At first, I thought I was alone in the pool. It was a sparkling blue gem, implausibly planted in the skyscraper canyon of downtown Los Angeles, as if David Hockney, heading toward Beverly Hills, had taken the wrong exit on the I-10 freeway. This fine pool was the consolation and only charm of the Soviet-style complex where I had rented an apartment so that I could walk to work at the Los Angeles Times. It was early, not even 6 A.M. I had finished my laps and was enjoying the emptiness of the pool, the faint sounds of downtown gearing up for the day, and the drama of the looming office towers. As we learned on September 11th, they really can fall down on top of you. But they wouldn’t on that day. I felt healthy and smug.
Then what I had thought was a ripple in the water turned out to be—no, not a shark with hectoring John Williams music pulsing from a boom box in its stomach. It was a tiny old man in a tiny black bathing suit. He was slowly, slowly completing a lap in the next lane. When, finally, he reached the side where I was resting and watching, he came up for air. He saw me, beamed, and said, “I’m ninety years old.” It was clearly a boast, not a lament, so I followed his script and said, “Well, isn’t that marvellous” and “You certainly don’t look it” and on in that vein. He beamed some more, I beamed, and briefly we both were happy—two nearly naked strangers sharing the first little dishonesties and self-deceptions of a beautiful day in Southern California.
Perhaps sensing some condescension in my praise, he then stuck out his chest and declared, “I used to be a judge.” And I started to resent this intruder on my morning and my pool. Did I now have to tell him it was marvellous that he used to be a judge? What was so marvellous about it? What was his point? But, even as he said this, a panicky realization of its absurd irrelevance seemed to pass across his face, and then a realization of its pathos. When he was a judge—if he had been a judge—he had not felt the need to accost strangers and tell them that he was a judge. And then he seemed to realize that he had overplayed his hand. He had left this stranger in the pool thinking the very thought he had wanted to dispel: the old fool is past it. And finally (I imagined, observing his face) came sadness: he had bungled a simple social interchange. So it must be true: he was past it.
On an airplane seven or eight years ago, I turned and discovered Robert McNamara in the next seat. He is ninety-one now, so he must have been more than eighty at the time. I asked him why he was going to Denver. He said that he was meeting a female friend at the airport and heading for Aspen. It seems that when his wife died he had commissioned in her memory one of a chain of primitive huts on a trail between Aspen and Vail. Now he was going to ski the trail and stay in the huts with his lady. He told me this, then beamed, like my friend in the pool.
Well, life is unfair, but let’s not get carried away. Longevity is not a zero-sum game. A longer life for Robert McNamara doesn’t mean a shorter life for you or me or the average citizen of Vietnam. He’s done that damage, and at his age he won’t be doing more. In fact, he seems to have been spending the gift of a long life trying to make amends—mainly, as he described his recent agenda to me, by flying around the world to conferences where the world’s suffering is deplored. Nevertheless.