I recently had the pleasure of meeting an interesting fellow, a retired cop I’ll call Ollie.
Ollie is short and stout and wears his pants with the waistband pulled to just above the spot where his gun belt used to reside. In place of the leather gear, uniform, and cop do-dads is an old and well-worn brown belt used to cinch his pants tightly to his midsection. He wears white socks, and black dress shoes shined to a glossy finish.
Most of my new friend’s hair left him some time ago, with the remainder circling the lower portion of his head like a wooly, gray inflatable pool float. Three or four rebellious sprigs of delicate hair, however, clung to the top of his slick sunburned scalp much as we’d expect palm trees on a tiny deserted island would appear to passing sea birds—sprouting up willy-nilly to sway in the breezes.
Ollie’s hands are liver-spotted and and a number of his achy, arthritic joints bring about groans and moans when he stands, sits, walks, or does anything that requires a moving body part. His knees pop and creak and a few of his teeth aren’t original equipment. His eyes are weak and rheumy and their lids droop a bit. Dark bags droop beneath his eyes, hanging there like small, overripe plums.
He’s an educated man who’s well-spoken and enjoys spirited conversation and tale-telling. He’s not politically outspoken, but a bumpersticker on his well-polished car announces which direction he leans.
He has a persistent phlegmy cough and there’s an open pack of non-filtered cigarettes in his shirt pocket. He’s smoked for well over four decades and the yellow-stained flesh between the index and middle fingers of his right hand offer proof of his addiction. He says it helps him to relax, and to forget. He coughs frequently and deeply. Sounds as if his lungs are filled with hot, bubbling oil.
With our howdy-do’s and a glad-to-meet-you behind us, we sat for a while discussing current events. But Ollie tended to drift back to earlier times, the days that seemed to bring him extreme joy and peace. He doesn’t like today’s politically charged atmosphere. He misses the six-o’clock news where broadcasters like Cronkite reported things that actually occurred during the day.
I listened with great interest as Ollie talked about the good old days, when his family used rotary telephones and watched television—sets with thirteen channels on the dial but rarely picked up more than five or six, or maybe seven, and that’s if the night was clear and the roof-mounted antennae was pointed just so. If not, he told me, you’d turn the dial on “the box” and watch and listen as it clicked the antennae into a new, better-suited position. Of course, the antennae almost always went past the optimal spot so you had to “click it’ back a few degrees in the opposite direction to bring Steamboat Willy or Walt Disney into focus.
Ollie told me about earning less than three-dollars an hour, and gas prices were under fifty-cents. Hot dogs at the drug store cost a quarter, fully loaded—coleslaw, mustard, and chili—and ice cream cones were ten cents per scoop. Comic books were also ten cents but rose to twelve, and when they did DC Comics posted a notice explaining to kids that the cost of everything had increased, including the price of soft drinks and those delicious hot dogs.
He reminisced about the days when JFK, MLK, John Lennon, and Elvis died. Jimi and Janis, too. He took me back to Sammy, Frank, and Dean. Martin and Lewis. The Stooges. Streisand and The Supremes. Chuck Berry, The Oak Ridge Boys (to our delight, they’re still going as strong as ever), Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Manson. When FM radio stations first arrived. Buddy Rich and John Bonham. The Cowsills, The Mamas and Papas, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Beatles, The Stones, Chubby Checker, Little Richard, and BB’s Blueberry Hill. His first car, using an outhouse, the time before computers and cell phones and “White Only” waiting rooms in the doctor’s office. His stories were of times long ago.
Finally, after many minutes had passed with me not saying a single word, Ollie said, “Man, this really took me back, and I didn’t let you get a word in. Not one.”
“That’s all right, Ollie. I enjoyed listening,” I said.
Ollie stood to leave and as he did his knees popped. Then his brow creased into a deep “V.” He clinched his jaw and I heard the sound of grinding teeth. He placed a hand over his portly gut and used the other to cover his mouth, stifling a burp that inflated both cheeks. “Sorry about that,” he said. “My doctor says I have acid reflux. Can’t eat a thing without belching for the next couple of hours. I’m lactose intolerant too. So don’t get me started on what dairy does to me. I’ll just say this … be glad I had the burritos without cheese. I passed on the sour cream as well.”
He groaned and moaned and grimaced and winced when he reached for his hat, and then more of the same when he straightened his back to once again stand upright.
Ollie placed the old porkpie on his head, retrieved a scarred wooden cane he’d hooked to the table edge, and after griping a bit about his sciatica, he said, “And then there’s the gout, a past-due hip replacement, two blown knees, rheumatoid arthritis, a hernia, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, joint degeneration, and I’m allergic to gluten, pet dander, dust, pollen, strawberries, and nuts. My eyesight is in the toilet and I wear a hearing aid when I remember to do so. I’ve had several cancerous moles removed and my sugar’s through the roof. My last colonoscopy showed “something,” hopefully a scrap of peanut or popcorn, and I’m supposed to walk at least a mile each day because the old ticker’s been acting up.”
This pitiful and obviously unhealthy man, my brand new friend, took a deep breath and let it back out in the form of sad sigh accompanied by a slow side-to-side head shake. “And I can’t remember the last time when the wife and I … well, you know. The plumbing is out of order more times than not, so we stopped trying.”
He used one hand to adjust the position of his hat and the other to shake my hand. I again told him how much I enjoyed our conversation and listening to his tales of way back when.
Ollie placed a hand on my shoulder as we walked to his car. Then he stopped and turned to face me. “Someday you’ll understand, and you’ll do the same—tell the story of your own good old days. But you have a ways to go before you reach my age, my friend, so enjoy life while you can and while you’re able,” he said. His lips split into a toothy (some his and some store-bought) grin. “Yep, one day you’ll be as old as I am and you’ll experience the same troubles.”
I looked on as Ollie groaned and moaned and grunted while sliding and pushing his way into the car seat. He used both hands to lift and pull his left leg into the car. Finally, he switched on the ignition, gave the horn two quick toots, and drove away.
I smiled a smile of my own as he headed off toward the sunset. After all, I was already in elementary school the year Ollie was born. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him.
*This is a true story. The name was changed to protect the “youngster” who was ten-years-old when I was driving my very own car and working a steady job after school and on weekends. My job paid $1.68 per hour and the price of a gallon of gas was $.35. By the way, while Ollie was busy watching Saturday morning cartoons on TV, my after school job back then included installing rooftop TV antennas and those “clicking” boxes used to change their positions.
Things are a bit different today, for me. Because I’m quickly transforming into my own form of Ollie. This became quite apparent last week as I began preparations for our move from California. Everything is heavier than it once was. The floor is at least six inches further away than it used to be and it hurts body parts when I attempt to retrieve things from it. Writing on boxes has somehow smeared and have become blurry. And doggone it, yesterday I hit my wrist with a hammer while repairing part of a fence. The target moved. I swear it did.
Today, I’ll tackle more projects, but as a version of Ollie, not as the Lee I once was. Sigh …