WAUPACA, WISCONSIN—The abrasive stench of the overchlorinated indoor pool permeated the hallways at the Village Motel. In this atmosphere I did my morning exercises, and then wondered at the chemical risk posed by swimming here. You, know what they say: skin is our biggest organ. Well, heck with it. This would be the first swim of the summer.
The place was deserted at 6 am, except for one sturdy gentleman who left a Styrofoam cup of lobby-brewed coffee on the pool’s edge. I sized him up, somebody in sales. Around 70, keeping some red in his hair and keeping in the game. Life was sample cases and a lot of lonely motels and hotels across the Midwest, and he and his children weren’t talking. If he had any children.
He changed into his suit and dove jauntily from the pool steps into the water. It was a good move to get used to the lukewarm water fast. I started swimming the length of the pool, and I must admit, here in green Wisconsin, where I was supposed to be taking it easy on the home stretch to Green Bay, the internalized Los Angeles rush had me in its grip. There were calls to make, a story to file, devices to charge.
The man in the pool started walking across the short length of the pool. By some good luck, I managed to avoid colliding into him. At one point, however, while doing the backstroke I did plunk my head smack into one cement side of the pool. Pretty good for someone prone to pratfalls as I. After warming up the man started gently swimming the full length, and we still avoided collision. The man’s presence got me to put in a full 25 minute swim, and he didn’t give a hoot about the chlorine level. Afterward he got into the Jacuzzi, a warm experience I had been anticipating. I boldly asked if I could Join him. “Shine it on in,” he said. That must be a Midwestern expression.
I quickly learned how wrong I was about the other swimmer. Brooklyn-born Gene was not a traveler but a resident of Waupaca, retired from the clothing business in Chicago. Retired when he was 82. That much I got right–his zest for work. What I could never guessed was his zest for living and giving.
“We live here in Waupaca when the weather is nice, and go to Alabama when it gets cold. I’m afraid of my wife falling in the snow. We’ve been married 65 years. I paid $ 40,000 to take all my friends and family to Hawaii for our 50th anniversary. My friends said, ‘You’re crazy. Think of the return you could get on that money.’ They didn’t get the point. I knew that I would have memories to last a lifetime. I had already taken care of my wife and fed my children and kept a roof over their heads. That was all taken care of. The money didn’t mean squat. Now for our 50th was doing something for my friends and family: that’s what makes life worth living. I learned from my dad, live every day like it was your last. Do what you like, enjoy yourself. He didn’t mean go out and buy a circus, but do all you can afford. My father went when he was 56.
“The kids and grandkids take after me in this. My grandson lives in San Jose, California. He’s an engineer at Cisco and earns $ 200,000 a year for him alone. He gets all the points when he travels to Puerto Rico, Afghanistan, Paris–wherever it is that he goes. With all the travel points, he’s able to invite his friends on trips all over the world, and it’s all on him. He’s 29. His grandmother is working on him to get married. ‘You got 75 percent of the grandkids married, you should be happy,’ he tells her.
The man in the jacuzzi steered me right on Chicago, its Art Institute, Science and Industry Museum, also its cuisine (Chicago hotdogs and Chicago-style pizza.) Things that aren’t usually on my eating itinerary, but Gene, and his dad through him. taught me something indelible about living well. Do all you can afford and enjoy.
“I went out for my work once to LA,” Gene commented. “Never saw such a bunch of phonies in my life. I was interviewing for jobs. On the application they were saying they were earning 200 thousand a year, and they were eager to take a job for $20,000 a year. Gene dripped water as he climbed out of the Jacuzzi. “Well, I’m off to play golf now.”
Humorist Grady Miller is author of “Lighten Up Now,” a diet for the mind and body, available on Amazon. Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.