Alson Monroe: A centenarian’s perspective

Northfield man turns 100

Recorder/Paul Franz
Al Monroe of Northfield turns 100

Recorder/Paul Franz Al Monroe of Northfield turns 100

NORTHFIELD — Alson “Al” Monroe turned 100 Sunday, and he’s seen a lot in his years.

A gentle, modest man, he’ll tell you there’s nothing remarkable about him, just that he’s lived longer than most people.

Born on Sept. 1, 1913, Monroe spent his early years in Burlington, Vt. Though he moved around a bit as his father was relocated wherever the railroad needed him, Al Monroe would settle in Northfield, where he’s lived for more than half of his life.

In 1959, he and his bride, Helen Monroe, bought an 1835 farmhouse on Northfield’s Main Street, where they’ve been ever since. This March 14, they celebrated their 54th anniversary.

They talk to their two sons often. Donald Monroe lives in Westfield, while David Monroe lives across the country, in Prescott, Ariz.

The world has been through a lot since Al Monroe was born, but he’s taken it all in stride.

“I lived with the times as they happened, and didn’t think about things too much,” he said. Perhaps taking things as they come has contributed to his long life.

Two world wars and countless other conflicts have begun and ended in Monroe’s time. Though he remembers the end of The Great War in 1918, he was just 5 years old at the time, so it wasn’t something he took particular note of. The world was at war, then it wasn’t, and life went on.

He remembers his family reading about it in the paper. Back then, radio was still a luxury, and TV wasn’t invented yet.

“My father used to take me to a neighbor’s house as a child, to listen to the radio,” recalled Monroe. At the time, it seemed more of a novelty to him than a revolution in communications.

“I never knew radio would get so big,” he said. “Back then, most individual people didn’t have their own radios or telephones.”

Between the wars came the Great Depression. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Monroe was 16. At 23, he managed to find work during the Depression as a projectionist, showing films at the Brattleboro Auditorium, as well as the Paramount and Latchis theaters in Brattleboro, Vt.

Though it may sound like a fun occupation, it was a dangerous job.

“When I was running movies, the film was very explosive,” he said. Though projection booths were lined with asbestos to prevent a fire from getting out, all a projectionist could do was hope he made it out of the booth.

“The film would burn intensely, and the fumes could kill you,” Monroe added.

Helen Monroe said that early job, though dangerous, may deserve a little credit for her husband’s longevity.

“You couldn’t smoke in the projection booths, so he never became a smoker,” she explained.

Her husband, however, begs to differ. He says it’s Helen who’s kept him going so long.

A lot happened to film while Monroe worked in the theaters, but luckily, it didn’t explode.

“I remember at first, all the movies were silent,” he said. “Then there was sound, and later, color.”

No particular films stand out in Monroe’s memory, and when you run the same films night after night, you stop watching after a while. He never was a film fanatic, it was simply a steady job in a time when employment was scarce, and there weren’t programs like unemployment to help folks through tough times.

“During the Depression, the government didn’t give you any money to get by,” he said. Though Franklin Roosevelt would go on to establish the Social Security Act and other programs to get Americans back on their feet, people were on their own in the Depression’s early years.

The second World War would have a more direct effect on Monroe. He enlisted in the navy, and in 1943, he found himself working as an electrician aboard a support vessel for small warships. The USS Alcor, a destroyer tender, would serve as his home for two years.

“We never came across any Japanese boats or German submarines,” said Monroe. “We were fortunate.”

He was part of the ship’s crew as it tended ships in Casco Bay, Maine, then sailed through the Panama Canal and toward the Pacific Theater via Hawaii. The Alcor tended to ships in Pearl Harbor before heading to the Phillipines.

While stationed there, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs, first on Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945.

Though the Alcor would stay in the Pacific until the next June, Monroe shipped out on another vessel after Japan surrendered. He landed in California, took a train back to New England, and read about the bombs and their aftermath in the Boston papers.

Back in Brattleboro, he would take up work selling and servicing electric organs. He went to work for Minshall Organ’s U.S. headquarters in Brattleboro, and later, CBS Instruments, and the jobs would take him all over the country.

After he retired at the end of the 1970s, Monroe got back into the movie business, with a part-time job in the projection booth at the Northfield Drive-In. There, he ran the same two arc-and-carbon projectors that are still there today. The old projectors showed their final films Sunday night, though, and the theater has closed for the season and will be back next year with a digital projector. He’s seen evening entertainment go from radio to TV, and from silent films on the silver screen to tiny tablets that can play feature-length movies. Though technology is now light-years ahead of where it was 100 years ago, it didn’t all happen at once, and Monroe has taken each thing in stride.

While technology can do more these days, it takes more know-how to work on today’s gizmos.

Monroe once had a collection of 125 antique radios, machines driven by coils and tubes, rather than microchips, and easier to service. He’s since sold them all, because they took up too much room, but he remains a member of the New England Antique Radio Club.

He remembers doing his own maintenance on his early vehicles, like his first car, a used 1928 Chevrolet he financed for $225, a good chunk of change those days.

“We had four-cylinder cars, that people maintained themselves, because they could back then,” he said. “You opened the hood, and everything was right there. It wasn’t all encased in plastic.”

Things change, though; that’s the nature of the world, and as long as Monroe is around, he plans to go with the flow.

Everyone is welcome to come say “happy birthday” as the Monroes celebrate Al’s birthday with an open-house party this Sunday, a week after his actual 100th birthday, which was this past weekend. From 2 to 4 p.m., friends and family will gather at the Trinitarian Congregational Church, 147 Main St. Anyone is invited to stop by, have some cake and refreshments, and wish Al Monroe a happy birthday, though he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.

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