It’s been a long drive

By on May 22, 2019

A WWII veteran turns 100

I blinked twice when I met George Houck shortly before he celebrated his 100th birthday on May 15. He looked 75, maybe 80 at best. He was animated, talkative, and remembered growing up more than 80 years ago. We talked for two hours and could have gone on hours more.

The World War II veteran is one of a growing number of seniors who are celebrating centennial birthdays. In 2010, according to census records, only one percent of the U.S. population reached age 100 or older; that number is expected to increase significantly with the results of the 2020 census.

A lifelong truck driver, Houck worked for John Ewell, Lancaster, for 40 years and also drove during his Army career. For Ewell, Houck delivered milk in large tanker trucks, primarily on the East Coast and as far west as Indiana, long before the era of modern tractors with attached sleeping berth cabs.

“Heck, we slept on the truck bench seat,” Houck says, “to save the motel money.”

While in the Army, Houck delivered supplies and ammunition from North Africa to Marseille in France.

The over-the-road driver received Mack Trucks’ million mile safety award midway through his career, so it is safe to say, he drove millions of miles and delivered millions of gallons of milk during years behind the wheel.

A widower after 70 years of marriage, Houck lives at the Welsh Mountain Home on Springville Road in New Holland, but his story begins decades ago when the U.S. had a population of 106 million (it’s three-times that today), and the year before the start of prohibition, and what is referred to by historians as the Jazz Age or the Roaring 1920s.

Growing up
Houck doesn’t remember too much of the Roaring 20s, but he’s pretty good from the 1930s on. He was born in Paradise, and his parents raised him with three foster children — a brother and two sisters from Philadelphia. His dad was a farmer and laborer and moved the family around central Pennsylvania before settling in New Holland, where Houck too spent his adult life.

George Houck (left), with friend and fellow driver Rodney Rhodes, who visits him regularly at the Welsh Mountain Home.

Houck says at age 16, his dad needed him on the farm, so he stopped formal schooling. He also worked at a New Holland mill, and then for one year driving for Ewell — something he always wanted to do — until joining the Army after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

Over there…
“Every eligible male wanted to serve,” Houck says, “and they drafted quickly including married men with four or five children.”
With his driving experience, Houck was sent to the Quartermaster Corps after Army basic training. They shipped him overseas and put behind the wheel of a box truck to make deliveries to bases and the front lines.

“We carried food, supplies and even ammunition,” Houck says, “It was a job, you didn’t think what was in the box behind you — even if it could explode and kill you.”

Houck started driving in North Africa with General Patton as they helped the British clear the Germans from the continent in Operation Torch. He then moved with allied troops to Naples, Italy, in the Italian Campaign, and then was stationed in Toulon, and Marseille, France. Toulon is a large port on the Mediterranean that had been occupied by the Germans, bombed by the allies, and liberated in 1944.

…and back again
Houck returned to the United States in 1945. He didn’t miss a beat and slid immediately back into the cab of a tanker, which he describes as huge thermos bottle to keep milk cool, while he delivered it to dairies for bottling. The industry has changed drastically since Houck retired, with some 3,000 dairy farms across the country having closed just in 2018.

Houck married Edith Fryberger in 1946 and the couple were together until her passing in 2017. They had two children; their surviving daughter, Janis, 72, lives in Ephrata.

George Houck in a photo with a John Ewell tanker truck “back in the day.”

The end of a career
Houck smiles when he remembers how his driving career came to an end. He explains that trucks always were the key to moving goods from one place to another. To make it more efficient so loads could be delivered further by one or two drivers, he explains, new tractors were fitted with small sleeping areas behind the driver.

“It made it easier to park in a truck stop and get the mandated sleep after driving the allotted hours,” Houck says. “But at the same time, it meant that trips started getting longer and longer and rather than being on the road one or two nights, drivers could be on the road for a week or even more.”

So when Ewell started using trucks with the new sleeper cabs, Houck said he was nearing 65 and felt it was time to retire — and he did in June 1984. In retirement, he and Edith did the traveling they had looked forward to, including Alaska and Hawaii. And, Houck explains, in any seven-decade marriage, there was a lot of give and take, and being on the road for a few days at a time kind of helped cool things off when needed.

George Houck is up early at Welsh Mountain Home reading the newspaper.

Welsh Mountain
Shortly after his wife’s passing, having downsized from a large home in New Holland to an apartment, Houck fell and was hospitalized. He realized it might be time to live where he had some support. He gave up driving (at age 98) and moved to Welsh Mountain where, he says, the food is good, he has made friends, and there is enough to keep a centenarian busy.

“I have had a wonderful life with plenty of friends and memories,” Houck said, as he showed old photos to Rodney Rhodes, a friend and fellow driver who visits Houck often.

Houck was honored by his friends and former drivers at the SquireSide Cafe in New Holland recently where, for years, he met with fellow drivers every Tuesday morning to catch up on the local news and swap stories. It was like old times.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net. 

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