Do Not Go Gently

My father retired from his 20 yr Army career in November of 1979. Two months before his 40th birthday, he was in peak health and vitality. He could have served longer had mom not reminded him of his promise to leave the military life when he could finally depart the service with a pension. He unwillingly walked across the field with the other retirees to stand in front of the officers and receive his service medal while listening to the accolades bestowed upon them. Ironically, his next assignment was not as easy as the previous ones had been.

Leaving an organized life behind was a bit frustrating for Dad. He now had to find a purpose that produced enough income for his family to live on. A military pension was hardly enough to pay the rent in those years. Three children still at home took more money than he had. He had taken insurance adjusting classes during his tenure as an Army sergeant. He entered civilian life full of hope dressed in his nicest suit.

Selling insurance in the pre-internet age was challenging. Door to door and cold calls on the phone from a borrowed desk in an established agency was his life for several months. We rarely saw him, which was no different for us than when he was in the military. This time, though, he was a small duck in a very large pond. He had once been in charge of large groups of like-minded people, processing new recruits, instructing the common soldiery in Army etiquette or liaison between officers and the non-commissioned ranks. Convincing folks they needed what he was now selling was quite different in this new world he tried to navigate.

Realizing his meager earnings were not in-line with previous Army pay, he felt dejected and worried. Help came from an unlikely corner. A brother-in-law who was a condominium construction subcontractor offered an opportunity. Dad could work for him while attending vocational school to learn how to be an electrician. I loved my dad and was quite proud of his military career but I knew from experience that he would be the last person I would call to fix anything. Most of the time Mom called a repair man to fix what Dad tried to patch up. Now our financial security was in the hands of a man who once melted a screwdriver trying to put a face plate on a wall light switch.

Much to our surprise and eventual delight, this one-time paper-pushing administrator extraordinaire, became a full-fledged electrician. Dad worked near Fort Myers Beach in Florida for Bright Electric & HVAC. He soon had electrical helpers that wanted to work with him. The helpers, all women, discovered Dad was nice, respectful, and didn’t try to “hit” on them the way some of the other electricians did. He taught them what he knew as he was learning it, too. His crew had the fewest mistakes of any team in the company. He found his feet in the skilled trades.

Retirement was not something Dad looked at very hard during his military career. It was a vague idea to be conquered far into the future. He knew one day he would hang up his uniform for the last time but that day was not yet here. When it happened, it must have been quite the shock. A soldier defending his country one minute and a nothing, at least in his mind, the next. He was a man who was ambitious and determined. Retirement did not mean hanging up his boots or sitting in a rocking chair until death claimed him. It became for him, the next challenge and a world to vanquish. Before he retired for the 2nd time, he combined his two worlds by being the project manager over another electrical outfit that built hospitals around the country. He was a somebody again though he was never a nobody to his family.

The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas wrote- Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dad did not go gently into retirement. He raged against the chaos of civilian life and brought order to his new career. At his end, he kept up the fight until Mom slipped away. Only then did “grave men, near death…see with blinding light” to finally retire in full. I feel sure he is still trying to bring order from chaos. Gentle was not in his nature when he was on a mission. He saw his new assignment was to go to Mom and care for her still. It’s been two years since he died. Dad’s rage is silent now, though his light lives on.

~ Painting “Retirement” by Catherine Denton, June 2021

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