NORTH KINGSTOWN – George Silva estimates he’s run more than 100,000 miles during his years participating in marathons and shorter races.
Nearing 86, the familiar figure around Wickford is preparing for this Sunday’s seventh annual 5K run-walk to benefit a handful of programs: the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce’s charitable foundation; Laymen in North Kingstown Schools (LINKS); the North Kingstown Food Pantry and local high school scholarships.
As he sits at a table in Burger King polishing off a spicy chicken sandwich, French fries and two cups of coffee – he and a group of buddies have lunch here every day and sometimes breakfast, too – George admits he’s not in top condition but has started training in earnest.
“I’m running in the park and on trails; taking in some of the races to get the endorphins going. I’ve got to come down in weight. For the past seven years I haven’t done anywhere near what’s required [to stay in racing trim] but I’m working back up.”
He expects to be the oldest participant in this weekend’s race. He knows for certain there will be a 79-year-old in his category (the over-70 division) and he probably won’t beat him.
“I’ve won many races in my age group,” George says. “There are only a handful of us old runners now. We call ourselves the Reruns.”
A Navy veteran and career Coast Guard serviceman, he declares that TV newsman and author Tom Brokaw got it right when he dubbed the men who returned from World War II and used the skills they’d learned in the military to build up America “the Greatest Generation”.
“I was 17 when I tried to get into the service in 1942,” he recalls. “They told me to go home and put on some weight and height. That turned out to be a real tough year in the war and the next year I got in even though my weight and height were just the same.”
George joined the Navy and was assigned to a gun crew on a merchant vessel carrying deadly cargo – guns, ammunition and other materiel – across the Atlantic. “My ship was left over from World War I; it was like a coal collier,” he says. George feels lucky to have survived the air strikes and submarine attacks that killed one out of every 26 merchant vessel servicemen.
He went to the Pacific on a light cruiser, a CL-104 named “Atlanta” and commissioned by Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, the enormously popular novel set during the Civil War.
“I got a new Cleveland class cruiser and trained in Newport,” he explains. “I stayed in the Pacific for the signing” of the Japanese surrender. “I have a lot of memories. We were at sea when the atomic bomb was dropped. We didn’t realize what would happen.”
He went to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When his tour of duty in the Navy ended, George joined the Coast Guard where he remained for 22 years. “I was on ice-cutters, weather patrol, lifeboat stations, [and participated in] rescues.”
He retired as a boatswain’s mate chief, worked three years for the State of Rhode Island, then found a home as maintenance supervisor for the former Fleet Bank. “I was there 16 years and never missed a day,” he says proudly.
He had already laced up his sneakers and hit the road, starting in 1964 when he left the military.
“It was the beginning of the running craze,” he recalls. “My first race was a 10-miler in Coventry. I came in last. I was the only one in my age bracket, just turning 40.”
His game greatly improved over time: George has so many ribbons and trophies he’s had to remove most of them from display. He ran in a total of 35 marathons including six in Boston and 15 in Newport. “There are only seven of us who finished them all,” he says.
These days George’s pace is mostly a combination of running and walking. He walked the Narragansett and Block Island marathons and wants to try Block Island again this year. He also wants to run the Providence 5K and the four-mile July 4th race in Wakefield.
“I only do a handful now,” he says.
Martha Smith can be reached at email@example.com