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In the waning years of the Greatest Generation, still much to celebrate

The shadow box of memories is perched against a coffee table in front of him.

He appears disinterested as his eyes move from one keepsake to the next. Past the Purple Heart. Past the Bronze Star. Past the yellowed newspaper photos and headlines that call him a hero. Finally, his gaze rests on a piece of mail from nearly 70 years ago.

"That," Ted Denton finally says, as he points his cane to emphasize. "That is more important than all the other stuff."

The letter is from Bernard Taylor, a seaman first class recuperating in a Naval hospital in Hawaii in 1945.

"Dear Pal," the letter begins.

Taylor goes on to tell Denton of his latest surgery and recovery. He apologizes for having not written sooner. Eventually he gets to the point of this meticulously written missive.

"I guess you thought I've forgotten about you, but I didn't. For I couldn't forget you. If it wasn't for you … well I would be dead."

It was late afternoon on April 28, 1945, when a kamikaze attack turned the lower decks of the USS Pinkney into a hellish inferno, according to long-ago newspaper reports. At the time, Denton was a 21-year-old pharmacist's mate with a handful of wounded sailors under his care.

With the room turned to fire and confusion, Denton pried open a jammed door and began carrying his patients out and up a stairway to safety. He got one out. Then another. Then two more. By the time he turned to go back for a fifth, his shipmates stopped him. His back and arms were severely burned, and the passage was filled with flames.

"I had to do something to earn my pay," he now says with a self-deprecating grin.

"I never had a gun in my hand. When you're on a battlefield, you can't stop someone from bleeding to death with one hand if you're carrying a gun in the other. So you keep your head down, and do your job. That's how all the pharmacist's mates operated.

"Sometimes, I think about the men I saved. Mostly, I wish I could have saved more."

Ted Denton turned 90 on Wednesday, and his family and friends ended a daylong celebration with a party at an Italian restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg.

During the course of the afternoon, Denton told stories of his days as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman. As a malt shop manager in San Francisco. Of his work in New Jersey on a mink farm, a creamery and later as a fork lift operator.

He talked of his 62-year marriage to the girl he met at a skating rink, and the pain of her death seven years ago. He joked of his second marriage a few years ago when he was 88 and his new bride, Mary, was 90.

"I told her she was a baby robber," Denton said.

Listen long enough, and you hear Denton explain the changes he has witnessed through the years. Not the innovations or breakthroughs, but the shifting attitudes.

His voice sounds wistful as he talks of days when Americans believed in the greater good instead of individual glory. Of days when integrity was expected, and sacrifices were appreciated. Of days when it was not so rare for strangers to smile and wave.

The America he grew up in did not try to impose its beliefs or values on anyone else, he said. The America he remembers welcomed immigrants with arms wide.

"Some of the things I see and read today," he says, "are just so disappointing."

His was known as the Greatest Generation, the collection of Americans who endured the Depression, fought in World War II and stood witness as a country thrived.

Soon, they will all be gone. If we're lucky, we will take away more than just the keepsakes and memories they leave behind.

"I had the wildest life you could imagine," Denton said, "and I don't regret any of it."

Happy birthday, Ted.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

In the waning years of the Greatest Generation, still much to celebrate 08/14/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 10:35pm]
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