95-year-old rafts the New River
FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- When Meyer "Mike" Melman decided to celebrate his 95th birthday with a waterborne vacation, it wasn't a relaxing Caribbean cruise he had in mind.
Last week, the retired grocer and World War II veteran rang in the start of his 96th year on Earth by riding the adrenalin-producing rapids of the lower New River Gorge on a raft trip with a group of friends and relatives.
"As far as I know, he's the oldest person we've taken down the river so far," said Dave Arnold, managing partner of Adventures on the Gorge, the whitewater outfitter handling Melman's trip on Tuesday.
Melman, who spent most of his life in the Pittsburgh area and now lives in Hampstead, N.C., is no stranger to whitewater, although he didn't take up the sport until relatively recently. "I didn't start doing this until I was 80," he said.
Melman's first trip was a descent of the Nolichucky River along the North Carolina-Tennessee border with his son-in-law in a two-person kayak. He made his first trip on the New River two years ago on another family outing, and loved the experience.
"I think I laughed more on that one trip than my dad did in his whole life," Melman said. "We had quite an assortment of people taking that trip, and we all had a lot of fun."
At Melman's request, he got the same guide -- John Darrow -- for his 2012 trip as he had on his earlier New River experience.
"I liked him and the way he performed his job," Melman said.
Like his father, Melman spent his working life as a grocer, putting in 65 to 70 hours a week until a broken hip forced him to retire on disability at the age of 60.
"That's when I started walking," Melman said. "I started out walking while I was still on crutches, and I kept at it ever since. It's what keeps me going. In summer, I walk in the evenings and in winter I walk at mid-day. I walk five or six times a week, anywhere from one mile to up to five miles a day."
Getting back on his feet following his broken hip wasn't Melman's first experience at recovering from a major injury. As an Army infantryman in North Africa in World War II, Melman was riding atop an open platform car on a train that was strafed by a German fighter plane.
Melman said that when it became clear that the enemy aircraft was about to attack, he aimed his rifle at it, but forgot to release the safety switch, preventing him from firing. "I jumped off the platform car, and that's the last thing I remember about that day," he said.
Struck with shrapnel down his right side, Melman was taken to a hospital operated by the French. He credits the Red Cross with giving him the blood needed to save his life, and for providing his first visitors after being hospitalized. He was eventually transferred to a hospital in England, where he remained for six months before returning to duty.
"I donated blood to the Red Cross until I was in my late 70s, and I donated cash after that," he said. "But this year, I stopped giving to everyone. I figure at my age, I've given them plenty."
Melman said that a major goal in his life is to reach the age of 115, which would probably assure him status as the last surviving wounded-in-action World War II veteran.
But he's got other goals to accomplish before then.
He predicted that his 95th birthday trip down the New River would not be his last.
"I'm coming back here for my 100th birthday," he said. "If my health is still good and my doctor says it's OK, I'll go down the river again, and set the age record for good."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.