Well, I’m 60

Made it to 60. Not sure if others are as terrified as I am reaching 60. Worried mostly about having to “slow down”. I got out about 10 days of deer hunting this year. My hip is my biggest concern. I’ve got bursitis, so it’s not a replacement kind of thing to fix it. Just need the bugger to heal. It’s been bothering me for about 15 months now, and that’s what I’m scared of I guess: coming to a day I can’t go deer hunting by myself. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if I had a lot of hunting partners, but I don’t. Partners I’ve had either moved or got married or are hobbled themselves.

My siblings were good about not buying me birthday presents. They know I don’t need anything. They donated money to the local Salvation Army. My only gift was from the state of Alaska. I got my lifetime hunting, fishing and trapping license when I turned 60. What  a deal.

Another reflection at 60 is all the people who mostly didn’t make 60 that I’ve lost along the way, mostly over the past 10 years, from family back home (Emily Schreiber, Johnny Lindquist, Clyde Peabody, Mike Darling, Gene Ayers, Butch Lyautey, Mark Dubose, Todd Metz, Mike and Jolie Eaton, my cousin Elaine Eaton’s daughter, and Jim Aiello), to a friend from St John Fisher College I attended from 1982-1983 (Heather Gould Williams), to friends from University of Alaska I attended from 1984-1986 (Scot Geiger, Simon “Hubba Jay” Harpak, Kathy Stockholm), to my friend Jimmy Rayburn from Mississippi State University.

Several Peace Corps friends are gone – Bob Dach and Suzanne Stenholt Wolfe from cancer. Phillip Hellmich and Jean Wenzel died their own way. Kevin Honness drowned when his kayak capsized under some sweepers on the Bad River in South Dakota. Andrea’s husband Allen Lowe died from an aneurysm. After miraculously and courageously surviving the civil war in their country, Francis Kamara, Solomon Saidu and Tamba Saidu died from Ebola in Sierra Leone just a few days apart.

Then there are all the Alaska friends who’ve passed away  – several workmates like Jim McCullough, Arnie Shaul, Scott Shelton, and Dave Owen from my Kodiak days. From Sand Point, Judy Hamik lost her son Kai at sea on a fishing boat, and her husband Tom passed unexpectedly soon after. Sara’s sister Jane died from MS and a multitude of health problems.

We lost Scott Johnson and Debbie Uotila to cancer here in Juneau. Clyde Andrews died of a heart attack walking his dog, I think. And less than a year ago, we lost Terry Schwartz to an undiagnosed brian tumor.

That seems like a lot of people dying too young to me, and not sure if others that reach 60 have had the same experience, or I’ve just been lucky to have so many good friends from so many places. It’s seems important for me to remember all these friends who passed away and somehow think me remembering them means something to their time on earth.

These friends, of course don’t count my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and others that died of old age or a combination of cancer and old age.

Still, I’ve got lots of friends and family still around and feel lucky to have them all.

Looking back on 60 years, I think back on life changing events. The first was moving to Alaska. I was at SUNY Cobleskill in 1982 when a kid from the next town over, Scott Jordan, said he was going to Alaska. They had a college up there he was going to. I couldn’t have found Alaska on the globe at the time. I only knew that’s where I saw Virgil Ward catch all those fish on his tv show. I want to go, too, I told him. Soon, there were 4 of us, and we left late the next summer. Scott in a little hatch back, and me in a Ford F100 with a 3 on the tree. I worked 3 jobs that summer and my dad and brother did body work to fix up the truck I think I bought for $300. My uncle Dick gave me a nice topper he had. Off we went.

The first years in Alaska were where I found some independence. I was a long ways from home, so had to figure it out myself. Many of my new friends were in the same point in their lives. The Alaska kids that befriended me helped me feel at home, especially when they saw I looked like a lifer for this place.

The biggest life changer, however, was joining the Peace Corps. I drove the shuttle bus from lower to upper campus at UAF. The bus would get you up there in short time. If you had back to back classes on each campus, you couldn’t walk the distance in time. That’s where I met Don Jackson, an Arkansas native who created quite a buzz in the fisheries department. He was a guy who cared about the importance of fish to people, not just the status or economic importance of a fish stock. He’d just come back from the Peace Corps in Malaysia, where he was an instructor at the University there. Don would ride the bus and we talked about life and he lit a spark in me about the opportunity for professional enrichment – not a humanitarian pilgrimage – by joining the Peace Corps. By the next spring, I completed the onerous application process for the Peace Corps and eventually got my assignment to Sierra Leone – a country I’d never heard of. Didn’t even know what continent it was on. But as long as I was doing fisheries, that’s all that mattered.

I was to meet 7 of my closest friends to this day. We trained together for 10 weeks at the University of Oklahoma. It was an intensive, non-traditional training. They groomed us to be aquaculture extension agents, and not hopeless romantics out to save the world. By the time we were on our way to Africa – 3 of us to Sierra Leone and the other 4 to Liberia – all we wanted to was build fish ponds and get raising some tilapia. All the intercultural experience was just a necessary evil to get raising fish.

Of course, the intercultural experience made the lasting mark, along with the fish work. I could never see the world or my place in it the same. I consider myself as overly rich, while not having done much to get it. I worked my government job, invested money for retirement, and when I reached age 55, I retired. Had I not been to Sierra Leone, I would have considered myself a self-made man, accumulating savings by frugal spending and showing up for work everyday. But I now knew there were people who worked twice as hard as I ever would, who literally grew their own food, who could save money all their lives to no avail since their currency was worth so little, who had no stock market to invest in even if their money was worth something, and certainly no pension or social security system to retire on. Retirement wasn’t a part of their lexicon. Someone would only quit working if they were physically unable to, meaning they might likely be at death’s door.  This whole 40 hour work week and saving for retirement and vacation and a car are purely a Western condition. For Sierra Leone farmers, life is their farms and family and village politics and secret societies. Not unlike Alaska villages, I was living with a village of people whose family tree extended back thousands of years at this same location. Their village was central to their being, consciousness, identity, and self-worth. They were happy, for the most part.  With no money.

Learning that money doesn’t make you happy was an important lesson. Many never learn or learn it too late and die with millions in the bank in poor health, having not gone on that deer hunt so they could cash out their vacation leave when they retired, or got themselves so in debt borrowing to buy a house or car or boat above their means that they have to work til they’re old, or get a second job, that they are a slave to the American way of life. I was lucky. I didn’t just see retirement and investment and saving and living within my means as a practical thing to do, but saw it as one of the biggest privileges we have born into this country. But it’s also a choice: a person can easily get in over their head buying shit they don’t need or that’s above their means, only to be a slave to it the rest of their lives.

And of course, another game changer was meeting Sara. We joke that although we were at UAF at the same time, there was no way in  she’d have dated me then. When we met in Juneau, though, I’d spent 2 years in west Africa, and Sara a year in Vladivostok. Yes. THAT Vladivostok. So we both had shook much of the success = a house with a 2 car garage and a pile of debt living paycheck to paycheck.  At the time, she was the lowest paid lobbyist for group of conservation groups and I a biologist for ADFG. We both had moms that loved to garage sale. And my dad always wheeled and dealed in second hand everything. Nearly 30 years later, we may debate a lot of things – mostly politics – but money isn’t one of them. We’ve lived in the same house we bought when we got married, never paid 5 figures for a vehicle, never groused about giving money to those who need it, and always love spending our money on our nieces and nephews. And she’s always been agreeable to buying a new used boat as long as I made a good case for it. We both retired at 55, although she’s continued working ever since she retired. So have I, sort of, but only for fun. And we each fit into each other’s family like we’d been raised in the same town.

Sara also supported me when I needed to quit my job with the state over an ethical disagreement I had with my superiors. I couldn’t buy a state job after that, likely having been black listed. In desperation, and also for something to do, I took a job with the school district as a teacher’s aide helping out a teacher – Craig – and his aide –  Aldwin – who both have been friends ever since. Aldwin was also a hand troller, and when Eric hired me at McDowell Group, that led to both many more new skills learning economics, as well as a new career trolling for salmon. Later, of course, we started selling fish from our boat. Then came the selling fish in a variety of product forms. That has allowed me to travel all over the developing world evangelizing the virtues of fish quality, preservation, and direct marketing to fishermen and fish farmers in Haiti, Mali, Ecuador, Madagascar, Liberia and Jamaica to date. Hopefully there will be more destinations to come. In hindsight, one of the best things I ever did was quit my job. It led to a lifetime of learning new things starting in my early 30’s.

jars on counter of pickled vegetables

And still more things to learn all the time. The latest is pickling!  All the years of throwing away vegetables. I could have been pickling them. Sometimes I do that now as the primary use of the vegetable – like we found with cherries and rhubarb – rather than just to preserve them til later. This morning I made us fried eggs from Roy and Brenda on half a bagel with cheese and pickled peppers, onions, and avocados I pickled last night. Plus all the smoked canned king salmon I put up this summer and canned moose in the spring. We eat like millionaires around here.

So, I’m a little more content with 60 now, especially after a birthday dinner Sara arranged with 7 of our closest friends and 2 hosts. Everyone was older than me. We have to do that more often.  Maybe I’ll make it to 70.

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