It’s hard to decide where to begin when writing about John Henry Brown.
The fact that 91 years ago he was delivered in his home on Highview Road in Middletown by a woman living across the street?
Or that he enlisted in the Army Air Force after his sophomore year at Lemon Monroe High School and his 29-year military career overlapped World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War?
Or that he thought he was on death’s doorstep in 1990 until his daughter, Patty Frazee, found an article in the Middletown Journal about the medical breakthrough fighting hairy cell leukemia, a rare, slow-growing cancer of the blood.
Or that up until five years ago, Brown carried 298 pounds on his 59-inch waist, then not wanting to die in a wheelchair, he lost 135 pounds and 22 inches off his waist?
Or that the $28,000 elevator Brown had installed in his Franklin home now is only used to transport groceries from the basement to the first-floor kitchen?
Or that Brown was married for six years to Dorothy McGuire, one of the famous McGuire sisters from Middletown?
OK, let’s start with his most recent accomplishment.
Last Sunday, Brown wanted to cross skydiving off his bucket list. What 91-year-old veteran wouldn’t, right? He said he jumped out of a “perfectly good airplane” with Start Skydiving instructor Jacob Wilhelm on his back and numerous family and friends waiting for him on the ground. Brown, a former licensed pilot who owned a Cessna 140, wanted to skydive since early in his military career.
It was about making money back then. Paratroopers in the 11th Airborne were paid $50 more a month.
This year, it was about making memories.
“I always wanted to do it,” he said.
As Brown and Wilhelm inched to the edge of the airplane with Middletown Regional Airport 13,000 feet below Brown remembers Wilhelm counting, “One, Two, Three.”
And they were off. Two men separated by 69 years sharing the view of a lifetime and the same goal.
“The most beautiful sight in the world,” Brown said. “No windows blocking the view. It was great. My cheeks blew. It was fun.”
There was a 45-second free fall, then, at 6,000 feet, the parachute opened. Brown said the parachute “jerked” them backward.
“You know it’s coming,” he said. “You want that jerk.”
Wilhelm even let Brown control the parachute for a few seconds.
“I’m anxious to do it,” he said.
After what Brown has survived, there was no reason to be apprehensive about skydiving, he said.
He could have been killed in any of the three wars, and in 1990, doctors gave him only a few months to live. After being told the dire diagnosis, Brown’s second wife, Connie, withdrew $11,000 out of the bank and took her husband on an Alaskan cruise.
“A farewell,” he said.
Actually, it was only the beginning. Brown participated in a medical study and his immune system now fights the disease.
He also was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer. He got neuropathy in his feet. Unable to walk, he was confined to a wheelchair, and he started packing on the pounds.
“I was going to die the way I was,” he said.
Then one day, his grandson started clearing brush from a residence on Beal Road in Franklin. So Brown tagged along as a safety precaution, until one day, he got “tired of watching.”
Eventually, after working his muscles, he progressed from the wheelchair to a walker to a cane. Then, after 36 weeks of balance training, he started walking again.
He also has experienced heartbreak. Connie, his wife of 47 years, died in 2004. Fifteen years later, the pain is still evident. As Brown talked about his wife, tears filled his eyes.
For three years after his wife’s death, Brown was suicidal. But each time he considered taking his life, he thought back to the pain he endured when he was severely burned in a Boy Scout campfire accident.
“Recalling that burn and being a Christian,” he said, “I didn’t want to burn in hell like that.”
He has five stents in his heart, his vision and hearing are failing and he has a pacemaker. He recently had a check-up and his cardiologist told him he was “good” for another eight years. Then he’d need a replacement.
What a great 99th birthday present.
“I’ll be here until I’m 130,” he said. “I believe it.”
He was asked what lesson the rest of us could learn from his life: “Therapy is the best thing in the world. Medical therapy, physical therapy and spiritual therapy. Above all else, have a positive attitude and forget the word ‘cant.’ You can do anything you set your mind to. Set a goal and make sure it’s something you can do. Without goals, I’d still be in the wheelchair.”
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