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Happy Birthday to a Guy with Few Equals

By Fred Dickey

Dec. 3, 2012

This morning, Carl Lindquist opened his eyes for the 36,526th time. He has been alive half the time since Abraham Lincoln was born, and one-fifth of the time since Columbus sailed beyond the point where “there be dragons.”

Happy 100th birthday, Carl.


Let’s walk the story back about two weeks.

I approach Carl Lindquist’s house in the Birdrock section of La Jolla. This is not where the CEOs live; it’s a quiet, middle-class area of groomed lawns and maintained older homes. Carl’s small home, where he’s lived for 36 years, fits right in.

The bell is answered by a slim, smiling man of full gray hair, straight shoulders, medium height, and a firm voice with only a slight scratch. He’s old, obviously, but his slow step is not a shuffle and he doesn’t seem that [ital.] old. His replies are measured, of course, because his internal computer doesn’t have the ram it once had. But he’s alert and doesn’t miss anything. You meet him, and he’s all Swede, right down to the droll sense of humor and matter-of-fact way of speaking.

Looking around, many of his furnishings and utensils are a couple of decades past their prime, but he has long since lost interest in what the Joneses might have. All he cares about is that things still work, just as he does.

Observing his 100th birthday is something he’s eagerly anticipating, and he’s a bit anxious for Dec. 3 to arrive. “It means a whole lot to me. I mean, 100 is 100.” He says he’s in good health, but, “You never can tell. Death can come quick. I hope I’m still alive then and for some time afterwards.” Part of the anticipation is that his family will come from Northern California to celebrate with him.

This is his own man. He lives alone, still drives a car, and takes solo walks around the neighborhood without a walker or cane, although carefully, fully aware of the dangers of falling. He doesn’t even take an afternoon nap, though he acknowledges sometimes falling asleep “unintentionally.” He hasn’t smoked or consumed alcohol for 50 years. “I don’t need it, and it leads to nothing but trouble.” He takes no prescription drugs, and says he’s had no surgery except a tonsillectomy as a child.

Carl does his own banking and grocery shopping. “I have until now, anyway, and I have no plans of stopping.” He also prepares his own meals. He starts his day with “All-bran cereal with bananas and raisins and milk. I’ve done that for I don’t know how many years. I don’t do a lot of baking and stuff like that; I eat mostly out of cans. I have a bunch of grapes in the refrigerator that I nibble on.” His appetite has not diminished with age, as it does for some, but he watches his weight, since “That’s the healthy thing to do.”

When we sit down to talk he cautions me about his memory loss, a natural occurrence that he understands but finds frustrating. “I can remember a lot about my life, but I’ve forgotten a lot, too. Sometimes I can remember and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I forget what I just remembered.”

He has significant dates written on note cards that he keeps next to his easy chair. He and his wife had two children, a daughter and son. He takes a circuitous route to give their ages. He says his son is 32 years younger than himself, and the daughter is three years older than the son.

He tells me with pride that his son calls him every morning, and his daughter every night.

Asked about his wife of many years--though he’s not certain how many--Carl says her name was Barbara, and he remembers that she died in 1998. He reaches for a card. “My wife was born Aug. 11, 1914, and died July 2, 1998. Right now, I don’t remember what of. She was a good wife and mother, and I missed her a great deal, but it’s been so long ago, I guess I’ve forgotten how much I missed her.”

A conversation with a person of 100 years is unplowed ground for almost all of us. We tend to view them as we do ourselves, but that’s not accurate. They’ve seen more, done more, and lost more. And one thing they’ve normally lost is a lot of memory. It’s not grim or comical. It’s just the way life is.

Carl was born in Massachusetts to a Lutheran minister and his wife. His father became a career army chaplain who took his family to such then-exotic places as Louisiana and Hawaii. Carl was raised in the church but says he no longer is a believer.

He followed his father into the army and gained an appointment to West Point from which he was graduated in 1937. He says his son tells him he’s one of the eight oldest graduates of the academy, which means, I suppose, that he’s number eight—but that’s a list he should be able to climb rapidly, but, then, so can number nine on the list.

Carl served through World War II in the signal corps and retired as a colonel, but asked when that was, he says, “You know, I can’t remember.” He does recall, however, that after retirement he went to work for the Atomic Energy Commission, “and where else, I can’t remember.”

I ask if he were in the Korean War. He says, “I don’t know much about that. When was it?” He shakes his head, impatient with his faulty recollection. “I can’t remember a lot of things. That part of me is pretty bad.”

I’m successful in resisting that really stupid TV talking-head question, “To what do you attribute your long life?” Who knows? For every one who claims cod liver oil and spinach, another will admit to beer and See’s candy. The most obvious answer—genetics—is vaguely unsatisfying and makes people run to the family tree hoping to find an unbroken chain of Methuselas.

Carl realizes the day might come when he is no longer able to live alone. “I anticipate it, but I don’t look forward to it. I don’t want others to be bothered by my needs.”

He follows current events with a broad brush, ignoring the details of political life. He thinks, “I wonder what the world is going to be like five to 10 years from now? Syria bothers me, and I’m concerned about what a small place the Jewish people have.”

Today’s culture both concerns and mystifies him. “So many people are wanting so many things, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to have most of them.” Told that half of marriages today end in divorce, he says, “I don’t understand that.” But then his voice rises, a rarity for Carl. “And another thing I don’t understand: same-sex marriage! What in the hell is that for? What is it? I don’t understand that. Why can’t they do what they do in same-sex marriage without the same-sex marriage?”

Given his age, he is mindful that life is drawing to a close. “I don’t think much about it. I just hope it happens quickly so I don’t cause any problems [for others].”

Of the end, he says he desires to have no service. He wishes that his and his wife’s ashes, which have been preserved, be spread together at sea.

A person can’t get to be as old as Carl without being made of tough stuff. This is a man who defended his country and rose to a high rank, who raised his children and was a loyal husband to his one and only wife whom he can yet see in the twilight. When his memory departed, it didn’t take his dignity. And—You know something else?—he’s still in the game.

You made it, colonel. Now, you need to set a new goal. This is no time to rest on your laurels.

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