When I met Walter Breuning on the afternoon of September 6th, 2010, he was due to turn 114 in a fortnight, a feat accomplished by fewer than 100 people in human history.
We had arranged to meet at Rainbow Retirement and Assisted Living in downtown Great Falls, Montana, where Walter had lived for nearly 30 years. Despite my early arrival, the chirpy receptionist informed me that he was already waiting in the lounge at the end of the hall.
I could hear hammering and sawing in distant reaches of the building, and it was clear that remodelers had recently been at work in the converted hotel. Sections of the floor were covered in plastic and sheets of drywall lay stacked near the doorway. A few pieces of furniture had been left behind in a haphazard arrangement, including one big chair with a high back and broad arm rests.
Walter’s narrow, hunched frame occupied barely one half of that chair. He gazed placidly across the room through a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, his countenance failing to register even the slightest annoyance at the disordered state of his surroundings. He wore a collared shirt and black suit jacket, which billowed above his shoulders, giving him the look of a basketball slowly losing air in the corner of a garage. The waistline of his dress pants met him at the chest and a broad necktie draped over his comfortably crossed knees. A walker stood just beyond the toes of his leather shoes.
Outdated hearing aids were solidly lodged in each of Walter’s tall ears, and deep lines ran from the corners of his mouth along either side of his chin in the manner of a wooden puppet. Yet his thin face had not fallen much over the last century, and I could not find a wrinkle on his brow. Together, a pair of high, elegantly arched eyebrows and tightly pursed lips projected an air of expectation that many schoolteachers have mastered: the look of someone duty bound to listen yet doubtful they’ll hear something new.
I felt a bit intrusive as I introduced myself and shook his wiry hand, which extended well beyond the cavernous cuff of his jacket. He had endured hundreds of interviews in the last several years, and there had recently been an uptick in media attention following the death of Henry Allingham, an Englishman who preceded Walter as the world’s oldest man. These interviews tended to focus on a few popular themes, including Walter’s remarkable memory, his perspective on current events, and the secrets of long life. The path I hoped to pursue, however, was more personal.
As Walter’s longevity began to make headlines, so did his humble biography. Local newspapers had published the details of his long career with the Great Northern Railroad, and it occurred to me that he might have known my great-grandmother, who briefly worked for the company after the United States entered World War I.
At first, I dismissed the notion because the possibility of meeting a peer from my great-grandmother’s youth, 18 years after her death, seemed entirely unlikely. My own memories of her recall a fragile, elderly woman in her 90s, and, if Walter had known her, then they would have met in her late teens or early 20s. This potential contrast of living memories seemed especially improbable. Even if they had met, he couldn’t possibly remember her.
Yet the combination of Walter’s old age, his history with the railway, and his reputation for recalling events from the furthest reaches of his past presented a unique opportunity that eventually became too difficult to ignore.
* * *
Inga Bergum was already 86 years old when I was born in June of 1981. Thus, my memories of her would best be gathered into a collection labeled “first encounter with old age.” These consist of a handful of faded impressions of a woman whose body and mind had grown very tired.
When I was in first grade, she was 92 years old and living two blocks away from us in Helena. My older brother and I were responsible for shoveling her driveway that winter. Whenever it snowed, we trudged across our backyard to a yellow one-car garage to retrieve our snow shovel with its wooden handle and red metal blade bent at one corner from years scraping against ice and concrete.
A small white gate hung like a secret passageway in a gap between the garage and a tall hedge of caragana. The alley was never plowed and ice lay thick in the wheel ruts. It led up a gradual hill, crossed two sleepy streets, and ended in my great-grandmother’s driveway.
After clearing the snow, we would knock on the front door of her two-bedroom ranch home. Slowly, my great-grandmother would open the door with one hand while clutching a gray medical cane with the other. That cane met the floor on four legs instead of one, each mounted with a rubber cap to grip slick surfaces. I couldn’t imagine how old she was, but if she needed such a contraption to stay upright then she was certainly the oldest person I knew.
I felt hushed in her presence, less like the noisy, self-centered six-year-old I was known to be. There were so many strange details to silently absorb: her knobby knuckles and droopy cheeks, her thick glasses and painfully slow movements. Whether intuitively or under the instruction of my brother, I was convinced of the need to tread lightly as she waved us in toward the kitchen table.
We shucked our coats and climbed into chairs while she poured two glasses of milk. Then, shuffling from one end of the kitchen to the other, she opened the glass doors of a floor-to-ceiling hutch and withdrew a round tin of Danish shortbread. The sugarcoated cookies were stacked three high in crinkled paper cups that we balled loudly in our fists after we finished.
At the top of the hill on the return trip, I would sit on the blade of the shovel with the wooden handle between my legs, and my brother would pull me home, running for short stretches to make me laugh. We felt warm from our sit in the cozy kitchen and gladdened by the snack of cookies and milk, but we also felt liberated from our duties, like kids scampering out of class at the ring of the recess bell.
A year later, Inga began to redress herself in the middle of the night. She would call our house to ask where her children were, believing herself to be 60 years younger, a mother still responsible for the sons and daughter she had already raised. My father would walk up the hill to calm her down and help her back into bed. At 94, she was admitted to a nursing home, her memory gone. She died three years later.
* * *
Since the average American woman today lives to be 81 years old, my great-grandmother could have counted herself lucky to live with a sound mind through her 93rd year. Many of us are not so fortunate. Almost 40% of people over 65 experience some form of memory loss, and one out of 10 people in this group suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.
In this context, Walter’s mindfulness at the age of 113 offers an astounding contrast to the typical American man or woman. During our two-hour conversation at the Rainbow, his acumen was on full display. I began our exchange with a rather innocuous question about life at the old hotel, but instead of providing a stock answer, Walter improvised generously.
“I’ve been here 30 years,” he said. “I lived in the hotel before the rest home ever existed. The Rainbow was built in 1911. Rice owned it, lady by the name of Mrs. Rice,” he continued. “She owned it and couldn’t sell it. Nobody wanted to buy a hotel at that time. She went broke, and the Shrine, they opened it up, spent a lot of money and went broke also.”
His spoke matter-of-factly without the aloof quality that sometimes accompanies experience — the tone of a storyteller, not a historian. He quickly gathered steam, sharing the past in small pieces that each suggested some further step in the sequence like a paleontologist articulating a set of bones on the edge of a dinosaur dig.
“The government took it over, and a Seattle outfit got the whole building for $330,000,” Walter explained. “The Seattle outfit sold it to an Oregon outfit. The Oregon outfit sold it to California. They paid $12 million….”
This last sentence trailed off as Walter paused to catch his breath. Unprepared to fill the gap in conversation, I felt myself reaching again for the sort of predictable question he’d heard many times before. “What does your average day look like?” I asked.
“Well, it goes so damn fast I don’t know what’s going on,” he answered, resuming his pace. “Life is that way if you pay attention to it and keep it going. See, I went to work on the railroad in 1913.” He settled back into an easy rhythm, citing names and dates as if he were reading from note cards.
* * *
Walter Breuning became the world’s oldest man rather quietly. He left Great Falls just once, on a temporary work assignment to Butte, after moving there from Minnesota to take a job as a railroad manifest clerk at the age of 21. He volunteered for World War I but wasn’t called up, and he was already too old to enlist when the U.S. declared war on Japan in 1941.
He never faced unemployment during the Great Depression, and his combined wages from a half-century of hard work were eventually surpassed by the amount of money he earned from his pension. He was married twice, first to Agnes Twokey in 1922 and then to Margaret Vanest in 1958. He remained married to each woman until their deaths, in 1952 and 1975, although he never fathered any children.
His health has been impeccable throughout his life, and late in his 114th year there was not a single medical prescription in his name. Many reporters found this good health to be his most remarkable biographical detail. They queried him relentlessly about his daily habits, hoping to uncover reasons why his life had lasted more than twice as long as the average man born in 1896 and nearly 40 years longer than a man born in the U.S. today.
While I shared this curiosity about Walter’s well-being, what I found most memorable about him were his uncanny faculties as an observer of events over the course of his long life. During a conversation that ranged from family and career to politics and personal pleasures, he rarely offered an opinion unaccompanied by a detailed anecdote.
On the psychological benefits of hard work, Walter recalled a friend who retired early to catch up on hunting and fishing only to return two months later, anxious for a part-time job. “He’d caught up with his fishing and hunting!” Walter joked. “He wanted to go back to work and they put him on two days a week.”
On the speed of technological advancement, he told of another friend who worked at the telephone company and was one of the first owners of a Model T in Great Falls. “He couldn’t drive five miles without a puncture,” but now, he pointed out, tires last for years and cars have multiplied beyond imagination.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but compare Walter’s wealth of recollections to Inga’s impoverished memory in her mid-90s. At the end of her life, my great-grandmother could still recite the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian, each word lodged stubbornly in her brain even after the names of her sons and daughters had come loose and fallen away. But that was her subconscious at work, a force of habit that guides a tired mind to use a knife and fork even when it no longer knows where to find them.
Walter was not dependent on these crutches during our visit or at any point in his long life. He did not appear to use recitation or small talk as substitutes for more substantive conversation. His mind and heart were still enlivened by new experiences, and his memories were easily resurrected by the particulars of a question.
As I listened to him, I could hardly believe my great-grandmother would be just one year younger than him if she had been alive to join us for our conversation. After an hour, I decided that I was ready to ask whether they might have known each other.
“You know, my great-grandmother worked for the Great Northern Railway,” I began. “She was hired as a manifest clerk in Great Falls between 1917 and 1919.”
Walter immediately interrupted. “Yup, that’s right, I worked with her.”
Surprised by his confidence, I started to offer a few more details, but Walter cut me off again. “Inga Bergum?” he asked, using her maiden name.
“Yes!” I confirmed, after a stunned pause. “How did you know?”
“Well, I worked with her,” he responded, calmly. “When I came to Great Falls in ’18, she was in the same building. She worked for the manifest clerk. The superintendent at that time was a guy by the name of Weir. He wrote me a letter, wanted me to come to Great Falls. I came as a manifest clerk and went on the afternoon shift. She was on the day shift. She, after a year I think, she quit or something.”
“That’s incredible,” I returned, still too shocked to form a meaningful response. The possibility of this moment had been my motivation for connecting with Walter, and yet, I had not prepared for it. “What was she like?” I asked, fumbling. “I mean, did she have a sense of humor?”
“Oh, sure, sure,” Walter said, as if remembering something from last week. “There was a lady telegrapher working in the office, what they call a bible clerk. They got along together pretty good. Oh, sure, I knew her. I often thought about what happened to her. We had a lot of women working for the railroad.”
At this point, Walter segued into an explanation of the ebb and flow of the labor force on the railroad and the shift in gender balance during and after the First World War. But I wasn’t listening. The oldest man in the world had just recalled my great-grandmother’s first and last name: a 21-year old woman with whom he’d worked on opposite shifts for about a year, 92 years ago.
I gaped at his nonchalance. His knack for being unimpressed with himself even as others marveled openly at his presence of mind was both charming and disappointing. I wanted him to celebrate this coincidence with me, to revel for a moment in this improbability.
But then, why would he?
Tennessee Williams said, “Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.” Walter’s memories, from the nearly century-old memory of Inga Bergum to memories of breakfast with residents of the Rainbow that very morning, were all lived moments that add up to his life. His swift recollection of these events was surprising to me, but, for him, this act of remembering was simply an act of living.
The miracle wasn’t that he remembered Inga Bergum, but, rather, that he never lost the ability to fully experience his life, which is all memory at any age, even 113 years old.
My great-grandmother had a more common experience. Among my few memories of Inga there is one of her sitting in my parents’ living room, in a chair with wooden legs that were carved into claws. She stared vacantly while my mother cooked dinner in the kitchen. I entered the room and stood up on a footstool that my brothers and I often used as a trampoline to launch ourselves onto the couch at a full sprint.
She turned, fixed her eyes on me, and asked innocently, “What’s your name?” Horrified, I ran into the kitchen. My mother explained that grandma was losing her memory and that I needed to remind her that I was her great-grandson. I returned, shaken, and did as I was told. I performed this exercise many times after, and, eventually, I stopped expecting my great-grandmother to recognize me. In a sense, she was gone before she had gone.
Her memory was the beacon that illuminated her life and our lineage. It allowed her to share detailed stories about her parents and grandparents or resume conversations from the day before. Our ability to see and understand her, indeed her ability to understand herself, was dependent on the strength of that light. As it gradually receded, our connections to her and her connections to us slowly weakened. We grieved these smaller losses routinely, and, for years, until the losses added up to an absence that was complete long before her death.
* * *
Life is all memory except for the present moment and yet, without memory, even the potency of the present is sapped. Memory is the archive of evidence that we use moment after moment to re-establish who we are in relationship to others. Each piece of information absorbed by our five senses is instantaneously converted into thoughts and feelings through a process of emphasis and interpretation, and this process is governed exclusively by past experience. These operations, though, are so automatic, so perpetual, that we take them for granted.
It would be easy for me to let memories of my great grandmother gather dust in the mental folder marked “first encounter with old age,” but Walter gave me a reason to pull them out. When I called these few memories to mind, I could actually feel Inga’s kindness. I could see her smiling eyes looking down on me on her front step. I could hear her voice praying. I could re-experience the mystery of her seasoned life and wonder once again who she was and how she came to be the person I knew and loved for a short time.
While conversing with Walter, I could imagine he and Inga meeting in an office hallway, one punching out while the other punched in, perhaps saying hello to one another as they passed. I could envision Inga laughing with the bible clerk as Walter wrapped up a task in the next room. I could see with my own eyes the face of someone who knew Inga decades before she would open her door for my brother and me on cold winter days. I could see Walter speak her name and hear him say, “I often wondered what happened to her.”
With the addition of these new memories, the life of Inga Bergum expanded in my mind. I suppose I couldn’t have expected Walter to understand how much this meant to me. After all, his memories are his life and my memories are my life. It is nothing more than a simple coincidence that we share a few memories of the same person at opposite ends of her life.
Yet, the images frozen in our minds quickly thaw when set beside the memories of others; they are enlivened. These shared memories sync up, forcing us to recognize the kinship between those who are remembered and those who choose to remember. When we return to these memories later, we cannot pull them apart. Our stories thicken, and their flavor is enriched. So it is that even the most ordinary memories have potentially profound consequences.
* * *
At the close of our conversation, Walter rose unaided from his oversized chair and nudged his walker slowly across the room. I stood still and watched him disappear into the elevator. It goes so damn fast, he told me. Life is that way, if you pay attention to it and keep it going.
Writing about our conversation now, I can feel my heart begin to race against the idea that life is all memory to be lost in the course of illness or old age. Although, standing alone in the lounge of the Rainbow retirement home that September afternoon, after Walter had been lifted away, I felt something different. I felt calm. I felt connected.
Walter Breuning died in his sleep on April 14th, 2011, at the age of 114. At the time of his death, he was the oldest man in the world as well as the third oldest man and 44th oldest person in recorded history.
Gabriel Furshong lives in Helena, Montana, where he writes for The Nation, The American Prospect, and other publications.