Mildred McDowell still going strong at 102

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By Panzi Blackwell

The year was 1908 – Theodore Roosevelt was president, Oklahoma was a new state coming into the Union, the average income was $490 a year, a loaf of bread cost five cents, the United States was in a Depression, population in U.S. was a little more than 87 million … and Mildred M. McDowell was born on Feb. 17.
The year was 1916 – A little girl was driving her family’s cows home on their rural Fayette County rural when a formation of four or five “flying machines” flew overhead.
The year was 1943 – Mildred McDowell had been teaching school in one-room schoolhouses for 14 years when she decided at age 35, during World War II,  to help the war effort and travel as she always wanted to do.  
The year is 2010 – Mildred is active and alert. She wears a hearing aid and takes her own medication, meaning she takes honey and vinegar mixed in water. She also has a home remedy for a cold, something she gave her students many years ago.
Meet former Air Force Corp. Mildred M. McDowell who, at 102 years old, could be the oldest surviving woman veteran.
She still carries herself with a military bearing proudly,  with erect posture, and moves briskly, confidently in a decisive, independent manner … and her conversation and opinions  are much  the same.
…Early Memories
Mildred said her fascination with “flying machines” had begun when she was a little girl, in 1916.
“I had heard of ‘flying machines,’ but I had never seen one. I think I saw my first plane formation (four or five planes) when I was about 8 years old,” she said.
“I was herding our cows about one mile from our home. They (planes) scared me and the cows.
“Maybe that was why I re-enlisted and joined the Air Force. I tried to enlist again after my second enlistment, but there was an age limit,” she said.  
“I was born and raised about two miles from Brownstown,” she said. Her family had a farm, and her grandparents lived nearby on their farm.
She attended college, became a teacher and taught for 14 years in one-room schools in Montgomery, Christian and Fayette counties.
Among the schools she taught in were Bingham, for two years, and Rush School, “which is three or four miles north of the penal farm,” she said.
The story is told by a former student, Chester Elam, of the little school marm, Miss McDowell, riding a mule 4 1/2 miles to Rush School.
In a letter to him, she recalled that “contrary” mule.  “The mule I sometimes rode was a very nervous animal. She got loose twice, and I walked the 4 1/2 miles and found her waiting for me to open the gate for her.
“Rush School sat in the middle of grassy fields northwest of Vandalia.”
“In The Army Now”
At 5 foot, 1 ½ inches and weighing 112 pounds, the diminutive 35-year-old school marm rang the school bell for the last time and became a WAC when she enlisted in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps on Nov. 18, 1943.
After serving her country for two years, the war ended, and she was honorably discharged in December 1945.
However, she found that she missed the military life. She re-enlisted on March 18, 1946, later transferred to the Women’s Air Force and served her country for two more years, until October 1949, when she again received an honorable discharge, leaving the military as a WAF corporal.
Her attempt to re-enlist for a third time failed due to her age.
What were the accommodations for women, and how were they received by their fellow soldiers?
The WACs and WAF s lived and trained separately, but they did encounter the men in the workplaces.
“In a few instances, the men seemed to resent women in the military, and even some civilians did,” she said.
After training, she began duty at Roswell Army Airfield in New Mexico.
She did get to travel, as she served in Germany for two years.
At one point, she was packing parachutes, but couldn’t sleep nights for fear one of the parachutes she packed wouldn’t open and the airman would be killed, so she asked to change jobs. She became a supply clerk and passed out airplane parts.
An excerpt from a letter written by H. Steven Blum, lieutenant general, Army, chief, National Guard Bureau, regarding her service in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps during World War II reads: “Few women served during this period. You are one of the cornerstones of our nation’s history. Your service helped to blaze the trails for the future of women serving in our Armed Forces, and for that, our nation owes you a debt of gratitude.”
In an earlier interview from the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, where she lived for 12 years, she said, “I wanted to help."
 “I wasn’t thinking of women’s issues. I wanted to help (the war effort), travel and have interesting experiences.”
Back to Civilian Life…
Her bid for re-enlistment blocked, McDowell returned to civilian life and taught school for one year.
“But things had changed,” she said. So she changed occupations and worked as a civil servant until 1970.
She loved to travel and has lived in different states. She never married or had children, but she was surrounded by family, which is very important to her.
She was one of eight children, and although all of her siblings are deceased, she has many nieces and nephews who visit and with which she corresponds, and with whom she corresponds.
Early Memories
“I was the third of four sisters and three brothers, so I had a lot of hand-me-downs," she said, laughing.
She reminisced about her siblings when they were young.
“I remember my sister, Ruby Pearl, she said. “We (kids) had to take care of her. I think that’s why the folks bought a wagon, so we could pull her around.
“We would put her in the wagon and say, ‘Ruby Pearl, what a good girl,' and she would just smile. Then we would say, ‘Ruby Pearl, what a bad girl,’ and she would pucker up.'”
She remembered when a baby brother was born. “I was 10 when he was born, and you know, I remember Mama being in bed, and the baby was there,” she said.
“Someone put the baby in my arms, and I looked down at him and he started to cry.
“I just kind of adopted him (Alva); he was my child.  He weighed 12 pounds. I was just 10, but I dragged that child everywhere. I walked the floor when he cried for four months. The doctor said he had the four-month colic. I’d get up at night and rock him and walk the floor with him.”
She was the historian in her family, and has written several books on the family history.
Her nieces and nephews have written letters telling how she was a loving, stablizing influence on their lives, “always there”  when needed, generous with help and assistance, encouraging and setting an example in serving God and their country.
“I take my own medicine. I found a book about vinegar and honey. It started with this hand; the knuckle was red and painful.”
Her job involved paperwork at the time and she said, ‘I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do that; I’ll have to get a different job.'”
But she found that the vinegar and honey helped her. She also recommends soda and warm water for a cold.
Her only comment on her age was poignant.
“I’m really lonely,” she said. “I have 17 living nieces and nephews, about 70 great-, and 90 great-great, and I think four or five great-great-great.”
The Loneliness of A Long Life
Her memory of her childhood is phenomenal, but she has no one left with which to share it. All of her siblings are deceased.
There are the nieces and nephews, and she has other people to talk to, “But, with all of them, “I can’t say to them, ‘You remember when we went down to grandma’s and on the steps, there were some Easter eggs, of all different colors.
“We would go to grandma’s and grandpa’s. They had a bed in their living room and two small bedrooms, and grandma and grandpa slept there.  
“Grandma always had a white bedspread on. We never had bedspreads, so I thought that was so pretty.
“Grandpa would say, ‘Under my pillow is my wallet. Bring my wallet to me. Grandma would say ‘Pa, quit telling them that, they will pick up things. That’s just teaching them to take things.'
“He would just smile at her and give us a penny from his billfold,” she said.
“How I feel sorry for the kids today. They won’t have a childhood like I had. They were really families then.
"They lived together, worked together and played together. I remember there was an empty house with four rooms – living room, kitchen and two bedrooms. We called it the square house. They had square dances there.
“Mama and Papa went with us. We didn’t have a car, and other people would pick us up. You couldn’t drive in the winter, because with dirt roads, you’d get stuck,” she said.
She told of the streams and creeks flooding, covering the road to her sister’s home.
She now lives in Vandalia at Brookstone Estates,  close to nieces and nephews who live in Illinois towns, including Ramsey, Altamont, Bingham, and Arthur.  
She has thoughts on today’s world and lifestyles.
“I am amazed each day,” she said, “at children’s lack of respect for their parents and others.”
Having lived through the Great Depression, she continued, “And the showing on TV of people asking for hand-outs. I am amazed and disgusted,” she said. “We did with what we had or did without. Mama never had a cookbook until my sister went to work.”
Mildred McDowell has made and shared many memories and stories about her life to be enjoyed by her family and others.
She is still a patriot at heart – an American flag, an Army insignia and a “Peace on Earth” sign adorn her door’s exterior.
Thank you, Corp. Mildred McDowell, for serving our country and helping to preserve our freedom.