This column, dated April 17, appeared in The (North Augusta, S.C.) Star. Columnist Phyllis Britt is the daughter-in-law of Carnegie Hero Charles E. Britt, who, at the age of 73, saved a 5-year-old boy from a burning home Nov. 3, 1997, in Norfolk, Va. Britt was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1998. We are reprinting Britt’s column about husband Tom’s father with permission.
We have just returned from a visit to Virginia, in large measure to see Tom’s dad.
Charlie Britt will be 95 on May 10. He still has all his faculties. He mostly lives alone – happily, I might add. He still tries to cut his own grass – though his son-in-law tries to beat him to it and though he recently fell while picking up pine cones. (To admonishments from his daughter Deb, he would only admit that it took him awhile to get back up – but he did, and with no broken bones.) He’s still very active in the Norfolk Retired Firemen’s Association – sometimes to the chagrin of the local city council. I’m guessing it’s hard to say no to a request from a 94-year-old, especially one who is obviously working for the good of men who spent a career putting their lives on the line every day. And lately he has a renewed joy spending time with the youngest great-grandchild, 1-year-old Greyson, who has become Granddad’s “pancake buddy.”
This time, as we were heading up to see Granddad (what all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren call him), our son, Mac, asked if we’d try to get Granddad to talk some about his childhood and his time in World War II. Like my parents, Tom’s dad’s youth was hard. It was during the depression, and for much of his childhood, he lived with his grandmother, whose husband was an abusive heavy drinker. In fact, Granddad saw joining the Navy as a way out. He was still in high school, but was able to leave for the South Pacific with a promise that he would get his diploma anyway. After the war, he met and married Tom’s mother, and he eventually settled into a career in the Norfolk Fire Department, ultimately achieving the rank of captain. Even well after retirement, Tom’s dad continued his life of service. He was awarded the Carnegie Medal for saving a 5-year-old from a burning house on his block.
He then let the homeless family move in until they got back on their feet after losing everything in that fire – which turned out to be nearly three years. And since then the Norfolk Fire Department has established the Charles E. Britt Award for exceptional bravery.
Also since retirement, he’s continued to be self-sufficient. At 80 he decided his roof (on his two-story home) needed replacement. Without discussing it with his kids, he took it upon himself to do the job alone. Picture an 80-year-old climbing up and down a ladder with pallets of shingles on his shoulder. I know his son, my husband, wouldn’t think of doing something like that, and Tom’s not anywhere near 80. (And after that event, Granddad’s ladder “disappeared,” with a little help from Deb.)