Image for Flying in the Face of Old Age (10): Old Wilbur

CHAPTER 10

Cast me not off in my time of old age; forsake me not when my strength fails.

Psalms 71:9

Old Wilbur

We left Old Wilbur standing at the mail box; his huge hulk hunkered.  He was weeping because he seemed to know that he and his dog would not see us again.  He had carried Walda to his pick up and laid her in a box used for transporting her equally large hulk.  Walda’s head rested on the edge of her bean bag, tail thumping knowingly.  A magical bond had developed in less than twenty-four hours.  It happens in travel sometimes.  It was to happen in Saskatchewan, Canada on our next bike trip.  We had never bonded with someone else’s dog before.  The night before was one of those seamless evenings that happen when all enchanted loops are opened.  There was a near-full moon which glided through the dense palm trees and Old Man Saltie was in full bull roar down at the billabong, mocking three cowardly hunters.  The pigs which survived the hunt were making their surreal screeches as they dashed in and out of the sugar cane fields.  Wilbur brought out a bottle of Penfold’s Grange…the premium red wine of Australia.  “Premier Belchie gave me a case of this when I retired.  Got seven bottles left.”  Old Wilbur’s endless stories of politics and politicians of days gone by were filled with glee and mirth.  He loved telling tales about the great and mighty, especially when they revealed they were neither. 

Refreshed and empowered by Old Wilbur we mounted our bikes knowing we had been altered for life.  We did not look back.  I hummed my cycle hymn, “I hear the call of the road today, I must be up and away, away…”  Suddenly, everything about the trip was right.  Even Old Saltie and the twenty foot Taipan became romanticized.  The next six hundred kilometres were almost luminous events as the weather was perfect, we found good motels and our bodies were young again…and there were no crocodiles or hoons or nasty cops.  But then, there was no Wilbur either.  Once more I mouthed Stephenson’s poem:


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig me a grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This is the verse you gave to me
‘Here he lies where he longed to be;
Here is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.


The poem became a mantra and at times made the hard bike slogging a bit easier.  One day we will go back to Wilbur’s grave.  He showed us where he wanted to be buried, right in the centre of the pet grave yard.

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Dear Rockie,

It was good to get your last letter about being accepted for your Master’s degree.  Congratulations.  I have a theory…another one: when an educational system accepts you it means you already have the degree; now all you have to do is the work.  Systems do not like to reject and frequently they do not have the mechanisms for rejection.  Witness the many teachers that should have been turfed out decades ago but are still doing their angry damage to students.  In fact, almost all systems are deficient in getting rid of low productivity workers…be it education or factory.

Glad you have switched over to Sociology.  Whilst I always disliked the overblown language and turgid vocabulary of Sociology it was my favourite discipline to teach…especially the lowest 101 level.  At that stage young people are open to new ideas and it was pleasurable to watch new minds explode with innovative information.  I especially remember teaching Americans that their over-emphasis upon patriotism was virtually the same as religious fervour and tried to explain that patriotism is a type of civil religion.  The born-agains especially disliked my ideas about that.  I explained that in the civil religion of the Americans, they have their hymns such as the National Anthem, Battle Hymn of the Republic and God Bless America.  They have their communion food: hot dogs and hamburgers; their confirmations rites: graduating from high school and even their own Bible: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  For their saints they have Washington, Lincoln and perhaps the first man on the moon: Neil Armstrong.  Australians are not much different except their ‘religious’ patriotism is only about one tenth of the Americans’ intensity.  Aussies also have for their communion: Vegemite or meat pies.  For Their hymns they have Waltzing Matilda and not that awful “Advance…” For their saints they have a few Diggers from Gallipoli or Slim Dusty singing “The Pub with no Beer”.  Not sure what the Australian bible is; perhaps it has become Facebook.  Confirmation rites now include a drinking bash at the beach upon leaving high school.  As you can see, Sociology is a great tool for being inventive.  Hunker down on the dreadful vocabulary and learn it.

It is also most interesting that you anticipate continuing your work on the ageing process and attendant old age problems.  I sure can help you there.  Get your topic down first before you shoot off into unrelated ideas.  If your supervisor is any good he/she will help there.  Grandma and I are wonderful examples of ageing problems.  We have most of them and the list gets longer each week.  Most of our friends are approximately the same ages…from 65-85.  Because we belong to so many environmental and political groups we get plenty of stories, some of which we will relate.  The museums and adult education programmes are filled with information about us oldies.  Not a week goes by when there is not some programme on TV about dreadful ageing.  I especially dislike the programmes about the faithful couple of many decades where one gets dementia and the other has to put him/her into a home.  I now omit all cartoons and jokes about old age that are sent to me via the internet…which are about ten a week.  Hey, there could be your thesis, a study of cartoons, movies and articles about the ageing process. 

What irritates the bejabbers out of me is how we oldies have become the pariah for government today.  (Just looked up ‘bejabbers’ and surprisingly it means, ‘by Jesus’.)  Politicians are really saying that we oldies take too many resources, cost too much, take up too much hospital space, overuse ambulance services, contribute too little and live too long and living even longer.  I anticipate that this letter will not be an easy one to either write or read but, with the above as a prologue, and I will try to make it humorous where I can, here goes:

I have hinted to you that becoming isolated is a chronic dilemma when you get older.  By isolated I mean, when you find yourself on your own internal strength and have to use your own coping mechanisms because there is no one there to help.  Happily, for people like me and Joan, we are wonderfully compatible.  I like to say that on my own I am about seventy-five percent whole and with Joan I am about three and one half.

This danger of isolation starts early.  Some people, especially mothers approximately 45-50 years old, develop a separation problem when the children leave home.  I never thought much of the so-called ‘empty nest syndrome’; thought it was more of a journalist’s device.  However, upon Margaret leaving home it gave us a whole new freedom we had not known for almost 25 years.  We did, however, for a brief moment, develop the ‘empty slippers syndrome’.  That happened when your Auntie Margaret left home to fly overseas to university.  She was the last one out the family door.  All had left.  We were about to be alone.  She was getting late so had to rush out of her bedroom to get her flight.  When we came back home there were her slippers in the middle of the hallway, just as she had stepped out of them.  We both wept and the slippers were not moved for about two weeks.  But we got over it…quickly.

Finding ourselves blessedly by ourselves and without the constraints of children demanding real and/or fantasized needs daily… sometimes hourly, we began to travel further than the local high school, read more than the morning newspaper headlines and go out to more than dreadful school fairs and appalling three act plays.  It was a wonderful relief!  People frequently have asked, “What was the best part of raising a large family?”  Without hesitation, I have always answered, “The rear end of the last one going out the door having just given me the house keys, car keys and the keys to our freedom.”  I have always thought that people who say that they missed their children dreadfully and wanted them back home were either lying, misguided or ignorant; probably all three.  For us there was never more than a fleeting feeling of isolation when we found the house so-called ‘empty’.  Personally, I like having full access to my wardrobe, the family car and my missing tools.  It is also amazing how much longer money stays in my wallet.  Music to our ears is the question, “What do you want to do tonight, how about the theatre?”  But I digress.  Excuse my rambling but growing old is sort of like that: a green maze with no apparent goal except to find your way out.

You could say that when the children finally leave home, there is a new honeymoon period and an explosion of rediscovery.  Or you might say the exact opposite and want to murder each other…which does happen.  Once more Joan became a silly girl and sometimes…no, often, we swam in the nude or chased each other around the house with buckets of cold water.  That continued until one day I slipped and wrenched my back, bringing to dramatic close the rediscovered period of young adulthood.  As they say, “It was good while it lasted.” Now I need my wheeled walker for any stroll over a kilometre.  I bless my wheeled walker and refer to it as my ‘wheelie bin’.  There is more freedom in a wheeled walker than your last kid leaving home!

As the old hymn reads, “I look not back God knows our fruitless efforts…”  No longer did we have to plot against the children.  Raising a raft of kids, like we did, demands a sick sense of humour in order to survive.  Children learn to plot against their parents at an early age…about six months…and by the time they are six or seven they have become quite adept at deceit, cunning and outright lying.  Having been there ourselves we were usually a step or two ahead of them.  I think of the Great Sandwich Caper of high school.  The girls (much more devious than boys) discovered that my sandwiches which I lovingly made for them each morning were worth money…so they sold them to hungry students and toughed it out on Joan’s tremendous cookies, a meal in themselves.  I discovered their new business through a teacher-friend and from then on took a bite out of each sandwich before I craftily wrapped them.  Then they cut them in half and sold one half sandwiches for the same price.  Next I put a rubber band in their sandwiches and they learned to fish it out before they sold them.  My inside informer ratted again.  I cunningly struck back.  Now I cut pieces of Glad Wrap and hid it with the butter spread.  That fully solved the Great Sandwich Caper. 

The girls, being teenagers, changed clothes up to five times daily and of course tossed everything into the dirty clothes hamper.  The deviousness of old age struck!  As the house husband of the time I took their not-filthy, and not-unwashed clothes and pegged them out on the clothes line.  I waited for the school bus to arrive back home and just before the happy teen-age-angry girls arrived I squirted the hose on all their hanging and formerly ‘dirty’ clothing.  In one year I do not believe I had to wash their jeans more than once.  That was another win chalked up to old age and cunning.

Happily, the boys, as they moved into the sullen no-talk teen years, had enough sense to disappear and every one of them became surfie bums.  This might mean a trip to the beach but at least they were gone for most of the weekends. 

But the best plot was also devised and aimed at the girls.  They were both pretty, blonde and undoubtedly sexy and popular with greasy boys who hung around the farm like…greasy teenaged boys.  They both, for some strange reason, wanted their already blonde hair to become even more startlingly flaxen.  I think it was Roberta who got the idea.  She took some of the chlorine for the swimming pool and made a paste.  Then she and Margaret put it on their heads and sat in the sun waiting for the magic of chemistry to do its glory.  Watching them perform this new beauty rite I paused and ran out on the deck of the pool.  I struck!  In fake horror I shouted, “Oh my gawd…what have you done?  You have not put a paste of chlorine on your heads have you?  If you have you will probably lose all of your hair and you will be bald for life!”  They both cried immediately.  “Yes, we have.  What shall we do?”  The cries had turned to screeches.  I had them under control…for the first time.

“Quick!…Quick! get down on the ground and stand on your heads with your feet against the house.  I will get the garden hose and wash your hair from the poisons seeping into your scalp!  There may be time to save you from being bald for life.” Never before had I had such obedient children.  For the rest of the afternoon the girls were alternately on their heads with feet on the house or washing their hair yet again.  Joan and I had a glorious time squirting two compliant girls.  Joan was totally complicit in the whole proceedings as was neighbour Michael who joined in on the festivities of the afternoon.  We saved them from going bald and a few years later at a family gathering the truth came out.  I do not believe I have been forgiven yet.  But we won that one.  Old age and cunning can win a few.

Time, as they say, marches on and so does the ticking clock of life.  I think of a number of couples who could not handle the new life of an empty house and equated it with defeat and dying.  It seems that many such bored couples found another partner and started a new life.  I have always been amazed at how many of those second marriages failed.  Perhaps they should have pursued each other naked with buckets of cold water.  It certainly put a bit of jolly into our relationship. 

Oh, yes, when our kids left home we said to all of them, “You cannot come back unless you have been gored by a white rhinoceros on a regularly scheduled dirigible flight…and then you can only stay for thirty days.”  Needless to say one of our sons, James, did get gored (his girl friend dropped him) and he came home and stayed for thirty-one days and on the thirty-second….that is another story which includes the removing of a former bedroom wall with an axe and making a very large living room out of a large living room.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly is more than the name of a Clint Eastwood movie.  It is also the topic of time spent around our winter fires with a bottle or two of red as we talk about the raising of our family and times-past.  The topic comes up every time we light a fire.  But now it is just talk and we miss our kids but they don’t seem to miss us.  Of course, we don’t really care if they do not call on Mother or Father’s day.  We don’t expect them to remember our birthdays.  What can they buy for us at Christmas time?  We have everything we need.  Who celebrates Easter Sunday dinners anymore?  Why should they include us in their holiday plans?  Fair enough, we say to each other unconvincingly, we raised them to sharpen a Gordian knife with which to cut the tether.  It was at doloroso times like this I sang to Joan, usually into the second bottle of red:


The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
  In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
  Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
  And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
    What a beautiful Pussy you are,
      You are,
      You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’


A couple we have known for about twenty years do not see or hear from their children for months and years at a time.  Come to think about it, we probably know half a dozen couples with the same problem.  They all have said at one time or the other, “I guess that is what growing old is about…isolation…”  Then there is the inevitable long sigh…silence…and a change of topic.

Didn’t mean to end this letter to you in such a morbid way Rockie…but there you are, it was basically a Joycian stream of conscious thought.  I might not even re-read it.

Hugs, Grandpa Buck


I Just pickled my world famous dills.  Be sure to get some when you come next week.

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So faultless were the next six or seven days on our bikes that it is better to not write about it.  With Wilbur’s magic following us we seemed to float.  No punctures, no rain, no harsh wind…even the cooling trade wind blew softly from the north pushing us along the Bruce Highway which amazingly had developed a reasonable bitumen shoulder.  If there is a heaven for me it will be like those five or six hundred kilometres, perfect…and I was with my bride.

But, as time moves on so do the good days and the good times and the good events.  Mother’s thoughtful Swedish sense of humour was true: “Don’t worry about the future, it will get worse, just take what’s given and fight back.”

You might have nightmares about it but no cyclist foresees the accident ahead.