It was Military Appreciation Day Sunday at the Kentucky State Fair, and I would be remiss in not mentioning a chance encounter I had with Charlie Dyke, one of a dwindling number of World War II veterans remaining in America.
Charlie’s wife, Edie, was one of the judges in the quilting competition at this year’s state fair, where more than 400 submissions in 50-plus categories were entered, and Dyke accompanied his animated spouse on their trip from Toledo, Ohio to Louisville.
“We love coming to this fair,” said Dyke. “The people are just great, all the volunteers work so hard – I just hope we get invited back for next year.”
Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1924, Dyke grew up in the Springfield/Dayton area and entered the Army in 1942 at the age of 18. This first took him to Alabama for basic training, where Charlie said it didn’t matter if it was chow time or we were hitting the latrine, they ran us up a hill to get there.
After that he took a circuitous train ride to Newport News, VA, and hopped aboard the USS West Point for a speedy seven day voyage to Casablanca (French Morocco). Once deployed, Dyke saw action in North Africa, Italy and France with his engineering outfit, who were charged with disarming and removing explosives.
Their most dangerous task was finding the tricky spots where booby-traps might be hiding. Of the 250 men in his original company, Charlie stated that only five survived.
“You don’t forget about this stuff and that’s why you don’t talk about it with your kids,” said Dyke.
Charlie carries around a reminder of the war in his left leg, where a piece of shrapnel still resides, but it’s never slowed him down. Dyke is a mover, like the Ford Mustangs he loves. The growl of these classic American muscle cars, and the speed they possess is something he admires. Dyke has owned and restored a few, but at 92 he leaves the driving to Edie these days.
“She can hardly see over the wheel, but we’ve got 128,000 miles on our 2011 Honda CRV,” said Dyke.
Charlie was cruising in a new black, light-weight wheelchair when I met him in the East Hall of the Kentucky Exposition Center, but not even that prevents him from getting around. Wearing a bright red Ohio State national champs shirt from the Buckeye’s victory last season and a dark blue baseball cap with WWII emblazoned in gold across the front, Dyke’s clear eyes stood out and remain sharp, like his wit and memory.
After the war concluded Dyke discovered he had a talent for working with boilers & turbines, and ended up staying in that trade for 57 years professionally as a stationary engineer, mostly for a power company in Ohio.
He even found a way to extend his professional life. After his first wife passed away from a lengthy illness in 2001, Dyke went out to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, home of the famous “Old Faithful” geyser, to seek employment in this wilderness wonderland.
This is how he met his current wife, and they’ve been married now for 10 years. She worked in the lodge cafeteria, and upon arriving at Yellowstone, one of the two job options for new hires was in the lodge eatery.
“I worked at the lodge cafeteria for three weeks making sandwiches,” said Dyke. “You had to work a minimum of three weeks before they would transfer you, then I got to work on boilers again, or tea kettles as I call them.”
These days Charlie spends his time pursuing a newer passion – crafting quilted American flags. He made his first quilt at 80 years of age. Now he has four antique sewing machines and uses a bargello technique to re-create the Stars & Stripes that gives his flags an illusion of being in motion. He does 15” and 18” versions and offers the crafted flags as gifts to those people fortunate enough to get to know Charlie. It’s a way for him to give back and show his patriotism for a country he loves.
“I’ve never sold one of my flags or taken money to make one or ship them – It’s just something I’m happy to do,” said Dyke.