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Friend Request

Ken Begley

HOW’S YOUR FRIENDSHIP account balance looking? I spent my life watching my bank account, and taking great pleasure as it grew and grew. I never cared much for what I could buy with the money, but I loved the feeling of security it offered.

Friendships, meanwhile, took a back seat. That was pretty much normal for my family, and maybe it’s more normal for most folks than we like to admit. We have a tight little circle that includes family, but not many others.

It’s not that I was socially awkward or unfriendly. But my interactions with people were a quick hello, how are you doing and goodbye. There was nobody other than family that I would go out of my way to socialize with. But that changed—thanks to my determined effort.

What did I do? For starters, there was the part-time job I picked up some 20 years ago, writing a column for a weekly local paper in our small town. My columns were principally comedy, religion and human-interest pieces focusing on readers and events. Soon, people would walk up to me and comment on what I wrote. I enjoyed those interactions more than the notoriety of my work or what little money I earned. Some 1,000 columns later, I still get a kick out of talking to readers.

My retirement led to doing volunteer work with an organization called the Marion County Veterans Honor Guard, which performs at military funerals. My old sergeant major called, said they were always short of vets and asked me to help out.

Among those in the honor guard, I was the kid at age 60. At that time, the ages of the folks ranged up to 93. One uses a walker. I came to enjoy my time with a bunch of old guys who know the joy of yesterday’s parade.

We have about 40 members. For each funeral, 14 or so show up with flags flying, seven riflemen giving a three-round volley with M1 rifles, and a bugler. We do about 170 funerals a year. The guys take great pride in what they do and are constantly thanked by the community. We discuss local folks, family, events and medical problems. Sadly, quite a few members of the honor guard have passed away. But what’s remarkable is the way the rest take it in stride as part of life.

I began reaching out by phone to former coworkers and asking them if I could take them out to lunch. Yep, I even offer to buy a meal for them just to discuss old times. Most really enjoy it. I have to admit that sometimes an offer of a free meal will make folks wonder if I’m trying to sell them something. But they come to realize that I only enjoy their company and talking about what they’re doing today. Sometimes, when they live far away and want to visit, I’ve invited them to stay in our home for a few days.

Finally, my wife and I would volunteer to take communion for our local Catholic church to shut-ins. You might imagine these people are depressed. Not so. We’ve met some of the most interesting people, folks who were enjoying life and made us smile. These folks included a bedridden woman who spent all her time watching the world from her picture window, and a husband and his blind wife. But especially memorable was a 103-year-old woman who lived alone. She hadn’t left her home in two years. She was a total hoot. Her life should be made into a movie. This was particularly so when she talked about visiting her grandson, who was in prison.

My efforts to expand my circle of friends doesn’t stop there. It continues with everyone from my barber to the grocery store cashiers. They all have stories—stories they enjoy telling and I enjoy listening to. One thing I’ve learned from retirement, and from slowing down and focusing on those around me: My friendship account is more important than my bank account.

Ken Begley has worked for the IRS and as an accountant, a college director of student financial aid and a newspaper columnist, and he also spent 42 years on active and reserve service with the U.S. Navy and Army. Now retired, Ken likes to spend his time with his family, especially his grandchildren, and as a volunteer with Kentucky’s Marion County Veterans Honor Guard performing last rites at military funerals. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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