Along the way to such a distinguished goal, it is possible, in fact quite essential, to take on a benevolent, even patronizing, attitude toward the whole concept of Prowess, and of youth, too, if you like. In the still brightening light of hindsight, it has become evident to me that this was an attitude possessed in heroic measure by men like my Uncle Rowly. Men like my stepfather, too, for that matter. He and Uncle Rowly both ripened in an era when middle age was a paunchy and still dignified estate to which, in time, a man properly came.
For my stepfather, particularly, the fact of growing older was in no way traumatic. To him, middle age was simply one more way station in a journey that, before it ended, included such other checkpoints as the Second Battle of the Marne, Pearl Harbor, a spectacular plane crash, the ownership of two pet eagles and marriage to my mother. Moreover, he was both a philosopher and a skillful surgeon. In this dual role, he had observed that life's end was unquestionably the grave, and he saw no sense brooding over any increased proximity thereto. Most particularly, he felt that the loss of youth was good riddance, for with it should vanish the eccentric behavior of that age group.
He believed that no grown man should waste time at games, such as tennis and squash, which he judged to be for the very young or for former collegiate champions—a species abounding at the nearby Cricket Club—who charged about in the hot sun until overtaken by coronary thrombosis. Golf he considered insufferable nonsense, a poor use for land that might otherwise be given over to falconry, the cross-breeding of exotic trees or to landing the various small aircraft he owned until my mother shot him down with an ultimatum about flying. He was, moreover, very aware of the prerogatives of age and enjoyed them enormously, rising in a baronial way at table's end to carve the Sunday roast, thundering in ecstasies of rage whenever Roosevelt spoke on the radio (this reflex was expected of all mature Philadelphians, just as hating Custer was once the proper stance of all right-thinking Sioux), reading Dickens aloud and making periodic forays downtown to Bookbinder's restaurant for soft-shell crab—an indulgence that always felled him beneath hideous spasms of gastroenteritis. As for the new-wave ethic of skiing, skin diving or jogging four miles each morning, any middle-aged man who behaved thus was a dangerous lunatic, lurching through the autumn days with his eyes fixed on a vanished season.
It was with my new perceptions carefully stowed in the barn, so to speak, that I eased through the last two weeks at Alta in a series of slow skier's waltzes with my wife and a group of other people that I can only describe as "our age." We packed and headed home, and I was very curious to see whether, against the familiar backdrop, I would find that I was really possessed of fresh knowledge or just so much more illusion.
The first day home was terribly cold. It was also the day that Mr. L. L. Bean, the fine old mail-order supplier for outdoorsmen, died. In deference both to Mr. Bean and the weather, I put on my L. L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoes and walked slowly through a series of snowy roads and fields to a frozen pond, where a pickup hockey game was in progress. Besides various hockey personnel, ranging from age 9 to about 14, two of whom were close relatives of mine, the ice was littered with an assortment of skidding dogs, small children in rubber galoshes, babysitters pulling even smaller children on sleds and one sedate father in knickers and speed skates who was making slow, elegant circles on the pond, hands clasped behind his back.
The hockey game had been temporarily held up by the departure of one player. After a brief conference it was requested that I fill in at goal for the depleted team, on the theory that a goalie, even a father-goalie, could function adequately in hunting boots. For a subsequent, surprisingly serene hour, I stood there experiencing stress only from my eyes, which were watering from the cold. Occasionally a clutch of bodies would approach, out of which would dart the puck, sometimes to bounce off my Maine Hunting Shoes for a save (loud cheers from our side), sometimes to skitter between them for a goal (loud silence from our side).
Toward teatime the air turned so bitter cold that my wet eyelashes began to freeze to one another, making it very difficult to carry out even the benevolent pretense of attempting to stop the puck. I therefore asked to retire. The kids agreed, and we departed for home, my sons and I, to make hot cocoa. En route I stopped to pick up a can of what I call marshmallow whip to put in the cocoa. My sons told me, however, that it was not marshmallow whip at all, but Marshmallow Fluff, which nobody puts in cocoa, Daddy; you spread it on white bread, like an open-face sandwich. I put it in my cocoa, while my oldest son kept telling me my way was all wrong.
No doubt he was right, but the cocoa was good. And so was the day, a day in which no superb deep-powder ski turns had been made, no 40-yard passes thrown to foot-drumming halfbacks, no crackling line drives gained from tough young pitchers, no sudden cheers from glowing maidens earned—but a very good day indeed. Perhaps it had been the best of all my sporting days. Certainly it had been the Coolest.
Now a year has passed since my moments on the sun deck at Alta and I can say, perhaps to my own surprise, that my ease has stood the test of time. There will be no late miracles for me, no more teams for me to make. But there is, in fact, a very good team called the Hornets, with two players having my name. Neither one is me, although to tell the truth they are both me, in left field and behind the plate, swatting Lilliputian line drives to their father's utter joy—and to the total boredom of all the mothers who dislike Little League. For a brief time last summer we even led the league. So, here I am, not with Musial on the Cardinals, but with my own two boys on the Hornets, sitting in the grandstand, having my game and watching it, too.
My wife, of course, complains. She says that while I have indeed passed 40, I passed it going in the wrong direction, that now I never play with anyone who is more than 12 years old. This may be quite true. I mean, who else will have a catch with you?