FORT LEE, Va. (Nov. 7, 2013) -- Lucille Martin seen a lot in her 100-plus years, and she is able to extract a good bit of detail about her experiences and observations.
Got a question about the Model T Ford? She can tell you that they wouldn’t start without the magneto posts.
Need a firsthand account of what the German POWs were like at Fort Lee? They were not the bad guys they were made out to be, even though she barely understood them.
How about wanting to know the best way to advertise for a business? Don’t get her started about word-of-mouth, the best means for promotion, she’s certain, even in the age of the Internet
That’s plenty of evidence for her sidekick Ann Harrison. She is convinced of her friend’s keen sense of recollection.
“‘Give her an hour,’ she says, ‘and she can tell you anything from 1911 to 2013,’” said Harrison with a playful, sarcastic chuckle.
A bit of an overstatement? Not so much as it is fact, considering Martin was born in 1911 and probably sharp enough to provide details – as they were told to her – about life in rural South Carolina where she was reared. Harrison said she also has exceptional wisdom among other attributes.
“She’s quite the lady,” said the retired Fort Lee civilian, now an employee at the Dunlop House Assisted Living and Specialized Alzheimer’s Care facility in Colonial Heights. “I’ve never seen her get upset. She presents herself well.”
Martin has resided at Dunlop four four years. A Fort Lee color guard recently presented the centenarian with a U.S. flag for service to the nation as a government employee.
That period of service began in 1946. During that time, Camp Lee was a training center and hundreds of thousands of Soldiers had occupied its confines during World War II. More than 30,000 were still here after it ended. They lived in wooden barracks that dotted the landscape and scenes of them marching in formation were more of a common sight than cars since most Soldiers didn’t own one. And dirt, not asphalt, covered most of the roads since the installation still held a temporary status.
Martin would have been in the midst of it all as a 27-year old. That’s when the self-proclaimed country girl took a job as a commissary cashier here. During the latter part of World War II, she accompanied her husband-Soldier, John, to Camp Lee on permanent assignment. Her stint of employment also included her most satisfactory job in, of all places, the motor pool.
“I grew up on a farm and wasn’t afraid to get dirty,” she said. “I would get up sometimes at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning and drove water for the stock – cows, horses, mules and pigs. I always kept clean, though. That was one thing my mother taught me – wash your hands, sit up straight and be nice to everybody.”
During the WWII era, the installation’s motor pool was located near Hopewell “above the blacktop” she said. That would mean it was situated among the facilities that currently occupy the Shop Road area. Her use of the word “blacktop” surely meant that Route 36 was paved and most of the installation roads were not.
Her memory of the motor pool and adjacent areas, however, doesn’t end with the blacktop.
“Well, they had the motor pool up there, and it was fenced in a little bit,” she recalled. “Across the street was a huge place where they had all the tanks for gasoline, and they had a lot of secretaries in there. That’s where they did all the work on the motors.”
Martin was familiar with motors from her days on the farm. She learned much about automobiles, especially the Ford Model A “with the rumble seat” and a stripped-down Ford Model T with the crank start.
“I’d get up there and drive it,” she said of the latter. “I learned how to put the magneto posts down in the bottom. It wouldn’t run if you took the magneto posts out.” Rumble seats were fold out seats that sat near the trunk of the Model A. Magnetos were small electric generators that used magnets to produce alternating current.
As a chauffeur, Martin’s duties consisted of driving dignitaries around post and to the surrounding areas as well as transporting goods. She also performed dispatcher duties. When she wasn’t doing either, she was soaking up knowledge about automobiles and everything related to them. That begs the question, “As a woman, did she feel out of place working in a profession dominated by men?
Did she feel alone or isolated?
The answer is neither.
“There were a lot of WACs working there,” said Martin, implying that Soldiers in the Women’s Army Corps gave her a sense of inclusion and her personality enabled her to easily make friends.
Martin also remembered the sizable numbers of foreigners who worked in the motor pool and who she transported around post. There were Italian and German prisoners of war. Roughly 1,400 were shipped to Fort Lee and hundreds of thousands more were sent to camps throughout the country during the war.
“We would take the German prisoners out to where the golf course is now,” she recalled. “At the golf course, they would pick up ‘zooka shells, take them back and make beautiful lampshades out of them.”
The area adjacent to the Cardinal Golf Club was a bazooka range, said Luther Hanson, Quartermaster Museum curator.
Though the Germans were largely antagonized in the media, Martin said she didn’t see them that way.
“I saw them differently than in the movies – I guarantee you that,” she said, noting she was taken by the way they talked. “They were nice young men, and everybody got along well at Fort Lee. I can’t remember any trouble.”
Martin spent roughly 10 months at Fort Lee. She had the option of staying on as a civil servant but declined the offer. “I just wanted to do something else,” she said. Martin instead went to work at retailers like J.C. Penny and Lerners in Petersburg. She also sold furniture, selling enough at one retailer to win a trip to Bermuda.
Martin eventually opened her own business in the early 1950s. Lighthouse Furniture, a Petersburg institution, has served thousands of customers in the Tri-Cities area and beyond, she said. She retired from the appliance company four years ago, about the same time she was admitted to Dunlop. Longtime customers still call for advice, she said of the business run by her son.
“Everybody is my customer,” she said. “I’m loyal to all of them, and I treat them all alike.”
Martin said her success in business – amid the age of big box retailers like Best Buy – is partly due to an unyielding emphasis on customer service as a way to gain loyalty with old customers and lure new ones.
“Word-of-mouth is the best advertising,” she said. “We worked very hard at it.”
Today, Martin is wheelchair bound but is lively and jovial. She likes spending time in her room and bowled and played other games at Dunlop until a few years ago. Harrison said her day wouldn’t be the same without her.
“She’s like a fixture here,” she said.
And a prominent fixture in the Tri-Cities area for more than 67 years. Martin said she doesn’t have answers for her longevity but figures faith, respect for humankind and good, satisfying work are important as well as “being out in the public and trying to smile as much as you can,” she added.
Harrison said Martin does that with ease and hopes she’ll keep doing it.
“I just want her to live to be 110 and then she can come to my retirement party,” she said.