ST. PETE BEACH — In 1945, Sheldon Sayles volunteered to die.
Imminent mortality was nothing new for the 23-year-old Army lieutenant — it was, after all, a world war. But his commander called this mission suicide. And he gave Mr. Sayles two weeks in Paris to bid the earth goodbye.
But in war, as in life, plans are often futile. Europe was liberated several days later, and the deadly mission was aborted. The Indianapolis boy got another chance, and it wouldn't be the last.
He left the quiet European battlefields for his next mission, set for the Pacific. But that one, too, was thwarted. Another victory day, another stroke of luck.
Mr. Sayles was born in 1922 — 50 years too late, he used to tell his daughter Susan. A childhood move to Arizona on doctors' orders for his asthma sparked a love of the old Wild West. Adventure and excitement, Susan Sayles said, that was Dad.
He died on Friday.
In his 86 years, Mr. Sayles caught a wildebeest on an African safari, spied on supposed mob bosses and developed new methods for lie detection. He helped revolutionize retail toy displays and was a self-taught expert of world religions. He studied Adolf Hitler's chemical warfare and how to arm against it.
At the close of World War II, he went back to Indianapolis, where he met a girl named Madeline and married her after three weeks. Sixty-two years and four kids followed.
After he was discharged in 1946, Mr. Sayles worked for a toy company, L.S. Ayers, where he scouted the latest gizmos and helped develop some of the first self-service toy departments.
Before then, there were no shiny boxes or soaring store displays. Instead, a clerk would select customers' purchases based on what they said they wanted.
In 1967, it was time for a change — St. Pete Beach and private-eye detective work.
Mr. Sayles opened his own agency, ESP Investigations, where for nearly 25 years he trailed cheating spouses, settled arson cases, kept tabs on dentists' records and scouted for organized crime.
Nicknamed "the Professor," Mr. Sayles never earned a college degree, only taking about a year's worth of chemistry courses. A teenage stock-market hobby left him a millionaire.
An Army honor guard will attend the World War II veteran's funeral, where his daughter plans to talk of doll displays and mysteries.
"He always had a good story," Susan Sayles said of her father.
And all he wanted was to be a cowboy.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.