Werner Zarnikow leaned forward in his chair and asked me to guess his age. He had a huge smile on his face and he raised one eyebrow. I knew it was a trick question. Looking at the athletic man in front of me, I guessed that he was in his mid-70s, but that couldn’t be right. I mentally did the math.
He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force when he was 18 to be a pilot in World War II. He flew B-24, four-engine bombers based in England for missions over Germany. That made him a young man in the 1940s. I thought of Bill Wundram, who started working at this newspaper in 1944, and I knew how old Zarnikow was.
“I’m 92,” he said. “I don’t take any medication. I don’t need it.” Zarnikow is proud of his health and his sharp, analytical mind – the mind of a retired architectural engineer and pilot. And he’s proud of the life he’s lived so far, a life he told me about on a rainy afternoon at his kitchen table in Wilton, Iowa.
He was born in Germany, near Dresden, in 1925, which added an interesting twist to his war stories – flying mission over the country of his birth. But he’s an American, he said, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, then a thriving industrial city of steel mills and flour mills. His house was on the flight path to the airport and he watched those planes as a boy, dreaming of being a pilot.
“There was a certain amount of glamour in being a pilot,” he said, “more so than today. The girls always liked you.”
Zarnikow went to basic training in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They emptied out a luxury hotel and filled the rooms with double bunks for the airmen. “It was cold and damp and it was exciting,” he said. They covered up the windows at night with black-out shades so that ships couldn’t see the lights from sea, he said.
Hanging from the ceiling of his living room are airplane models he built from balsa wood and Japanese tissue paper – a model of the B-24 from the war, a reproduction of the Red Baron’s tri-plane, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers’ plane and two Zeppelins.
After the war, Zarnikow went to Iowa State and then “married a farm girl” and stayed in Iowa. His job in architectural engineering took him all over the state. “I know the geography of Iowa better than anyone,” he said. He listed off small Iowa towns he had projects, such as Pomeroy, Pella, Hampton and Lake City. “I spent time in a lot of small towns and cities, dealing with school board and church boards. The veterans came back from the war and everyone wanted a new school, then hospitals and office buildings.”
He and his wife lived in West Des Moines. When they moved there in 1950, it was about the size of Wilton, he said. There were cattle next door to his house. In the 1980s, he took a job in Pasadena, California, and later retired to Sun City, Arizona. Retirement didn’t last long, because Disney tapped him to help with the construction of Euro Disney Resort in Paris. “I said, ‘Why not?’”
A career of traveling for projects taught Zarnikow how different everyone appears to be and yet how similar.
“What makes America great is that every state has something special,” he said. “It’s a very diverse country, yet we don’t understand too much about each other. We know even less about other countries.”
Zarnikow got up from the kitchen table, unfolded a large map of the world and we looked at the distances together as we continued to talk, trying at one point to guess how many miles lay between Iowa and Iraq.
Zarnikow said he’s met people in Durant who have never been farther away than Davenport. “If we don’t know anything about the world, it’s easy to instill fear.”
Zarnikow moved back to Wilton 11 years ago to be close to his children. He exercises in Durant a few times a week and every Monday, he goes to Genesis Medical Center, West Central Park, to volunteer with the Genesis Befriender program. Befrienders are volunteers trained to listen compassionately to patients. It’s a spiritual program, but volunteers aren’t supposed to impose their own religious beliefs on patients.
Every Monday, Zarnikow visits patients on the orthopedic floor. He always starts by saying something to make them laugh, he said.
He has a book about his life that he created for his family. A woman at his church talked him into it. She would bring over a microphone once a week and ask him questions to get him to tell his story. The book is 79 pages and has a black and white photo of him as a young man under the title, “It Was A Grand Life! An Auto-biography of Werner Zarnikow.”