I’ve been a huge fan of Paul Theroux’s travel books, “The Great Railroad Bazaar,” “The Old Patagonian Express,“ etc. and have just finished “Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads” where he travels through the deep south of the United States. For me it doesn’t measure up to many of his earlier books, but at the end he wrote something I can identify as I approach three score and fourteen:
“Often, talking with someone in the South — a young farmer, a fifteen-year-old mother, a perspiring and potbellied policeman, an indignant gun nut, a toothy preacher, an idle college student, a genteel bank clerk, a harassed community volunteer, or an insulted citizen — I gathered from their response that I was speaking a different language, one that caused them to open their mouths in incomprehension and squint at me. At first I took it to be my Yankee manner, the affronted wanderer, the unlikely stranger with unexpected questions, someone to be appeased or placated.
“No, it was something else. It dawned on me slowly over months that to them I was an old man, who didn’t really count for much but who needed to be humored or grudgingly respected. This response made me mutter and shake my head, because I didn’t feel old. I felt — still feel — I am in the prime of life. But it’s wrong to say that aloud or to object; protestation is a grim old coot’s standard reflex. The hardest thing for anyone healthy to accept is increasing age. Yet why should you feel old if you’re not infirm? I was fit enough to drive all day, hundreds of miles, and to manage this trip; to be lost and to find my bearings; to endure abuse at times, to take the knocks and reverses of the road and a degree of skepticism or hostility from folks en route. Possibly some of them cupped their young hands and whispered behind my back, ‘De old man.’
“A news story I heard on my car radio gave me a clue. The announcer said, ‘An elderly man and a child were struck by a car late yesterday afternoon as they crossed Mabry Road near Highway 49 in Tutwiler,’ the sort of details that resolved themselves into the jerky afterimage of an unlucky man holding a child’s hand at duck, on the road, on foot in the heat — because the man was old and poor. Then more facts: ‘Warren G. Beaver, seventy-two and his granddaughter…’
“I laughed out loud and punched the radio off. Elderly!”
Is this how I can expect to be received if I buy a boat and cruise the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway? Or sailing down the upper Mississippi? An elderly old coot?