Mark Twain marked his 70th birthday by declaring he no longer had to behave, as in abide by polite society rules.
I’m more like the late gracious Minnie Pearl, the Grand Ole Opry’s luminary philosopher of life from Grinder’s Switch, when she emphatically declared: “Howdee! I’m so happy to be here!”
As milestone No. 70 birthday arrives (Aug. 22), I wonder about the wonder of life.
While toddling and sometimes stumbling along life’s path for 70 years, one can accrue a list of detractors. And to what do I credit living longer than what some detractors forecast?
A mischievous sense of humor helps.
It all started Aug. 22, 1944, when Bootheel of Missouri country doctor Sam Sarno and nurse Kate McBain walked a mile on rural railroad tracks to deliver my parents perfect newborn. That’s my story, since I was the third and last child born to hard-working farm parents.
For years, Nurse Kate bragged about being “first to whack Little Dannie’s fanny.”
What’s funny about that?
“Dannie,” as spelled officially on my certificate of birth, is a girly name? If Nurse Kate had looked REAL close, she could have told Little Dannie Whittle wasn’t a dainty delicate sissy female.
What’s been learned in 70 years?
Learning to read and write words came easy and early for me. For example, knowing how to spell brassiere before I got to first grade got me a hickory stick whooping from Momma Whittle.
I had learned the word out in the cold old shack out back at the end of the path by associating words and pictures in the Sears-Roebuck catalogue.
Ironically, it was learned neighbor farmer A.J. Neel, as opposed to an educator, who first recognized Little Danny’s penchant for words.
Before I began first grade at our little country school of advanced thinking and higher ciphering, A.J. prophesied: “Little Danny, one day words will take you around the world.”
While covering the war in Bosnia and the plight of orphans in Romania in the 1990s, I recalled my beloved old farm neighbor’s prediction.
At age 6, I learned life can be scarred with tragedy, when Daddy Whittle, a farmer, perished in a grinding car crash in front of KSIM Radio Station at Sikeston, Mo. That’s the night older brothers’ nightmares began, and tormented him throughout his life.
At Daddy’s funeral in my birth town of Canalou, Mo., I also learned about respect … when all seven of the little town’s grocery stores and three blacksmith shops closed.
Plus, as Daddy’s hearse and grieving family rolled slowly from the church, cotton gin workers lined up along the town’s mile-long Main Street, with lint-covered caps placed reverently over their hearts. Although sad, that somber scene became a treasured childhood Kodak moment.
After Daddy’s loss, I observed Momma Whittle learning to use a new-fangled contraption called the telephone while taking over the difficult business of farming.
While watching Mother work hard and courageously grow into the role of a productive professional farmer, I knew about true grit long before John Wayne’s epic movie.
Soybean field sage Daddy had often opined to his young’ens: “To have a good neighbor, you gotta be a good neighbor.”
Another milestone moment of early life came as a teen-ager when doctors, due to a somewhat rare bone disease, predicted I would never have a career, and that my young life would not go past age 25. That disease explains why I walk funny due to modern-day medical miracle of hip implants, plus my neck and spine are permanently stiff.
But I’ve always strived to show a soft, pliable heart toward folks … except to crooks and politicians, and sometimes there’s not a definitive difference between them.
And I’ve made it a firm policy to not hang around gripe grunts of life.
Upon getting home from the big Memphis hospital, I prayed probably my first gut-wrenching sincere adult prayer behind the old chicken house on our family farm: “Big God, this is Little Danny Whittle, I’m just a teen-aged boy and not strong enough to become an invalid, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to get up and go.”
When leaving my kneeling position, I looked back at the prayer scene and declared: “Death, catch me if you can, I’m out of here!”
You can hardly tell it, but now I’m well past 25.
During a recent lecture, a young university student asked: “Did God give you the talent for writing?”
“Yes, and God has marvelous sense of humor,” I replied. “For example, with no college training in journalism, I walked into my first newspaper office at age 17, thinking I was applying for the janitor’s job. Thus, I thought it unusual when the publisher asked if I knew how to use a typewriter?
“I recalled thinking: ‘Man, this must be a classy janitor’s job, having to know a little typing.’ So when the publisher asked: ‘How long have you wanted to write sports?’ I instantly lied: ‘Sir, I’ve wanted to write sports all my life!’”
I was hired fresh out of high school, over three applicants who had college training in journalism.
Later, the publisher advised he hired me because of my audacity and voracity. With all those “acity’s” in those two big words, I had to look up their meaning, thinking the publisher might have been cursing me.
“I also pray for the gift of listening to others as a writer,” I concluded to the inquiring student, “I count my lifelong word career as truly a ‘God Thing!’ It’s been a marvelous, exciting ride around the globe multiple times!”
I think A.J. Neel would be proud. And I’m thankful. Amen!