The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair. — Proverbs 20:29, English Standard Version
60 is the new 40. — an anonymous, delusional Baby Boomer
Tomorrow I will turn sixty, and I’m not particularly thrilled about it. You can concoct a convincing enough denial of the realities of aging when you turn 40 or even 50 (at least until one of your smiling children reminds you that 50 is a half century!), but there’s just no way around the fact that 60 is old. Your humble correspondent has become ancient, hoary, doddering, decrepit, a member of the geriatric set.
At 60, one has reached the age where the only young women to give you a second look turn out to be grad students in paleontology. You’ve reached the age where well-meaning friends describe you as spry, a word only ever heard in the Senior Olympics.
Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England just a couple of weeks before I was born, and just a few weeks later, as mom and dad were getting the hang of late night diaper changes, Humphrey Bogart won an Academy Award for African Queen. Harry Truman was in his final year as President of the US, and the wounds of World War 2 were still tender and painful.
Technology was beginning to show its promise. TV had 3 channels to choose from! My grandfather and I would often watch Gunsmoke on his small black and white set in the evenings — he smoked a pipe as we watched, and I grew up loving the smell of pipe tobacco. Radios had shrunk from tabletop to pocket size thanks to the invention of the transistor and ingenious Japanese post-war manufacturing.
Cinema was the big family entertainment option, and the motion picture industry was booming. If an interesting new film came to the local movie house, you went to see it right away because it would be replaced in two weeks by something even newer, and once it was gone, it was gone for good. No DVDs, no VCRs.
Most homes had one, black telephone, rented from the phone company. You could dial O for the operator and talk to a cheerful human being who would tell you the exact time of day if you needed to set your clock. Phone numbers all had named exchanges, like TErrace-8, GRanite-4, or as in the title of the famous Glenn Miller song, PEnnsylvania 6-5000.
In elementary school we didn’t learn about stranger danger, we learned to duck and cover in the event of a nuclear attack. Everyone was worried that the Russians would fire their missiles at America, so the federal government printed helpful plans for building your very own fallout shelter in the basement; I had several neighbors who built them and stocked them with food, just in case.
I collected baseball cards from packs of Topps bubblegum and traded them with friends. The ones we didn’t need we clipped against the spokes of our bikes to make them sound like motorcycles. I was giddy about outer space and would eagerly read every word of Life magazine’s behind-the-scenes coverage of the space program. The first launches were broadcast live on all three networks.
My grandparents never owned a car. My grandmother called them “machines,” as in “I don’t trust those machines.” In Baltimore at that time you could get where you wanted to go on the “street car,” an electric trolley that rumbled on rails down the city streets. I remember trying to sit in the back one time and being told that the front was for whites, the back for coloreds.
Our extended family all lived nearby, so we paid frequent visits to uncles and aunts, cousins and other relatives. Holidays meant huge gatherings of people around a banquet of homemade food. My aunt would often play the tinny, upright piano and we would all sing along with whatever was appropriate to the season. The men would tell funny stories on each other while we kids tried to remain respectfully quiet in the background.
My Uncle Ted was an amateur Civil War historian. Whenever we visited his home, he would take me downstairs where he had glass display cases filled with guns, swords, Minié balls, uniforms, letters, hundreds of objects that he had collected and carefully labeled. He could tell you the moment by moment troop movements of any of the North-South engagements and exactly where things had gone right or wrong. From Uncle Ted I got my love of history.
My Uncle Bill had a farm where he taught me to collect eggs in the hen house, to pick blackberries, to gather honey, and to drive a tractor. From Uncle Bill I learned the deep satisfaction that comes from working hard and seeing your labors bear fruit.
My Uncle Pete was a telephone company electrician who loved tinkering with model railroads. I’ve written about him here. Pete supplied me with boxes of switches, relays, rectifiers and transformers so that I could create my own running train layouts. He and I would sketch out track and control designs together, and when he visited he always wanted to see my latest projects. From Uncle Pete I developed a fascination with electronic and mechanical systems, which has been the basis of my career as a computer tech.
As families have moved farther and farther apart, our children have fewer opportunities to build those sorts of bonds with their relatives. I spent a lot of time with older adults growing up, and I quickly learned that they were full of fascinating stories and remarkable information about the world, things they were only too happy to share if I merely asked the right questions.
When Proverbs says “the splendor of old men is their grey hair,” it’s referring to the wisdom of a long life lived well and the experiences gained in that life. Not all of us old folks are necessarily wise, of course, but we have survived, we have come from a different time in history, we have witnessed and experienced things that have given us unique perspectives about human nature, and the nature of God and his creation. We have disconnected the generations, and in doing so we have robbed both young and old of the benefits of learning from each other. That’s too bad.
There is a certain psychic shock that comes from turning sixty. Though I have kept my boyish charm and good looks, my hair is greying, I don’t see as well as I used to, and I don’t have the stamina that I once did. But to tell you the truth, deep inside I don’t feel much different than I did when I was 20. I still find God’s creation fascinating and beautiful, I still find the world to be full of delightful surprises, and I still see life as a precious and wonderful gift, an opportunity to enjoy God’s blessings and to discover more about this God who created me, loves me, and has redeemed me through his son, Jesus.
Tomorrow I’m turning 60, and I feel blessed.
Photo credit: Rembrandt van Rijn self-portrait, 1660, at the age of 54.