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Book holds a century of verse

At 100, Jim Sullivan - war veteran, husband and father - still writes poetry, giving readers a window into his life.

By MATTHEW WAITE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


HOLIDAY -- In a little green book on a coffee table in Jim Sullivan's home is his life, written in rhyme, in four-line stanzas.

When the mood strikes, Sullivan puts pen in wrinkled hand and writes. Sometimes about his parents, about Christmas, about his war buddies.

'Tis time again for us to meet,

To tell tall tales, drink and eat.

To gather round the table fair,

And lose again our gloomy air.

It's not Shakespeare, and Sullivan wouldn't much care if anyone except his family read his words.

But the poems cover his small part of the American Century, and his family before that.

The book, called Dad's Scribblins and Scratchins was assembled by his family and was completed last year. Inside the cover are a few more, written on loose paper, penned more recently.

When, he is asked, did he write God Bless G.I. Joe praising American veterans? "Oh," he replies, "a couple months ago."

Right about the time he turned 100 years old.

The price of freedom

Sullivan's poems reveal bits of his life from his birth in Ontario, Wis., in 1901 to the present.

There are stories about his time in the Army, right after World War I. Most of his military poems are about his time with the SeaBee's during World War II, when he enlisted at the age of 41 as an Electrician's Mate.

He also writes about his father, a Civil War Veteran who fought with the famous Iron Brigade as part of the Wisconsin Volunteers.

His dad was at Gettysburg when the Iron Brigade made a valiant stand on Seminary Ridge on the first day's fighting, July 1, 1863. The Brigade kept the Confederates from the high ground, but the price was high: Nearly two-thirds of its 1,800 men were killed or wounded. One of the wounded was James Patrick Sullivan.

It took more than 40 years for the Confederate slug to kill Sullivan, who died of his wound in 1906, when Jim was 5 years old.

Years later, Jim Sullivan would visit Gettysburg.

Across the wide expanse of Gettysburg,

I tread where Dad had trod.

Among the dead and dying,

My faith, like his, in God.

At age 17, during World War I, Sullivan worked as a secretary for the draft board in Omaha, Neb. A lie about his age later and he was in the Army.

"I felt that it was the duty of every American to defend this country in a time of war," he said of his decision to join the Army.

The war ended before Sullivan got a chance to fight. Instead, he was sent to Arizona, where he served with the 19th Infantry Regiment defending the border against Pancho Villa. He later served in the Army Air Corps before leaving the Army in 1926.

"You could say I didn't know a cockeyed thing but military work," he said.

He returned to Nebraska, got married, had three kids and worked in a grocery store in Omaha until getting a job with the Nebraska Public Power District as an electrical lineman apprentice.

Then came Pearl Harbor.

"I felt it was the duty of every American to defend the country and be sure that they didn't do anything like that again," he said.

He went to enlist and once again faced an age problem. This time, he was too old. The Air Corps didn't want a 41-year-old.

The Navy, on the other hand, was enlisting civilian tradesmen for its newly formed construction unit known as the SeaBee's (which got its name from the acronym for Construction Battalion).

After some hasty training, Sullivan was on his way to Efate in the New Hebrides, where the SeaBees would build bases and an airfield that would eventually be used to bomb Guadalcanal, where American forces stopped the Japanese southern advance toward Australia.

In 1943, while working on one of the last buildings at Efate, a scaffolding collapsed. Sullivan fell on a tent stake, damaging five vertebrae. The injury hobbles him to this day.

These foreign climes may seem quite grand,

If doomed to always roam.

But in the future, I'll remain

Darn close to Home Sweet Home.

After rehabilitation, and several attempts to go back overseas, Sullivan was medically discharged in 1945.

He returned to Nebraska and worked for the Veteran's Administration until 1955. He then retired, got a recreational vehicle and traveled around the country. He moved to Dunedin before ending up in Holiday in the 1970s. He now lives at the Sunshine State Christian Home in Holiday.

At age 75, he organized the first group of SeaBee veterans in Dunedin. He called it Island X1, using the code the SeaBees used in the war to avoid tipping off the enemy to their location.

Sullivan formed Island X2 in Lakeland, X3 in Sarasota and had a hand in many others. His latest, X17, is in New Port Richey, where he is a member.

For his efforts, Sullivan was honored last month by the Florida SeaBee veterans at a convention in Clearwater.

Paul Rizzo, a member of Island X17, said Sullivan and his 100th birthday were cause for celebration.

"Without Jim, there wouldn't be any of the Islands," he said. "He started it all."

The voice of experience

After 100 years, Sullivan's philosophies on life are a simple as his poems: spare, not artful, but clear as glass.

"One of the best lessons I learned was you don't take off your shirt and undershirt in Arizona," Sullivan said, recalling a day of outdoor work in the Army Air Corps in the 1920s. "I got so sunburned I couldn't put on my shirt for morning inspection."

Sullivan also has words of wisdom on:

Marriage: "If two people decide they can work together and love each other, that's the main thing in life. Figure that you are no longer an individual. You're part of a family. And to maintain that family is the greatest job any man has got."

Relationships: "For the love of Pete don't let your temper get the best of you. We can blow such small things into a mountain."

Living to be 100: "The best philosophy is to take it one day at a time and to feel that everyone else in the world has the same privileges as you do." Be humble. Learn people's names and thank them for helping you. And don't mope over getting old. "You can either sit in the corner and cry or you can get out, smile and say the heck with it."

You've got to splash a little,

In this pond we know as life,

Or else you'll sink, to rise no more,

An end to all your strife!

-- Staff writer Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247.

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