Once I talked with a man who said he was 118 years old, and this is what he told me.
''I'd like to tell you that longevity somehow adds to wisdom. But I've learned that a lot more is needed than a few spins of the earth to make someone know the difference between waking up and getting up. You could say I was a slow learner. I woke up just a few years ago even though I'd been on my feet for more than a century.
''The way I look at it, I finally learned that it was all right to be ridiculous once in a while, to stick your neck out a little for the sake of your own joy. You see, I'd been a pretty quiet man most of my life, steady as they come, and probably a little boring if you asked J. B. Sangamoro, the man I used to play chess with. J. B. and I went through World War I and then the depression in different places, but we knew what it was like to be scared, hungry and looking for work.
''J. B. would tell you that I never whistled a day in my life. Well, it's not entirely true, but as close as you can get. Not only didn't I whistle much, but I hadn't sung a song in public or private since Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House.
''Now this kind of silence, this kind of steady un-variety makes a person dry inside. You may laugh, you may cry, but if you deny the music of the inner world , you lose out on the flow of spiritual melody that has your name on it. You can walk and talk all right, but lose out on The Great Big Melody and you're living in a desert with no shade.
''So, what happened to me was nothing. I was just holding my own. Years went by and I was just holding my own, thinking I was an eagle while all the time I was a crow.
''Then one night, very late one night, I heard a woman's voice singing. It was a young and beautiful voice, and she was singing a song I thought I knew. I sat up in bed thinking maybe I was dreaming or imagining the whole thing. I remembered there was a church a block over, and perhaps the singing was drifting from there. I listened and began to feel a kind of soft timelessness fill my thought. I felt neither young nor old. I felt perfectly aligned in existence. And I said,'Wait a minute. Is this death sneaking up on me?' And I couldn't believe that because I was having too much fun. And then I remembered. The song was a song my older sister used to sing to me as a boy when I couldn't get to sleep on those hot Illinois nights. 'You ask for comfort,' goes the song, 'and I will offer what I have, but will the sheep dogs keep you warm if the fire goes out, if the fire goes out?'
''It had been many years since I had heard it, but, my, how they faded down to a mere spark of time on the wings of that song. I hummed along with the voice and felt a joy and surprise I hadn't felt in years. It was wonderful to lay back down, to be sung to sleep and recall the love of my sister. I was born a singer that night.
''The next morning I told J. B. that this would be my last chess game for awhile because I was going to take singing lessons. 'Robert,' he said, 'you can't even whistle, and how are you going to keep your teeth in while you sing?'
''But I fooled him and I released myself. A woman in the neighborhood by the name of Collins took me on as a voice student. I won't lie. My voice is little better than a crescent wrench breaking through the ice of winter, but I am loud, steady, and I pour all my new found life into the song. And that old desert in me got flooded with water; lots of good green things started to grow, and you should see the flowers I feel.
''J. B. found another chess partner, and I sang, and sang and sang until Mrs. Collins had had enough. She got rid of me by telling me to try out for a musical being put on by a local community group. 'Why not?' said I. And I did, and I got the part of a young old man with three songs plus the finale.
''When the local newspaper got wind that a man with 118 years to call his own was singing in a musical they sent a reporter over. The next day the headline said, '118 Year Old Man Sings In Musical.'
''I had tried to tell the reporter that it was the song and not the age that was important. I guess he thought I was like an old tree, rooted in one spot and a watcher of time marching by. He did spell my name right though.
''We rehearsed for three glorious weeks. The first few days everybody asked me if I was all right, and did I want a chair? 'Only when I eat,' I told them. But it wasn't too long before they saw me for what I was -- a singer who knew the melody, the lyrics and when to hit the high notes.
''When it came time to put on makeup, they said I didn't look old enough, so they put a white beard on my face. Frankly I thought it just made me look messy, but it didn't effect the way I sang, so I stroked it a lot and tried my best to look old. They appreciated my humility.
''All through rehearsals a young girl named Lucy and I had philosophic discussions about who, why and what-do-you-do when you don't know what to do. 'When I don't know what to do,' she said, 'I look for connections.' 'Ah,' said I ,'take it from me, there is nothing more submerged than the unconnected life.' We agreed that singing was near the top of the list of connections. War, we agreed, should be disconnected.
''On opening night the auditorium was filled to capacity. During the second act I noticed J. B. Sangamoro in a coat and tie sitting in the third row watching me intently every time I sang. I knew he was worried that my teeth would fall out.
''When the final curtain dropped, the applause was loud and enthusiastic when we took our bows. J. B. made his way back stage and greeted me with a hearty handshake. 'I really like your singing,' he said, 'it's much better than your chess playing. But I was worried that your beard would fall off and people wouldn't believe you were 118.'
''J.B.,' I said, 'checkmate.'
''So today I sing whenever and wherever I get the chance. The singing fills what before was empty, or at least silent. As I get younger as I get older, I want all my connections to have some dazzle and sparkle and most of all to have some unrestrained noise.
''If this is wisdom, so be it.''