Alaska News

Alfredo's last drive

Alfredo Agron held his car keys in his hand for the last time about two weeks ago. That day he drove from his house on East 15th Avenue to Carrs-Safeway at Northway Mall. He picked up what was on his list: milk, bread, vegetables, lettuce. Then he drove home. And his son called and offered to get his tires changed over. Then his grandson came and drove his Ford Fusion away.

"And that was the last time I saw my car," he said.

Except for some hearing trouble, Alfredo is in very good health. He has never had an accident. His driver's license is good until 2014, but his car insurance expires this month and cannot be renewed. This is because, on Christmas Eve, Alfredo will be 100 years old.

"I just miss my car," he told me the other day at his kitchen table. We both stirred spoonfuls of Folgers Crystals into a cups of water his wife Pacita brought us from the microwave. He wasn't mad at his children.

"They mean well," he said.

Alfredo has lived in Anchorage since 1951, and as far as he can tell, there isn't another Filipino person left in the city who has lived in the United States since before World War II. He was raised farming rice and vegetables in a small village called Claveria in the northern part of the Philippines. He came to America by boat when he was 21 in 1931, before the invention of the computer, the jet engine or the ballpoint pen.

He joined the Army, which took him back to the Philippines. He met Pacita for the first time. She was only a teenager then. And after the war, he came to Alaska because he heard there was work here. He took a job with Army Corps of Engineers, building the military bases.

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"There were just a very few of us here," he said, meaning Filipinos. "Mostly bachelors."

Now Alaska has one of the highest per-capita Filipino populations in the country. At least 9,000 live in Anchorage, according to community estimates.

They are all educated now, Alfredo said. Their children don't speak Tagalog or Ilocano. That is probably just as well. They are Americans now. Immigrants want their children to adapt, he said.

Alfredo pulled out a black-and-white picture of eight men standing around a whole pig on a spit over a fire. It was taken at a park in Eagle River Park in the '50s, he said. That's where the community used to gather.

"All of them are gone," Pacita said, running her finger over the faces in the photo. "He is the only one left."

We were quiet.

'What is this story about?" Alfredo asked me, a little suspicious.

"I'm impressed that you have lived for so long," I said.

"Ahh," he said, pawing the air like a bear swatting at a fly. "I'm just like everyone else."

He got up. I watched him pad into his living room. Did I see the pictures? There was Alfredo's company in the Army. It was all Filipino soldiers. The Army wasn't integrated yet. And on the other wall were three sons -- Gary, Robert and Charles -- and his grandchildren. One of his sons went to West Point. The diploma hung in a frame.

What has kept him healthy for so long? He nodded at Pacita. She was slicing a tray of sweets in the kitchen. They have been married for 52 years, she said. He went back to find her after the war. She is 83. She showed me their wedding pictures. Her waist was pin-thin in her lace wedding dress. I asked Alfredo how they stayed together for so long.

"I don't know, ask her," he said.

"By the grace of the good Lord," she said.

What does a 100-year-old man eat for breakfast, I wanted to know.

"Oatmeal, bread, eggs, anything," he said.

For lunch he eats pinakbet as a matter of custom. It is a stir-fry with vegetables like okra, eggplant and bitter melon. And he takes a nap daily, at 2 p.m. His son Robert told me his father has never been a careful eater. He drank whiskey and smoked cigars into his 60s. He had one heart surgery in his early 90s.

"If I knew the secret," Alfredo told me. "I would be a millionaire."

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Robert told me that he decided it was time to take his father's car when he pulled up next to him on his very loud motorcycle and his father didn't notice. There had been a time, Alfredo told me, when he used to walk for miles. Robert told me sometimes the family would have to go find him on the trails. But then, Alfredo said, his territory shrunk and he couldn't walk so far. But he could still drive to the store and the bank and St. Anthony's Catholic Church on Sunday. Now, if he wants to leave he must call his children. Pacita never learned to drive. Every day he walks only up and down the hall and out to the driveway. He still insists on shoveling the snow.

"I've driven all these years," he said. "I missed that it got to the end somehow."

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

By JULIA O'MALLEY

jomalley@adn.com

Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum.

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