(l-r)wife Saundra, Grandad, her sister Jerry and Diana
Do I want to live to be 100? If I can do it in good health, an unequivocal YES. If I have to be some sort of hothouse plant, the answer would have to be no. To find out how to do it, and do it right, I went to the source.
John Ward, Granddad to us, died a couple of months before his 106th birthday. At the time of his death he was in better health than I am. His memory was clear, his sense of humor intact, and the only thing about life that really bothered him was the fact that he couldn't walk as far as he used to, and didn't hear very well. He loudly announced in wedding ceremony that it would be much better if he could hear what was going on, followed by alerting the crowd to the possibility that "He's gonna kiss her now!"
Granddad was entitled. There's a special set of rules that come into play after you turn 100, and speaking your mind was one of them. He could even get away with telling some of the ladies that they were getting big and needed to lose some weight, sure death for us younger fellows. What does this have to do with living to be 100? I think it relates to what appears to me to be the first of the keys to longevity. Granddad lived a relatively stress-free life. Oh, I don't mean he didn't see hard times, after all, the man lived through the depression and a half dozen wars.
Having problems and being under stress is not the same thing, however, and when problems occurred, Granddad calmly set about dealing with them and didn't let things get to him. He didn't rattle easily. When hard times hit, and he had a young family to support, he went to the Oklahoma oilfields because there were jobs there. He walked up to a man hiring for an oilrig, and though he was by nature a very honest man, the well-being of his young family allowed him to look the man in the eye and tell him he knew about oil wells. Then he went out to see the first one he had ever seen. Unrattled and unruffled, he immediately made them a hand, and subsequently spent his whole working career in the oilfields of Oklahoma and Texas.
A second key was exercise. A major portion of his life, he was an oilfield pumper. For those unfamiliar with the function, oilfields have widely spaced wells, and these had to be cared for and pumped each day, a process that entailed turning a pump on and off, and maintaining it. Most pumpers drove pickup trucks and made their rounds over their substantial area a minimum of twice a day. Granddad walked his lease, again a minimum of twice a day.
He loved to walk, did it all his life, and even after retiring from the oilfield was a school crossing guard up into his 90's. In fact when a newspaper interviewed him on his 105th birthday and asked the secret of his longevity he said, "Does work count?" It does indeed, but more so the walking he did while he was doing it. In later years he used a walker, mostly because it gave him a built-in place to sit when he needed to take a break from the effort.
He was like that. Deciding to have to start using a walker would be so defeating for many, disheartening for others. Granddad just took it in stride, another in a line of adjustments that didn't define him at all in terms of being a man, but continued to allow him to deal with the world on his own terms.
One of the biggest secrets to his longevity was that Granddad WANTED to live. When so many wore out and just got tired of it all, he still found wonder in what was going on around him. He still wanted to be involved. If there was to be a wedding or a funeral or a get-together, it just wasn't the same without him there. He was a formidable domino opponent as a number of us young pups (only in our 50's) often discovered.
He had a goal of wanting to live in three centuries. At one second after twelve on January first, 2001, the world welcomed a new century in wild acclaim. Granddad watched it with interest, but he welcomed his third.
He was 33 years old when penicillin was discovered, something he never had to have. In fact, he never had any medication stronger than aspirin in his whole life. He didn't smoke, which had to be a factor. "I smoked a pipe for a while, but I got to figuring it was cutting down on my wind, so I quit." After he stopped, he carried that Prince Albert can in his shirt pocket until he wore the letters off.
Granddad always ate simple, natural foods they prepared at home and often raised themselves. Their garden was big enough to not only save on the grocery bill, but to provide good, healthy food. In today's jargon that would be low calorie food that was not cholesterol-saturated.
Granddad didn't live in the past. I can't remember him saying "Why, back in my day . . . " Not that he didn't like to talk about it, and certainly did remember in totally accurate detail. He just didn't dwell on it unless somebody asked him a specific question. He was more interested in what was going on at that time, and that desire to continue to have interest is another key to longevity.
At a birthday celebration (which became major events), a great-great granddaughter was astonished to realize that he had been alive before computers. She couldn't even comprehend when we explained that for all practical purposes he was older than cars, airplanes, and even . . . electric lights. It was too much for her to take in. To her, history is what she reads in books, or finds on the internet. Granddad lived it.
Grandad told me the best way to measure his life was in speed. When he was a young boy (he was born in 1895), he didn't have a horse, so his top speed was what he could run, maybe ten miles an hour. He graduated to a horse and eventually a car and got up to the dizzying speed of 20-30 mph. Airplanes, cars and trains developed, and his speed came up to an unthinkable 100 mph plus. He watched with the world when Lindberg made his historic nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1927, and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon 42 years later. Now, though it'll never happen, in theory he could climb on the space shuttle and go thousands of miles per hour. All these changes have occurred within his lifetime.
Keys to longevity. Oh, sure, there is also a genetic key, hereditary, not much we can do about that one if we don't have it, and he has it. He had ninety-year-old sisters and eighty year old kids. Longivity runs in the family.
You see, he never gave up self-reliance. Granddad lived in a retirement community, not a nursing home. He was there where help is available and meals are prepared, but he was still his own man. He relied on others for transportation to go to things, but found no shortage of people wanting to be the one to take him. He had to make adjustments in deference to his years, but was still very much in control of his own life. He was the one who determined when it was time to retire his driver's license, not the state, and as usual his judgment was good.
The big key, was Granddad himself. He was happy. The man was an elf. His eyes twinkled, and a smile always toyed with the corners of his mouth to burst forth at the least provocation into a shy smile that was totally irresistible. He held court wherever he happened to be with a sense of humor that he didn't bother to conceal. At his age, what terror did life hold? What's the worse thing that can happen? The thing he held at bay longer than most of us have been alive? He wanted to live, but had no fear of dying. He was a Christian and knew what waited for him on the other side, a beloved wife, children, and even great-grandchildren.. He welcomed each day as a new gift and enjoyed it. Never down or disheartened, to be around him wass to be captivated by him. That's what elves do.
At his 100th birthday party a friend of mine dropped by the celebration and wanted to meet him. I said, "Sure, pick him out. A 100 year old man shouldn't be hard to find." At least you wouldn't think so, but she picked a dozen men before she got down to him, including one of his sons. When I did take her over to be introduced she confessed he had more life than some seventy-year-old men she knew (nudging her husband in the ribs), "Including this one." It's very hard to tell how old an elf is.
There are no earth-shaking truths here. Nothing we haven't all heard before. I think the lesson in this is seeing what can happen when they are put together and practiced in a living example.
Can we all live to be a hundred? No, although projections say more and more of us will do just that. If we do live to be older, will we be able to do it in a manner where we will be happy and content? I think that's where Granddad Ward showed us how if we're smart enough to heed the lesson. Which in his own words was, "We're only as old as we choose to be."
Note: I awoke one morning with an overwhelming need to write this article. Everything was pushed aside as it HAD to be done right then. I finished it, then later that day we got word he had passed on. His family asked me to read it as his eulogy.