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George F. Will: Turning 70 years old means so very many things

Published: Sunday, May 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — In 1960, after the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the New York Yankees in an electrifying seven-game World Series, the Yankees fired manager Casey Stengel, who had turned 70 in July. The Yankees said he was too old. He said, "I'll never make the mistake of being 70 again."

It is, however, a coveted mistake, considering the alternative, and remembering how recently it was that passing this milestone became unremarkable. The Bible, with the thumping certitude for which it is famous and sometimes tiresome, asserts that "the days of our years are threescore years and ten." If so, after turning 70, one has, ever after, the pleasure of playing, as it were, with house money. For what, exactly, would one now give up red meat and dry martinis?

To be 70 is to have escaped the disagreeable fate of dying young. But the Bible, which is replete with redundant reminders that life is real, life is earnest, adds this: "And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." Have a nice day.

To be 70 is to have seen the nation put away the almost casual cruelty of racial segregation. And to have seen, in the emancipation — not too strong a term — of women, and in many other improvements, how this uniquely self-transforming nation decided to declare unthinkable many practices that not long ago were performed unthinkingly.

To be 70 is to have been born shortly before Pearl Harbor, to have lived through the war that was already then raging, and the Cold War, and to have arrived at the sunny uplands of today. Yes, of course, man is still, and ever will be, born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward. But never before in the human story has the risk of death by violence been smaller for such a large portion of humanity.

To be 70 is to have been born about the time competent medicine was born, with the arrival of penicillin, antibiotics and sulfa drugs. This is a reminder that contemporary America's most pressing domestic problem is a consequence of success. The crisis — the obsolescence — of the previous century's welfare state is a result of the social triumph represented by something unimagined 70 years ago, an enormous and expanding cohort of octogenarians.

To be 70 is to appreciate Mark Twain's example of aging vigorously: "I am able to say that while I am not ruggedly well, I am not ill enough to excite an undertaker." True, Twain had memory cramps of the sort that now are called "senior moments." He worried, "I'll forget the Lord's middle name some time, right in the midst of a storm, when I need all the help I can get." Nevertheless, he strode into the sunset wearing a snow-white suit.

To be 70 is to understand that time cannot wither, nor custom stale the infinite pleasure of simply trying to do things well, or witnessing others do them. Casey Stengel returned from exile to manage the 1962 New York Mets, an expansion team that, en route to losing 120 games, caused him to look down the dugout and ask in wonderment, "Can't anybody here play this game?" Few can, which is why the especially talented few — athletes, writers, musicians, thinkers — delight the many.

To be 70 is to experience a temptation generally worth resisting — the itch to natter on as Polonius did when belaboring Laertes with bromides. But to be 70 is to be running short on time for the pleasure of succumbing to temptations, so:

Happiness — herewith the distilled essence of 70 years of experience — is a talent, and one that, unlike hitting a curveball, anyone can develop. Considering that America exists to protect the individual's pursuit of it, this pursuit is a pleasant duty.

Finally, to be 70 is to have lived 30 percent of the life of this nation, which is almost enough time to begin to fully appreciate the inestimable privilege of being a legatee of those who first unfurled the republic's sails and steered it toward the present. That is why — with homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald — as we beat on, boats against the current, we should be borne back ceaselessly into the American past: It is impossible for the young to know, but never too late to learn, that America truly is something — perhaps the only thing — commensurate with our capacity for wonder.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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