Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Choice of Youth

The final chapter of my Greatest Generation story, a work in progress, is called “The Imprisonment of Old Age.” While I am touched by the loss of the vitality of youth described in that chapter, I am moved even more by the life story revealed in the remainder of the book. The book is entitled, Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives, and it chronicles the life of Harold Whittington, a WWII and Korean War veteran. It also presents the trials and near-death experiences of his brother, Otto, as he was forced into the Bataan Death March and subsequently sent by death ship to Japan, where he served as a slave in the Japanese steel mills. Harold is ninety years old now and named the last chapter himself. That chapter reflects the struggles people face near the end, but the battles he and his brother fought to reach old age might have been worse. One often hears the expression, “You have to be tough to get old,” but you don’t often hear how hard it is to survive one’s youth.

The Whittington brothers endured field labor and poverty from the time they were old enough to hoe a row, and they lived through the Great Depression. Otto left home at thirteen so his family would have one less mouth to feed. He became a hobo, later joined the circus, and still later became part of the Forest Service through a CCC camp. Both Harold and Otto subsequently joined the military to escape poverty and to serve the country, Harold in the Navy and Otto in the Army. Otto’s WWII experiences were horrifying. He survived vicious combat, near beheading, beriberi, the infamous “zero ward” at Bilibid prison in Manila, yellow fever, and much more. The Whittington brothers struggled in ways that are hard to imagine today. While growing old might seem horrid to Harold now, his life as a youth was no picnic either.

That got me thinking about something I’ve never considered—being young might be more difficult than being old.

Now at age seventy-one, I believe there are three distinct phases to life: youth, retirement, and old age. The first and the last phases can be difficult, so perhaps retirement allows us to catch our breath before we undertake life’s final challenges. I’m in retirement now, and would NEVER want to be young again. I don’t look forward to old age either. The retirement years are the place to be.

What I remember most about being young was the chronic lack of sleep. My parents were poor and my dad drank a lot. Mother said he never recovered from the combat he endured in WWII. Today, we’d probably call it PTSD. Dad was always on the edge of eruption, and we tip-toed around him whenever he was near, avoiding him like the plague. On the up side, my parents moved to Alaska when I was in high school, and I stayed behind in Washington State. On the down side, my meal ticket went with them. Working multiple, low-paying jobs became a way of life to pay for fuel, phone, school, food, and everything else. I had always worked to save for college tuition, and I continued to do that as well. The only extra-curricular activity I had was work.

My entire “youth” was defined by working. I worked extreme hours, and held down three jobs while paying my way through college. Anything “fun” was out of the question. I rarely dated. I would not want to do that again. I was drafted three days after graduating from the University of Washington, and spent the next twenty years moving from place-to-place in the military, working long hours, and studying. I managed to get a Master’s and Ph.D. during those twenty years. I remember the relief I felt when I left the military. Freedom at last, but it didn’t last. My civilian jobs required even more commitment and travel than the military. By the time I retired for the third time, I was exhausted. Being young was not fun; it was hard.

Harold and Otto faced a daunting youth, as did I, and today’s young people are confronted with the same issues. They must work hard to survive … or fall by the wayside. It’s a choice, and the only advice I can offer to them is this: the retirement years make the pain worthwhile. I had a vision of retirement when I was young. I delivered papers to an affluent neighborhood in Everett, Washington. I wanted to live like the people I delivered papers to, and I never lost that vision of what the future could be like—that someday things would be better. So I kept working. It was worth it. For most of us, there is no easy way to get to the retired phase of life. Young people must work hard and have faith.

In about nine years, God willing, I will enter the fringe of the old age phase. I have good genes, so I hope to live long, be relatively pain free, and die suddenly. That’s about as good as it gets, but who knows what life has in store: cancer … some crippling disease … dementia? I believe I am resting now—preparing for what lies ahead. In the interim, I will do what I can to help the young people in my extended family to understand the phase of life they are in. With luck, they will embrace hard work as a way of life, and they will eventually enjoy retirement as I do. Should they choose the way of the grasshopper, however, I fear life will be a disaster for them.

Whether they are prepared or not, today’s youth will face extreme competition before moving to the next phase—to retirement or directly to old age. If they work like there’s no tomorrow, they might get to enjoy a sliver of time before old age sets in. If not, they will live day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck as they age. Either way, old age will come. They can be rested when it arrives, or continue struggling until the day it knocks them down.  

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch


Tina Donahue said...

Great post, James. I feel for children born now. What a world they'll be facing. Even if they do everything right - going to school, getting a job, marrying someone they love and sticking with it - they are in for a rough haul. The US isn't what it used to be because we have the worst government those really in power can buy.

Tina Donahue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James L. Hatch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James L. Hatch said...

I fear for my grandchildren, Tina. It's not just the change in the country, but a change in individual attitudes. The fire seems out in some of the kids, the drive to create and achieve. Many of our grands seem content at the middle of the class, or they are so rebellious they will forfeit their youth for nothing at all. I wish there was a way to make them understand. They have only one chance at this. To live the retirement years well, they need to dedicate themselves to training now. They just don't seem to get it.

jean hart stewart said...

I'm thankful I'm not too young. Never thought I'd say that, but I am. The problems facing youth seem worse and worse.

James L. Hatch said...

Hi Jean: You are right, there are some awful problems facing young people today. I still have faith, however, that if they push themselves to excel, they can. Without question, the entire process of growing older is fraught with hard work. I wouldn't want to go back to being young either.