PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Tucked in a corner off of the entryway of Boulder Creek Assisted Living between Grand Rapids and Rockford, Lewis McDonald sits draped in blankets.
It’s cold and McDonald, nearly 98, has been given special permission to be outside for an interview. He’s talking about a new television he was gifted by his nephew — but it’s not the TV, exactly, that made him so happy.
“It’s probably been since this all started in March that most of us haven’t seen him,” one family member said of McDonald.
Outside of the occasional visits from his daughters, McDonald has had to remain isolated from the outside world during the pandemic. But now, with a microphone on, he is beaming with life; sharing stories, catching up and reveling in his role as the patriarch.
“What do they mean? Like everything,” McDonald said of his family. “I haven’t seen them all together for a while.”
McDonald quit being a pilot because of family. He said his wife worried one time when he arrived later than expected. He decided that if flying meant worrying the family, it would be better not do it at all.
For a major part of his young adult life, flying was family for McDonald, who fought in World War II.
“I flew for 14 missions in Germany,” McDonald said.
He joked the first time he ever flew a B-17 bomber — nicknamed the Flying Fortress — it felt like he was sitting on the front porch, flying the house.
“I had a 10-man crew and I had to make sure they got home,” he said. “The first (job was) to keep them safe and I had come second.”
After the war, he kept flying for the military. He was part of a photo operation in Greenland, turning the unchartered borders into a clear map for the U.S.
“They strip-mapped Greenland and sent the negatives, which were 12×12, that’s the size of the camera, send them back to the states and made a map out of it,” McDonald remembered.
“It’s going full steam right now. I’ve seen pictures of it and it’s a village, a complete village. When I was over there, there was nothing just ice and Eskimos,” McDonald said about the base his map helped build.
Throughout the years, McDonald’s nephew, Brian O’Hara, says his uncle never wanted any credit for what he did in WWII, saying he was “just doing his job.”
He said his uncle is a low-maintenance guy who doesn’t ask for much. That’s why O’Hara had to fight him to get a new TV.
“He’s got this little 32-inch TV and the settings were such that it only showed about half the picture on the TV. So I kept saying, ‘You need another TV,'” O’Hara explained.
O’Hara has always had a great relationship with his uncle. He admires his sacrifice and humor and was taught by his dad to respect the older generations.
So O’Hara went to the Best Buy in Traverse City, determined to get his uncle a new TV, despite McDonald’s objection and the fact O’Hara didn’t have a ton of money.
“I was trying to talk to salesman down another $20 on a thing. And he says, ‘Well, I can’t approve that. The manager would have to,'” O’Hara said. “The manager comes over and I tell him what I’m looking for and I tell him who it’s for and that there’s a World War II B-17 bomber pilot.”
O’Hara said he could tell the manager, Tim, was interested in helping. Tim went to the back of the store and told O’Hara to find him in the front before he left. What was waiting was a 50-inch ultra-high-definition Samsung TV — for free.
“He says, ‘We’ve got to take care of our veterans and especially the World War II veterans,'” O’Hara recalled.
Tim is a veteran himself, a former Marine. He couldn’t have had any idea what his gift would grow to.
After driving the TV to the living facility and slipping the maintenance guy a $20 to set it up, O’Hara says his uncle was giddy.
“(McDonald) was like, ‘This is my baby, nobody’s taking it away from me.’ It made me very happy and it made my day,” O’Hara said. “I should be thanking him and thanking the Best Buy guy for making me feel like I have some value still on my retirement.”
Days later, there they gathered, huddled near the entryway to a living facility they haven’t been able to go to, watching their dad, uncle, grandpa and great-grandpa answer questions about service, sacrifice and a new TV.
It was the gift Tim the Best Buy manager and Marine veteran hadn’t meant to give: family, gathered together for perhaps the first and last time of 2020; smiling, laughing, and enjoying the man they love so dearly.
It’s a reminder that sometimes life’s clearest picture comes from opening our eyes to unintended gifts.