Senior Scene: ‘Old man projects’ can help keep us young


John McPhee recently contributed an article to the New Yorker that described a road trip through Spain. Like many road trip stories, it was also an analog of his life.

In one of his reminiscences, McPhee recalled that early in his career he had a chance to have lunch with Thornton Wilder. Wilder confided that he was cataloging the plays of Lope de Vega. The latter wrote about 1,800 plays of which 431 are extant. McPhee wondered, aloud, why a seasoned and accomplished author would do that, much to his elder companion’s amazement and consternation.

As he grew older and contemplated that question, McPhee came to realize that it was a goal that would ultimately extend life and, therefore, was meant never to end. In McPhee’s words, “It beat dying.” At lunch that day, McPhee mentally computed that Wilder’s project would take at least 12 years. Wilder continued to live on for 12 years after that lunch. John McPhee calls such undertakings “old man projects” and identifies similar experiences of other people including himself.

This series of columns is my old man project. I have compiled a list of entertaining memories, nuggets of wisdom and indispensable advice and it is growing. So, it is my sad duty to inform you that I will be here forever.

One man I knew took on old man projects after he retired. He was born shortly after Kittyhawk. So, if you accept the idea that history begins on the day you are born, heavier than air flight and the Tin Lizzy were always there. Before his fifth birthday, he experienced a series of incidents that resulted in the loss of his left leg. Like most people at that time he grew up on a farm. And like most people in any era, his family assumed the social order would not change any time soon. Farming was not an ideal occupation for “a cripple” as his family referred to him. But he did well in school and was particularly proficient at mathematics, so his mother saw to it that, unlike his siblings, he completed high school.

Thus, clutching his newly minted diploma, he ventured the 50-odd miles to St. Louis, Missouri, where he became a bookkeeper for a vendor on Produce Row. His work product was valued enough that his employment was not interrupted by the Great Depression. He attended night classes in accounting at Washington University and at some point during World War II sat successfully for his credentials as a Certified Public Accountant. His Missouri certificate was number 844. His CPA qualified him to move up to a big eight accounting firm, Haskins and Sells.

With the war came fuel rationing, so he gave his 10-year-old Chevy to a nephew and began taking the bus to work. A few years later, the Truman administration contracted Haskins and Sells to audit General Douglas McArthur’s books. Thus he and a handful of his colleagues were off to Tokyo. From their base he traveled around the country and compiled a photo travelogue of his experiences.That gig lasted only a few weeks because it was cut short when President Truman dismissed McArthur. Another decade went by, and he went to work for the Government Accounting Office. At about that time he went back to school and got his degree.

But he didn’t stop there.

Although retirement was approaching, he went on to get his MBA. But I promised you old man projects. After he retired he traversed the Pan-American highway from its northernmost point to the Mexican border with side trips to visit family along the way. Then he moved back to Illinois and went to work as a bookkeeper for a food bank sponsored by a group of nuns. He planted a garden every year that kept his family and half the people in his church supplied with fresh produce (Who says a one-legged man can’t farm?). He continued to work for the nuns, keeping his oversized garden going into his 80s and only stopped when a neurological disorder immobilized him.

Having come into the world at the dawn of the age of human flight, he lived to see innovations like television, penicillin, atomic energy, the computer, man on the Moon, the personal computer and the fledgling World Wide Web. That was my Dad.

Edmond Overbey lives in Oneonta.

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