Back in 1982, I was approaching one of those birthdays that ends with a zero, feeling my age as a student at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. One Sunday morning, I dragged out of bed and left the tiny duplex apartment to join other students for breakfast before we traveled to various locations for a supervised ministries class.
My assignment that semester was at a Youth Detention Center, dealing with some troubled teenaged boys. I was somewhat troubled, myself, turning thirty years old, a man now with a pregnant wife and a son nearly two years old. I had little energy nor enthusiasm for spending my next thirteen Sundays practically behind bars.
At breakfast on that first morning before dispersing to our assignments, a half dozen or so of us students sat at a rectangular table. An older man, he might have been sixty, I thought, maybe even older, dressed in coat and tie walked up to us and set down his tray. “May I join you?” he asked.
“Of course,” came the general response.
The man introduced himself as J.C. McPheeters. We would learn that he had once been president of the seminary, and now spent time traveling to promote the school. He sat across the table from me, and several seats away, and so my attention drifted between him and the others eating their breakfasts. But he gained my focus with his enthusiastic response to someone’s mentioning of loving to hunt.
“Oh, me, too! I love to hunt,” the man said, his voice booming with enthusiasm. He began speaking of a trip he once took, hunting moose, he said – in Minnesota.
Having never lived anywhere but Georgia, I listened in. I thought it nice that his memory was sharp enough to remember a trip he might have taken – maybe when he was about my own age.
I piped in with a question. “Sir, when did you take this trip to Minnesota?”
“It was last winter,” he said.
“Cold up in Minnesota during moose season.”
“I can only imagine.”
He had my full attention now. I wondered – how old is this man? He had seemed spry enough; there had been no shuffle in his step as he approached. I wouldn’t dare ask his age – but he provided an open door to find out.
He believed in exercising the body as he did his spirit, he said. He loved to hunt in the winter, but in the summer, he loved to water ski? “On my seventy-third birthday,” he said, “I decided to learn how to waterski.”
“You learned how to waterski when you were — seventy-three?” I said.
With a twinkle in his eye he said, “I learned how to slalom when I was seventy-seven.” My wide-eyed reaction amused him. “That was back in the late nineteen-sixties,” he said.
He must have seen me calculating in my mind. “My last birthday,” he said, “I water-skied seven miles. My ninety-second birthday.”
I decided that morning not to continue my moaning and groaning about turning thirty. I decided then and there to continue nurturing my body along with my mind and spirit. Every now and then, usually as another birthday approaches, I find myself grumbling a bit at some of the things I can no longer do. But I find myself remembering Dr. McPheeters.
He died while I was still in seminary. He was ninety-four. I remember the prayers circulating the seminary after his automobile accident. His car had skidded off a Kentucky backroad one night in bad weather. His body took a jolt and it seems I recall that the wreck wasn’t immediately discovered. He never really recovered and died of a stroke when he was ninety-four.
As I write this, November brings me to another birthday. Thirty-seven of them have passed since that breakfast with J.C. McPheeters. But because of that breakfast I’m a lot younger today, a whole lot younger, than I was back then.
I’d explain further what I mean, but I’ve got to get ready for tonight’s broadcast of a football game. And I need to study my lines as the king of Siam in next week’s play. And I want to get all that done in time to get in my workout and my ten thousand steps. Will I have time to get it all done?
Suffice it to say that whenever someone says to me, “You’re nothing but an old jackass,” or “Why, you old ___________, ( you fill in the blank) I’m ready with the response, “Who are you calling old?”