The Bell Curve: Born on the Fourth of July

Editor's note: Retired Daily Pilot columnist Joseph N. Bell has written a special column to mark his 90th birthday, which falls on Independence Day.

As a young boy watching the Fourth of July parade in the county-seat town of Decatur, Ind., the biggest attraction always was a very old man, who shuffled at the head of the parade. I was told he had been a drummer boy and flag carrier in Mr. Lincoln's army.

He had a long gray beard and carried a cane, but I envisioned him as a young and vigorous lad waving his flag and beating his drum atop the carnage at Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. I felt a special connection to him because my own grandfather had also fought for Mr. Lincoln's Union Army.

I will think of that old man Monday as I celebrate my 90th birthday and our country's Independence Day. Only now I'm the patriarch at the head of the parade, feeling incredulous to have arrived at this mystic age. People have been asking me how it feels to be turning 90, so I thought I'd return to The Bell Curve to share the state of mind, in which I approach the start of my 10th decade on this planet.

I'm officially part of what's been called the Greatest Generation. I've never liked this term because I feel that other generations would have responded to the challenges mine faced in a similar fashion.

But being part of World War II as a Navy pilot did shape the way I have approached life ever since. The lessons I took home from the war are the same ones I'd most like to share with those who look to me for whatever words of wisdom I can offer from my uneasy position as an elder statesman.

For example, I learned the value of interdependent friendship — of being able to trust and depend on another human being literally with your life — and to be able to offer the same in return. The war also taught me that both our physical and intellectual limits are far beyond what we believe them to be, that we can endure stress and physical hardships and make decisions we wouldn't believe possible under normal circumstances.

It taught me the opposite poles of discipline: to do what I had to do as well as I possibly could and keep my mouth shut on the one hand, and to understand the system and beat it at its own game when no one else would be hurt except me if I figured wrong. And it taught me to take intelligent risks, but to understand the odds and weigh what I might gain against them. It also taught me how to make a bed with square corners, eat beans for breakfast and drink martinis straight up.

While these principles, among others, have guided me through life, I now find myself searching for a similar base of beliefs to help me make peace with the proximity of death.

I accept a power far greater than humankind can muster, but this still leaves a lot of room for doubts about whether the hereafter has anything more to offer than the here and now. I find comfort in embracing the mystery, as reflected in the prophetic words on writer Conrad Aiken's gravestone in Savannah, Ga.: "Destination Unknown."

During my years at the University of Missouri, one of my role models was my Uncle Charley, a devotee of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was bedridden through most of my senior year at Mizzou, and I called on him faithfully. If a Cardinal game was going on during those visits, he was always watching or listening. I marveled that he could immerse himself so completely in baseball in the last months of his life.

Now that I am turning 90, deifying baseball doesn't seem like such a bad idea after all. But while I indulge in baseball, I prefer to stay involved in other pursuits as well, including the neighborhood poker game, Thursday night family dinners and maintaining a lifelong writing habit.

It was my intention to personally thank each and every one of the generous letter writers and editors who took the time to say goodbye to The Bell Curve when I retired it in January. But it went the way of most of my good intentions, ending here with a kind of form love letter.

You know who you are, and I tip my glass to you today for offering me the loyalty and the platform to express views that hopefully provided balance for consideration in this conservative community.

I also want to thank the loved ones and friends who have come from across the country, and even from as far away as Denmark, to help me celebrate this birthday — and my daughters and the neighbors who have put together two parties in my honor. It is humbling to feel so much love and appreciation from so many corners of my world.

Finally, one morning last week I went out to my driveway to get the newspaper when a passing car stopped in front of my house. It's about as hard for me to bend over far enough to reach the newspaper as it is to put on my socks, and a thoughtful stranger who had witnessed this effort took the time to help. She picked up the newspaper and handed it to me, and I thanked her. This gesture of kindness stayed with me long after she drove away.

Few of us reach this stage of life without needing help. I've always been determined to age gracefully, and I'm discovering this is harder than I thought. It means being able to accept help with gratitude, rather than pushing it away in an effort to maintain one's independence.

I've discovered that learning to receive gracefully is as important as learning to give. Even for the Greatest Generation.

JOSEPH N. BELL, a former longtime columnist for the Daily Pilot, lives in Newport Beach. He retired his column, The Bell Curve, in January.

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