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“Little Jackie” and thoughts about the role of elders in a world that has no use for them

I woke at 4:00 the last two mornings with the words “Meglin Kiddies, Meglin Kiddies, Meglin Kiddies” repeating in my sleepy brain.

The thought is urgent enough to end my night, feeling there’s something I must do or some revelation I’m about to have. But nothing ever forms beyond those words. What’s so urgent, I don’t get to find out.

The Meglin Kiddies, as almost nobody knows, were a singing, dancing, acting Hollywood troupe from whence sprung the likes of Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland.

I’d have never heard of them except that when I was a very young woman I knew a much older man who claimed to have been one of them.

Jack (not his real name) was most likely lying. He lied about everything. But I have no doubt his beautiful flapper mother, bored with her marriage and putting all her life’s hopes on making “Little Jackie” into a star, enrolled him in one of the Meglin schools for a while.

Jack told me that tale when I was 25 or 26. I never thought of the Meglin Kiddies again until Shirley Temple died in February and some obituaries mentioned them. But that doesn’t account for why the pesky little kids would be waking me up this weekend.


“Little Jackie” grew up to be a modestly successful entrepreneur and for three years my client, then my boss.

But to say he grew up gives the wrong impression. As a middle-aged man he surrounded himself with young, single women to whom he was both mentor and seducer, and who he saw as both nubile young playthings and nurturing mommy figures. He was needy and childish, and extravagantly giving and supportive.

He was a short, round little guy and knew exactly the impression he made when he entered a meeting room or restaurant surrounded by tall, lithe twentysomething women. He was Little Jackie the star, Meglin Kiddie forever.

Don’t get me wrong, though; he wasn’t just using us as props. He honestly adored us and we returned the affection. He believed in us and encouraged our careers.

In one case, when one of his favorites didn’t work out as a sales person for his business, he helped her into a better gig. It was a gig as a call girl. But with her beauty, wit, and sense of adventure it was perfect work for her and she had fun at it. Did very well for herself, too.

I was more homely than his other young women, but probably smarter. He and I could talk. He put me in charge of huge projects when I was in no way qualified and he believed in me even when I felt like I was drowning, even when I’d screw up.

Three years was all I could take. I got out.


Eventually, when he knew emphysema and cirrhosis were going to kill him, he married one of his twentysomethings. But this one was fat and comforting and undemanding and he died holding her hand.

He never did grow up. In the last conversation I had with him, a phone call a few months before his death, he told me some obvious lie about some petty thing; I can’t remember what. When I called him on his whopper, he continued to insist it was true even though we both knew better. I could almost see that “Little Jackie” expression on his face — the sly look of a child who knows he’s been caught but also knows you can’t prove a thing.

I slammed the phone down and wasn’t speaking to him when he died.


To this day, I have very mixed feelings about Jack. Had I actually wanted the career he pointed me toward, his support would have given me a huge boost. As is, those three years of full immersion in the fast lane taught me mostly what I didn’t want.

That, however, is a valuable lesson to learn well before your 30th birthday. I’m grateful to Jack for that and for believing in me when nobody else ever had.

On the other hand, the older I grow (and I’m older now than Jack was when his liver and his tobacco-stained lungs killed him) the more … well, just plain icky it seems that such a childish person should have had so much influence. Or that anybody could spend so many years on earth, have so much experience and authority, and still be so immature.


We live in a time that notoriously doesn’t value elders. Graybeards and wrinkled grannies are more likely to be seen as obsolete, or as drains on society’s resources, than as sources of knowledge and wisdom. (Obamacare architect Ezekial Emanuel even thinks he knows the “right” age for us to die — and it’s sooner than most of us actually do die, these days.)

Part of me finds this distressing, even without the egregious Dr. Emanuel opening his yap. It’s outrageous to declare a giant segment of the population as unneeded or unwanted, to basically decree millions surplus or invisible. Can be dangerous, too.

I’d like to think that unless and until brain rot takes over, the silverhaired not only have value to contribute but have wisdom to impart. (And I don’t mean “wisdom” as in, “In my day we walked six miles to school through six-foot snowdrifts, then pumped water into the cistern and chopped the heads off chickens when we got home.” I most certainly don’t mean “wisdom” as in those snotty tales about how some mythical generation always obeyed its parents and never had sex until after the wedding.)

On the other hand, in the Internet era, who the heck needs elders to pass on wisdom? Google (and StartPage and DuckDuckGo) do a fine and more efficient job of that. It’s not like any of us need to show the rest of the tribe how to skin buffalo or explain how the Great Spirit made the ground shake and the waters rise up and swallow our ancestors’ villages.

Above all, now that I’m older than “Little Jackie” was when he was changing so many lives, I’m struck by how little wisdom so many of us ever manage to gain.

Jack may have been an extreme example, a guy with Peter Pan Syndrome. But when I look around, I don’t see much wisdom, at least not the kind that can be imparted and put to somebody else’s use. I see experience. And I see a kind of quiet, internal wisdom in a lot of people — the kind of wisdom you gain by living through hard times, suffering disappointment, and seeing that success can be illusory and tragedy a surprising chance to grow. But that’s personal. It can’t be imparted. Everybody has to learn such things for him or herself, and trying to tell anybody about all that hard-won wisdom too often comes across as akin to those boring, “Back in my day …” rants.

In public life it’s obvious that age doesn’t bring wisdom. Old farts are no better at running companies, countries, or (often) their own lives than young farts are. They just make different types of mistakes. Or sometimes (like Little Jackie, I suspect) just keep making the same kinds of mistakes.


Like a lot of people who’ve reached a “certain age” the #1 thing I’ve learned is how little I know.

Ironically, that feels like one of the highest forms of wisdom to impart — if it could be imparted at all. But of all the virtues of age that are too elusive to impart, that’s one of the big ones.

On some level, no matter how wise and smart we think we’ve become, in the great scope of the universe, maybe we’re all just “kiddies” until we die, tapdancing our way through life’s unknowns, making it all up as we go along.


  1. Shel
    Shel September 28, 2014 1:08 pm

    We all knew Sarah Palin’s “death panels” comment was accurate. Skill in filling out government forms could easily become the deciding factor in a life or death situation. End of life issues, including monumental expenses, really need to be addressed but not by applying a cookbook solution. One attempt, which seems on its face to be legitimate, is

    The “older persons” in the best position to cause damage are parents. M. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, told of parents who gave a son a .22 rifle for Christmas, the same rifle his brother had used to commit suicide.

    I personally think males never really grow up, and those who don’t recognize this are a great problem to themselves and others. FWIW, Marie-Louise von Franz’s book on the subject (referenced in the Wikipedia article) is excellent.

  2. Joel
    Joel September 28, 2014 2:06 pm

    On the other hand, the older I grow …the more … well, just plain icky it seems that such a childish person should have had so much influence. Or that anybody could spend so many years on earth, have so much experience and authority, and still be so immature.

    And yet it may be that very eternal immaturity that drives people to need that much influence in the first place. Oddly apropos: I’m currently reading Edmund Morris’ biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a man I’ve always hated on principle without ever going to the trouble of learning anything about him. And in the book he comes across as having a strange mixture of attributes: On the one hand his will, energy, truculence, intellectual power and occasional flashes of physical courage were beyond those of ordinary men. But what drove his actual push to power was a desire for influence over others that could come across as positively childish. He wanted to be the biggest boy on the playground.

    If it weren’t for that – if he’d stuck to writing learned books and defeating grizzly bears with his teeth, I might have admired the man. But the accomplishments and views for which he is generally remembered and admired are the ones that cause me to despise him.

  3. JWG
    JWG September 28, 2014 4:40 pm

    The truly wise are few and far between. Most grayheads I have met have no wisdom. The closest they can get to wisdom are “leave it to beaver” and “andy grifith” quotes.

  4. Curt S
    Curt S September 28, 2014 5:45 pm

    Wisdom and knowledge are two diffrerent things. There is a saying….. “When I was 17 I knew more than my Dad. when I was 30 I knew as much as he did, when I was 60 he knew more than I did.” Aside from the quote…..on looking at the comments…, aren’t we the know it alls…… FWIW….I happen to be a greybeard….. and I sure don’t need to read stupid comments from know it alls. Sorry Claire….but of late well, lets just leave it at that. goodbye…..

  5. ENthePeasant
    ENthePeasant September 29, 2014 2:25 am

    I grew up in the company of drunks, gamblers, men who thought nothing of risking all, to include their marriages and children’s affection. Some of them were down right psychopaths… They were not exactly “graybeards” most of them were in their late 30s early 40s. It might have been nice to have learned how to live and carry myself from the Dali Lama.. but he wasn’t around. You struck a cord with “icky”, because the older I get the more it occurs to me that these men who knew nothing of Ayn Rand, The Constitution, or anything else that would have given them insights into “freedom”. Yet all were all free men, honest, plainspoken and observant without a filter, showing not hint of shame or hesitance when speaking their minds. In spite of all my reading and wordiness I suck on that a lot.

  6. Matt, another
    Matt, another September 29, 2014 7:11 am

    Thinking about the Mentors in my life, most were flawed individuals. Being flawed did not preclude them from gaining wisdom and knowledge along the way. Probably the best mentors are those whose flaws are observable. It allows one to see them as example, and steer around them. Mentors and role models that are “perfect” are often quite flawed. It good at concealing it from others. I avoid mentors, role models and heroes that seem to have turned the concept into commercial,success.

  7. Thomas L. Knapp
    Thomas L. Knapp September 29, 2014 7:41 am

    Like Clifford Stoll says, “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.”

    If “elders” serve no other “social purpose” (and I don’t see why they should be expected to serve any purposes other than their own chosen individual ones), they’re at least there to remind us that all this new shit we wrongly think we have figured out is actually old shit that they once wrongly thought they had figured out.”

    Not that we’ll listen, of course.

  8. just waiting
    just waiting September 29, 2014 12:55 pm

    My granddaddy started fishing for his food when he was 5 and never went to school. He only learned to read so he could read the bible. His life was pretty simple, catch fish=eat, don’t catch fish=be hungry until you do. He came to this country in his 20s, got a job, married, etc.

    When I was but a young’un, he sat me down on his knee and told me “all I ever needed to know to be a success, the most important thing he had learned in his long life.” “The 4 Magic Words” he called them.

    He looked me in the eye and said “Righty tighty, lefty loosey”

  9. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau September 30, 2014 10:37 am

    [He looked me in the eye and said “Righty tighty, lefty loosey”]

    Now there’s a man with a sense of humor. Or maybe humility… 🙂

    I wrote a little article about a “use for old people”:

    I’ve had a hard time relating to my 18-year old lately, but managed to connect. He was wondering what a community college bureaucrat was up to, trying to get him to take a course he didn’t need. I explained to him that it was in the bureaucrat’s self interest to do so, and that the bureaucrat did not actually give a rat’s ass about him. This perfectly explained the incongruity. I don’t think that single example will do the job, but at least he is starting to understand, I think. Enough cases like that, and he will learn (likely at a much younger age than I did) what drives people, which explains a lot of otherwise incomprehensible stuff out there.

    There is a problem with old people (lack of wisdom, or plain irrelevance) but teen hubris is at least as great a problem.

  10. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau September 30, 2014 10:48 am

    Claire, on that article about Ezekiel Emanuel, I actually agree more with Emanuel than with the author – as long as it is a personal decision. Both her point of view and his are wrong if government gets into it; hers if the burden is “shared” by unwilling others, his if the state decides to knock off “useless” old folks. The last thing I want is to be a personal burden to my son, and I don’t think it improves his life to take it on. His improvement in that respect will happen when he has a child; that’s the burden he should have. At some point, old people have to know when to step off the stage. If the Hollywood portrayal of how Indians did it is correct, I think something like that is a good way to go.

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