When 99-year-old Bruce Powell arrived at our house for lunch with his daughter Sue and great grandson Max recently I had hoped he would be driving his new car. ‘A sporty little red Kia Picanto with all the bells and whistles,’ he had told me. But it was still at the wharf.
His old car, which he had driven for a couple of decades, although still road worthy, was coming to the end of its life so it was time for a change. This will be his first automatic.
Bruce was born in 1918 in England. World War One was in its fourth year but the tide had started to turn and the war officially ended that November.
He has fond memories of his childhood. But the twenties were his most memorable decade as so much progress was made then and there was so much modernisation.
Everything was still being delivered by horse and cart. Their maid Emma had a coal-man boyfriend and Bruce was allowed to ride along and take the reins. He also had to collect the dung from passing horses for his father’s rhubarb patch. A win win for the environment!
Horse drawn funeral processions were a solemn affair. The curtains would be drawn in all the houses in the street and caps doffed as one drove past.
‘Death was seen as a normal part of life then, unlike these days,” he muses.
His family got their first radio in the twenties. It was complicated to tune unlike the later one knob models and came with a large horn speaker. It also required a long aerial in the back garden.
The twenties were a decade of major transport changes. Bruce remembers running outside to see the first bi planes.
The first bus with solid tyres and individual compartments for the passengers arrived on the scene.
Their first family car was a Trojan. He thinks it also had solid tyres as it certainly felt like it. The back seat was a narrow bench and sitting on it was a tight squeeze
As you do when talking to a person reached a ripe old age I asked him what he attributed his longevity to.
‘Good Luck,’ he says. He recounts how he had a narrow escape during World War Two. On the day his regiment was to move from France to the Belgian border and the day the Germans began their encircling push forward he woke with a tremendous headache, collapsed into a coma and had to be hospitalised. He was diagnosed with meningitis and given M&B693, one of the first antibiotics. He was very fortunate to be one of the first to be prescribed this drug. It saved his life. And thanks to meningitis he was saved from experiencing the terrible carnage at Dunkirk.
Bruce went on to further active service in North Africa and Italy where he was able to put his technical skills to excellent use as a telecommunications technician.
In September 1955 he, his wife Dorothy and two young children, Trevor and Sue, were on their way to New Zealand on the SS Southern Cross looking forward to a warmer climate and new challenges.
Little did he know at that time that it would be 21 years before he would return and that he would never see some of his friends and family again.
He had brought his little homemade radar tube TV in the packing crate and proceeded to erect wires around their navy home in Takapuna to receive the experimental TV station ZL1XXR from Seddon Tech, just across the water in Auckland. This had started broadcasting on Wednesdays from 6-6.30 pm. Thanks to Bruce’s ingenuity his family had one of the first TVs in New Zealand.
After a busy working life with the NZ Navy, Bruce retired at the age of 61 taking advantage of the fact that Muldoon had lowered the pension age to 60 in 1977. At the beginning of his retirement, he made plans for the future. He decided to get fit, remain physically active and intellectually stimulated
The “Fit for Life” programme helped him to lose those extra kilos. He also gave up red meat. And he kept physically active by helping his daughter and son in law Laurie to design and build their new home. Later on he built a Hartley 16 trailer-sailer and spent many happy hours out in the Hauraki Gulf.
When he was 74 years old he joined Toastmasters which proved to be a great way to keep his mind active. He still attends meetings and has the honour of being the oldest Toastmaster in New Zealand. He proceeded to give us some tips on how to design a great speech which might come in handy!
When the Toastmasters moved their meetings to the Glenfield War Memorial Hall, Bruce became heavily involved with the governance of the centre, and also became their fix it man. To mark the hard yards he put in they named one of their rooms ‘The Bruce Powell Supper Room.’
Many older people find modern technology a challenge, but it was no problem for Bruce as he had used computers at work for many years. He was familiar with the early ICL computer installed at Caltex House that the dockyard used. It had only 32K memory but was so large it filled a big room. These days he is on Facebook, emails and enjoys surfing the net for information. He especially enjoys listening to inspirational TED X talks on YouTube.
Recently he sold the family home and moved into an apartment at the Orchards, a retirement village which overlooks Glenfield College on Auckland’s North Shore. There are only 100 residents who live here so it has a family atmosphere. He is on the residents’ committee and helps to organise regular film evenings. He regularly walks and attends the gym.
The Orchards has a café on the roadside which is open to the public so there is an opportunity to mix with folks from the wider community. He still cooks many of his own meals and Sue has helped him to establish a pocket sized garden where he is growing broccoli and tomatoes.
Bruce hasn’t stopped travelling. Recently he went on an Auckland to Auckland cruise with Sue and although due to bad weather they were not able to stop off at every place he still had a great time. And plans have been made for the Trans Alpine railway in October.
Up until that afternoon, I had known Bruce as our friend Sue’s Dad and I just thought it would be interesting to write a story about what it feels like to be a ninety-nine-year-old man. I had no idea that he had packed so much into his life! He is a great raconteur and we could have talked for much longer but four-year-old Max, who had been the perfect child all afternoon, was getting a little restless so it was time to call it a day.
Before they left, and with a twinkle in his eyes he told us how when he showed his new suit to his lovely neighbour she asked: “Is that to wear at your funeral Bruce?”
But Bruce has better things to do. At ninety-nine years young there’s a life to be lived! And there’s the birth of his fourth great grandchild to look forward to.
By Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveller, writer & passionate home cook