Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

September 12, 2004


Celebrating life with some surprisingly vigorous old men


          One of the pleasant surprises of my life this year has been the fun of meeting once a week with a dozen old men. I must admit I did not expect at first to enjoy these meetings.

          Being the old codger on the staff at St. James Church, I was encouraged to attend the gathering known as the Retired Men’s Coffee. They meet at the Rock House near the church every Wednesday morning at 8 o’clock. To be honest, I expected to find a collection of grumpy old men who had perfected the art of complaining about everything.

          Confession being good for the soul, I admit I was wrong. What I found was a lively group of men I quickly began to admire. Being human, they do sometimes gripe about the behavior of the younger generation, but for the most part they have a positive attitude about life. They want to know when the church is breaking ground to build a new sanctuary. They want to see it happen! They want to help make it happen!

          At the tender age of 72, I am a youngster to most of them.  However, they have accepted me graciously. At first a stranger, I now feel one of them, and that is a good feeling. They have made me feel more like a friend than “the preacher.” For that I am grateful. I know what it feels like to be held at arm’s length because I am a preacher.

          I have tried to analyze this group of men to discover why they are not lethargic and negative. Many old men are. Not these guys. They are alive and hopeful. What is their secret? Here are a few of my unscientific conclusions:

          These men genuinely care about each other. If one of the men is absent, someone there will know why. They constantly check up on each other and pass the word when there is a problem. Howard Synco is absent right now. Everyone knows he is on a cruise in Alaska with some family members. Many of the men attend Sunday school together but I surmise that this group may mean as much to them as the class does.

          A few of the men are unable to drive, so the men who still drive provide transportation. Loyd Smilie, Jim Hutchens, and Cecil Moody call around offering to pick up any man who needs a ride. Right now Bill Hammond cannot walk without the use of a walker but he accepts a ride and shows up most of the time. This hour of fellowship is obviously important to him.

          There is no breakfast so it is not the food that brings the men out. The men alternate the chore of bringing donuts, cake, and cheese crackers. Occasionally, Gene Hawkins or Loyd Smilie may try to shame the others by baking a cake, though nobody seems embarrassed enough to bake another cake. Someone makes coffee, strong coffee. If you don’t drink coffee, you can drink water.

These men have had their faith tested and they passed the test. Some are cancer survivors. Cecil James is fighting cancer now. Some have endured heart surgery and other health problems. Some of them live alone, having suffered the loss and companionship of a beloved wife. Through it all, each one has found comfort in the promises of God and the support of family and friends. They have suffered, but they are the stronger for it.

          To lose your wife after more than 50 years of marriage is a devastating experience. Some men never recover from the loss. One man I knew lost his wife of 55 years and died a week later of a broken heart. He simply did not want to live any longer without his dearest friend by his side. That is understandable.

What is remarkable is for such a man to manage his sorrow, refuse to indulge in self-pity, and go on living for others until God calls him home. While grief numbs the soul for a season, it is possible to move beyond the shadow of sorrow and live in the sunshine of God’s love. My own faith has been strengthened by the men in this group who have refused to allow sadness to dominate the final years of their lives. Henry Greene, who is 84, is such a man. He lost his precious Tiny last year.  Henry and other men are showing me how to celebrate life despite the crushing experience of sorrow. They know they are going to die also, but they intend to live well until life ends. I admire their spirit. Others do also. Life is good, despite its heartaches.

These men celebrate life by sharing funny stories with each other. They laugh a lot, and laughter is good medicine for the soul.  Sometimes they laugh at, and with, each other. They kid Rufus Stagner because he likes to watch his wife work in their yard. Their stories are not crude jokes that some men like to tell. Men of character, like these old men, do not need vulgarity to make them laugh. They are, after all, men of God, not pagans with a thirst for profanity.

Many of their stories are about how hard they had to work as young men, compared to the easy life enjoyed by today’s young men. There seems to be a consensus that the secret of a long life is hard work and faith in God. Though life was harder in the good old days, nobody wants to give up our modern conveniences. We do enjoy talking about what it was like to milk cows, slop the hogs, churn the butter, feed the chickens, and bake sweet potatoes amidst the hot coals of an open fireplace. I never tire of listening to the war stories of old men, though I imagine younger people must. The difference is that I was there – on the farm, working hard, and always having plenty to eat even when money was scarce.

My old friends celebrate their age, and they celebrate birthdays. John Howard, who is pushing 84, creates his own birthday cards on his computer (though we suspect Winnie may have to help him). Often the men will sign a card in the presence of the birthday boy and give him the card as the meeting ends. Saves postage. A good idea since the group has no budget. 

We all marvel at the health of Jim Kelly, who is 96 and drives himself to the meetings. He laughs and says his doctor is frustrated because he cannot find anything wrong with Jim. He seems as healthy as a horse, and his mind is amazingly sharp. Kelly says the secret of his longevity may be in his genes since his daddy lived to be 104 and never took medicine. Jim takes no medicine either; he figures medicine is bad for your health.

These old men did me a favor. I was a stranger and they took me in. They have won a place in heart, and I can testify to one and all – they are definitely not grumpy old men!  + + + +