By Laurence K. Scott
On the morning of August 6, 1945, just as “Little Boy,” the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare, dropped from the belly of the Enola Gay, a specially-modified Boeing B-29 bomber, I dropped from my mother’s belly. As most of the city of Hiroshima disappeared in a blinding flash, a doctor slapped my skinny butt, and I drew my first breath in the blinding light of the delivery room.
“Welcome to Alamogordo,” quipped the doctor, at least according to my mother.
Born in 1904, my father had ebeen too old for military service, but he had done his part in the war effort. He had been a civilian employee on the Manhattan Project, welding together parts of the tower used in the test of “the gadget,” the first nuclear bomb in history.
When I learned these facts at the age of 13, I stopped celebrating my birthday.
After we left Alamogordo, my early years were spent being the new kid in schools all around the southwest, thanks to my father’s propensity for following construction projects in his work as a welder and heavy equipment mechanic. I learned to be a loner because I was never in a school long enough to make close friends. A couple of fights, one or two report cards, and we’d be gone to some other little town.
When my mother grew so tired of moving that she threatened to leave my father, we finally settled in the sun-blasted town of Indian Springs, Nevada, population about 250. That was in 1955, and I had remained an only child. My father ran an auto repair shop and gas station, but also did welding jobs and repaired trucks and farm equipment. We lived in a thirty-five-foot house trailer parked at the Atomic View Trailer Court. The streets were dirt, and the dust kicked up by the wind filtered through every crack in our walls and settled on every horizontal surface. Twice a month we drove our F-100 Ford pickup the fifty miles to the Safeway market in Las Vegas for groceries. On rare occasions we made an extra trip to eat chicken-fried steaks at the Fireball Café and then catch a movie at the Desert Sky drive-in.
Indian Springs Elementary School was an old frame building with two classrooms, one for grades 1-5, the other for grades 6-9, and a dirt playground. The girls played jacks, the boys played marbles, and we all played soccer, softball and flag football, coming home caked with dust. I wasn’t shy, and got along okay, but by then was an inveterate outsider. I simply didn’t need friends.
During the summer I roamed alone about the desert, catching lizards and looking under rocks for scorpions. The more rocks I turned over, the more they became the focus of my attention. So many kinds, all mixed together in the sandy soil, so beautiful when wet, or polished and sold in the local curio shop. I loved the untamed, empty landscape, framed by distant, jagged mountains, inhospitable but mysterious, and so much more alive than people realized. I was very happy there.
During the heat of mid-day, I pumped gas at my father’s station to earn my allowance. With my black hair and deep tan, people driving through from the east coast would mistake me for an Indian boy and want their picture taken with me. I would happily comply, grinning like an idiot and speaking in cowboy-movie Indian style (“Me like white lady’s hat!”), then gratefully accept the coins the tourists held out. These scenes amused my father, who would threaten to take an offset from my allowance for the tips I received, but never did.
It would be difficult for most living Americans to imagine growing up in that world, so different from the world we know today. Though I left Indian Springs more or less permanently after I began attending high school in Las Vegas (then still a small town itself), my early life in the vast southwest was instrumental in forming my character and world view. It also explains why I prefer solitude and have never been comfortable in crowds.
Nearly a century after graduating high school, I became the world’s oldest living man. You probably already know that, considering the amount of publicity my life has received since then.
My modest fame came about gradually. When I turned 100, there was a little article in the local online paper, The Sentinel, published for residents of Ojai, California, where 35 years before I’d picked up a big old house in a canyon for my retirement home. When I hit 112, the morning holos interviewed me, because I had recently become the oldest person to receive a heart transplant grown from his own heart cells, then had survived several infections of antibiotic-resistant bacteria through treatment using nanorobots. Scientists and geriatric specialists began pursuing me to convince me they could extend my life for many more years through the wonders of medical science.
At the age of 113, I became the oldest living American, and at 115, I became the world’s oldest living man. Believe me, I felt like it. The notoriety did nothing to ease my aches and pains or improve my mobility, which, along with my failing eyesight, was turning me into one of those old farts who sit in a rocking chair and watch the world pass by.
Aside from living a long life, I’d done nothing special in my life to warrant the media’s attention. I was drafted after high school and served with no distinction in the long-forgotten Viet-Nam “conflict,” attended college on the GI bill, became a geologist, went to work for an oil company, married, had a couple of kids, got divorced in my late 50’s, and retired at the age of 65. I loved my work, but with Social Security, my company retirement plan, and some good investments, there was no need for me to work. That was during the big recession of the early 2000’s, a time when people with professional degrees competed by the hundreds for a single opening in their field, and I felt a kind of moral duty to move over and let a younger person have the opportunity.
The choice was a good one. My work had taken me all over the world—Venezuela, Borneo, Russia, you name it—allowing me endless opportunities to pursue my hobby, photography. I had thousands of photographs of exotic locales and people, along with meticulous notes on local geology, customs and culture, which I turned into several books that sold fairly well. The money they brought in allowed more travel, which led to more books, which kept me busy well into my late 80’s. When age began to slow me down, I cut way back on the travel, and began writing commentaries on mankind’s foibles, which I punctuated with some of my more somber photographs. I found no market for my opinions, and thereafter kept them to myself, along with my other hobbies.
Part of the reason I’d lived so long is that I was careful of my diet, got plenty of exercise, never smoked, and drank very moderately. Luck played a large part, and then when I was nearing 90, medical science took over. Along the way, all of my old friends and relatives succumbed to cancer or heart attack or stroke before medicine had advanced sufficiently enough to intervene and save their bacon. (You probably haven’t heard that expression unless you’re nearly my age, and I have no idea where it came from.)
My children, a boy and a girl, produced four grandchildren, who produced 17 great-grandchildren. Most of them remained in California, which was fortunate for me. When I was about 101, my granddaughter, Virginia, who is divorced, moved in with me in my big old house along with her son, Allen, a student at UC Ventura, which is only a few miles west on Route 33. They made it possible for me to continue living in my own home.
I didn’t do well being dependent on others for all the things I could no longer do for myself. I can’t stand being waited on or fussed over. My increasing helplessness made me grouchy, though I tried not to be, and I was always apologizing to Allen and Virginia for being a pain in the ass. I was pretty much confined to a wheelchair, tired all the time, my hearing so poor that I could hardly hear the music I’ve always loved. My eyes felt like they were full of sand, and I found myself sleeping a lot. For several years, I’d been thinking it was about time for me to let go.
Things began to change when a young lady called and asked if she could interview me. It sounded like the usual request, and since interviews with the press constituted some of the few diversions I still had, I consented to see her the next day without asking for details.
It was a perfect spring day, just right for short sleeves, with a few wispy cirrus clouds contrasting the bright blue sky. I was sitting on the porch in my wheelchair, enjoying the light breeze carrying the sharp scent of chaparral from the Los Padres National Forest, just a few miles east and north of where I sat. My sense of smell was the only one still working very well. Ojai was still a comparatively small town, quiet most week days, busy with day-trippers on weekends. I watched her pull up to the curb in a small Tesla that looked like a rental. She got out, a trim young lady with fashionably short hair, and when she closed the door I could see the glass all going opaque white. That and the solar-powered air conditioning would keep the interior cool in the direct sun.
As she was walking up, I gave her my best smile, not just because she was pretty but because I tend to be a little cranky in interviews and I was trying to do better. Part of my problem, I guess, is that I was still having trouble accepting that for over fifty years I hadn’t been the stud I once was. Seems to me there are two kinds of people—the ones who see themselves as old long before they are, and the ones who never do.
Anyway, I liked the way she carried herself. She came right up to me and held out a well-manicured hand as I was pushing myself to my feet with my cane.
“Oh, please don’t get up, Mr. Woodward,” she said too late, her voice pleasantly deep for a woman, “I’m Joanna Chapman.”
As we shook, I shuddered inside at the contrast between my ancient, liver-spotted claw and her smooth, pale hand. “Call me John,” I said, unintentionally making it sound more like a command than a request. “I never saw myself as a ‘mister’.” I’m sure my expression reflected my dismay at how far gone my youth was.
“Okay, then. John it is.”
“Have a seat.” I pointed with my cane as she released my hand, indicating a wicker chair separated from my wheelchair by a small, round table.
She sat, carefully crossing her legs, which were nicely covered in off-white linen pants that went with her matching jacket. I noticed she had no purse. With her light-blue blouse and cream-colored, low-heel shoes, she looked cool and businesslike. Her shoulder-length, honey-blonde hair was held in a pony tail by a silver coil, all of which was no doubt meant to draw attention to her long, unwrinkled neck. She reminded me of my first girlfriend, whom I last saw before boarding the plane headed for Saigon…
“What a lovely place,” she said, looking toward the range of hills that rose where the town ended. “How long have you lived here?”
“Oh, most of this century so far. I think I bought it in ’06 or ’07.”
“A long time. My parents hadn’t even met by then.”
Just then Virginia stuck her head out of the screen door. After brief introductions, she asked if we’d like something to drink, which we declined, then excused herself. “It’s nice she and her son live here, so I don’t need nursing care. I’m not as young as I used to be, you know.” It was a straight line I often used to break the ice and get a read on the comfort level of my interviewer.
“You’re not as young as anyone used to be, John,” she quipped with a mischievous smile. “Although you really don’t look a day over ninety-nine.”
I smiled. It was a good retort, and I liked her for it. But I wondered why she’d come alone. “Are we waiting for a holo crew?”
“I’m sorry. A holo crew?” She looked confused.
“Yes,” I replied, probably sounding as though I thought she were stupid. “Usually interviewers bring a couple of camera people and a makeup person. Or are you wired for live podcasting?”
She looked relieved. “Oh. No. It’s not that kind of interview. Perhaps I should have explained when I called. I’m here to discuss the possibility of your working with BioMed Corporation.”
“Work? For BioMed? The name sounds familiar…”
“It should. When they were just starting out, they grew the heart that still beats in your chest. Today, BioMed is the world’s largest producer of genetically tailored organs and other body parts. Actually, I think you have a couple of their other products…”
“Let’s not get so personal, young lady. There’s little enough privacy left in this goddamned world.” She looked somewhat contrite, making me realize I had lapsed into grouchiness. “Sorry. I know people your age aren’t so sensitive to their personal information being bought and sold like any other commodity.” I shifted gears. “So I suppose BioMed wants me go on the holo as living proof of how long their artificial parts last?”
Joanna recovered and slipped back into her pitch. “Actually, it’s quite a bit more extensive than that.” She uncrossed her legs and leaned toward me. “You’re probably aware that the science of halting and even reversing the aging process has advanced considerably in the past decade. First lab animals, and then human volunteers as old as eighty have had their biological clocks turned back as much as thirty percent, and there seems to be nothing to prevent their biological age from being regressed to the point, usually about the age of thirty-two or so in humans, when animals begin to show signs of aging. Isn’t that fantastic?”
“It would be hard to argue otherwise. Are you asking me to be a guinea pig to see how well it works on someone really old?”
“Oh, no. They already know it will work just as well regardless of age. Clinical trials are complete. The process of licensing it for sale is in the works, and should be complete in a few months. It will be on the market, available only through trained medical doctors, by next spring. The reason I’m here…”
I held up a hand. “…is that BioMed will need a poster boy to spearhead their marketing campaign.”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I’m amazed how sharp you are, John! I’ve dated men who are slower on the uptake. But to cut to the chase, BioMed asked who would be a better spokesperson than the world’s oldest man? The world could watch as you became younger and younger each day, gradually resuming all the activities you’ve had to give up over the years.”
“I have to admit, uh, sorry, I’ve forgotten your name…”
“…Joanna, that it’s a terrific marketing strategy. Obvious, but terrific. But why me, and not that French lady who’s a year older than me?”
“Two things. First, you’re an American, and second, she’s boring. A devout Catholic who wanted to be a nun. Three things, actually. She wasn’t very attractive when she was young, and you were photogenic. Not that you aren’t now, but it’s youth we’re selling. You were quite a hunk back in the seventies. You’ve had a colorful life, and we’ve no doubt you’d relish a return to a globe-trotting lifestyle looking thirty again, all at our expense. It would make a great ad campaign.”
I leaned toward her, supporting my chin on my cane. “Sounds rosy. But BioMed will want assurance that I’ll lead the life they want to broadcast to the world, and for that they’re going to want an ironclad contract, right?”
“Of course,” she said, leaning back. “They’ll have a big investment in you. The compensation, in addition to free age regression, will be lavish, but they’ll expect a long-term commitment.”
“Ay, there’s the rub, if I may borrow from Hamlet.” She looked confused. “Never mind. How long a commitment?”
“Well, it will take a few years just to regress you to the optimum age, which, I might add, is something only the very rich will be able to afford before the cost starts going down. Then we’ll want a commitment of at least a few more years to bring our client numbers into the millions. We’re thinking ten years, after which we can renegotiate.”
I nodded. “Ten years isn’t a long time to me. And the compensation?”
She was eager to respond. “On a par with what a top sitcom actor makes, and you won’t pay for anything as long as you’re on contract. We’ll want you living like you’re rich, traveling first class, dining in four-star restaurants all over the world, driving luxury cars. After all, we’re advertising to the rich.”
I nodded again. “And I suppose there’ll be a holo crew following me wherever I go, whatever I do.”
“And most of what I do and who I socialize with will be arranged for me.”
“Well…yes, for the most part. But you’ll have plenty of time to yourself. Your duties, if that’s what you want to call them, at first will be minimal, because it will take several months to regress you to a biological age that will enable you to be fairly active. Up to that time, the focus will be on documenting the process of regression. The younger you get, the more you’ll be doing. But even at the height of the ad campaign, we’ll guarantee you one week off for every two that you’re committed to us.”
“I see. I see…“ I remember thinking at the time that it might be futile, that I might drop dead during the regression process, that it had been decades since I had even the slightest inkling of what people found to like in modern life or what most of them did to occupy their time, that I would have to learn to be young again, if I could. But the urge to live was rekindled in me by the promise of all the infirmities of my age being replaced by the perfect, in my memory at least, virility of my youth. What fool would not seize this opportunity to start over and live the life of a movie star? What had I to lose?
“Well,” I said, extending my hand, “I think we can work out the details.”
My first decade in the public eye was a whirlwind of activity–the regression process, the media coverage, the travel, the commercials, the public appearances, the tutoring in the technology I’d lost interest in decades before, the social life of the rich and famous, the affairs with beautiful, educated, urbane women all over the world. My career as a geologist had taken me off the beaten path and for the most part let me avoid the congestion of large cities, which I have always despised. But once I became BioMed’s spokesman, I was thrust into them constantly.
Despite that, the first decade was exciting. Due to my celebrity status, I drew crowds everywhere. If they pressed too close, two husky “personal attendants” kept them at bay. A chauffeur dealt with traffic while I sipped a cold beverage and read a novel in the back of a limo. I traveled first class, stayed in the best hotels, and was insulated from most of the hassles of travel and big cities. People of wealth and fame sought me out, invited me stay at their beach house in Martha’s Vineyard or their Swiss chalet. More and more beautiful women made themselves available to me as I grew “younger.” All over the world, people recognized and envied me. My books began selling again, and publishers clamored for more.
In my new life, everything was done for me by the staff assigned to me, who arranged all my appearances, hotels, transportation and meals. I had a personal trainer who kept me in a high state of fitness, which I’d managed to do by myself well into my 80’s. If I wanted or needed anything, I simply told the proper person, who saw it done.
Even during my “free” weeks, my personal assistant took care of everything except the time I spent at home, and there I had a cook and housekeeper.
The gulf between my new life and my old somehow resulted in my going home less often as time went on. I suppose I felt like someone new, and my family treated me as such. I was somewhat drunk on my good fortune. My family had obvious difficulty relating to the family patriarch suddenly looking younger than all but a few great-grandchildren. Moreover, when I was at home, life seemed tame and slow to my testosterone-fueled mental state. Eventually I stopped going home, and spent my free time with what we used to call the jet set.
After eight or nine years I began to realize that most of my new friends were shallow and spoiled. Worse, I was becoming like them. The life I’d signed on for did not include opportunities to form relationships with the kind of people whom I’d once respected and admired. The women in my life I now saw as rich groupies, or curiosity seekers who wanted to know what it was like to sleep with the oldest man in the world in his buff new body. The men were as over-privileged and vain as the women. I was a celebrite du jour, and knew it couldn’t last forever. Still, it was addictive, this life of ease and wealth. I had been seduced by the glitter and become addicted to it, as well as some pharmaceuticals that were all too easy to obtain.
Even though my body was better than ever, my brain, in quiet moments, felt unstuck in time, to borrow a phase from Kurt Vonnegut. I had virtually ignored technology and its effect on culture for several decades before having been regressed to my current physical state, and for the following decade, despite my tutoring, it had little impact on me. I just couldn’t see how a subcutaneous implant that somehow projected a holo in space before your eyes, providing all the entertainment, communication and computing technology imaginable, really improved life all that much. More and more, when I was alone I found myself longing for the silent vastness of my desert origins.
As the regression process became more widespread and cheaper, the novelty of the world’s oldest man becoming a young playboy began wearing off, and thus my value to BioMed decreased. My five-year contract included less money, fewer perks and more free time. That was fine with me Though I considered waving it off, I renewed. I would not age as long as I was under contract to BioMed, and thus had all the time in the world to milk my good fortune. I found myself returning to the scenes of my youth, but they lacked the solitude I longed for. A freeway had long since bypassed Indian Springs, and deserts everywhere were dotted with ugly wind farms and solar farms that desecrated the sanctity of the wilderness. Now that fusion power was a reality, those would all become dilapidated eyesores after fusion’s infrastructure was complete.
Those five years flew by. My contract was renewed for two years at a lower salary for less commitment, and then it was dropped altogether. Up until then, I had gotten yearly “tune-ups” that kept me looking about 32, but after that, it was up to me. The loss of income didn’t matter; seventeen years of investing most of my eight-figure income had made me a very wealthy man who could live off his investments forever, if need be. I was set for life. But what kind of life?
I was adrift in a world I couldn’t relate to. Its music, cinema and art were alien to me; I was surrounded by technology I found intrusive and unnecessary, angry that the world I loved no longer existed, missing friends and family dead or estranged. Endless possibilities had turned into endless reminders of the loss of all I had once held dear.
Most people would say I had it made. And in every objective sense I did; I had youth, health and wealth, the ideal combination. But subjectively, I was a man of 134 years who had outlived his friends and his time in history, or so it seemed to me in my black mood. My closest living relatives treated me with a formality usually reserved for visiting dignitaries. Sitting alone in the house I’d had built on a piece of land between the Sierras and Death Valley, which I’d selected for its relatively pristine views (if you didn’t count the huge geodesic dome over the retirement community just south of Lone Pine), I was once again thinking that maybe it was time to let go. I was the world’s oldest living man in a young body, wealthy enough to buy nearly anything and wanting nearly nothing, tired of my empty life without a purpose.
There I sat, feeling sorry for myself, the guy with everything. Everything except the days when there was vastness uninterrupted by human squalor, the days when a man could lose himself in a jungle or a desert or a plain; when he could go anonymously into the world without electronic nannies protecting him from things from which he wanted no protection, invading his very mind with their insidious electronic tentacles furnishing a simulacrum of reality to lull him into a virtual world requiring nothing but passive acceptance of their superiority. “Stand aside,” they seemed to say, “and let us handle things.” Connectivity had become the new opiate of the masses. I was tired of resisting, tired of being a living anachronism. Perhaps if I’d had a woman to stand with me against the tide… But I didn’t, and maybe life was no longer worth living for a relic like me.
But then one day, as I was idling through the current holo of Popular Science magazine, I began reading an article on the ten-year anniversary of the “space elevator,” which was essentially a pair of carbon nanotube-based cables rigged to a satellite in geostationary orbit 40,000 miles over the equator. One cable pulled the “elevators,” which were about the size of a house, into a dock on the satellite, and the other lowered them gently. The huge satellite contained a hotel for tourists, scientists and other personnel, as well as facilities for the various industries that profited from a zero-gravity environment. Those industries occupied a central hub that did not rotate, around which revolved the outer rim, which provided “weight” for visitors and residents.
The elevator had drastically cut the cost of getting into orbit. So cheap had lifting a payload become that space tourism had become economically viable for the rich. The hotel was a destination in itself for tourists, who could also board ships for cruises around the moon and even take a space elevator to the surface for close-up views of the moon’s enormous craters from luxurious moon rovers.
Due to its lower gravity, the moon’s space elevator had been far cheaper to construct than the earth’s, ushering in an era of industry, tourism and terra-forming throughout the solar system. Mars’ own space elevator was nearing completion. A permanent settlement boasted its own organic garden and protein synthesizer. Ion propulsion had cut travel time to Mars nearly in half, though the voyage was still too lengthy to make it a tourist destination.
And there, in a pop-up advertisement following the article, I found my salvation, leaping out of cyberspace at me, complete with dramatic scenes from the surface of Mars. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me sooner, but there it was, my reason to go on in a place I belonged, pitched by the deep voice of a narrator who reminded me of long-dead Sam Elliott:
“There’s a place where you can leave ordinary life behind and find adventure while you’re earning a high salary tax free, but you won’t find it on earth. Mars Ventures is looking for young, rugged individualists willing to undergo the hardships and isolation of working in the beautiful but hostile environment of Mars to lead mankind into the future. We require extraordinary people, people with the pioneering spirit of those who settled America so long ago. If you are a geologist, botanist, nuclear physicist, chemist or experienced construction worker with a taste for adventure and a desire to make history, and you’re willing to make a minimum seven-year commitment, we want to talk to you.”
The narrator was talking to me, offering me a way out of my meaningless life and a part in opening up new worlds. The only hitch I could see would be in convincing Mars Ventures, my prospective employer, that the world’s oldest man would be up to the challenge.