After college it had been necessary to readjust the secret goal away from football, since all college players and too many professionals were now younger. Fortunately, at this time there was an upsurge of elderly prizefighters, such as Tony Zale, Gus Lesnevich and Joe Walcott, who were fighting title bouts at 35 or so. That left me a good 10 years to make it as a fighter. At the same time I began to think far more kindly of big-league first basemen, since I now saw that first base on some teams was a kind of pasture for mature athletes who could still hit, though some were older even than their managers.
But, of course, setting up these alternative goals turned out to be no more than a simple-minded delaying tactic—as was the addition at age 35 of professional golf—because the process that takes a man past the point of possible triumph in football also sweeps him beyond the ages of the heroes in these other sports. Eventually there was no more hope on the horizon of major national competition, save the shining beacons of Archie Moore, Stan Musial, Charlie Conerly (I guess I never truly gave up on football), Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, men who clung to the pinnacle of their game right into middle age. But you could hardly sit around on the brink of 40 looking forward to being one of them. What I mean to say is that, while at 15 it may have been both logical and immensely comforting to believe that in six years one might be as good as a 21-year-old Stan Musial, now that I was nearly 40 and Musial was 46, we were both simply too old to play baseball—having left, meanwhile, quite different imprints on the national culture.
For some odd reason, that truth had been very difficult to perceive, though I must confess that there had been ample clues along the way to aid in its perception. For example, quite apart from the looming fact of geriatrics, several winters ago my sons, now 11 and 12, established a reference point known as, "Your day, Daddy," as in, "Back in your day, Daddy, did they 1) have television, 2) know about rockets, 3) ride cool motorcycles, 4) only get 60� allowance, 5) have to go to bed at 9:15 when all the other kids, etc...?" That should have been a fair clue that my day might not be tomorrow. Another clue, in the slowly clearing light of hindsight, should have been visible in the fall of 1965 when the boys suggested that henceforth I might like to referee the neighborhood touch football games, in which I had previously functioned as a lordly pass-thrower for both sides. And surely another hint was made distressingly available at the yacht club summer before last when, after watching a children's swim meet, I dove in and swam a hard lap to pull up, puffing and dripping, at the feet of the college boy who coached the team. Grinning at the stopwatch in his hand, he said, quietly, " Mr. Bowen, it seems that you are one of my slower 10-and-unders."
None of these, however, had come through with quite the impact of my wife's comment on the sun deck at Alta. Maybe that is what wives are for. In any event, I excused myself. Feeling a sore throat coming on, I went to our bedroom to lie down for a while. There I discovered in my wife's open suitcase a kind of vest-pocket library whose titles—The Revolt of the Middle-Aged Man, and so on—confirmed more clearly than any other bit of recent evidence that the middle-age process had been taking hold of me for some time, with no orchestration whatever on my part. For want of any firmer course of action, I started to thumb through the books, thinking in a spiritless way that they might contain some guidance for the middle-aged triple-threat man. But, of course, books like this never say anything about sport.
The first one, The Revolt, offered principally the stale scold that I was headed for an emotional second adolescence. A second book, The Middle-Aged Crisis, accused me of a number of other things, all true, such as having erotic fantasies and not making enough money. There was a magazine story containing the grim notion that how one went about being 40 was of no consequence because the whole world was headed for a youth-in, during the course of which the abyss of middle age was being eroded back from 40 to 30 to the narrow ledge of 25. Finally, I dug down to the bottom of the suitcase and discovered that old, standard work, Life Begins at 40, which presented the following antithought: "By nothing more than self-analysis...anybody reaching 40 can learn to live more abundantly." This is like telling the town drunk that by nothing more than running faster, he can learn to be an Olympic champion. Then, the author added heartily: "To live at one's best, one ought to have some 10,000 distinct experiences of satisfaction annually."
Clearly none of these people knew any more about the whole shabby business than I now did. And what I knew, it seemed to me, was that a man cannot mature by controlled sectors, no matter how much weight lifting, wind sprints, youththink or other forms of Geritol are poured into the project. Rather, he gets older all over, and pretty much all at once. And if he is not aware of it, everyone else sure is. Furthermore, when it happens, the proper time for conquest is definitely past, no matter what sports we are talking about. In sum, there was no use continuing to fight the fact that life had definitely changed. From now on we were going to have to play with a whole new set of rules. The only problem was, what were these new rules to be?
I suppose everyone has his own answers to this question, but for me, in view of all that had happened, it seemed logical to begin with the notion that at 40 I was not going to be a whole lot better next year at any given sport. As a corollary, it seemed necessary for me to abandon the limp but historically sustaining illusion that the performance of athlete A or B had been better because he was older. Henceforth, athletes A, B and on through Z had to be judged better simply because they were better or, more pertinently, because they were younger. This last idea, on first contemplation, seemed the heaviest blow of all. It obviously propelled the middle-aged athlete past the point of no return. But, as I thought about it, I realized that if I could ever come to accept the notion, it would be far easier to live with than the old, opposite concept. It would automatically free me from the compulsion to keep trying to get lots better. After all, practice as I might, I could never become younger.
In skiing, particularly, I could begin to see that it was perfect nonsense to try to keep up with all those supple young animals who wore instructor's patches or ski-patrol parkas. The people in skiing who are really good have become so somewhere between the ages of 13 and 20. And though some instructors remain supple and precise right up to about 40, after that they tend to become heavy and to sweat a lot. But they still retain a certain �lan, and this thought led me to my theory of Prowess and Cool. We all have an athletic graph on which there are two lines, Prowess and Cool. These are the two essentials for athletic achievement—in fact, for any achievement. Professional athletes possess large quantities of both. Hence, on their graphs the two lines begin close together, very high up on the scale, and run parallel for an indeterminate time. If, at any point in mid-career, the professional is momentarily deserted by his Prowess, his Cool will usually come forward to sustain him.
With the amateur, on the other hand, Prowess begins, let us say, about halfway up the scale. Cool, of course, is nowhere in sight, as any honest man will concede if he has ever stood over a two-foot putt or tried to put away a duck-soup smash at the net. For a remarkably long time, the Prowess line runs level, with only minor peaks and valleys, until at about 35 it starts a long, steady slide. At the same time, Cool, hopefully, will make its first appearance, rising in a sharp upward swoop to cross Prowess at some single point. Unfortunately, this point may occur at an instant when you are riding a train or are sound asleep. If, however, you are terribly lucky, the crossing will come during a sporting day and occupy a period of some three or four hours, during which you suddenly perform magnificent deeds, say, on the foredeck of a racing sloop or destroy a tennis opponent 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. In either case, the wise man must neither anticipate the moment nor try to recapture it once past.
As this crossing and diverging of the lines takes place, it is extremely important not to panic or rush off and learn to rumba. There is nothing sadder, I now realize, than a freshly minted 40-year-old who, having been handed the middle-aged blessing of Cool, forthwith blows it in a compulsive hot war with the calendar. It is doubly sad since, having outlived the possibility of really competing with the young, there lies ahead, as I have since confirmed, the pleasant fact that against other middle-aged opponents, Prowess is not of much consequence. A middle-aged tennis player can easily observe that at 40 nobody can run fast anymore except, perhaps, some unattractive types who are not necessarily running after the right things. But Cool does matter. If a man can hang onto it long enough, it is possible to wind up like my Uncle Rowly, a first-class tournament doubles player whose Prowess at tennis had sunk to zero at 75. But by that time he had so much Cool he couldn't have cared less. He simply withdrew into a benign dotage of lawn bowls, played on a court of his own making in a game uniform featuring an ascot, a marvelously shaggy tweed coat and a pair of 1932 Spalding saddle shoes—on any thermometer, as cool a Cool as you will ever find.