The last year of life

Davy Crockett died last month, and every kid over 60 doffed an imaginary coonskin hat in his memory. I know I did. 

Fess Parker, the actor who played Davy on three episodes of “Disneyland” in the mid-1950s and launched the first ­— if not the last — nationwide fad for the post-World War II baby boomers, died at the age of 85. Another notch on the baby-boomer belt reminding us that we are aging fast. 

The three-part series that concluded with “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” had every kid in America wearing a coonskin cap, wielding his own “Old Betsy” rifle, and carrying his sandwich and apple to school in a Davy Crockett lunch box. It was a glorious fad until it fizzled out, as all fads must, by the following school year. 

Yet, 55 years later, there isn’t a grown-up kid nearing retirement who still can’t sing the lyrics of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”: “Raised in the woods so he knew every tree / Kilt him a b’ar when he was only three….” 

Parker went on to perform in a number of other Disney movies, including the big hit “Old Yeller,” and he had a six-year run in the 1960s playing Daniel Boone on television. 

But his career as an actor never reached those dizzying heights again, and he turned to real estate development and a winery. A successful entrepreneur, he knew that he owed Crockett a lot. His wine label had a tiny coonskin cap as a trademark. 

It’s hard to capture a life in words. Parker, in my mind, will always be eternally young at the Alamo with his sidekick George, played by Buddy Ebsen, ready to lay it on the line for Texas independence. 

Which is ridiculously unfair. The guy had a life, a family (he died on his wife’s 84th birthday, a woman he had been married to since 1960), a career and a rich identity far beyond a black-and-white image dressed in buckskin for the small screen. But we always think of life after the celebrity moment as an afterthought. Especially when our celluloid heroes have the temerity to grow old. 

Curious thing. In the everlasting debate over health care reform, we kept hearing about all the money that could potentially be saved in “the last year of life.” It always struck me as an odd phrase — “the last year of life.” 

There’s an implication that a bell goes off when we are 365 days from our death. You should know, your loved ones should know, and most assuredly your doctor should know that the white flag has been waved and that you are on the last lap of the race. 

It’s nonsense, of course. The last year of life is never known until after the fact. And the medical treatment the aged ill receive progresses as an illness progresses, not based on a count down to eternity on the calendar. 

There is a whiff of artificial cutoffs when we try to project backward on that last year of life. Treatment is deemed wasteful if it fails in that last year; but it isn’t counted at all if it succeeds and that alleged last year becomes more years. 

My dad and I were sitting in a bar at Cape Cod on a sunny afternoon talking tennis and old times 365 days before he died. My mother was on the phone 365 days before she died telling me about a book she was reading and an exercise class she was attending. 

It’s a phony stat, this “last year of life” stuff, and I pray we don’t build health care reform on the backs of the elderly, or the lives of the unborn. That’s how you sell your soul as a culture. 

Old Fess Parker had a good life, and he died at his home in California of “natural causes.” I thank him for the memories. I hope his last year was as good as it gets. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.