Today, I got on a ski lift with a man who turned out to be a World War II fighter pilot. I couldn’t believe my ears. Three elderly gents had lined up with me to take a quad chair up the mountain, my only time with company on the lifts all day. We did the usual howdy-do, determining that we were "all from around here" -- translation: No Texans, Arizonans or other "ferners," when the three began quizzing the man farthest from me.
first, I thought he surely must have fought in Korea. But he kept
going on about being stationed in China and how the Japanese had
given them a hard time. Then, listening ever more, I discovered
that he was 78 years old, and had been married 54 years!
Myself, I’m a mere four decades old; I’ve been with the
same guy 12 years. I’d stayed up till 11p.m. the night
before, and gotten up at 5:30 the next morning, to grade a mound of
homework so that I might ski. Not only was it Monday, but new snow
graced the slopes and the sky was our usual
After my usual rusty first run or two, I warmed up and met the
mountain. Turns out, many of those also meeting the mountain that
day were older folks.
I began to admire them. How can you
not admire a 78-year-old fighter pilot who "only crashed once" in
his airplane, and who refers to his wife as "a real pretty skier"?
Or his amiable companions, none of them a day younger than, say,
65, whose hats were off to him? 78.
My uncle, who also
caught the tail end of World War II, and who was also 78, died just
last week. I was struck by the contrast of one man’s perfect
health and the other’s frailty in the face of cancer. I loved
my uncle greatly; he’d look someone in the eye and tell them
he was a card-carrying member of the ACLU whether they liked it or
not, and he’s the only one of my parents’ generation
who ever told my meddling, born-again grandmother to mind her own
business. He worked as a machinist all his life, greased his hair
Pat Riley style, and raised three smart kids. So perhaps old
people, and thoughts about how to grow old with integrity and
abandon, were on my mind today already.
You begin to
think about these things at 40.
At lunch, I spied a
foursome -- two men and two women. They couldn’t have been a
day younger than 75. What were they eating? Not the usual
hamburgers and fries, but carrots! And apples! Homemade sandwiches
spread out between them. Whose fanny pack did those morsels rest in
all morning? The same foresight that must have baked post-war cakes
was at work providing healthy food three-fourths of the way up a
I looked at the women. Did they have arthritis?
Back pain? How had this group escaped so much that cripples others
their age? But they were hardly alone.
I remember hiking
last autumn -- another mad dash to play hooky from grades, office
hours, students, motherhood, writing. There along the aspen-lined
trail, I saw almost no one save retired people.
result of these experiences, I find I’m no longer as prone to
resent the wealth that has allowed retirees to buy property here,
and thus perhaps contribute to cost-of-living increases. Instead, I
see that they are much like the rest of us; they’ve come to
this place at the cusp of both the Rockies and the high desert of
the Colorado Plateau, because they need its mountains and rivers
and canyons. Because life for them means to risk skiing at 78; to
break bread and carrots at 11,000 feet.
What if one of
them falls? Has a heart attack? "So?" I imagine them answering me,
with stares. "You name a better way to go."
The rest of
the day I caught sightings of the fighter pilot and his friends.
They were usually ahead of me. While I expected release and
wonderment from the skiing, I didn’t expect this other gift,
these role models for aging. Hats off, a final hats off, then, to
my straight-shooting uncle, to skiing fighter pilots, to the Carrot
Ladies. May I run into you again.