I first met Jack when I was a student in Barber College. I’d been there for about two months, and I had worked my way from tenth chair to first chair, so I was able to take clients who were either very picky, or had some sort of special need. Jack had a special need. It was a Thursday afternoon in late September when I first met him. The sun was bright and warm, but had definitely passed its summer zenith, and the minute you walked into any shade at all, it was immediately chilly. Thursday afternoons are not a particularly busy time in the barber business. It’s after the early week business rush, and before the ‘get shined up for the weekend’ rush. I was sitting in my barber chair with a magazine, and I looked south out into the bright sunshine. On the sidewalk, a block away was an old, old, man. He wore a pair of tan, creased slacks, and a short sleeved yellow button up shirt. His pants were hiked up almost to his armpits, and he wore a shiny black belt cinched tightly so that the slacks and the shirt billowed out, and in the middle was this skinny little waist, banded with the belt. He used a cane, which was also black.
I watched this guy walk three or four impossibly slow steps and then stop and rest one hand on top of the other, both on top of the cane. His steps were so slow I couldn’t calculate how he was able to stay upright, but he did. He reminded me of an ancient cartoon tortoise I’d seen one time as a young kid. Slowly but surely he made his way to the shop, and someone held the door for him when he came in. The instructor said, “Stevens, you’re up.” I went over and greeted him, and he said very quietly that his name was Jack. It took an abnormally long time to get him settled into the chair, and after he finally got there he handed me his cane, and right where the cane crooked, I could see where he had worn through the black into the wood underneath. I asked him what he wanted, and he said, “Shorter, take it off the ears, other than that I don’t care.” His neck was so thin that the tightest snap still left too much space, so I had to pin it. Finally I was able to start the cut.
I worked for a few minutes, his hair so dry, so thin, so incredibly white, like snow, that it literally floated away as I cut it. After a few minutes I started asking him questions. “Was he from Missoula?’ “No,” he said, “I’m from Havre, northeast of there actually.” I said, “Now that’s cold country.” Suddenly I could feel him spark. He perked up, started talking, like no one had taken interest in him in years…and they probably hadn’t. After that, each time he came in, he told me more, amazing, amazing things.
He was born in a sod house northeast of Havre. Born in the house, not a hospital, and then taken home. He was raised there on that little “place” as he called it. They were subsistence farmers. He talked about having to go miles for firewood, using a team of horses to haul it back. He told about how he, his dad and a brother walked the railroad tracks and filled burlap bags with coal that had fallen from freight cars, and his dad bucking up creosote soaked railroad ties and splitting them very finely to use as kindling. He described how his dad would heap loose hay over the little sod house and then use some sort of mat he’d weaved from willows to hold it in place. Even with all the precautions, and everyone huddled in two straw beds pushed together, every single night was a war to keep warm. He talked about the welcomed spring…but the hordes of mosquitoes that came with it, and violent thunderstorms that cracked and split the black night, and no protection from it besides the sod house. One year they had a banner crop of wheat and hay, and a massive black cloud of locusts moved in like a Biblical judgment and wiped everything out. They dug ditches and filled them with anything that would burn to create a barrier against the locusts that crawled on the ground and ate everything in their path. He told me about watching his dad sitting on a block of wood looking over his devastated crops, black from soot from head to toe. He remembered seeing pink tracks where tears had washed away the black. It was the only time he ever saw him cry, even when his mother died in the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.
He met his future wife when he was an eighth grader, and they married when he was 17, and she was 16. They had three children, the first two were girls, then finally a boy, all in a span of 5 years. They moved from Havre, first to Great Falls, where he worked for a place that made cattle feed, then later, to Bonner, where he worked for the Anaconda copper company. He retired there and they moved into Missoula. One day I asked him when he retired. He told me that he retired in 1957. I thought about that for a few minutes and asked him, “Can I ask how old you are?” He smiled, “Sure, but I might not tell!” I laughed and told him, “Fair enough.” When he finished laughing he got quiet for a minute. “No, I guess I can tell you. I was born March 6th, 1892.” I did quick math in my head, astonished. “So you’re 106 years old?” He nodded, “Be 107 in March, but at this age there’s no guarantee I will see it.”
Jack is the oldest person I have ever personally known that still had such sharp faculties. There was no stammering or searching for words, he was a little hard of hearing, and wore heavy, coke bottle glasses, but his mind was razor sharp. One of the last times I saw him, I asked him what his secret to such a long life was. He was quiet for a long time. Then he turned and looked up at me with those pale, pale, hazel eyes. “Do you really want to know that?” I shrugged at him, and he turned back toward the mirror. “Old age like this…,” he paused and tapped himself on the chest with a skinny finger “...old age like this, is tough. I buried my wife in 1970, she was 77 years old, and we’d been married for 61 years. My kids have all passed on, they were in their 80's, normal ages to pass away. I don’t have any friends left from the old days. I know some people that are old like me, but they, well, they haven’t fared so well. Everyone I cared about or loved, or even knew…they’re all gone, and I’m still here. No, you don’t want to know any secrets about living this long…” I have thought about that conversation hundreds of times over the years. I don’t know how much longer Jack lived, but his words haunted me, and they still do.