Octogenarian Cheats Death At 18, Lives Full Life Of Action


"I was supposed to have died when I was about 18 years old," said Jim Gilbert, who has thus far beat the odds against him by 70 years.

"I got typhoid fever, and it settled in my right leg. When I finally got to a doctor, he said I wasn't supposed to be alive, and that I wouldn't live. So I got a little reckless over the next several years and did a lot of things to actually try to get killed so I wouldn't die in some bed somewhere. I rode bulls and bucking horses, I flew airplanes in situations I shouldn't have."

Wait a minute. Gilbert was flying airplanes in ... what? 1932?

"Yep. I had an old cowpuncher friend who had an airplane, and he taught me to fly. I loved it, but couldn't afford it. Cowpunchers back them made a dollar a day, $30 a month. So we'd work together, pool our money, and get enough to fill up the gas tank on the plane. We'd fly around until we ran out of gas."

Those are just a few of the details of this blind, self-taught cowboy singer's surprisingly long and action-packed life.

How action-packed? Well, consider his birth. Gilbert was born almost 88 years ago (this Oct. 28) in El Paso, Texas, as his mother was on her way West, and his father was running railroads in Mexico while dodging the bullets and firebombs of Pancho Villa's rebels.

"As soon as my mother could travel, we went to live with her sister in Bisbee. So I claim to be a native Arizonan. Heck, I only missed it by about 10 days."

When Gilbert's father bought some ranch land in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains, he moved there, became a cowboy, and stayed "off and on" until 1938.

"You couldn't make a living down in Mexico, so I'd come across the border and work all the ranches on the southern end of Arizona. That was all I knew until 1938, when I started working at a sawmill in Phoenix. That's where I got tripped up."

What happened in Phoenix?

"Well, I got married!," Gilbert says, laughing. "This little old gal, Hazel, really tripped me up. We've been married 60 years now. But I was a free man for a few years, there."

Over those sextuple decades, the Gilberts produced three daughters: Lynnea, Laurel and Mary. (Eventually, Lynnea and Laurel alone produced no, this is not a typo 17 grandchildren.)

Had Gilbert been hoping for any sons?

"That's what we were after when Mary came along, and that's why she's a wildlife biologist today. When she was born, I said, 'There ain't gonna be any more tries, this is my hunting partner from here on in.' And that's exactly what she's been."

After spending 30 years working as "troubleshooter" for Salt River Project at Roosevelt Dam and serving on the Roosevelt School Board, for which he was instrumental in obtaining the area's first two school buses Gilbert retired to Payson in 1977.

"The country I lived in down in Mexico is identical to the country up here," he says. "The first time I saw it, I knew I wanted to retire here. And here we are."

It's been since his retirement that Gilbert went blind.

"I've got macular degeneration, thanks to this old Arizona sun and all the years I worked as a welder at a steel company in Phoenix, welding cattle guards," he said. "I got my eyes burned a lot. They didn't know to have barriers up to protect your eyes from the heat and the flashes. My retinas, they say, is just shriveled up. I can see shadows, but I can't see distance, and I don't have any depth perception anymore. You're just a shadow. You could tell me you're the prettiest thing in the world, and I'd believe you."

Q) What about your life as a cowboy singer?

A) Oh, I mostly sing to myself, right here in my back yard. All of my life, I've had a guitar and learned a lot of songs that aren't known today," Gilbert said. "And I learned to pick a few Mexican chords. ... I've always enjoyed it because I like to have people around me, and to make 'em feel good. That's what I did all my life, played the guitar and remembered the lyrics.

Q) What singers and musicians do you like to listen to?

A) Joe Bear. He's a friend of mine. He sings all around here at festivals and things. When we get together, we have a whale of a time. He's one heck of a nice guy. He's the one who roped me into singing at the Fiddle Festival last month. To be honest with you, I don't have a voice for drawing people in. They listen to me because, when they're in front of me, I'm the only one there is to listen to. But I like to do it, and I will do it, and people seem to enjoy it.

Q: What do you most like to play?

A: The old, old cowboy ballads, like "Yavapai Pete." Songs that tell a story. One time this fellow told me, 'Jim, I really like your songs, but somebody has to die in every one of 'em.'

"Those are the songs I like best," Gilbert says with a cackle. "The ones where people either die or fall in love."

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