MIDDLETOWN, Ohio – Land-locked Middletown is a long way from the thunderous riot of Niagara Falls and the deep-running silence of a nuclear sub on patrol. The change is fine with Mel Stewart, who has seen enough water in his lifetime. What he will not change is his every-other-Friday morning apheresis appointment at Community Blood Center (CBC) in Middletown, especially with his 250th lifetime donation to celebrate.
Snow was moving into Middletown Friday, Jan. 25 when Mel arrived for his regular 8:30 a.m. appointment. This new system was invading just days after the sudden snow squall that blinded drivers and caused a fatal pile-up on I-75 in Middletown. Mel, who grew up with the heavy snows in Niagara Falls, NY, wasn’t fazed.
“I had a paper route when I was 12,” he chuckled. “I had 150 customers, bag on each shoulder, the snow would be three-feet deep and I would drag my butt through that snow!” But it wasn’t the weather that made him leave Western New York.
“I got out of high school, had a good paying job, I was engaged, and I said, ‘I gotta get out of here!” That was in 1962. He joined the U.S. Navy, became submariner, and a Donor for Life.
Mel started donating blood in the service, sometimes under unusual circumstances. He remembers giving a direct blood transfusion in a pressurized chamber while stationed in New London, CT. “They brought this gal in, I don’t know what she had, but she was pretty sick,” he recalled. “Pretty sad lady. I don’t know if she survived. They promised to tell me, but never did.”
Every aptitude test Mel took identified him as an ideal candidate for the cramped, high-pressured and calmly efficient life aboard a submarine. “I started out on the World War II diesel boats,” he said, “and worked all the way up to the (nuclear) 640 class sub with Poseidon missiles.”
A career aboard a strategic missile sub meant moving from sub bases in New London, CT to Charleston, SC, Scotland and Spain. “Between those places you’d be out there on patrol,” he said. “You might be in the Med (Mediterranean Sea) or under the (polar) ice.”
“There was a lot of cat and mouse during the Cold War with Soviet submarines, and that could be exciting,” he said, conjuring up images from “The Hunt for Red October.” “Tense moments? Yes, a few actually. It was months of boredom and moments of sheer terror.”
Mel spent 10 years as an enlisted sailor, learning engineering, weaponry and navigation and working up to a watch supervisor. The Navy sent him to college and he spent the next 12 years as a commissioned officer, serving on submarines again as operations officer, navigator and third officer. “I knew the boat like the back of my hand,” he said. He retired in 1984 at the rank of a Lt. Commander.
His experience as a nuclear engineer led to being recruited by the nuclear power industry, and a new home in land-locked Ohio. He worked 10 years as director of training at the nuclear power plant in Perrysburg, OH then moved to Middletown to go into business with a friend building and operating extended care facilities.
Mel and his wife Arlene (nicknamed “Sugar” after her pet billy goat!) will celebrate their 46th anniversary next month. They have three children and eight grandchildren, all living between Perrysburg and Middletown.
After the Navy Mel donated at mobile blood drives at the power plant and began donating with CBC at Lebanon blood drives after the move to Middletown. CBC Rep. Carolyn Holland recruited him as an apheresis donor, and he’s been donating at the CBC Middletown branch ever since.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said, looking back at all those many years far from home and many leagues under the sea. “My wife keeps saying, ‘We need to go on a cruise!’ and I say, no, that’s OK. I’ve seen enough water. I’d rather be in the mountains I think!” Except on those two Friday mornings a month when he rejoins the watch of Donors for Life and the ongoing mission of helping save lives.