When I went to visit Lyle Beard, he sat watching the flower planting beneath the covered patio in front of Westgate Manor Convalescent Home.
"I plant the flowers," said Steve Flores, gardener, "He's the only one who remembers to water them. If not, they'll end up dying on us."
Beard sat in his electric wheelchair bantering back and forth with Flores, who began watering the newly planted flowers.
"He's the only one here with his own Cadillac," said Flores, referring to Beard's wheelchair.
"Rolls Royce," Beard corrected Flores with a smile.
Flores calls Beard the "night watchman."
"He makes sure everyone's safe when they get to their cars at night," explained Flores.
Elder care for the nurses
Usually in convalescent homes, elder residents receive care from a trained medical staff. But at Westgate Manor the staff and residents receive gentle care from one of the residents, Lyle Beard.
"He's just like our family," said Donna Bascue, Social Service Director, "He's a veteran and he's been here for quite a while. Never meets a stranger at all. He's actually giving back to us."
Beard has been a periodic resident at Westgate Manor for several years, and he shares his good spirits as he can.
"I like Odwalla juice," said Rosa Richard of the Manor's business office, "and they only carry that at SaveMart. So he makes a point to ask me what flavor I want for the day, and he goes and gets it for me. He's always in a good mood, always very polite."
"He brings the nurses pizza," said Darlene Dille, Director of Nursing, "He goes out to the store by Dial-a-Ride every day to get candy for the nurses. He's a real nice and real interesting man."
Beard's contribution to the Manor isn't so simple as candy for nurses, however.
"It's not just him going to the store or McDonald's for the nurses. It's the way he tries to encourage us," said Richard, "He just has a good disposition. Never upset, he always has the willingness to go forward."
Last month, Beard was elected Valentine King by the Manor staff. But even as he has brought life to the convalescent home, Beard has been struggling for his own independence and life.
"His whole goal up until right now is to go back to live independently in his apartment," said Richard, "He was quite depressed in September. His doctor said, You're terminal. But he said, Forget you, I'm going to get up and I'm going to prove you wrong. He went on, and even though he felt bad he'd still go outside and do his normal activities. In the wintertime, he'd be the first one outside greeting us for work in the morning. He's never given up."
"We've had some close calls, and we thought we wouldn't have him here anymore," remembers Dille.
"Now he's doing better, despite what the doctor told him," Richard said, "I don't know if he feels the pain, but he doesn't complain. He spends so much time running around I guess he doesn't have time to feel the pain. He's not going to break. That's just the gift he has."
From Virginia, Japan and Korea to California
Beard is 69 years old, more or less.
"I'm like Jack Benny," explained Beard with a grin, "I just keep it turned around, 69, 39, stuff like that."
According to Beard, he's stayed at the Manor for about "four and a half years, off and on, with broken hips and legs and shoulders."
"I've broken a lot of bones, and had a lot of [military] service connected things. I'm a little screwed up in the body, been blown up a couple of times, but other than that nothing much," said Beard.
Beard served 17 and a half "beautiful years" in the Army Corps. of Engineers with four years of overseas duty in Korea and Japan.
Beard detailed, "I was a combat engineer [of the] 13th Engineer Combat Battalion making landing strips, clearing beachheads, putting bridges in, laying down pontoons, fighting so the bulldozer could get in, clearing area for bivouac ..." A bivouac is a rest area, he explained to this young reporter.
In Korea, Beard's feet were frozen twice.
Beard explained, "That's why they called Korea the 'frozen chosen.' It's pretty cold. You know Japan stripped them of all their timber during the wars. It's all hills, rocks and gullies, and when it snows there it snows!"
Beard was way laid at Hiroshima.
"The bomb dropped so we had to stay a week at sea, because it was radioactive, until it was calm," said Beard.
Beard, a widower, is originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Front Royal, Virginia, the "beginning of the Sky Land Drive." He was married for 35 years, and his only son is buried in Arlington Cemetary in Washington, D.C. He moved and settled in Madera to be close to his brother, nephews and nieces.
"Well my brother, the only one I've got left, and all his kids were out here. We made about 35 trips back and forth to see him, so on the last trip I said I'm going to stay here now. So we settled in. It's been 10 years nows," Beard told me.
Beard's immediate goal is to walk again.
"I am definitely going to be walking," Beard affirmed loudly, "They're starting me on electrical therapy to stimulate the inside nerves. I start that today."
Much ado about Beard
Beard doesn't see any cause for notice in his presence at Westgate Manor.
"I'm just a regular person. I joke with everyone, go to the store ... It's nothing to be written about," said Beard."
So what explains Beard's dominant optimism?
"I think it's just the way he was brought up and the way he looks at life," offered Richard, "He still continues smoking because he's smoked all his life. To have the attitude that life is not fair to have all these medical problems at 69 ... that's not him. With all his medical problems, he's willing to live."
Beard agreed, while insisting he had a normal upbringing by his normal parents.
"They were what you call old-fashioned. We were brought up by the 'old rules' [of] respect your elders and all that. Just normal people that's all," according to Beard.
At the end of one conversation with Beard, I must have seemed worn by the stress of the day.
"Well, bud, that's the way we travel," Beard advised me, "Be positive in everything."