GWINN - Lifelong area resident Joe Meni knows all about P51 Mustang airplanes.
During World War II, he loaded their guns for missions while serving with the U.S. Army Air Corps 340th Air Dome Squadron 2nd AIr Commando Group in Burma, India.
And for his 90th birthday in 2010, Meni was a pasenger in P51 Mustang in honor of the occasion.
For his 90th birthday in 2010, he was treated to a ride in a P51 Mustang, the same sort of plane he loaded with bombs during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Joe Meni)
"It was a gift from the community to him," said Linda Peterson, his daughter.
The flight took place Aug. 22 from the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, with Vlado Lenoch as pilot as set up for Meni by his friends John and Donna LaCourt.
"This time I got to ride in it," Meni said with a smile. "We got to play around. We did a right wing over and left wing over, a loop and a spin. We did a dogfight in the sky and 'shot down' a Zero. It was great."
Meni actually is 91 now, celebrating his birthday on Jan. 8. Born and raised in Princeton, he was one of six sons born to John and Rachel Meni. His brothers were Jim, Oliver, Rocco and Guido, with another brother before him also named Joseph, who died as an infant.
"My parents came from Italy," Meni said. "My Dad came to work in the mines and my Mom came here because she had an aunt in the area. They met and lived in Austin Location (near Gwinn), then moved to Princeton."
Although much of his youth was spent in the days of the Great Depression, Meni has happy memories of growing up.
"We would sleigh ride down Princeton Hill," he said. "I wanted a bike and we didn't have the money, so I picked up an old bike frame and the wheels from an old wheelbarrow and pedaled down the hill. I must have been 6 or 7 at the time.
"I always liked things with wheels."
While money was scarce, fun was not.
"In those days, there were no cars for kids, so we spent a lot of time together hunting and fishing... and cutting firewood."
Rachel Meni knew her way around the kitchen.
"My Mom was a good cook. My favorite thing she made was polenta with cheese and salami," he said.
He recalls a Saturday ritual for the Meni boys and for many others in the area.
"We would walk from Princeton to the Gwinn Clubhouse to take a shower every Saturday. We would carry a bar of soap and a towel," he said. "There were no showers at home in those days."
Meni enjoyed many activities at the community center, including the basketball games that went on upstairs and the yearly visits from Santa Claus.
And that fondess for things with wheels continued through Meni's youth.
"I went to buy my first bike from Monkey (Montgomery) Wards in Marquette," he said. "I was so happy when I got it, I rode the bike home from Marquette to Princeton. I think I was 15 at the time."
From there, Meni saved up to purchase an old Model A, then a motorcycle he rode until he entered the military.
Meni had attended school until eighth grade.
"Then I went to work in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camps," Meni said. "After that, I worked in the mines."
Duty called, however, and Meni entered the military on June 12, 1942, earning a Bronze Star, a Victory Medal and a Good Conduct Metal before his discharge in 1946.
"We were getting ready for a big invasion of Japan when the U.S. bombed Japan," Meni said. "I know that saved a lot of American lives."
Meni was discharged from the military Jan. 7, 1946, one day before his 26th birthday.
Less than two months later, on March 2, 1946, he married Evelyn Simila, who was born in Ironwood, but later moved to Negaunee. Evelyn passed away in 2003.
Meni went back to work in the mines and he and his wife started a family that included children Linda, Stanley, Diana, Sandy, Carol, Nancy and Joanne. Another son, Steven, passed away in 1955.
The family lived in several spots in the area, including some time in Negaunee Township. When Rachel Meni passed away, the family moved back to the big old Meni homestead in Princeton.
His love for motion objects has continued through his life. Meni earned a pilot's license in 1946; was an avid motorcyclist until age 82; and still rides his four-wheeler while at hunting camp.
"Oh, yes, I still go to deer camp every November," he said. "I love to go to camp. You have to keep on going in this life."
Meni also played drums in a band called The Three Musketeers with Matt Rasanen and Les Lehtinen.
"When I got my first set of drums, I played in the yard under the apple tree," he said. "We were asked to play at the Deer Lodge in Gwinn and they paid us $12, $4 a piece for playing from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. And they complained we charged too much."
The Three Musketeers played for many years, only ending its run when Matt and Les passed away.
"We had a lot of fun at a lot of bars through the years," Meni said with a grin.
Meni still loves to fish on Blue Lake, where he now has a home, and enjoys going to the Forsyth Township Senior Citizens Center for lunch several times a week.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.