Eighty years is a decade more than the three score and ten the Bible says is the allotment of man.
Probably nobody recognizes or appreciates the import of that more than those who have attained that milestone, with its long perspective back and its uncertain prospect forward. It is a time of preciousness, for where you’ve been and for where you have yet to go.
I think of that because today my former father-in-law, an old Air Force tech sergeant, turns 80.
With as much vigor, wonder, humor and appreciation for life as a man a half century younger. At a stage where some need to be carried about, he remains the beacon, joy, inspiration and patriarch of his large clan, a sweetheart to his bride of 60 years, and a presence and a bright light to his now three generations of descendants.
He is still learning, doing, laughing and loving.
And if he had to, I suspect he could find a way to knock you on your ass.
Doug Taylor is from back when you rolled up your pack of cigarettes in the sleeve of your white t-shirt. It was a white t-shirt and some dungarees or a pair of khakis, a headful of curls piled fairly high, and the Everly Brothers or The Coasters on the radio.
It was a time of poverty, hard reality and true love. And maybe he was skinny because he was wired that way or maybe it was because times were tight, but on the streets of blue-collar St. Louis, where the houses were small and old and the neighborhoods were ethnic, he was Polish and cocky and a head turner.
And that’s when they fell in love. And you can’t talk about him without talking about her. There is no Doug without Kathy and there might not have been a Kathy without Doug. She needed rescuing and he was her knight in shining armor, and he rescued her from dragons that were real and threatening. His dad lied about her age and nobody pressed for a birth certificate. And off they set, with a piece of a paper and a shared dream and neither one of them out of their teens.
That meant combat boots and living on pennies, places like Chanute and Mountain Home, ultimately Wurtsmith and Beale and Guam.
And the unmarked grave of a newborn son. Their first child, they still mostly children themselves, a heart difficulty, before medical science knew what to do, and a presence and a pain that lingers with them today.
But two more babies came, a couple of daughters, fairly quickly, and when he was in Vietnam they sang for him on the cassette they mailed back and forth. That’s the pretty part. But war isn’t pretty, there or at home, and he came within a shove of being a name on The Wall, and Kathy bent and broke under the burden alone.
Maybe not broke.
Maybe who they are and what they’ve been through and what they’ve given and where they stand now proves that nothing broke ever, between them or within them, and that they are not just the salt of the earth, but its bedrock as well, simple people of endurance and integrity who’ve been through hell and come out better.
Maybe this is how life is supposed to be. Maybe it’s how carbon comes to be diamond.
He didn’t make much rank, but he went to war for his country, and when you go to the big museums, and people cluster around the SR-71 Blackbird display, it’s likely he launched it and tended it, the highest and fastest there’s ever been, maintained by an elite crew of the Air Force’s best.
I met him after he retired, and was a regional manager for an entertainment company. I was young and dumb and he was patient and kind. I matched him drink for drink for half of one evening, and I suspect after all these years his downstairs bathroom has stopped smelling like puke. He has the gift of gab, like any good NCO, and everybody he meets is his friend and every conversation he has is the most interesting he’s ever been in, and if it ends much before two in the morning then you’re probably going to have to pick it up midsentence the next day.
One time in my early 20s when I didn’t have a direction, I told him that all I wanted was to find a job where I didn’t have to worry about money, where I could pay my bills and just live life. He looked over and smiled and said, “Me, too,” and taught me the reality all breadwinners know.
The years have passed since then, and I am now far older than he was when I first met him. Yet he remains the more capable and curious of the two of us, excited and engaged in life and in the world, learning new things and developing new skills, living every day and enjoying every moment.
Their two daughters bore five children who have now borne between them nine great-grandchildren, with a tenth on the way. One of them is named after the little boy Doug and Kathy lost. All of them are warmed by the love Doug and Kathy share. And all of them are the focus and joy of Doug and Kathy’s life.
When he was a boy, Doug visited his grandfather in the country, a man with a farm and a pond. He so enjoyed those visits and spoke so highly of them that years later I wanted such a place for myself, for my own, for my grandchildren, someplace in the country with a pond, where Doug’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren will swim and fish. Five generations later, that first grandfather’s example is still blessing his descendants, like Doug’s example is blessing his.
I remember when my great-grandfather turned 80, a bent and addled man beaten down by age. It is different as Doug turns 80, he is strong and clear and bright.
Which means that his descendants will know not just that he lived, but how he lived and who he was, and how much he loved them, and how much he loved their parents and his wife. What he believed in and what he stood for and how he served his God, family and country.
And eighty years from now, some of them will still be around to remember, and to teach the babies born to them and theirs.