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They Bowl Their Age--And That's Not Too Shabby

Leon Malkin bowls a spare, his third of the day. Nothing spectacular, but for a guy celebrating his 98th birthday ("A big piece of cake, please"), not shabby. And, as he sees it, considerably better than the alternative.

"We moved to Leisure World waiting to die," Malkin says during a break in the action at the White Oak duckpin bowling lanes in Silver Spring. Then, he didn't.

So he bowls Mondays at noon. Three games, four lanes, a whole lot of laughs. It's a pursuit Malkin had never even considered earlier in life.

"I had to raise a family," he says. "The heaviest sport I had was playing chess. But don't worry. You don't have to exercise to live a long life. You just have to have good genes."

The senior player in the Leisure World Mixed Duckpin Bowling League was an economist, a professor, an entrepreneur (deli, launderette). During the Depression, his was one of the pioneer families in the suburban utopia of Greenbelt, which he had to move out of when he got a federal promotion, bumping his salary over the limit for a community designed for the working man. Later, Malkin helped in the launch of the federal Head Start early childhood education program and worked as an accountant for the Montgomery County government.

He reads voraciously, even now. Sometimes, he writes poetry. He takes care of his wife, who is ailing. And he bowls, with an 84 average (the league keeps very detailed stats).

"When winter comes and harsh winds blow, we mortals are like leaves on a tree that wither and fall away," he recalls from a poem he wrote not long ago.

Then, Malkin tells me: "I think of myself as a leaf."

But those who let themselves be carried by the winds are not generally the people who have the discipline and purpose to reread Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," which Malkin says he "took up again because I think that's what's happening to us right now."

Best president in his life: Dwight Eisenhower, "because he recognized how little he knew and he got good people and didn't interfere with them."

Worst: The guy in charge right now. "A cowboy. Just the sight of him upsets me."

Despite having been buffeted by the winds of politics -- he says he lost his job as an economist for the federal maritime board after Sen. Joseph McCarthy's hunt for communists in the federal government turned toward him -- Malkin long ago decided that the affairs of state are not what matters.

"All I ask for in life is a soft bed and a library card," he says. "Everything else is extra. So many people spend so much money on being important. They get ulcers. I never aspired to be a great person."

If he doesn't need it, he doesn't want it. When Malkin was told he needed a second pacemaker, he told his doctor, "Don't give me top of the line; I don't think I'll need the 30-year model."

He is rail-thin, always has been. His eyes are clear and blue, his hearing's going, and his mind is all there. He edits his son-in-law's books. A couple of weeks ago, he took Amtrak to New York to go hear a relative's speech. He went by himself.

On the other hand, he voluntarily gave up his driver's license back when he was 96 after a little incident involving his car and a body of water. "My stupid car, instead of going forward, went backward, into a lake," he explains. He had to shove the car door open with both feet, pushing against the water, to get out.

Bowler Flora Wolf finishes the tale: "Leon went upstairs, called the insurance company, changed his clothes and hurried back down to come bowling."

The young folks in the league, those still in their 70s and 80s, take special pride in Malkin and Tillie Singer, the 93-year-old whose birthday was celebrated alongside Malkin's last week.

Singer came to bowling much earlier in life. "My husband was in several leagues, bowling till very late," she says. "I said, 'I'm not sitting here alone till 12 o'clock.' So I started."

We've been talking for too long, and suddenly Singer realizes it must be her turn: "I better go bowl or they'll kill me."

Sure enough, at the same moment, a teammate calls over: "Tillie, life doesn't wait."

She strides toward the line, rears back, lets loose with just enough wrist action to produce a frisson of backspin -- and a strike.

I feel compelled to ask for advice about getting old. "It's just genes," she says. "I eat, sleep. Time goes. If I get bored, I get on the bus and go to the shopping center and walk around. If I can walk, talk and bowl, I'm happy."

I make the mistake of asking Malkin for advice, too. "Newspapers, huh?" he says. "Is there a future in that? I think they'll all be gone in 10 years. Best thing you can do is become an entrepreneur: Sell used horseshoes or else marry a rich wife." Gee, thanks, Leon.

Malkin's life at 98 blends searching for meaning, continuing to learn and, well, waiting to die. "These are all old people doing the best they can with the little they have," he says, watching his friends at play. "The biggest fraud is the idea that your senior years are golden years. Most of them are too old to enjoy it. The only good thing about being a senior is you get senior discounts. The rest is all nonsense. What we all have in common is aches and pains and walkers and canes. In dying, we're all equal."

And then, as God is my witness, he rolls another spare.

By Marc Fisher |  November 16, 2008; 9:36 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Keep rollin' and bowlin', Leon! Keep rollin' and bowlin'!

Posted by: mttidwell | November 16, 2008 6:26 PM

And we know most liberal left wing socialist Democrats under the age of 50
cant bowl their age as demonstrated by the president elect.

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | November 17, 2008 7:31 AM

And remember, the Dems want you to keep on working so you get less retirement than these guys.

Posted by: ronjaboy | November 17, 2008 7:37 AM

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