Baratta celebrates 100th birthday


Courtesy of Sara Hansen

Bill Baratta stands proudly behind a banner announcing his 100th birthday.

 

Bill Baratta has hit one of life’s seldom reached milestones. Tuesday, he turned 100-years-old, and not only has he lived to be 100; with the exception of three years fighting for his country in World War II, he has lived all those 100 years in Madera.


Bill first drew breath in a little house that was located where Sierra Vista School is now located. His father, Guiseppe (Joe) Baratta, worked for the Madera Sugar Pine lumber company to support his wife, Rinalda, sons Guido, Bruno, and Jack and daughter Adriana.


On April 20, 1921, Bill made the 5th child.


As Madera’s most recent centenarian, Baratta recently took this reporter on a tour of his childhood haunts. He pointed out where Barnum’s circus set up operations every year, not far from where Sierra Vista would one day be built.


We visited the site of Madera’s first golf course on Road 28, just north of Avenue 14. He pointed to the vineyard just across the street where he went hunting for golf balls.


Then, his voice shook with excitement when we reached the spot where he and his boyhood chums would jump off the lumber flume and into the pond near Millview school.


After a little calculating, he wondered out loud if it was possible that he could be the last living person to have “walked the flume” in Madera.


Bill went to Pershing and Lincoln schools, and for a short time, Madera Union High School. In his freshman year, he contracted encephalitis and had to leave school, which was to have a significant impact on his life when he reached adulthood.


By the time he reached his mid-teens, Bill was working on his family’s tomato farm, and that is what he was doing when the United States entered World War II. No one was surprised when Baratta tried to enlist, nor were they surprised when the draft board refused to let him go. He had a 3-A classification (agricultural deferment). His country needed ranchers and farmers.


Bill tried and tried, and with each attempt to join came the same answer — No. Finally, Baratta wore them down, and he was allowed to enlist. In October 1942, Bill was off to learn the art of becoming a fighter pilot. Little did he know.


Before he could graduate from flight training, the Army discovered that he had once suffered from encephalitis, which excluded him from duty as a pilot. Bill was given a choice — he could return to civilian life or accept an assignment on a ground crew. He chose the latter.


They shipped him to Denver for armament training, and that’s when he got another chance to become an officer.


The Army had a program for making officers out of highly qualified and motivated enlisted men. Word came down that one soldier out of the fifty men in Bill’s outfit would be chosen to go to Yale University for the special Officers Candidate School. On January 19, 1944, Bill Baratta wrote his mother that he had been the chosen one.


Then fate stepped in again.


Just as he was preparing to leave for Yale, Bill had second thoughts. He did not want to wait until he had graduated from the Army’s program at Yale to get into combat, so he remained with his armament outfit.


Shortly thereafter, Bill got another chance for a quick promotion. Recognizing his natural leadership skills, his superiors put him on the fast track to jump from Private to Master Sergeant, but here again his yearning to get into the fight derailed another opportunity for advancement.


Bill heard about a group that was headed for the Pacific theater right away. He turned down the promotion to Master Sergeant and joined the deployed unit.


That’s how Bill spent the rest of the war — in combat on Okinawa and Ie Shima.


After the surrender of Japan, the waiting list for American soldiers to get back to the states was long, and as an article from the Madera V.F.W. put it, “…Bill was short on patience.”


“He badgered the powers that be and…was told to ‘hitch hike’ back to the states as best he could.” Bill caught several military hops and finally made it back on his own.


“After (his) discharge, Bill returned to Madera to begin driving a truck and worked his two vineyards. He drove 12 hours a day and worked the vineyards the rest of the day.”


After his retirement, Bill settled in to enjoy life; little did he realize that he would have so much left to enjoy and share. Visiting with Bill is like walking into a library. With the crispness of a memory that can slice through the layers of time, he can open up the doors of the past to let one see first-hand what life was like in Madera from the 1920s to the present.


That alone makes Bill Baratta a 100-year-old treasure.


Happy Birthday, Bill.