Tony Owen was shedding his street clothes in his air-conditioned bedroom, the walls of which were decorated with glossy photos of himself posing with Frank Leahy, Randolph Scott and other pals of the dim and convivial past. Soon Owen would be driving off in his Rolls-Royce to play tennis, after which he would be returning to his 14th-floor apartment for a bite of lunch that Nino, his Panamanian houseboy, would have prepared in his absence. There are worse ways to spend a Friday in Los Angeles, but Owen was bereft. "Retirement is a bloody bore," he complained, kicking off his Guccis. "I hate it."
Owen emerged from the bedroom, a sturdy, gray-haired figure dressed now in his tennis whites. His gloom was also written in droopy eyes, yet he seemed very much a product of the California good life. As if a lot of tennis and daily workouts in his building's well-stocked gym were not activity enough for a man of 66, Owen also liked to ride his 10-speed bicycle, which he passed as he strode now onto the terrace. He sucked in the morning air. The terrace overlooked the Hillcrest Country Club, where Hollywood go-getters eat lunch and negotiate movie deals richer than the cheesecake on their dessert plates. Tony Owen used to run with the Hollywood crowd both as a producer and as the husband of actress Donna Reed. Owen had made deals, too; he had tasted Hillcrest's cheesecake.
But then, four years ago, Owen slipped into retirement, joining the ranks of the 20 million Americans whom gerontologists call, poetically, "pioneers in leisure." The phrase implies that retirement can be treacherous, but it also suggests this: that if ours is fast becoming a leisure culture—and a shorter work week, longer vacations and a $100 billion-a-year recreation boom all point in that direction—then the retired are blazing trails that the entire population, including the young, soon will be following.
One might expect to find the most successful pioneers among men like Tony Owen. Retired on comfortable incomes, they are in the unusual position of having both the time and money to do largely as they please. They are spared the economic worries that in the extreme reduce some retirees to shoplifting for food. But retirement can be an ordeal in the best of circumstances. Even in a leisure culture, work retains a hold on the generation now of retirement age. These are people marked by the Depression and schooled in the work ethic, and some of them find life without toil so unpalatable as to reverse the definition that work is what one has to do, play what one wants to. As usual, Shakespeare put it best: "If all the year were playing holidays/To sport would be as tedious as to work."
The odd thing in Tony Owen's case was that he gave few signs of having fallen so hopelessly under work's sway. He proudly referred to himself as "a vital guy," but his most creative energies often seemed directed at sneaking away to Palm Springs to hit a tennis ball or jetting off to Chicago and New Orleans to see pro football games. He turned out a succession of forgettable grade-B films like Beyond Mombasa and Duel in the Jungle and also produced his wife's long-running TV series The Donna Reed Show. The series fizzled in 1966 and the marriage, which also had a long run—26 years and four children—underwent a similar fate soon after. In 1970 Owen suffered a mild stroke, but he recovered and can joke about its momentary effects on his tennis game. "I'd swing up here," he says, wildly waving his arms, "and the ball would be down there."
But what finally brought about Owen's retirement were the changes that came over the Hollywood he knew—the Hollywood, significantly, of happy endings. It was a classic case of human obsolescence, a circumstance that Owen discussed before leaving for his tennis date.
"A good love story or Western used to be money in the bank," Owen said, settling onto a couch, "but I don't understand the movies these days. That's why I wouldn't want to risk anybody's money on them. That's why if the head of a studio said to me, 'Tony, you can do whatever you want,' I'd have to turn him down. I don't even have lunch with old associates anymore because I can't stand hearing them talk business." He paused. "Sure, I never liked the movie business that much, but you can't just spend your life going to football games or playing tennis."
Owen launched into a recital of how he was approached several years ago by an old friend, also a producer, who wanted his opinion on a couple of scripts. Each time Owen replied the same way. "What's it about?" he said. "I don't know what to make of it." One script was for the pilot of the TV series The Monkees, the other for the movie Five Easy Pieces.
"Big, big, big hits," Tony Owen moaned, remembering.
Leaving Nino alone in the apartment, Owen drove his cocoa-brown Rolls through the shady, virtually deserted streets of Beverly Hills. A few minutes later the car disappeared behind a high wall, stopping in the driveway of a large white-brick house with freshly painted brown shutters. The house had been built by film stars Constance Bennett and Gilbert Roland but belonged now to Archie Preissman, a millionaire real-estate man who, at 76, refuses to retire. Preissman plays tennis three mornings a week, inviting friends to join him on his discreetly landscaped private court.
Owen, paired in doubles with a tanned and leggy brunette, wound up across the net from Preissman and a tennis pro from Palm Springs. The retired producer soon was charging around the court, perspiration all but swamping the tiny alligator on his shirt. But Owen's side lost the set 6-1. Preissman put on a cardigan and yielded his place to a waiting player. Taking a new partner, Owen dropped another set and sat down, breathing heavily.
"Know what your trouble is, Tony?" Archie Preissman said.
"You don't have any responsibility or pressure. A man needs that."
"I'd like to be working again, believe me, Archie."
"It doesn't have to be movies," Preissman continued. He was a pale, spindly man with a faintly freckled forehead. "You can always get into some other business."
Owen, still panting, gazed at the action on the court. He smiled thinly. "I'd even pump gas," he said.
The question could fairly be asked of many another overachiever of his generation: Was Moritz Milburn retired or not? There he was, a trim, utterly capable-looking fellow of 68 in a business suit and narrow rep tie, sitting behind a polished desk in downtown Seattle. In an anteroom sat Mrs. Brooks, Milburn's longtime secretary who had loyally followed along in 1966 when he quit Seattle's United Pacific Corp. Mrs. Brooks was typing. Obviously she was not retired, but what of her boss? What was Moritz Milburn doing in an office?
Milburn laid his eyeglasses on his desk. "I'm still working, that's for sure," he replied firmly. "But instead of just one business, I'm more flexible."
He rose and crossed the carpeted room to ask Mrs. Brooks to heat up some coffee. His movements were brisk and athletic. As a young man Milburn had golfed, skied and shot ducks, sometimes asking his wife Rosalie, "Wouldn't it be great to retire at 50?" On reaching that age in 1955, however, Milburn remained in harness as president of the family-controlled Centennial Mills. Only when he sold out to United Pacific in 1960, joining the new parent company as a vice-president, did he again contemplate retirement, but this time it was in a far different spirit. "After running a company myself, I found things at United Pacific a little quiet," he explains. "Most men retire to escape the rat race. For me it wasn't enough of one."
Milburn's change in attitude reflects social shifts of a broader nature. Where retirement used to be nothing more than a cultural dream for most people, today fully two-thirds of American men above 65 are retired. Furthermore, younger workers are leaving jobs at ever earlier ages, taking advantage of retirement plans that, in the case of some companies, pay partial benefits at 45. But there is no cause for celebration. Surveys disclose, astonishingly, that no more than one-fourth of all retired executives step aside voluntarily; the rest are unwilling retirees for whom the dream has become the worst nightmare.
Many of these involuntary retirements are caused by illness or the kind of obsolescence suffered by Tony Owen. Another form of obsolescence, this one imposed, is mandatory retirement, by which industry makes room for younger blood. Forced to step down, usually at 65, some victims of mandatory retirement become lost souls who continue to show up at executive coffee breaks long after leaving the job. The Gray Panthers, a militant organization of older citizens, urges the abolition of mandatory retirement on the grounds that it constitutes "ageism," condemning to the scrap heap those still willing and able to work. And Alvin Toffler suggests in his best-selling Future Shock that retirement be somehow "gradualized" to avoid "the abrupt, all-or-nothing, ego-crushing change that it now is for most men." Except for progressively longer vacations, however, industry does little in the way of easing retirement shock.
The wealthy and self-employed are sometimes able to gradualize their own retirements and this, in effect, is what Moritz Milburn did when he quit United Pacific. Milburn had tied up his money in stocks and bonds, but he decided to use it instead to build and operate a couple of medium-sized shopping centers. He also accepted directorships with half a dozen companies in everything from insurance to rocketry. Juggling his leisure in much the same way, he began lingering after lunch to play bridge at Seattle's venerable University Club—and then, opting for fresh air, cut down on bridge in favor of golf. Like a mechanic adjusting a carburetor, he was seeking the right mixture.
After years of such fine tuning, it was a contented Moritz Milburn, if not a wholehearted pioneer in leisure, who sipped coffee in the office he had rented to oversee his various activities. "I wouldn't have been happy completely retired," he admitted. "And you know, Rosalie might not have enjoyed it, either. The average woman doesn't want her husband underfoot all day. It's like the woman who told her husband, 'I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.' Of course, I couldn't hide from the truth. I knew I couldn't go 12 hours a day anymore."
So Milburn worked out a compromise, one reflected in the schedule he was then following. It was a Thursday and he had breezed into the office at 9 a.m., 45 minutes later than he used to report for work at Centennial Mills. He had been away since noon the day before when he had gone home early to play with his six-week-old wirehaired pointing griffon. On Friday morning Milburn would begin a three-day weekend fly-fishing in British Columbia. But at this moment his thoughts were on a new business venture: enriching the mixture a bit, he and some partners had just begun dredging for clams north of Seattle. Milburn unfolded a map of the dredging locations. "What you usually see on the Pacific are hard-shelled clams," he said, "but we're after softshells, like in New England."
Since retirement is called the golden years, it seemed symbolic that the office drapes were drawn, forcing the morning sunlight to fight its way through. In front of the windows stood a splendid Chippendale grandfather clock. As Moritz Milburn pored over the map, the clock ticked off more of the seconds and minutes he had so artfully arranged.
Larry and Mabel Westerberg were about to leave on a journey more modest than usual, an overnight trip to Kalamazoo, Mich. to attend the wedding of a grandniece. As the Westerbergs breakfasted in their ivy-covered house in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, a friend who is a doctor stopped by.
"Don't you two ever get tired of traveling?" the doctor demanded. It was the same question he had asked when Larry and Mabel went to the South Pacific and, before that, to Africa.
The Westerbergs laughed, and after a while the doctor went home. He was in his late 70s, but he had refused to retire, insisting that in half a century of practicing medicine he had seen too many people "fold up" on leaving work. And, as generalizations go, this one was fair enough. Studies suggest that memory tends to decrease faster with retirement and that life expectancy declines sharply. It is a phenomenon that W. H. Auden improbably touched on when he wrote of cancer:
"Childless women get it,
And men when they retire;
It's as if there had to be some outlet
For their foiled creative fire."
But the Westerbergs are exceptions. In the three years since they relinquished to a son-in-law the reins of Queen's-Way to Fashion, the women's apparel firm they founded together, they have thrived in retirement. At 74, Larry is active as a pup, a dapper, mustachioed man who says with a wink, "I'm trying to keep from being arrested for vagrancy." A business magazine once described Mabel as a "nicely rounded dumpling of a grandmother." Her response was succinct and noncommittal. "Of all things," she said.
The Westerbergs have made travel an outlet for at least some of their creative fire. They have taken a raft trip down the Colorado, shooting the rapids and sleeping under the open sky, and three times now have driven some of their 10 grandchildren through Europe. Last winter they lived for several weeks in a mobile home in Texas, later moving on to a condominium on Florida's Gulf Coast where Larry gamely found himself the only man among two dozen women in a calisthenics class at the building's swimming pool. "It was fun," he chirps. "We were taught underwater isometrics. Afterward we got to swim."
Their retirement reflects the same adventurousness that spurred them to found Queen's-Way in 1952. Both were in their 50s, an age when others often are slowing up. Larry was a $14,000-a-year merchandising consultant and the couple's daughters were married. Mabel suddenly got the idea of selling casual wear on "the party plan"—through neighborhood Kaffeeklatsches. Within a year Queen's-Way outgrew the Westerberg basement and moved into its own plant. And it has kept on growing: Queen's-Way today has 7,000 "fashion counselors" in 46 states and rings up annual sales of $26 million. Mabel says, "It wasn't easy to step aside. The business is our baby, don't you know?"
The Westerbergs' adjustment was eased by their having worked side by side at Queen's-Way. That helped spare them the strains that, as Moritz Milburn suggests, women and their newly retired husbands undergo when they are abruptly thrown together for 24 hours a day. Having jointly run a large business, the Westerbergs found it easy to reach agreement on such matters as itineraries and the artwork they began buying during their travels. Their acquisitions have ranged from ivory carvings from Kenya to an oil by Picasso's onetime mistress, Fran√ßoise Gilot, and they even saw eye to eye on the $125 doll that Mabel once discovered in an antique shop in Toledo, Ohio. "Oh, I love it!" she exclaimed. "It reminds me of Mamie, the doll I had when I was young." Larry agreed to buy the doll as a gift for his wife's birthday. "For a 72-year-old woman," he sighed.
The Westerbergs retain a 50% interest in Queen's-Way, even though they have refrained from darkening its doorways too often. Visiting the Queen's-Way receiving terminal the day before their trip to Kalamazoo, they were led on a grand tour by the manager, who complained that they had not visited for three months. This truancy was underscored when the fellow kept addressing them as "Mr. and Mrs. Westenberg." The visitors ignored the error and later, stopping at the main plant, Larry was embarrassed when he forgot the name of a longtime employee.
Strolling through the busy plant, Westerberg proudly pointed out a profit-sharing chart, a conveyor-belt system and a full array of computers. "We're getting so darn sophisticated," he beamed, still using the corporate "we." Then he admitted, "Sometimes I think we're too sophisticated. I get afraid that we're expanding too fast or that the young fellows are spending too much on consulting firms. But we try not to meddle."
"You can't hold on forever, don't you know?" Mabel said.
The Westerbergs regard retirement as a spiritual test. Both are Christian Scientists who give doctors' offices a wide berth and refuse to dwell on life's infirmities. But this did not spare them the gloomy attentions of an acquaintance, an oldtimer in a string tie they ran into at a restaurant following their visit to Queen's-Way.
The man joined the Westerbergs at their table and began telling them, in clinical detail, of illnesses he had suffered in the preceding months. Next he was itemizing the medicines he was taking, a litany he concluded by cackling, "My first name should be Pill." Then he eagerly brought word of the recent death of a mutual friend.
"Sorry to hear it," Larry said.
"Yeah, old Ray's gone."
"Really sorry to hear it," Larry repeated.
"There's not too many of us left nowadays, are there?"
"That's the hell of it."
"He died just before Christmas," the man persisted. The Westerbergs said nothing more.
For the trip to Kalamazoo, Larry Westerberg folded his blue blazer across the back seat of his 1973 Continental. Later, as he drove across the flat Indiana countryside, the talk turned to the man in the restaurant. It was a cruel paradox, Larry and Mabel agreed, that retirement creates the illusion of boundless time just when time, in fact, is running out.
But they refused to despair. "Retired people are unhappy because they think too much about sickness and death," said Mabel. "When they talk the way that fellow did yesterday, we try to be good listeners. But our faith teaches us to believe in life everlasting." She brightened. "We believe in thinking positive, don't you know?"
For Lee Rasch, it was another day—a warm, overcast Monday—in the social whirl that made him feel so at home in Stuart, Fla. The night before, he and Betts Rasch had dined and danced at a Polynesian restaurant and the evening before that they had thrown a dinner party for 14 at their oceanfront house. But now Rasch was hurrying toward his yacht Pipedream, which was docked behind the house. He stopped and wheeled around, the mangrove-dotted shore now at his back. He looked younger than his 60 years, a lean, wrinkle-free man with matinee-idol features.
"We'll be pushing off in five minutes," Rasch called. "Don't be long."
His wife was shoulder-deep in the swimming pool, two inflated vinyl dolphins bobbing at her side. "Be right there," she promised.
Once under way, Betts Rasch began warming fried chicken in Pipedream's galley while Tracy, the couple's black Labrador, lazed on the afterdeck. From the way Lee Rasch was easing the 42-foot vessel through narrow channels and out toward the Intracoastal Waterway, it was apparent that the couple felt as comfortable on Florida's water as on its land. Considering that they had compounded the disruptions of retirement by migrating to a new community—making them pioneers not only in leisure but in literal fact—their adjustment was even more impressive than that of Larry and Mabel Westerberg. But the Rasches are not unique; because of such boldness multiplied many times over, Florida ranks first in over-65 population, a retirement haven where the official state song is Stephen Foster's Old Folks at Home.
Stuart, the self-proclaimed "Sailfish Capital of the World," is a drowsy settlement 40 miles north of Palm Beach that has lately attracted hordes of older people. While no planned community, it is at heart not much different from the Sun Cities, Leisure Villages and other for-retirees-only towns that are proliferating across the U.S. Many residents of these geriatric ghettoes, attaching an importance to the postman's visit equaled only in prisons, stay in touch with the outside world by putting themselves on as many mailing lists as possible. Not everybody is quite so desperate, but a slight sense of estrangement sooner or later reaches even so acclimated a retiree as Roy Erikson, who dwells in a country-club community north of San Diego surrounded by golf-playing corporate refugees exactly like himself.
Erikson retired eight years ago as a ranking executive of Whirlpool Corp. Visiting New York soon after, he was coolly received by a former business associate who had always welcomed him enthusiastically in the past. "It was a shock," Erikson recalls. "I realized it wasn't me he liked all those years but the position I occupied." But Erikson maintained other contacts in the business world, and these proved useful in playing the stock market, which he did with great success. Recently, however, death and distance have thinned out Erikson's contacts, deflating his pride and portfolio alike. "My sources aren't as good as they once were," he grieves.
Some people can adjust to the inevitable isolation and decompression of retirement better than others. One who might have been expected to recoil in terror from the whole experience was Lee Rasch, described by a longtime friend as "the sort who could never bring himself to play golf on weekends because the work ethic told him he should be mowing the grass." Yet it was without a moment's pause that Lee and Betts Rasch sold their antebellum house in Charlottesville, Va. three years ago and betook themselves to Florida. Their two daughters were married, and Lee, a manufacturer's representative for heating and cooling equipment, had wearied both of air travel ("I was afraid I was pushing my luck") and personnel changes in the industry. "The new people didn't always see things the same way as the old," he admits. "If I were younger I'd have adjusted. But frankly, I didn't need the money."
Soon the Rasches were living it up in Stuart with new friends like retired Air Force General Don Graham and his wife Dottie, who joined them aboard Pipe-dream last spring for a cruise to the Bahamas. Where Rasch regarded even golf as frivolous, he now found himself caught up in nautical hijinks so giddy as to inspire a thicket of exclamation marks in the trip's log. When Lee and Dottie chanced to flush Pipedream's two heads at the same instant, thereby blowing a fuse, an entry mused: "Wonder what odds they'd give in Freeport on that happening again?!" After the last conch fritter was consumed ("Great!") and off-color joke exchanged, the log concluded: "The great trip with good friends was over. Ah, the lotus life!"
Behind Rasch's seeming transformation was an adaptability not uncommon among successful businessmen. Having prospered on the job, he was simply not about to countenance failure in retirement. Then, too, Rasch's days in Stuart were not really the unbroken round of fun and games they sometimes seemed. He also flung himself into civic affairs. He became a fund raiser for a save-the-beaches movement, president of a homeowners' association and member of the Bank of Stuart's advisory board, which was set up, according to President Jack Williams, "to keep the community's pulse." It says something about that pulse, and maybe the community's heartbeat and blood pressure as well, that four of the board's nine members are retired.
Sitting on a bank board, even in a retirement community, is a surer way to stay in touch with the workaday world than getting on a lot of mailing lists. As if to preserve another link with that world, Rasch also has saved the black loose-leaf address book he used to carry with him as a manufacturer's rep. At home in Stuart before the outing on the Intracoastal, he took out the book and began leafing through its pages, pausing occasionally to sip a gin and tonic. The book contained addresses of old customers, some of them typed, others written in a small but confident script. "There are a lot of good people in here," Rasch said with a trace of wistfulness. "I miss them."
But now Rasch was on the broad waterway, steering Pipedream past sun-bleached seawalls guarding $250,000 houses. The fried chicken was gone and Rasch was talking about something as revealing, in its way, as the emotions stirred by his old address book: not long before he and Betts had felt compelled to call a 10-day moratorium on all party-going.
"We thought we needed a breather," Rasch said at the wheel. "The social life here can be a little much." The moratorium had ended a few weeks before. Only that morning Rasch had received the itinerary for an upcoming cruise on which Pipedream—with the Grahams along again—was to rendezvous with seven other Stuart-based boats. Even without exclamation marks, the itinerary conveyed the promise of new gaiety. For Saturday night in Key Largo, it read: "Plans now include a cocktail party for the whole gang in a room all lo ourselves."
Nathaniel Mansfield Goodhue, a volunteer member of Warren Engine Company No. 1 (pages 100-101), had just left the fire station in downtown Carson City, Nev. when the alarm sounded. Goodhue bounded across the street, an urgent, broad-shouldered figure in work shirt, Levi's and dusty boots. A fire engine, its siren blaring, screeched from the station just as he reached his Land Rover. He drove off in pursuit, passing a 24-hour wedding chapel with a sign out front: MASTER CHARGE ACCEPTED. "Probably just a brush fire," Goodhue said nonchalantly. "That's what we mostly get this time of year."
Along the highway to Reno, Goodhue stared out the window at the open space that enticed him nine years ago—he was just 52—to pull up stakes in Massachusetts and settle in Nevada. Born into wealth, a descendant of an old Yankee shipping family, he had been active in what those of his genteel background insist on calling "investments." Goodhue enjoyed successful investments, yet the biographical notes that he dashed off at five-year intervals for his Harvard Class of '35 alumni reports tended to focus self-effacingly on failures. On the class' 20th anniversary in 1955, for example, he reported that he had bought a clock factory and complained about "the 24-hour-a-day problem of keeping a struggling company struggling."
Shortly after penning those words Goodhue went to Nevada for a divorce. There he met Janice Duncan, a bright and personable woman who became the second Mrs. Goodhue four months later. He also discovered the rustic charms of Carson City. In 1960, his class' 25th anniversary, Goodhue noted that he was negotiating for "'a few acres of Nevada sagebrush." He and Janice ended up building a large contemporary house that crowned the tractless prairie west of Carson City like a terminal on an airfield. At the housewarming, his new neighbors gathered near Nathaniel Goodhue's swimming pool and cheered as he mounted the gravel roof and put up a Cape Cod weather vane.
Goodhue gets back to Massachusetts regularly for sailing, an old passion of his, but otherwise finds his amusement right there in Nevada. His life is an odd mixture of withdrawal—or what gerontologists call disengagement—and involvement. Much of his time is spent alone under a vast Western sky. He rides horses on a friend's cattle ranch, goes skiing in the Sierras, brandishes his trusty air gun at the pigeons that poke uninvited at his backyard bird feeder. His appreciation of solitude was sharpened when his two grown children and their sizable families visited for 10 days last Christmas. "The noise level got pretty high with all my grandchildren around," Goodhue recalls. During one 24-hour period, he locked himself inside his bedroom and Janice brought in his meals on a tray.
But Goodhue is no grizzled recluse. He has shown a taste for community affairs reminiscent of Lee Rasch's, serving not only as a volunteer fireman but as a member of the Carson City Library board. "I just feel I want to contribute something," he explains, a modest expression of public-spiritedness that nevertheless pleases his wife, who was an alternate delegate to the 1972 Democratic Convention. "Nathaniel wasn't an active citizen in the East," Janice Goodhue says. "Now he's an active citizen."
All this has made retirement a richer experience for Goodhue than it was for an earlier Nevada settler named Dominique Laxalt, a French-born Basque shepherd. Laxalt was patriarch of an extraordinary family—his children included a Nevada governor, an author and a prominent attorney—but kept so busy tending his flock in the mountains above Carson City that he saw even less of his family than Goodhue did the time he barricaded himself in the bedroom. Then Laxalt sold his sheep and came home to Carson City, a trauma that Robert Laxalt, the author's son, recounts in a poignant memoir, Sweet Promised Land.
"To keep busy, he chopped wood," Robert writes. "At every pretext, he escaped to the mountains to haul down dead tree trunks and limbs, stacking them in the backyard for sawing and splitting. After a few months, the yard looked like a lumber mill, and there was firewood stacked neatly in every conceivable corner of the house. Everywhere we turned, there was firewood. Little rooms that we had forgotten existed were jammed with it, and in order to walk through the alley one had to thread one's way warily through towering avenues of firewood." Laxalt built an elaborate corral and took to pacing the floor. Then, after learning of the death of another recently retired Basque shepherd, he sneaked out of the house one morning at dawn. Robert Laxalt writes: "He had gone back to the mountains to stay."
The work that Dominique Laxalt performed as a shepherd—riding horses, hunting and the rest—is, paradoxically, the same sort of activity that retirees like Nathaniel Goodhue now pursue as sport. This suggests that retirement itself can be an expression of the work ethic, which might help explain Goodhue's ambivalence on the subject as he finished his daily dip one afternoon in his swimming pool. It was midsummer, but shrunken patches of snow were still visible on the distant Sierras. For added inspiration, Latin rhythms issued from a poolside speaker. Toweling himself, Goodhue sat down and crinkled his eyes against the blazing sun.
"I don't miss business one single bit," he began, a confession that would not surprise discerning readers of the Class of '35's alumni reports. "In Nevada the pace is slower and the people mind their own business. There's no country club I feel I have to belong to." In the next breath, however, Goodhue was saying, "I'm busier here than I ever was. I don't even like the word 'retirement.' When you say you're retired, it sounds like you're doing nothing."
Nobody would have taken Nathaniel Goodhue for a slacker as he sped along the road to Reno in his Land Rover. Passing beneath the high country where Dominique Laxalt used to tend his sheep, Goodhue could see a curl of smoke on the horizon. He came to a housing development and pulled into a driveway. The other firemen had already arrived to find a homeowner illegally burning rubbish. A call sounded just then on the fire-department radio in Goodhue's Land Rover: "Ten-seventeen."
"That means it's under control," he shrugged.
On the drive back to Carson City, Goodhue was asked why he had become a volunteer fireman. "I've always liked fires," he replied, uncertainly. "Maybe I've never grown up." It was obvious, though, that Goodhue's arrangement with Warren Engine Company No. 1 was mutually satisfactory. During his visit to the fire station earlier that morning, Goodhue had chatted with Fire Chief Les Groth, whose praise for the retiree had flowed like water at a five-alarm blaze. The gist was that Goodhue, a volunteer, worked a lot harder than some of the department's regular firemen.
Bernard (Bing) Etzel was dashing through the Maine woods again, a canoe atop his car and a telephoto lens at the ready. The outing had begun at a swamp of dead cedar where Etzel was disappointed to find that a family of great blue heron had abandoned its nest. It would end eight hours later with a mile-long hike along a railroad embankment, where, as so often happens with bird photographers, the resident black terns and wood ducks proved only slightly less camera-shy than Howard Hughes.
The only respite along the way was a thirst-quenching stop at a roadside A&W Root Beer stand. But then, Bing Etzel was a mere 51, a wiry man who fairly seethed with energy behind horn-rimmed glasses that, together with a fine head of wavy hair, gave him a striking resemblance to Arthur Miller. Two years before, Etzel had surprised his neighbors in Farmington, Maine (pop. 5,400) by selling off his prospering women's wear store and real-estate holdings. Usually only military men or those unhappy on the job retire so young, but the aggressive Etzel had always seemed to thrive on 18-hour workdays.
Etzel himself has trouble explaining why he took to the woods, although he concedes he might not have done so had any of his three grown sons gone into business with him. "But they chose to make their own way," he says with equal parts of pride and regret. "They're slightly anti-Establishment." Etzel did not have any retirement plans beyond the vague goal of becoming a "naturalist." This is a word he utters reverently, saying, "If I could consider myself a naturalist, a real naturalist, I'd be prouder than I was making a lot of money."
Etzel had gardened as a hobby over the years, ringing his white hilltop house in Farmington with great beds of pink-and-white petunias and impatiens. The literature of retirement, rich in inspirational titles like How to Make the Best of the Rest of Your Life or Retirement: A Time to Live Anew, urges prospective retirees to develop just such hobbies. As these books point out, men typically spend years preparing for their careers only to approach retirement, which can last just as long, with a studied casual-ness. But Bing Etzel had no desire to fill his days with any more gardening than he was already doing. "There's such a thing as being cm-prepared," he says. "I needed a new challenge."
It was only after retiring, while attending Audubon Society slide shows, that Etzel hit upon the idea of becoming a bird photographer. He enrolled in an ornithology course given by the University of Maine at Farmington ("the other college kids and I were a world apart") and soon was tirelessly roaming the woods for 80 miles around, showing the same keen eye for birds that he once did for milady's fashions. "I can't do anything moderately," Etzel admits. "I was like that in work and I'm the same way photographing birds. I look at it as a job. If I miss a day, it's like missing work."
Not everybody puts the matter as bluntly as Bing Etzel, but the pattern by now is familiar: retirees often seem happiest when their leisure takes on the coloration of work. In theory, the golden years should be the occasion for something like pure leisure. Even the Lord rested on the seventh day, and it is consistent with the proper sequence of things that children are told, "Finish your work and then play." The older generation, however, views play not as something natural but as a reward painfully earned. Conditioned to believe that only hoboes and playboys refrain from work—the work ethic again—some older people engage in frenetic activity that hints at desperation as much as it does fulfillment, an example being retirees who hack joylessly around the golf course with what sociologist David Riesman calls "undiscerning ferocity."
The trick is to pursue activity free of compulsion or, harder still, avoid it free of guilt. Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard, says, "The problem of retirement is not how to keep busy, but how to learn to contemplate, to do nothing—to be rather than to do." But as their elders often complain, it is the young who seem most willing to do nothing. And being the Now Generation, they are not bashful about gratifying their impulses, which is something that a newly retired Bing Etzel suddenly appreciated when, having decided to photograph birds, he went shopping for a suitable camera.
Etzel spoke of the revelation as he drove along a twisting road west of Farmington during his busy day in the woods. "The camera I wanted cost a hell of a lot of money," he said, still pained by the memory. "I almost didn't buy it. But then I remembered that Alan, my oldest boy, owned the identical camera. He'd bought his five years before. And where do you think the money came from? From my pocket. And here I was feeling guilty.
"We can learn a lot from these kids. My generation used to think Vietnam was right and that we were the world's policemen, but they made us realize otherwise. They can teach us something about enjoying life, too. They say money isn't everything and that you shouldn't just work all the time. And they're right." He gave the car gas. "I bought that damn camera without giving it another thought."
Soon Etzel was floating in a canoe in a marshy inlet of Annabessacook Lake. His camera was around his neck and he was wearing camouflage fatigues, the sight of which invariably prompts his sons to twit, "There goes the tree." A long-billed marsh wren had just swooped tantalizingly into view only to vanish in some cattails. Etzel had nudged the canoe along the edge of the reeds, hoping the wren would reappear.
It never did. After an hour or so Etzel was ashore again, busily strapping his canoe to the car, when he gave the marsh a backward glance. A plump male gallinule was swimming across an open stretch of water. Etzel ran off and, for the first time all day, the sound of a clicking shutter was heard. When Etzel returned, his face was flushed. "Just when you think you're skunked, you go home happy," he said.
That evening Bing and Elizabeth Etzel dined at home with their sons: Alan, 27, a UCLA-bound former Peace Corpsman just back with his wife Angela (and his expensive camera) from Greece; David, 24, whose new job as a real-estate salesman had inspired him to get his first haircut in recent memory; and Stephen, a bearded, 21-year-old Colby College senior with a summer job as a carpenter. To celebrate the family get-together, wine flowed before dinner and throughout. As soon as the main course was finished, Bing Etzel sprang to his feet and began clearing the table. His sons exchanged knowing smiles. "He can't stop working," one of them said in a there-goes-the-tree tone.
The family collected after dinner in the living room, but not before Dad showed slides of his bird photographs. Soon it was pushing 11 p.m. but neither David nor Stephen, both of whom had to work the next day, gave any sign of calling it a night. Neither did Alan or Angela. Of course, as Bing Etzel says, in an observation worthy of a CIA dossier, "Those two are used to foreign cultures. They can sit in a café for hours."
As the young people talked, the elder Etzel suppressed a yawn. Another came and he surrendered to it. His eyelids drooped. Tomorrow Etzel might photograph that indigo bunting out near Rum-ford or perhaps go after those nesting warblers in Bryant Pond. Being retired on a comfortable income, he could do as he pleased. He would decide in the morning. Now Etzel rose and stretched. "I'm calling it a night," he announced.
It seemed arguable at that moment whether the retired father was any more of a pioneer in leisure than his employed sons. Some such thought might have occurred to Bing Etzel, too. For then he added, rather sheepishly, "I've got things to do tomorrow."