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Retired WWII pilot salutes the passing parade of drivers

CARRIE PRATT   |   Times
George Cox, an 88-year-old retired Air Force colonel, likes to spend time in his wheelchair saluting passers-by.

CARRIE PRATT | Times George Cox, an 88-year-old retired Air Force colonel, likes to spend time in his wheelchair saluting passers-by.

A gray-haired man in a wheelchair and a weird hat nests near the corner of Bayshore and Gandy boulevards. He's there almost daily, settled among townhomes and houses with big lawns, joggers and Labradors jaunting toward Tampa's famed sidewalk.

He sits for hours outside his retirement home and waves, as if on the porch of a shotgun house off a dirt road with pickups and hunting dogs.

Technically, he's not really waving, more like saluting. He looks straight into a car window, raises his right forefinger to the brim of his hat, then briskly sweeps it forward.

Hundreds, I'm sure, pass by wondering why he's there and who he is, but they look too busy to ask. They're listening to talk radio, sipping coffee and juggling muffins and cell phones at the wheel.

So allow me:

Meet George Cox, retired Air Force colonel and bomber pilot in World War II. He was born in Scotland, grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and has traveled the world.

He has been living at the Grand Court assisted living facility on Bayshore about four months and is already a hit, especially with the ladies.

As a young staffer arranged to meet him for a routine checkup last week, George smiled and asked: What will you be wearing?

Of course, he was only joking. "I'm a ham," he says, wheeling away from the woman and cracking himself up.

He's married to his beloved Claudia, who is in Macon, Ga., where the couple live. George's son and three daughters are in Florida and arranged for him to come here while he recovers from a bad leg and hip. He gets sad thinking about home these days. So he tries not to. "Let's talk about something else," he'll say.

Then he gets going, reminiscing about the past, about what's turned out to be a pretty good life. Statues, papers and old pictures in his room tell stories of travels to Japan, the Philippines, Iran. The elaborate wooden chair he bought in Bangkok where it would be strapped atop an elephant for riding purposes.

"My wife and I went lots of places," he says.

It's like John Gillespie Magee Jr. wrote in George's favorite poem:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

By the way, George writes, too — short stories that he gives to people. From George Cox's Laughing Jesus Story: "Some people think a smile is a frown turned upside down. But I think a real smile comes from the heart. Don't you? Smile, darn you, smile!"

In Macon, George was practicing 'Twas the Night Before Christmas a few months back. In the Cox version, stockings are hung by the chimney with care — "and glue."

"There's a lot you can do with that, the Night Before Christmas," George says.

The only bad part was spending Christmas away from Claudia. He sent her a dozen roses, though. Last Saturday, when George turned 88, she sent him a bouquet.

She has throat cancer, George says, and has been in and out of the hospital. He can't walk much and needs help. He's working on it, though.

He exercises at Grand Court, modifying the moves to suit his abilities in the chair. "He's just one of those people who has this wonderful bright spirit," says Rebecca Corin, who leads exercise classes.

George's son Bruce lives in South Tampa and visits several times a week. "He's always upbeat, always trying to put a smile on somebody's face," Bruce says.

In his heart, George is ready to leave. "I am going back to Macon, no doubt about it, the quicker the better," he says. "What I'm trying to do is learn to walk."

In the meantime, he has to make the best of life.

So one day in December, when he wasn't exercising, joking or telling stories, George put on his "jingle bells" cap, took the elevator downstairs and wheeled out to the sidewalk, near the "ONE WAY DO NOT ENTER" sign.

He sat and watched the SUVs, the sports cars and the motorcycles zoom by. He acknowledged each one, with the brush of his finger, the way a colonel would.

In the beginning, hardly anybody paid attention. Rebecca gave him more hats to stand out. Aside from the flashy sombrero he got on a Mexican cruise trip and his colonel's hat, his collection includes a Happy Groundhog Day top hat, an Asian-style hat and a colorful felt cap.

George's informal findings suggest that 80 percent of drivers now respond in some way. Men honk, women wave. He has seen one Rolls-Royce. "Lots of bicycle riders but they don't stop because they're going too fast."

One day last week, George took his post about 6 in the morning, stayed a little while, then went back after 9. A woman in a silver Range Rover returned his salute with a cutesy wave, a guy wearing camouflage whirred past on a motorcycle without noticing. Once, a lady parked and walked over with her teenage daughter. They asked why he was there.

George told them what he tells everyone. It's simple, he says. "Just something to do."

Retired WWII pilot salutes the passing parade of drivers 02/28/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:00am]

    

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