I can remember the agony I felt waiting to turn 15 ½ so I could get my driver’s permit. Then I could learn to drive, my father sitting to one side as I drove his old 1949 black Plymouth with a stick shift on the back roads of Modesto, California. My father gave specific instructions, keeping my hands on the wheel in a three o’clock position, and timing the movement of the clutch and gear shift.
“Never lean on a turn,” Father would say, “it looks bush league.”
My greatest moment of glory came when I drove across the San Francisco Bay Bridge into the city, getting all the way home without an accident. Soon, it would be time to “cruise the chicks” at Mel’s Drive-in in my old Studebaker. Adolescence had begun.
As one gets older, birthdays can be stressful. Friends have died, either because of age, bad habits or bad luck. We become aware of our mortality as each birthday brings us closer to what Shakespeare called “dusty death.” I was born in spring, and I often wonder if T.S. Eliot was right with his famous line, “April is the cruelest month.”
In Samuel Beckett’s remarkable short play, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” a 69-year-old man named Krapp (pun intended) reviews reel-to-reel birthday tapes he has made over the years. As the play opens, Krapp is listening to a recorded declaration he made on his 39th birthday when he was “sound as a bell.” Then he hears his younger self criticizing an even younger version of Krapp making all these promises to drink less in particular, and create more, for the youthful Krapp is writing a great “Opus Magnum.” It quickly becomes apparent to the audience that the old man on the stage is appalled by the arrogance and stupidity of the younger “Krapp” he hears on tape.
Then Krapp hears an ancient random tape about a love encounter he had many years before with a woman he barely remembers. Krapp is frozen, listening to sparse lines describing lovers in a boat as they ride on a gentle current: “We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.”
At this point, Krapp realizes what he has truly lost. He will make his last angry live tape lamenting that he can’t believe, reviewing his life, he was “ever that bad.” Then he will visit the romantic reverie again, staring ahead in sorrow as the tape turns and the play ends. I directed a wonderful actor, Joseph Gistirac, in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” and Beckett’s ending created a devastating effect every night.
All of us have similar epiphanies as we get older. Why did we take this road or that road, marry that partner or another partner, or why did we fail to act at a certain time? Everyone has some medical issue with advancing age. Of course, there is the boastful assertion that 70 is the new 40 and that “age is just a number.” Despite these slogans, senior citizens can feel depression. One answer to anyone feeling despair on an advanced landmark birthday ending in a zero is the question, “What is the alternative?”
I am no philosopher, but one can stay in the moment and enjoy the company of family and remaining good friends. Perhaps T. S. Eliot has the best advice in his “Four Quartets” when he insists old men ought to be explorers:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Old women should be explorers, as well.
I still have fond memories of driving that black Plymouth down a country road and hearing my father’s rich voice giving instructions.
Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an Master of Arts degree in English and creative writing. He was active in theater and attended the American Film Institute. He retired from Idaho State University as an instructor of English and speech communications. He has written several books, including “Confessions of a Shanty Irishman,” “Mulligan” and “These Precious Hours.” NPR broadcast his play for two readers: “Letters from Rebecca.”