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The Age of Ageism

 June 2018

I have a half-brother who I don’t really see that often. He left the family home when I was two years old and went off to fight in Vietnam. Thirteen years later he showed up at my parent’s house in Norfolk, England, stayed for a month and left again. We lost touch again until I went to stay with him in Petaluma, California after my son was born in the early 90’s. There’s no bad blood, we just come from different worlds and like everyone else, we have our own ways of dealing with various issues.


Even when I moved to the US, I didn’t speak to him that often as neither of us are big fans of long telephone chats. We hadn’t talked for a year or two as I’d been working in Europe a lot and had changed my phone number since our last conversation, so I thought I’d give him a call. His phone had been cut off. This meant one of two things, he was either so broke he couldn’t pay his phone bill or he was on the streets. Either scenario was quite plausible, he’d been broke since forever and physically he’d had a lot of problems over the years with multiple motorcycle crashes and some serious damage from being a paratrooper in Vietnam (and Laos, but that’s another story), so what with bad healthcare from the VA and more drugs, prescribed and otherwise, than you can push downhill in a wheel-barrow, he wasn’t exactly in the best of health.


I started to worry, I knew he was at least seventy years old and for the last twenty years or so he’d been living in a tiny boat in an old ex-Navy marina in the San Francisco Bay. He had no income, although a highly skilled machinist his business had failed years ago along with his marriage and when we last spoke things were pretty grim and I could only imagine that they’d become considerably worse.


I had never worried about my brother before, he always seemed to be fine with whatever life threw at him, never one to feel sorry for himself or complain about what a bum deal he’d been given or any nonsense like that. But for all I knew he may have been calling me for help or be in jail or hospital or who knows what. I thought about getting in touch with the local police but figured he probably wouldn’t thank me for that.


I had no idea what his address was or even the name of the marina or the boat he’d been living on, but I had driven there years ago, and could vaguely remember the journey because of the unusual route, passing through an old Naval base and then down a long dirt road through some woods, it was quite the spot and only about fifteen minutes from the city.


I grabbed my laptop and searched on Google Maps and soon found what looked like the marina. When I clicked on it a website popped up that looked all high-end Bay Area rich folk kind of thing, not at all the Oakland bohemian world of miscreants and rogues it had been when I was there ten years ago. Apparently a large and possibly evil corporation had taken over and there was zero chance of finding my brother there. At a loss for what to do next I called the number on the website and not only did someone actually answer the phone but was also very friendly and helpful, telling me that yes, a large corporation had taken over the old site and having kicked everyone out were building a new marina with condos and shops and the whole multi-million-dollar development thing. I thought that would be the end of the matter, but when the nice young man asked why I was calling and I told him my tale, he asked for my number and said he’d call me back as there was a lady who had worked there for many years who they’d kept on the payroll because she knew all the ins and outs of the place.


Ten minutes later my brother called me, “Hey, what’s up?”

Who knew that even a luddite like me could put the power of the worldwide interweb to good use.


We had a long chat about his situation and what was going on. He told me that shortly after we last talked he had hit rock bottom, no money, no healthcare, no work, lots of pain from old wounds, physical and mental, all in all just a fucked-up situation. Then out of the blue comes the phone call. An old pal from years ago that he’d helped out with a couple of little jobs was working full-time for a well-known European car manufacturer in Silicon Valley and they needed someone for a few days to help them out with a project. Basically, they were designing and building self-driving cars and needed someone who could figure out a way of attaching all the sensors they had made to the vehicle. They had designed all the sensors and figured out where to put them but there was no-one there who could drill a hole in a piece of metal.


After a couple of days, the boss insists that the company hires my brother full time. The HR department came back and said they could never hire him as he hadn’t been to college, he’d had a couple of run-ins with the local constabulary and was so off the grid he didn’t actually exist anymore. They were swiftly put in their place and hired the old boy forthwith.


He has since payed off all his debts, has really good healthcare that’s fixed him up, bought a small house ten minutes from work, is flown to the main factory in Europe a few times a year and his machine-shop is the prettiest one I’ve ever seen with all the latest kit. His colleagues think he’s a genius because builds things out of metal with his hands, as well as doing CAD drawings and designing bits and bobs, his life has gone from being hopeless and homeless to successful middle class man. He is now seventy-three and happier than he’s probably ever been.


It’s an interesting and much talked about issue, that of the ageing workforce, youth over experience, who’s going to repair the robots? Practical skills are not taught in schools anymore, or at least not like they used to be. We need to find a balance with these things, like everything else. As another example of this my wife had some major surgery a couple of years ago. When we first met the surgeon, I felt a huge relief because as I told my wife, he’s been doing this for thirty years, that’s the guy we want. I’m sure the young hot-shot surgeon on his way up is great, but we want the guy who’s seen it all and won’t get phased by any surprises. As it turned out there was a big surprise during the surgery which he handled calmly and professionally and all was well in the long run.


Yes, we need fresh young minds with new and exciting ideas to push us all along the road to wherever we’re going, but we also need the old boy who knows how to change an oil filter so we can keep moving along that road.


My favourite part of this story is that when I visited my brother just a while ago he gave me the tour of his new house, a nice two-bedroom bungalow close to where he works. He sleeps on the sofa in the living room/kitchenette while the master bedroom is where his Vincent Black Shadow motor-cycle takes pride of place. Thankfully he still has his priorities right.

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