Today, on July 8, in the year of our Lord 2009, I will celebrate my 39th birthday — for the 44th time. I wrote about this last year when I turned 82, and earlier when I reached 81, and what I recounted then is still relevant and worth updating.
Not much is new since then. In October I was involved in a head-on collision with a teenage girl who crossed the median strip and hit me head on, leaving me with a torn rotator cuff in my right shoulder and a spat with the notoriously penny- pinching Allstate, her insurance company, that says it wasn’t her fault — that she was blindsided by a phantom vehicle nobody but another young girl out of dozens of witnesses saw.
On top of that, a couple of months ago I woke up one morning with a lump in the left side of my neck which turned out to be a squamus cell cancer that invaded a lymph node. I had a course of radiation treatments that shrunk the tumor but it’s still there. We’ll see if this is the end game. It’s about time anyway.
I don't expect the occasion of my 83rd birthday to evoke widespread national interest since most people have a lot more important things on their minds than my advancement into my 84th year. (Yeah, that's right. I'll be 83 years old, having completed that many years in this vale of tears, but from July, 8, 2009 onward I'll be working on my 84th year. Pointing out this kind of fact used to drive my late wife nuts. "You're always making everybody a year older," she'd say.)
But the day has some meaning for me because I never expected to be around to observe a birthday marking the passage of that many years. As someone once said, "If I'd known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself."
But would I have?
For more than 40 years I smoked seven, cheap, foul-smelling cigars a day, and unlike Slick Willie, I inhaled. Do I regret it? Heck no! I miss chewing on those stogies, especially after eating. A cigar put a period at the end of a meal. Without that period, the culinary sentence runs on and on. As a result, the waistline also runs on and on.
During my 12 years in Washington, I spent a lot of lunchtimes at Johnny Mandis's Market Inn, eating those great 3 pound Lobsters ($3.00 a pound) and swilling his patented bird-bath martinis. I have since discovered that the $3 a pound I thought was outrageous at the time would now be considered a great bargain.
Although I also have learned that martinis, bird-bath or normal sized, are really poison, at the time they sure went down smoothly. And they helped make sense of what was going on around that madhouse on Capitol Hill where I worked when I wasn't eating 3 pound lobsters and drinking bird-bath martinis.
As I reflect on my past, I realize my whole life has been a series of leaps into the unknown, taking one risk after another which in retrospect appear to have been exercises in madness. I wonder how I could ever have taken the outrageous chances I took — and I thank God I did. What a bore life would have been otherwise.
In 1943, at the tender age of 17 and having reached the point where I could no longer tolerate the discipline imposed by my parents and my Jesuit teachers at Brooklyn Prep, I took what I thought was the easy way out. I joined the Marines, seeking a less rigid, more-relaxed routine. It took about 15 minutes at Parris Island boot camp to disabuse me of that rather bizarre notion.
I thought at the time that I'd made a colossal mistake, but it was probably one of the best things I ever did. I grew up in a hurry. And it's true, once a Marine always a Marine. And there are a lot worse things to be.
On Nov. 5, 2004, I went up to Norfolk, Va., to be the guest of honor at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball hosted by Marine Air Control Squadron-24. It was to the day, the 62nd anniversary of my entering the Corps. My brother Jim, a retired Marine major, and his wife Rita joined me and that’s appropriate because Jim was also with me on Nov. 5, 1943 when I went to Manhattan to begin my journey to Parris Island and boot camp.
We stood and talked until it was time for me to climb on the bus that was to take me and the other recruits to the train station. We said goodbye and as I watched him slowly disappear down Lexington Avenue taking my life as it had been up to then with him, it suddenly struck me what was happening and I thought, “My God, what the hell have I done?”
And last year, as a result of my groundbreaking columns that early on told the only true story of what happened in Haditha in 2004 when civilians were caught in the crossfire in an insurgent ambush and killed, helped exonerate eight of the Marines who had been unjustly charged. For that I was named Man of the Year by the Defend our Marines organization. Now I can die!
In 1956, at the age of 30, married and the father of two sons, I uprooted my family, sold our house in Blue Point, Long Island, and bought a 38-acre place outside of Fredericksburg, Va. To put into perspective just how much things have changed since then, that lovely eight-room plantation house with outbuildings sitting majestically on top of a hill surrounded by eight acres of lawn and all that other sprawling acreage cost exactly $18,900. I’d guess that it would go for well over $1 million today.
I didn't have the vaguest idea of what I was going to do for a living, but it seemed like a great idea and, naively believing that I might be able to make some contribution to the commonweal, I wanted to get involved in national politics, having been heavily involved in local politics back on the Island.
The fact that I had absolutely no qualifications worth mentioning didn't deter me for one second. It's true: fools do rush in where angels fear to tread.
Besides, I liked Washington, having been stationed there at the end of World War II, and figured I'd find something or other to do in the seat of all wisdom, 50 miles north of our Fredericksburg farm.
Amazingly I did. With no background whatsoever in the publicity field, I landed a key job working as a PR man on the Washington end of the Alaska statehood campaign for the sum of $50 a week.
Helping to add a star to Old Glory led to other things, some of them memorable, gave me a start to a career that put me in the company of some very great Americans, and in the midst of some great events during the era of the Cold War.
Looking back now I realize just how lucky I was. What could have been a disaster turned out better than I could ever have hoped.
Having no journalistic experience of any kind whatsoever, I accepted an offer to write a Washington column for Bill Buckley's National Review magazine under the Cato byline (I couldn't use my real name because the House GOP leadership I then worked for wouldn't allow it). The column was widely read in Washington and, incredibly, I lasted three-plus years, and I got a jumpstart in a writing career that has never ended.
In the course of my 12 years in Washington I worked on Capitol Hill, got involved on the intelligence side of the Cold War, edited a political magazine, worked for Dick Nixon, did work for Dwight Eisenhower, helped organize what became the Goldwater movement, organized and co-managed the GOP Truth Squad in ’64 for Barry, traveling some 50,000 miles in six weeks, ran a couple of congressional campaigns and did a lot of other interesting things.
In 1964, having outgrown the Fredericksburg house we moved to a 14-room house on three terraced acres on the Severn River a mile upriver from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Cost: $50,000. Value today? Maybe $3.5 million to $5 million.
Four years later, in 1968, I did it again, this time hauling my family, now grown to seven children, two dogs and a cat, to Boca Raton, Fla. I had absolutely no prospects in sight. Once again, against all odds, it worked out.
And I haven't had to shovel snow in 36 years.
That's the way it's been. I realize now that I took a lot of risks, following my impulses without having the least idea of where they would lead me. I entered a lot of dark tunnels, but thanks to a loving God — and a saint of a wife who supported me even when the idea terrified her — I always found the light at the end.
Looking back now, I understand that what I was taught by those hard-nosed Jesuits, that, informed by your faith, if you do what you believe is the right thing to do, and leave everything else up to God, everything eventually works out.
Stonewall Jackson said it best: "Duty is mine; consequences are God's."
In 1976 my son Freddy was killed in a car crash, and my beloved Barby died 17 years ago after a horrendous three years of suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, and 43 magnificent years of being part of a "we" came to an end. Now I'm just a me. It still hurts after all these years, but life goes on, simply because it has to.
For eight years I worked as sacristan at St. Joan of Arc Church while continuing to write. Nowadays, I write for Newsmax, which keeps me very busy.
A couple of years ago I watched "Lonesome Dove," one of the finest miniseries ever produced on American television. Toward the end, one of the main characters, a grizzled old legendary Texas ranger named Gus McCrae, lies dying. He looks up at his longtime comrade in arms and, with a twinkle in his eyes, says quietly, "It's been quite a party, Woodrow, hasn't it?"
It's been quite a party for me, too. And it's still going on. At least for now.
Phil Brennan writes for Newsmax.com. He is editor and publisher of Wednesday on the Web (http://www.pvbr.com) and was Washington columnist (Cato) for National Review magazine in the 1960s. He is a trustee of the Lincoln Heritage Institute and a member of the Association For Intelligence Officers.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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