The party came to 104-year-old Ron Hemming on Thursday night in Spokane Valley.
The World War II veteran nursed a birthday Coors Light on his front porch as nine motorcycles driven by members of the Combat Veteran Riders pulled up to the home he shares with his son and daughter-in-law off Mission Avenue.
“They’re here for me?” Hemming said, after being told by a hospice nurse that the unofficial twilight motorcade was on his account. “Well, thank them.”
Hemming, who signed up for the U.S. Navy before the outbreak of World War II, had celebrated in the past at the motorcycle group’s clubhouse off Trent Avenue, said his son Richard Hemming, a Vietnam veteran who serves as chaplain for the nonprofit veterans assistance group. But gathering the group’s 80 members indoors for a centenarian on hospice care wasn’t an option in pandemic times.
“I was going to get a cake with 104 candles, but I couldn’t call the fire department,” the younger Hemming joked, as his father rocked on the front porch prior to the motorcycle’s arrival.
Ron Hemming made the rank of lieutenant junior class before retiring from the Navy, his son said. He ended the war based on the USS Markab, a destroyer that roamed the Pacific theater from February 1944 through the dropping of the atomic bomb and the first few months of 1946, after the war.
Ron Hemming doesn’t remember much of those days now, including when the A-bomb dropped. But about a decade ago, when he was living with his late wife in a retirement home, he started sharing stories about the war, said Richard Hemming.
“When I was a kid, he never talked about it,” Richard Hemming said, even though as a boy he’d ask.
While on the Markab, Richard Hemming said, his father helped navigate the nearly 20,000-ton ship through the islands of Japan.
“Those channels are narrow and filled with rocks,” Richard Hemming said. “He made it through, and he was up all night with the skipper.
“When dawn broke and they were clear of the islands, the skipper turned to my dad and says, ‘Hemmy, I think you need to go hit the rack,’” Hemming continued, using the slang term for bed. “And my dad looked at the skipper and said, ‘I think you need to hit the rack, also.’”
Veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam roared into the neighborhood, most on Harley-Davidson bikes, assembling on the gravel out front for some yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Ron Hemming donned sunglasses with peace signs for the eyes and the colors of the American flag, part of a gift basket assembled by Kindred Hospice, the provider caring for him.
The evening included a portrait of three generations of Hemmings, all Navy servicemen. Robert Hemming, Ron’s grandson and Richard’s son, joined the trio for a picture on the porch. Robert Hemming served in the U.S. Navy from 1990 through 1994.
“He’s the best man I’ve ever known,” Robert Hemming said of his grandfather.
Ron Hemming is part of a group that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says is rapidly dwindling. Of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, fewer than 400,000 remained alive as of 2019.
It’s a reminder that the Hemmings can’t take any birthday for granted, even in a pandemic. Richard Hemming said he didn’t know if the front-yard celebration would become the new custom.
“We’ll play that by ear,” he said.
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