Thursday, June 23, 2005

Sweet Surrender

In the early 1980's we, like many others, were enamored with the music of John Denver, the poet of the Rockies. One of his songs in particular, Sweet Surrender, became a sort of anthem for us. This verse became an inspiration for our first experience of traveling together for an extended period:

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway,
Traveled by many, remembered by few.
Looking for something that I can believe in,
Looking for something that I'd like to do
With my life.

There?s nothin? behind me and nothin? that ties me
To somethin? that might have been true yesterday
Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more
Than enough to just be there today

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

Sweet, sweet surrender
Live, live without care
Like a fish in the water
Like a bird in the air

In 1984, I was turning 45 years old. I had been working for Honeywell Information Systems, one of the seven dwarfs of the U.S. computer industry, for fifteen years. (Through most of the 1970's, the computer industry was defined as IBM and the seven dwarfs. By the mid 1980's it had become IBM and the BUNCH -- Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell.)

I had just completed a difficult year on a special assignment in one of those "culture change" ventures that corporations believed would ensure that they survived the brutal competition in whatever industry they were in. I was burned out, ready for a change, and in the middle of that period that Gail Sheehey described as the "mid-life passage", the time when a man realizes that he is more than halfway through his life expectancy, and begins to turn inward and to re-examine life goals.

Our younger daughter was going off to college in the Fall. We owned a house that was too big for us with both girls away, probably for good. In the spring of the year, we began to make plans; sell the house, rent an apartment, take an unpaid leave of absence from work for 90 days, buy a motor home, go traveling. It came together over the summer. They told me at work that there was no guarantee that there would be a job for me when I got back, but that I could apply for one and it would be "considered".

So we bought the motor home, a used one twenty-three feet long, named it Sweet Surrender, and on October 1, with our dog Bijou on board, we left our rented apartment with friends, rent paid up, and headed west. Over the next 89 days, we would travel through 35 states on a 15,000 mile trek to find that elusive "something that I'd like to do with my life". We traveled first on a southwest path that took us through New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, winding up in Memphis. We then went north along the Mississippi River through Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin, to Minneapolis. Then it was a westerly journey through South Dakota's Black Hills and on to Wyoming and Montana, and across the Rockies to Idaho, into Washington. By early November, we turned south to travel down the west coast from Seattle, through Oregon, and into California, reaching San Diego soon after Thanksgiving. The final eastbound leg before heading home took us to Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Lousiana, Alabama and Florida (for Christmas). Then a mad dash north to be back in New England on December 30.

It took about three weeks to find another job open to me at Honeywell. I stayed there for almost five more years before taking a voluntary "early retirement" package. Honeywell Information Systems itself survived another few years before disappearing into a French computer company, not to be heard from much again.

As I look back on it, the trip was a sanity-saver for me, and a learning experience for us, as we moved into the 'empty nest' period of our lives. I amused myself by studying my own middle life passage, as an observer. It was at this time that I learned how to 'journal', keeping detailed and copious notes about where we traveled, what we saw, how much we spent and so forth. The Rand McNally atlas we used is fully annotated and is stored away in our daughter's basement in New Hampshire, awaiting some potential future use that hasn't become important enough yet to rise to the top.

We would make another similar trip fifteen years later, a journey of discovery, immediately preceding our move here to Key West. I may write something about that trip before too long. But not now.

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