LIANE HANSEN, host:
Abraham Lincoln said, And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years. In this new year, we begin a series that focuses on the wisdom of older generations in a time of change. The Ninth Inning will feature people who've kept going long past retirement age.
We begin with Chester Aaron. He's an 85-year-old garlic farmer from Occidental, California. You may have heard his garlic essays on NPR. Well, here's his essay about his life.
Mr. CHESTER AARON (Writer, Garlic Farmer): Remember Mae West? About 60 years ago, an interviewer asked her on radio, Mae, if you had it all to do over what would you do? And Mae said, If I had to do it all over, I'd do it all over you. My sentiments exactly.
North Butler, Pennsylvania 1930. I was seven years old. Came home with cuts and bruises. I told one of my five brothers I'd fought some kid who'd called me a Jew. That brother, Ray, was the only athlete in the family. Ray said, you better learn to fight.
By the time I was in high school, I was good enough to get to the finals in the Golden Gloves in Pittsburgh. My mother hated me wanting to be a boxer. My father said it was a good idea. Jews, he said, had to learn how to defend themselves. When my father was 14 in Russian, Cossacks came through his village. One of the Cossacks stabbed his pregnant sister. Papa grabbed a butcher knife and killed the Cossack. He ran and never saw his family again.
When the war started in 1941, three of my brothers went off to fight. I wanted to go too. Every hour, every day, I heard what the Germans were doing to Jews. I wanted to kill Germans, but I had to stay home to help my parents. In 1943, I volunteered. I ended up a heavy machine gunner in an armored infantry unit. I was with the troops that liberated Dachau. When I came home, my mother and father were dead. My father had died in an insane asylum.
I went to California. And thanks to the G.I. Bill, went to college, UCLA. A professor said I would be a writer someday. From that day on, that was all I wanted to do, write stories and novels. I married an Irish Catholic woman in Berkeley and made my living as an X-ray technician. As an X-ray technician, I discovered that hospitals all over the country, for no legitimate reason, were over radiating what were then referred to as Negro patients.
I tried to publicize the fact, tried to get the practice stopped. I was fired. Unable to find hospital work, I went back to school, earned my master's degree, and was hired by St. Mary's College. I was a professor there for 25 years. I retired to a life of farming garlic and writing.
Five years ago at the age of 80, I sent a four-page vitae to 30 agents describing all my publications and awards. I received one response. She said, let's face it, Mr. Aaron. You are 80 years old. Why should I waste my time and money on you? Since then, I have published a collection of stories and two novels, and I have a new novel coming out next year. That's why.
HANSEN: Eighty Five-year old Chester Aaron of Occidental, California. To learn more about Chester and to share your own life stories, go to npr.org/soapbox.
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