Three young women led me below Lanterman's Mill. As the temperature dropped, I shivered. Water splashed off the mill wheel and dripped from the stone walls.
"I'm pretty sure this is where the locker room was," one of the women said. We hunted for the initials J.S.
In 1912, when Jim Swisher wasn't quite a teen-ager, he had a job tending the locker room at Lanterman's Mill. "I carved my name and the date outside the locker room, and I've been wondering lately if it's still there."
"Lately," for Swisher, is on the cusp of his 100th birthday. Next month, he and Margaret Hupp, another Alterra Sterling House assisted living resident, will pass the century mark. (More on Margaret in Thursday's column.)
Locker boy: Swisher sat in a comfortable chair in his small apartment. Clearly disappointed to be breathing from an oxygen tank, Swisher was reminded by his daughter, Peggy Harker, it was only temporary. "Probably just another week or two," she said of his recovery from pneumonia.
"They used to swim at the mill," Swisher told us. "The old mill was the locker room. I was the locker boy. A few guys would bring a bottle and leave it in their lockers."
His face brightened. "I had the only key, and they had to come to me. I'd get a 10- or 15-cent tip so they could take a little nip. I made more on tips than wages."
Swisher spent his youth on Youngstown's South Side. He was the eldest of nine children and is the only one still alive. Swisher started working at 12, lying about his age when necessary to land a job. He attended Delason Avenue school and eventually became an overhead crane man at United Engineering & amp; Foundry Co.
"I was only married once and had two children, a boy and a girl."
The best thing about hitting 100, Swisher said, "is I notice everybody is nice to me. I have made a lot of nice friends in the last few years."
The hardest thing, he said, are the aches and pains. "On rainy days, my hands really hurt."
Looking back : Swisher's longevity might have surprised his early locker room customers. His nickname back then was "Corpse."
"I was so pale and thin," he said. "I remember one day walking down the street with my mother. A kid came running by, and said, 'Hi, Corpse!' Well, she jumped on him with both feet, I'll tell you. Then she went home and cried."
On her 80th birthday, his mother said to Swisher, "You'll live to be 80, too." What, he wonders, would she think if she could see him on the doorstep of 100?
The paleness and puniness disappeared in his 20s as he put on weight and years of sandlot baseball built him up. At 60, he quit a two-pack-a-day Camel cigarette habit he began at 12.
As Swisher looks back on his life, a few things stand out (besides those initials, which we never found): his son, James, graduating from Carnegie Tech and becoming a professor of metallurgical engineering; a high school concert he wished he had attended, when Peggy sang a solo his wife, Vera, couldn't rave enough about; his wife's prowess at teaching and saving.
And a seat between first base and home plate.
"I saw a World Series in Pittsburgh between the Pirates and the New York Yankees. Babe Ruth was an outfielder and Lou Gehrig was the first baseman," he said.
It's irresistible to ask, "How does one reach 100?"
Swisher said, "One day here, some time ago, there was a guy sitting in a chair behind me. I couldn't see him, and I didn't know who he was. He asked me, 'What's the secret of living to be so old?' I [wisecracked], 'If you keep your feet dry and your hind end warm, you'll always have your health.'"
Swisher smiled. "When he walked away, I saw it was a priest!"