The pandemic is a crisis so broad and severe that repercussions will continue for generations. Comparisons to world wars, the flu pandemic of 1918 and the Great Depression are frequent and inevitable, because we look to history’s hard times to give us hope for our future.
Sometimes, we have the privilege of learning not from history books, but from the people who lived that history.
Lyle and Alice Leach, ages 94 and 95, respectively, have lived through nearly a century’s worth of tough times, and came out with their optimism intact.
After a hardscrabble upbringing in Vancouver, Lyle joined the U.S. Marines and saw extensive combat in World War II in the Pacific. When he was pulled off the front lines for a few days’ rest, a hand grenade tossed into his foxhole injured him so badly that he was declared a lost cause and put with the dead. A passing soldier noticed that Lyle was still breathing and rescued him. Lyle underwent surgeries and a lengthy recovery, losing an eye but keeping the shrapnel painfully embedded in his body. He was awarded the Purple Heart and returned to Vancouver.
Meanwhile, Alice’s family was devastated by the Dust Bowl and came west to work in Washington’s apple orchards. Alice was married at 15 to her first husband and had two children, one at 16 and one at 17. Her husband left to work at a logging camp in Western Washington and then joined the fighting in Europe. She looked after the babies between shifts as a switchboard operator. After her husband was killed in action, she moved to Vancouver to work as a welder in the Kaiser Shipyard.
“I knew those two little girls depended on me alone for their future,” she said. “It was a tough time, but I had a sense of responsibility that kept me on the level side of things.”
At 21, she considered herself “an old gal with two kids,” and didn’t expect to remarry.
Then she met Lyle at Lacamas Lake on a hot July day through mutual friends.
“The day that I went swimming with that girl was the high point of my life,” Lyle said. “I got married on the third of August and that was 72 years ago.” Lyle was 21 and Alice was 22.
“To think this man would come home from the war, take me swimming one day, and a month later ask me to marry him … well, he lifted my life up on a whole different level,” Alice said. “The girls never knew any different but what he was their father.”
The couple bought land near Burnt Bridge Creek and raised chickens, ran a dairy farm and grew pickling cucumbers to sell to a Portland cannery. Lyle brought in extra income by hiring himself out to neighboring farmers who needed help. He also volunteered with the fire department.
Lyle studied agriculture, business and engineering at Clark College while continuing to work the farm. When a tractor accident left him unable to do hard physical labor, he applied for a position with Peter Kiewit Sons Co. His engineering job took him to locations in Washington, Oregon and California — and Alice went with him. When he was promoted, they returned to Vancouver permanently.
Alice, always busy, worked at several hospital gift shops and cafes and volunteered on hospital boards. She also worked for many years at Jantzen Knitting Mills.
Their hard work and perseverance paid off, and eventually, they bought the stately “Pepsi House,” overlooking the Columbia River at the corner of East Evergreen Boulevard and Andresen Road. Alice had admired the home, built for the manager of the Pepsi bottling plant, since she arrived in Vancouver to work in the shipyards. She always believed she’d live there one day.
“I have never been one to give up hope,” said Alice, who credits her grandmother’s faith as the foundation for her own positive outlook. “She was one to say, ‘It depends on you — what you become, what you get, what you do, by giving and caring and being positive, with the good Lord.’ That’s what I’ve lived by, that strength that she gave me as a little bitty kid.”
Finding the positive
That’s not to say that they don’t occasionally get discouraged, especially during the isolation of quarantine. Friends hired Chapters of Life owner Julie McDonald Zander of Toledo to write a memory book for the Leaches, and planned to throw a party to unveil it March 30. Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 forced the party’s cancellation.
“The other day we were just sitting around, feeling kind of sorry for ourselves,” Lyle said. They remembered an old friend with whom they hadn’t spoken in a while. “We said, ‘We better call Jim and talk to him.’ Gee, it just changed everything for me for that day.”
Lyle is a firm believer in working hard not only so you can take care of yourself, but also take care of others.
“If you don’t make it better for other people, it’s not going to be good for you,” said Lyle. “Somebody has to take care of the ones who can’t take care of themselves. We’re not going to make it if everyone doesn’t do their share and a little bit more.”
Looking back, the Leaches are grateful for the difficult times as well as the good.
“Anything tough that we’ve gone through or had to do is just something that’s been better for us — because if we hadn’t had challenges at all, I don’t think we’d be as happy as we are now,” said Lyle. “We feel that we’ve accomplished something, and I don’t mean materially.”
Alice agreed: “I think it has made life much more beautiful to think you’ve gone through these things and come out on the other side.”