I want to be like Irving Gilbert, when and if I ever retire.
Gilbert, 71, is amazing.
He races canoes, climbs mountains, hikes, bikes, figure skates, cross country skis, snowshoes, cooks, sews, plays guitar and harmonica and reads a lot of books.
Let’s see — what else? He writes songs and poems, follows politics and worldly affairs and, for the last 21 years since he retired from the telephone company, has written in a daily journal, which now comprises more than 4,000 pages.
“I’m actually writing a book,” he says. “It’s about kids, cars and crazy women.”
Gilbert is a familiar face in downtown Waterville.
Most mornings, he’s at Jorgensen’s Cafe, at the round glass table just inside the door. Typically, you’ll find him either chatting with somebody or doing the Jumble in the local newspaper.
“I do the Jumble every day,” he says. “It helps keep my mind alert.”
Tall, with gray hair, green eyes, gold-rimmed aviator glasses and a healthy dose of energy, Gilbert acknowledges he is a social person who likes people. He likes being in the presence of others, even those he does not know or speak to except to say good morning. And he has good friends with whom he talks, in-depth, about all sorts of things.
He is full of stories, many of which are quite compelling, and he has a penchant for being in the right place at the right time.
For some reason, and one he can not explain, he has had the opportunity several times in his life to save people’s lives.
When he was 16, he rescued two young kids who were drowning in the Kennebec River.
“We used to go swimming at a place at the end of Island Avenue in Fairfield and we’d swing out on a rope. I’m lying on the ledges, drying off from swimming and I hear the kids and I race across the ledges as fast as I can, dive into the water, grab them and bring them out of the water. I don’t know why these things have happened to me all my life and I just happen to be there.”
Years ago when Gilbert worked in New York City, he drove on Interstate 95 a lot and came across more accidents than he could count. Trained as an emergency medical technician and volunteer firefighter, he always stopped to help and be a calming influence on the victims until rescue workers arrived. Last summer, he saved two women from drowning during a canoe race on the Dead River.
Sadly, some situations did not turn out so well.
A few years ago, Gilbert heard a loud crash one night outside his Vassalboro home and found a young man lying by the road, his motorcycle broken into three pieces.
“His heart stopped beating 20 seconds before the paramedics got there. I could do nothing for him because his legs were crushed. I could do nothing to save him. I felt so bad about it.”
Gilbert is a compassionate man. He is intuitive. He has offered his couch to the homeless on a cold night, and given away his clothes to people who need them. Two years ago he took care of a dying man in Florida for whom he once had done some maintenance work.
The man, George, had diabetes and his leg had been amputated. They had little in common, politically and philosophically.
“He was a man who was more different from me than anyone I had ever met. When he found out I voted for Obama, I thought he’d have a heart attack, but we shared a love of history so we had something we could talk about and got along. He loved me and I was the only one he felt he could talk to about anything, even if we were so different, because I would listen to him.”
Gilbert’s keen understanding of human nature likely has something to do with his having lived a long life, having experienced a lot of anger as a child and then learning, through experience and a lot of reading and listening, to forgive and get through the pain. Once a vindictive person, he now is loving and peaceful, he says.
“Since I have become calm, I’ve been given the sense of knowing about what is the next right thing to do to help myself and someone else,” he says. “I’m trying to love all of mankind, even though they may be totally different than me, because it’s not my place to judge.”
Gilbert says he is never bored, never depressed and takes good care of his body. He eats mostly salmon, vegetables and nuts, lifts weights and walks a lot. He also loves his four daughters, ages 44 to 48, more than anything in the world.
“I adore them; they are my angels,” he says.
A divorcee, he has lived in several states, traveled all over Europe just to visit its many museums and has, over the years, remodeled several homes.
“Everything you can imagine you could do in a house, I’ve done it: wiring, plumbing, masonry, carpentry — I’ve built a few cottages along the way, too.”
As a child, he learned from his mother how to take things apart, fix them and put them back together. He earned a degree in electronics and engineering drafting and worked 30 years for AT&T and NYNEX, doing engineering and working in high speed data testing and electronic switching systems.
And he is connected.
“I have a tablet, a laptop, a PC and I almost use my iPhone exclusively. I swore when I got out of the phone company I would never look at a computer screen again, but … ”
He laughs heartily.
“It’s just the way of the world. I embrace technology.”
While he has atrial fibrillation, a condition that requires he take a little pill each day to slow down his heart, he is determined to live life to its fullest.
“I do anything I want to do because I’m not going to die on the couch, you know? I’m just not going to die on the couch.”