This year, I’ll be 80 years old. Just thinking of the number makes me feel ancient. When I was child, people of that age were few and far between. Those who were around were, for the most part, invalids or totally dysfunctional. It was rare to find 80 year olds who were still actively participating in the world. Today, I still get up with a bounce and look forward to what will take place. I’m fortunate. I have a job I absolutely adore. One that provides me with a sense of ego worthwhileness, a feeling that I’m doing something of worth, and an income. Who could ask for anything more? But, I’m not alone. There are many other octogenarians who are also living life to its fullest and you can be a part of that group.
To help you in that endeavor, I’d like to share a lesson I learned in my late teens that has stayed with me, at some level of awareness, every day of my life. I was in the Air Force, stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, which at that time was a relatively primitive country town. Duty there was considered a hardship. Therefore, you only had to stay for 18 months. In fact, there was a sign across the entrance to the base that read, “Drive carefully, the man you injure might be your replacement.” But, unlike most individuals there, I enjoyed Alaska and even extended an extra six months so I could get a resident hunting and fishing license. However, that wasn’t the case for my bunkmate, Smitty. He and I were both staff sergeants. We worked in different areas on the base and couldn’t have differed more as individuals. He was quiet, I was loud. He was slow and steady, I was hyperactive and unpredictable. He was extremely bright and had a college degree, I was a ninth grade dropout whose high school diploma was obtained on the basis of a GED. Smitty was from the west coast, I was from the east. But, despite our differences, Smitty and I were close. We seemed to balance each other out. There was one area, however, where Smitty wouldn’t budge, although I repeatedly attempted to get him to venture out, to explore that magnificent country, to appreciate the aurora borealis at night, and to experience the opportunity to watch nature and the wildlife that abounded around the base, he refused. Instead, when not at work, Smitty was always in our room, reading a book and filling out forms for entrance to a Masters Degree program at the University of Southern California.
There was one ritual Smitty insisted I be a spectator to every morning. He’d open his locker and look at the oversized calendar he had hanging inside the door. Then, with almost a theatrical flourish, he would take a Marks-A-Lot and draw a line through the day. You see, Smitty’s only concern about Alaska was leaving the place. His date of return was January 14, 1951. I recall it, because just prior to Thanksgiving of 1950, Smitty received a letter from the commander of the base that stated, “All individuals scheduled to depart Alaska prior to January 15, 1951 will be permitted to leave 30 days early, in order to celebrate the holidays at home.” Smitty was ecstatic. After receiving the letter, he ushered me to his locker, opened the door and systematically drew a line through every day following December 14. I think he packed almost two to three weeks early, in order to be prepared to leave as soon as he was notified when the plane was scheduled to depart. I, of course, went with him to the military airport, where he and other servicemen were being flown out. Several days later, I discovered that Smitty never made it back to the United States. The military aircraft he was on crashed 90 miles north of Seattle while preparing for landing. The irony is that Smitty had stopped living a year and a half earlier. From the day he arrived in Alaska, he counted the minutes, hours, days until he could leave.
Many of you do the same thing with your lives. Perhaps that’s because you never knew Smitty, else you would have learned the lesson that you should never hang on to the past, disregard the present, or look solely to the future. The key to life is to recognize that you should live every day to its fullest. That you should take time to appreciate everything, no matter how small, that’s available to you. Too many times as you grow older, you start to focus on those individuals you had to let go of, who are deceased, and as a result, you become depressed with the fact that, “they were younger than me, or the same age. Therefore, there’s little time left for me.” That may be so, because none of us are here forever. But, by golly, as long as you’re here, why not take advantage of it? Why not appreciate the fact that it’s a new season, a new year, with new challenges and new adventures that are still available for you to partake of? Consequently, you need to live life well and continue to have expectations for the future.
It reminds me of a story I’ve heard about an elderly patient who went to a doctor because he had terrible pains in his leg. He told the doctor all about his symptoms, and said he could still walk, but needed to take pain medication to alleviate the aches he felt. The doctor took X-rays and blood tests. Later, he came back and said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your leg, structurally. Everything seems fine. All the other tests I gave you came out negative. You have to realize that, at 84, you’ve put a lot of miles on that leg. It’s worn out. What more can you expect?”
“Well, doctor, I’ve walked as many miles on the other leg and what I expect is for this leg to feel as good as the other one.”
I tell you this story, one, because it brings a smile to my face even as I tell it and, two, because I’d like to end this article with the notion that you need to have positive expectations. Don’t give up life. A lot of the things going on in your body stem more from your head than you realize. If you can put your head, i.e., your emotions and thoughts, in the right place, the body will follow. Lastly, I’d have you realize that the average human heart beats 100,000 times a day. It’s your job to make those beats count. Do it!