Retirement Diary: The First Seven Seconds

 I accomplished my main retirement goal within the first seven seconds of the first day. At precisely 5:30 AM, as it had for forty years, my despised alarm clock blared Monday morning mayhem into my sleepy skull. Eyes still closed, I reflexively reached over to spank the snooze button when I realized with a start that this day was different. Today, this work dog had slipped the leash: I was free! Free to do whatever I wanted for the whole day. Free in a way I’d never been in my entire life. No parents, no boss telling me where I had to be and what I had to do. Free as an eagle sailing an updraft over a high mountain lake. Free as a lion slinking through the tall grass on a broad African savannah. Free as a dolphin leaping along big surf off a black Hawaiian beach. Free! Living for the pure joy of it. No longer waking every weekday and having my first thought be, “Is there any excuse I can use to get out of going to work today?” Not tethered by mid-year reviews, yearly evaluations, customer ratings, puny raises, or my boss’ scowl. Never again driving to work ruminating about all my long overdue projects while praying that I wouldn’t get sidetracked by the crisis du jour, only to get hit as I stepped into the office by two hellish crises du jour. Not looking over my shoulder at computer savvy younger employees or an ambitious subordinate. No longer one email away from disaster. Free of the weight of my boss’ expectations and my own petty ambitions. No longer having to make good impressions each time I interacted with every single person up my supervisory chain. Free of the burden of having to always say the politically correct thing and of constantly editing my speech to avoid giving any, even dimly perceived, offense because that was absolutely verboten. No more awkward small talk with my fellow nobodies as we waited for the important people to show up late for meetings. Not having to make everyone laugh at some halfwitticism during and, most critically, at the end of meetings. No more pretending that something of great consequence had been accomplished during a meeting and solemnly discussing it with another employee as we exited the conference room. No more spreadsheets.  No more PowerPoints. Never again having to sit through any presentations of any kind. No more charts. No more fiscal years. Never again having to live under the tyranny of a supervisor’s moods. Never again counting to ten before responding to a provocative email. No more heart palpitations as I frantically search my crashing computer for the CYA email that will exonerate me from responsibility for some misbegotten project that has finally exploded into the flaming fiasco it was always destined to be. No more weekends and holidays ruined by a work crisis. Never again staring forlornly out my office window at sultry summer, crisp autumn, snowy winter, and balmy spring days. No more Microsoft Office updates. No more searching for lost files and documents. Never again fearing that the last thing I’ll see in this beautiful world are life-sucking fluorescent lights as I’m gurneyed feet first out of my office. No more thermostat wars. Never again feeling your heart thud against your chest when you’re suddenly ripped from the deepest REM sleep by the horrifying realization that you screwed up something crucial at work in some unfixable way. No more Human Resources, Accounting, IT, or Legal. No more impatiently waiting for vacation requests to be approved. Being free to drink a beer with lunch – or breakfast. Not having to answer calls I don’t want to take. Never again filling with dread while watching the lengthening shadows of another mournful Sunday sundown as I pondered whether this will be the week that my ineptitude will finally do me in at work.

As I lay in bed with my hand poised over the snooze button, all these memories and more swept over me in a tsunami of regret – and pride –because, even when weighed in the scales of the Old Testament, forty years is a long time to persevere through suffering.

And so, on the seventh second of my retirement, I fumbled in the dark for the alarm clock’s power cord and gave it a yank. Then I slowly rolled over and dreamed my way into the Promised Land.

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An Army Civilian Remembers Afghanistan

I wrote this in 2013 shortly after returning from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan as an Army civilian.

I was still half-asleep when the first rocket hit just before dawn. It sounded far off, but what did I know? It was my first.

It may have been my first, but I had no doubt what it was. Things bang and boom on a military base in Afghanistan all day and night, but there was an unmistakable, percussive finality to it that shook awake some primitive, previously dormant part of my brain.

As a new federal civilian employee and 53 year-old, loyal citizen of Recliner Nation USA, I simply couldn’t get my mind around this disturbing fact: People were shooting powerful explosives in my direction, and they’d rejoice if they managed to kill me.

The next one, maybe twenty seconds later, hit closer. Wide-awake now, I realized that the base warning system had been blaring out an alert to take cover and put on our bullet-proof vests and helmets. I pulled the covers over my head

The third one was nearer still. I was surprised by how powerful the explosions were. Based on my experience shooting July 4th fireworks, I’d assumed that all rockets were mostly propellant. But these things sounded more like big bombs.

The fourth and fifth marched even closer. I remembered that at lunch the day before, a tired veteran of three deployments had told me, “You’re OK, unless you hear one whistle. If you hear that, it’s close.”

And then I heard a whistling sound.

“No freakin’”, I shot under my bed faster than when I was six and saw something ‘move’ in my closet, “way!” The huge explosion shook my quarters so violently that I thought it was going to collapse.

When the all-clear finally sounded, I asked myself yet again, “What the heck am I doing here?” I’d only been a Fed for a few months when I got the recruitment email. I’d been planted in Corpus Christi for 25 years, and out of nowhere I was being asked to volunteer for six months in Afghanistan. But then I thought, if Uncle Sam put up the Bat-Signal and I was the best he could do, then count me in, never thinking for a second I’d actually get picked.

So, why send civilians into a warzone? Years ago, the military decided that soldiers would do the fighting, and civilians would serve in support roles. We cook, clean, and clerk for the troops.

The hours are brutal: 12/7/365. Basically, if you’re awake, you’re at work; if you’re asleep, you’re not. The days pass in a blur of similarity. You go to the same place, do the same thing, and see the same people: Groundhog Day. We don’t check our watches to see what time it is; we check them to see what day of the week it is.

What does Afghanistan look like? Picture the lunar surface, but all the moon dust is blowing around.

The whole country makes me edgy. I don’t trust the air, because you can see it; I don’t trust the mountains, because they frequently disappear in the dusty air; I don’t trust the birds, because they skitter around as guiltily as informants; and, at a time when I never needed a beer more in my life, the place is dry.

But it’s all worth it to serve our troops. For an older guy to be treated with such courtesy and respect by young Americans is unusual. Their goodness breaks your heart.

Make no mistake, they’re lethal. They carry their loaded automatic weapons everywhere they go on base, to the point that I constantly feel underdressed without an M-16. And they’re brave enough to volunteer to go outside the wire and fight a war against an army of kamikazes.

But they’re also just kids. At Thanksgiving dinner, they argued happily about the Cowboys and Redskins while they ate facsimiles of turkey and all the trimmings. But you could see it in their suddenly stony expressions as each in turn was overwhelmed by memories of home. And then to see their buddies jolly them out of their sad reveries….It was beautiful.

This is an impressive group of young people. They’re hardened by more than a decade of war, strengthened by their discipline and sacrifice, and painfully aware of the real price of foreign policy. From what I’ve seen, we could be looking at a truly transformative generation. They deserve a warm welcome and our lasting gratitude and respect when they finally come marching home.

A First-Time Trucker’s Cross-Country Odyssey

When your daughter gets married, it’s hard not to think about all the things you should have done and said over all those years. I like to think I did the best I could, but still….

So, when my New Yorker daughter called and said she wanted some of my dear departed mother’s antique furniture for her new house, I eagerly volunteered to rent a truck and drive it all up there over the three-day July 4th weekend. 

She also asked for her car. “No problemo,” I replied airily. “I’ll rent a car trailer and pull it behind the truck.”

I hung up and googled the distance from Corpus Christi: 1,900 miles, a mere 29-hour drive in three days. I gulped and wondered what kind of MPG those big ol’ trucks get?

At the truck rental place, I quickly signed the usual reams of incomprehensible paperwork. Then, without looking up, the salesclerk offhandedly told me how to secure the car to the trailer. 

“I can’t do that,” I replied.

Perplexed, she looked up and asked, “Why not?”

I explained I was so inept that if I fastened the car to the trailer, it would wait for the single most inopportune moment to free itself and turn I-95 into a bowling alley.

After she finished securing the car, I climbed up into the cab. I’d always dreamt of being a truckdriver and beamed as I started it up and shifted into gear. 

There was an empty trailer in my path that I turned to avoid. But as I drove past it, I heard a loud crack. I looked in the mirror and saw that my car trailer had somehow hit the empty trailer. I put it in reverse and whacked it again. As the salesclerk came running out of the building yelling, “Stop!” it occurred to me there may be more to truck driving than I thought. 

She lifted the front of the dented trailer and rolled it out of my way. Then she pantomimed turning a big steering wheel and shouted, “Turn wide!” I gave her a thumbs up and drove toward the exit.

“We’re not even out of the parking lot,” my long-suffering wife moaned, “and you’ve already managed to hit two things.”

“It was one thing twice,” I snapped. 

Except for the time I nearly took out a gas pump outside of Baltimore, there were no further calamities until we got to New Jersey. I would, however, like to report that there are long stretches of our interstate system that are rough enough to churn butter, at least in a rental truck.

While barreling down the New Jersey Turnpike on our last night, both headlights suddenly failed. I exited and pulled into the parking lot of the only hotel around. 

It was so rundown and filthy that my freaked-out wife slept in her clothes on top of the blanket. Bone-tired, I climbed in bed and immediately fell asleep. 

About midnight, a wild party broke out in the adjacent room. The loudest of the partiers became so rowdy that the others threw her out. She pounded on the door and screamed profane threats until they finally let her in. 

My wife opened one eye and glared at me. She didn’t have to say a word.

At 2AM the same thing happened. When it happened again at 6, we made a break for the truck.

There was a tollbooth at the end of the turnpike. It was our first on the trip, and I pondered what the toll would be for our rig. 

The toll taker gaped at us like he’d never seen a truck and trailer before. Then, with furrowed brow, he grabbed a pencil and made meticulous calculations until finally pronouncing, “$89.35, and I can’t give you a receipt because the printer’s broken.”

“Welcome to New Jersey,” I whispered to my wife as she rifled her purse.

The next tollbooth was less than five minutes away. 

“That’ll be $92.75,” the toll taker said cheerily.

“But I just paid $89.36 a few minutes ago,” I whined.

“Oh, that’s New Jersey. This is New York.” 

We finally arrived at my daughter’s house around noon. Her neighbors and my new in-laws also greeted us. They said the Long Island Sound was only a block away and invited us to walk there with them.

Completely exhausted and permanently frazzled, I stared out at the shimmering water, kicked off my shoes, and, without a word, walked fully clothed into the sound.

“As far as my daughter’s concerned,” I mused while backstroking, “we’re even.”

AGEIST DIGITAL DIVIDE UNDERMINES OLDER WORKERS

I committed financial hara-kiri last November by retiring at 62. A major reason for my decision to retire early was that over time my job had disappeared through the looking-glass and into the digital world. A world in which I function about as well as a duck in medical school.

I’m not entirely sure why I can’t work with computers, or why every single young person in the office is a whiz with them. But I think it comes down to the fact that the common sense I developed by living in the analog world for 62 years doesn’t mean much in the digital world. There, a different common sense with different rules prevails. Those rules are apparently learned while playing with a laptop in your playpen. Those same rules are incomprehensible to many of us who played with Lincoln Logs in our playpens. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, roughly one-third of internet users ages 65 and over describe themselves as only a little (23%) or not at all (11%) confident in their ability to use electronic devices to do necessary online activities.

We Lincoln Loggers get lost in the virtual world. No matter how carefully we proceed, we keep running into digital dead ends. And we respond to them by backing up and repeating minor variations of our mistake over and over again in the vain hope of proving Einstein wrong who defined insanity as doing precisely that.

So, in desperation, Lincoln Loggers call IT for help. We can practically hear their eyes roll over the phone when they realize it’s one of us. And as always, with more than a hint of exasperation in their voice, they offer an easy, two-step solution that instantly sets us right. To them, it’s simple and obvious and mundane. To us, it’s as though they pulled the Empire State Building out of a top hat.

On the days we can’t bear any more IT attitude, we waylay a passing young person and describe the problem as offhandedly as possible. And they, too, intuitively know what keys to push. When we ask how they knew what to do, they invariably answer, “Just play with it.”

Just play with it? Are you kidding me? Just play with it? I was on the verge of bitter, hair-pulling, head-banging tears of frustration after wasting a miserable hour struggling to figure it out, and young people regard that as playing? PLAYING? There’s no better illustration of the two different playpens theory than that.

But last year was the worst; our employee evaluation software refused to cooperate with me. Desperate to appear at least somewhat competent to my already dubious boss, I spent a frantic hour trying everything I could think of to submit my self-evaluation form, but each thing I tried lured me down one digital blind alley after another. Finally, my young boss came by and asked how the form was coming.

“Oh, I just happen to be looking at that,” I replied airily, “but I’m a little stuck.”

He reached over my shoulder, clicked on something, and instantly submitted my form.

Staggered by the brute power of Darwinian forces, I gulped loudly. He smiled down at me in the same hopeless way Sister Paula did while she was laboring to teach me long division.

From that moment on, I might as well have worn a beanie with a propeller on it at work.

It’s obvious to all Lincoln Loggers that Silicon Valley could care less about the culling of many of us from the workforce due to our digital ineptitude. We thought their goal was to make computers more intuitive and user friendly; that nerdy secret computer handshakes were on the way out and breezy, Star Trek-like interaction with normal people was the wave of the future. Instead, user hostility and nerdiness are at an all-time high.

Someone needs to tackle Apple, Microsoft, et al. and explain that a significant percentage of a large and formerly super-productive segment of the workforce is being forced out. They need to be told that older workers’ productivity is diminishing because they share IT’s eye-rolling attitude toward our digital struggles. Everyone who works knows this ageist digital divide exists, but it’s treated as quaint, acceptable collateral damage from society’s inevitable march toward a glorious digital future.The fact that computers enhance younger workers’ productivity and reduce many older workers’ is fundamentally unfair and needs to be addressed. And to that end, I have a suggestion. I hereby and herewith volunteer for Silicon Valley’s first Lincoln Logger Board, which will review any work-related software for the presence of digital dead ends and virtual blind spots. Thanks to you tech geniuses, I’ve got tons of time on my hands.

LOVE, FORGIVENESS, REDEMPTION, AND THE HOUSTON ASTROS

As rabidly as everyone else hates them, we Astros fans still love them. Why?

After the sign stealing scandal broke in 2019, I was ashamed of them and reluctantly renounced my 50 years of loyal fandom; I wished they’d just slink away.

But they didn’t go away. They did the opposite: They went from town to town, night after night humbly bearing all the fresh taunts, bean balls, and trash cans thrown at them, never denying the weight of their collective sin yet determined to play on.

Before the scandal, Jose Altuve was one of the most beloved players in baseball. But now, you can tune in to any away game and watch as, stone-faced, this fallen hero is mercilessly mocked by a maniacal mob momentarily freed from the weight of its own sins. Leaving you to wonder, “Could I handle that with such grace? Could anyone I’ve ever known?”

And so, I forgave them. I started watching Astros games again this year and noticed that their shared suffering through the nightly tidal waves of humiliation had led them to pass through a veil beyond mere winning and losing and forged a real brotherhood among them. You could see they were determined to pull each other through whatever abuse was thrown at them.

They came up two games short, but all season long it was inspiring and enlightening to watch them persevere – and excel − together.

Let the mob jeer, we Astros fans know real greatness when we see it.

THE WRECK OF THE USS POLLUX

Uncle John was the toughest kid on his tough, Depression-era NYC block. My dad told me that his father would dispatch John to settle the score whenever a bully was tormenting the local kids. After several spectacular dustups, he earned everyone’s respect as the neighborhood keeper of the peace.

John dreamed of becoming a professional boxer. At 20, he started training and registered for the Golden Gloves. His 17-year-old brother, my dad, was his cornerman. Based on his street fighting dominance, they were both convinced that John was a lock to win the tournament.

John breezed through his first several fights. Dad’s job was limited to shouting encouragement, placing John’s stool in the ring between rounds, and celebrating his victories.

But the problem with Golden Gloves— and life in general— is that the closer you get to the tip of the pyramid, the stiffer the competition. Early in the first round of the final bout of his career, John stepped into a sweeping right hook that caught him square on the point of his chin.

He was unconscious before he hit the canvas and landed hard, face down right in front of my father. Dad, who had never seen John in trouble in a fight before let alone knocked out cold, froze solid. Fortunately, the ring doctor rushed through the ropes, rolled John over, and revived him with smelling salts.

Stunned by the sudden death of his boxing career from a punch he never saw, John drifted for a while, until in March 1941, at 22, he enlisted in the Navy. In May 1941, he came aboard the newly commissioned USS Pollux, a 459-foot supply ship, as a Storekeeper Third Class.

John spent his free time carefully studying the professional fight game. He wrote his family long, insightful letters analyzing the matchups in major upcoming bouts. Dad was convinced that after the war, John was planning a return to the ring, this time as a pro.

On the stormy, frigid night of February 18, 1942, the Pollux and her two destroyer escorts were off the coast of Newfoundland running a zigzag course to avoid Nazi U-boats known to be in the area. The ships were battered by 40-foot gale-tossed seas and blinding sleet blown by hundred mile an hour winds.

Despite his navigator’s increasingly frantic warnings, the captain of the Pollux relied entirely on the destroyers’ newfangled radar system for navigation. Through an unimaginable combination of bad luck, inadequate training, faulty equipment, and poor decision making, all three ships were thirty miles off course when they ran aground at 4:17 in the morning.

Gray dawn revealed the Pollux was impaled on a rock 200 yards offshore from a small beach backed by 70-foot ice covered cliffs. The gigantic waves hammered and twisted the ship all morning, until just before noon her bow was torn off.

After several unsuccessful attempts to launch lifeboats, and as the Pollux continued to be ripped apart by the pitiless waves, her stricken captain gave permission to the crew to abandon ship. As his men went over the side, he shouted, “May God go with you!”

Uncle John jumped in the churning, icy water and disappeared forever, taking his bright future, his dreams of boxing glory, and his mother’s happiness with him.

John was one of the first American, World War II casualties. Shortly after his mother had, as Abe Lincoln wrote poor Mrs. Bixby, laid her costly sacrifice upon the altar of freedom, she proudly hung a Gold Star Service Flag in the front window of her home. But she soon took it down because it hurt too much to explain the meaning of the Gold Star to curious passersby.

While researching John’s too short life, I realized Americans speak too easily of the numbers of our war dead: 7,057 military deaths in the War on Terror; 58,209 in the Vietnam War; 36,516 in the Korean War; 405,399 in World War II, 93 of them on the Pollux; 116,516 in World War I; 620,000 in the Civil War; 25,000 in the Revolutionary War. As heart-wrenching as those numbers are, on Memorial Day, we should reflect on the fact that because each individual life lost was of infinite value, the true cost of our wars is beyond human calculation.

Americans should also take immense pride in the fact that, despite the constant, competitive criticism of our great nation and its tragically imperfect history, if the moral arc of this fallen world has bent toward justice since 1776, it is because it’s hung with the solemn weight of the supreme sacrifices made by courageous American soldiers and sailors, like my Uncle John.

THE TEXAS HOME THAT POWER FORGOT

Reliable electric power is the cornerstone of our civilization. It separates us from the brutal struggle to survive that characterized human life for hundreds of thousands of years. I didn’t have power from Monday thru Friday of last week, and it was brutal. 

The first night wasn’t so bad. There was a feeling that the power would come on any minute, so the situation really didn’t appear that serious. My wife and I wrapped egg rolls in aluminum foil and happily heated them in the fireplace. We piled blankets on top of ourselves and told old stories by the flickering firelight.

Tuesday morning it was 45 degrees in the house. We’d heard nothing from the power company and the news was reporting that Texas’ electrical grid was in a state of profound chaos. We spent most of the day wandering around in the car charging our phones, scrounging fast food, and trying to stay warm.

After sunset, we huddled tight around the fireplace shivering in our heavy coats and staring grimly into the flames like it was the sixteenth century. Both of us were dreading another chilly, restless night’s sleep.

Ash Wednesday morning the news broke that if our power had not yet been restored, then we’d be in the dark for several more days. We realized we didn’t have nearly enough firewood to last that long. I bitterly told my wife that Lent was going to be a breeze this year.

I drove to the grocery store to look for anything, anything at all, that would burn. Of course, there was nothing. They were also completely out of bottled water, milk, bread, and canned soup. It made The Great COVID-19 Grocery Panic of 2020 look like the horn of plenty. Almost everyone was on their phone trying to describe the carnage to whomever had sent them to the store.

As we drove aimlessly around in the comforting normalcy of our warm car, I ruefully told my wife that I needed to tweak my resume to apply for the soon to be vacant CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Making six-figures while languidly overseeing a statewide fiasco of Old Testament proportions seemed the perfect segue to ease me into a sleepy semi-retirement.

As we pulled into the driveway, a neighbor approached and asked suspiciously if I knew why all the houses across our street had power? I told him I had no idea and agreed that there didn’t appear to be much roll to these “rolling blackouts”. The fact that some neighbors were suffering in the cold and dark while others were burning their outdoor lights lent a surreal, Twilight Zone aspect to the proceedings.

When night fell, we tried to conserve as much of our dwindling supply of wood as possible. As we sat warming our hands over the tiny fire, my wife asked, “What about the wooden lawn furniture?”

It’s amazing how in an instant, desperation makes the unthinkable inevitable. I didn’t really like the darn stuff, but I never thought I’d be pulverizing it with a hammer and chunking it in the fireplace. The downside was the wood was so sun-dried that the flames lasted only a few minutes. When my wife caught me sizing up the kitchen table, we both knew it was time to try to sleep under our four blankets.

Thursday morning, it was 39 degrees in the house and both of us had cold symptoms. Lack of sleep and prolonged cold exposure had made us both foggy-headed.

We finally got our first email from the electric company. It said our power would be restored Saturday at noon.

As we cruised around that afternoon, we came upon the Nueces Brewing Company which was generously providing free drinking water to all comers. A beer suddenly seemed like a terrific idea. While sitting in those warm, comfy confines, I got an updated email saying that now our power would not be restored until midnight Saturday. At that moment, we lost all hope: It was clear that the people in charge had no idea how to fix this ERCOTastrophe.

We were cold, old, sick, and worn out. So, we pulled the plug and found a local hotel room.

On Friday night, after four days, seven hours and thirty-two minutes, our power was unexpectedly restored.

Looking back on it, the whole experience has the hazy outlines of a fever dream. Did all that weird stuff really happen? How could energy-soaked Texas have ever found itself so short on power? Where’s my lawn furniture?

With our nerves already shot from all the COVID craziness, Texans have somehow emerged from this latest fiasco with our wits intact. We should congratulate ourselves. And then we should do whatever needs to be done to make sure we don’t have to suffer through this stupid thing again.

DEATH OF A PEACE OFFICER

Last month, Jon Blocker, 70, a devoted husband, father, and grandfather died.He was also a retired Corpus Christi police officer. He served on the force for 28 years.               

He was a beat cop the whole time. He said he didn’t want to be a supervisor because he liked working directly with people. He taught me that you have to give people a chance to tell their story before you can help them solve their problems. He liked people and was genuinely interested in what they had to say.

At his funeral, the minister told a story about a person who had caused his congregation great consternation. No one wanted to deal with the problem. But Jon volunteered. In his cheerful way, he sat and listened carefully to what the person had to say and patiently resolved their issue. Everyone who knew Jon would have seen that coming. 

Former Police Chief Pete Alvarez once told me that whenever he got wind of a situation on the streets that was getting out of control, he’d send Jon over to settle things down. He said that Jon was as cool as the other side of the pillow and his calmness was contagious. There’s no telling how much misery Jon spared us and our city as he went about his work.

If you think about the police officers and firefighters you’ve met, they tend to be strong people with an overriding instinct to protect others. That was Jon.

Jon lettered in gymnastics at the powerhouse University of Nebraska. He was a natural athlete with incredible balance and reactions, but he always played it down and carried himself like an average guy. He told me that during a boxing lesson in the police academy, the instructor matched him against a smaller cadet. Jon begged to be paired with someone else, but the instructor insisted.

Jon was afraid he’d hurt him, so he kept pulling his punches. After a while, his opponent got cocky and threw a big overhand right. Jon instinctively ducked and came up firing an uppercut that knocked the cadet out for several minutes. That’s a pretty cool story, but Jon was ashamed when he told it to me because hurting someone was the last thing he wanted to do.

One autumn day, we were out surfing with my fifteen-year-old son, Matt. The waves were so big that I lost sight of him. Panicked, I paddled over to Jon and asked if he’d seen him. Jon smiled and pointed to Matt about thirty yards farther outside. “I always watch out for him,” he said. I never worried about Matt again.

When I quit surfing several years ago, I lost track of Jon. So I hadn’t heard that, as so often happens to the very best people, he’d become seriously ill. I thought he was ageless, so I was shocked when I saw his obituary. It was as though the moon had been slung from its orbit.

It’s hard to understand what motivates first responders. The world beats on all of us and drives us closer to cynicism every day. It’s all we can do to protect ourselves and the few people we love from its daily erosion of our souls. But first responders put our welfare and lives above their own: the opposite of cynicism. 

We call them when life’s most traumatic events happen to us: car accidents, fires, burglaries, medical emergencies. Our most dreaded nightmares are the daily realities of first responders who show up ready to help despite knowing the situation could be dangerous and that we’ll be at our worst. Imagine life at those moments without them.

And every day on TV we see them risking everything to rescue someone they’ve never met from a spectacular, life-threatening situation. It happens so often that we take it for granted and never think to ask, “Why would anyone choose a profession where you might be called upon to do that?”

It’s a mystery. But I think my friendship with Jon gave me some insight. It may sound trite, but Jon was a hero because it was in his DNA; it’s simply what he was. Somehow the universe is balanced in such a way that while most of us are running from the flames, a very few run into them. Whatever that selfless impulse was that compelled the firefighters to climb the stairs of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was part of Jon too and every other first responder.

They’re a blessing to all of us, and we’d be wise to remember that.

A CHRISTMAS (and golf) CAROL

We can’t help what we love, and my father was helplessly in love with golf. As a kid, he commuted for many Depression-era summers from the mean streets of NYC to caddy at a Long Island golf club. He worked for tips and always angled for the bags of visiting pros and celebrities. Fifty years later, he’d still kvetch about Ray Bolger tipping him a lousy dime.

By working the links all summer and talking to the club pros, he developed a reverence for the game and its history. He played a round every chance he got and tried to incorporate the game into every aspect of his life. When his boss told him to weed the huge lawn in front of the clubhouse, he did it swinging a seven iron. Every day, he’d sneak on the course after sunset and diligently work on his short game.

But as big as he dreamed and as hard as he tried, he was never an exceptional player. So, having carefully studied the game’s best players for decades, he was determined to make me one.

He naturally assumed that’s what his teenaged son wanted too. But as much as I liked being with him, I’ve always loathed golf, and it showed in the abysmal quality of my play. Of all our misadventures on the links, one still haunts my most terrifying recurring nightmare.

For the thousandth time, I stood forlornly over the ball in the baking Texas sun as dad began his tireless litany, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (then he’d shimmy like Mae West), backswing low and slow, swing through the ball.” It was like driving a car while reading the owner’s manual and resulted in a herky-jerky swing that produced a ball flight consistent only in its absolute unpredictability.

I was just about to hit my drive, when I noticed a course employee had stopped his maintenance cart on the path a hundred yards ahead of us. I waved him on, but he motioned for me to hit away. My father told me to go ahead, there was no way I’d hit him.

Like a dimpled laser beam, the ball’s homicidal trajectory varied nary an inch in any direction. The worker dove headfirst from the cart like Pete Rose sliding into second, There was a deafening clang as the ball whacked the metal fender inches from where he’d been sitting. He shot to his feet, screaming curses and gesturing obscenely at me.

I’d fallen to my knees as I watched the horror unfolding before my eyes. Dad stared down at me in wide-mouthed wonder. I slowly collected myself and said softly from my knees, “If I’d tried to hit him, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere near him.” My father, astonishment still on his face, nodded in stunned agreement with the absolute truth of what I’d just said.

Cynics say that parents who push children in the direction of their own broken dreams are trying to live through their kids. The truth is we want our kids’ lives to be perfect. And those childhood dreams of playing centerfield for the Yankees, dancing on Broadway, or playing on the PGA tour are still our ideal of perfection. So, push them we do. I ruined tennis for both my kids by doing just that.

And then one December day, my fifteen-year-old son, Matt, announced he was going to try out for his high school golf team despite the fact that he’d never played a round of golf in his life. I went into full- parent-freak-out mode and bought him a caution-tape yellow, specially weighted, training golf club I’d found on the web. When I proudly gave it to him Christmas morning, he glowered at me like I’d just handed him a new algebra book.

The next day, I excitedly dragged Matt to a driving range. As he stood forlornly over the ball gripping the ridiculous yellow club, I heard myself, as if from a far distance, reciting, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (then I shimmied like Shakira), backswing low and….”

I stared out at the horizon for a few seconds, told Matt I wasn’t feeling well, and was drawn slowly back to the car where I sat and reminisced with the merry Spirit of my father as we contentedly watched Matt flail happily away at the whole bucket of balls using my old clubs.

BEATERMANIA

“I’m gonna drive it ‘til the doors fall off,” is the mournful boast of beater drivers everywhere. No one really drives their car until the doors fall off. But I did.
It was a 1985, 4-banger Mustang I bought off the showroom floor. It was red. It was love at first sight. It was a big mistake.
I’ve always driven clunkers, and, while the door falling off the Mustang was a singular phenomenon, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that their other parts follow pretty much the same order of failure.
The first to fail is the helpful alarm that buzzes when you open the driver’s door with the key in the ignition. If you’re seeking proof of satanic forces, look no further than the fact that you always realize you’ve locked your keys in the car at the precise instant the lock clicks shut.
The next to go is the gas gauge. This isn’t so bad because you usually have a pretty good idea how much gas you have – until you don’t. One night, I ran out on the Crosstown but happily realized there was a gas station at the next exit which I thought I just might be able to coast to. But as I exited, a blockhead on the access road refused to yield. If I braked, I wouldn’t make it to the station, so I yelled, “I can’t stop!” Terrified, he locked up his brakes and I crawled to the pump.
The electric windows are next. This is doable, so long as the AC works.
Then comes the coup de grace: The AC’s final, catastrophic failure. It’s always between $1200 to $1600 to fix which is always between $1200 to $1600 more than you have.
If you’re forced to drive during a Corpus Christi summer with the windows up and a broken AC, you might as well put lumps of biscuit dough on an ungreased baking sheet in your lap because you’re cruising around in a Dutch oven. So, you break down and get the windows fixed.
Some try to prove how tough they are by climbing Everest or cage fighting. But they’re nothing compared to summer driving without AC. I did it for years, and it completely changes your focus. You become as aware of wind direction as an America’s Cup skipper because the survivability of every stoplight depends on whether there’s a breeze blowing through your car. Shade is also lifegiving, so you cozy up to tall buildings, 18 wheelers, and shade trees.
I was well into the Mustang’s broken AC phase when the door fell off. It was about 12 years old and had six trillion miles on it. The Gulf Coast’s salty air had done its worst, and rust was all that held it together.
That day, I parked at an office building, and as I opened the door it broke off with a loud crack and crashed to the ground. It was a big shock to me, but not as big as it was to the woman pulling into the space next to me.
I jammed it as best I could into the back seat and drove doorless to my long-suffering mechanic, Donny. He came out of his shop, and I howled, “I’m getting rid of this beater!” He put his head in his hands and wept softly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My son’s starting college,” he sobbed.
Taking pity on Donny, I had him weld the door shut.
I drove it another few weeks, but now I had to enter through the passenger door, very carefully Fosbury Flop over the spiky K2 of the handbrake, and plummet to the driver’s seat. I was pushing 40 by then, and this was a bit much.
I’d been to the dealership several months before, but sticker shock had sent me running. This time, my wife and I headed there with our two rambunctious kids determined to make a deal.  The plan was to buy my wife a new car; I’d get the keys to her clunker, and we’d trade in the Mustang.
It took five excruciating hours because the salesman kept leaving to implore the sales manager to approve the deal’s latest iteration. It would have taken less time to interrupt Edsel Ford’s Saturday golf game and ask the great man himself.
Finally, all that remained was appraising the Mustang.
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was the screaming kids, or the five hellish hours of financial embarrassment, but, whatever it was, I told the salesman, “You know, I was here a couple of months ago, and it was appraised then.” He found the record on his computer and gave me $500.
I hustled the family out to our new car just as the salesman headed for the Mustang. As we drove off, I suddenly remembered I’d left my beloved Van Halen 1984 cassette in the tape player. I skidded to a stop, ran to the Mustang, jackknifed in the driver’s window, snatched the cassette, gave the approaching salesman a quick wave, and ran back to our car.
As we drove away, I watched in the rearview mirror as the puzzled salesman yanked harder and harder on the door handle.
Score one for the Beater Brigade.
Peter Merkl is a longtime resident of Corpus Christi.