fiction, writing

Tough Old Birds

Robert Hoyt (a budding young author and webcomic artist) made this comment on the bookface yesterday.

“This has always bothered me: If the standard for when a student has completed his training is when he has bested his master, and you’ve picked for your mentor the classic “extremely old man” archetype, what do you do if your master is getting worse faster than you’re getting better?”

Hmmm…. I thought when I saw that. Good point.

On the other hand, a tough old bird that has made it that far, especially in some combat discipline, is unlikely to decline anytime soon. Take, for instance, Samuel Whittemore, who at what was then a ripe old age, went back to war. “In 1758, war again broke out between England and France. And again, Fort Louisburg had to be taken. At 64 years of age, Sam volunteered and joined a Colonial Regiment which reduced the fort to rubble. He then went on and joined General James Wolf in the successful assault on Quebec.

The 1763 Indian Wars in the west next attracted Sam’s attention. Leaving his wife, children and grandchildren to attend the farm, he rode off to join the colonial force launched against the Ottawa chief, Pontiac. He returned home some months later with a brace of dueling pistols as a souvenir, and here again, all Sam would say is that the previous owner “died suddenly.”

And finally in the revolutionary War, the old man took arms for the last time: “After the British column had fought its way clear, the town’s people and minuteman started to search for their wounded compatriots. Several had seen Sam Whittemore’s “last stand” and approached to remove his body. To everyone’s astonishment Sam was not only still alive, but conscious and still full of fight. Laying there, he was trying to load his musket!

Using a door as a makeshift stretcher, Sam was carried to Cooper Tavern, which was being used as a emergency hospital. Doctor Nathaniel Tufts of Medford attended to Sam. He cut off his bloody clothes, and exposed the gaping bayonet wounds. Sam’s face was horribly injured. Doctor Tufts knew the injuries were fatal, stating it wouldn’t do any good to even dress the wounds. Sam’s family and friends insisted and Dr. Tufts did the best he could. He tried to make the old man as comfortable as possible. After his wounds were attended to Sam was carried to his home, to die surrounded by his family. To everyone’s utter amazement Captain Sam Whittemore lived! He recovered and remained active for the next eighteen years. “

Men who are active often die young, but if they survive, they maintain a vitality that belies their age, and even without the muscles of their youth, can win through with wit and treachery.

Captain Jack Churchill:  ” One night, he single-handedly took forty-two German prisoners and captured a mortar crew using only his broadsword. He simply took one patrolling guard as a human shield and went around from sentry post to sentry post, sneaking up on the guards and then shoving his sword in their faces until they surrendered. His response when asked about how he was able to capture so many soldiers so easily: “I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘jawohl’ (yes sir) and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the situation.” Now if that’s not hardcore, then nothing is.”

The quote there for Jack Churchill comes from the educational, profane, and always amusing Badass of the Week site, which is a lot of fun to poke around and discover wonderful characters that make truth seem like fiction, as in the exploits of The Duke of Caxias, another man who led a charge when he was at an age more commonly associated with retirement these days.

You might be wondering why I’m writing about these men. Well, I find them inspiring, for one thing. You don’t give up, you keep fighting, no matter your age. For another thing, they give great templates to create fictional characters on. I mean, you probably don’t want to write about a 93 year-old man parachuting, that will get your fiction laughed at as far too implausible. “A 93-year-old World War II veteran returned this week to a battlefield in western France the same way he first arrived 70 years ago: He parachuted in, this time carrying an American flag.”

In the Great War (WWI) Henry Webber went to war at 66, to join his three sons, writing home: “Yet here I am a Lieutenant in HM army having to salute three sons if I meet them out here, a Colonel and two Majors. I am 1st Line Transport Officer to this Battalion and we have been plumb in the centre of the picture during the last ten days and gained no end of “kudos” and also a very severe mauling.

“I am so far extraordinarily fit and well, though, when I tell you that for four consecutive days I was either on my feet or in the saddle for twenty one hours, out of twenty four, you will see that there is a bit of work attached to the job.”

What makes it possible for them to carry on so well? One factor is likely a continuing level of physical effort. A study on master athletes versus sedentary men showed that they could uptake 50% more oxygen during exertion than the men who had always led sedentary lives, and this 8 years after they had stopped competing. (Rogers, M A, et al. “Decline In Vo2max With Aging In Master Athletes And Sedentary Men.” Journal Of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md.: 1985) 68.5 (1990): 2195-2199. MEDLINE with Full Text. Web. 17 June 2014.) I had come across another study on men at the grand old age of 70 who were able to run in a marathon after a mere 6 months of training (I don’t recall the title, sadly, and can’t find the citation right now). It isn’t that age takes away the ability to DO things, it just takes away the elasticity of youth.

In an era where only the young and beautiful are valued, we might want to remember that old age and treachery will indeed outdo youth and enthusiasm. Who can you think of, to add to my list of impressive old farts? Want to join me in writing them into our tales as mentors, inspiration, and role models? We are none of us getting any younger, and personally, I aspire to be the old lady who terrifies her family because they never know what she will do next.

And if you’re lucky enough to get the chance, sit down and talk to the elders. Their tales can be wonderful, and we mustn’t let them be forgotten! DSC05536