National Opinions

Leonard Pitts: Counting those years of wisdom

On Thursday, it will be 50 years since I fooled around and got myself born. It's a personal milestone that raises a critical question I've been grappling with for weeks: Can I get a column out of this? I figured I could — obviously — but that raised yet another question. What approach do you take? Do you go for solemn reflection ("Two score and 10 years ago, my foremother brought forth upon this continent a new baby, conceived in...")? Do you go for laughs ("... and I told the kid, 'Look, I've got underwear older than you!"')? I even thought about sharing some of the life wisdom I've picked up over the years, except it turns out an alarming amount of my life wisdom actually comes from old pop songs ("You've got to know when to hold 'em...").

It was as I was going back and forth with this that I learned a gentleman of my acquaintance was celebrating his own birthday milestone a few days before me. But Joe Engel of Charleston, S.C., isn't turning a piddling 50. He's turning a monumental 80. Between the time of my writing this and the time of your reading it, his family is throwing him a party. If I know Joe, wine will be drunk, pretty women will be flirted with, dancing will be done.

Joe is a survivor of the Holocaust, one of the one in three European Jews who escaped the Nazis alive. He survived the Warsaw Ghetto. He survived Auschwitz. When Allied troops closed in on the death camp, the Nazis loaded their captives on a train and ran. Joe jumped from the train, hid beneath 8 feet of snow. He made his way to a barn, concealed himself under a mound of hay. German soldiers, searching for runaways, stabbed the hay with bayonets. Later, the barn wound up in a crossfire between the Germans and the Russians, gunfire punching through the walls. Joe survived all this, too.

Sometimes, I know, he wonders why. Others were bigger, others were stronger, others had more faith. Sometimes he wonders why he was one of the few who lived. I think maybe he lived so that he might someday lift a glass or bask in the beauty of a woman. Or dance. Not just to do these things, but to be "seen" doing them. That's an affirmation, isn't it? Testimony to the rest of us of the stubborn resilience of life.

Your humble correspondent has survived no death camp. To the contrary, I've seen Niagara Falls and Hawaiian sunsets. I've been in African shanties and French restaurants. I've seen Stevie Wonder dance on a piano, heard Aaron Neville sing "Amazing Grace." I've suffered loss, yes, but I've also seen birth.

It's been — so help me, Jimmy Stewart — a wonderful life. But there have been those hard days when faith was shaken, and I moped in the self-pitying conviction that life was a conspiracy against me.

When I was a kid — and I suppose this is true of all kids — I always figured that one day I would Understand It All. At the end of five decades, I'm still waiting for that day. At the end of eight, Joe is, too.

That's reassuring, I guess. I've come to believe wisdom begins with the realization of how little of It All you truly do understand. And how little you likely ever will.

So I want to be like Joe when I grow up. I remember seeing him at dinner in Poland one night after a somber day spent touring death camps. The table talk had been of genocide and human cruelty. Then the band struck up "Hava Nagila" and Joe found a pretty woman and started dancing. In my notes, I wrote that he danced as if his bones were made of joy.

Which strikes me as the only way to dance. So, do you want to know what I've learned at 50? That there is no finish line, nor finished state. There is only now.

And now is always a great time to do a little dance. Maybe make a little love. And get down tonight.

Like I said, pop songs.

About the author: Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at