Mark Hayward's City Matters: A country for old men
COUNTRY MUSIC — the old country music, at least — delivers lines that Shakespeare would envy.
Take Randy Travis, whose silky, baritone voice filled country music charts in the late 1980s. In his most famous song, he swears that his love will last to infinity. Or in other words: "As long as old men sit and talk about the weather, as long as old women sit and talk about old men."
Fast forward some 25 years, and Manchester has a place for old men to sit and talk about the weather. And history. And health. And computers. And — because this is New Hampshire — guns.
Welcome to the New Hampshire Retired Men's Association, a group of gray-haired gents who gather monthly at a small meeting room in the basement of a West Side mill building.
This is male bonding, even when age tempers all those wonderful male qualities of virility, self-reliance and braggadocio. For a couple of hours, they get together, share coffee, doughnuts (the cardiologist be damned) and listen to a speaker.
Other days, the association organizes a computer class and cribbage game.
"It gets us out of the house and away from the wife," said Claude Morin, a 72-year-old who used to work as an excavator and handyman.
About 20 showed up at the April meeting. They clustered in groups: a half-dozen in one, three in another. One solitary guy sold tickets at the 50-50 table. (Just goes to show that whenever a dozen people get together in ManchVegas, there's a 50-50 drawing).
Morin is talking to Bob Pelletier, an 80-year-old who worked in retail sales most of his life. He said he worked hard all his life. Now he has nothing to do.
"Want to know something? I'm bored stiff," said Pelletier as he regaled me with stories about the Union Leader of old.
Why gather? For one reason, Morin and Pelletier are in the minority.
According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, there were 28,000 men in New Hampshire between the ages of 65 and 69, compared to 29,200 women. A few more women, but not by a lot.
But for Pelletier's age bracket — 80 to 85 — there were 10,000 men in New Hampshire, compared to 15,000 women.
We men die faster. There's fewer of us around the older we get. So it's natural to stick together.
Visit the Cashin Senior Center just down the street, and the vast majority of the people there are women, said Rod Bulner, 71. And most of the activities are centered around women: crafts, swimming, pilates.
"My wife, she's got her senior center. There's a whole schedule, three days a week — here, there, and everywhere," said Bulner, who takes time off from his plumber's helper job when the Association meets.
"I think the men feel more comfortable by themselves," said Jean Schwartz, 75, a retired electrical engineer. "We keep it simple. There's no officers, no dues, no bureaucracy, no titles."
The group draws from Manchester, as well as Derry, Raymond, Nashua and Weare. A guest speaker is always on hand. The topics are wide ranging, said Tom Arnold, 77, a retired engineer who took over the running of the association when his predecessor died.
They try to avoid politics, but Mayor Ted Gatsas has spoken to the group. The most popular topic, which dealt with guns, drew about 40 people.
Some meetings have involved field trips — to the Manchester School of Technology and the city's wastewater treatment plant. This month's meeting, always held on the third Tuesday of the month, featured a presentation of Honor Flight New England, which gives war veterans an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C.
Once it was over, the participants put away their folding chairs, and slowly departed. (Catholic Medical Center provides the space and coffee, but wants everyone out by 1 p.m.)
The association was a godsend to Morin, who said a hip replacement forced a drastic change in his life. He lost weight, which was good, but he went from working three jobs to staring at four walls.
"Once a month," he said, "I come down here to get a little change of pace."
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.