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Should I Retire? Experiences in my "Retirement" years
Why I retired at age forty five
I am a “retired” individual. This word, over the last ten years or so, has become a “dirty” word. In the working world, when you retire from your position, especially in civil service, it is as if you lost your membership to an exclusive private club. If you attempt to return, the proctor will have you rounded up and thrown out. Within months, not one person will remember who you “were”. You are “forgotten”..
I “retired” at forty five years of age. I was: “too young to retire”. Despite twenty-three years of physical exertion, exposure to the elements under all conditions and that feeling that you get, even at age forty five, of a body that is rapidly declining with high blood pressure, bad food choices, and a major lack of sleep.
It’s rather interesting. There are people who believe that if you stop working, you will die. My experiences have been exactly the opposite. I have attended funerals of my former co-workers over sixteen years now, who were still employed in a full time capacity, on their second or third marriage, some with young children, left without their fathers or in some cases, their mothers, who died in their fifties after only six months to two years removed from their main occupation.
My salvation came by chance when I discovered an old book in a book sale, written by a doctor. The book was entitled: “Should I Retire?” by George H. Preston, M.D. from 1952. There were interesting chapters on why we work, why we retire, what kind of body will I take into retirement? This was one of the wisest men I have ever read. His arguments were beyond dispute. He was honest, logical, and experienced. Dr. Preston was the head of Psychiatry for the State of Maryland for “his” occupation. To be frank, he saved my life.
With the help of that book, I was able to think through all the baloney about the merits of continuing to work. In fact, over the years I have come to believe that the word “work” , is in a way, another curse word, but this one goes all the way back to the expulsion from paradise. It is a lie that work is an end in itself. Those who propose such a philosophic outlook are not in their right mind. How do I know? Well, when we were children, did we think work was great? Or did we think football was the greatest thing? Did we admire the kid who earned a wage cutting lawns in the hot sun? Or did we think the kid who had a pack of cigarettes was more prominent? I honestly can say that I did not think that any of my classmates who had part time jobs after work were worthy of praise. In fact, most of them were very miserable.
As a teen, I owned a car, a motorcycle, and a game collection that kept us busy socially. I attended parties, went out on dates. I did this by washing dishes at a local diner. When I was a little older I worked in an insurance company as a part time employee, while attending a local Community College. I was having a great time. My fellow employees were young. We played football on weekends; we practiced football during the week! I had a girlfriend in college, majoring in English Literature, and I would drive out after work on Friday evening and arrive in time to see a movie on campus. There was an “Animal House” fraternity next door to my girlfriend’s apartment. Entertainment within consisted of beer, music and women. I always returned on Sunday, just in time for the kickoff at 1pm. From my perspective as a young man, employment was just a means to experience pleasure. I was never serious about a “career”.
Well, the time came to be more serious in 1977. I became a civil servant. This was my inadvertent career. I never intended to be a civil servant, but it just happened. I thought at the time that this would be a temporary position. The next thing I knew, ten years had elapsed in the blink of an eye. My time was not my own, I struggled daily to return to complete my Bachelor’s degree but could not due to the shift rotation nature of my occupation. I just wanted to be a laboratory technician. I loved chemistry from the age of ten. Over the next ten years all of that would change, and I ended up with retirement eligibility with twenty three years of service at age forty five.
At the time I became eligible, I was working an incredibly important and influential positon in the city “research and planning” department. I was wanted. I was needed. I was very successful. The position was easy. I had “experience” as a writer, with published articles behind me. I answered only to the Mayor. I wrote speeches, re-interpreted policy and wrote the laws that governed various departments for the city. I was Joseph to the King of Egypt. But I dared to leave. I was asked by the officials if there was anyone disturbing me. They begged me to re-consider. They were mad as well that I was leaving so abruptly at such a “young” age.
No one understood. I wanted my freedom back! I was tired of utilizing my talents for the sake of someone else’s success. I wanted to strike out on my own. I was very confident in my own ability to survive out there in the big bad world. I remembered my father, and how he worked twenty one years as a civil servant, and jumped immediately to a security position in a retirement home for the next ten years. Then, one day in August of 1990, he seemed to be a bit off. It took two weeks to get him to see a doctor. I will never forget the expression from the doctor when he entered the room and began softly rubbing my father’s back and gave me that look of doom. He had six months. He was terminal. He continued to work for most of those six months. He never informed a soul. He gave his younger co-workers off for Christmas Eve and took their place, like some sort of reformed Scrooge. When he finally passed away, barely sixty two years of age, his first social security check was arriving. I had to return the check because he did not live out the whole month. It was at this point I knew that work was truly worthless.
The best laid plans are of no value. My good friend John had a co-worker. He was very frugal, single, took the train to work (paid for by the government) and saved every dime he ever made and was still living with his mother. This man used to have a private list that everyone knew about. The list was composed of fellow workers that were most likely to die. It was an office dead pool. His rating system was based on lifestyles, the more dangerous; the more likely you were high on the list. Every now and then his fellow employees would request who was number one. Then one day my friend John thought about the probable value of this individual. He approached the person and said: “You probably have about four hundred thousand in the bank”. The man smiled. “Yes John”, he said. “I’m going to be quitting this job and live the ‘high life”. His plan included dating, being wealthy, and living an exciting and adventurous life. He finally was forced to take a vacation. While on vacation, he developed a cough. When he returned, he decided to stop in an emergency room, because he had never needed a doctor in his life. He was forty-two. While he was waiting to hear the results from the doctor, a nun came into the room and handed him a card referring him to a hospice. “For your last days” she said. He thanked the nun and believed it was just some foul up. Unfortunately the nun had arrived before he received the bad news. The doctor told him he was terminal, and had six months. Well, he was in shock, he was upset, he could not believe that he was going to be cheated out of his intentions.
He returned to tell John. John was a conservative, a Catholic, and very familiar with the bumps of life. He told him to prepare his soul. There was nothing left to do. The man was ready for the end. His last words to John were “I made fun of others by listing people on a dead pool, I didn’t know it, but God put my name at the top of the list.”. He died within the time frame of six months. His job did not save him. His money did not save him. The money went to his younger “bad boy” brother. He was the happiest man at the funeral. Oh, by the way, the younger brother’s wife retuned when she heard of the “inheritance”. She was shaking everyone’s hand at the funeral too!
Yes, I was retired. I worked a few part time jobs, and continued my mail order business. The difference was that I was free. The day I retired, two women, both very religious, could not believe that I was leaving voluntarily. You see, most civil service retirements are “forced”. People retire because something happened on the job and they are trying to secure their pensions before they lose it. Others are injured and can’t function on the job and are medical discharges. Others discover that they are terminal, and finally opt out. I was happy to retire. When the two women found out, they started praising the Lord that I had made it safely. I danced my way out of the building and sang “I’m Free” from “Tommy” by the Who. Since that day, I know it was the right choice.
By the way, you cannot reveal to your neighbors that you are retired. They will hate you and despise you. Your friends will tend to shy away from you because they cannot retire. Your own family may turn against you and begin to believe you are a “bum” because you get up late every morning and are free while they must work. Some words of advice: Don’t develop a drinking habit. It passes time but you will be looked down upon. Keep good dressing and grooming habits. Society does not know you are not working.
In my early days of “retirement”, I continued the habit of stopping at the local store where everyone who works gets their morning coffee. I would grab the coffee and drive down to the rail terminal. I sat and watched people who were going to work. I was very happy in knowing that I was no longer one of them. Eventually I developed my own routines. I bought copies of Dr. Preston’s book for friends who were considering retirement, but always warned them of the negative attitudes that they would face. My friend John was forced into an early retirement by six months. He worked twenty nine plus years. He was treated like a criminal. He could not believe how people responded when he gave an honest answer to the question: “What do you do?” “Nothing” he said. Young women would take this comment and form an impression that he was wealthy. All they had to do was look outside, he walked to the pub. He put only about four hundred miles on his 2002 Ford Taurus per year.
Another friend, Joe, spent thirty seven years in civil service. When I convinced him through Dr. Preston’s book to take that personal account and look in the mirror. He did leave. But, like my father, he continued to keep the habits when he had a day off. This meant watching sports on television and drinking beer. He never developed any hobbies to keep him occupied save for fishing. You can only do so much fishing. His wife demanded that they purchase a home down on the Jersey shore for all of the bonus money he had accumulated while he was working. Six hundred thousand dollars is what a home down the shore cost. His wife basically demanded the expenditure, as three of my other friends have also duplicated. The reason is that the wives have sisters who also have homes down the shore. She wanted a bigger home than her sisters to show off their wealth. Now to me, I think this is lunacy. You can only live in one place. The wife still works a job as a city teacher, which means that the five-- bedroom, three- bath home for only two people is empty for most of the time. I don’t understand it.
There were a few unsuccessful friends as well. Factory workers who eventually dropped out of our association due to their own feelings that we somehow judged individuals based on their income level. Our group, in general did not, but this did not prevent the person from feeling inferior and eventually dropping out of sight. I felt very bad about it. Not everyone is a big success. Is this how we judge people?
The answer for most of us is yes. I have never understood aggressive people, moving from one house to a bigger one, yet they don’t have children. I pray for those who despitefully use people in order to get to that imaginary place called: “ahead”. Exactly what is this place? It is chance and luck in part, it is nepotism in part, it is organization association in part. I for one, have never sold my soul to an organization. I have never despitefully used someone and I never have been aggressive to “get ahead.” My only post retirement ambition was education. I wanted my degree, I deserved it, I worked hard as a senior to get it. I am now an advanced degree level human being. I believe that it was of great value, and I appreciate every minute that my family allowed me the opportunity, so late in life, to live that campus life I never was able to acquire as a younger man.