Over the Hill

Once you get to the top, the only way to go is down. There’s really no need to sprint to the bottom.

Baby Boomers in their sixties and seventies were taught by our parents and grandparents to work hard and be loyal. Loyalty is a two-way street, or so we were told, and employers supposedly recognized and respected this asset as exemplified by our hard work and willingness to go the extra mile.

Our parents were better at this than we were, and they  became the first generation to comfortably retire at relatively young ages. That had been the province of the wealthy for most of recorded history, but now the masses were cruising away their retirement years in RVs or turning their wrinkles bronze in warmer climes.

My father, who died in late April 2011 at the age of 90, lived a long and productive retirement of more than a quarter of a century, and he and my mother were together and remained quite active for all but the last year or two of their years together. They were lucky, but their situation is not all that unusual. They lived simply on Dad’s retirement income and their Social Security benefits. Mom never had to work during their 66 years of marriage. I should say she didn’t have a paying job. She brought up four kids, which can be hard labor, and took care of the home front, paying the bills and making management decisions.

My generation couldn’t afford to do that because we needed more stuff. My wife, Mary, and I have college degrees—something that wasn’t so common in our parents’ generation—but she put her degree on hold until both of our children were in school.  Then she put it to use teaching elementary school kids with learning disabilities. Living on my income as a newspaper reporter and editor was challenging in the early years, and we occasionally got behind on the bills.

It took us a few years to get back on track so we could help pay to send our daughter and son to two of the best schools in the land, NYU and Carnegie Mellon, respectively. Their brains and financial need loan assistance allowed us to accomplish that, and as we hit our sixties we found ourselves with no mortgage to pay and clear of virtually all debt.

My first weekly paycheck as a reporter in 1972 was $120, and after the three-month probationary period it was increased to $126. We had a young child by then and were able to pay rent and buy groceries—all on my earnings. We lived in an apartment in a development called Williamsport Village where rent was based on income. There were a lot of other young couples there just starting out in their careers. There wasn’t much room for recreation in our budget, but there are a lot of happy memories of those years as a young couple. It was when we started needing stuff, like a house, when things became more stressful. You know, why pay money that goes into a landlord’s pocket when you can invest in eventual ownership.

That first house we purchased in 1978, as I recall, had a price tag of $16,500. My last couple of cars each cost me more than that. It was both a blessing and a curse, as it turned out. After a couple of years of mortgage payments, I received a job offer as news editor from a daily newspaper in our native county, and it was a chance to move back with our two children to be near both pairs of grandparents and with friends with whom we had grown up.

It was the precipice of a severe recession that started in January 1980, and we had expected to sell our house while paying rent for another home with the expectation of buying the latter once we sold the other. It took more than a year, and we were struggling to pay the rent for one and continuing mortgage payments and taxes on the other. It was a tough time for paying bills, including credit cards that had been manageable until then. We were both stressed out from creditors calling for delinquent payments by the time, much to our relief, we sold one house and were able to put a down payment on the other. We had gone into debt consolidation in the meantime and, eventually, our monthly income was higher than expenses. Mary was also able to take advantage of her teaching degree, embarking on a career as a learning support teacher once our youngest started kindergarten.

Years went by and we were surprised that our credit rating continued as obstacles in making some necessary purchases. I remember the embarrassment of being turned down by a hometown bank for a home improvement loan due to damaged credit. It wasn’t until several years after that, when our daughter would soon be heading off to college, we learned the bank that mortgaged our previous home had never taken the mortgage, paid off more than a decade before, off the books.

So we had experienced all that frustration and stress years after it should have been resolved.

Mary retired from teaching in 2012, after I left the newspaper business the year before. I tell you all of this because I’m one of the lucky ones. I never made a lot of money and, as a journalist for several decades, my salary increases were unimpressive and infrequent, though my job performance reaped fourteen Pennsylvania Newspaper Association (Keystone Press) awards over eleven years of submitting entries for such awards. Years before, at another newspaper, I had been awarded a first place for Public Service by the Associated Press Managing Editors of Pennsylvania for an investigative series on a home weatherization scam.

My wife was a dedicated teacher from a family of educators, which didn’t factor into her raises because merit pay is unknown in Pennsylvania public schools. But she did get healthy incremental raises over her three decades in the classroom. When she started teaching, my income was something like fifteen percent more than hers. In 2010, my last full year on a newspaper payroll, her salary topped mine by well over fifteen percent.

It’s All About Doing What You Want to Do

Still, we embarked into the decade of our sixties with few financial worries. I feel very fortunate that I was able to do what I loved doing, anemic paychecks, credit issues and all, and, armed with writing skills, have the freedom to do what I want to do as a retiree. Fortunately, few of the things I want cost a lot of money.

According to the National Council on Aging around the time I retired, there are about 13 million of my peers who “live one medical bill, one missed meal or one job away from economic disaster.” Then there are those who are already there.

I wrote much of the preceding years ago under the heading of “Feeling Fortunate.” It was among dozens of essays and notes for future commentaries I don’t believe were ever shared. That was around the time, I was finishing a book on traumatic brain injury entitled “A Matter of Recovery,” and I am now working with a consultant assigned by a major book publisher on a second nonfiction book— this one in the True Crime genre. The latter, tentatively entitled “Mosaic Pieces,” explores a case where a young man was falsely prosecuted and convicted of murdering a twelve-year-old girl years ago and takes an intimate look at the darker side of American justice.

Sometimes the words don’t come as easily as they once did, but it keeps my mind chugging along and, so far, I haven’t found the need to start popping Prevagen pills. Well, I did try them for a while, but I don’t remember why I stopped.

We are now in the decade of our seventies, and all is still going well. We’re healthy and active, not counting occasional naps, and among the highlights, through diet and exercise, was removing myself from the rolls of Type 2 diabetics to join those with healthy blood sugar readings.

The blood pressure is still a little high but probably nowhere near what it was when I was holding off those creditors.