Historian Talks about Life at 100 Years Old

A crown is placed on Mr. Bornet’s head at his 100th birthday celebration at the Rotary Club in Ashland, OR

By Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet / 12.31.2017
Professor Emeritus of History
Southern Oregon College

Vaughn Davis Bornet’s Ph.D. is from Stanford University (1951), the B.A. and M.A. (1939, 1940) are from Emory University, the year 1941 was at University of Georgia. Author of over a dozen books and scores of articles and essays, he has been writing articles frequently in recent years on the internet’s History News Network. He holds “Distinguished” awards from American Heart Association and Freedoms Foundation. He taught at University of Miami, 1946-48, and Southern Oregon College, 1963-80. He was a staff member of The RAND Corporation in the 1960s. A Commander in the Naval Reserves, his active duty was 1941 to 1946. His 2016 books Lovers in Wartime, 1944 to 1945 and another,Happy Travel Diaries, 1925 to 1933 (both Amazon) are recent. Coming out in early October, 2017 is, Seeking New Knowledge: A Research Historian’s Rewarding Career (Bornet Books). He lives, apparently only semi-retired, in Ashland, Oregon.

One day, when I was 88 and a half, my physician idly remarked, “Maybe you should write out something about keeping healthy as you age.” Well, it was something like that. Why not do it, I ruminated. The resulting prose served its purpose and then sat around. I have revised it this year for various purposes.

There is nothing much peculiar or unique about my physical path from birth to old age, except that I lived in a variety of climates as decades passed. There was the winter cold and summer heat of the Northeastern States. (Yet our family fled in summers to Ocean City, New Jersey, every year! After 1933 my family lived in the summer heat of the Deep South—but I departed for the mild Far West during World War II, and settled in California and Oregon after 1948 (with a two year detour to the Midwest). So overall, I lived in balmy weather, in decent climates.

From ocean swimming and tropical tennis I did get some sun damage to the skin that became a factor to be treated routinely. Poison ivy and oak were a lurking menace that sometimes settled on my face—not pleasant, but at least transitory.

While I had all the pre-inoculation diseases as a child, they left little residue of ill health. Each one involved nearly two weeks in bed. However, it did turn out that my thin frame in those years was not entirely accidental; my mother had the same physique, only more so. I had chickenpox, mumps, measles, etc. but not scarlet fever. Those tonsils were taken out att 6 and again at 21, oddly.)

I participated in many sports, having only three sports injuries worth mentioning. I did, however, pick up in early 1941 a no kidding exercise program of real importance. Hearing that the YMCA of Athens, Georgia had acquired the Southeastern champion of professional, that is, guided, weight lifting with those giant barbells, I reflected on my probable life situation. It was 1941’s winter and the European War was heating up. Wouldn’t it involve Me, and if so this unready graduate student might have to “go to war.”

Pretty soon I became very strong. I understood and participated in the Press, Clean and Jerk, and Snatch with barbells that frightened idle observers. Before too long, when on Navy duty in September, 1941 I tested strongest for my weight in the 7th Naval District. Half a year later in a Navy school I came in first out of 500 in the obstacle course of the Naval Training School Indoctrination, Quonset Pt., Rhode Island. (My competition consisted of maybe disinterested “businessmen and professionals.”)

I guess one could say that, back then, I was always “active” as opposed to dormant or slothful. Before Athens I had been a classy baseball pitcher; after weightlifting I had muscles and a big chest and a bit of a heroic look. (I still stand and sit up straight.)

I had no broken bones for a very long time, but real life caught up with me several times. I took a pitched baseball in the groin, a rubber football broke most of my middle finger, and a tire iron destroyed the end of my nose, all during two decades. That’s life. But: in very old age a strange four wheel stroller was thrust on me on a trip; at once its right front wheel just fell off as I crossed a curb. I hit the gutter with a crash and lay there–somewhere in California. The left femur was split its whole length and put me on my back nearly four months before release to routine life.

Earlier, at age 57, without any smoking (none!) or being near any (I saw to it!) I suffered a severe heart infarction (death of a quarter of the heart) that hospitalized me, helpless and inoperable, for 20 days, followed by months and then several years of working against that new flaw. My physician said he had “noticed a spot on the heart in 1963 and had followed it,” so he was not surprised at the infarction. I tried to be a faculty member who was totally active, but in 1980 I cautiously planned and opted for early retirement.

A lifetime athlete, good at everything, I was very astonished at the role of invalid. Here was a pretty clearly an heredity factor to consider along with others when weighing my chances of living a long life! My serious sports over the years had been those of a healthy youth participating in team tennis, special football, baseball pitching, golf, swimming, some diving, and lengthy fishing.

That infarction was virtually identical to the publicized one suffered in 1956 by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. He was devastated. As he returned to The Ranch he expected to die. In my case I found I could walk the house one length those first weeks. However, before long I put in a 15 by 30 above ground pool, solar heated, which we used routinely four months a year. Egged on by my large dog and my wife (do reverse the order), we immediately instituted a compulsory walking program, not vast and not fast, but a daily event, rain or shine. For a year I swam in the college pool. As the years passed after that dramatic retirement I wrote big non-fiction books as one obsessed.

How after “all that,” one may legitimately ask, did I continue from age 60 to 100 and still be pretty much “healthy”? Thank my wife, Beth W. Bornet – cookbook reader and hospital volunteer (now deceased) for a great many things, including food choice and preparation, calming influence, home maintenance, companionship, and upbeat attitude. We kept to a routine, but traveled far and wide.

Thank that early upbringing that began in 1917, that apparently focused first to last on the individual’s responsibility—in the last analysis—for himself. (On the other hand, they left little to chance. The first week they settled on a tiny Irish nurse to live in a third floor room with the mandate to care for this baby first, only then consider household chores.)

Thank the Navy’s vaccinations and occasionally required physical examinations during my 23 years with the Naval Reserve. Circling the globe with World Campus Afloat (now Semester at Sea) brought yellow fever shots and malaria prevention. Remember that my parents had relatively ordinary health. My thin mother had routine illnesses, especially bronchitis. I do note my father’s eighty and a bit more years of good heath and his habit of working standing up—as an engineer engaged in draftsmanship—and eating plain American food—meat, potatoes, the works. He more or less smoked cigars for some time, but not around me. My Mother’s family, by the way, offered from her brother two superb athlete first cousins—one of whom tried out for the Olympics, and finally reached 99. The other was consensus All American fullback. These relatives were inspiring!

My father’s family by contrast did OK, but left few surviving offspring. As a boy I was a very active kid. As an older adult I engaged for many years in competitive small sailboat racing (clear through the nationals, winning one race), fishing, and finally golf, where I twice missed “shooting my age” by one stroke (doing slightly better than that is a uniform goal). As an athlete I was active—and happy.

But something more important—stretching–contributed mightily. It happened this way: In 1998, at age 81, I passed out when driving a highway in midday and rolled our car at apparently 70 miles per hour off a freeway’s inner lane into a ravine. Police said I “fell asleep;” my doctor later proved I must have fainted, a diagnosis that reminded me that I had fainted at least twice in my life previously. Responding to tests, three pacemakers in succession have always kept my pulse above 60. My vagus nerve (left side of the neck) was sensitive, I learned, so neckties were given away; shirts with tight necks were out, bolo ties OK.

Because of the car accident, I began in my seniority to engage in many professionally prescribed “stretching exercises” for the back. There were twelve of these. I took to them immediately and worked out until unable! They included 30 perfunctory sit-ups with bent knees. I got so the whole thing was routine. All that must have had an impact on my physical well-being. (Eventually, trouble getting up from the floor stopped all that prescribed effort.)

In recent years (since 2011), I have used a thousand dollar machine in my retirement “home” to give daily exercise to my legs, arms, and midsection. It has nine tension settings. I use the strongest and do 740 repetitions (which count to half that really, then relax. This after breakfast routine seems a good thing.

Through idle reading, Beth and I learned a bit more about the body. Maybe because I was for two years employed by the Bureau of Medical Economic Research of the American Medical Association in Chicago. Or was it the long contact with the American Heart Association and the Oregon Heart Association after long conferences leading to my writing a summarizing book The Heart Future in 1960? Anyway, my wife subscribed and began to read the Wellness Letter of the University of California Medical School—soon giving up fish oil and glucosamine as valueless but enjoying coffee.

My parental family ate normally, and so did my family. Fatty foods came to have rough sledding in our cuisine, while carrots and fruits and some vegetables moved forward. Salads had to fight for a place on my plate, but they were not excluded. There were lots of fish and shellfish, also chicken. We welcomed high class meat. Very little fried foods. My day has begun, all through my later adult life, with half a grapefruit. It became a routine, even to the extent of providing bottled slices of Texas Pink (in juice) out of season. For years we ordered boxes of 12 grapefruit from Florida or Texas. (Our box of oranges once got eaten at about 2 AM by a mother brown bear on the front porch, with baby meekly looking on. Both climbed a nearby tree to join us.)

My weight grew somewhat beyond the guidelines desired by the medical fraternity, possibly because two martinis (later a single whiskey) at cocktail hour were a daily routine after about age thirty-five. With them came desirable induced relaxation, however. (In the new century I cut that weight 10 pounds permanently in a physician bargain. At 5 ft., 9 inches my top weight was 192. My weight is stable at 180-4, but it’s tough.)

I tend to skip the major noonday meal, and I don’t “clean your plate!” I piece together something eventually in the afternoon: grapes, grapefruit, cut up oranges, peanut butter and crackers. A little dark chocolate is available and welcome. I weigh every morning. (When relatives visit from afar I instantly gain over three pounds. When they leave, so do those new pounds.)

Medications were essentially nil until that heart attack. For a short time my neck supported capsules of unused nitroglycerine, especially to Crater Lake’s heights. For years it was my idea to take an aspirin a day (guided by a small pioneering Canadian study I read about); now it’s down to a quarter only. Gradually, as I aged, a few corrective or preventive pills were taken in my bathroom each morning.

There were eye vitamins “to stave off macular degeneration.” might be slowed thereby. These days, I take Toprol XL (metroprolol) to stave off angina. Most of my list has been consumed as an act of faith aimed at a long future for the Bornet body. Before abandoning pills as a subject: For years I have obediently taken vitamins B-12 and D-3. The patented tablet from the famous B @ L people for the eyes is a staple for me. My dental care is encouraged with Delta Dental; medical care, happily, by Tricare for veterans.

I couldn’t be more pleased with my physicians. I am reluctant to name names and provide examples without permissions, although I did include an account of extraordinary services by Ashland, Oregon’s John Reynolds, M.D. in the Intro to one of my books.

There is another factor to be praised: the American medical profession and its nursing and pharmaceutical colleagues. It has served the Bornets very well indeed, in routine care and emergencies alike. Too much attention may be given these days to mechanisms of medicine and too little to its practitioners. During my later life, though seldom or never sick with colds, I was in the general care of a respected “board certified internist.” There were regular physical examinations, complete with the usual abortive blood tests.

A dermatologist was part of my annual life after 60. A nitrogen gun was directed at pre-cancerous growths. After insertion of my three successive pacemakers (and reconnecting number one two weeks later after a long wire lead broke), I was in the hands of a cardiologist at least once a year. I take Zirtec’s generic form in June briefly as recommended by my heart doctor–who takes it also. I have seen my dentist on a regular schedule, including teeth cleaning more often than urged.

I shamelessly consume poached eggs with butter,, whole milk, two ounces of Jameson Irish Whiskey, and maybe a few other things. But for over four years now I have replaced sugar with a yellow packet substitute; salt with potassium chloride; and I bypass bread sometimes. My goal has been to stave off diabetes II as my feet and legs offer tentative hints.

There has been a sense of “order” in the life I have lived. Before being “institutionalized” a few years back as one aging alone, and a bit unsteady, I wrote this paragraph:

Generally, the morning sees feeding of the aquarium fish, the birds, and the squirrels; getting and reading the papers; eating grapefruit, always reading the funnies and giving two newspapers over half an hour; turning on the computer to check on things and ready it for productivity and creative effort. A beverage may come at 10:30 and 3:30; a cocktail at 5:00; bed by 10:30PM. During the day: interact with my two hour Caregiver; check the weather. Retain friendships using email and put handphone in pocket. Be productive on something for several hours. Think hard about our sick Nation and wonder what to do soonest.” (I put in about 20 years on Oregon’s part of the United States Civil Rights Commission.)

Do most people try to live such a routine? I really don’t know. Speaking of “regularity,” it’s worth at least noting that my wife and I retired to bed at practically the same time nightly, always, had breakfast at the same time, also lunch, cocktails, and dinner. (Sleep 10:30 to 7:30) My father started us on regular 6:00PM dinner more than half a century ago. Beth shopped regularly on Friday mornings after careful planning of the week’s meals. We attended our share of live concerts, with me president of the Symphony two years. In the old days, we both attended and delivered public speeches. In selecting Internet movies and programs, we boycotted movies in the categories horror and terror, avoiding “violence” and generally screened what we watched. Old habits die hard.

I think that “optimism” might well be mentioned. We tried not (in the words of the song) to “delineate the negative” but rather to “accentuate the positive.” Even in the face of real adversity we kept optimistic, assuming there would be a good outcome. Our home was not a place for knockdown/dragout battles waged over anything. Moreover, a “sense of accomplishment” as a goal—whether fully warranted or not—found within our pleasant walls a home. My wife Beth W. Bornet was president of many great things.

That we had children who grew up in an orderly and intelligent manner was vital to the mental stability of their parents. As time passed, they married well and in their turn created families that did them credit. I don’t think these simple generalizations are heard often enough or given deserved credit for mental and medical happiness.

Now and then I read that there is some relation between music and good health. Without going into that, let me just say that I have listened to infinite amounts of uninterrupted, classical, dance, and country music in my lifetime and made my own on the solo cornet in old age as an old noodle of this and that. I have clung to Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays (beginning in the 1930s)! I studied to late night radio music during ten years of college. I protected my ears; they have rewarded me. Somehow, I think music has been health-inducing over the years, overall as good a idle chatter.

What has been particularly different about my medical regimen as compared with, say, that of my parents is the existence in recent years of always available Internet advice, counsel, and reference using Google. I took advantage of it when attempting to second guess the physicians, learning about new medicines and side effects, and choosing medical paths to travel. I believe it is an under reported aspect of the modern lifestyle chosen by vast numbers of seniors.

Were all of the above physician contacts, pills, routines, activities, and habits mentioned here really necessary to the achievement of long life? I don’t have the faintest idea. What, exactly, was essential?* What incidental? What irrelevant, really?

It is entirely possible that individuals who go an utterly different direction from me (and mine) in every possible respect will live just as long, and stay just as well, as the author of these words—for all I know. Still, the regimen spelled out here has worked for me during the exactly one hundred years that have passed since my birth. Having said quite enough, this respondent sayeth no more.

*Written very briefly years ago initially at the request of Dee Christlieb, M.D. in early spring, 2006, in Ashland, Oregon. After 1963 (in the Medford-Ashland, Oregon, area): John Reynolds, William Sager, John Burkett, Denise Burke, Joel Tobias, Richard A. Schaefer, the Epstein eye team, James Dunn, and specialists on the eyes, bones, ears, teeth, and similar areas that needed treatment. The pacemaker team at the Heart Clinic helps me somehow.

Personnel at Ashland Community Hospital, the team at Linda Vista, and various Caregivers have been vital. All are thanked here for what they have done and do, from action to aid, advice, and counsel. They listen with educated sympathy. In turn, without doubt, I have tried my best to listen to them.

Originally published by History News Network, reprinted with permission.



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