By Alan Caruba
I attended the funeral of a boyhood friend today. It lasted fifteen minutes and included a minister who did not know him and two nephews in their twenties that remembered him best as a good card player. They recalled no memorable advice because, as one put it, he didn’t speak much.
He died after ten years of struggling with the cancer that finally killed him; about half of the time his nephews knew him. They mostly recalled his quiet courage and lack of complaint.
He had to be in his early seventies. After our school years he went off to college and became an accountant with a large corporation. He married and we exchanged the usual birthday and Christmas cards as well as the occasional email.
Barely capable of anything one would call a conversation he passed through and out of this world hardly making a ripple. There were approximately twenty people for the service. His family members came entirely from his wife’s side. Both his parents had died when he was a young man and there were no siblings and no children.
The nation is full of people like my friend. They don’t break laws. They probably don’t attend church much or at all. They don’t engage in office politics, content to come in and just do their job. They don’t envy others and their level of self-esteem is sufficient to get them through life without jealousy.
We were both born in the late 1930s. To put this in perspective, we grew up without seeing television until our teen years. We were born before polio shots and penicillin, before frozen foods, contact lenses, or the “pill.” There were no credit cards. In the summer there was no air conditioning except at the local movie house. When we were born clothes were washed by hand and hung out on lines to dry. Most of the things we used were not disposable.
For most of our lives it was understood that marriage was between a man and a woman. Women stayed home and raised the children. There was no need, nor necessity, for a second wage earner. People did not live together before getting married and being a single mother was considered bad judgment, bad luck, and a bad choice. Abortions were against the law until 1973.
By the time of his death, life expectancy for men was 78 years who, when we were born, were lucky to live to their 50s or 60s. By 2002 approximately 6,000 people died every day. It came to 2,403,351 people of all ages that year for all reasons and death by firearms was the least likely cause behind auto accidents, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and septicemia.
Most Americans die from heart disease. Cancer is the next big killer. These two account for some sixty percent of all deaths. By comparison, all the other causes are in the single digits.
People of our generation grew up thinking that, if we went to collage, worked hard, saved our money, bought a home, and perhaps invested wisely, we could expect to retire in our 60s and to live another twenty or more years. Both my parents lived into their 90s.
In that halcyon world in which my friend and I spent our youth, older people were treated with respect. We were excited to reach driving age at 17 and to be able to legally drink at age 21. These were rites of passage as was, for the sons and daughters of the middle class, an affordable college education.
We did not burn our draft cards, nor lay siege to the dean’s office, nor quit to go do drugs in San Francisco. We liked both Sinatra and Elvis and thought the Beatles had funny haircuts. We did not join the Weatherman or conclude that our nation was corrupt or that capitalism had to be destroyed. We loved the Fourth of July and understood the meaning of Memorial Day.
Our combined efforts sent men to walk on the surface of the Moon, helped bring about a civil rights movement that ensured equality before the law to America’s blacks. Along with our parents we ultimately defeated the totalitarian dreams of the Soviet Union and, having fought World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, we helped build the greatest economy and military the world had ever known.
My friend, lying in his casket, free at last of the ravages of cancer, could rightly say he had been a part of that. He didn’t do it by getting his name in the paper, being on radio and television, leading protest marches, running for public office, and any of the other things that attract attention. He didn’t want attention. He wanted to go to work, enjoy being part of the family into which he married, and by voting each Election Day.
He was neither leader, nor follower. He was just a man who understood there are both spoken and unspoken rules to living life productively, properly, and without being a bother to anyone. In the end, he was barely able to fill all the chairs in the tiny funeral home chapel. His obituary was a total of one paragraph. He wouldn’t have minded that at all.