Getting old is no good. The world gets blurry. Hair grows in your ears. People stop falling in love with you. And that ain’t the half of it. Lately, I’ve been getting older. The skin on my neck is coming loose, and my face is getting lumpy making it hard to shave without cutting myself. One of the worst things about getting old is that you remember things. Like Zora Neal Hurston said, you can “live by comparisons,” but living by comparisons can have a sour taste when what you remember was better than what you see.
I live in Michigan, a twenty-minute drive from the bee-loud glades of at least three good-sized apple orchards. But the apple juice in my shopping cart, which bumped against the cheap razors I buy and snapped the “made in China” handles of half of them, says on the label that it’s made from apples grown in Chile. I imagine a woman in Chile about my age, getting old, picking apples. She remembers things that make the present sour. Like the time in her childhood when the people were hopeful, when a man named Allende promised to give to them what was rightfully theirs. Of course she remembers another man named Pinochet. As she and I got older we both learned things about the United States and its C.I.A. For me they were news stories and histories, for her the lessons took place before her still-sharp eyes. Now she picks apples, and I drink the juice. The children I teach reliably tell me that we deserve the juice, so to speak. We deserve our disproportionate share of the earth’s plenty as the reward for our hard work. I speak to adults who say the same thing. Wealth is the reward for hard work, and poverty is the sign of laziness. I’ve got news. No one works harder than my Chilean apple picker.
But it is not her that I’m thinking of most today. It is a little girl named Layla. When the coup that overthrew Allende in Chile was taking place, I was playing in my backyard. I stopped at the sound dragon’s wings, or a heart pounding high above me. I looked up and saw an olive drab helicopter shaped like a whale and watched it glide overhead and out of sight, on its way to war. I was ten, but I knew where that war was. Vietnam. It was the place where older guys with buzz cuts walked smoking cigarettes and carrying rifles like they were baseball bats. It was the place where sometimes those guys would be zipped up in a black plastic bag and put on one of those helicopters. I saw these things on television. On rides in the car in those days we would see on almost every stop sign, under the word Stop, the spray painted words “THE WAR.” At school we prayed for the soldiers at war and the soldiers who had died and for Mrs. Gardner’s son. I remember one day walking along a railroad tie havng just watched a rerun of The Monkees. I vowed on that railroad tie that I would never become a hippy. Hippies made trouble on the news. They spray painted stop signs, and they fought with the police up at Thirteen Mile and Woodward. I would never do that to my parents.
All that was long before Layla was born. The war did stop, and the hippies had had something to do with it. Then we lived without war. We celebrated with innocent fun–disco dancing, the Gong Show, mood rings, pet rocks and Star Wars. The green whales no longer floated over our house, and I could turn eighteen in safety. I could get older.