Studs Terkel is the doyen of US interviewers. Now 82, he still hosts a daily radio show in Chicago. In his new book, `Coming of Age', he meets Americans aged from 70 to 99. This is part of the introduction
Click to follow
Does the calendar decide when a person has had it? Is age of retirement a testament written in stone? To a spot welder at an auto plant, whose daily chore is mind-numbing, retirement after 30 years is devoutly to be wished. (Assuming, of course, an adequate pension.) To an old teacher in love with the job, it may be a disaster. To me, at 82, my job at the radio microphone, continuing or hanging up my gloves, is a matter of personal decision. Am I as skilled as I may have been when I began at the station 42 years ago? I may be better in some ways, though not as adventurous as I once was. Do I enjoy the job as I once did, or is the law of diminishing delight taking effect? Energy or the loss of it may be the deciding actor. If only I had the wisdom and honesty of Lotte Lehmann.

One Sunday afternoon, at the end of her regular Town Hall concert, Mme Lehmann, the nonpareil of our century's lieder singers, announced her retirement as of that moment. To her devoted, stunned audience crying out "No! No! No!" she gently responded, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" She graciously explained that, though her voice to others remained unblemished, she knew it was not so. She reminded them of her most celebrated role, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. "Remember the mirror scene? When she looked into the mirror and saw her first wrinkle, she decided to give up her young lover. I have learned from her, this wise, beautiful woman."

The aging CEO may see retirement as an end to power, yet the retired social worker may see her job-goodbye as the beginning of a new sort of power. He says: "When you suddenly leave the jungle, the phone stops ringing. You want to have lunch with old friends, but they're busy, working. I'm not in demand any more. I'm seeking company rather than being sought." She says, "People who have had power, when they become powerless, are really tragic. We just allow ourselves to be conditioned by a society that tells us we've lost it, whether we really have or not. We accept premature death. When you inject something live into it, kick up your heels, you're exhilarated. You count."

Maggie Kuhn was recalling the moment she was declared redundant at 65. She took to heart the lyric of Kris Kristofferson: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose" - and the Gray Panthers came into being. At 88, frail and faltering, she's still at it.

The Nebraska farmer, 80, and the Kentucky storekeeper, 75, still breathe fire, as keepers of the flame. Says the farmer: "If I could get 10 active people, well organised, well informed, in each county, I could come pretty close to running this state." Says the storekeeper: "A handful in the beginning saved this country. They did the fightin'. While three quarters of `em, by God, watched it. You never give up, because a handful can win."

Though the embattled spirit of the elderly suffuses this work, it is the sense of mortality, among the non-believers as well as the devout, that most colours their thoughts. As time is running out, their own and the century's, there is a consensus: we've had a pretty good run of it. Personally. As for their dreams of the world, there is a sense of loss. Their mourning is not so much for themselves as for those who follow. Their own passing is passed off casually, often with a touch of humour. "I would like to spend my day in a class at MIT, absorbing knowledge, says the 85-year-old woman. "They can take me out in a body bag after that." (Among the Georgia Sea Islanders, the thought is put to song: "Throw me anywhere, Lord, in that old field

The printer, having a beer: "As time is running out, I want to win the lottery, buy three ships, man them with American Indians, and send them over to discover Italy." The Iowa gadfly: "Mozart is my entrance into the sublime. At my service, let there be wine, cheese and Mozart." The radio bard, whose father lived to be 110, wants his obituary short: "At the age of 124, he was killed in a duel with a jealous lover. His gun jammed." Yet, the gay adieus do conceal a reluctance of these vital folk to cross the lonesome valley - not just yet. There are several, in despair, who would just as soon not greet the year 2000. Others insist on getting things in order before the long voyage, so, in the words of the venerable judge, "when I kick the bucket, I'll have everything filed". The 99-year- old child of slaves, considering her forthcoming 100th birthday celebration: "I'd just as soon have a good dinner and let it go at that."

There are always second thoughts and regrets. The most frequent show of grief is toward the fate of their own children. The deaths, whether by auto accident, suicide, AIDS, war or alcohol, they have, for much of their lives, taken unto themselves. Few are more rueful and moving than the dread of guilt felt by the Flint firebrand of '37, who gave so much of herself to the community. "Maybe I should have spent more time with the two wonderful kids I lost. Killed by a speeding taxi. Oh, my God, sometimes you think ... they had such a short life." She offers a consoling coda: "Yet if I hadn't gone through all these experiences, I couldn't be the same person." Nor does she know how many others' children she may have saved from that dark and hollow bound.

It is she and her 69 other colleagues in this work to whom the old battler pays tribute: "Think of what's stored in an 80-, 90-year-old mind. Just marvel at it. You see faces of people, places you've been to, images in your head. You've got a file nobody else has. There'll be nobody like you ever again. Make the most of every molecule you've got, as long as you've got a second to go. That's your charge."

`Coming of Age' is published by The New Press (pounds 15.95) and distributed by I B Tauris, Victoria House, Bloomsbury Square, London WC1B 4DZ