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For most of my working life, other than to try and save a little money, I've never given that much thought to being retired. But I have to admit, by the time my sixty-second birthday came around, the thought had crossed my mind more than once. I began to weigh in my mind what it would be like to quit my steady job and ride off into the sunset. Every day could be the same, or they could be different. Each day could be whatever I choose them to be. What would it be like to roll over and go back to sleep when the alarm sounded at five a.m. I wondered. October 12, 2005, I will not only be eligible to start receiving 80 percent of my social security, but the benefits earned from my twenty-eight working for a couple of corporations, as well. Still, the thought of living on a fixed income raised a few questions and I began to consider if the timing was right. What would I do with all that free time? Would there be enough money to do what I wanted to do? What if something went wrong; something unforeseen; something catastrophic? Would I be happy? How would Betty and I manage our increased time together? On the one hand, I compared the thought of retiring to my time back in the 1970's when I signed up to receive my GI-Bill benefits to go to college. I was attending classes in the mornings and evenings and working on TV's in the afternoon. The TV work was word of mouth and I knew the calls could come and the calls could go. But the $400 I would receive from the government would be as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning. That was my thinking at that time. As I saw it, the worst case scenario was manageable. If the times got really tough and the calls didn't come, I could hold up a partial payment to the university and purchase some food items or make a utility payment. The thought gave me a warm comfortable feeling inside, or as the geeks would say; a warm fuzzy that I could make it regardless of what happened. On the other hand, all I've ever done is work. I enjoy my time at work. I've always relished getting up on a cold morning and driving out to the plant. I've never grown tired of going into the computer room to check the screens then head down the hall to the lab. There I would pour me a cup from a fresh pot that was already made or brew one myself. Afterward I would go into the next room and discuss what went on during the night with the Mix Chemist. Sure the jobs have become more rigidly structured, the hours more uncertain, the top managers new and demanding, and some of the more interesting jobs were being taken over by the corporate office, others farmed out to contractors, even. But there is another side that I haven't mentioned. I've spent endless hours on the weekends and nights plodding the grounds, pounding the steps to an overhead crane, the control rooms, working with the budgets, attempting to get the most out of every man or woman that worked for me. That has been my agenda for the past 40-
years, regardless of where I worked, or my employer. I've survived a strike, more than one company being sold, an attempt to unionize one place I worked, and others that were already represented by a local. I've been backed into a corner, been slugged, and once learned that the budget was busted on a 5 Million project while I was on a three-week trip to Sweden in 1984. I started to worry about the budget after learning what Bruce Ewing said about the problem. He was the mechanical engineer assigned to the project. "Ben will take care of it when he returns from Sweden," Bruce had said, switching as much of the attention away from his desk as he could. The plant was for sale or had just been sold, and there was a lot of friction on all sides. Everyone was eager to impress one of the new managers or throw up a smoke screen to protect his or her own personal interests. We had a meeting soon after my return and Ewing started throwing papers at me, accusing me of creating the situation. The only problem for him was that he threw one too many papers on the table, one of which contradicted the other. "Ben, you remember that piece of paper?" He said, sounding somewhat arrogant. "Yes!" I said, after examining the document. He threw another paper on the table. "You remember that?" He said, piling it on, obviously attempting to paint me into a corner. Not fully understanding all that was going on and feeling squeezed without any place to go, I picked up the second piece of paper and compared what was written there to what was on the first piece, then gave a ragged sigh of relief. "Yes...and there's a hell of a lot more money on this paper than there is on that one," I said, pointing to the first piece lying on the table. Frank Weigle, the mill superintendent, reached for the two apparently contradictory pieces of evidence. "Let me see that!" He demanded and began to examine the documents, item by item. After comparing the dates and dollar values, Frank turned toward the mechanical engineer. "What happened, Bruce?" He asked him. Without hesitation, Ewing kept a straight face but began to backtrack. "Well, we ran out of money and I had to get it somewhere." He said.
I kept those two pieces of paper, thinking they might come in handy later and survived that little debacle along with a few others that cropped up over the years - some that could have been avoided, others that were inevitable. Another, although nonrelated, incident occurred when I gave my notice to leave the 2-way shop in Dallas. Sometime after he learned I was leaving, one of the salesmen came by. We talked a while without anything of a substantive nature being discussed. And, had the conversation ended in that manner, I most likely would not have remembered the brief encounter at all. But, before we parted, the salesman ended our casual conversation with an unusual comment. I suppose it would be more accurate to describe the salesman's remarks as more philosophical or a scientific statement of fact, rather than "It's been nice knowing you; I'll see you later" sort of remark. What he said was this. "When a person comes to work for a company, it's like sticking your finger in a bucket of water. There are a few ripples at first, but if you and the company are a good match, the ripples quickly diminish and there is no sign that you are even there." He paused a moment to exchange glances with me before continuing. "Then, when you leave the company," he went on, "it's the same thing but in reverse. You remove your finger from the bucket and the ripples return, but just as quickly they fade away, and there is no real evidence that you were ever there." I scratched my head and starred in puzzlement as the salesman walked away. What was he trying to tell me; that I was a good employee and would be missed; that I was a bad employee and wouldn't be missed; or that my time there didn't matter, regardless? Then there was the incident at the steel mill in Sand Springs a few weeks before I left for Pryor Creek. I had not fully made up my mind to leave when a salesman came into the office and my boss, who was Frank Weigle at the time, was bragging about the work we had done to automate the mill. Weigle was sitting behind his desk; I was standing by the door; and the salesman was seated across from my boss where he could see the both of us. Frank said, "Anyone can run this mill!" The salesman countered, "You mean to tell me that any Tom, Dick or Harry could come in here and do any job out there?" "You damn right," my boss shot back, proudly. "I could bring any swinging dick in here off the street, and he could do any job I've got." The salesman just sat there a moment, switching his gaze from my boss to me without moving his head. Finally, he said, "Well, Frank, if the mill is automated to the point where any dummy can run it...guess who you will have running it soon?"
Following the salesman's pointed remark, I saw a blank, hollow look creep over my boss' face. But he didn't say anything, and I turned around and left the room. Later I thought about what the salesman had said, and I suppose he was right, or at the very least he had a good point. If dummies were what we had, or would eventually have, then what did that say about me? Now, all these years later, I'm sitting at my desk contemplating my demise or separation from any future conflict or circumstance of a similar nature, thinking it would be best to leave it all behind and chart a new course. A path without the rapids, perhaps, certainly not the rabid sharks that populate the deep water, the fire coral that inhabits the reefs, the competition for a tasty morsel that could be there for the taking - or snatched away at the last moment by some greedy power hungry bastard or someone more deserving. When the last batch of managers came on board, I remember going down in the plant to a meeting in the maintenance office at 6:30 a.m. I had just walked into the room when Herb Leeman, the Maintenance Supervisor conducting the meeting, asked me what I was doing there. The people expected to be there were the Production Shift Foreman, the Maintenance Foreman, the Electrical Supervisor and possibly the Maintenance Manager, if there were some extenuating circumstances such as a major piece of equipment scheduled down or had been down for some time. Then there was Herb Leeman, seated at his desk like it was a piece of him, or one of the hundreds of tattoos that covered most of the skin surfaces of his body. I was there because the plant was computerized to the point of being automated 90 percent. I filled in for the Electrical Supervisor at times, and I felt my position as the computer guru was an important cog in the plant's machinery. I felt that I needed to be there. I wanted to know what equipment was down, if anything, and what was being planned for the day. But obviously the Maintenance Supervisor didn't think so, or he would not have made such an uninspiring remark at least that was my thinking at that moment. He said, "What are you doing here?" I don't remember my response but it would not have been what was on my mind. His point was well taken and there was no reason for me to try and make a case for anything to the contrary. Thinking that, I tried to put the incident out of my mind and say it wasn't a big deal. But it was. He was trying to push me into a corner or out the door, and it bothered me. But I didn't let it show. One day some time later, the same person called me on my cell phone and screamed into my ear - something about me not answering my phone quickly enough. Hell, I didn't think I was that important to be missed by him or anyone. Still later I learned he was diabetic and was changing to a new prescription. I suppose he was having withdrawal symptoms and might not have been the total asshole I had envisioned him to be. Well, I could go on and on with situation after situation that would have contributed to my thinking at the time - my thoughts contemplating leaving or staying. However, the incidents described in the
previous paragraphs may not have had anything to do with anything. It may have simply been my thinking at the time; that Herb was a hotheaded son-of-a-bitch like some of the rest I had met over my working lifetime. I suppose there are those that would say the same about me, even. I can see a few people thinking that. I certainly wasn't without fault. Regardless, I suppose the straw that broke the camel's back or brought the matter out in the open, so to speak, was the time my boss asked me when I was going to retire. I suppose my age was showing; I let my eyelids droop when he was addressing me; I didn't fit in his plans; or he feared I would leave and didn't want to be caught without a replacement. But at the moment he made the comment, if that is what it was, I don't know. Either way, it didn't matter. Because I had not given it a lot of thought, other than to say that I knew the benefit would be available to me later in the year, if I chose to accept it. The time would have been early in 2005 and at the moment he said that it irritated me. It angered me to be put on the spot and be required to make a decision I wasn't ready to make. I wanted to make up my mind, on my own time, and approach him with the idea. I didn't want to be pressed into making the decision by him or anyone. Finally, I sent my boss a sarcastic e-mail and told him that he had won; that I was going to retire. But then tempered a second paragraph and explained that I would work with him to locate a replacement. Hell, if I had been in his place, I would have done the same thing. If my job was important and I left one morning without letting anyone know ahead of time, it would have put him on the spot. But it pissed me off to have it come down in that manner. I wanted to do whatever the hell I wanted to do, and wasn't thinking about the company at all. But then, as the time approached, I began to rationalize that it would not only be better for the company but for me as well. I hadn't planned to leave town or flush my phone down the toilet, cutting off all ties to society. Hell, the plant might start calling me for everything that happened and I certainly didn't want that. All that being said and etched into stone, I started working on all the necessities: my emotions, my vested retirement with the company, my social security and the ten years with the steel mill, also medical insurance and my 401k. But it wasn't that easy, even. I was told by the corporate office not to apply more than a month before the date I planned to retire. If I were going to retire on January 1, 2006, it would delay me turning in my paperwork until December 1, 2005. After peering under a few stones without finding anything, I was becoming antsy to say the least. Still, I continued to play the game and applied for my social security through the Social Security Administration. There I was told that I wouldn't be eligible to start receiving my checks until the month after receiving my final check from the cement plant. The representative said I made too much money. Anyway, a couple of months prior to the end of the year, I drove up to the community building in
Pryor Creek and waited outside with a number of others for the doors to open. In about thirty minutes a fiftyish woman showed up, unlocked the door, and pointed to a yellow pad lying on a table inside the door. I assumed she was a volunteer. "Sign your name and you will be called in the order that they are listed," she said, authoritatively. I signed my name, second on the list, took a seat along with four or five others and waited for a government representative to arrive. Later, a time that seemed more like an hour past the time I was told someone would be there, a short slightly overweight blonde came in and played the part of being in charge. She was deathly serious at first, but then began to smile and attempted to make everyone feel comfortable. A minute later another person came in, a black man wearing a coat and tie, standing over six feet tall and weighing in at about two hundred pounds. He carried a small briefcase as did the woman and he followed her into a side room and sat down at a small wood desk with his back to a window on the right that overlooked the driveway. The woman took the desk on the left, facing toward the window and across the room from the man. Betty, her birthday being nine months before mine, told me she was up there the previous year. She indicated to me that she was taken care of promptly; that she was given the exact amount she would receive, the day her checks would start, the whole ball of wax. She said a woman typed it into a computer right there in front of her and showed her everything. Disappointedly, my experience wasn't nearly so straightforward. What happened was this. The two government representatives disappeared inside the side room but then reappeared in a couple of minutes with a name on their lips. The blonde called the first name on the list: a gray and humped over, feeble, elderly woman, who I overheard to say, was there to get a new social security card. The black man emerged from the door and called my name. Returning to his desk, he motioned to a chair across from him and started asking me a series of questions: where I worked, where I was born, my birth date, etc. and etc. All he had in front of him was a yellow pad similar to the one we signed our names out front and a red No. 2 lead pencil. The man was friendly enough, and a minute or two later, no more than five minutes at the most, he ripped the page off and told me he would be in touch. He said that then reached down to insert the paper in his briefcase. I was a somewhat startled that it was over so soon. At least that was my take at the moment. And to make matters worse, I didn't remember him asking me for my name. "Did you get my name on that paper?" I asked him. He froze for a moment, displaying a puzzled look on his face then retrieved the paper, glanced over the page briefly then responded, "No, what is your name?" I told him and he wrote it down then started toward his briefcase again, but paused when I asked him if he had my social security number. As before, he glanced over the piece of paper before responding.
"No. What is your social security number?" I told him and he started toward his briefcase again. I couldn't think of anything else he may have missed and grabbed the self-addressed, letter size brown envelope he had placed on his desk earlier and asked me to use it to send my DD214 back to him. I asked him about the importance of the form and he said that there might be some additional funds available as a result of my four years service in the Navy. "It want be that much, perhaps twenty to thirty dollars a month," He said. "But it should be worth looking into." I thanked him and got up to leave, feeling like there had been some progress made on my first attempt to get my paperwork in order and start along the path to being a retired person. But, as I found out a few days later, there was more to be done. Over the next several days I received a number of phone calls from him, but was unable to reach him in return. Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands and returned to the Sertoma Club the following month. I didn't know if the same person would be there or another, but I didn't feel comfortable with all that had happened up to that moment. The next month the same man was there and he acted nonchalant like everything was in order. He said that, but added that I still needed to mail him a copy of my DD214. When I explained that I was never able to find one in my files and would have to download a copy from a government site, he said that was ok. "No hurry," he went on. "We have plenty of time. Just get it done in the next few days." Over the next few weeks, I started to work on a number of goals: one of which was to publish my first book, a 9-11 novel, another was to join a toastmasters group. I realized that if I was going to pursue writing as a second career, I needed to work on myself. A third goal would be to run in the Tulsa Run. But, even that wasn't the end of it. There were other things to do as well. First, I wanted to build a small soapbox derby car. My plan was to take a picture of my three year old grandson Dylan behind the wheel and put the picture on the cover of another book I had in the works. In addition, I had an old bicycle to rebuild that my dad had back in the 1960's. Betty has a couple of bicycles and I could be riding one of those anytime I chose. But I wanted my own. Then there is the Writer's Club once a month and the Investment Club once a month. All the things I've mentioned, along with being married and doing some of the things Betty will want to do, should occupy my time, even more so than when I was working. The good part in all of this, I hoped, is that I can work at my own pace, skip a meeting occasionally and no harm will come from it.
Finally, Friday, December 31, 2005 came around. I had all my paperwork done; the retirement dinner, hurriedly thrown together by the girls in the front office, had run its course; and I drove home. But what was I going to do - really? Sure, I had set a number of goals, but what was I going to do the first morning at five a.m. What was I going to do at 5:15 when I would normally be seated at the dining table eating a bowl of oatmeal and peaches? Then, what was I going to do at 5:30 when I would normally get in the Ranger and drive out to the plant? In a lot of ways, it didn't appear that much different than planning a maintenance outage. Here is a previous example of my thinking on that. I had been working at the steel mill but a few short months when the first summer outage approached. When I didn't see a notice for a planning meeting, I went to General Electrical Foreman, Max Shauer and inquired about a schedule. Max, a tall, slim, graying man with a jutting chin, had more than twenty years in the mill. He knew as much about the steel mill as anyone and would know if anything of importance was coming down the pike. He glanced up from his desk and smiled as I came into his office. "What's going on, Ben?" he asked, and watched the door close behind me. Without responding, I glanced around the room. "Max, I haven't seen anything on the outage next week. Have you seen anything?" Max returned his attention to the previous day's time sheets lying on his desk, and responded as though the point of my inquiry was the least important part of his workday. "Well Ben, I see you haven't been here long enough to see how we do things around here," he began. Then tossed his pen on the desk, sat back in his chair, crossed his arms, and met my stare. "Here's how it works. Come seven o'clock Monday morning, we're going to shut everything in this mill down: the electric furnaces, the post shop, and the rolling mill. Once that is done, we will go through every single piece of equipment. Then, a month later we'll start it back up. And that's all that matters." He made the entire statement without pausing or taking a breath, then picked up his pen and again returned to the papers lying in front of him. Not satisfied with his response, I came at him from a little different direction. "No, Max!" I said, facing away from his desk and staring at a bookshelf on the east wall filled with books and loose-leaf binders. "What I mean is this," I said, and turned back around to face his desk. "What are you going to do the first minute after the equipment is shut down, what are you
going to do the next hour and the next several days?" Max was a man who had worked himself up through the ranks and had never paid that much attention to all the details. When a piece of equipment went down, he sent a couple people to the job site, and they worked on it until it was repaired. If a permanent repair was not possible, the equipment was placed in a temporary state of repair, awaiting a more convenient down time. I had even heard the term temporary-permanent used in the months since I arrived. I was standing to the right of the general foreman's desk and immediately saw signs of frustration deepening the lines of stress that inhabited his face. He froze for a second, lifted his head, and his eyes met mine. Also, this time, there was a noticeable hint of combativeness in his voice. "Look, Ben!" The general foreman said, again tossing his pen on the desk. "Come Monday morning, I'm going to shut this son of a bitch down; I'm going to put every man I've got on it; and do whatever the hell it takes! Then a month later, I'm going to start it back up, and we'll work our way through the mill, piece-by-piece, until we get this son of a bitch back on line!" Ha-ha. I suppose retirement is a little like that for some people. When that day comes, they will ignore all the details and do whatever it takes. But that method, the same as planning an outage, would appear to have some tripwires. If you are married and your spouse has his or her own life and you throw the two of you in the same house twenty four hours a day, I would think most people would start to have a problem, most certainly after a few days or weeks doing that. And in my case, I wouldn't be able to set up shop in one corner the living room or a bedroom and write eight to twelve hours a day. Betty would not let me do that, even if I wanted to. Already I've heard one of her comments. "All you do is sit there and work on that book!" She said. So what was I supposed to do?
Benjamin J Cox is an author, novelist, poet, speaker, writer and humorist. He has published two books, Insider Dreams, a 911 Novel and To Mama: The Long Road Home. He was born on a dirt street in a Waldron, Arkansas, graduated from the University of Tulsa with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He is married with three children, five grandchildren. He is the President of Mayes County Writers Club, the Treasurer of Pryor Creek Investment Club and President of Will Rogers Toastmasters Club. He is retired and lives with his wife in Pryor, Oklahoma. He like to run, enjoys big band dancing, Speaking before groups, and writes every day.
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