Calvin Schwartz on Reinvention After 60 by Natalie Civadelic (Rutgers)

Calvin Schwartz on Reinvention After 60

By Natalie Civadelic; Journalism, Media Studies and Creative Writing Student, Rutgers University New Brunswick

I’ve met with my mentor, Calvin Schwartz, biweekly for the past six months—and if there’s one thing, I’ve learned from our time together, it’s that Schwartz thrives on reinvention after 60. Now 78 years old, he has as many grandchildren as self-published novels. He spoke with me for several hours about the memories behind There’s a Tortoise in my Hair: A Journey to Spirit.

Schwartz graduated from the College of Pharmacy at Rutgers University-Newark in 1969. After a 25-year-long career in eyewear sales, Schwartz became a journalist, novelist, broadcaster, podcaster, and part-time lecturer.

To Schwartz, “reinvention wasn’t a lightbulb that went off—it was incremental. When it began, it was as innocent as can be,” he said, readjusting his baseball-style Rutgers cap, reminiscing about a cold February Friday 14 years ago.

Schwartz was on the NJ Parkway, returning from a long day at work at the tail end of his career.

Yet “something that night told me to keep going, to not get off the exit, exit 123,” he said.

Instead, he took exit 114 for Holmdel, NJ, home to the Vietnam War Memorial. It was brutally cold and windy as he traveled in profound silence from one panel to the next. Yet his mind solemnly traced the names of one thousand five hundred sixty-two young men and women immortalized in granite and the crucible of war.

“There was something so heartbreaking but romantic about having all the time in the world to do this,” said Schwartz. “There was suddenly this energy inside me—a certain something I needed to express, a something I needed to feel.”

“The Vietnam War consumed my life,” Schwartz said. He spent “every waking moment from 1965 to 1969 obsessing over war, death, and how horrible it all was. I realized I just couldn’t fight in a war I didn’t believe in.”

Six days before Schwartz’s first marriage, President Richard Nixon signed the Military Selective Service Act of 1967 amendment. “On our honeymoon,” wrote Schwartz in There’s a Tortoise in my Hair: A Journey to Spirit, “they drew my number 115, guaranteeing my chance to see Southeast Asia.”

Elements that discuss and describe Schwartz’s experience with the Vietnam War were incorporated into his novel. “Guilt is an overarching subtheme that both my character and I felt.”

Both his character, Cameron Simmons, and himself had two schools of thought: figure out a loophole to be declared medically unfit for service or hire a lawyer to become a conscientious objector, only to be imprisoned or shipped off to Canada.

Not yet a journalist, or a novelist, Schwartz turned to art to express the complexity of his emotions in the summer of 1970. He drew a compellingly surreal version of himself and the world around him with paper and markers, highlighting “the emotionality, brutality, and hopelessness of the time.” He then stuffed it in a drawer.

Before his induction date, a friend had given Schwartz an army manual, which described articles and clauses of medical discharge. “At 4:44 a.m., I found an obscure sentence… ‘orthodontic appliances cause one year exemption from service.’”

So Schwartz got braces.

While that clause was enough to get Schwartz off the hook, that something, that feeling never went away. “As time went on, my perfect alignment under the stars and the moon bothered me.”

On a cold February Friday fourteen years ago, Schwartz committed the names of two strangers to his soul: First Lieutenant Arthur John Abramoff (Army) and Sergeant Albert Raymond Potter (Air Force). Regardless of their fates, these men were born into a world scarred by conflict and, as a result, possessed a somber awareness of the fragility of peace yet an appreciation for life.

“It was always inside of me, this creative thing, it only took 30-40 years to get out.” According to Schwartz, this post-retirement euphoria is very spiritual, philosophical.

“Your generation has so much opportunity. The world is changing whether we like it or not. Do everything you can for the sake of learning, experiencing, exploring, and, most of all, meeting people.”

Schwartz disappeared from the four corners of Zoom for a moment. He returned to the frame with a physical copy of the novel. He turned it around, revealing the buried drawing from the summer of 1970 as the art for the back cover.

“Reinvention has no age limit.”


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