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My dear spouse Penny and I were returning Dec. 28 from the West Palm Beach, Fla., region to Shallotte via I-95. We hoped it was going to be a piece of cake.
Instead, traffic slowed to a standstill just south of the Savannah exits. Tired at 7 p.m., we ducked into a nice inn for a good night’s rest along with other discouraged motorists.
At 6 a.m., I dressed in the dark while Penny sacked in. I shaved and headed for the free breakfast and a newspaper in the lounge. Surely, I would be the only one up? Surprise!
There must have been a dozen trim senior couples, all sporting gray hair and wrinkles, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sitting tall before their bowls of Raisin Bran flakes intently watching the morning news. Their suitcases were packed, and they were ready to hit the road.
Clearly, at age 70, I was the kid in the room, and I was becoming enlightened.
At a time in life when most folks are either under the sod or well over the hill, this group was living its 70-plus years like they were 40. I sat down with my customary fruit and cereal, listened, watched and asked some questions to discover their secret.
Here is what I found.
Some discreetly prayed before eating. They had been either to the fitness center or had gone for a walk before starting breakfast. No tobacco. The night before, the lights were out by 10 p.m.
The food they liked and ate was plant-based. Not many were eating the sausage and gravy. (I love sausage with gravy on biscuits.)
Their mantra is the wise investment of personal time in family and friends. They were returning from visiting during Christmas. There was a lot of talk about grandchildren. One Irish guy had 23 kids’ names proudly listed on his bright green sweatshirt.
Professional life expectancy
I stepped into the elevator at the U.S. Justice Department Building in Washington, D.C., during my early FBI training. The tall, lean agent standing next to me turned out to be the leading 80-year-old legend among his peers—still on duty and turning out good investigations into bank fraud and embezzlement.
I felt inspired as he spoke kind and encouraging words. His handshake was powerful. The guy was in shape.
During the late 1960s it was common to meet senior agents who were well into their seventh decade of life. Many were on a first-name basis with Director J. Edgar Hoover.
When there were big problems, our bosses had proven experience to call upon for solid solutions.
After Hoover’s death in 1972, Congress passed “The Sunset Law.” It mandated all FBI agents had to retire at age 55. Later, it was extended to 57.
That law systematically gutted the experience level within the bureau and other federal investigative agencies as well.
When I was forced to retire just short of my 57th birthday with nearly 24 years on the job, my “retirement” lasted two weeks. I went to work as an investigator for the state of South Carolina.
I was not ready to do nothing. There is plenty of time for that when we are dead.
Since 2000, I have been employed by contractors providing the U.S. State Department with police officers for United Nations Missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Now I am scheduled for deployment to Iraq as an adviser to Iraqi judges and their investigators.
The United States government is in no position to waste valuable human resources by condemning available senior employees to a rocking chair on the front porch with the family dog. I am not alone.
There are tens of thousands of capable senior men and women who are willing and able to serve further in their critical professions.
Sheriff John Ingram recently recognized the potential by inviting retired law enforcement professionals to volunteer their services for the good of Brunswick County.
But now that some retirement funds have been damaged by unfortunate economic developments, some early retirees are forced to cut their retirement plans short and return to bringing home the bacon for the sake of the grandchildren.
Dealing with mortality
My father died at age 67. He had taken a week off from work to have a blockage removed from his left leg. When the surgeon clamped the artery leading to his leg, his aorta blew up. He was dead in a minute.
A life of untreated high blood pressure plus a pack of cigarettes a day took him out. We were lucky it was not a crippling stroke.
Genetics awarded me the same potential plight. Since 1980, I have taken all appropriate steps to successfully deal with the problem—prescriptions, exercise and no tobacco. Many active seniors have extended their life expectancy as well by enlisting those remedies.
On top of my dresser rests a clear glass Mason jar containing 300 pennies, each representing a weekend. Those are the treasured weekends I have left until I reach the average life expectancy of around 77 years.
It is a daily reminder of my mortality.
So, when I pursue the worthwhile ambition of spending a couple of years in Iraq, I am surrendering a substantial part of my remaining life and the comfort and convenience of home and family.
On the other hand, if we go through life with our foot on a dime, that is what we wind up with. We are stewards of our time. Spend it wisely.
John Heidtke has been employed by municipal, county, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies since 1963.