It was with great sadness I learned this weekend of the passing of Jack Massey, a fixture in the community of Palatka, North-Central Florida, for decades. An affable anchor at his jewelry/photography shop downtown, he held court - at odd hours as he neared his Century - telling truly awful jokes and gossiping. A trait we shared, long before I wrote the following profile for a local magazine.
He will be truly - missed.
WAR movie-maker Ken Burns missed a wonderful vignette for his epic saga of WWII when he failed to include 93-year-old Palatka jeweler Jack Massey’s viewpoint of the *Battle of the Bulge.
Massey, a myopic medic in the winter of 1944, sat out five snow-bound foggy days a few miles away from the beleaguered city of Bastigone – in the middle of a briar patch.
Surrounded by Nazi troops, many of whom decided to use the fringe of Jack’s 10x20-foot hideout as a latrine, he sat out his stint on the front lines of the last great battle of “the big one”.
“I had put my own entrenching tool to good use too, digging a hole big enough to keep from being captured!” he recalled.
Massey, is a sprightly character who seems to have wandered Palatka’s downtown forever when he merges from his shop, with its clock-faced showcase window piercing a dull black-painted brick façade.
He can usually be spotted bedecked in patriotic-colored suspenders, wearing lens-less spectacles (which support a jeweler’s loupe) as part of his alluring uniform – and an “I Love Hugs” button pinned to his shirt as a proclamation of his persona.
His saunter-speed along the sidewalk depends on the inevitable interruptions as he collects hugs en route, given by local gal groupies.
“I’m an old man – what can I do?” he innocently poses the question with a twinkle in his eye.
Usually he’s found propping up the counter, chatting to customers within the confines of the landmark Jewelry & Photo Supply shop at 615 St. Johns Avenue, under the watchful eye of daughter Suzy, youngest of the seven children he’s had between two wives.
His first died in a tragic freakish accident, slain by the flying blade from a broken lawn-mower (on their 13th wedding anniversary) the second from natural causes.
After surviving close to a century the southerner, with kin in Alabama and Georgia, has adapted to Florida’s ways and weathered the boom-bust-boom-bust cycles.
“Pop, a veteran of the Great War (1914-1918) moved from Alabama to Jacksonville in 1919 when he bought the Liberty Sign Company,” Massey said.
“He was 6” 4”, a good-looking rascal and the women went crazy over him. Mom was just five-foot,” he explained as he barreled north along SR 100 in his half-ton pick-up with a hefty cargo in back. The jeweler turned junkman for a day was not hauling precious metal, befitting his occupation, but a slab of cast aluminum to the 1st Coast Recycling Inc., collection site.
With a modern alchemists touch he converted the discarded base metal into cold cash, which in turn will morph from money into the Palatka All Saints Anglican Church Parrish Hall - one day.
“Pop’s sign business made money hand over fist, until Black Friday of ‘29 and the Depression which followed,” he recalled. “He was able to pay off $300,000 debts - cash – then we all had to go to grandma’s farm in Georgia, to eat!”
The active teenaged Jack Massey spent two years in the country earning his keep on the farm milking cows and plowing fields.
“Luckily, the mule knew much more about his job than I did, thank goodness” he chuckled. “He knew when it was time to feed and time to quit and when he headed for the barn, that was it.”
Like many youngsters of the era he was an enthusiastic member of the newly-formed BSA (Boy Scouts of America) fathered by Baden-Powell in England in 1907.
The organization’s tenets played a major role throughout his life, despite his apparent characteristic Lothario-like flirtations (call it Southern Charm).
On a memorable day in mid-August 1935, he says, a life-saving escapade propelled him onto the front page of the Denver Post & Rocky Mountain News. He shared it with the announcement of the death of American pundit, champion lariat performer and movie star Will Rogers.
“It’s a day I’ll never forget.”
The fortunes of the Massey family had fluctuated with the passing years as they joined the migratory patterns of many other Americans seeking far-flung opportunities. Jack’s educational studies at Birmingham-Southern, Alabama, were cut short then resumed at several other locales.
He attended one semester as a pre-med student at UCLA (University of California) but an upset in the family disenchanted him. He was en route back to his roots, where his father had secured a patent on a window security device, when they stayed in a cabin complex near the Platte River in Colorado.
“Some boys were fishing off a railroad trestle. One boy’s line wrapped around a temporary power cable and when he tried to unravel it – splat!”
The flash, scream and splash from the teenager propelled the Eagle Scout into rescue mode. He stripped down to his shorts then jumped in feet first into the river, groping around in the murky water.
“I couldn’t see diddly-squat, then I felt a foot,” he said. He pulled the 14-year-old to land, told the younger boys to run for help, then began artificial respiration.
“Out goes the bad – in comes the good,” he repeated the drill litany he’d learned on his way to earning merit badges.
When the boy’s body wriggled he knew his training had paid off. By the time the sound of an ambulance siren could be heard the victim, his hands charred from the electric shock, volunteered to walk.
“I told him I’d pulled him back once – I wasn’t going to do it again,” huffed Jack. He hoisted the boy onto his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and carried him toward the ambulance. “It wasn’t until we got close, and a nurse came out, I realized I was in soaking wet shorts. I was more concerned about my nakedness, than about the victim!”
The story got around, was picked up by the wire services and made front page news in Denver. He said his folks did not know about it until the cabin manager said AP (Associated Press) wanted to speak to Mr. Massey – the younger.
“I hadn’t told them (about the rescue). It was just what you did, then,” Jack explained.
During his early pre-wandering period a favored uncle had taken his young nephew on a day trip up-river from Jacksonville to Palatka when it had been a tourist Mecca. The memory remained for decades.
Throughout the period of his father’s successful decorative wrought-iron security business, his own life-threatening short stint working in a machine shop (loose clothing got caught in moving parts) and his persistence in obtaining the jewelry job he really wanted – Palatka images lingered.
Massey worked for the Duval Jewelry Company in Tampa from the Depression era to the outbreak of WWII. He beat out the many competitors for the job by charming a female employee – out taking a coffee break – to deliver a hand-written note to her boss: ”Don’t do anything until you talk to me.”
It resulted in an hours long interview and instructions to start work the next day.
After the war, married with children, he and a partner operated a jewelry business in Tampa until his first wife’s death.
Then in 1954 he rediscovered Palatka.
“Oddly enough the shop was owned and operated by the man who replaced me at Duval when I went into the service,” he shrugged. It has proven to be a bedrock of security for the Massey family and countless customers who have become his friends over the years.
“We do more than repair broken jewelry, watches and cameras,” he said. “We mend broken hearts, too.”
At 93 years of age he shows no sign of slowing down or quitting his membership and activities in numerous service, social and church organizations in Putnam County.
At least, not until he hits his 111th birthday.
“That’s my lucky number,” smiles the soldier who survived the Battle of the Bulge in a briar patch, while serving as an ambulance driver and mobile X-Ray specialist in - the 111th General Hospital.