Preparing for Another of Life’s Milestones

May 14, 2013

In a few months, my bride will retire from her job and I will change my status from “semi-retired” to “fully retired.” In the past I’ve written about “Rites of Passage” and this is one for which we’ve been preparing for many years, but it’s a bit more frightening than all the previous stages of my life.

In the first place, there are the retirement savings accounts. My oldest account was started more than thirty years ago. It saw me though a long period of unemployment when I had to borrow from it to pay my bills. I’ve managed to repay those loans and add to it. But in a few months, I will stop adding to it and, (GASP!) begin withdrawing from it.

At the same time, we will transfer my bride’s 401K to a dividend paying mutual fund and virtually end the growth of that account. Hopefully, the dividends we collect from our retirement accounts will supplement our Social Security payments so we won’t have to move in with our kids… for at least a little while.

Many people who retire, do little more than sit in front of the TV and wait for the final curtain. I doubt if my bride could ever do such a thing, which means she won’t let me do it either. That’s one of the reasons we bought our new toys.

Our new travel trailer.

Our new travel trailer.

Our new tow vehicle

Our new tow vehicle

Some retirees go out and buy a two seater sports car and drive off into the sunset – stopping at fancy hotels along the way. Lu and I prefer to travel more frugally, and also hope to be able to take a few grandkids along with us to some of our as-yet-to-be-planned destinations.

To give those grandkids and their parents something to think about… our potential destinations include Tybee Island, Georgia, various parts of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Yellowstone National Park, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, Texas, and a number of Canadian provinces.

In 1984, I dragged my first wife and our four children on a cross-country camping trip. That was done with a pop-up camping trailer and an 8-passenger van. We saved a lot of money by staying at camp grounds, but strained a lot of relationships by having to deal with a daily allotment of chores, dirt, flat tires, dead batteries, lost pieces of the trailer, and spartan meals. I think I’m the only one who absolutely loved the adventure, but, then again, it was my idea. I had to love it!

That 1984 trip was carefully planned almost down to the number of miles to be driven each day.

Now, we’re looking at a trip that has no definite destination and no detailed advanced planning. However, technology has advanced significantly over the last 29 years. We now have cell phones, GPS navigators, Wi-Fi computers, and 29 years of experience in the art of living. We also have a better financial picture and hope to keep that improved picture by keeping our travel expenses as low as possible.

Some of my readers may take that last statement to mean “We’re coming to visit you and expect you to house and feed us for some period of time.” I promise you that we won’t stay long. So don’t worry.

In 1984, I had to estimate how many bills would be delivered in our absence, and how much we would owe. I paid most of the bills in advance and wound up with credit balances on most of them. Today I can review my bills on line and pay most of them by simply making a few keystrokes on the computer. Hopefully, our bank account will not run out on us.

Needless to say, even with all the advancements in technology, our additional knowledge and wisdom that comes with age, and all the other assets in our possession, our future remains a vast unknown and leaving home is a somewhat scary proposition.

Fortunately, we have family, friends, and neighbors who we can count on to drive by the homestead from time to time to let us know that things are OK, but I’d hate to be in Timbuktu when we learn that a tree has fallen on the house. Perhaps that is why many RVers sell their homes and take to the road on a permanent basis.

Perhaps that will be our next significant rite of passage.

Willie, Waylon, and the McCoys

March 9, 2010

I wrote this piece several years ago and was trying to explain it to someone recently. The people at McCoy’s Building Supply Centers, based in San Marcos, Texas, liked it enough to publish it in their “Across the Board” internal publication. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it as well.


I’m on the road again. This time I’m in Texas. Unless I get lucky, I probably won’t see Willie or Waylon, but I’ll see plenty of the McCoy’s. I’m working with a company called McCoy’s Building Supply Centers. You might think of me as a “hired gun.” They’ve brought me in to teach their cashiers how to use a new point-of-sale device. That’s a city-slicker’s way of saying “a computerized cash register.” The device includes a scanning gun. I aim to show them how to sling it properly.

To let me practice my quick draw and aim for this job, McCoy’s has put me to work in one of their stores. This is definitely a double barreled shotgun. For the cashiers I’ll be training, it will be extremely beneficial for me to totally understand their job. For the regular customers of McCoy’s, on the other hand, it’s a bit of an inconvenience.

I’ve been riding the trail of computers for almost 30 years. I can ride herd over that point-of-sale device with my eyes closed. I can eyeball a driver’s license, look the customer in the eyes, and verify a check as well as the most trail-worn cashier. I can count out change quicker than a sidewinder can cross the road. What I can’t do is look at a piece of wood and immediately reckon it’s a 2 by 4 by 10 number 1 southern pine. And the lumber is the easy part! The rest of it is a goat rodeo to me.

Many’s the time a customer has placed an item on the counter and I’ve had no idea what it is. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and the item has had a bar code. When it comes to the scanning gun, just call me Jimmy the Kid; I seldom need more than a single shot. But if there’s no bar code, I’m like a cowboy without a lasso.

The more knowledgeable customers are very helpful. For example, without the customer’s assistance, I would’ve never guessed that the small plastic cones used to hold up steel reinforcement bars are called re-bar chairs. That same customer was able to explain that the miniature version of a longshoreman’s hook  is called a re-bar wire twisting tool. Tarnation! I had no idea they put all that stuff inside the cement. I thought they just poured it in and leveled it off.

Other customers, however, are a cross between coyotes and rattlesnakes. They slyly give you a false sense of security while they quietly coil for the strike. I had one no-good scoundrel walk in, place his credit card before me, and state, “I want a 2068 pre-hung door. It’s on that computer. I’m going to pick up a few other things. Have the door rung up when I get back.”

I reckoned that 2068 was a vendor’s part number. So I told the computer to search on 2068. I was immediately ambushed by two versions of the 2068. One had the hinges on the left side; the other on the right. Because the varmint had failed to be specific, I had to wait for him to return.

When he got back, I was confident I could show off a bit of knowledge that he didn’t think I had. I asked him in my most professional voice, “Did you want the left hand hinge or the right?”

“Damned if I know,” the man snorted. “When I push it open, I want the hinges on my left.”

I was in trouble. If he was on the other side pulling the door toward him, the hinges would be on the right! How does a cowpoke determine which door the son of a rattlesnake needed? I immediately called for help from one of the regular cashiers. Unfortunately, she didn’t know either.

It wasn’t long before we had a posse of five or six people standing around debating the issue. We agreed on only one thing –  it all depended on which side of the door you were on. The problem was that we had no idea what side the door’s manufacturer was on when he gave it the label. The value of swinging doors soon became apparent.

I was getting ready to flip a coin when the store manager walked over to investigate the commotion. He quickly determined that the man needed a left-hand hinged door. I keyed in our selection, totaled out the sale, ran the man’s credit card through, and waited for the invoice to print. I proved that, while I didn’t know how to determine door hinge sides, I was still the fastest computer operator west of the Mississippi. But I had to put my scanning gun back in my holster when, to my dismay, the invoice came out blank.

Actually, only the first page – the customer’s copy – was blank. The carbon copies were fine. Some no account saddle tramp had rustled the inked ribbon from the printer.

Once again I had to ask the regular cashier for help. She quickly located a ribbon, put it in place, and I told the computer to print a second copy of the invoice. By this time, my trigger finger was smoking from pressing all those buttons, but the stampede was once again under control. I’d managed to head the problem off at the pass.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the manager went and got the man’s door. As soon as the polecat customer saw it he said, “That’s not what I want!”

I’d sold him a six panel door. He’d wanted a flush door which was $25.00 cheaper. Because of that skinflint, I had to do my first “over-ring” on the register.

Later I learned what that scalawag had done to me. When he told me he wanted a “2068” door, he knew I had no idea what those numbers meant. Now I know that they mean 2 feet 0 inches wide and 6 feet 8 inches high. When I eyeballed the computer data more closely, I discovered there were about twenty different doors that fit that description. Actually there were ten, but each came with either left or right hinges.

A couple of days later, that dirty no good son of a saddle sore came back. I stepped out from behind the bar and gave him the “this town ain’t big enough for both of us” look. The corner of his mouth began to twitch as we stood glaring at each other. As our showdown crept toward something more deadly, I realized that in my haste I’d left my scanning gun under the counter. I was unarmed. If this turned to gun play, I’d be headed for Boot Hill.

“Have you learned the inventory yet?” he snarled.

“What’s it to you?” I snarled back.

“I didn’t think so.” He said shaking his head. “If you don’t mind, I’ll let one of them little gals ring me up. They might not be as fast as you, but they have better aim.”

I couldn’t argue. He was right. I might be as tough as a two-bit steak when I wave that scanning gun, but when it comes to knowing building supplies, I’m a total greenhorn. I hung my head and turned to leave.

“Hold on a minute, stranger.”

I turned to face him once again… wondering if he was going to take a parting shot.

The man studied me for a moment. Then he said, “I’ve been thinking about computerizing my ranch. I might be able to use you. Do you have a number where you can be reached?”

I handed him my business card. It states, “Have Gun, Will Scan.”

He thanked me. We shook hands and put the past behind us.

That was two weeks ago. I now know much more of the inventory, but realize I may never know it all. McCoy’s moved me to a different store so I could get a fresh start. They also moved me to the back office and let me ride herd over accounting forms. For now, I’m a retired gunslinger. I’ll stay that way unless some young buckaroo decides to call me out.

In a few weeks I’ll start to mosey around the rest of the Southwest. I’ll ride tall but try to act humble. I’m not looking for trouble because I know the awful truth. Somewhere out there,  there’s a bar code with my name on it.

Life’s a Beach

February 16, 2010

Edisto Island Beach

I’ve been going to the beach ever since I was a toddler. Because my father was raised in South Jersey and we had relatives living in Linwood and Somers Point, my family vacationed near the beach every year.

We never stayed at the beach; that would’ve been too expensive. We would rent a small apartment or stay on my uncle’s cabin cruiser (also small) a few miles in from the shore. Most of our time was spent fishing and crabbing in the inland bays and marshes. Once or twice during our stay we’d go into Atlantic City or Ocean City to spend some time on the beach or stroll along the boardwalk.

Fishing and crabbing with nephews and nieces

I recall one vacation when my parents did something different. I believe it was 1955 or 1956. Instead of going to South Jersey, we went to Cambridge, Maryland and rented a cottage along the Choptank River. We arrived shortly after a hurricane had passed through. Not only was the river running fast and deep, many of the surrounding fields were still draining. We saw a number of people holding chicken wire at the end of irrigation ditches. They were catching some very large fish that had been driven inland by the storm surge.

On that particular trip, the beach wasn’t quite as convenient. But on one of our days in Maryland, we drove over to Ocean City, Maryland and enjoyed their beach and boardwalk.

I have been to beaches all up and down the East Coast, Mississippi, Texas, California, and Oregon. I’ve also visited Brighton Beach in England and some beaches in Puerto Rico and Mexico. They all speak the same language as they invite us to either walk along the water’s edge or sit down and watch the waves rolling in.

Without even closing my eyes, I can hear the sound of the surf, the wind, and the sea gulls.

I’ve often thought about living closer to a beach. I wouldn’t want to own a home on the beach. Hurricanes might not hit a particular beach that often, but once would be more than enough for me. I’d like to live about twenty miles inland so it would be an easy trip to get close to the ocean.

However, with most of our children and grandchildren living within thirty miles of us, I’d find it difficult to move anywhere.

Perhaps we could win the lottery. Then we could move the entire extended family.

My bride and I on Tybee Island

I have been to the beach so many times in my life that I consider it a God given blessing and wish everyone – especially children – could visit a beach on a regular basis.

Twice we were able to stay at rental properties right on the beach. Once was in Ocean City, New Jersey and the other was on Edisto Island. My bride and I rented the place in New Jersey at the end of the summer season (reduced rates) and my nephews and nieces chipped in. On Edisto Island, we were fortunate to be the guests of John and Debbe Mize. That was in November a couple of years back.

Based on those two experiences, I’d say the best time to go to the beach is after Labor Day and before June. The temperatures are much milder and there are no crowds.

We’re hoping to get to at least one beach in 2010, but I think I’m already there mentally.


November 20, 2009

Two of my granddaughters are becoming violinists. I’m very happy to see their interest in music and do what I can to encourage it.

Recently Rachel began singing a little tune and seemed rather shocked when I joined in. “See the little pufferbellies all in a row.”

Not surprisingly, my twelve-year-old granddaughter had no idea what a pufferbelly was. I gave her a brief explanation, but our visit to Paducah, Kentucky provided me with a perfect pictorial example.

A not-so-little pufferbelly

As with so many things I run across nowadays, seeing the steam locomotive brought back more than a few memories.

For example, I recall my parents taking us to see Rook Station near Carnegie, Pennsylvania. Besides having a fairly large rail yard, Rook Station had a round house where the pufferbellies could be turned around and maintained.

A similar turn-table in Savannah, Georgia

I also remember a time when I was about Rachel’s age that I went on a field trip to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in downtown Pittsburgh. Part of the tour included an animated film telling us about the future of railroading. They were getting ready to introduce diesel locomotives which would spell the end of most pufferbellies.

The "new" locomotive on the Branson Scenic Railway

A few scenic railways still use the steam engines, but they are becoming harder and harder to find. I believe the one that runs out of Bryson City, North Carolina is still using a pufferbelly.

A few years back I discovered how intense true railroad buffs are. I was working at a lumber yard in Texas when a load of old railroad ties was delivered. Almost immediately there were swarms of men intently searching for nails stuck in the wood. But these weren’t ordinary nails; they had two digit dates embossed in the heads. Those dates indicated the year the tie was put into place and were used to help the workers determine when to replace the tie. To my surprise, the nails were seen as valuable collectors’ items. I managed to obtain one and passed it on to Andy Sarge.

I mention Andy’s name because I’m hoping he can answer a question of two. While we were watching the Veteran’s Day parade in Branson, there were two machines working on the tracks of the scenic railway. The first machine was the one shown below:

A machine with steel teeth biting into the ground.

A closer look at the teeth

The teeth seemed to be used to loosen the dirt and gravel along side the track. Another interesting feature of this machine was the flimsy looking device being pushed ahead of the machine.

Unknown gizmo being pushed ahead

This thing seemed to be about twenty or thirty feet in front of the first machine. After this machine passed by, it was followed by a second machine.

The second machine

This machine would periodically drop the gray device in front and kick up a bunch of dust. I assume there were brushes cleaning the rails or redistributing the gravel loosened by the first machine.

Hopefully, Andy or some other railroad buffs will enlighten me.

In the meantime, let’s return to pufferbellies. Back in the late forties or early fifties, the Four Preps took that children’s song and produced the following recording.

And that is why I was able to sing along with my granddaughter.