four days last week.
On March 2, at 11:45 a.m. Burton Stokes, a permanent resident on the scenic rural route since 1982, turned 100 years old.
At least 150 friends, family
Born in Estacada, Ore., in 1919, a young Burton Stokes came up in the Army Air Corps instructing flyers on the dynamic new fighter plane, the P-38 Lightning.
Stationed at the training airfield in Chico, the assignment allowed him to marry Marjorie Elizabeth Easton in 1941 and start a family, even in the war years.
Logging more than 4,092 official hours in the air during his career, Stokes spent 166 of those hours in combat sorties over Austria, Germany, Italy, and Yugoslavia in 1944-45.
Described by his daughter Elaine ahead of his birthday celebration as one of the most honorable men she’s ever known, Stokes earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service but did not lust for more action when given the opportunity to redeploy to Pacific-theatre combat.
Instead, he took the opportunity to train as a meteorologist after victory in Europe and had a more than two-decade career in the Air Force, retiring as a Lt. Col. in 1964.
Notably, his family remembers him disappearing for three days during the height of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Attached to the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) out of McGuire Air Force Base, his expertise in weather forecasting was being called upon hourly by superiors. The information would have been a contributing factor in calculating deployment of the nation’s nuclear-armed bomber arsenal.
Playing it a little close to the vest with a visiting reporter the day before his birthday, however, the details of those days worrying about the Soviets were not on his mind as much as he recalled the general disgust of the Italian and German people against their Fascist dictators, at the end of the last war. It was a matter which made him more animated for a moment than the fact that he was indeed turning 100 in just under 24 hours.
Still engaged with current events, he said, he still thinks daily about what the U.S. is currently involved with. His daughters note they still get a piece of his mind in the morning after he watches the day’s news.
Being the patriarch of a large and spread out family has advantages he notes in that the people he’s been looking forward to seeing most have to come to him for the day.
Some of the younger visitors required reintroduction as they’d changed quite a bit since last he saw them.
Asked if he missed flying, Stokes said that he’d actually, “had my fill of flying. Glad I did it though, but prefer to have it behind me.”
You get a better feeling, he said, being able to look back and know that you acted when it mattered than to pine after doing a thing.
He was similarly pragmatic, his family noted, on the day he gave up driving 12 years ago, delivering them his self-assessment that motorists on the long valley road would be safer without him behind the wheel.
Acting with honesty might be one of the most vital life lessons if any of the four generations surrounding him for the occasion were asking.
“What’s important,” he said, “is to have a good feeling inside about your own life...who you are, what you are doing right now.”
His grandson Easton Stokes added as more family arrived Saturday, that having a big family looking out for each other has helped the centenarian stay in his own home and live the way he wants to. Acting as the de facto family archivist, he collected some material Burton might have wanted to share, including a logbook showing that he was on a training mission in Chico on the day in 1943, as well as a list of service awards covering Okinawa to Anchorage in the 1950s.
Easton passed on that, aside from maintaining that the secret of a long life is, “Luck”, his grandfather wanted to thank everyone involved in throwing him a party.