Donald Black, 97-year-old World War II vet and Writers Institute contributor, contemplates the coronavirus pandemic in isolation in a Niskayuna, N.Y. nursing home
By Paul Grondahl
“It’s solitary confinement now for Brookdale residents,” our friend Don wrote to us in an email last week. “We’re not to mingle. Meals, mail and newspapers will be brought to our rooms. All group activities have been canceled. I didn’t participate in them anyway. No visitors, of course. Here I am, just me and my shadow. My shadow makes a pretty dull companion. It’s not a good conversationalist (but then, neither am I), and it doesn’t read the things I write (which sometimes I do). Often it goes off on its own. Sulking, I suppose.”
“There’s not a corner of the world that hasn’t been affected (and infected) by the bug,” Don continued. “We all feel its presence. Rod Serling never would have dreamed up a plot like this. It’s too far-fetched. However, for me, there are still old journal essays to dig up and email for distributing them to friends and family who sometimes respond. My special thanks for the responses.”
I met Don Black a little more than two years ago when I interviewed him for a feature story in the Albany Times Union. I was immediately struck by how well-read he was, his natural storytelling abilities, his rich life experience and his cheerful spirit.
We became friends. I enjoyed hearing Don’s stories about World War II. He flew 17 bombing missions over Germany during the winter of 1945. He served as a radio operator with a B-17 crew in the 305th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force.
Don, a retired banking executive, is a wonderful writer and chronicler of his travels and he was thrilled to visit the Writers Institute offices a year ago. He interviewed us, took pictures and produced an article. He also has contributed articles to the Writers Institute’s literary journal, Trolley. The Essay Writer (Winter 2018) and Last Thoughts: Gratitude by Oliver Sacks (Spring 2019).
After Don fell and broke his hip about nine months ago, which also led to a diagnosis of cancer, I visited him in the hospital and nursing home. He continued to read voraciously, to tell wonderful and funny stories and to be an inspiration.
I reached Don by phone in his room at the nursing home the other day and we had a nice conversation. He sends his regards to his friends at the Writers Institute and said he is grateful that his copy of The New Yorker is delivered to his room, along with three meals a day, and that he has a small library of books in his room to read. He misses his weekly drive to the Colonie Town Library, where he would pick up a satchel of new books to read and return the ones he had finished.
“I’m holding up fine. Thank God for email,” Don said. He can no longer have visits from his sons and friends, but he keeps in contact by phone and email and he continues to send out dispatches and travelogues he wrote in years past.
He praised the kindness and dedication of the nursing home’s staff. Nurses and aides who come to his room wear face masks, “but at least they’re not in hazmat suits yet,” he said.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or to be woe is me,” he said. “We’re all in this together to beat the coronavirus. The precautions they are taking here at Brookdale make perfect sense.”
Don bends the rules slightly by moving out into the hallway with his walker when nobody is nearby. “So far I have not been stopped,” he said. “I need to get some exercise so my muscles don’t atrophy. I saw three people playing Scrabble in the lounge. I pass nurses somethings and they recognize the importance of some exercise. We can’t just sit in a chair in our room day after day.”
Don recalled his mother telling him about the death of her only sibling, an older sister, Florence Howard, who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. “My mother was very close to her sister and it was a heartbreaking loss,” Don said. “Her sister had just gotten married when she was stricken and died in Oyster Bay, Long Island. My mother told me stories about her sister. She carried that loss throughout her life.”
“This coronavirus pandemic is novel and unprecedented,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it in my lifetime. I’ve lived through epidemics before, but nothing like this worldwide coronavirus pandemic that has affected every corner of the earth.”
Don added: “I hope something good comes out of it. We have become such a disunited country and it would be a good outcome if it reminded us to feel like we are all one again.”
Don Black served as a radio operator in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was assigned to a B-17 crew with the 305th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force in the winter of 1945. He completed 17 bombing missions over Germany. He is the last survivor of his B-17 crew.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1922 and grew up on Long Island. He graduated from South Side High School in Rockville Centre and was inspired by his history teacher Louise Austin. She is the same teacher that author Doris Kearns Goodwin, a South Side High alum 21 years younger than Black, cited as a central figure in her devotion to writing history. Black has read all of Goodwin’s books and admires her compelling prose style, he noted.
(Photo: Don Black accompanied Paul Grondahl and visiting author John Leland, author of Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among The Oldest Old, to a taping at WAMC’s studios in Albany with "The Book Show" host Joe Donahue, far right, and WAMC CEO Alan Chartock, far left.)
After the war, with the help of the GI Bill, Black graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in finance in 1951. He retired in 1992 from a 50-year career in commercial banking. His wife, Evelyn, died in 2008 after 59 years of marriage.
Black became a recreational civilian pilot and helped teach his son, Steve, how to fly beginning at age 11. His son earned a pilot’s license a decade later and retired last year after a 40-year career as a commercial pilot.
After Black gave up flying at age 74, mainly due to rising liability insurance costs, he became an avid bicyclist. He logged 40,000 miles on countless long rides, with stops to take photographs and jot notes about local history. Black wrote hundreds of pages of travelogue of his bike journeys. The stories fill a shelf of binders in his study at home.
We are privileged to count Don Black among our friends at the Writers Institute and as a contributor to Trolley.
Here is the link to a column I wrote about Don in the Albany Times Union.
We hope to share more dispatches from Don, our correspondent in solitary confinement.