Tony Seykora was 20 when he enlisted in the Navy, not long out of Owatonna High School. He wanted to fly, and in 10 months he had his pilot’s wings. When the chance came to transfer to the Marines, he jumped at it.
“Pearl Harbor was on everyone’s minds, and I figured in the Marines I could get to the Pacific quicker and get into the fighting,” he said.
Born and raised on a farm 3 miles south of Owatonna, Seykora, now 98 years of age, hunted pheasants and ducks as a kid, and fished the lakes around Faribault — sporting pastimes he continued throughout his long life.
Three years older than Seykora, Bob Rupp also grew up on a farm, this one in central Nebraska, and on June 10, 1941, he joined the Army to serve what he thought would be a one-year ROTC — Reserve Officer Training Corps — obligation.
Uncertain what he would do when he was discharged, Rupp figured he’d likely return home to work in agriculture, while continuing the hunting and fishing interests he honed as a kid.
“Then Pearl Harbor came along and my one year in the Army turned into four and a half years,” Rupp said.
Seykora, of Owatonna, and Rupp, of Stillwater, reside in assisted-living facilities. They recounted their younger days earlier this week as another Minnesota fishing opener loomed and pandemic-weary Minnesotans snapped up angling licenses at a brisk pace.
“We’d set trotlines for catfish and we’d also fish them with our hands around railroad-bridge pilings. The catfish would be in the rocks around the pilings, and we’d reach down and feel for them with our hands. It helped to know the difference between what a catfish’s mouth felt like and a snake’s mouth felt like.”
But not everyone will be fishing when the state’s inland season for walleyes and northern pike opens at 12:01 am Saturday. Sitting this one out will be thousands of elderly Minnesotans who, like Seykora and Rupp, are confined to nursing homes and similar establishments, with no one allowed in, not even close relatives, and no one allowed out, because of the coronavirus threat.
“It’s a nice place where I live,” Seykora said. “Before the virus hit, I could use my electric cart to go outside. But no more. Now, it’s like a jail. No one leaves.”
Each year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sells more than 450 fishing licenses to anglers age 90 and older. So far this license year, which began March 1, the agency has issued three such licenses, or half the number it had in 2019 at the same time.
It’s usually not for a lack of interest that elderly people quit fishing, because in many cases when someone is an angler, they’re always an angler.
Fishing at first with their moms and dads, they end up, in their later years, jigging, casting and trolling with sons, daughters and grandkids.
Last year, when Rupp was a mere 100 years of age, he flew to Seattle to fish salmon with his son off the British Columbia coast, a trip he’d made some 30 years running.
“When I was a kid in Nebraska during the Depression, my family and I camped along the Platte River and we’d have a big Sunday dinner there with neighbors,” Rupp said. “We’d set trotlines for catfish and we’d also fish them with our hands around railroad-bridge pilings. The catfish would be in the rocks around the pilings, and we’d reach down and feel for them with our hands. It helped to know the difference between what a catfish’s mouth felt like and a snake’s mouth felt like.”
In Owatonna, a boyhood friendship between Seykora and the late R.W. “Buzz” Kaplan would change Seykora’s life — especially his fishing life.
Like Seykora, Kaplan wanted to fly. But his eyesight was poor, so he enlisted and was assigned to Patton’s Third Army. Sleeping in mud every night in Europe while watching Allied bombers fly overhead, Kaplan envisioned the pilots snoozing in warm beds after returning to their bases.
“If I ever get out of this war I’m going to learn to fly,” Kaplan vowed.
Indeed, at war’s end when he returned to Owatonna, Kaplan became a private pilot and as the eventual CEO of Owatonna Tool Co. purchased multiple float-equipped airplanes with which he regularly flew to the Canadian Arctic to fish.
“When the war ended, I thought, like Buzz, I would get sent home, but instead with a handful of other pilots I was sent to China,” Seykora said. “America wanted China to go Democratic and our job was to fly Chinese leaders from all over the country to a central location for a meeting. We flew the military equivalent of DC-3s. The maps were often wrong, and we landed wherever we could, in fields and on beaches. By the time I got home, Buzz had his pilot’s license and that started our fishing trips together.”
Rupp also served in Europe during WW II. He was a battery commander in an artillery battalion that during the Battle of the Bulge was outnumbered 3-to-1 by a German infantry division advancing on Luxembourg City.
“We averaged one round fired every 40 seconds for six days straight,” Rupp said. Not until 2001, after a German division commander’s reports surfaced citing the role the bombardments played in turning back the Nazi advancement were Rupp and others in his battalion awarded Presidential Unit Citations “for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.”
After the war, Rupp and his wife moved to Minneapolis and in time he began a 30-year career writing for The Farmer magazine.
Seykora, meanwhile, would come to own an Owatonna implement dealership.
In their long lives, both saw lots of everything. Now they’ve also seen a pandemic, and the threat it poses to elderly people especially.
But Seykora and Rupp weren’t always old.
They romped as kids, fought for their country as young men, raised good families, and in many ways, over many years, contributed to the greater good.
And once they were fishermen.