Approaching 85

Sam Smith – In a few weeks I will have reached 85 years on this planet, which ties me to my grandfather as the two longest living males in my family in at least three generations. But, as I have mentioned before, being in your 80s is like being a teenager. You don’t know how to do it, nobody shows you how to do it and nobody likes how you do it. It also seems to me that science, which has done a good job of extending life expectancy, forgot to make the new years as much fun and effective as the earlier ones, nor to make those younger than you jealous of your achievement.

This year is also my 60th as a journalist, a trade to which I was introduced at the Harvard student radio station, eventually becoming news director. In fact, the best course I took at Harvard, albeit not on the formal agenda, was covering the Cambridge City Council along with a guy from the Harvard Crimson newspaper. The council members, as well as the real journalists on the job, treated us well. For example,  Harvard educated lawyer Joseph Deguglielmo, eschewing bifocals for two pairs of glasses stacked on his nose and forehead in the order required at any particular moment, explained the workings of a city government with great patience, once commenting that he was uncertain how to vote on a police pay increase because he had to keep in mind that each cop was probably receiving, in goods and cash, several thousand dollars more a year than his official salary

One of our radio station reporters interviewed councilmember Alfred Vellucci and among his responses was this: “The citizens and taxpayers are sick and tired of supporting Harvard. The time has arrived when Cambridge should break away and let the state and federal government support the school. Our police department has to rush to the university every time the students start one of their foolish riots … The fire department has to go in there on school fires…. Let the university become a state of its own like the Vatican in Rome and pay for its own fire and police departments.”

The Boston Globe featured the story and it wasn’t long before student had launched one of their “foolish riots” Two thousand men of Harvard gathered shouting alternatively, “Hang Vellucci,” and “Vellucci for Pope.” Beer cans and water-filled bags were tossed about. Eddie Sullivan, the mayor of the city, showed up in a Chrysler Imperial and attempted to quell the disturbance. He failed to get the attention of the crowd, part of which was busy letting the air out of all four of his tires.

But Mayor Sullivan didn’t hold it against me. In fact, sometime later I passed him in his car in Harvard Square and he invited me to have coffee with him. No Harvard professor ever did that.

My first real job was  a summer one, as a sophomore  at WWDC, then the capital’s leading radio station. My bosses were two colorful Texas liberals, back when there still were some of those. They introduced me to how to step away from the mainstream and how to do it so it was actually fun, although they got me in some deep trouble because they promised to hire me fulltime upon graduation. Suddenly, exams seemed more an annoyance than a plan for the future. And so I graduated magna cum probation and worked for WWDC a couple  of years before joining the Coast Officer Candidate School in order to avoid the draft.

When I left the Coast Guard in 1964, the sixties were in full swing and I started in DC an alternative journal as part of what was then known as the underground press. DC was also turning very black – from 54% in 1960 to 71% in 1970. And blacks were paying the price for it. This was something I knew about because during my summer job some years earlier I had covered what was then the nation’s largest urban renewal project which had already removed from Southwest Washington some 4500 blacks  and 800 businesses. Thus the civil rights movement didn’t surprise me.

My early bias towards individual diversity stood me in good stead in the changing DC. After all, I had five siblings and so had learned early that other people weren’t like me. I engaged in my first personal activism, helping DC Transit riders boycott a fare increase. I drove some 75 folks that day and wrote a piece about it, which attracted the leader of the strike to my apartipment because he was looking for a media guy. Which is how I began a long and varied relationship with Marion Barry, later mayor of the city and even later an imprisoned drug addict.

I also became involved in all  sorts of activism, including writing the first article explaining how DC statehood could be achieved and helping to start the ranked choice vote movement. But none of this was the result of moral pomposity. Rather it was because I had come to like helping others and because I got to know an amazing collection of folks who were fun to be with even if struggling for a cause.

The story of the 1960s and 1970s was one filled with plenty of fascination, variety, fun and hope even while dealing with some of the toughest and meanest issues. But with the election of Ronald Reagan things changed and haven’t improved all that much since.

Reagan and Trump aside, not even Biden, Obama or Clinton bore the cause, cleverness, or consistency of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and while they certainly were improvements over their opponents they have left us with not much to cheer about.

In fact, when I think of the last four decades I sometimes ask myself why did you even bother to keep going? The best I could come up with is that having gone to a Quaker high school I learned that a good life involved acting in the way you considered right, whether or not the odds were on your side.

And this is one of the reasons I now find myself in Maine. There is more decency down the road than you can find in in many cities. There are remarkably few lies, mean thoughts or cruel actions. It isn’t going to change things much but when you get to be 85 that’s not high on one’s agenda.

One reason for this is that our town is small. So we don’t appear on television, participate in the hyperbole of mass advertising and public relations, or replace kindness with thoughtless power. So it’s a good place to turn 85 while waiting for those in their teens and twenties to bring us another 1960s.