AFTER MY COLLEGE freshman year in engineering, I was hired for a part-time summer job by a civil engineering firm in my home town. The office was in an upscale building where a lot of respectable businesses were headquartered. The company had an impressive name. But after starting, I discovered it was just a one-man show. Mr. Jones was the owner. I became his sole employee.
Jones was probably in his mid-70s. He’d headed up his own company for decades. Piles of brochures from his glory days were scattered about the office. They featured a photo of a smiling younger Jones, who certainly looked confident and important. The company itself appeared to be something of a success, at least based on the brochure, which included pictures of office buildings, vehicles and even a small fleet of airplanes.
Jones had retired a few years previously. Retirement turned out not to be for him. On numerous occasions, I heard him on the phone, telling the story of his revived company: “I closed down my company and we moved to a retirement community. We’d play golf every day and then sit around the clubhouse having drinks every evening. About every few months, one of the guys would fall over and die. After a couple of years of this, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told my wife I had to get out. We moved and I’m starting my company back up.”
Jones was a driven man. He had an air of constant impatience. One day, the two of us drove to Atlantic City to do a land survey. During the trip down, he asked me about my engineering studies. When I told him I planned to study electrical engineering, his reaction seemed to indicate he felt any discipline but his own—civil engineering—was a waste of time.
The survey didn’t go well. He gave me a quick, three-minute explanation of the theory behind his equipment and then drove to a point a quarter mile or so away. Whatever it was I was supposed to do on my end, I wasn’t doing it right. He gave a young neighborhood kid a dollar to run down the street and give me instructions. The message got lost in translation.
He bought us lunch at McDonald’s and we drove home. Although he didn’t berate me, I knew he wasn’t happy and I felt I’d failed. I also thought that if he’d slowed down and given me better instructions, things might have gone better.
A few weeks after I was hired, he brought on Fred, who was a physical education teacher in a nearby school district. Every summer for years, Fred did land surveying work to supplement his income. He was a personable fellow and, for me, a breath of fresh air.
Fred and I were sent out to do a survey on our own. Fred, with his experience, was the lead. This time, the survey went smoothly. I especially appreciated Fred’s seasoned perspective: “I’ve worked for a number of these codgers over the years. They’re all the same. They won’t listen to anybody, and they have to do everything themselves.” With Fred in the office, I felt more relaxed.
A couple of weeks after Fred was hired, work dried up and Jones decided he was going to close up shop and move his office to a town 20 miles away. Fred and I were out of a job. I don’t think Fred was too broken up about it, and I know I wasn’t. I spent the rest of the summer doing factory and janitorial work through a temporary employment agency. Although I made five cents less an hour, I was content with the mindless work and the autonomy.
Now that I’m in the retirement phase of my life, I’m trying to understand Jones’s perspective. At one time, he was in charge of a successful, multi-million-dollar company, and now he was doing surveys and low-level civil engineering work with a couple of temporary employees. Although he certainly didn’t need the money, he approached his new venture as if it were a life-and-death proposition. “Pressure,” he once loudly exclaimed in the office. “I’m always under pressure.”
On some level, he must have been enjoying what he was doing, but to me he seemed unhappy and obsessed. Perhaps after his first experience with retirement, he couldn’t shake the sense of his own mortality. Maybe he thought that going back to work would be a distraction, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. Or was he hoping to recapture the feeling of his glory days? The old brochures in his office might have been a clue.
I’ve always admired people who continue to work into their later decades. I have a few engineer friends who continue to be productive employees in their late 70s. These friends seem to enjoy their work and give off a different vibe than Jones did.
Although my younger self might have been inclined to dismiss Jones as just another cranky old man, my older self has more sympathy for him. He was struggling with the inevitable losses that come with advancing age, trying to work out a solution as best he knew how. What part consideration of his legacy played in his motivation I can only speculate about.
I have no illusions about leaving a permanent legacy at the nuclear power plant where I labored for 38 years. I continually saw people with more talent or responsibilities than me being largely forgotten by the current staff within a year of their retirement. With enough passage of time, few people would be left that had even met these formerly important employees.
I spent four years of my life upgrading a critical system at the plant. It was the most important project of my career, and it turned out to be quite a success. Still, I doubt that anyone except a few fellow retirees remembers my role in it. I’m not sad about that. It’s just the way things work.
I don’t know how Jones ultimately fared with his revived company. After a good bit of online research, I couldn’t find any indication that his company ever even existed. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”
Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.