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I am fifty years of age, and I am old. Other people who are fifty years old say they are middle-aged and if you dispute them, nothing on earth makes them madder. They are middle-aged and they will continue being middle-aged up to seventy or beyond. They will talk about "getting old" but they will never say they have arrived at oldness unless, perhaps, they are ninety or beyond.

When I was a young reporter I worked on a newspaper whose publisher was a tyrant in his seventies. The first mistake I made on his paper was to write a story about an "elderly" derelict of seventy-three being found dead in an alley. A copyreader caught it and expunged the word "elderly" and explained that it would have cost me my job if it had got into the paper. The old man, our publisher, didn't permit the word's use on anybody this side of a hundred.

Most well-known "middle-aged" people of sixty-five or seventy pretend that growing old is a pleasant and beautiful process. They would have you believe that great age is so wonderful that all the years leading up to it are a waste of time. They lie in their store-bought teeth. I have never known but three people to be honest about this thing. Ben Hecht was asked on a television interview how he felt about growing old. "It's horrible," he said, "downright horrible." The interviewer told Mr Hecht that other people in their sixties and seventies and even eighties, when asked the same question, usually said that the later years were the best. Mr Hecht said they are all liars and whistlers in the dark, that the fear of death is in them and they lie in bed at night, in the dark, and shudder. There was a professor in England who wrote a newspaper column and who said much the same thing in his column, and "middle-aged" people all over the kingdom wrote letters of protest, denouncing him as if he had written bitterly about birds. And my own mother, at the end of a long and turbulent life, confided in me that she had undergone many tribulations but that the worst thing of all was growing old.

So I confess that I am, at age fifty, growing old. If we accept seventy as the allotted span, and if we divide life into youth and middle age and old age, then we divide seventy by three and arrive at a fraction over twenty-three. Just to give everybody a break, let's make it an even twenty-four. So, we are young up to the age of twenty-four, at which point middle age sets in. Middle age lasts until we are forty-eight. Anything after that is old and that's where I am.

H. Allen Smith, Waikiki Beachnik
Copyright © 1956, 1960 by H. Allen Smith. All rights reserved.

Posted 15 June 1997

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