My frequent visits to America allow me to keep in touch with what transpires in that ever-changing society. Yet what really struck me on this past visit was that youth-obsessed America is, in fact, home to "oldsters." This is not just because I spent most of my winter vacation with my 83-year-old mother and 87-year-old father, but because everywhere I went I was reminded of the many other octogenarians out in public. And I do mean everywhere.
Since everyone else is either in school, in the office, or at home taking care of babies and the house, the streets belong to the oldsters between rush hours. So many times I froze at the specter of yet another oldster behind the steering wheel of a car as I approached a crosswalk, even though there was a STOP or the Green Light was in my favor. So many times I thought to myself, "They shouldn't be allowed to drive" or "They should be given a special driving test after age 75."
I've always been aware of the elderly and of my own expected longevity. My paternal grandmother, Nana, took care of each of my 10 siblings from their earliest days; she never tired of holding a baby and singing the nursery rhyme "Ol' Mother Wiggle-Waggle" while sitting on the porch, and must have sung it to us kids thousands of times.
Nana, alas, put herself to bed when she was 88, staying there until the good Lord called for her at 94. Both my maternal grandparents touched 90 before going into that goodnight, too. John Harkins, my namesake, reached 92, while grandmom Harkins made it to 90. So I can safely say that I do have longevity in my blood.
It's just that senior citizens weren't so active when I was growing up in my Philadelphia neighborhood. Perhaps because they didn't leave their houses too often, but rather were confined to their homes because modern medicine had yet to perfect the hip replacement, by-pass surgery, and other life-prolonging wonders, and because many of those oldsters never drove a car, especially women. Old man Beetum was the exception. When he drove down Ruscomb Street in his 80s, everyone scattered.
The elderly in my neighborhood all seemed to live by the windows of enclosed porches, taking in the sun and neighborhood life, just as Nana had. There were, of course, more old ladies than men. And being a newspaper delivery boy gave me a close look at their world via my paper route.
Most of the old ladies on my route were kind souls who had porches filled with plants, caged canaries in kitchens, cats and/or a pet dog for company, mantles cluttered with kitsch and family photos, and parlors that grandchildren love to visit.
Life nonetheless was not always easy for the ladies. There was this one poor soul who had been left to her own devices for far too long. In short: she had this awful smell about her that made me gag. Delivering her newspaper was routine, collecting for my service was another matter. Before ringing her doorbell on Saturday morning to collect my money, I would take in a huge breath in anticipation of her opening the door. Invariably, she would invite me into her sparsely furnished home, and my nauseating ordeal would begin. I could hold my breath only for so long. Then all I could do was breathe in and out of my mouth the best I could, suffering her until I could make a polite exit. Once outside her door, it took more than a few deep breaths of fresh air to rid my nostrils of her odor.
The old men of my youth ran the gamut of that type. Some were cranky curmudgeons who forgot that they, too, were once boys, and, of course, there was the misanthrope that kept my sponge and pimple balls when they bounced over the huge hedge surrounding his backyard and protecting his precious flower garden. I felt sort of sorry for that angry old grouch, and intend not to end up that way, though I wouldn't be a bit surprised if my college roommate does.
The good old boys, however, outnumbered the sour ones, and I sought out their company in the hope that they would impart some wisdom that I then presumed accompanied their age. I believed they could give me a few pointers on how to live my own life, even unlock a few of life's secrets.
Now when I think back on it, perhaps it was the other way around. Maybe I was the one who was giving them something, memories of their own youth, of boyhood buddies, and of sons and grandsons who didn't visit often enough.
I was closest to Ray Penn, an elderly gentleman whose porch I sat on for hours at a time, listening to whatever Ray felt like reminiscing about, interjecting only to keep the reminiscences flowing. Ray died while I was in Seoul. When my parents went to Ray's wake, the first thing his son Jack said to them was, "John always had time to sit on the porch and talk with Ray." They all agreed and shared a confirming laugh. I felt pretty good about myself when I heard that.
By the time I reached Korea, in 1982, and started teaching at Yon Sei Foreign Language Institute (FLI), I had concluded that the road to wisdom was paved with one's own experiences and that there was no fast lane and no one was going to chauffeur me. Yet I hadn't lost my fondness for old-timers, nor my belief in them.
While teaching at FLI I became very good friends with Jerry Jackis, a robust, garrulous American from the old patriotic school who helped me to appreciate what it is to be an American. In fact, Jerry Jackis was "the American" to me, and a bona fide member of "The Greatest Generation" as well.
There was this look of bemusement on my FLI students' faces when in response to the routine "What did you do over the weekend?" I said, "I visited one of my friends, Jerry Jackis." One question led to another, and the sentiment among the students was, "How could you have a friend who's old enough to be your father?" Impossible in Confucian Korea.
Ben Weems was another old-timer whose acquaintance I made during my tenure at FLI. He was a scion of those 19th century American missionaries who gave so much to Korea, and was himself a specter of a bygone age what with his three-piece suits and patrician gentility. For Americans in Korean Studies, Ben Weems was living history, and Ben's book on Korea, co-authored with his brother when they were young men, is de rigueur in the field.
Ben had been a widower and then re-married late in life, fathering a daughter, which impressed me as an affirmation of life, and brings to mind Tagore, to wit: "Babies are God's way of telling us that he has not given up on humankind."
During a casual conversation with Ben in the teachers' room, I blithely conferred celebrity status on him by saying "We all know who you are, Ben." To which he quipped, "I still have to get up in the morning and earn a living." Ben Weems passed away in the late 1980s.
Nothing is more arbitrary than affixing a specific age to old age, especially as youth-obsessed Americans are living healthier longer. While on a visit to Florida, the Sunshine/(Retirement) State, in the 1980s, I was within earshot of a conversation between two retired codgers in which one retiree said to the other, "Ya know, 50 ain't even considered old anymore."
And then there's the anecdote about Oliver Wendell Holmes, the eminent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. One spring day Justice Holmes was out taking the air in Boston Commons when a fetching woman crossed his path, the 93-year-old justice turned to his walking companion and quipped, "Oh, to be 75 again."
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