When we were small boys, during the war, we rarely failed to make it to the Washington Avenue armory in Albany when we heard there was to be a muster of fresh recruits. As the young men marched vigorously down past the state capitol, turned briefly right at Eagle Street, and then on down the long hill of State Street toward the train station, we jogged along beside them in hopes of picking up a commission to run for a pack of gum or cigarettes, or an orange or an apple. It was a lucrative racket; I often came home with a candy bar or a comic book.
At the station, we stood entranced beside the hissing train — all those faces at the windows and the wreaths of steam from the brakes — and watched as the cars slowly began to move south. We wondered, as the doors went past ever faster, when they were finally moving by too fast for us to run and jump on. The last car disappeared down the Hudson leaving us still calculating.
Now, almost 80 years later, that experience often comes back to me; for, having managed to live into what are often referred to as “the golden years,” I stand again on that steamy platform looking at younger faces in the window, and wondering if I can still manage to run and jump on before the ever more complicated opportunity to participate has passed out of sight.
I have a dear old friend — she and I were sweethearts in the early-1950s, and sort of still are — whose life starkly demonstrates the dilemma. She’s given up her computer, doesn’t use her old typewriter, and communicates by handwritten letters. In spite of the nostalgia created by the sight of that long-remembered handwriting, I respond in kind — by snail-mail — but with letters in large type churned out by my (usually) trusty printer. The intimacy of our original letters remains — mine burned in a fire at her ranch house, and hers went into my furnace after I married — but how I wish I could just sit down whenever the spirit moves and bat her off an email with photographs.
Meanwhile, my own struggle goes on. There’s so much I don’t know that seems to be common knowledge among the kids, I feel like a man whose hearing aid has died before the end of the story.
Email was easy to learn, and Facebook all too easy. Submitting manuscripts electronically is a dream come true. Even Venmo, now I’ve used it a few times, is less threatening. But there’s so much else! Someone calls me on my cell phone. I answer and discover it’s a FaceTime call when he says, “You’re holding your phone to your ear, and all I can see is the rim of your glasses.” Geez!
Just as in clearing out a lot of the extra stuff in my house was accomplished by my kids (whom I’m hoping will return someday to bail out some more), it’s the younger generations who point the way to solutions that don’t occur to us oldsters. I needed a new blazer. A check of the internet showed not a single tailor or haberdasher in, of all places, my state’s capital. I mentioned it in one of the twice-weekly Zoom calls (there’s another one!) with my kids in Arkansas. “What size?” my son asked, and four days later, a perfectly-fitting blazer arrived by FedEx. Then my daughter-in-law with a quick phone search saved my old comforter from the rag bag. Reminds me of Stringbean, the banjo player on Grand Old Opry: “Lawd, I feel so unnecessary!”
I’ve managed to take photographs with my cellphone, send them to myself, and stash them away electronically. But my kids are doing videos and drone shots. They ask me what music I’d like to hear on another app named Spotify, and next thing I know, there’s Vernon Dalhart or Jimmie Rodgers crooning at me from my car’s audio (no longer called a radio).
My little bedside alarm clock has become unpredictable. No problem, say the kids. Use your iPhone. Rrright! How? So, now I know. I changed it from a barking dog, which had Kiki’s feet all over my face, to a Gerald McBoing-Boing noise. Much better. If I knew how, it’d be the overture to La Nozze di Figaro, a guaranteed rouser. I’ve managed finally to trust Maps, type in the address I want to get to, and confidently follow the lady’s directions (somebody’s given her an Irish accent). I can make a call from my iPhone, but I’ve somehow lost my speaking relationship with Siri, so I can’t just ask her to do it for me. But I’ll get it back. There’s no way I’m giving up the fight — yet. This is the first week I’ve discovered how to light my way to bed with my phone!
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.