A SPORTSMAN’S LIFE
The ups and downs of aging. By Bill Heavey
Making the most of my “mature” years
WAKE UP ENOUGH DAYS in a row and you’ll be both a wily survivor and as relevant as the lapels on a suit. There was a time when young people revered their elders. No one knows when this was. The good news is that we are awash in information about aging gracefully. The bad news is that it’s useless, having been written by guys who believe that Sands of Iwo Jima portrays John Wayne’s actual service during WWII. In one online article, “Aging Gracefully for Men,” the No. 1 tip is: “Exfoliate, moisturize, and use an eye cream.” Actually, I was looking for something a bit deeper. Like how you deal with what’s actually happening. Here, for example, are a couple of actual growth opportunities I’m struggling to deal with.
Last fall, Steve Stucky, a young friend in Kansas, invited me on a Colorado public-land elk hunt. I loved the idea, right up until the details. It would be a “good hike” in and out at 8,500 to 10,000 feet. (Be wary of the words “good hike” from a tough young farmer who was a nationally recruited runner in college.) And getting the meat out “shouldn’t be too bad if each man makes a few round trips carrying 150 pounds.” (Once—as in “never”— I could have handled that load. These days, 150 pounds would collapse my vertebrae like an accordion beneath a bull moose. Also, that kind of altitude induces an influenza-like illness in me these days.) Still, I thought, it’d be a hell of a farewell, a last hurrah to my big-country hunting days. I let the idea percolate for a few days, screwed up my courage, called Steve, and begged off. I’m old, not dumb.
Here’s an even less-welcome example that I wouldn’t include except that it’s true. After decades of bowhunting, my arrows won’t group past 20 yards. I blame them, naturally. But I must admit to bringing a few things to the potluck. One is a tremor, related either to aging and/or the medication I take to stay on the sunny side of the sod. The other is mild target panic (a horrendous name for an aiming issue, like you’re not already beating up on yourself hard enough). What it boils down to is this: Once my pin drops below the bull’s-eye, it’s like lifting a truck to raise it again. There’s a special agony in realizing that just as I’m the one who created this mind-set, I’m the only one who can fix it. And I had no idea how much being a bowhunter defined me until that identity was threatened. It’s like one of those dreams where your teeth fall out or turn into rubber Chiclets. I have no argument with guys who take up the crossbow. I’m just not ready to join them. To me, a crossbow will always be a 50-yard muzzleloader, lethal but soulless. There’s no poetry in a crossbow. I happen to like poetry.
The good news is that aging stops eventually. (OK, I could have put that better.) But aging does offer definite pleasures. These are easier to access if, like me: (a) your emotional age is 14, and (b) you see that as an asset. Here are some real-life examples in which minor attitude tweaks have made my life more bearable, interesting, and—dare I say it—fun.
I’ve stopped caring—or at least caring so much—about what other people think. In the past, I’d get defensive when told, “Heavey, you’ve got a sick, twisted sense of humor that makes people uncomfortable because they can’t tell whether you’re kidding or serious.” Frequently, I don’t know, either. Nevertheless, I’d try to explain that I’d been dropped on my head as a baby or left out in the sun too long. This never worked. Now I just smile and say, “OK, and…?” Amazing how refusing to take the bait deflates certain situations.
I’ve decided to stop protesting that I’m
not that old yet. It’d be stingy to deprive some young man the satisfaction of helping his elders. You want to haul my deer out of the woods? Get to it, son.
I’ve realized that “crowd wisdom” applies only in certain scenarios. Next time you’re at a movie, watch people clogging the open half of a double-door exit as they file out. They’ll back up 10 deep waiting their turn. When you get there, push open the other door and savor the “Why didn’t I think of that?” murmurs around you. I love situations in which the tiniest bit of common sense makes me look smart.
Embrace your newfound prestige as an elder. Four of us—friends for 40 years—still gather irregularly for a guys only Meat Night. It’s an important ritual. The other men are unreliable, inconsiderate guys whom I also count as my oldest, best friends. Two years ago, Jim, a founding member, was selfish enough to die of pancreatic cancer at 61, upsetting the group’s dynamic. He left two 20-something sons who I wanted to invite to Meat Night but worried they’d feel obligated or coerced into it.
“Screw that, dumbass. What’s gotten into you? It’s good for them,” Marcos kindly explained to me. “Besides, we’re old men. They have to do what we say.” The scales fell from my eyes. Marcos was right. We ordered them to come.
The boys have been coming for a year. They like and value the time with older men, their “Indian fathers,” as one puts it. I told them up front that they’d have to hear the same stories a bunch of times and that at least half of our advice should be jettisoned immediately. “And try to remember that you’ll be like this yourself one day.”
“Oh, we know,” they said.
“No you don’t,” I said. “You couldn’t. But one day you will.”