I was honored to interview a 91-year-old WWII vet the other day. A survivor of the Battle of Saipan, he spoke with me about his tank being hit by a mortar shell. Three of his men were killed; he and his remaining nine men were seriously wounded.
It was a horrific battle, and a horrific war. The gentleman was gracious with me as he reluctantly recounted that fateful morning 68 years ago. He was also witty and charming; when emotions would start to overtake him, we’d change the subject for a bit, letting him collect himself.
And that’s when he pointed out the ping pong table in his den. I had already noticed it. I thought it looked odd in front of the love seat, alongside the piano.
He said it was to ward off Alzheimer’s.
I said, “No. Really?”
He said yes, and demonstrated dodging back and forth, guessing which way the ball will land. He said he and his wife of 63 years play it three times a day, every day.
I told him my mom plays Sudoku, that annoying math game. I hate it. He’d never heard of it. But I’m sure I wasn’t pronouncing it right.
Then I said I was just hoping that one day someone would discover that coffee prevented Alzheimer’s. I was hedging my bets and drinking three cups a day.
He just smiled and said, “Maybe. But you drive by any time of day and look in that window, chances are you’ll see Mother and me playing ping pong.” (I love how he referred to his wife as Mother in my presence.)
When I got home, I played back the interview I’d recorded, transcribing it to a word doc so I could begin working on my article. Here’s what I learned:
The 91-year-old WWII vet had an amazing memory. He recalled names, dates, and locations. And then he asked me if I’d read Unbroken.
“Yes! I loved that book!” And then I tried to tell him about the author’s previous work. I could not recall her name (Laura Hildebrand) and gave up after a minute. And I could not for the life of me come up with the title of her first book, other than to say it’s about that race horse who was around a lot earlier than Secretariat and whose name also started with an “S” (Seabiscuit). It was painful listening to the tape.
Later, we discussed the Great Depression. Which again got me sidetracked to a book I’D JUST READ. And LOVED. But I couldn’t remember the title. It had something to do with a gift, I explained. (Um, it’s The Secret Gift). Then, Lord help me, the man’s wife looked at me and asked if I knew the author’s name. I remained silent, and she quickly followed up with, “Is it a man or woman?”I was able to say, “A man. A Washington Post investigative reporter.” (Ted Gup is the author, b-t-w.)
When I had said goodbye to my interview subject that morning I thought, “Wow, hope I’m as sharp as he when I’m 91.”
After listening to myself on that tape, I realize I don’t sound that sharp at 47. Hell, at this rate, my kids won’t even be in high school before I’m institutionalized.
I’m losing faith in my coffee. Time to look into some ping pong tables pronto.