Saugus resident Don Kuehl recently celebrated his 95th birthday at the Bouquet Canyon Senior Apartments.
After cake and some laughs with his friends, Kuehl reflected on his 95 years, sharing some of his most memorable experiences.
Kuehl was born in Long Beach on Feb. 20, 1925, and he was just 8 years old when a magnitude-6.4 earthquake struck his hometown.
“Me and another kid my age that lived on my block had gone to the grocery store, which was a big deal for us at that age,” he said. “It seemed like a long ways, but I think it was probably a block and a half.”
They were about halfway back home when all of a sudden the sidewalk started breaking apart, Kuehl said.
“Things were popping out of the ground, and you know, I didn’t know what an earthquake was then, but I’d been to Sunday School, so it had to be the end of the world,” he said. “We both had sisters who were about five years younger, just babies, (so) he said, ‘Let’s go home and save our sisters.’ It sounded like a good idea, and we ran home to save our sisters.”
At 18, Kuehl joined the U.S. Army to find himself in World War II. “I went from infantry into field artillery as a replacement, which was a good move.”
As a radio operator, Kuehl was sent to Northern Italy.
“They had three or four radios going all the time,” he said. “Practically everything I got was in code. I didn’t know what I was writing.”
Kuehl still has fond memories of carrying the heavy radio equipment on his back.
“People in buildings were shooting over us and we would try and get as flattened out (as possible),” he said, laughing. “When the winter was over with, then we got back to our war. Otherwise, we were stuck for six months in the Alpine mountains in the snow.”
Kuehl remembers hunkering down for winter and using whatever he could find as shelter.
“I got under a bridge and our artillery shells came in these thick cardboard tubes, so I made stilts and a bed out over the river — I kept dry,” he said. “You crazy when you’re 18. You think you’re going to live forever.”
Kuehl spent two-and-a-half years abroad before returning home. “I was halfway across the Atlantic when they dropped the bombs coming home.”
When he returned, he married his longtime girlfriend, Virginia. “We knew each other in high school, and she wrote to me all the time (while) I was over there.”
The pair remained married for 62 years until Virginia died in 2010.
In the 1950s, while Kuehl was working a desk job, he was beginning to get bored. “I was in a cubicle going nuts.”
His doctor told him to take up a hobby, so after meeting some skydivers, he decided to give it a try.
“I had to make sure my heart’s OK, so I had to go into my doctor and have him sign the paper,” Kuehl said, adding that his doctor told him he was crazy. “‘I meant golf or something, not skydiving.’”
One of his craziest jumps out of Agua Dulce Airpark didn’t go as planned, as he landed about a mile from where he was supposed to.
“I came over a ranch. I see a fence ahead of me and I’ve got cattle under me, so I pulled my feet up to miss the fence and hit the hardpack ground,” he said. “I was coming in pretty fast and hard, but I’d had enough jumps, so I knew how to roll and distribute the weight, although it left a sore spot on my butt. Eventually, I see this pickup truck coming in over the hill — they saw my parachute disappear over there, so they were coming to pick me up.”
Kuehl made 15 exciting jumps before quitting when he realized how nervous it made Virginia.
“Every one of them was different,” he said. “A couple of minutes of that, (and) you’re set for the week. I didn’t feel lonely or bored any more.”
Later on, he and his brother-in-law took up flying for fun, traveling down to San Diego and to Big Bear out of Whiteman Airport.
Years later as an anniversary gift, Virginia gave Kuehl glider lessons. “You read the thermals, and you fly this thing — it was fantastic,” he said.
Kuehl and Virginia moved to the Santa Clarita Valley in the 1980s. “We always seemed to have a hilltop house, but you had to walk out into the yard to get the view, otherwise all you see is the hill in front of you.”
While working at Bermite Powder Co., an explosives, flares and small munitions manufacturer in Saugus near Bouquet Junction, during the 1980s, Kuehl was able to witness one of the many explosions that rocked the plant.
“We had a project engineer who thought all the rules were fine for everybody but him,” he said, adding that he drove around a chain and parked right next to the control room. “That thing exploded because static electricity set it off. We had three floors of explosive flares there and it all blew up.”
Though the building was reinforced, Kuehl said it looked like a hand grenade went off and a mushroom cloud could be seen from Highway 14.
“My cameras all survived, though — I had them explosive-proof cases,” he added, laughing.
Now, Kuehl remains dedicated to learning new things, as he’s especially fascinated by science and quantum mechanics.
“I can’t believe what reality is (now),” he said. “So you got something like that (to study), you can’t get bored.”
Over the years, Kuehl has seen technology progress, and is especially impressed with the Tesla, which a friend of his has.
“It’s the second fastest one and it does 150 (mph), which we can’t really check out,” he said, chuckling. “It’s an acceleration you wouldn’t believe. It takes off and you’re (flattened against the seat) — like a jet.”
When asked about his secret to a long life, Kuehl had nothing to remark except to joke about not drinking store-brand beverages. However, he did suggest that the secret to a happy life is to go with the flow.
“Live in the now,” he added. “Always try to be prepared, but don’t worry too much about tomorrow. Usually, it has a way of working out.”