By Elaine Van Develde
That’s just what 99-and-a-half-year-old World War II Army veteran Ken Curchin will look you square in the face and tell you — unfettered, feisty, finger wagging and right at home at the dining room table in his 61-year Fair Haven abode. He follows his sage, simple message up with a few reasons why quitting isn’t an option when getting on the road to living the dream, even if you’re sideswiped a few times or just plain run over.
The oldest vet and likely the oldest resident in the borough still has more than enough spunk to cap his advice off with hard-knock, experience-peppered posturing. There’s that sparkle in his eyes, too, set ablaze by a contagious gut laugh that would crack a smile on the most menacing of adversaries.
He’s always had the laugh, his sons said, and he’s always taken all of life’s hurdles in stride, always aiming to fly high — to soar. To him, the challenges were always a pleasure to be met, one by one.
The Curchin life snapshot …
He was born pretty much over coffee in what is now Frame it Yourself on River Road, surviving and thriving. It was a family home. The Curchins have lived in Fair Haven since right after the Civil War, with Ken’s grandfather Squire Curchin a founding member of the Fair Haven Fire Company, the mayor, tax assessor and all-in-one official.
But after that incidental birth of his at Grandpa Squire’s homestead, Ken grew up at first in a rented house on Mechanic Street in Red Bank and later on Branch Avenue in Little Silver. On those regular visits to family in Fair Haven, he snuck out of “Uncle Charlie’s” house to jump off the dock. “That was a big deal for me, ya know,” he said with a chuckle. “No one did it. Nobody was going down off that dock.” Renegade kid, right? That was just the start.
He swam through the muck in a swampy pond and made it out with a muddy smile. He picked berries in summers for $12 a week — “not a hell of a lot of money, but it was” — with the Parker Brothers (Parker Farm, Little Silver). He bought Saturday payday popsicles for “the whole gang,” his family, and “hit that bike and ride like crazy” to “treat them all before the darn things melted.” He made it through Red Bank High School. But all that was the kid stuff.
Then came the young man challenges that he continued to roll with like that popsicle-toting bike ride or dive off the dock. He was drafted into World War II and sent to Alaska where he survived up to 71-degree-below-zero cold. He married a gal named Thelma, love of his life and sister to Fair Haven’s Bette Chandler, after a fix-up. He became a dad of five.
He worked daily in the family’s Red Bank barber shop. He bought a Fair Haven home for $16,000 without “a damn thing in it — not one piece of furniture” and scavenged curbside by night to fill it, bit by bit. Oh, and he saved and bought a plane for $1,000 to fly around in when he wasn’t with family at the house or cutting hair. That was a lot of hair cuts in those days. “It was a lot of money,” he said. “But I just loved to fly. I got people around and loved the heck out of it.”
The challenges and meeting them …
Ken Curchin has seen and done it all, he will tell you. He is grateful. And he is still not done. Now he’s aiming to see 100 years on this Earth — right in Fair Haven, where he was born, in less than six months.
He’ll tell you he got this far on those dreams of his and you can on yours. He’ll tell you that he realized the biggest of them. He’ll tell you it’s all because he “never quit!” He can’t say it enough and won’t stop any time soon.
His biggest dream besides the building and love of his family? That flyboy fancy. And he soared to accept any of its dares. How? It’s a long 99-and-a-half-year-old story with a simple message.
“I don’t give a damn what you’re up against,” he said at the dining room table of his Fair Haven home last Sunday. “If ya fight hard enough, you’ll get what you want in life — what you’re after … what you love. I’ve been across the country. I’ve been all over the world. When I found a place to get into what I wanted, I just moved about ’til the door opened.”
And once he planted a foot firmly in the doorway, there was no slamming it in his face, especially when it came to becoming a pilot in the Army. It took a while to inch that Army boot in the door, but he ended up not only inching, but taking a leap over the threshold.
Oh, Ken Curchin set his sights to take off on the flight path early on. And it became a reality as soon as age would allow. Raised by a mother who loved Lindbergh, the idea of taking flight was something you might say was an early childhood-honed love.
“Oh, I used to go to the Red Bank Airport and watch those planes take off and land,” he said. “I’d go as often as I could get myself there and that was pretty much every day.”
He got his pilot’s license and he flew — at home in the states. But then, after graduating from Red Bank High School in 1935 (with the family living in Little Silver for the bulk of his childhood), he was drafted into the war a few years later in 1941.
The time in the war …
As a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s construction battalion, Curchin spent 13 months in the Yokon, never getting a single hot shower and enduring cold of up to 71 degrees below zero that would freeze a head poking out in the air into a block of ice from condensation in the sleeping bag. He helped build the AlCan Highway.
The AlCan was a 2,000-mile road carved out of the wilderness from Edmonton to Fairbanks, Alaska. It was built to send supplies to Alaska in case the Japanese attacked North America.
And it was mighty cold there. Yet, Curchin will chuckle like a hyena at the memory, telling you “It was cold as hell! It was colder than the brass b—s on a monkey cold!”
They wouldn’t let him fly, though, because of “the damnedest thing. You needed two years of college.” He didn’t have that. But the rejection didn’t stop him. He was relentless. After all, flying was his dream and “I wasn’t going to let anybody or anything stand in the way of that,” he said. “I’ve had this in my head (not quitting), because why? I didn’t have a college education. But, no, I didn’t give up.”
Eventually, in need of pilots in the war, the Army bosses relented. Since he had a pilot’s license, Curchin was accepted into B-17 flight school in 1943. He went to school “all over the damn place to take examinations” and ended up being the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress with a crew of nine men that flew two bombing missions over Germany. He managed to get home to see his parents twice. He also transported men home after the war, which he said were moments “you just never forget … getting them home.”
And when he came home from the war in 1945, he ended up meeting that Thelma Long, the Holmdel girl with whom he was fixed up on a double date. The couple married in 1951 and had five children.
And in 1955, the couple came from a trailer park in Eatontown back to the town where Ken was born and bought a cozy home, “a good spot to raise a family and educate the children,” on Park Road in Fair Haven. They bought the Fair Haven home for $16,000. Worth repeating the price, he said, because it was mighty expensive then, and unheard of nowadays. It was empty.
“Not a damn thing in it,” he said, because the house alone was all they could afford at the time. But they furnished it with love and prime curb pickings. “Nothing wrong with that,” he said. We’d go out at night and rummage around. That’s how we got all our furniture. And we had a hell of a good time doing it.
“What do I remember most about Fair Haven? Home. My home,” Curchin said with a love-struck twinkle in his eyes. “My wife, my Thel, she did it all. What a gal. She took care of everything. She was one-of-a-kind. She had such strength and she kept the family going and strong.”
Oh, he was there, he said with pride: “Every night I came home to my family. No running out to a bar room or any other place. Nope. That’ll ruin a family. None of that.”
No. He was busy working at the family-owned Churchin’s Barber shop in Red Bank and fixing things around the house when he wasn’t cutting hair. He stayed at the family business until it closed and he retired in the early 1990s.
Thelma passed away in 2007, leaving behind Ken, who still beams when he talks about her, their children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandkids.
When asked if there was anything he hadn’t done yet, Ken Curchin leaned over the table, gave a grin, a little laugh and said, “Why ya know, all these years and all that living and I’ve never once had my name in the newspaper.”
Now you do, sir.