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.