Parade breaks out for 97-year-old veteran
December 11, 2020
World War II veteran Burt Wang found an unexpected silver lining in 2020, in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He found a new home and family with Theresa Bridge and her daughters, and a new lease on life with all the busyness of life in their Cloquet home this summer. And he got his first drive-by birthday party on Tuesday, when he turned 97 years old.
Wang was alternately delighted and moved to tears to see old neighbors turn up on his birthday, then flabbergasted when a parade of cars cruised past the home on 22nd Street, waving signs and flags, honking horns, and dropping off balloons and even some gifts for the veteran.
He cried when the Disabled American Veterans van came by and two vets hollered "Happy birthday, Burt" out the window. He petted a couple of canine friends, Bonehead and Shadow, who visited from Wrenshall. He buried his head in the neck of a former neighbor, overcome with emotion at seeing her. He laughed as a line of about a dozen cars rolled by twice, and gazed adoringly at his new family members, especially his best buddy, 7-year-old Brooklyn.
Wang is her best friend too, someone she can play Barbies or Legos with, someone who will hang up her drawings and share stories.
"I make him laugh. And I like to make him pictures," she said, adding that she prefers having him live in their house because she gets more time with him.
Although they aren't related by blood, Wang has strong ties to Theresa Bridge and her three daughters, so strong that Bridge invited him to come and live with them when they could no longer visit in person at the assisted living facility when the pandemic hit.
"After March 18, he was basically locked in his room, and we could only visit by looking through the window," said Theresa, who was a private-duty nurse for Wang for three years before he had to go into a nursing home and then an assisted living facility. Before that, she and her two youngest daughters, Brooklyn, and Amaya, 17, would often pick him up and take him to the River Inn for a burger and beer and to visit her oldest daughter, Amber, who worked there.
Then Covid hit and long-term care facilities shut down all visits unless it was someone's end of life. Theresa said Wang and her youngest daughter would basically just cry from opposite sides of the glass. "He really declined, and told me he had lived through the war, but he didn't want to live like this. So I asked him if he'd like to come live in our home.
"He told me, 'I thought you'd never ask,'" Theresa said with a big laugh.
But first, Wang had to get stronger, and went through therapy so he would be strong enough to navigate the stairs in their split-level Cloquet home. He moved into their basement apartment July 1 and fit right in: he gardened with Theresa, played all kinds of games with Brooklyn, and the whole family took a camper almost every weekend to state parks in Minnesota and Wisconsin until the weather got colder. "He usually goes to bed at 7, but he'd stay up late just to find out who won the cornhole tournaments," Theresa said. "He just had to know."
Since the cold weather arrived, things have been a little tougher for Wang. He worried when the kids went off to school, or when Amaya had to quarantine because of Covid. Theresa said she knows he's been missing his friends, who are avoiding in-
person visits so they don't infect the vulnerable veteran (who says he's not worried about Covid, he's lived through worse). So she posted on the Cloquet Neighbors Facebook page, asking if anyone had ever held a drive-by birthday party and it "blew up" with responses from people eager to make a birthday a little brighter.
She didn't tell Burt what was up, just that a couple friends might drop by so they had to go outside. Almost a dozen cars drove by with signs and flags and smiling faces, and one walker waved and wished him a happy birthday too. Former neighbors came - Carry and John Devich,
Jack Dahl - and spent time talking outside on a day that wasn't too cold.
"I think he thought I was crazy when I said we had to go outside for his birthday," Theresa said. "I'm so glad we had such a good turnout."
"He's so happy here," said longtime friend Suzie Hall, who said she's known Wang for more than 60 years. "This is the best thing that's happened in a long time."