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The International Writers Magazine: Wisdom Earned

The Upside of Old Men.
• Allen R. Gibson
I’ve been particularly struck, this week, by how impressed I’ve been by a couple of old men. There are a lot of old men around, you know. And there are going to be more as ‘the boomers’ keep aging. And we, as a society, don’t generally have much time for them.
But I can tell you this – old men can be impressive!


Why? Partly, I think, because they feel, at last, that it is permissible to have and share their feelings along with their thoughts. And because a view of the world that is tinged with regret, and lost love, and cherished love, is a view worth celebrating.

So let me tell you a bit about an odd couple of old men. Men of moment, of gravitas. Witnesses, in the truest sense of the word, to history. To wars, presidents, realpolitik, and the sweep of nations.

I’m speaking, in particular, of two men: Klaus Roth, of Canadian tourism fame, and Dan Rather, of CBS News fame. They are among a number of powerful older men I’ve come to know better this week. Men past their prime, men being encouraged to pasture, as it were, by a society that sees ‘new and different’ as automatically ‘new and improved.’

But these men, like aged wine or cheese, were ‘improved.’ And I wonder if we will see their ilk again soon? Rather is 80, and Roth, in his 70’s, dropped dead suddenly just a few weeks ago. I knew the man, a bit, and liked him tremendously. He was generous with his ideas, and elegant in his manner. European, in the 1920’s sense of the word, with its implication of nobility and an awareness and appreciation of long family history. Klaus had begun, finally, to pen his memoirs. The hundred or more people who traveled from far and wide to attend his memorial at the Fairmont Palliser in Calgary this week learned a lot from those truncated recollections.

RothKW Because they told a story that shall not, one hopes, be repeated anytime soon in human affairs. The story of surviving the greatest of all ‘great wars:’ World War 11, where he’d been forced into soldiering for the Nazis at the ripe age of 14, as part of that last, desperate gasp of the Third Reich. His mother was sent to a camp.

He survived, when million upon millions did not. And snuck across a border, at war’s end, with the help of a friendly American guard, to begin a career in tourism that was to stretch over half a century and several continents.

Then there’s Rather. He was interviewed by Mark Kelley, on CBC, who called it his ‘favorite interview ever.’ The two shared several laughs – over ‘Rather-isms’ like “Hotter than a Rolex in Time Square” – and also some genuine emotion when it came to describing the role of Canada in helping our southern neighbours in the aftermath of 9/11, and in the war in Afghanistan.
Rather D

“We appreciate what Canada has done for us, in having our back,” said a choked up Rather. “And many of my fellow citizens share that feeling.”

It was a grand example of that willingness to express real, genuine emotion that seems to come with age, with having endured tragedies both personal and public. Certainly, that was the case for Rather, who was covering a President one fateful day in Dallas. Who brought the Vietnam war in to the living rooms of American and changed forever the way governments must communicate about waging war. He was also there, at the anchor desk, on 9/11. In each of those cases, he noted, it was necessary to suppress his emotions, to bury them deep, in order to do his job: live on the air with millions watching.

I grew up with Rather. And Cronkite. Men who had, it appeared, impeccable integrity. And the sheer cojones necessary to ask, on occasion, tough questions of the powerful. It was a time when journalism seemed to matter. When what we saw on the evening news had a profound relationship with the truth, such that, if one listened closely, one could ferret out what was really going on.

Which is another reason old men matter. Because they remember. They remember the bright idea. They remember the bullshit.

And, if you’re lucky enough, as I’ve been lucky enough, to hang around such men with your ears open, you can learn a thing or two.

© A. R. Gibson August 2012
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