(pictured L-R, John, Martha McCrea, Julia in 1973)
After retiring from the navy at the mandatory retirement age of 62, John McCrea worked in client relations for John Hancock Life Insurance Co. until he reached the company’s mandatory retirement age of 75. He began to record his memoirs in his early 80’s and continued to work on them for about ten years. One might well question the reliability of the memory of someone of such advanced years. However, having spent considerable time vetting John’s work, I can vouch for him.
At 80, John was a man of great vitality. Every morning without fail he performed a daily exercise routine. I often glimpsed him lying on his back on the floor–“on the deck” as he called it—doing leg bicycles in the air. Wary of the diabetes that ran in his family, he monitored his diet carefully. He loved to travel, he was a hands-on gardener, and he played the ancient Scottish sport of curling, which involves sliding heavy stones across the ice and vigorously brushing the path ahead of his teammate’s stone.
If anything, John’s mental acuity in his 80’s was even more impressive than his physical prowess. His memory was phenomenal. In telling of events long past, he described them with such clarity and detail that you felt that you were present. He remembered who was there, where he was standing, and what was said. On occasion, he would startle by stating that such-and-such event that had taken place some 50 or 60 years before had occurred on—say–a Tuesday. Of course, I had no way of knowing whether he was correct at the time, but in editing I found that these sorts of statements were invariably accurate.
In July 1969, when John was a mere 78, we watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on live TV. At the time, I recall thinking how much John had witnessed–the rise of telephones, the birth of the automobile, radio, airplanes, penicillin, radar, two world wars, and now space travel. He had personal stories about all and how they impacted his life. Likewise, he had vivid recollections of an astonishing number of public figures he had known or witnessed over the same period. These included William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Edison, FDR as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and as President, Justice Louis Brandeis, Winston Churchill, the terrifying Admiral Ernest J. King, and, a personal favorite, Wallis Simpson when she was married to her first husband (a naval officer) and to her third (the Duke of Windsor). The list went on and on. The more I knew of John’s stories, the more I came to think of on him as a sort of human reference work on the first half of the 20th Century.