Dear Helen, Al, Jan, Mike, Lily, Arnie, Connie, Max, Lennie, Gill, Leo, Justin, Pearl, Paul, et al. . .

Remember the grand old time we had at the 60th birthday party I pitched for myself, with the champagne and all? I know it's hard to believe, but a whole decade has almost rolled by and my 70th is around the corner. Since I'm a mite older than most of you, I thought I'd tell you a few things about getting up there.

There's a difference between my 60th birthday and this new milestone. The 60th came as something of a shock. Good Lord, this could be it. This might very well be the decade when I'll go!

If you die when you're 50 something, you might get some others clucking, "Pity to go so young." But when you're in your sixties, the general feeling is that it's not too unreasonable.

I'll surely go now--in my seventies. It's not only because I'm dealing with those hard-and-fast actuary tables, but none of my ancestors went beyond 72 or 73: something about which I do wish they'd tried a little harder since their longevity is supposed to set my own mortal limitations.

Still, for some reason or other, I don't feel particularly perturbed about the matter. For one thing, I really don't know what the dickens I can do about it. For another, having made it okay through the sixties--which was pretty old--maybe I'll just coast along into the seventies.

In the decade since that last celebration, there have been a few changes. I've picked up hypertension, a tendency toward gout, some false and untrue molars, an astigmatism (I don't see altogether properly), a back that goes out and a groin that goes in and what may be the world's longest tennis elbow, extending as it does all the way past my wrist.

But I refuse to let any of these physical peccadillos get to me too much, figuring, what the hell, nobody's perfect.

I sometimes reflect that I may not have done too well when intellect was passed out and there may be some doubt about the matter of talent, too, but what I've been blessed with is a certain amount of chipperness, and I am eternally grateful for this.

I'll tell you something: If you can whistle, you've got it made. You can see anything through.

I whistled "As time Goes By" long before Humphrey Bogart and "Casablanca." My rendering of "It's still the same old story, the fight for love and glory" won me a newspaper job in a Great Depression tryout competition with three college grads, even though I'd barely managed to make it out of high school. Maybe they could spell better than I could, and their punctuation might have been more conventional, but they couldn't match the flair and fire. I was a full-fledged police reporter at 17.

"Long Ago and Far Away"--the song Gene Kelly sang to Rita Hayworth in "Cover Girl"--got me through World War II, including the time I got lost behind Japanese lines on Okinawa. I thought my wife looked a little like Rita, and the longer I was out on those godforsaken South Pacific islands, the more she resembled Rita, and I was that much more bound and determined to get back.

Of course, for all my whistling, I have received a few of those 400 blows the French say we all have to get before we shuffle off this mortal coil. My wife, who was really still my bride, became ill not too long after I got back, and she went and died. I was left with a 1 1/2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. In order to simultaneously look after them and earn a livelihood, I worked at home as a free-lance writer. It wasn't easy not having any regular stipend coming in, and I was at the typewriter night and day to make sure the kids had a roof over their heads and a sufficient quota of meals.

There were times when I wondered when the next rent or food money was coming from, but "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" and "Whistle While You Work" got me by and so did the sprightly "Jingle Bells," even in July. "Perhaps "Glow, little glow worm, glimmer, glimmer" helped most of all, giving off a marvelously incandescent light. It helped to oust the shadows from even the most remote nooks and crannies of Washington, mostly a strange land full of strangers to me.

I was too busy, too caught up in my new situation for any serious romance, and I never remarried. I've never even been sort of rich; in fact, I've been sort of poor. But I can still coax and cudgel stories out of my battered typewriter; my old jalopy takes me where I want to go; my flat is on the plain and simple side, which makes it just right for me, and I can't imagine anything tasting better than hamburgers, fries and a root beer.

I never thought I was particularly cut out to be a parent, but I did my dead-level best, and I must have done something right. Both children grew into fine adults and are leading responsible, creative lives, rewarding me with five first-rate grandchildren. So now I'm all set for my seventies.

Along with some tunes, I have a kind of faith--based not so much on theology as on chipperness--to see me through. I can't believe with the certainty that some people do, but I refuse not to hold out the hope that everything won't turn out all right. All I know is I'd rather be somewhere out in the periphery of believers than occupy the most lofty and barren scorner's seat. I couldn't possibly ever credit all the wonders of life and living to some stupid blob who crawled out of the muck and mire millions of years ago.

Even though I know that theoretically I shouldn't make it out of the seventies, my intention is to try. One thing is for sure, no matter how long all this lasts, it's going to be an adventure. I am going to do The Great American Novel. Others, I realize, have the same notion, but I'm really going to. I've already started whistling "Glow Worm," and the 70th will be a bash.