Reflections On Turning 70

This is supposed to be one of those “milestone” birthdays.  Even the Bible mentions it, ominously. “Three Score and Ten” is the measure of man’s life.  But I’m not feeling like I’ve passed a milestone.  Other birthdays were different.

When I turned 7 I felt that I had finally made it, out of first grade, into second.  I got a Roy Rogers sweat shirt for my birthday.  It was an unseasonably warm day, perhaps 60 degrees.  I got to wear it to school without a jacket.  I could show it off to all of my friends.  I kept it on inside school despite the school room’s heat.  When I got home pop had painted, in bright red, across the living room wall “Happy Birthday Richard!”  I was impressed.  Pop had planned to repaint the living room so why not give me a surprise?  Unfortunately the red bled through every coat of paint he put over the greeting.  Finally he gave up and went to wall paper.  Then he went to paneling.  I hope that the new owners of the house, I sold it 60 years later, after my mom died, found a faded red “Happy Birthday Richard” when they removed the paneling.

Thirteen was another milestone birthday.  I became a teenager.  I had been part of the teenaged culture for a few years, listening to WINS and watching American Bandstand.  Now I was officially a teenager.  Someone said that the ‘50s were the best time to be a teen, and I can brag that I was a teen in the ‘50s, for 40 whole days.

Another milestone birthday was 21.   My friends and I all went down to the Northfield, Minnesota Muni to buy me my first legal drink.  It was a (or perhaps more than a) rum and coke.  I was so unsophisticated.   I mean I chased it with 3.2 beer.  That birthday also marked my becoming a voting citizen (Voting age was 21 back then) and I became involved in the Gene McCarthy campaign for President.

The next milestone was 26.  I could rent a car without paying outrageous extra fees, my draft eligibility dropped and I was about to become a father.

Sixty five was a “Freedom” birthday.  I could get Medicare.  It was almost impossible to get any coverage in my early 60s.  At 61 I took a job in Serbia because it offered affordable health care.  Republicans take note.  I actually had to leave the country to get healthcare coverage.  Turning 65 meant that Suzi and I could come home and be able to afford to see a doctor.   That was a real milestone.

But there are two milestone birthdays that I particularly want to remember today.  I turned 17 when I was a senior in high school.  I was one of the last in my class to turn 17, the age when I could get my driver’s license.  My 17th birthday was on a Thursday.  On Friday pop was to take time off from work to take me for my driver’s permit test.

My parents had planned a surprise party for me on my birthday at my favorite steak house, which also served hot fudge sundaes.  It was a real treat because we couldn’t afford steak all that often.  They invited several of my friends.  We were all sitting around a table.  In the middle of desert I dropped my spoon into my ice cream and said “the President’s going to die.”  Everyone looked at me.  I don’t know why I said it, it seemed absurd, embarrassing, but it just came out.   I felt it.  After a brief discussion of how (He was flying to Dallas, perhaps a plane wreck), my parents ordered their coffee, I opened my presents and we went home.  It was a school night.

The next day pop took me to the DMV where I passed my written test and got my learner’s permit.  I got to school around lunch time, proudly showing off the permit that most of my friends were already beyond, having gotten their full licenses.  During American History the Principal came on the PA system.  “Boys and girls, there is something you have to hear.” He put the radio up to the mic.  At first it was confusing, talk of shots, Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas Governor Connally, and Parkland Hospital again.  We were confused.  Mrs. Car asked “Did someone say the president had been shot?”  Then a voice coming out of the confusion telling us that President Kennedy was dead, assassinated, in Dallas.

Between classes word spread about my birthday dinner and my prediction.  Usually walking down high school halls was a jostle but on this Friday, November 22, 1963, I had a clear path.  My fellow students parted like the Red Sea.  People shied away.  I felt so alone, I couldn’t handle my prediction and neither could my friends.  I felt so alone.

But perhaps the most memorable birthday was when I turned 50.    I was teaching journalism at Tirana University.  I took a New York Times interview with President Berisha and distribute the first half of it to the class.  The reporter was trying to get information without completely slamming the door to future access to the President.  The president was trying to keep some items from the reporter while still portraying the image of openness.  I asked students to role play the conclusion of the interview.  Some students reported me to a Democratic Party official, accusing me of saying the President was not always completely open and candid with the press (what president ever was?)  There were questions, discussions, and interviews.  The University Rector warned me that I may be disciplined.

On my 50th birthday my students had gotten a cake, balloons and were having a little party for me before class.  (The only time students were early, or even on time.)  Just as class was supposed to start an official walked into the room and handed me a letter with all sorts of stamps and seals.  I read enough Albanian to know what it was.  I was being dismissed, ordered to leave the campus immediately.  While I could read it I handed it to one of my students for him to “translate.”  I wanted a dramatic effect.  He read it.  I packed up my notes, took a piece of cake and left.  Most of my students followed me.

It is one thing to fire a professor in front of a class; it is another thing to fire a professor in front of a journalism class where several of the students were working at papers.  This was an easy story for them.  Within the next few days I was in every paper in Tirana.  My favorite headline was “Is Fired Professor Eligible for Social Insurance?”  The students pressed the dean, rector and Minister of Education.  The officials said it was not political, but a problem with paperwork.  I did not have a valid contract.  My enterprising journalist students dug more deeply. They reported that none of the visiting professors had a valid contract, not the Peace Corps volunteers teaching English, not the Fulbright professors, not the Turkish exchange professors.  As a result the University had to fire ALL of the foreign professors EXCEPT my wife, Suzi, who was not on any “program” like Fulbright, or Peace Corpse.  Apparently she had a contract, although she had never seen it.  The Minister told the press “This is nothing against the McClears, Mrs. McClear is still teaching.”  This whole thing created an incident between the US, the Turks and the Albanians.  The Ambassador invited me in and called me “her troublesome professor.”

This was in November.  By the end of the Christmas holidays contracts had been arranged for the Peace Corps, Turkish professors, and the Fulbrighters (except for one troublesome law professor).  I had no contract.  I continued to conduct classes in the American center funded by IREX and the Soros Foundation.  I had better attendance after the firing than before.

So those are my memorable birthdays, far more memorable than 70.  I hope I have a few more rides around the sun and perhaps a few more memorable birthdays.  But this year I will take it easy as I pass into some sort of elder hood.

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