Johnny Wanlin attributes his 100 years of life to a guardian angel and his regular conversations with God.
“He (God) always called me Buster. I don’t know why.”
Born to parents of Alsace-Lorraine heritage in Saskatchewan in 1915, Jean Jacques Joseph Wanlin has lived through much of what baby boomers think of as recent history. He was a baby in the First World War, rode the rails in the Great Depression and served in the Second World War, an experience he still can’t bring himself to talk about.
He has worked as a horse wrangler, barber, dam builder, steam railroad engineer, Western Messenger operator, hamburger stand owner and too many other jobs to talk about. For most of his life he supplemented his income by buying and selling land and buildings.
“If I am reincarnated I will be a real estate guy and be a millionaire,” he laughed on Feb. 12, two days before a small party of family and friends celebrated his 100th birthday.
Wanlin’s belief in a guardian angel has early roots. As a child, he was told the story of his first brush with danger. At the age of three months, little Johnny was napping in a wicker buggy, parked in the sun just outside the family farmhouse while his mother worked nearby.
“My father had built the house on a hill, and below was a huge slough that filled with water that spring,” he recalled. “One of my sisters pried open the brake on the carriage — to ‘give him a ride’ — and it went rolling down the hill and into the water.”
His panic-stricken mother couldn’t reach the floating carriage without endangering her own life. She raced to get help and soon Johnny’s uncle was wading out into the slough to pull the baby to safety.
“Ever since then I know my angel has been looking after me,” he said.
At the age of 15 and with the Depression looming, Wanlin hopped freight trains and traveled around Western Canada. He once arrived at the famed Douglas Lake Cattle Company near Merritt. He asked for work and was scoffed at when he revealed his age.
“Come back when you are 20,” he was told. “And bring a horse. This is a cattle ranch.”
Back in Saskatchewan, he continued to ride the rails with hoboes in search of work.
“We were in a hobo camp one night and the police came and started arresting some of the men,” he said. “I went up to one and asked to be arrested but I was told, ‘We are only taking men today.’
“I really wanted to know what being inside a jail was like so I asked him what I needed to do to get arrested. He said I could take a swing at him, but I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to get a look inside for maybe a month. I never did get another chance.”
With the vague possibility of work awaiting at Douglas Lake Ranch, Wanlin caught a wild horse and trained it to the point he could ride it and make it jump over fences.
He headed westward again, this time on horseback, and little more than a week later was hired on as a cowhand. About a year later he put in is resignation.
“They wanted to know why,” he said. “I said I had made enough money to by a Harley and was going to look for other work. I told them to keep the horse and I rode off on my new used Harley-Davidson motorcycle.”
He headed to Calgary, where he took a course and became a barber.
“I opened a shop and I was reliable,” he said. “I opened each day and worked all the way through. People could count on me.”
One day a customer was in his chair, bemoaning a real estate opportunity that was beyond his finances. He had the chance to purchase an acre of land on the south side of Calgary for $150. Wanlin asked if the customer minded if he pursued the opportunity himself. He got the go-ahead and soon owned his first piece of land. He sold it later for $1,200 and used the profits to buy other land. Eventually he was buying buildings, too. When the chance came to make a profit, he sold parcels and reinvested.
When asked about his service in the Second World War his smile fades.
“I don’t talk about that, I never have,” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. “I saw too much death. There are no winners in war. I’d do it all again, though. That’s just the kind of guy I am.”
Later, he mentions that when he went to an enlistment office, he was told he would be a foot soldier.
“I told them I didn’t want to do that, that I would be AWOL all the time. And when they wouldn’t put me into something else I left.”
Military police tracked him down near Vancouver and advised him that he wouldn’t get another chance — sign up or go to jail. He enlisted.
In 1991, Wanlin came to Creston to “retire”, put off by Calgary, which “had become a rat race.” It also gave him the chance to pursue another interest — ultralight airplanes. No licence is required for ultralights — “It’s nice to have insurance though!” He has owned three and last flew when he was 90. At the age of 74 he had his aircraft fitted with a larger fuel tank and flew from Creston to Saskatchewan.
He admits to being saved at least once on a flight when his guardian angel intervened after a control stick became stuck.
“I turned off the engine key and asked God for his help with that one,” he smiled.
Asked about the highlight of his life, he points tearily to a photo display that forms a tribute to his late wife, who pops up regularly in his conversations.
“She was the best thing that ever happened to me. She could be a pain in the neck, though.”
His first wife, whom he married when he was 18 and she was 17, died of an illness nine years later.
It’s not only his faith that has kept him alive and healthy, Wanlin said. He never enjoyed coffee and had his fill of booze in the army. The offer of a cigarette from a fellow in Vancouver when he was in his 20s cured him of any desire to be a smoker, too.
“He gave me one and I said, ‘Holy smoke, this smells like poop! Give me some papers and I can roll you a bunch more! ‘I think I hurt his feelings, but I never smoked any more.”
If 100 years seems like a long life, it isn’t quite long enough yet for Wanlin. His mother lived to the age of 97. He had an uncle who lived to be 104 years old and he’d like to beat that record. And not by just a little.
“110 would be nice,” he said, from a window-side easy chair in the living room of his own home.