Being a Good Model, However Old You Are

How accepting your age can be more difficult than climbing a mountain.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

As a matter of principle, and self-protection, I never discussed my age nor anyone else’s age, if I could help it, especially after I reached seventy. I did everything in my power to dodge these “How old are you?” or “Do you realize how long ago that was?” discussions that seem to come about more frequently as time passes. “Can you believe it? I was a kid when Kennedy was shot,” people will say. “Time flies.”

Yes, I do believe it—I know it and feel it. At that moment, when Walter Cronkite announced on national TV that JFK was dead, I was with my father—now dead. With us was his best friend Bob Sherman, now dead. We were in a restaurant called Joe’s Tavern, now closed, owned by Joe DeCicci, now dead.

I was nineteen years old and I had the whole world ahead of me. This is precisely why I avoid eye contact, and I nod to the person talking to me on these “remember when” occasions, waiting for the opportunity to transition to another subject. I understand that people who so incessantly talk about the past with that sense of wonder and dismay are verbalizing their amazement and apprehension to someone they consider to be an obviously like-minded person, a codger in the same boat. They are looking for reinforcement and understanding, but I can tell you, at least at that time, that they are not, or were not, going to get it from me.

Then I encountered a guy at the edge of the ice field at the summit of Alaska’s Exit Glacier the day I climbed to the peak with my son more than a dozen years ago. After we had eaten our lunch, I was lying on the ground, my eyes closed, soaking up the sun, and enjoying the triumphant feeling of accomplishment after three hours of slipping and sliding through ice and snow, when I heard a gravelly, elated voice: “What’s an old man like you doing all the way up here?”

I opened my eyes. He was a man with gray hair and a beard similar to mine, a face creased with wrinkles and a tanned, generous nose, and he was grinning like he thought he was funny. “We’re the two oldest people on top of this glacier by twenty-five years,” he said. “You don’t belong up here,” he continued. “Neither do I, know what I mean?”

Of course, I knew what he meant. I just didn’t want to admit it.

Lee Gutkind
Gutkind and son at the summit of another mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania
Source: Lee Gutkind

“We’re too damn old,” he said. “We’re not supposed to be able to do what we just did—climb this goddamned mountain!”

I didn’t answer. I had felt like a teenager on top of this mountain: it had been a struggle and a triumph getting to the top, and the experience was rejuvenating—or I had felt that way until this man invaded my space and spoiled my fantasy. “You know,” he said, as he walked away, “I’m about your age, and I fought my way up here just like you. I know what it’s like—how you feel. So, I can talk to you that way, can’t I?”

"No,” I said, turning around once more to face him, “you can’t.”

Later, thinking more about it, I realized that I was being downright mean to this man, who was just trying to be friendly. I regretted it. I still do now, years later. Sometimes I wish that I possessed a “do-over option” that I could activate periodically. All I had to do was blink or sniff or wrinkle my nose in a special way and time would stop and go backwards, so that whatever mistake I made, I would get to take back and try all over again. If only, just once. Or even maybe if there was a wearable item I could purchase or invent, like a Fitbit. Anytime you were about to say or do something stupid, a hidden warning sensor would be activated and there’d be a buzzer or a subtle flashing light that would go off and on, wait-think-don’t-be-dumb, until you paid attention. But then, even with that, I wondered if I wouldn’t do or say the same thing again, even double down, because I could be so damn stubborn, no matter how wrong I knew it was. 

Like I said, this happened a long while back, but that guy on the glacier top came back to me once in a while because I realized he was so right—and I was so wrong. That old guy was still climbing mountains, like me, and what we were doing, despite our age, was in fact cool, all things considered. I just wished he hadn’t said what he said out loud—with my son, then 13 years old, listening. I wished he had just smiled at me, winked or something, a secret signal between two aging but vigorous men. I would have smiled back, maybe nodded in affirmation. But laying it out in front of me in that way with my son witnessing the exchange was annoying and even to a certain extent threatening. I wondered what my son was thinking and whether he thought about and judged or reevaluated his old geezer dad. 

But my son made it clear to me later, after we descended the glacier, in our rented car that he thought I was rude to that guy. I agreed, of course, but then I said, “But I don’t want you to think less of me or be ashamed or embarrassed because of my gray hair, my wrinkles. My age.”

I was, by the way, an older dad. Parenthood had come to me when I was in my mid-forties, and I never wanted my son to think that because his dad was older than most of the parents of his friends, that I would not be able to keep up or fit in, and would somehow make him feel uncomfortable—and unsure.

But he looked at me with surprise and rolled his eyes the way kids do when grown-ups say things that might seem to them . . . maybe ridiculous. “I never think about how old you are,” he said. “In fact,” he added, “I don’t even know how old you are.” 

And later he said, out of the blue, as we drove down the snow-encrusted road to our campsite, “Don’t worry, Dad. I can’t imagine ever being as old as you, but if I ever get there, you are a good model.”

Copyright Lee Gutkind