Staying Young While Growing Older
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Federal Republic of Germany
DESPITE his 94 years, the man with the sparkling eyes sitting across from me looked surprisingly young and fresh. Just the right person, I thought, to read and evaluate my manuscript before I present it for publication. It was an article entitled “Staying Young While Growing Older.” But first of all I wanted to know what Wilhelm Hillmann’s secret for staying “young” was. I asked my question and waited.
“The secret of staying young?” he repeated my question, thinking about it. “Well, it’s nice that you would ask an ‘old eagle’ like me.”
I wondered about the expression “old eagle.” Later I would understand.
“First of all, I think, to stay young you need a goal in life. I already had mine as a teenager.” He paused and smiled as he said: “I didn’t realize then that my goals would change, that I wouldn’t find my real one for over 60 years. But in my teens I was fascinated with sailing ships. My goal, I decided then, was to build them when I grew up. After completing school, I worked as an apprentice on the docks in the north German port of Bremerhaven. Then in 1905 a dream came true. I was permitted to take my first sea trip—not on just any ship—but on the Preussen, the most famous sailing ship of that time and the largest five-masted ship ever built.”
He pushed a picture across the table for me to see. It was of the Preussen, and was very impressive.
“We were to haul saltpeter from Chile,” he continued. “It was a 68-day journey around Cape Horn. What an experience for a 19-year-old! I remember the storms—why, the wind and the hail beat our faces almost to a pulp! And it was no easy job fighting to keep the sails under control. Once when I was working at my utmost high up among the sails, a sailor nearby shouted to me through the wind: ‘Only God can help us now.’ I answered: ‘And he will.’ Even as a youth, I never once doubted man’s dependence upon God.”
A Change in Goals
I wanted to know if my elderly friend had really grown up to build ships.
“Well, I was advised against it,” he said, “and rightly so, because at the beginning of the 20th century sailing ships were already on their way out. And I had no interest in building steamships. But what about combining my love for the sea with flying? The land planes we had at that time could not make it across the Atlantic to America. So what we needed, I thought, were flying boats, or, as they are sometimes called, seaplanes. I had a new goal.
“October 10, 1913, was a big day in my life. Clutching my pilot’s license tightly, I now had what later would make me eligible to become an ‘old eagle.”’
That term again—I was afraid it would need explanation, and I asked for it.
“Well, in 1934 a flying association called ‘Old Eagles’ was formed,” he explained. “Any pilot who had gotten his license before the beginning of World War I could join. I had made it by less than a year.
“Meanwhile an Englishman—later knighted as Sir Thomas Sopwith—had built a single-hull flying boat. So I went to England, learned to fly seaplanes there and then returned home as Germany’s very first flying-boat pilot. Now I could begin building my own.
“Soon the German government became interested in buying one of Sopwith’s flying boats, but it was to be done secretly. So a private citizen, Captain von Pustau, ordered the plane and sent me to England to watch over its construction.
“When the plane was finished, one of Captain von Pustau’s ‘friends’—actually a government inspector in disguise—came to accept delivery. I was asked to take him on a trial flight. After we were airborne, he directed me to fly over Portsmouth. Now this was normally forbidden, because Portsmouth was an important naval port. But he was determined. I gave in.
“The next morning von Pustau rushed into my hotel, almost incoherent: ‘Hillmann, get packed—your flight over Portsmouth—they’re going to arrest us for espionage!’ He crammed my hand full of pound notes and disappeared. I wondered, what now?
‘The police restricted me to my hotel. Several days passed. I began planning to slip away secretly at night The plane was ours; it had been paid for. And at my speed—it could fly 110 kilometers an hour*—they’d never catch me.
“Meanwhile, my former flight instructor in England—we had become good friends—intervened in my behalf and got the matter settled. I left for Germany immediately. Not yet 30, I could now get on with the business of living the full life I hoped still lay ahead. And then—WAR!”
Flying During and After the War
“As a fighter pilot during the 1914-1918 war, I learned its horrors firsthand. One experience made a lasting impression. In an air battle the famous French ace Védrines shot me down. As soon as he saw that my plane was disabled, however, he flew away, rather than coming in for the kill. I made a crash landing and lay unconscious beneath the wreckage. The French troops, nearby in their foxholes, made no attempt to prevent my friends from rescuing me.
“How grateful I was to God to still be alive! But the consideration Védrines and the French troops had shown impressed me, too. Why were we trying to kill one another? War seemed so unnatural. I decided that from then on I would do all I could to promote German-French friendship.
“This became still another goal, after the one of building seaplanes. Years later I was rewarded for what I did in this new endeavor by being made an honorary citizen of Paris. Yet, even this was not the goal that would later change my life—that was still to come.”
Time was slipping by and my manuscript had gotten no farther than the table between us. But who could blame me for letting myself get sidetracked? “Did your war experiences make you want to stop flying?” I asked.
“No, you can’t keep an ‘old eagle’ grounded. In fact, every year I go to southern France, where I still enjoy the thrill of glider flying”
“At 94 years of age?” I exclaimed.
“You asked what kept me young,” he responded. “I have always tried to live for the future and not fret about the past. This has helped keep me young. Besides, we all have our close calls in life in one way or another. Like the one I had in 1926—and all because of a parachute.”
I laid down a picture of him in an old airplane, reminiscent of long-past days. And I listened.
“It was a foggy January morning and I had gone to renew my pilot’s license. The weather report said the ceiling was at 180 meters.* But at 360 meters I was still surrounded by heavy fog. Suddenly my plane began to act up; I was losing control.
“Now in those days not all planes had parachutes. But fortunately this one did. Upon jumping from the plane the parachute would be triggered open by a 25-meter-long cord, one end of which was fastened to the parachute and the other end to the plane. I remember praying to God, asking: ‘Should I jump or not?’
“As if in answer, an idea flashed through my mind. I sent the plane into a steep dive and pulled it out at 150 meters. As it jerked up, I heard a loud cracking noise. Ice had formed on the wings and was now breaking off. This had caused the trouble. I landed safely. Just at that moment an airport official walked past, looked at the plane and shouted: ‘Who the devil forgot to tie the parachute cord to the plane?’ Now if I had jumped, this ‘old eagle’ would have been a ‘dead duck’ for sure!”
It was gratifying to me to see that he had not permitted old age to rob him of his sense of humor.
In a Concentration Camp—Almost
“During the Nazi regime I was chief engineer at Weser-Flug, an airplane factory in Bremen. Although in charge of over 5,000 workers, I refused to join the Nazi party. I could not go along with Hitler’s policies. This almost got me into serious trouble.
“In 1939 Weser-Flug sent me to Berlin to oversee the construction of a second factory. It was to be on the site of Tempelhof airport, the airport that was later to become world famous in the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. The Nazi foremen assigned to work under my direction wanted to build a large platform adjoining one of the central buildings, where Hitler could deliver his talks when in Berlin. Seeing no need for this, I struck it from the plans. ‘We don’t need a stage to build airplanes,’ I told them.
“For this and other ‘misdemeanors’ I soon ended up in court. But my superior at Weser-Flug came to my rescue, telling Göring: ‘Take Hillmann and you can forget about Tempelhof.’ So I was released and was able to build the airport to completion, more or less the way it can still be seen today.”
The End—and Yet the Beginning
“The war was over. I was 59 years old, without work, unable to build either ships or airplanes. Youth, with all its goals and dreams, had come and gone—and all so quickly! But the thought of not working was unacceptable. I needed to feel that I could still be a useful member of society.
“For nine difficult postwar years I searched before finding a suitable job in a city quite some distance away. Already 68, I kept the job until I turned 81. At that time my career ended. But something far grander was due to begin, a goal I could never have even imagined possible before this. You see, it was . . .”
He was interrupted by his wife’s entering the room. “Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea?” she asked. I thanked her for the refreshments she placed before me. Taking advantage of the break, I shoved my manuscript across the table to Wilhelm and I began to engage his wife in small talk. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him pick up the typewritten papers and adjust his glasses. This is what he read under the title of my article,
“STAYING YOUNG WHILE GROWING OLDER”
WHILE visiting friends, I turned to their son and asked: “Werner, how old are you—13?” A slightly indignant Werner was not slow in answering: “No! I’m already going on 14!”
Young people can hardy wait to grow older, and some of them will go to great lengths to make you think they are older than they really are—maybe by dressing as older people do, by carefully cultivating a beard or mustache, or just by putting on an air of adult sophistication. Nothing deflates the budding ego of a would-be adult more quickly than by treating him as of his own age; nothing flatters him as much as by treating him as the adult he is trying so hard to be.
But youth is fleeting. As health fails and circumstances force him to slow down, that would-be adult all too soon turns into a would-be youth. How you long for those “good old days”! Remember when you could still read without glasses? could eat without struggling with slipping dentures? were never plagued with an aching back or fallen arches? And when you could remember things without having to write them down, instead of, as is now the case, forgetting to read what you’ve written down to remember?
And who besides an older person can really know the sorrows that old age often brings? What teenager can possibly know the grief of losing a marriage mate of several decades, or the loneliness that comes with the loss of this devoted companionship? Or feel the insecurity that comes with failing eyesight, faulty hearing and feebleness? Or know what it means to struggle to make both ends meet on a small pension? Or know the empty feeling of wondering: “Will I be alive next spring to hear the robins sing again?”
Yet, as problematic as old age can be, it does have its advantages. Years of experience have bettered your discernment and insight into the problems that people have. Think of the knowledge you have accumulated. You have become wiser, are probably better balanced, and almost surely you have a deeper appreciation of life.
How wonderful it would be if it were possible to enjoy the best of both worlds—the physical vigor of youth along with the wisdom and other benefits of age! And to a limited extent you can, for even though you may be unable to lengthen your life, at least you may be able to lengthen your youth. But how?
Growing old is not just a matter of the body; it is also a matter of the mind, a matter of attitudes. Expect to live long, desire to stay young, and your chances of doing both will increase. It has been said that a person starts growing old the day he begins to worry about it.
Think Young and Think Happy
This obviously rules out rocking away your last years of life on the front porch, oblivious to what is going on in the world. Keep up-to-date. Do not limit your association to friends your own age, with whom discussions may tend to get bogged down in the latest obituary columns. Associate with young people, too. Listen to what they have to say. Learn about their problems. They will appreciate your interest and you will gain their respect. Besides, some of their youthful enthusiasm, cheerfulness and optimism is bound to rub off.
The unpleasant aspects of old age will not be improved by a disposition that has forgotten how to smile. Find joy in small things. Experience the same delight you felt when as a little child you watched a kitten chase its tail. Let your face light up with the same glow it had when, as a young person, you were surprised with a gift.
Replace thoughts about “dying with dignity” with the more positive ones of “living with a purpose.” Remember, a happy and contented spirit can go far in reactivating an unhappy and discontented body. In the seas of life “cheerfulness,” as a 100-year-old expressed it, “is our life preserver.”
Keep Physically Active
Physical activity engaged in regularly, although in moderation, is essential. This strengthens the heart and lungs, keeps you trim and prevents muscles from sagging. Whatever your preference (some type of sport or simply taking long walks), you will be aided in staying physically active.*
Exercise is particularly important if you have reached retirement age. Retirement should not mean inactivity. Keep busy, working at something that interests you. Do not slow down any more than is reasonable and necessary. Be like the man who, when told he should start slowing down, replied, with a tinge of defiance in his voice: “No way. As long as I can keep on moving, they’ll never be able to bury me!”
Keep Mentally Active
Even as the body deteriorates when not used, so also does the mind. Enrich your life by increasing your knowledge. Learn things you had no time or opportunity to learn earlier—a handicraft, a foreign language or how to play a musical instrument. Did you know, for example, that almost two million Americans over the age of 55 have returned to school, many of them now studying at colleges and universities?
In fact, a university solely for students of retirement age was opened in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1975. The initial enrollment of 600 students had climbed to over 2,000 by 1979. A German scientific magazine commenting on this said that university officials had found that, “contrary to the popular notion that old people are unable to learn, it had been established that in general their receptiveness and powers of learning were quite normal.”
Watch Eating and Drinking Habits
Studies of the Ecuadorian village of Vilcabamba, one of three regions in the world known for the longevity of its inhabitants, reveal that the people there eat sparingly. They subsist on a low-calorie diet rich in complex carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits, vegetables and grains, but low in sugars and fats. To supplement nutritive needs, many persons find vitamins helpful. Research seems to indicate that vitamin E is especially effective in slowing down the aging process.
Unlike smoking, which is detrimental to health even when done in moderation, alcoholic beverages are generally harmful only when indulged in to excess. As regards drinking, one would do well to heed the appropriate and logical advice once offered by a young African, who said: “Remember, if you drink less, you will live longer. And if you live longer, you will be able to drink more.”
Remain as Independent as Possible
Do not let younger people, even if well meaning, set you back to the days of childhood by being overly protective and condescending in their dealings with you. If you can still live alone, do so. If you can still care for your home, do so. If you can still do your own cooking, do so. If you can still mow your own lawn and wash your own car, do so.
If, on the other hand, you have become feeble in either body or mind and need help, accept help when offered, doing so graciously and with gratitude. Let people help you according to need, not according to age. In this way you will maintain self-respect and will have no reason to feel guilty about unduly imposing upon others.
Do Not live in the Past
Treasured memories are fine, but keeping too many physical ties with the past, like old letters and pictures, or spending too much time reminiscing, can make you despondent. Rather than living in the past, try to come to grips with the present, while at the same time making plans for the future. Decide what you would like to do tomorrow or next week, and daily you will have something for which to live.
Memories from the past can be transplanted into the present. For example, instead of being like the widow who says: “I haven’t done any baking since Charlie died,” surprise neighbors or friends by baking them a cake. Tell them: “I thought you might like it. Charlie always did. In fact, chocolate cake was his favorite.” By making others happy, you will make yourself happy. Suddenly, that treasured memory has taken on new dimensions.
Accept the Obvious
Make allowances for the fact that you are not as young as you used to be. But, then, who is? Do not feel you must keep up with others half your age. There is no reason to “prove” you are still young when it is quite obvious that you are not. Grow older gracefully, with no apologies.
Never cease being grateful for the opportunity you have had to grow old. Millions of young persons, whose lives have been snuffed out prematurely, never had that chance. Do not be like the young man who, when getting up in the morning, complains that he must; be like the old man who rejoices that he still can.
From time to time as Wilhelm read he chuckled and smiled, and nodded his head at certain points. I took these reactions as good signs, but, like most writers, felt some apprehension as to his verdict.
“The article is good—informative and helpful. There is one more point.”
His New Goal—Staying Young Forever
“While I was still working out of town, I worked there until I was 81,” Wilhelm Hillmann explained, “my wife began a systematic study of the Bible. On weekends I would travel home to be with her. Once I was home a whole week and was able to join in on the study she had with Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was quite interesting. Later, after I quit work, I regularly participated.
“During the studies I learned that God’s original purpose for man was that he live forever and never grow old. It was a thrill to learn that God’s kingdom will soon carry out this original purpose. Bible prophecies, like the one at Revelation 21:4, will then be fulfilled: ‘And he [God] will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.’
“Among the ‘former things’ that are due to pass away, I learned, is old age with all its problems and difficulties. Hope began to grow as I was told I could live to see Job 33:25 fulfilled—on myself and others: ‘Let his flesh become fresher than in youth; let him return to the days of his youthful vigor.’
“Little by little, the Bible, which until then I had considered interesting but purely historical, became a book of faith. Finally, well into my 80’s, I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“When I meet some of my friends from earlier times, they tell me I don’t seem to be getting any older. And I tell them they just may be right, and then I explain why.”
Pushing his Bible across the table, he pointed to Isaiah 40:30, 31 and had me read: “Boys will both tire out and grow weary, and young men themselves will without fail stumble, but those who are hoping in Jehovah will regain power. They will mount up with wings like eagles.”
“No one should think himself too old to learn about Jehovah and to hope in him,” he said. “Take it from an ‘old eagle’! It’s the hope of knowing that in God’s new system we can for all eternity grow older and yet for all eternity remain young.”
Equivalent to 68 miles per hour.
One meter equals 3.28 feet.
For additional suggestions, see the November 8, 1980, Awake! article entitled “Does Exercise Really Help?”
[Blurb on page 6]
“In an air battle the famous French ace Védrines shot me down”
[Blurb on page 7]
“Youth, with all its goals and dreams, had come and gone—and all so quickly”
[Blurb on page 10]
The empty feeling of wondering: “Will I be alive next spring to hear the robins sing again?”
[Blurb on page 11]
“I learned that Gods’s original purpose for man was that he live forever and never grow old”
[Picture on page 8]
The famous five-masted sailing ship “Preussen,” on which Hillmann sailed around Cape Horn
[Picture on page 9]
The “Old Eagle” with one of his earlier planes. At 94 he still flies gliders every year