James Thompson is one of those Greatest Generation types who loves nothing more than to spin a story, or ten.

I noticed midway through our FaceTime chat from his bed at the Seattle VA hospital that he begins a lot of his yarns with “if you think this is bad, it’s nothing compared to…” And then he’s off to the races.

Such as: If you think this is tough, you should have seen the soup lines of the Great Depression. Or: Try having a B-29 bomber with your buddies on board get shot down off your right wing-tip.

Or: “If you think this pandemic is bad, it’s nothing compared to walking the streets of Hiroshima with thousands lying dead from one bomb.”

Seriously, those are some of the answers Thompson gave when I asked: “What was it like to beat the coronavirus? At age 96?”

He’s not the oldest person to get COVID-19 and defeat it. In this country a 104-year-old down in Oregon apparently holds that title. But the odds for Thompson were judged to be so long when he contracted the disease last month that he wasn’t put in intensive care, but rather on “comfort care.” That’s what they call it when they’re mostly just easing your pain as you undergo the dying process.

James Thompson at a World War II plane exhibit at Boeing Field last fall. (Family of James Thompson)
James Thompson at a World War II plane exhibit at Boeing Field last fall. (Family of James Thompson)

“We thought he was a goner for sure,” says his son, Jim Thompson Jr. of Seattle.

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The state hasn’t released much data on people who have recovered from COVID-19. But of the thousand cases confirmed in patients 80 years or older, the death rate so far has been nearly 30%, according to state Department of Health figures.

“He has always radiated this major life force,” says his daughter, Lisa Thompson of Snoqualmie. “But this time he told his wife (Florence) he thought he was going to die.”

Thompson was dizzy and fell at his Queen Anne retirement home in mid-March. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent nearly three weeks with a fever and a hacking cough, slipping in and out of consciousness.

“I don’t remember much of anything,” Thompson says of his time in isolation. He dimly remembers a relentless cough, chills and difficulty breathing, but “I was totally out of it.”

No visitors were allowed, which his daughter says was the hardest part.

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“He couldn’t understand why nobody would come and visit him,” Lisa Thompson said. “He crawled through broken glass with this thing, alone.”

He’s now tested negative, twice, and is headed to rehab.

Thompson is a World War II vet who also is a local sports trivia answer. He’s one of the only people known to have suited up on both sides of the Apple Cup, playing in different years for both the Washington State and UW football teams. That was another doozy of a tale: How he played in a dismal 1942 Apple Cup in which nobody could see the ball because of two inches of driving rain, and how Wazzu and the Huskies ended up catastrophically tying 0-0 so neither team got to go to the Rose Bowl. As he was saying, you think this pandemic is bad…

James Thompson, seen here in 2017, played football for both WSU in 1942 and UW in 1946. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times, file)
James Thompson, seen here in 2017, played football for both WSU in 1942 and UW in 1946. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times, file)

As a B-29 bombardier, in 1945, he really did walk the streets of Hiroshima ten days after the U.S. nuclear bombing there. He was part of a military recon team doing a survey of the destroyed Japanese city.

“That was true insanity,” he told me. “I’m a lucky guy to get out of this” — he gestured to his hospital room — “but this is just another day in Seattle.”

Well, not exactly — we are in a global pandemic, after all. But if anyone gets a pass to rank the historical events of the last century, it’s this guy. The cumulative effect on me of his stories, was, in the end, reassurance. As bad as this may get — and Tuesday was the worst yet for coronavirus deaths in America — we’ll make it. Crawling through broken glass, maybe, but we’ll come out the other side.

“He’s a tough old (bleep),” said his son Jim Jr. “Plus keep in mind what’s important here, which is that now he’s got one more story to tell.”