There are three different story options as to why Wayne Barker of Rogersville wears a neck brace. He's seen a lot in his 99 years and has the stories to prove it. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

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Correction: The initial version of this story had the incorrect last name for Tammy Barlow.

Tammy Barlow works at the Copper Rock Village assisted living center in Rogersville; she called me months ago and then again this month as a reminder.

I need to meet Wayne Barker, a resident there, she keeps telling me. He will be 100 in July and, she adds, I should write a column on him.

I went out there Wednesday, April 19, and met Wayne and here's the story. I've tried to write it as much as I can in his words. My words, in this case, wouldn't do the subject justice.

Yeah, that's my best ear. I've got this ringing in my ears and they can't do anything with it. It just happened over the years.

In his small room are many photos, including one of the USS Mississippi BB-41.

This is the USS Mississippi, a battleship in the Seventh Fleet in World War II. Its guns fired the broadside that helped sink the Japanese battleship Yamashiro. (Submitted photo)

“I was on that ship for 26 months in the Pacific Ocean. We was hit twice by the suicide planes. And a near miss another time.

Wayne David Barker, top row far left, joined the Navy in 1943 at age 18. He was the youngest of four brothers; three were in the Navy and one was in the Army. Their mother died on Christmas Eve 1945 at the age of 48 while all four sons were at war overseas. He believes she died of tuberculosis. (Submitted photo)

“No, not exactly scared, until it's all over. I mean, you do what's necessary. You do your job. No nightmares about it, but you think about it. It stays with you. You don't dwell on it.

Aerial view of the Able test, a device detonated on July 1, 1946 at an altitude of 520 feet. (Library of Congress photo)

He was on a ship sent to the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and witnessed two nuclear-bomb tests. One was detonated under water.

“I wanted to look up and see it all, so that's what I did. It looked like a mountain come up out of that water. ... I had a picture in this magazine of it at one time. I give it away but I shoulda kept it.”

Yes, he saw a mushroom cloud.

“It was something interesting. They had moved all the natives off the islands, you know. It was just something to see. And later on, since I've been here, I saw it on TV. They filmed all of that. What I saw out there you could see on TV. I might as well have just set here and watched TV and not went out there.

“We was in one typhoon in and around the Philippines for three days and nights. The water was so rough, they couldn't cook. We had to make sandwiches You couldn't keep nothing on the stove or anything like that.”

What do you do for fun? “I'd walk up there to that stop sign and it never would change. I didn't know what to do. I'd stand there until I get tired. I just finally give it up. So now I go over here to that other side where they ain't got no stop sign so I do whatever I want to.” (Photo by Steve Pokin)

“I never was as sick as I was in my life as I was in San Francisco. I went in for liberty one night. Well, they had that atomic bomb. They was making an atomic bomb that they were going to drop on Tokyo — or Naggy Sacky — over there. This bar come up with a drink called ‘the atomic bomb.' We was in there, San Francisco, for repair work on that battleship.

“You may not want to write all this. But I can remember it. I said, ‘Let me have one of them ‘atomic bombs.' They did. There was an old sailor sitting down at the end of the bar. I'd see a smile on his face. He said, ‘young fella' — he called me young fella then; I hadn't even shaved. He said ‘Would you like to have another one of them?' and I said, ‘Please, if you'll buy it I'll drink it.' That was a mistake.

“I woke up in the gutter out on Market Street. My peacoat was ripped at the collar.
My cap was gone. Two state patrolmen were rolling me in a wheel barrel. They was carrying me down the street. And the next time I woke up I was at the patrol headquarters. An officer standing there, nudging me with his foot, said, ‘C'mon bright eyes, let's go back to your ship.

“I was sick for two weeks. I wouldn't even drink water. That is the truth if I ever spoke it.”

I ask him: You only had two?

“They were stout.”

Wayne Barker was born in Nixa, the son of share croppers. His four siblings have all died. He will be 100 years old July 29. “I can't believe it. I don't believe I'm that old.” (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Barker has several tattoos, including one of Betty Boop.

“That one's an anchor. It's not mange.”

I ask if he was sober for each of them.

“Well, you had to have something for the pain.”

Wayne Barker and Mollie Blankenship were married in 1949. They had become reacquainted after he left the service in 1946. Their first date was at the Owen Theatre in Seymour. She was working at the Anchor Inn Cafe in Seymour. They built a house in Seymour. She died in 2018 after 68 years of marriage. They did not have children. (Submitted photo)

Wayne Barker and Mollie Blankenship were married in 1949. Their first date was at the Owen Theatre in Seymour. They built a house in Seymour. She died in 2018 after 68 years of marriage.

“She had that dementia and Alzheimer's. And that was just taking her life away from her. And she got real bad one night. She didn't want to get up the next morning. She had a cough. So I brought her up here to St. John's. And they tried for 10 days and nights to get that fluid off her lungs. But they couldn't budge it.

They had her on a machine and she said she didn't want to be on a machine for no more. She was so weak, anyways. She was 89 years old and she just give it up. I was watching that machine one day sitting there and I asked them what was wrong with it and she said she had stopped breathing. She just stopped breathing. Her heart quit beating and that's the way she went.

What's the best decision you've ever made?

“Getting married. I straightened up. I wouldn't be sick every Sunday morning over Saturday night. I got on the sarsaparilla (a soft drink.) I said to myself, ‘You're going to hurt somebody, including yourself, if you ain't careful.'”

What's the best advice you can give to young people?

“Just do your thing. That's all I'm gonna tell them. Do what they think they ought to do.”

Wayne Barker worked for the Frisco Railroad from January 1947 to December 1988. “I've been unemployed ever since.” He would travel to worksites in 10 different states and be away from his home in Seymour for as long as two weeks. He worked with a group of other men called “gangs” and they often slept in a boxcars with bunks while on the road. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

“I'd like to burn up in the summertime and froze up in the winter. I asked for it. That what I chose. That's what I did.

“I woke up one morning and had snowflakes on my blankie on the top bunk of the boxcar.”

You ever been in a fight?

“A fight? If I did, he probably hit me so hard I don't remember it.”

Wayne Barker takes a Tylenol daily to combat the pain of “Old Arthur” — otherwise known as arthritis. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Why are you wearing a neck brace?

“It was 1949 — I was pretty tough back then. As time went by, I lost all strength in my shoulders. And they got to investigating and I had ruptured a disc in my neck in about 1956. They found a pinched nerve in there. No way to get it. They cut the disc out. I went on for years and years and years and finally it gradually got to hurting and hurting and my arms failed. So they gave me this dog collar/horse collar/whatever. It supports my neck.”

Explanation 2:

“I have this to hold my head up because I'm ashamed of what I used to be.”

Explanation 3, from his nephew Jim Ashley of Seymour:

“He's told all the nurses here that he fell off a bar stool in Honolulu.”

This is Pokin Around column No. 177.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Hauxeda. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin