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'The Seven' still flout geriatric laws


They're the Magnificent Seven, no? Except, unlike the old movie cowboys, the picture ends but these guys keep going. Nearly seven years ago, I write a piece about the sporting fellows pictured above, these walking testaments to surgery and second-hand body parts who play racquetball and spit in the eye of geriatric science. When the story's done, I assume that's the end of it. Who knew, all these years later, the thing has to be updated?

Because, sure enough, here's Al Cohen, 84 years old now, smacking a shot past Ed Hecker, 82, while Aaron Crane, 77, and Sam Cohen, 82, go scrambling to play the carom and Barney Cohen, 78, Irv Fishbein, 73, and Jay Fay, at 72 the rising young prospect of the group, stand outside the court and holler to get things moving, finish the game, their joints are getting rusty and they aren't exactly getting any younger.

Oh, no? You couldn't prove it by these guys. They're still out there, five mornings a week at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center, still playing racquetball every day, still defying the various laws of gravity and age and aching joints.

"Still hanging onto our youth," says Al Cohen, who worked for the U.S. Printing Office for many years.

You should see him in action. The doctors removed a tumor from his brain 22 years ago. The nerve endings are working on only one side of his face. One eye is closed almost completely. And, at this moment, he's digging the racquetball out of a back corner and ripping a honey of a shot that Sam Cohen reaches and hits right back.

You should see Sam, too. A retired pharmacist, for 30 years he was a cardiac patient. Now he's got muscles he never knew existed, he's exercising, he's walking three miles a day on a treadmill.

"I do it early, when nobody's there," he says.

"Sure, nobody's there," says Aaron Crane, a retired aircraft technical writer. "So nobody knows if you do it or not."

They give each other little needles like this. But, for 30 years, Sam Cohen says, he barely lived a life at all because of his heart problems.

"If I stuck my head out the door and it was cold," he says, "I had chest pains. I had nitroglycerin ready at all times. I couldn't walk stairs."

Three years ago, he underwent a cardiac bypass. Then he started playing ball with these guys. He's feeling reborn now, not only from the ball playing and the exercising, but the camaraderie as well.

"Arguments, it's called," says Aaron Crane, who interrupts his own soaring, spontaneous singing to explain, "we argue all the time. 'What's the score? Who served last?' "

"Selective memory loss, that's the term," says Sam Cohen.

"We argue, we laugh, we sing," says Jay Fay, a retired electrical engineer. "In the shower, we sing."

"Right," says Ed Hecker, a retired lawyer, commencing to vocalize. "Her name was Liz/She was a beauty/She lived in a house/of ill reputee."

Everyone's a player, everyone a performer. Barney Cohen, for example. He played Knocko, proprietor of the legendary pool hall at Liberty Heights and Garrison Boulevard in Barry Levinson's "Diner." He's been in some "Homicide" TV stuff. Done off-Broadway bits. He's vice president of a phone answering service.

Now he's coming off a hip replacement and talks of playing racquetball again long before anyone might have imagined.

"The doctor," he says, "told me I have the bones of a young man. From the ball playing, the lifting of weights. He said I'm like a young man, it's marvelous."

"He's a stud," says Sam Cohen.

"Nah, he retired from women," says Aaron Crane.

"Women?" says Barney Cohen, with a theatrical shrug. "What's a woman?"

"But you see," says Al Cohen, "we bear out all the information about exercise. And the camaraderie, which you can't duplicate. But this has given us our youth back, coming out here every day, getting the muscles and the blood going, it's wonderful."

"It makes you want to do more," says Jay Fay. He should know. He's taking college courses in comparative religion. In January, he's going to India. "We're all retired, we want to make our lives as full as possible."

"Right, full," says Ed Hecker. Two years ago, at 80, he got married.

"And I," says Barney Cohen, "got divorced."

In other words, life goes on. They're the Magnificent Seven. The movie ends, but the music of their lives lingers on.

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