Happy Birthday to me

Burt Prelutsky
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Posted: Jan 05, 2006 12:05 AM
It was many years ago, when young Mickey Mantle first patrolled centerfield for the New York Yankees, that I first heard that he fully expected to die of the same genetic disease that killed his father and his uncle in their 30s. Later, that was given as the excuse when Mantle drank and chased women as if there were no tomorrow. In his mind, there certainly weren’t going to be too many.

As it was, he nearly made it to 64, which isn’t old, but was about twice as many years as he had expected. However, all that carousing helped cut short his baseball career. He was just 36 when he unlaced his cleats for the last time.

When motion picture executive Adoph Zukor was feted on his hundredth birthday, he was asked if there was anything he might have done differently. He is alleged to have said, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

My mind has turned to these thoughts about mortality because I just turned 66. An oddity about aging is that the older you get, the older other people have to be before you regard them as elderly. Twenty years ago, I thought that people who were 66 were old. Now I think old age officially starts at about 86.

Turning 66 doesn’t sound like such a big deal. It’s certainly not one of those landmark ages such as 16, 18, 21, or any of those numbers ending with a zero. However, to me, it’s a number with very special meaning. For me, it’s a lot like making it all the way to 40 must have been for Mantle. In my case, it’s not that my male relatives all died before they hit 66, but that they all began to lose their minds by that age.

My father and my two older brothers were all dead by 71, but by that time none of them recognized anybody or could carry on a conversation. To this day, I’m not certain if any of them had Alzheimers. In the case of my dad, he died before the word had even been invented. The doctors merely said he had suffered a series of small strokes. My eldest brother had been slightly retarded all his life and my middle brother had become an alcoholic, so I was never certain what part those conditions may have played in their final mental deterioration.

What I did know was that the three men in my immediate family had all been in severe decline by the time they reached my present age. What I don’t know is whether any of them were aware of what was happening or if the horror of it was limited to those people who loved them, but were unable to do anything about it but stand by and watch.

At this point, I have no way of knowing if I’ve dodged the bullet completely or whether I’m only enjoying a grace period before my mind also turns to mush.

The sad thing is that I’m a conservative. If I were a liberal, even if worse came to worst, nobody might ever notice.