George Bush: A Century of Memories
(Fort Myers, FL) October 8, 2008 - George Henry Bush took a hard look in to the past, grimacing as his mind searched for a remote detail, which was buried in a century of memories.
"Impala," he said, relieved. "It was a Chevrolet Impala."
Mr. Bush, who lived most of his life in England and turned 100 on Oct. 1, was thinking of the car he bought after retiring to America. It was the one he took a crosscountry trip in with his wife in the 1970s, when they drove from Washington, D.C., to San Diego, then across the southern United States and finally down to Fort Myers.
He married Simone in 1934 and describes her as "a fancy woman." The house they bought together on Fort Myers Beach was later sold, after she slipped into dementia, a result of Alzheimer's. Simone passed away in 2002. Now, Mr. Bush lives in a small apartment at The Lakes in South Fort Myers.
He regrets selling the house, and also that he can't walk without a walker. But he has retained other things: a love for Mozart, spicy foods (he was taken out for curry on his birthday) and his mind.
"What I dread most is becoming noncomprehendous," Mr. Bush said. "A doddery old man who doesn't know where he is."
He seemed well aware of his surroundings. When his care manager, Linda Shuster, an RN from the concierge service Senior Bridge, told him he was going to have his picture taken, Mr. Bush scoffed.
"Let me fix my hair," he joked, touching a few last gray ones.
"You look fine," Ms. Shuster said, yelling so he could hear her. Mr. Bush lives in a world of people who all yell at him. His telephone is also amplified.
"No, I don't," he said with inarguable matter-of-factness.
He also enjoys watching the presidential debates.
When asked about his own history, he tells the stories in surprising graphic detail. He'll search for full minutes for his memories sometimes, but they rarely elude him in the end.
He grew up in Lancashire, England, in a time when oil lamps were used instead of electric lights. His father was the captain of a cargo ship.
Mr. Bush dropped out of school when he was about 12 years old.
"I didn't like school," he said.
His mother, who was a seamstress, got him a job as an apprentice to a chemist. After working there for eight years, testing everything from sand to the fat content of milk Mr. Bush eventually became head of the laboratory. He made about $14 per week, while going back to school to get the equivalent of a high school diploma. He was later offered a job through the British Admiralty as World War II approached, to test material used to fire weapons.
"Every night as soon as it went dark you could hear the boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom," he said, his voice rising and falling softly to simulate the rhythm of distant bombs falling on England.
After the war, Mr. Bush said he became restless and applied for other jobs. He was hired by the U.S. Embassy, a job that involved testing reinforced plastics, for both British and United States space programs. The position made him a government insider in some ways; once, he spoke on the phone with George H.W. Bush.
The former president of the United States invited him for tea but Mr. Bush declined, he had already made travel plans. So, he never met the president.
Mr. Bush and Simone moved to Bethesda, Md. in their 60s, as a result of his job with the U.S. Embassy. While living in America, he often attended conferences in Miami and discovered Fort Myers on some weekend drives.
He retired in the early 1970s and returned to England with Simone, looking for a place to spend their time. They toured Spain and France, but Mr. Bush didn't feel he knew the languages well enough to stay, although he can still speak passable French and Spanish.
One day they had lunch on a rainy day in England, and sat next to another couple who chatted about flying to the United States.
"When these people went away, Simone said 'What about it?'" Mr. Bush said. "And I said, 'Ya, we'll try it.' So on this wet afternoon we decided to go back to America and have a look around."
They bought the Impala upon arrival, drove most of every day, and spent the nights in cheap, roadside motels.
"We enjoyed the trip very much," Mr. Bush said. "I think we were bound to be impressed by it, and what we saw."
They stopped at Yosemite National Park; and thousands of miles later, they stopped at an Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. Reaching Florida, the couple drove south and stopped for a weekend on Fort Myers Beach. They found a pizza parlor there, and Mr. Bush stayed in on Saturday to write a letter.
Meanwhile, Simone found a house on stilts on Estero Boulevard. It was 1972, and they bought it on a whim. Mr. Bush built cabinets for his music collection and planted trees in the yard. And Simone made onion soup, goose liver pate and Raie au buerre noir (stingray with a dark butter sauce).