Some birthdays carry more weight than others. After I turned 29, I spent the next year thinking about turning 30, so much so that when asked my age, I would say “30.” I lost a year that way. I’m turning 75 next month, but as much as that’s been on my mind, I’ve been spending my 75th year more productively. As I said at the outset of this year, I want to “dance to the music of time.”
I just happened to watch Harry Dean Stanton’s last movie, Lucky, which he made when he was 90 years old. It’s all about growing old and facing death. Harry looks every bit his age. The opening scenes are unsparing in showing us his aged body. We soon learn that there is a bitterness behind his character’s tough facade. At first I wasn’t sure where the movie was going with Lucky’s bleak existence and outlook. The people who care about Lucky in his small community kept me involved. For instance, the waitress in the diner where Lucky goes every morning to drink coffee while working on his crossword puzzle came out to his house to check on him. Her kindness and concern let Lucky open up to tell her that he’s afraid. From then on I was caught up in Lucky’s journey.
Subsequently another World War II veteran comes in to the diner. Lucky was a sailor and Fred was a Marine in the battle for Tarawa. Lucky is transfixed by Fred’s story of the battle.
I still think about those people on the islands hiding in caves afraid of us, the Japs telling them we were there to rape and kill them all. I remember this little girl. She couldn’t have been more than seven, in rags. She saw us comin’ I guess, outta no where, outta the hole, and.. she had this beautiful… smile on her face. It wasn’t a façade, it was coming from somewhere inside of her… from the center of herself. Good Lord. In that shit hoie. It stopped us in our tracks. Here we were, covered with shit, with pieces of people, I swear I couldn’t see one tree left standing, and she’s grinning from ear to ear. So I said to my Corporal, I said ‘Look here, we have someone who’s happy to see us.’ And his response was: ‘She’s not happy to see us. She’s a Buddhist and she thinks she’s going to be killed. And she’s smiling at her fate.’ When I think about that little girl’s face and that beautiful smile, in the midst of all that horror and how she summoned the joy. They don’t make any kind of medal for that kind of bravery.
In contrast to this smile in the face of horror, Lucky goes to the party for the 10th birthday of the son of the woman who sells him milk and cigarettes at the convenience store. It is a joyous Mexican fiesta, complete with mariachis. After his hostess introduces Lucky to her mother, Lucky starts singing the Mexican love song “Volver, Volver.” Everyone is amazed at this old gringo singing in Spanish as the mariachis join in to accompany him. Lucky has a happy smile on his face at the end of the song.
Lucky’s transformation through the events in the movie becomes evident in his confrontation with the owner of the local bar when he starts to light up a cigarette inside the bar. Their argument goes from who makes the rules to the truth about why Lucky cannot go into the other bar in town to what is Truth. Lucky concludes that the Truth is that we and everything else are going to fade away. Nothing lasts. In response to the bar owner’s challenge as to how Lucky is going to handle that empty darkness, Luck responds simply: “Smile.”