When do you become old? More specifically, when does a young boy become an old man? When you are thirteen, for example, you are a teenager, hence the "teen" in thirteen. You are still a boy. If a male is a boy at 13, what is he at 23?
When I was 23, I was a newly minted Air Force pilot, second lieutenant. I grew my first and last mustache as part of a pilot training solidarity ploy. The wing commander noticed our graduating flight of 22 student pilots had 5 with mustaches and notified us that anyone with a mustache would not have their pictures published in the base newspaper with the rest of the class upon graduation. We all grew mustaches in protest. What could he do? A 23-year old second lieutenant growing his first mustache can hardly be an old man. What about at age 33?
When I was 33, I was an instructor pilot flying an Air Force Boeing 747. On November 22nd, 1989, I was sitting in the right seat, with little to do but listen to the rest of the cockpit crew drone on about what was the topic of the day. The pilot in the left seat was a veritable fossil, easily in his forties with a head full of gray hair and a paunch that bespoke of his advanced years. The flight engineer was a bit younger, I knew, probably around my age I thought. The pilot noted that it was the anniversary of the day Kennedy died.
"Edward Kennedy isn't dead," the engineer asked.
"No," the pilot said, "John Kennedy."
"Who is that?" the engineer asked.
The pilot explained that the president was shot this day back in 1963. The engineer said he wasn't even alive that day and he produced his I.D. card to prove it.
"The thing you got to understand," the pilot said, "is that old guys like us all know where we were the day Kennedy was shot."
"Old guys like us." The words hung over me like a dark cloud for days. I am over it now, but that's how I know the exact day I became an old man: November 22nd, 1989.
When I was 43 I retired from the United States Air Force after 20 years of service. I thought I was simply turning the page from one phase of my life to the next. But while waiting to sign paperwork ceding my security clearances a clerk behind the desk asked for an officer to help her process a retiree. Retiree? That is the day I became a very old man.
When I was 53 I reached another milestone. A few years earlier my wife decided she was tired of being an accountant and decided she would rather be a registered nurse and went back to school. She often hosted study sessions with her classmates, all twenty or thirty years her junior. (And mine, of course.) Much of nursing school is spent in labs that were nothing more than parts of hospitals using these nurses in training as cheap labor. I was getting used to seeing her in colorful "scrubs" which would portend the years to come as a nurse.
Their last study session was more about getting ready for graduation than the board exams they all faced. The six of them huddled around the kitchen table, as usual, and I busied myself in the kitchen, trying to be quiet.
"Did you see the hats that go with our white uniforms?" one asked.
"White uniforms?" I thought but somehow asked loud enough for all to hear.
The looks on the twenty-somethings said it all. They smiled at me as one would a grandparent who had just said something funny, endearing, and cute all at the same time. Their looks all said, "the old man still has a flame in his heart for his high school sweetheart."
I was 53 when I became a dirty old man.
As I write this I am 58 years old. In another five years I will graduate to the next step of old man-hood. I wonder what that will be.
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