Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sweet Surrender

In 1984 Janet and I traveled across the United States in a 23-foot motor home that we named Sweet Surrender, after the song by John Denver. The verses and refrain of that tune remain firmly in my memory despite the passage of time and what appears to me to be a loss of short-term memory brought on by advancing age.
Lost and alone on some forgotten highway,
Traveled by many, remembered by few,
Lookin' for something that I can believe in,
Lookin' for somethin' that I'd like to do
With my life.
I was 45 then. A year earlier I had been promoted to the position of Director of Quality Management of the Computer Systems Division of Honeywell Information Systems. It was a significant position in a major division of an international computer manufacturing company, during a time of significant changes that were then occurring in the computer industry. The position was staff, not line. I had a small staff of three, two consultants and a secretary. I reported to the General Manager of this 4,000 person division, along with the Directors of Engineering, Manufacturing, Quality Control, Product Marketing, Human Resources and Finance. I had worked my way up that particular corporate ladder over the preceding 15 years by gaining increasing insight into the operations of every part of the division and by performing the duties of whatever position I held at a particular time do the best of my abilities and training.

If you are male and have been 45, you'll know that it is the period of the male climateric, the mid-life crisis that comes inevitably into the lives of most men. True to the pattern that had served me so well in the past, I set out to learn as much as I could about the climateric. I read Gail Sheehey's Passages, sought out and found seminars and classes related to the topic, sought and found mentors who could teach me the things that I needed to know about the company and my place in it.

In the end, however, that year of living dangerously, challenging others more senior than myself, tougher managers than I could ever be, ended when I went to the GM and informed him that I had failed to bring about the organization changes that were at the heart of my assignment, that I felt that I couldn't hope to do so, and offered my resignation from the job. He accepted it and promised that he would support my seeking another position within the company. That's what happened, and I settled in to a less stressful product management role.

Still, I was feeling uncertain about my future with the company, and in early 1984 I took the rarely used option of putting in for a three month leave of absence (without pay, but with continued insurance coverage). That move was allowed by company policy after 15 years of employment, although it was with the stipulation that I could return IF there was a position available, and if I could convince a hiring manager to hire me to it.
There's nothin' behind me and nothin' that ties me
To somethin' that might have been true yesterday
Tomorrow is open, right now it seems to be more
Than enough just to be here today.

The trip was cathartic to those feelings of uncertainty about myself and our future. We left Lawrence, Massachusetts, from an apartment that we rented after selling our dream home in New Hampshire, one that we had built to our specifications, a few months earlier. We took the money from that and bought the used (1976) motor home, sent our younger daughter off to college, and set off on what was to end three months later
with 15,000 new miles on the motor home and a written and photographic log of visits in 35 states (and Mexico three times, but briefly) on mostly Blue Highways.

The journey wasn't without its complications. We were used to a certain routine that gave us each a certain amount of space. Adjusting to being alone together in such a small space for that length of time took some getting used to, just the two of us and our dog Bijou, but we survived. The trip set the course for the second half of our lives. It heightened our confidence in being able to cope with adventure, and it strengthened our resolve to look for more opportunities for similar experiences.

Indirectly, I suppose, it's what led us to Key West. The proximate cause of that move was an invitation from my brother Tom in 1999 to come to Key West to manage a shoe store that he owned here, but it was the thrill-seeking attraction to new vistas that ultimately lay behind the decision to return in 2004, after having gone "home" two years previously after we closed the store.

And I don't know what the future is holdin' in store
I don't know where I'm goin', I'm not sure where I've been
There's a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me
My life is worth the livin', I don't need to see the end.

I turned 69 a couple of weeks ago.  My VA doctor is satisfied with my health, says that I'm in pretty good shape (for someone my age; he couldn't leave well enough alone.) I feel that there are still more adventures in the future to experience (and there are more in the past that I haven't written about here). For one, I'm optimistic about venturing to Cuba sometime in 2009, legally. For another, I'm making plans with our grandson Cameron to take a thirty-day Eurail trip through Europe next summer, right after he graduates from high school. In part it will be a reprise of a similar trip that Janet and I made in 1997, 30 days backpacking in Europe inside a five-month stay in Ireland. In another part it will be a chance for me to show Cameron things I've seen and for the two of us to see things and do things that neither of us has seen or done before.

And so, to bring it around, in the words of the poet --
Sweet, sweet surrender
Live life without care
Like a fish in the water
Like a bird in the air.

And, oh yes, I did find a job when we got back and I stayed on at Honeywell for another five years, earning a 20-year retirement pension and taking a voluntary early retirement buy-out worth another years pay. It was then that we moved to Pennsylvania, but that's a different story.


Anonymous said...

It's amazing to me that when you set out on that journey, you were only 3 years older than I am now. Time and perspective are interesting things, aren't they? Maybe by the time I hit 45, I'll have my own adventure waiting for me. Who knows, maybe even in Key West.

Elizabeth Chasse said...

I don't know why, but reading that brief memoir really brings tears to my eyes. I was listening to the song, "Sweet Surrender" while reading and although it's certainly not "sad", the tears kept flowing. Maybe it's because I still feel after 45 years of being your elder daughter, that I don't know you that well. Of course, these events took place when I was far away living in Belgium without the benefit of the internet and email, so I feel very disconnected from this stage of your life. Anyway, just wanted to post what I was feeling while reading your post.
Love ya,

Anonymous said...

Excellent writing, Bob, you hook me every time. Wishing you continued good health and a safe trip in Europe.

Anonymous said...

A fine story, Bob. I hope we can legally sail to Cuba together someday.
Rick Boettger

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