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'Boy' next door still a sweetie

STEVE LOPEZ POINTS WEST

On a block in the San Fernando Valley, a 90-year-old plays paperboy to his elderly neighbor.

January 06, 2008|STEVE LOPEZ

The message from Mike Smith had a remarkable, small-town quality to it. The San Fernando Valley resident wasn't passing on a hot news tip, nor was he griping about my latest column. The retired movie grip simply wanted to share what he sees each morning when he looks through his window.

"For the past 6 months I have watched my ninety-year-old neighbor take the L.A. Times to the lady across the street and deposit it on her porch," wrote Smith, who explained that the widow has trouble with stairs.

The elderly woman was once a famous child actress; her 90-year-old paperboy was a World War II dive bomber pilot who has flown the U.S. and Marine Corps flags in his frontyard every day for nearly 30 years.

Smith feels lucky to live on the block. "So here I am at 8 o'clock in the morning taking my xmas lights down, and there is Abe walking across the street" to deliver his neighbor's newspaper.

I moved on to other e-mails before being drawn back to the one from Smith. I liked the way it seemed to slow the pace of life in the disjointed metropolis, where many of us move too swiftly to notice the simple acts of civility and grace that play out every day.

I liked, too, the notion of disparate narratives lining up next door to each other like chapters in a history book. And I liked Smith, who replaced his neighbor's Corps flag when it got "a little tattered."

Smith was surprised to find me standing in his driveway Thursday morning when he returned from an errand. He thanked me for coming, pointed across to the home of Abe "Danny" Daniels, and volunteered to introduce me.

It took no great insight to realize that Smith, 67, who worked on numerous TV shows including "Wagon Train" and "The Virginian," admires Daniels. He spoke reverentially even before we walked past the two flags and got to the front door. Smith, too, had wanted to serve his country, he later told me, but bounced out of basic training in 1960 when officers discovered he had polio.

The spry Daniels, who makes 90 look like 75, greeted us in a beige cap with a little U.S. flag stitched into it.

He's had the little tract house all to himself since the death of his wife six years ago, and the five kids "are nearly senior citizens by now."

But Great Grandpa isn't out of the game yet.

"You haven't got an older sister, have you?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye.

Over the years, Daniels said, he has turned down requests from authors and historians who wanted his story. He was of an era when the dignified approach was to leave the war where it was fought, and to think of the true heroes as those who never came home.

"We watched 'Flags of Our Fathers' together," Smith said of his neighbor and friend, "and that's what he kept saying as he was wiping his eyes."

But in recent years, Daniels said, he's been more willing to talk about the war and about his exploits at Guadalcanal. He showed me a meticulously arranged display of World War II books, next to his framed medals, on a cabinet in the living room. And at Smith's urging, he took me into a bedroom that serves as something of a museum to his squadron, with photos and memorabilia.

It took Daniels only a few minutes to re-create the feel of combat -- the Japanese pilots flying at him, the swampy jungle air that made every breath an effort, the feel of the bomb-release chain in his hand as he dropped the three explosives that sank an enemy destroyer.

And now Lt. Col. Daniels has taken a hit, his plane spiraling earthward and crashing into the Pacific at 125 mph.

Daniels raises his hands to his head.

"I smashed my nose and face, right here, and my gunner saved me," he said, telling of a 32-hour ordeal in the rubber raft that kept them alive until rescuers arrived.

"They made me a combat instructor," he said, telling me he was deeply honored.

Smith has to prod him to add that his students included baseball legend Ted Williams and movie star Tyrone Power.

"I was just a country boy," Daniels said, telling me he grew up in Maine, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Living near the Canadian border, he said, he smuggled booze for Joe Kennedy, stalked bear and muskrat as a fur trapper and came to California in 1939 as a young man ready and eager to serve his country.

"It's guys like him who won the freedom I enjoy today," Smith said.

To Smith, there's something quite moving about a 90-year-old bomber pilot delivering the morning paper to his once-famous neighbor. To Daniels, who's no celebrity hound, it's no big deal. It's the kind of thing a good neighbor does.

"I've got to go out and pick up my own paper, so what's the difference?"

And by the way, there's a Nissan parked in Daniels' driveway. The man who sank a Japanese destroyer drives a Japanese car, but as if to drive home a point, he has strafed the vehicle with Semper Fi bumper stickers.

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