Valuable lessons to learn in the company of old men

This Just In. . .

September 04, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

A 90-year-old man sits and thinks and finds himself caught in the melancholy of memory. The last of the old gang has died, so he starts seeing faces and bygone street scenes. He can vividly describe East Baltimore in the 1930s. He hears the youthful voices of absent friends. He wants to tell someone about it.

Another man, in his 80s, decides it's time to leave his house for a retirement village, and he starts selling furniture and packing necessities and valuables. He can only take so much with him, and that means discarding much of what he has accumulated in a lifetime -- books and photographs, maps and magazines, newspapers and home movies. Suddenly a life that was so full and rich must be condensed to a few boxes.

Another man, in his 70s, settles into his retirement after a busy life of great accomplishment. He mellows and becomes reflective. He says things in a poetic manner, a way in which no one has ever heard him before speak. Suddenly he sees all life about him the way an artist might -- in rich detail and color. I am impressed.

Another man, also 90, shows me the way to an old haunt in the woods and thereby hands me a great gift and responsibility -- the opportunity to enjoy and preserve a place in the Maryland outdoors that has been his refuge for several decades.

Lately, as you can tell, I have been in the company of old men.

Two of them summoned me to their homes -- one to tell me his life story before his health starts to fail, the other to share some of the things from his attic as he prepared to move. Two others were in my company by my request -- one for an interview, the other for a visit to a cherished fishing hole.

Caught as I am in the sprint of life, I seldom have time to sit with old men and listen to their stories as I did when I was younger and the world seemed to be ringed by older men -- uncles and friends of my father, teachers and college professors, newspaper reporters and editors who had covered wars, the civil rights movement and other storms of history.

Now I seek the company of older men because, though aspects of their lives seem sad to me, I feel spiritually nourished by the stories I hear.

Joey Feldman got to thinking about this last month as the 58th reunion for his father's City College class approached. "These guys are to be acknowledged for their longevity and their life achievements and the lessons they can share about having survived not only the Depression, but World War II," Feldman said. "They should not be allowed to pass by unnoticed for the rest of their lives without one more accolade, pat on the back or expression of love and respect."

Compare Feldman's acknowledgment of his elders with that of another baby boomer, Bill Clinton, as evidenced most recently by his self-conscious behavior at the Democratic National Convention.

It has been pointed out -- most eloquently by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times -- that Bill Clinton, the baby boomer president who just turned 50, acknowledged virtually no leading Democrats of the past during the Chicago convention and thereby lost a chance to affirm the party's history and its identity.

"There isn't much of a party left," Dowd wrote. "There is only a Clinton cult of personality."

And we get this from a well-read president who supposedly has a great sense of American history. I'm not even sure he has a good sense of himself. In reading about Clinton's life, one finds adoration of John F. Kennedy and little else to confirm an ideological heritage reaped from elders. It might be the ultimate in egomania and exactly what Dowd suggests -- a president who presumes to alone define his party. He's not from Hope; he's from the Me Generation.

On the other hand, there's Bob Dole, growling and dismissing boomers as a bunch of good-for-nothin's "who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned."

Dole just sounds like Father Superior, an old crank. He might have been aiming at the Clinton White House, but he insulted an entire generation. What's he saying? If you weren't in World War II, you ain't worth squat? That everything was handed to us? That, unless you've gone hungry through a depression, you don't know what sacrifice is? It's the standard generational chauvinism that Dana Carvey used to mock on "Saturday Night Live."

So, as I was saying, before I interjected politics into this modest reflection on a complicated subject....

I have been in the company of old men and feel nourished by it when, to tell the truth, I thought I would be bored by it.

One man took me, with his vivid storytelling, back to a Baltimore I never knew -- early in the 20th century, when immigrants were arriving here from Europe with nothing in their pockets, but a passion for a new life in their hearts.

Another man made me appreciate the sturdiness of Baltimore life; he had lived in the same house for 50 years, watched over the same neighborhood, felt happy and safe there.

Another man made me see the beauty of a mellowing disposition, and I decided it would be good to cultivate such a thing some time before retirement.

Another man, a lifelong conservationist, made me see how lucky was to be able to hike through woods that his generation had set aside as refuge. I tried not to walk too far ahead of him, so as not to miss his words, his stories, his lessons.

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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