A teenager I had not known very long said, “Mr. Russell is not bad for an old guy.” I wasn’t supposed to hear this comment, but I did. It was about me. I was twenty-four years old at the time—in the summer of 1968, between my first and second years as a high school teacher in New Lenox, Illinois.
My first wife and I attended a beautiful old Presbyterian church in nearby Joliet, Illinois. Toward the end of our first year there the minister asked me if I would coach the church’s youth group softball team. Sometime during that first year I must have mentioned that I had played baseball in high school, and probably that I liked baseball in general. I held the minister in very high regard, and without hesitation I agreed to coach the youth league team.
My first meeting with the team went well. It consisted of girls and boys who were all high school students. To my surprise, I learned at that meeting that coaches could also play in the youth league, and I was excited about this part of the job.
About midway through the season our team had a winning record and all of us were having a lot of fun playing. The team was harmonious, they enjoyed being together, and coaching and playing on the team with them was downright fun for me.
About this time during one particular game, it was my turn to bat. Our team sat along the first two rows of bleachers on the third base side of the field. I walked to the plate, placed my feet, and began to swing my bat back and forth as the pitcher prepared to throw the first pitch. Then I heard this clearly audible teenage voice from someone on our team say, “Mr. Russell is not bad for an old guy.”
I couldn’t help but smile to myself as the first pitch came to the plate. Not one other recollection of that game remains in my head. I don’t know if I swung at that pitch. I don’t know if we won or lost the game. I actually recall nothing else about the season other than that it was a highly positive experience for me to coach that team of teenagers.
Now, well over forty years later, when conversations more often turn to the relative meaning of age, I almost always remember that comment from the youth league player about how I was perceived as being “old” when I was twenty-four. That memory always evokes a positive feeling in my brain.
When I was eighteen my older brother Nolen Robert was twenty-four. When I was eighteen I suppose I thought he was old. While I was still in school, he had a regular job, was married, was the father of a young son, and would soon have a baby daughter. He drove a nice car. He dressed well. I, and many others, looked up to him. Yes, at the time, he seemed considerably older than I was.
Age is relative. Practically all adults—even those who tend to see things as absolutes—no doubt recognize how human perceptions of age change over time. Now I recognize that I’m a senior by any standard definition of age categories among people. While I still consider myself a “young senior,” it is an inescapable truth that I’m getting closer to entering something close to “mid-range” senior status. While I may think that stage is a few years away, in honesty I must confess that “young seniors” and others who are younger than that may justifiably feel I have already reached the middle of the range.
That teenager back in Joliet in 1968 who said I was not bad for an old guy is now over sixty. I wonder how that person and I would see each other today. Would our ages seem that different? Most likely not.
Today, I hope that particular former teenager would say of me, “Mr. Russell doesn’t look all that old for an older guy.”