This really happened. Being one myself, I write a lot of senior citizens stories. I had an idea for one about a retiree in his eighties who reflects that, despite all of his aches and pains, he’s still ambulatory, has no life-threatening health issues, has his wife and family, and is in better shape than many of his fellow oldsters. Inevitably, something will get him, but right now might be the best of times for him. I might call the story “The Best of Times.”
I then remembered that many years ago, after I’d retired and became a free-lance writer, I’d written a story with that title. It wasn’t about a senior citizen but about a 12-year-old growing up in the Bronx, as I had. The story depicted a summer when he goes every weekend to the Crotona Park handball courts with his brother Jake, back from the Army and a top handball player, watches Jake play and plays himself with his “gang.” The next summer he goes to work in his uncle’s button place and also becomes aware of girls. Also, his brother Jake is dating a girl and no longer has time for handball. When he looks back on that first summer, before work and sex intruded on his life, he thinks that was perhaps the best of times.
I decided that I’d like to read that earlier story, which was in a paperback collection I’d put out, so opened the cabinet above my desk to get it and whammo, a thick volume fell out and knocked my desk lamp to the floor, the metal shade flying out and the bulb broken. Strangely, that thick volume was the one containing the story I was looking for. I retrieved the book and managed to put the lamp back together. I put in a new bulb and it was okay. I went to my armchair with the book and read the story, discovering that the title I used wasn’t “The Best of Times” but “The Happiest of Times.” Needless to say, reading the story brought back a host of memories.
I read some of the other stories and that brought back more memories, especially one about my time in the Army during the Korean War. After being drafted I was sent to Camp Dix in New Jersey for eight weeks basic training. In the sixth week or so we went into a big auditorium to hear where our next assignments would be. There were assignments to various schools, then the rest of us were to go to field wirer’s school. I didn’t know exactly what a field wirer did but I did know that this meant a likely assignment to Korea. I pictured someone on top of a pole doing something with a wire while bullets buzzed around his head.
Looking back from this safe distance it might seem unpatriotic on my part not to want to go to Korea but I had no desire to get myself killed in a dubious conflict. In the story, the protagonist (me) was friends with a fellow soldier who had a PhD degree and was assigned to I&E (Information and Education), probably to become an instructor in something. The PhD soldier knows a clerk in I&E. So the protagonist gets a pass to go to the I&E Building, finds the clerk, tells him he’s a college graduate intending to become a teacher and gets assigned, not to I&E, but to clerk-typist school. This is what in real life happened to me and from there I went to another school and then was finally sent overseas, not to Korea, but to Europe. Unlike the story, I had no friend who told me about I&E and it was hard to believe I had the nerve to somehow get out of field wire school and into clerk-typist school. I tried to remember exactly what I did but, as often happens, over the years what I wrote and what actually happened had become blurred. At any rate, somehow I did avoid going to Korea and so survived.
Eventually I tore myself away from reading my stories and reflected. All in all, I’d been lucky in my life. I’d had that summer at the handball courts before real life intruded. (I never had an older brother; that was an invention.) I’d survived the Army. Like the senior citizen I planned to write about, I was still above ground and in relatively good shape. Was this the best of times? Maybe I’d work that out when I wrote the story, if I wrote it. Meanwhile, I was intact. My desk lamp was also still intact.