Sunrise and old men at McDonalds

by Dave Williams

Sunrise at McDonalds. Burkburnett, Texas.

You see them in every city and country village. As sure as the birdsong of morning sunrise brings old men to McDonalds restaurants all across America.

Before he passed away my dad was one of them. Most mornings he’d get on his bicycle at daybreak or hop into his old truck if the weather was bad and travel about a quarter mile to the nearest McDonalds. His buddies arrived about the same time and together they would grab a bite and drink coffee while solving the world’s problems for an hour or two.

That’s what Dad told me, “We drink coffee and solve the world’s problems.”

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
— Mark Twain

If you know me at all you know I have a deep respect and love for old people. I’ve been that way since I was a child and asked my grandparents to tell me about their lives when they were young. Most of the time I got a quick smile and a dismissive comment like, “Oh, that was a long time ago. It don’t mean anything now. Go play.” Occasionally I’d get just a tidbit of information like, “We didn’t have TV” or “We didn’t have money for toys”. That’s not what I was asking but I got the idea they didn’t want to talk about it so I left the room to play.

I’ve written often about how old  people are overlooked and disrespected these days but as I get older myself, a month away from 67 as I write this, I’m beginning to understand there’s more to it. Sometimes old people just seem to lose the need or desire to be heard. I shouldn’t assume their silence is a sorrowful response to being ignored. Sometimes they’re just satisfied to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Solving the world’s problems.

A couple of days ago at work a colleague in her late thirties said something to me about how America has changed for the worse since her childhood. She’s entering the age of nostalgia, I guess. I was about to just agree but instead I told her, “Maybe, but I’m not so sure things were all that great 60 years ago when I was a kid. They were probably bad in different ways. Things are a mess now, that’s for sure, but I have faith in my grandsons. They’ll fix the problems we’re handing to them while they create new ones.”

My colleague gave me a look I gratefully accepted as a sign of respect. So, I added:

“The nice thing about being my age is I don’t think these are my problems anymore. I did what I could to make the world better. I tried to help. Now I’m retiring from all of that.”

She smiled and said, “Must be nice.”

“It is,” I assured her. “You’ll get there but not yet. If you retire from all that stuff now it’s just giving up.”

This is another reason people don’t talk to old men, except other old men.

We get philosophical.

Swamp cooler days

It’s raining today in North Texas. I love rain and dark, cloudy days.

Me slurping from our garden hose on a hot day.

Most people I know worship the sun. They seem to like summer best of all and the hotter it gets the better. I don’t get it. Summer was great when I was a kid, impervious to sweat and grime, running barefoot through neighborhood lawn sprinklers and slurping from any old hose lying around because that’s what they were for.

We didn’t have air conditioning when I was a kid. We had a swamp cooler on the roof that blew semi-cool, very humid air directly into the middle of the hallway between the living room and kitchen in our house. I used to lie my bare tummy on chilly asbestos tiles right under the swamp cooler, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts fashioned by my mother’s scissors applied to an old set of blue jeans.

A new picture of an old wooden clothes rack like the one we had in the hallway.

I stayed there for hours on the hall floor with a stack of Dennis the Menace and Sad Sack comic books for entertainment.

Sometimes I took the pillow from my bed and put it on the floor next to my comic books. That was “the life of Riley”, as we called it in those days.

(I still don’t know why.)

Mom had to step over me to hang wet laundry on the clothes rack She didn’t mind. Sometimes she gave me my lunch there, peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder white bread. I had to eat  it fast so it didn’t dry out from the wind.

Me with my sister, Linda, and our faithful collie, Rusty.

I wish I had pictures of all these things: me, my pillow, PBJ and comics. Sometimes my collie, Rusty, would lie down with me for a couple of minutes. He liked the cool floor but I don’t think he cared for the overhead wind.

For the past fifty or more years I’ve been able to enjoy and expect indoor air conditioning.

Now in my mid-sixties I don’t need to strip down to my shorts and lie on the floor under a swamp cooler.

That’s progress.

I still like summer for its memories of all-day baseball, ice cream trucks, slip ‘n slides and hot days that wouldn’t end until bed time. I loved childhood.

These days I prefer old man comforts, winter and the temperate yet crazy weather days of spring and fall in Texas.

Dark skies and rain feel cozy to me. They call people like me pluviophiles.

I’m glad they have a name for it. I just thought I was weird.

Photographic Treasure

This is the only picture I have of my entire family together. (I’m not in it because I was holding the camera.)

I’d like to say my family always looked this happy but that wouldn’t be true. It wouldn’t be true of any family. Old photos allow us to keep and embellish the good times when everyone was smiling because we were all really happy together, at least in that moment.

My old pictures invoke a nice warm feeling of a time when life was less complicated and when my family was together for everything including mealtimes at the table, visits with our relatives and family vacations.

This was our family vacation in McCann, Northern California, along the Eel River in August of 1964. We were there for a week which included my 13th birthday. My parents gave me a stamp collecting album and a wonderful variety pack of international postage stamps to study, sort and paste.

I also got a new, official National League baseball which my dad and I tossed back and forth for hours that week right in the middle of the dirt road outside our cabin’s front door.

McCann  was already a ghost town when we were there.

It was smack dab in the middle of no place, Humboldt County. It had been a stage coach station in 1881 and a post office soon after. It tried to be a town but stumbled and failed in the thirties and forties. By the time we got there in ’64 there were no living businesses, just the dirty old windows of store fronts that had been abandoned decades earlier.

As I remember it we were there for an entire week without seeing another soul. The only traffic we saw and heard were the Northwestern Pacific freight trains that rumbled and shrieked just a few feet past our cabin in the middle of each night. When that happened we all woke up and giggled in the dark, not just us kids, our parents too.

We had no TV in that cabin and couldn’t even get a radio signal. I know because I tried. Instead we just played together. We hiked down a steep river bank to get to the water’s edge. I held my little brother’s hand as we waded into the Eel. I held onto the blowup raft with my little sister aboard and grinning from ear to ear.

Dad and I fished with salmon eggs for bait and I saw beavers playing in the water not far from the lodge they had built from the branches of young fir and redwood trees along the shore.

My mom burned my birthday cake trying to bake it in an ancient wood burning oven in the cabin. It was edible, just toasty, and I loved it because it was mine and Mom made it for me.

On my birthday I wrote a note to the future, shoved it into an empty tin can and stuck it deep inside a hollowed chunk of a tree that was still very much alive. I imagined that the tree would grow over that hole and preserve my message. Someday, I thought, someone would cut that tree down and find my hello from the past.

Wouldn’t it be something if it was found now, in the 21st century?

I remember all of that from one picture taken 55 years ago. I probably have a lot of it wrong. I just remember it as I wish to.

This picture makes me happy.

Play ball!

Candlestick Park, San Francisco – 1960s

Today is the first day of the Major League Baseball season and as always I’m just a bit melancholy.

Throughout my life I’ve taught myself to treasure my past without clinging to it. Some people can’t let go of their “good old days”. They just seem worn out and refuse to go any farther.

They seem to quit on life before it leaves them.

I’ve worked hard to avoid what I call GOMS, Grumpy Old Man Syndrome. It’s not hard. I’m blessed. I love my life, my family and friends. I love waking up each day.

But every year there is one day, this day, that makes me feel old and frustrated because my body won’t allow me to play the game in my heart.

Baseball is the essence of eternal youth, of fluffy white clouds in March and the smell of freshly cut grass. To play the game, to run and leap and slide in the dirt using muscles that stretch and coil in perfect harmony with young reflexes, is indescribable.

Spring turns to summer and we played daily, all day, until darkness sent us home for a brief time out. In those days tomorrows were endless and each new morning began with a promise of glory.

All the wonderful tributes paid to the game that turns old men into little boys again hurt just a bit. It’s the only time of the year when I am painfully nostalgic for my youth.

I’ll watch the boys of this summer. I’ll remember their skills and hope for them that they love it all as much as I still do.

 

A note to my grandsons

Dear Isaiah and Tyler,

I’d like you both to know that though I don’t get to be with you very often I think of you every single day. I really do.

When I wake up in the morning my first thought is to be grateful for a new day. I thank God for it. If you don’t believe in God that’s your right but you should give it some serious thought before you dismiss the possibility that you are alive for a good reason, not just by accident.

Either way, you should start each day happy to be alive. Be grateful for sunrise, blue skies, cold rain and for puppies and bugs.

Be grateful for the people you love.

That’s when I think of you, first thing each day.

Start your day happy.

When you’re happy it makes everyone around you happy. It’s contagious. They spread their happiness to other people. We need more happy people in the world.

As you get older you will learn a great many things about life. You’ll learn most of them from experience but you can get a lot of good tips from your parents, grandparents and other people who are older and carry your life in their hearts.

I’d like to share some of my life lessons with you. I’ll just do one at a time.

My dad taught me what I think is the single most important thing in life:

  1. “If you don’t love yourself you’ll never be worth a damn to anyone else.” – Don Williams, 1981

If you can’t love yourself, who will?

I’ll have some more of these from time to time. You can take them to heart or just consider them and decide later what you think.

We never know how much time we have left so I’ll give you the end of these lessons here and now.

This is the point and purpose of life, in my opinion:

“We are game-playing, fun-having creatures;
we are the otters of the universe.”
Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

With much love,
Your Grandpa Dave

Copyright 2018, David L. Williams. All rights reserved.

The Age of Irrelevance

Getting older is like getting fatter. You don’t notice because it happens gradually.

One thing you do notice is suddenly being ignored. You notice because it seems to happen overnight. One day you’re a vital part of society and respected leader in your industry; the next day people merely nod at you with a perfunctory smile as if you were a greeter at Walmart.

This only happens with people who didn’t know you when you were young. Unfortunately, over time that seems to be most people.

Several years ago I mentioned this to my son’s mother-in-law, Gloria, a dear friend who is a bit older and very wise. I told her I was frustrated because my experience and knowledge of my business had always been sought by my colleagues but suddenly nobody seems to have any interest in what I think.

“You’ve reached the age of irrelevance,” she explained matter-of-factly.?

I had to let that sink in for a moment.

The age of irrelevance.

Gloria could see I was stunned.  “It happens to all of us,” she said gently. “I used to be the person my managers turned to for ideas. Then one day they weren’t interested in any of my observations or suggestions.”

I didn’t know what to say. It made no sense and yet this is exactly what I was experiencing.

“It’s like when your kids are growing up,” Gloria continued. “They rely on you for everything and then one day they suddenly don’t need you at all. You’re irrelevant.”

Nobody ever warned me this would happen. I don’t like it but I’ve come to accept it philosophically, if not quite emotionally. It still hurts a bit. I feel kind of useless.

Irrelevant.

It’s been a few years since Gloria explained to me this particularly jarring bump on the road of l ife. I’m getting used to it and so will you.

I just thought someone should give you a heads up.

Share

Gene Robinson

I met Gene Robinson a year ago and haven’t seen him since.

He came at me the way a hummingbird zips up to a flower, flits around from blossom to blossom and then is gone before you can take its picture.

“Merci beaucoup,” he said cheerfully as I left a box store and held the door open for him. I turned to him, smiled and said, “You’re welcome!”

“Do you speak French?” he asked.

“No, but I know what you said,” I replied with my smile still in place, and that was all it took.

Before he told me his name Gene Robinson told me he’s 73 years old. “Really?” It surprised me. “I’m 66 and I look like your grandpa.” He grinned and acknowledged that he doesn’t have much gray hair and that his face is portly enough to avoid creasing. Then he explained that his mother was white and his father was black. “I got my dark complexion from my father,” he said. This also surprised me because he was about as black as black skinned people get. I didn’t say that, of course, but I couldn’t have if I had wanted to because Gene kept talking.

“My mother’s people were from France,” Gene told me. “That’s why I spoke to you in French.”

Gene is the kind of person you meet throughout the South. He’s a talker and he never met a stranger. I know you can find those people everywhere but there are many more of them here in Texas than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. If you’re in a line of three people at Kroger you’ll be swapping recipes by the time you reach the checkstand.

Gene told me he was born and raised in New York City and that he has lived all over the country, and he continued to flit from topic to topic for another three or four minutes.

There we were, two elderly men who had never met standing on a sidewalk smiling and looking each other in the eye.

It was weird but oddly exhilarating.

Then Gene seemed to be finished.

“Well, I got other things I need to do,” he said, “so I guess I’ll say goodbye to you. It was nice meeting you. My wife says I talk too much. She says, ‘You’re always talking to total strangers as if you were their best friend. Why do you do that?’ I tell her I don’t know. I just like people, I guess.

Then Gene stuck out his hand and told me his name. I took it and told him mine.

“Merci beaucoup, David,” he laughed. Then he waved and walked away.

Five minutes a year ago. I still miss him.

My Life In a Shoebox

Here in North Texas the seasons change overnight. And then they change back again. A couple of days ago we hit 94 degrees. Today we’re going to stay in the 40s. Next month or next week we might have snow, then back to 85 for a couple of days.

Texas is famous for it and I love the variety.

We all mark the passing of time with changes in the weather. If it never changed we would seem to be living the same day over and over.

And yet… the days and years of our lives often seem to change like calendar pages flying off the screen to show passage of time in old movies.

You know what frustrates me? I can’t remember everything. The past 66  years are written on my brain in fuzzy black and white memories like the photographs of my childhood. They’re all mixed up in my shoebox of a brain. I sort through them from time to time and while I can usually remember a relative few specific places and people the entire experience of my life is mostly conjecture.

I figure young people of today will have the opposite problem. When they’re my age they’ll be sorting through hundreds of thousands of pictures of cats and babies they once knew and meals they once ate.

Making sense of your life is as hard as predicting it

60, 70, 80  years…

It sounds so long but it lives so fast.

One more hug and kiss from Mom

Nancy Webster 1949 – Grant Union High School, Sacramento

Carolann and I just returned to Dallas from a one week visit with our families in California. We had a wonderful time with our sons and daughters-in-law, our grandsons, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers and assorted others.

That’s what family reunions are all about. We return home for the first time in years and laugh about old times. We share a bit about our current lives, embellish our common past and commiserate over how old and fat we’ve all become.

We can’t believe how big the kids have gotten.

We take pictures, have another drink and laugh some more.

We pay tribute to those of us who have died and when we finally say our goodbyes we share sincere hugs, promising we’ll do this again soon.

Sometimes we know that won’t be possible.

When I was a boy my mother was my queen and goddess. She was there when I woke up and tucked me in when I went to bed. She sang Doris Day songs while doing housework.

Que sera, sera…
Whatever will be, will be.
The future’s not ours to see.
Que sera, sera…
What will be, will be.

She cooked, she cleaned and she sang after making sure that I started each day with a single thought:

“This can be a good day or a bad day, it’s all up to you.”
— Nancy Webster-Williams

She kissed me good morning, fixed my breakfast and lunch and kissed me goodbye.

My little sister, Linda, Mom and me. Folsom Lake 1955.

Last Saturday, April 22, 2017, twenty of us – her children, grand children, great-grand children, siblings and extended family — gathered in a social room at her retirement home. Together again for the first time in many years we laughed and chattered and took a thousand pictures. We promised each other we’d do it again sooner rather than later.

At the end of the day when I hugged and kissed my mother goodbye she looked deeply into my eyes. No longer fuzzy headed, slightly confused or overwhelmed by the attention and the noise she said earnestly, “Take care of yourself, David. I love you.”

She said it twice for emphasis.

My brother Jim, sister Linda, me and Mom this past weekend.

She looked at me again and I looked at her. I’m 65 now but I was seeing my mommy of 60 years ago.

We both knew that it would be for the last time.

I hope I’m wrong but I don’t think so. I think we both know and we’re fine. We had a proper goodbye with just the love and none of the tears.

I’ll phone her more often now and I’ll spend less time talking about myself. I’ll talk about us.

I’ll ask her, maybe for the first time ever, to tell me about her life, her thoughts and feelings.

 

 

Great Thinkers, Chapter 1: The Groz

The nice thing about growing older is growing wiser, of course, but sometimes we’re disappointed to learn that our epiphanies are not original.

“The more I learn the more I learn how little I know.” — Dave Williams, c. 2002

When I had that revelation I figured I was a genius. I thought it belonged in a book of quotations!

Every time I have thunk a great thought I soon learned that many other people with brains mightier than mine had the same thought long before me and they usually phrased it better.

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” – Aristotle, 350 B.C.

Socrates, who taught Plato who taught Aristotle. See how this works?

I still think we should take credit for our great thoughts. When an idea first occurs to us it marks our arrival at a new mile post in our life’s journey.

That’s significant no matter who arrived there first.

I’ve decided to honor my special friends and family members by noting the wise things they’ve told me that made a lasting impression, regardless of whether it was original to them or whether they heard or read it somewhere.

We are, after all, a combination of our life experiences and all the people we’ve loved and admired along the way.

In that spirit I will start here, with my dear friend and former colleague, Dave Grosby, who told me this when we were both young and single, shortly after my divorce in 1981.

I don’t remember where we were when Groz said this to me. I’m sure we were drinking hard and laughing our asses off. That’s how we rolled in the early 1980s.

But you know what? I never forgot it and it did guide me through seven years of my life as a newly single man.

Eventually this sage advice led me to Carolann, the love of my life, who treats waiters, babies and stray dogs with the same respect and dignity she still gives me.

Love you, Groz.

— Dave Williams, March 11, 2017