Meet the 'Washington Street waver'
Camden — When Kert Ingraham first moved in to Sixty-Three Washington Street, the facility's no-smoking policy forced him to make his way to the edge of the street to light up— and that's when the waving began. Slightly more than a year later, Ingraham has adapted his habit and mostly puffs on an electric, smokeless cigarette that can be used indoors, but spending full afternoons waving at passers-by from the edge of the lawn has become a ritual unto itself.
Ingraham may use a wheelchair to get around, but the wise-cracking 83-year-old is sharp as a tack, and as one might guess, he's quite a personable fellow. His friendly demeanor is further enriched by the fact that he is an excellent storyteller. From dating Kimberley, a Radio City Rockette, to years working in the funeral business, Ingraham has no shortage of stories to tell.
Born in Aroostock County, Ingraham is a true native son of Maine's legendary potato country. His story starts as a boy in Sherman's Mills, digging potatoes with his father's Farmall F20 tractor at age 12. Ingraham enlisted in the military straight out of high school and headed to basic training in San Antonio, Texas, knowing already that he wanted to work on military aircraft. The skill-set of a farm boy in Maine seemed a reasonable foundation for learning the trade of working on warplanes.
"I was a good mechanic," he explained. "I'd worked on farm equipment, all that stuff."
Upon completion of basic training, Ingraham attended two separate aircraft schools in Biloxi, Miss., and was eventually stationed in Kansas, spending time at two Air Force bases. While Ingraham doesn't quite recall the exact date — as he pointed out, he has a lot to remember — it was around 1943 when he left Kansas and made the pilgrimage to Alaska, where he spent the better part of a year working on Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers. The four-engine, propeller-driven bombers were considered some of the most advanced warplanes of their time. Ingraham said only one of the 15 gargantuan planes fit in the designated hangar space, forcing the men to work on the planes outdoors.
"They said 'where would you like to go?'" Ingraham recalled. "I said 'someplace warm,' and they sent me to Fairbanks!"
A crew chief by then, Ingraham speculates the purpose of working in Alaska was to test the B-29s for cold weather performance. His supervisor was aboard Enola Gay when the infamous "little boy" Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
After returning to Kansas, Ingraham was traveling in a car to El Paso with three others when the vehicle was struck by a tractor trailer truck on an Illinois highway. The crash left one passenger dead and Ingraham — and the other survivors — severely injured. Ingraham was transported to a nearby Catholic hospital with a broken back, broken leg and a shattered pelvis. After he was stabilized he was transferred to a military hospital, and later transferred again.
"They didn't have screws and metal, they had to put my leg up in traction," he said.
His recovery took nearly nine months, and afterward he returned to to the County where he met his wife Lillian — she was 18 and he was 20. The couple would eventually have five children together, four of whom have obtained advanced degrees as adults, Ingraham said with a father's pride.
Ingraham's military days were over and he needed a new career. He said the choices were limited.
"After the military you could be a doctor, a lawyer or an undertaker. I checked, and an undertaker took the shortest education," he said.
He enrolled at the New England School of Embalming in Boston and upon graduating he returned to Maine, working at Plummer Funeral Home in Augusta for four years. Around 1952 he purchased the still-operational Green Lawn Memorial Funeral Home in Bangor, and soon acquired a second funeral home in Carmel.
Ingraham said he performed embalming, conducted funerals and even ran a private service transporting corpses in his personal plane. Additionally he bought a "gorgeous" gold Cadillac ambulance and transported locals for free, he said, and his business thrived.
"I belonged to every club in town," he said.
After a decade in the funeral business, he received an offer to buy the businesses and decided to sell. He took a job at a funeral home in Hartford, Conn., and relocated once again. Before long his neighbor — a manufacturer of refrigerated store displays — noticed his mechanical acumen and offered him a job traveling and working on refrigeration units.
"The only thing I knew was that they keep beer cold," Ingraham said with a laugh.
His knack for mechanics served him well once again, and his career burgeoned, taking him to Dallas for several years, then to New York. Lillian, he said, elected to stay behind.
Ingraham spent time at Togus VA in Augusta before moving to Sixty-Three Washington Street in 2011 — his son Tom is presently building a home in Hope. Ingraham shares the non-profit assisted living living facility with five others, all women.
In addition to greeting travelers along Washington Street, he uses his motorized scooter to make short trips. He's been at it long enough to make observations, drivers are more likely to wave back in the evening, he said.
He said he observes many interesting things while waving, and has received flowers from women of all ages, including a rose hand-delivered by a little girl recently.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.