On Getting to Seventy

Speaking on his seventieth birthday, Mr. Mark Twain noted that we each reach this milestone by our own routes. His own, he said and probably rightly, would assassinate anyone else who attempted it. Yet Mr. Twain overlooked a vital point. He was male. And all males, despite their individual routes to the seventieth year, have one thing in common. We aren’t made to complete the journey. That any of us do, defies the odds.

This probably has to do with the X-Y chromosome thing that some people, mostly female, assure me is a primal birth defect. How else to explain the exuberance with which we test our youthful durability, the patience of our parents, teachers and eventually significant others, and more than occasionally the skills of emergency medical personnel. The boy, it seems, truly is the father of the man. Recalling our earliest adventures, can we fail to recognize what they portended for our futures? Weren’t most of our earliest infantile burblings probably variations on “Hey guys, watch this!”? Aren’t they still?

I remember, for example, campaigning for Truman in 1948 on a southside street corner and convincing several voters by clear reasoned argument to cast off their lifelong Republicanism and throw in with Harry. An amazing accomplishment for any one-and-a-half year-old. Even more amazing is that I remember it so clearly now. (I liberally adapt here Mr. Twain’s tale about sharing his grandfather’s nightly whiskey toddy at age six months. I myself did not take up drinking until I was two, and then only rye whiskey neat.)

At the age of three, fully ambulatory on land, I undertook to teach myself to swim with no outside help. Nothing to it at all: I simply fell off the end of the pier into the lake where our group of family friends was vacationing. My father did all the hard work, racing down the pier to leap in after me, though I was getting very good traction on the lake bottom. I suffered no ill effects, but Dad came down sick and spent his remaining vacation in bed. There was a certain coolness in our dealings for a while after that.

It was probably inevitable that my encounters with the police began early. Determined to see the world while young enough to enjoy it, at the age of five I laced up my Keds one morning and strode off into the rising sun, making five miles before a local constable collared me for throwing rocks at the windows of a vacant house. I remember there being an arrest warrant out for me, though my mother always said it was just a runaway alert. Most likely she was covering up having a felon in the family. In any case, my father was summoned and I was unceremoniously transferred to his car through the driver’s window, somehow getting knocked on the noggin in the process. Apparently Dad hadn’t yet let go of that rest-of-vacation-in-bed thing, which was probably also why he threatened to put “Free to good home” under my photo in the local newspaper want ads.

No surprise, then, that when eventually crossing the threshold of double digits, I brought along several concussions, an aversion to arithmetic, a habit of stepping on rusty nails, the ability to remove fishhooks from almost any part of my anatomy, and the good sense to keep my right up and lead with the left. That last bit was especially useful, living on the southside and semi-automatic weapons not yet being ubiquitous.

Now, I don’t recall my sister, five years younger, engaging in such escapades. Oh, she did dress up the cat in doll clothes, shaming him such that he took to hiding under the basement stairs until lured out with fresh kidney. And she once sent Mike Downs home with a fat lip for not getting off the tire swing in time. But no rock- or fistfights, no slicing open Scott Kirkconnel’s forehead with a can opener. No contests with Bill Mahar to see which of us could hold an exploding firecracker in his fingers. And no direct water balloon hit on that woman driving the convertible with the top down. That was so cool, the best throw ever, even though it meant hiding out through the night until everyone gave up looking for me — I mean, for us.

And no jumping off the roof of Bruce Downs’s garage with a sheet for a makeshift parachute, no pellet gun fights and cherry bomb-ignited, gasoline-fueled roadside bombs with Barry Gabler, no skating until both night and frostbite had firmly set in. Just look what all that led to, further down the road.

Such glory belongs by right to the male of the species, with the accompanying twitches, scars, fractures, and concussions that are his badges of honor. Reaching seventy means nothing when that young, so we are indifferent to our chances of doing so. And for a special few, the odds of seeing even seventeen aren’t all that good. These few seemed — and still seem — my natural brothers. That was Dad’s opinion, anyway, and he had his own good reasons to know. For if the boy is the father of the man, he was definitely the father of the boy. Fortunately, we both found good women who for their own reasons thought trying to keep us alive and in one piece was somehow worthwhile. There’s the real secret of how to reach seventy. That, and never drinking cheap liquor.

(5/1997)


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