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A number of years ago when I was working as an editor at Esquire magazine, I was given an assignment to interview the Oldest Man in the World. How it was arrived at that this man was in fact the oldest living male was never clear; the Associated Press had reported that a 114-year-old named Fred Hale was the oldest man, and so we would include him in the magazine. I’d been doing much of the reporting on an annual feature in the magazine in which we presented, in our subjects’ own words, what certain superlative experiences felt like—what the empirical experience was of being struck by lightning, for example, or being nearly burned alive—and so I rented a car and drove north from Brooklyn to Dewitt, New York. The Oldest Man was living at the time in the Nottingham Nursing Home, and I would find him there.
When I arrived at Nottingham, which was just outside of Syracuse, a nurse led me back to Fred Hale’s room. Nursing homes smell much like hospitals, antiseptic but not clean and weirdly like maple syrup, and I focused on getting the microcassette into my recorder. As I say, these stories were presented in their subjects’ own words, and so while on a trip when I was to write a story I might take notes on my surroundings, now all I needed was to prod the Oldest Man to tell me what it felt like to be very, very old.
This took more doing than I’d anticipated. For the first ten minutes of our conversation, Fred Hale did not tell me much. He couldn’t remember what he’d had for breakfast; no, he didn’t know what he’d be having for lunch. He couldn’t hear very well. His nurse, whose name I do not remember, had to translate my questions. The Oldest Man’s face was loose and jowly and much what you’d expect of a 114-year-old face: faint brown spots across it and those little skin tags people grow on their eyelids in time, though surely if asked they wouldn’t remember when they first saw them. Not much was evinced on this loose face but perturbation.
It grew increasingly apparent that the Oldest Man could not remember much of anything. No, he did not remember what he’d had for lunch yesterday, either. No, he didn’t have a favorite song. We couldn’t even get to a scene specific enough for me to ask him what it smelled like.
I stopped asking questions.
His nurse looked at me with a mixture of compassion and contempt.
“Well, c’mon, Freddie,” she said. “You love honey. Why don’t you tell this nice young man about your honey.”
The Oldest Man’s face drew taut, the skin around his mouth and eyes almost coming to flatten out its wrinkles. It wasn’t much progress, but I guessed it was getting somewhere.
“Well,” the oldest man said, “honey’s okay, I guess, long as you don’t disturb the bees. You let the bees alone, they’ll let you have it, all right.”
I asked the old man what he meant by leaving the bees alone—had he owned an apiary at some point? The nurse couldn’t quite translate this into a question Fred Hale could hear, but now something was swimming brighter in his rheumy eyes. He’d grown up on a farm in Northern Michigan, until he was eleven. There he went out every morning when the cock crowed and began to milk the cows. From there he’d slop the pigs or till the soil or harvest the wheat, depending on what season it was. For the next twenty minutes, Hale told me everything there was to know about working a Midwestern farm in 1901, more than a decade before the Boston Red Sox’ last World Series Championship at that time, and closer by a half-century to Thoreau’s writing life than to mine.
His memory worked in such a way that I think it’s unlikely that by the point I’d gotten him narrating his childhood days on the farm he could have remembered to tell me what I’d asked him ten minutes earlier. But now that he was talking about his early childhood, he conjured the particularities of a sylvan day unfamiliar to me, a life that took place decades before he would look up in the sky and see his first airplane flying across the sky, back to life in vivid detail. He described how when you shucked corn there was a way that you could pull the silk all off by breaking the stalk first, and told me something I couldn’t even begin to recount here, only ten years after that interview in Dewitt at the Nottingham Nursing Center, about the immiscibility of milk with other liquids.
A couple times during the Oldest Man’s narration I attempted to ask a question—what is immiscibility, anyway? How did he bathe back then?—but his hearing was nearly gone, and I wasn’t able to break in at all. His nurse might have, but I could see in the widening of her eyes that she’d never heard the Oldest Man speak so freely about his childhood herself. Finally, when we were both so fully enrapt in the story of Fred Hale’s youth on the farm that we had entered a space of imagination much like a shared memory, Fred Hale stopped mid-sentence and coughed something I couldn’t understand.
I asked the nurse what he was saying.
“A cardinal, he says,” the nurse said.
I asked her what she meant—was some story of childhood Catholicism about to be unearthed?—but as I said it, I looked out the window. About fifty yards off from the Oldest Man’s window was a single spruce tree, left to grow in the over-manicured lawn outside the nursing home. There, in its upper branches, was a cardinal, the very mascot of the team the Red Sox would defeat for both their 2004 and 2013 World Series victories. A female cardinal with traces of red in its wings, but mainly a body brown as the branches amid which it sat.
The Oldest Man said something else.
“He says he hasn’t seen a cardinal come through in ages,” the nurse said.
I just stared at her, and then again at him. For the first time I realized what it was that had been irking me about his loose face: he wore no glasses. I had glasses on; I’m nearly blind without them. His more-than-a-century-old face was wizened and liver-spotted, but it was natural as creek-water.
“He can’t hear much,” the nurse said. “But he can see like the day he was born.”
Later on the day jackhammers recovered the talisman Gino Castignoli had buried in concrete under the new Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox and the Yankees collaborated on putting the Ortiz jersey up for auction on eBay. They would not keep the jersey; it would go on display at a museum in Boston, a decision agreed upon by the administrations of both teams. No one in the sports media seemed to question any of this, or whether the jersey’s simply remaining intact and on Earth might not be blamed for any future Yankee futility anyway—construction workers did, after all, tear up the foundation of the house that two billion dollars in tax revenues was building, an act that would seem far more detrimental than a uniform being buried in concrete, an act that might as easily be perceived as a “curse” against the Red Sox as for them. Bids continued on the internet auction site for a week.
The jersey was sold for $175,000.
The uniform shirt was sold to a man who lived in the Boston suburbs, and who claimed initially that he’d bought it because his children had asked him to. Then he said that because the teams had both promised that the proceeds from the auction were going to a foundation that specialized in cancer research, he had decided it seemed more than worth the expenditure: to make sure a fan of the Boston baseball team had been the one to have secured ownership of the jersey, which was headed to a museum in Boston either way, and at the same time to have made a sizeable contribution to a good cause—to lengthen the lives of people who might otherwise be terminally ill. Both his father and stepfather had suffered from the disease, the man said. His father had actually died of prostate cancer years before. When he was interviewed about his purchase, and about having contributed to all this din over a curse that probably wouldn’t have mattered to begin with, the man said: “It’s a lot deeper than just the shirt.”
Can any of the details I’ve included from my description of my interview of the World’s Oldest Man be remembered exactly right? As I say, I have no notes left from the interview. The piece as it ran in the magazine had none of these details, just a transcript my editor cut down to the barest bones to go alongside a photo of the man, and which ran in part like this:
FRED HALE: Keeping away from the women, I guess. You’ve got me down now, so I guess you’re all right. But, oh, honey was good. Well, I eat it every day now. Man was just here from, oh, I don’t know. Bee Association. He found me. He brought me some honey.
N: What’s the best way to eat honey?
FH: Leave it alone. A-yup. The bees will let you have it, you leave it alone. I eat it with my fingers. Flavors the applesauce and everything.
N: Did you drink?
FH: Plenty of water. Alcohol? Not good for you. I had cousins that drank some. They didn’t want me to follow their way. I didn’t drink but once a year. Only whiskey. Liquor and I don’t agree. Never smoked anything.
This version of the story does at least confirm my memory of the beekeeping conversation. And I’m reasonably sure it was a cardinal Fred Hale said he spotted. But why not an oriole (whose team the Red Sox play in a division with)? Because for some reason I thought the crimson of its back would convince or because my memory liked the association with the Sox’ victory? In a letter to his friend Harrison G. O. Blake, Thoreau once wrote, “I trust that you realized what an exaggerator I am,—that I lay myself out to exaggerate whenever I have an opportunity,—pile Pelion upon Ossa, to reach heaven so. Expect no trivial truth from me, unless I am on the witness stand. I will come as near to lying as you can drive a coach-and-four.” And I wonder now: what distinction has been made in Thoreau’s admission here? What even would a lie constitute for Thoreau, imagining himself not at the business of surveying as he did in the latter years of his life, but of giving courtroom testimony, if not a new appropriation of memory?
Emerson became one of his friend’s greatest critics late in life. In writing about Thoreau’s first book he said: “Henry Thoreau is like the woodgod who solicits the wandering poet & draws him into antres vast & desarts idle, & bereaves him of his memory, & leaves him naked, plaiting vines & with twigs in his hand. Very seductive are the first tapes from the town to the woods, but the End is want & madness.”