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.
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
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* Photo by Jennifer Rose.