Seven decades down


AT 4:23 AM, 70 years ago today, a scrawny, unhealthy baby was born at the Emily Winship Woodruff Maternity Center at Crawford W. Long Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

T’was I.

It was eight months before V-E Day, nearly a year before President Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and 21 days after famous firefighter Smokey the Bear appeared on the scene.

My mother was weary because I was a long time coming down the birth canal. Was my father there? I don’t know. He might have been in a bar.

I had an affliction. An intestinal valve did not work right, and I could not digest food properly. The prognosis was grim. I hung on, skinny and wan, for a couple of months until an experimental drug was first tried on me — and it worked. I’ve been digesting well ever since.

It’s strange to be this old because I feel good. I have no major health issues, and I’ve never had any. Knock on wood. My last hospitalization, for nothing serious, was over 50 years ago when I was 19. I’ve never broken even one bone. The only obvious signs of this passage of time is that my hair is white, and my energy level is not what it was 30 years ago. You do feel that.

Alexander the Great, Lord Byron, Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and Jesus Christ all lived fewer years. There is some debate about the last one.

There is one quite noticeable aspect to being 70: You know it’s the end game. Oh, it might come 20 years down the road, like it did for my mother, or just five years more, like it did for my father. It could come tomorrow, and nobody would be surprised. No one would say: So young. What a shame.  Young has vanished.

This age brings a sweet calm but also a sadness, una tristeza. Many things won’t be repeated: barreling 100 miles an hour on a motorcycle down a California freeway in the middle of a cold night; bicycling the perimeter of Puerto Rico, a long-ago, unfulfilled dream; having the sole motor of an Aeronca Champ conk out at 800 feet, forcing a spiraling, white-knuckle descent to a New Orleans runway …

… speedily bolting a crib together alone at night after my wife heads to the hospital earlier than expected; having my daughter call me Daddy; visiting a Cuban dictatorship with a Mexican; visiting a Haitian dictatorship with a Frenchman; a first view of England from the seat of a DC-10; seeing notes of music dance with DNA helices over a Florida lake while listening to frog songs sung far, far away; moving to Mexico alone with two suitcases …

… getting married yet again.

Best to enjoy the calm, an uncommon sensation decades ago.

I never amounted to much, as we Southerners say, but that goes for most people. Most of us simply breathe and live. With luck, we do minor damage and some good. The most the majority of us can hope for is that we made some small difference, sometimes in the life of only one other person.

“If I can stop just one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.”

Emily Dickinson wrote that, and I believe it. The flip side is that you do not break hearts. Twice divorced, I fear I have been remiss in that.


I committed one major error. I drank too much. It went on for 25 years, from age 26 to 51. I was never a raving drunk. I never spent a night in jail. I never lost a job. I was a low-level boozer, blotting things — mostly myself — out.

I quit one sunset evening in March of 1996. I was sitting alone in the outdoor patio of a taco restaurant in Houston, Texas. It was a conscious decision.

I remember marveling at my clear-headedness. It was easy, and life made a 180-degree flip overnight. Things have been great ever since.

So I was born twice. Once in 1944 and again in 1996, so I’m not really 70 years old. I am 18, and my child bride is not really my third wife but my first. I’m just getting started.

“Death should take me while I am in the mood.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

* * * *

* Photo by Jennifer Rose.

The old leaf

A LEAF fell on my head, and it was very old — in leaf years.

I took it out of my hair and gave it a good look. It reminded me of me.

leafIt was, as am I, in one piece, intact. Old leaves often are not intact, so that was a good sign.

A sign of survival.

Its face was battered, though mine is not so much, certainly not like Charles Bukowski’s.

But still, it reminded me of me. It was skinny and damaged, folded over in some parts. Though I am not folded over, I am skinny. Perhaps damaged. It had fallen off its tree. I too have fallen off my tree, so perhaps that was the principal connection, why it reminded me of me. It felt like a brother, so I brought it home.

That’s it in the photo, the actual leaf. I posed it, and snapped a shot. A bad shot but better than nothing. I gave it a look appropriate for its generation, although my leaf was not born during World War II, as I was.

Never in my life have I felt brotherhood with a leaf.

End of summer

And so we end another summer, my 14th here on the mountaintop.

This one was notable for two things: One, the peach tree dropped scant fruit to rot on the grass. Rare. Two, the yard has become a better man than I. It is beyond my ability to control except in some small fashion.

ArchwayAnd I accept this change. The lawn gets cut, though I no longer do it, and the edges get trimmed, which I do, but with electricity instead of gasoline.

I spend far less time on the stone yard patio, beneath the big green umbrella.

And I almost never lie in the hammock, which still sways in the breeze on the upstairs terraza, abandoned save for the occasional traveling bird.

One’s habits change with no conscious decision. Just happens.

My sister, three years older, once told me that she started to notice age between 65 and 70. At 69 now, I see her point.

The rain this summer has been pretty typical, which is to say daily. Something clicked, however, with a few yard residents. The bougainvillea facing the sex hotel has climbed over the high wall with an attitude.

The nopal cactus soars toward the clouds, far over my head, making me wonder if one day it may decide to break at its soft base and slay me with a thousand spikes as I innocently wander by.

The three tall stands of banana have made their zones their own. Just stay out, they seem to say. And I obey.

I feel many things slowing down within me, and I wonder how many more summers I will look through this window at the blue-green mountains and the clouds that sit atop them and flow through their valleys.