Several people have commented to me about The Fourth Of July story. Most of the comments can be summed up as “What?”
Many years ago I knew a man who lived to be quite old. He was several years past the age of 100 when he died. Even though his body was frail and shriveled, his eyes were bright and strong, and he was always willing to engage in lively conversation.
I enjoyed our talks and visited him as often as I could. He was the most interesting man I knew. Why?
First of all, he had some interesting opinions. For example, after he turned 100, an accomplishment that was publically acknowledged on The Today Show by Willard Scott, I asked him how he got to be so old. Did he exercise? No. Did he eat a special diet? No. Did he take supplements? No. Did he practice meditation or spend a lot of time in prayer? No.
“Okay. How did you do it?” I asked. “How did you get to be so old?”
“The answer is simple.” he replied. “It was not what I did. It was what I didn’t do. I had a brother who smoked, drank and stayed up late at night to enjoy various nocturnal activities. It killed him. I warned him that it would. I told him he was ruining his health. It really hurt me to watch him squander his life and waste his money. He died young.”
“How old was he when he died?” I asked.
“Ninety-one,” he answered with a straight face. I look at him closely. No, he wasn’t kidding.
“I see. Well” I asked “can you give me some words of advice on how to live life.”
The old man seemed to be thinking. Or maybe he had fallen asleep. He had been known to do that, sometimes in mid sentence, but not this time.
“I am not sure I know the answer to that, but let me tell you a story. I was raised on a farm. Encouraged by my mother, I left the farm, went to college, and then pursued a professional career in the city. However, as I neared retirement age, I remembered nostalgically the peaceful simplicity of life in the country.
“So about ten years before I expected to retire, I bought a few hundred acres outside of town. Not yet retired then, and not yet ready to move then, I leased the property to a young couple who wanted to try their hand at raising cattle. I remember thinking it would be nice to have an orchard, but I didn’t plant one because I didn’t live on the property. Conversely, the young couple didn’t plant one because they didn’t own the property.”
He paused, seemingly to marshal his thoughts, and as he did so the image of his orchard appeared in my mind. It was a magnificent orchard, with every kind fruit-bearing tree represented. It annually produced an impressive bounty. I especially liked the persimmons and the cherries.
“When I retired at the age of 65, I sold my big house in the city, moved out here, and built this big farm house. I remember thinking it would be nice to have an orchard, but I didn’t plant one because I didn’t expect to live much longer. After all, I was 65 years old and most people didn’t live that long. If they did, then social security would be broke by now. When Roosevelt signed social security into law in 1935, the average life expectancy was 62 years old?
“Anyway, the years flew by. I remember thinking on my 75th birthday that it would be nice to have an orchard. I wish I had planted one when I was 65.
“It was a beautiful day on my 85th birthday. All of the nursery stock had arrived the day before and I had put colored ribbons on each tree to match the colored ribbons on the stakes I had put in the ground where I wanted them planted. The crew of workmen I hired to plant the trees arrived early. That evening I sat on my front porch, sipping a small bourbon, neat, while admiring my newly planted nursery stock. I remember thinking it sure is nice to have an orchard.
“That’s it.” he concluded, apparently satisfied that he had imparted a pearl of wisdom. I remember thinking: What?
“Okay. Thanks.” I said. “I’ll remember that one. What are you reading?” I asked as if I didn’t already know.
“Oh, this. It’s a fascinating magazine. It’s called “Organic Gardening.” You should read it some time.”
He had read that same issue of Organic Gardening every day for the past several years. His subscription to the magazine had been cancelled a long time ago, when his caretaker noticed that he always read the same issue over and over.
“I see. I will have to take a look at that sometime. So, what do you think about what the president did today?”
“I knew Harding was going to be a lousy president. He won by a landslide, but I sure didn’t vote for him. If this is a “return to normalcy” then I’ll eat my hat.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It looks to me like you have a pretty good life here.”
“Here? Do you think I live here? I don’t live here. I am just visiting. I live about two miles down the road.”
So the answer to “What?” is: consider carefully your plans for today because today may not be as temporary as you think. Some time in the future your present may be your past. You may not remember this then, but I think you should know. Short-term memory is the first to go. So perhaps you should plant an orchard. It sure would be nice to have an orchard.