Early Retirement – Day One

My husband retired from  Bonneville Power Administration in early January, 1972, while we were living in Stevenson, Washington.  Thirty years of service with various U.S. Government agencies, including 6 years of U.S. Navy service paid off, and his often repeated quote,  “Any time I can get paid to stay home, I’m ready”  resulted in our freedom with a reduced annuity.

“Reduced Annuity”  translates to belt tightening and penny pinching but we thought we were ready.  “Thought we were ready”  –  Hmmm – Another meaningless phrase ranking right up there alongside  “Check in the mail”  and “I’ll call soon.”

Living full-time in an R.V. was still a novelty at that time but we decided to give it a try. “You’re going to do WHAT?” was the reaction from family and friends.  Talk about Babes In Wonderland, we had a lot to learn.

We had already purchased a big yellow International Travelall and a 19 ft. travel trailer, both slightly used, disposed of most of our gypsy belongings, stowed the “gotta saves”  in storage and were ready to drive off, leaving our small, rented cabin with is spectacular view of the Columbia River Gorge behind.   Spectacular views often come with a price and we were happy to leave the ice storms and raging winds to someone else.  We’d choose our own environment from now on, free as birds.

Free, that is, once we got over the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon and away from an oncoming storm.  Our immediate plan was to reach Portland that afternoon, spend the evening on final details, and enjoy a nice dinner and a visit with family before the final move into the tiny trailer.  Other than the impending storm and our mantra  (Over the Siskiyous by tomorrow)  we managed a good chat and a full night’s sleep.

Up at the crack of dawn, my husband spotted a flat tire on the trailer.  Oops!, slight delay, but we could still make it out of Oregon before evening.  Naturally the tire with its big nail and its repairs took longer than expected but at last we were off after one last check of the  Weather Channel.  We headed south on the Interstate, feeling comfortable about being well ahead of the storm. There were plenty of dark, threatening clouds and some  showers but we were optimistic.

Driving down Interstate 5 with our new  (to us) home bobbing along behind, we began to relax and feel in control.  Traffic was heavy; others were apparently trying to beat the storm at the same time. One would think we were approaching the Himalayas without any Sherpas, but all was going well.

A special feature of our new vehicle was dual gas tanks.  When the main gas gauge showed a big red E, my husband, by now driving with the ease and  flair of Barney Oldfield or one of the Andrettis, reached down, switched smoothly to the reserve tank and on we went.  One slight detail – there was no gauge on the reserve tank – but it had to hold ample gas for another 30 or 40 miles, didn’t it?  It had to.  We could stop at the next town and fill up.

Well, guess what?  Just as we were relaxing enough to notice that the storm clouds weren’t getting any closer,  the big engine, plus the added weight of the trailer and the pull of the southwest Oregon mountains resulted in another spell of sputtering and coughing from the gas tanks.  We looked ahead frantically for a pull-out, finding one just in time to get off the busy highway before the motor died.

We dug out a 5 gallon gas can and the anxious driver limbered up his thumb and dodged across the heavy traffic to hitch back to the last town we’d passed.  By the time he returned and we were on our way, quite a bit of time had passed.  I think it was about now that we christened our Travelall,  dubbing it  “The Yellow Peril”  in honor of its  (so far) lack of reliability, its bright yellow color and in memory of the 12 years we’d spent living beside the Panama Canal.  And that was its name for all the years we owned it, although it later proved its reliability over and over after a very shaky start.

Knowing the 5 gallons of gas wouldn’t last long, we were relieved to pull into a station shortly after and fill both tanks, plus the 5 gallon can for insurance.

By now the skies were definitely darkening and the wind was picking up.  We pressed on nervously, reaching a breakneck speed of fifty miles an hour several times, with the weather deteriorating as we went. We were greatly relieved to clear  Siskiyou Summit with spitting rain and wet patches of highway but no ice.  Breathing huge sighs of relief we headed down into California.  I remember promising myself I’d never ever come back to Oregon again, at least not in January.

However, once in California, where were we?  Still in the mountains with miles to go, and needing one more gas stop while there was still daylight.  We pulled off at the next opportunity and filled the tanks again.  We noticed a large paved area away from the pumps with a sign clearly marked  “Waste Water”.  Here was something else new to us, no time like the present to learn how to dump the holding tank on the trailer while there was no one else around.

We jockeyed around, practicing our maneuver and finally my husband was able to open the valve on the tank while I stood at the ready with the water hose provided for clean-up.  It was colder than ice-cubes out there; after all, we were still in the mountains and it was still January and still stormy, even though we felt like the last 12 or 14 hours had lasted weeks.  Before we knew it, waste water was pouring out all over the apron of the Dump Station.  We didn’t panic but it was close. Much to our relief there were no other vehicles near enough to be watching us, or worse, waiting impatiently for a turn.

Getting the mess cleaned up as quickly as possible, we slunk back into the Travelall, sped back on to the southbound highway and didn’t stop again until we got to Redding, California and a road-side rest stop.  By now it was pitch dark, raining hard, much later than we’d planned and we just couldn’t go any farther.

I don’t remember whether we ate any food that entire day.  I only recall locking the car, stumbling back to the trailer, kicking off shoes and falling across the unmade bed.

And what a night!  Semis roaring in and out, down-shifting and grinding gears;  the trailer being buffeted by heavy winds, candidates for  D.U.I.s  in every other car that was zooming around, voices loud and obnoxious, with us checking the door repeatedly to be sure we really were locked in.  An alert Highway Patrolman pounded on our door about 2:00 a.m. to make sure we were all right.  We managed to thank him politely although it was sort of like waking someone up to see if they were actually asleep.

The next day found us sailing serenely along in the morning sun, after having treated ourselves to a huge, greasy breakfast with gallons of black coffee at an off-ramp diner.  The belt-tightening and penny-pinching could start tomorrow.  We felt like seasoned R.V.ers as we made up a list of promises to ourselves:

Check the gas level constantly, don’t trust the gauges.

Never drive farther than a pre-set distance on any one day, regardless of circumstances.

No more road-side rest stops. Hook up in an R.V. park with electricity, water and above all else, a sewer connection every night.

THEN, fix ourselves a big Arrival Drink, relax and enjoy our retirement, taking each day as it came.

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Surviving “Sigh” Day

We’ve all had those days.  You know, when one minor mishap after another occurs.  Nothing major like an “OOPS”  or a  “D.U.H.,”  not tantrum worthy,  just annoying enough to call for a sigh of resignation.  I call them  “Sigh”  days and they come around a little too often to suit me.  Being of a “certain age” as the Victorians would have said, I’m no longer overly patient.

In fact, I’ve created a sliding scale of “Sigh” days, indicating the degree of annoyance to be reached over each event.  They range from:

Mild Sigh – you’re boiling eggs, you forget them and end up with ping pong balls.

Next would be Semi-medium Sigh –  you’re trying to peel a boiled egg that was too fresh.

Medium Sigh –  you crack the third egg for a meringue and the yolk breaks over the bowl.

Semi-deep Sigh –  the last egg in the refrigerator, the one you were planning to have for breakfast, drops on your bare toes.

And Deep Sigh –  you’re preparing a super-special, need-to-impress cake, you pop it into the oven and the eggs are still on the counter.

One of my recent Sigh days went sort of like this:

I overslept, Mild Sigh.  Forgot to put on my shower cap, Semi-medium Sigh.  Burned the toast, Medium Sigh. Dropped the egg I intended to scramble, see number four above, Semi-deep Sigh.  Ready to leave on a shopping trip, car low on gas, barely get to the station, Deep Sigh.  Shop for groceries, Deep,Deep Sigh verging on a tantrum tosser.

I stumbled out of the market carrying 5 (or was it 6?)  overflowing plastic bags, car keys at the ready.  The sheaf of papers the cashier gave me: receipt, change, coupons, contest entries, whatever promos are being advertised, are all gripped tightly in my teeth.  The bags kept slipping, naturally, and I tried to rearrange them, thinking  “get a grip,”  Sigh.   As I approached my car, the keys dropped, Medium Sigh.  I’m afraid the bag hanging precariously from my left pinky may be the one with my favorite wine in it.  It seemed to be the slipperiest and sure enough, it’s the one that falls with a slushy smack just as I execute a wobbly deep knee bend and grab the keys.  Deep Sigh.

“Please, please, please not the wine.”   “Oh, thank you, thank you.”  It was just the eggs and two beefsteak tomatoes.  If I have enough cheesecloth I can strain the shells out, keeping the smashed tomatoes; then with a little Romano, some herbs and a few other odds and ends I’ll have the beginning of the world’s biggest omelet.

The wine bottle was still intact, the bag still hanging from somewhere, somehow,  by one loop, Deep Sigh of relief. I got the bags safely stored in the trunk, including the sloshy one full of future omelet, which I tied tightly.  I tucked the wine securely next to me on the console and away I went.

A block from home I needed to slam on the brakes when an elderly neighbor rocketed out of his driveway in his 1979 PACER.  The bag with my wine in it rolled off onto the floor but I didn’t hear a crunch, nor did I smell Pinot Grigio.  Another Deep Sigh, relief again.  I arrived home, grabbed up the bags, headed for the door and dropped the keys for the second time.  Semi-Deep Sigh.  Grabbing the bag of wine with my teeth  (the bunch of receipts, coupons, etc. having blown out into the yard by now),  I got the keys picked up by some kind of gymnastic move I could never do again,  got my purchases inside and stowed away, tucking the wine safely in the refrigerator.   A-A-H, Deep, Deep Sigh, again relief.

I realized the broken eggs and tomatoes were a total loss.  Who would eat a 12 egg omelet, anyway?  Out they went. I fixed myself a quick lunch,  not the egg salad sandwich I’d been looking forward to, of course.   I tidied up and decided to check my phone messages.  First one: carpet cleaners.  Sigh, delete.  Second one: roofers.  Sigh, delete.

Third one:  my oldest brother. He’s having a   “Sigh”   day  too.  Those things do run in families, you know.  He spends his days in a lift chair,  wheelchair close for necessary side trips.  The lift chair deposits him upright in the middle of his living room and he’s off in his wheelchair to use the facilities.  Today, just as he returned to the living room the power went off.  He sat for 40 minutes, staring at his lift chair as it stood at attention waiting for his return.  Even now, his sighs are deep and profound.  I fake sympathy but my sighs sound gurgly and garbly as I try not to laugh.

I finished up with the phone calls and decided to relax with a movie I’d taped earlier.  MY power was off!  Deep Sigh.  I opted for a long walk in the sunshine to relieve some frustration, reaching the point of no return just as the skies opened up with a cloudburst.  No time for sighing, I break a personal best on the run home,  hair and clothes sopping wet, Crocs squirting water out of every hole.

I headed for a warm bath;  no power, no water heater, no warm water, no bath.   Medium Sigh.  Anyway, by now It was time to prepare dinner; with a non-functioning electric stove, forget it!  I spooned a can of cold soup into a bowl; at least I could enjoy a glass of wine with it.  I reached into the fridge (which was warming fast), grabbed for my bottle of wine and watched in horror as it slowly rolled forward off the bottom shelf, seemingly in slo-mo.  My reactions didn’t react and it picked up speed, hitting the floor with a loud crash and a huge splash.  Deep, Deep Sigh,  almost another tantrum-tosser.

By the time I got the mess cleaned up, it was almost dark outside. What a long evening this was turning out to be.  I lit a fat, waxy candle, leaned back and thought dark thoughts about deep, dark things.  Approaching old age, I find myself pondering the most peculiar problems. Why does the word  “flickering”  have to be used every single time a lighted candle is mentioned? Is it because that is the only word that really describes the action?  Don’t people have any more imagination than that?  There must be dozens of other words that are more descriptive.  How strange that I can’t think of a single one.  This must be how cliches are created.

My brain is too weary to cope.   I fall on my bed.  Just as I drop off into a badly needed sleep,  every light in the house comes on.

Deep, Profoundly Deep Sigh.

How Not to Write a Memoir

Remember the old joke about how to carve an elephant out of a block of wood?  Carve away everything that isn’t an elephant? Well, you do just the opposite when writing your memoirs. Assemble everything  you know about writing a memoir, carve away all the bits that don’t seem to fit, throw out the memoir and use the leftovers to tell your story.

No dreary droning on about where you were born, when you were born or why.  No one really cares whether you hate oatmeal, or got Ds in arithmetic for 9 months straight back in the 5th grade.  No one even knows what arithmetic is anymore.

Your future readers want the juicy details, the dirt, the nitty-gritty about your first date, your first unchaperoned party and how you learned all those naughty words.  How about the time you laughed so hard at your cousin’s wedding, champagne came out your nose and sprayed not only your new dress but two bridesmaids, too?  Ruined their hairdos and your aunt’s disposition.

People want to know the person they think is the real you.  So, you’ve always been an upright, uptight proper lady or gentleman; Big Deal!  Nobody will believe that, so fib a little. Anyone can write about their perfect Sunday School attendance, their perfect lemon pies, their perfect husbands, wives, children.

Tell them about the time you were asked to drop out of the P.T.A. after you laced the CRYSTAL-LITE at the Teachers’ Tea.  Remind them that the teachers loved it.

Write about taking a flash camera out behind the barn the night the guys drank too much beer on the Hay Ride–and you waited until the next day to tell them there was no film in the camera.

You could mention the…well, some things are better left unsaid. People don’t need to know everything, but you get the idea.

Think about celebrity memoirs.  Ever read a boring one?  Do you think those glamorous creatures have really done all the crazy things they write about?  The wild parties, the secret hideaways, the other Big Names? Come to think of it, they probably have. Their stories really could be true.

But true or not, your own memoir can be just as fun and interesting.  All it takes is a little imagination and some judicious carving.

Confusion, Embarrassment and Frustration: An AMTRAK Adventure

Confusion,  Embarrassment,  Frustration:  three suggestions from an instructor who was trying to teach a group of us how to put  a little humor into our memoirs.   We were to write something that included those three emotions.  No problem!  They comprised a perfect description of a train trip my husband talked me into making not too long ago.

He’d been wanting to make a trip through the Rocky Mountains on AMTRAK for some time.  Every time the subject came up,  I over-reacted.  Thinking back to the years of World War ll  when I made so many miserable cross-country trips by train, I was certain I could never step aboard another one.  The arguments flew back and forth;  he was very persuasive.  Three days and two nights from central California to the Midwest, luxury accommodations with a private bath, visits with family and friends, then home again, rested and relaxed, or so he said.  And think of the splendor of traveling through the Rockies without worrying about driving, able to relax in one of the Vista cars with no responsibilities for three whole days.

So away we went, of course.  I’m such an easy touch.  Unfortunately,  CONFUSION set in almost immediately after boarding when we looked around for our luxury accommodations.  AMTRAK  hadn’t had an upgrade since it came into being in 1971 and government penny-pinching was obvious everywhere.  We decided to make the best of things, settle in and enjoy the trip in spite of conditions.

Well, every mishap known to AMTRAK occurred on that trip, including a  (fortunately minor)  accident where we side-swiped a passing freight, spent seven hours stranded in the Great Salt Lake Desert waiting for repairs, had hours of delays at every stop, and traveled through the Rockies during the blackest hours of the night.  What a disappointment!

We spent the first sleepless night being tossed back and forth together in one narrow bottom bunk after realizing the top bunk was just too risky for a couple of octogenarians to reach, even though the bunks did have seat belt-like apparatuses to prevent being thrown out.  The shower was another surprise, you could never fall down in those narrow confines (ever been in a coffin? standing up?) but we soon realized the only way to get a shower was to wait until the train was standing still in a station.

Finally getting ourselves pulled together enough to face the day,  we staggered off to the Dining Car for breakfast.  You don’t walk through a train car when it’s in motion.  You lurch, reel and ricochet back and forth, clutching seat backs, hoping there’s no head full of hair there when you make your grab.

We managed to get to the Dining Car where we were met by smiling stewards  (why don’t they keep getting knocked down?)  and the fragrance of fresh coffee; almost worth the trip. We were escorted to a comfortable looking booth for 4 people.  Two pleasant looking gentleman were already seated across from one another, looking up expectantly.

Just then the train gave an especially violent jerk.  I pivoted  on the arm I was clutching the seat-back with, twirled around in a semi-graceful swivel and landed KERPLUNK! right in the lap of the nearest gentleman. EMBARRASSMENT? You bet!

However, I gave him what I thought was a good-sport-grin, stuck out my right hand and said  “Hi, I’m Joan.”

FRUSTRATION  set in when I realized I was in the perfect  “meet-cute”  situation screenwriters strive for in their movie scripts, and there stood my husband right behind me, laughing his head off.

And by the way, the return trip was not a bit more comfy or promptly timed; however, we did pass through the Rocky Mountains during one long sunny day and we both loved the experience.