Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Why Me?"

"Why Me?"
by Richard Russell

"It's eleven PM at night. I wake up, and I start to think. Why me? I'll be 86 years old in July. How did it happen? Most of my friends and old school mates have died. I'm living with a different generation. My wife, Faye, is 32 years younger than I am. I was born in 1924. Why me? Why am I still alive? I could have died in World War II. One minor adjustment by a German 88 anti-aircraft gunner, and I could have been blown out of the nose of my B-25. Why did I live through the War when many of my buddies didn't make it? I had two heart attacks, but I lived through them. Then I had a stroke over a year ago.

I came out of the stroke in good shape mentally. My balance is no good, and I have trouble walking any considerable distance. After 100 yards my hip joints hurt. I live with it. On the one hand I hate being old (ahem, older). But I'm thinking tonight that I've lived through and seen sights that not many living people have seen.

Funny thing, after my stroke I'm able to remember many names and events that I haven't thought of for decades. For instance, I have a recording of "Brother Can you Spare a Dime" by George Michael. A week ago I suddenly remembered the name of the fellow who wrote that song - it was Yip Harburg. Yip was a friend of my parents. The song became the theme song of the Great Depression. Everybody sang it from Bing Crosby to Rudy Vallee. I haven't thought of that name, Yip, for many years. Why did that strange name come back to me? And the words, the sad and cutting words of the Great Depression...

"Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodle Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!
Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?"



Back in the Depression, a dime was real money. You could go to the White Tower and buy two hamburgers for a dime, yes, they were a nickel a piece, and when ever I had a spare nickel I would buy one of those juicy little burgers.

Sometime I'm out with Faye, having dinner at a party being given by her law firm. I'm sitting with a bunch of kids in their late 20s or 30s. Actually, I'm a little embarrassed because I come from a different world. What do these kids know of "the War" or the Great Depression? They've all grown up during good times. One of them brings up something about Vietnam, and another asked me whether I had been in that war. I blush and tell them that "No, I was in a different war." They ask me which war. I tell them World War II and it's as if a shock-wave hits them. They ask me what I did during the war. I tell them I was a bombardier in Europe. They ask me all sorts of questions. Some don't know what a bombardier is. I feel like a freak, a ghost from a different world.

I don't tell them that I saw Babe Ruth hit a home run. I don't tell them that I was on a youth hostel trip in 1939 and I was in California during the Great Depression. I saw signs north of San Diego posted outside orange groves, signs that read, "All the oranges you can pick for fifty cents. You pick 'em. We can't afford to."

I'm probably one of the few white men alive who has visited Minton's Playhouse in Harlem during the '40s when many of the great jazz men would gather to jam the night away.

I attended NYU during the early 40s. I was part of the first class of GIs after the War to attend college under the GI bill. In those days, NYU was pretty much a Greenwich Village "subway school." I used to stop after school at one of the many little bars in the village. At one bar (I forget its name) I got to know a group of lesbian girls who rode Harley motorcycles. They taught me how to ride, and I've had motorcycle fever ever since.

I bought a Harley in NYC, an old police-style 45, and on many a hot summer nights I would ride out of Manhattan and head for Atlantic Beach on Long Island. The first thing I did when I moved to California in 1961 was to buy a BMW bike, a "one lunger." But in California you need a big bike, and I soon switched to a larger R-60. One time when I was leaving Mexico I stopped at a border Chevron station. A few minutes later about 50 Hells Angels rode in to gas up. They were heading to San Diego. I asked them (on my "sissy BMW") whether I could ride back with them, and they said "sure." So there I was, riding with a gang of Hells Angels heading for "Dago," as they called it. Halfway to San Diego a police car halted the group. Two of the Angels stopped, but the rest of them just kept riding. I stayed with the group and kept riding, fearing what would happen if the cops grilled me.

Sadly, very few of my old friends from high school are left. One is James Salter, who's my age and still alive and kicking. I call Jim about every six months to see how he's doing. Salter graduated from West Point and was a fighter pilot (jets) playing hide and seek with the Russkies in "MIG Alley" during the Korean War. Now Jim's a well-known writer, and famous throughout literary circles.

Sometimes I look in the mirror, and I wish I was young and beautiful again (I was a good looking guy when I was in my 20s and 30s). Faye tells me that I still look good, but I don't believe it - I'd settle to look like 50 again. I've always had dogs, and they are a great comfort to me, even though the pups can be a lot of trouble. I have a three year old Standard poodle now, and we just added a five-month old reddish-blond standard, who we named Tyler. He's a little devil and he spends all his time wrestling with Zoro, our three year old. They say Standard poodles are the clowns of the dog world, and I have to agree, The two keep Faye and I laughing during the day. Tyler will be a terrific guard dog, he barks and investigate the slightest sound. Zoro has developed into the biggest Standard poodle that I have ever seen. He looks like a black bear,and my new name for him is "bear."

I find that everything in life is a trade-off. Is there any advantage to living to 86? The trade-off is that I've seen a lot and lived to tell it. People ask me how I find something to write about every day. I tell them that after 86 years, you've collected plenty to write about. Which reminds me, one of these days I'll tell you how my fascination with Cacti brought me to the West Coast, and why my interest in Cacti changed my life. I've met Marlon Brando and I've met Marilyn Monroe and Janis Joplin. Which, in turn, reminds me... aww, I'll save that for another site.”
(Originally posted here January 27, 2010. Still good... - CP)

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