A few of the lessons learned in three score and 10

Milton Bates

October 02, 1991|By Milton Bates

SEVENTY? The big seven-oh? Three score and 10? Not I! Not yet!

Ah, but the folks at vital statistics say otherwise, and odds are they're right. Funny, I don't feel it, and friends tell me, with a straight face, that I don't look or act it. I still hit a fair tennis ball, though I grant my marriage is far more sound than my backhand. And my two children? Blessed twice more.

So, after seven decades on this planet and almost five of matrimony, what wisdom can be safely imparted? After all, one who lives long enough might be expected to learn a few things, reach a few conclusions. Well, not necessarily. Years alone nor ,, formal education nor wealth nor, Lord knows, celebrity confer the smarts.

So lesson No. 1 is "Don't assume anything." Assume not, for example, that an approaching car with left-turn signal blinking will turn left, or at all -- especially if the driver is using a car phone. Weather reports? Hmmph.

A corollary of this is: "The more you think you are right, the more likely you are wrong." Suspect all absolutes. The people of this still-beautiful globe are mixed, some capable of infinite evil, others of heroic acts. Sadly, the supply of heroes shrinks. But those who profess certainty, especially after a chat with the Almighty, should be tuned down -- if not out.

What else? "When you hear, 'It's not the money; it's the principle of the thing,' it's always the money." I learned this as a tin man in Baltimore. When that smiling fellow, hand on your shoulder, intones, "I want to be honest with you," quickly button your wallet pocket and take a stroll. And if you forget all of the above, remember the trusted World War II maxim: "Keep your mouth shut, your bowels open and never volunteer." Served me well for 42 months.

What have Americans born in the early '20s seen? Damn near everything: one frightful depression; many recessions; wars, good, bad and cold; a standard of living the world envies but from which far too many citizens are excluded; and numerous depressing ills: crime, drugs, racism, the S&L debacle, troubled banks, Wall Street scandals, the arrogance of politicians, the homeless, the hungry, a creaking legal system, a failing medical system, a failing education system, an assaulted environment, Ronald Reagan's legacy of mountainous debt and, amid this welter, a White House which seems to lack either the will or the wisdom to tackle this scary domestic scene.

But would most of us have preferred to live out our days elsewhere? If we answer "yes," we are at odds with much of the world. People stream here from societies that are far worse failures. They are drawn by material abundance and the freedom to speak without being punished.

There is much to set straight, yes, but countless times we've seen demonstrated an optimism, a resilience, which might get the job done again. In the '30s, the Depression was routed. In the '40s, the Axis powers were defeated. In the '50s, Joe McCarthy, bully, boozer, subverter of the Bill of Rights, was brought down and free thought restored. In the '60s, opposition built to a fruitless, draining war that was later halted. In the '70s, a president contemptuous of his oath of office was forced to resign. And early this year, a stirring Senate debate over the Persian Gulf adventure by normally timid, finger-to-the-wind politicians brought honor to that chamber.

George Washington founded this nation, Abraham Lincoln preserved the union, Franklin Roosevelt saved the system, and maybe, just maybe, some decent, capable man or woman will come to the fore again. A long shot? Yes, but living 70 good years was no lock, either. I'll try to stick around and see what happens.

Milton Bates writes from Baltimore, where he lives in retirement.

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