Looking back on 70 years…

By: John Levan | December 29, 2018

I turned 70 back in August. For most of us who reach that milestone, it’s a time for being the butt of good-natured jokes that typically center on diminishing memory, eyesight, hearing, and, of course, sexual prowess. 

While my birthday cards humorously touched on every one of these topics (and more!), it was those one or two congratulatory cards that got me to thinking. It is quite a feat to reach the age of seventy in a world that is filled with inherent dangers, most of which are difficult or impossible to avoid.

To make it through seven decades, you will have eluded the following:

  • Serious traffic, household, and work-related accidents
  • The Vietnam War
  • Incurable cancers
  • Heart disease
  • Air disasters

Since this is not an all-inclusive list, any older individual who has managed to sidestep these, and the many other sicknesses and dangers that lurk around every corner, should get a pat on the back for being a survivor.

As for me, even though I hit the genetic jackpot (no cancer or heart disease on either side of my family), I was blindsided by acute myeloid leukemia—the deadliest of the blood cancers—a month before my sixtieth birthday. And by the time I was about to celebrate my sixty-fourth birthday, it had returned. 

Needless to say, I am still here to write about it, so you can understand why my seventieth birthday was not an occasion for wearing a black armband. Instead, it was a time to be grateful. That special birthday and every other one in the future is a gift for me, and I will never take them for granted.

Our lives are made up of stories

There are hundreds of seemingly inconsequential stories behind the life of anyone who has reached retirement age. It’s hard to understand why, but those events from early childhood are typically the most vivid. Maybe it’s because all that mental detritus that eventually accumulates and interferes with our memories has not yet had a chance to gather. Whatever the reason, accessing those childhood events is often easier than remembering where I ate lunch three hours ago. It’s also much more fun.

Humble beginnings

I started first grade in a one-room schoolhouse. Granted, this isn’t comparable to Abe Lincoln reading from the light of his fireplace, but fewer and fewer of us can claim to have spent even one day in a schoolroom that was heated by a pot-bellied stove. Or to have used an outhouse that was not heated at all. 

Actually, at that time I lived with my parents above my grandfather’s general store. If you ever watched The Waltons on television in the 1970s, you could say my grandfather was Ike Godsey. I was an only child for my first eight years, and even if there wasn’t much money, I was never short-changed on love and attention. With aunts and uncles living within easy walking distance, there was no shortage of role models and adults to spend time with and learn from. I would never again feel this carefree.

The real world intrudes

Shortly after my fifth birthday, my grandfather died, and we moved into a neighborhood in a nearby town. Life was fine there. I could walk to school, and I now had friends who included me in their activities. There were also a few bullies in the area, and a skinny kid like me was fair game—just like a wounded animal when the hungry lions arrive. Eventually, the novelty of torturing me wore off, and I started getting along with them.

I guess you could say I led a typical small-town life in the early 1960s: Little League, Boy Scouts, trumpet lessons, and a fair amount of studying. I was never paddled or struck as I was growing up, but I was scared of my Pop, who was a muscle-bound coal miner with a hair-trigger temper. And I was expected to show a report card that reflected my potential or, as they say, there would be hell to pay. 

My second life begins

I was graduated from high school in 1966 and immediately enrolled in a machinist’s apprenticeship program. It consisted of 8000 hours of on-the-job training and six semesters of schooling at the local branch of Penn State University. I didn’t know it at the time, but the decision to become a machinist would lead me toward owning a machine shop shortly before I reached the age of forty.

Another critical decision—this one forced upon me by a friend—would have repercussions that would last a lifetime. It was late winter in 1969, and I was putting in some long hours at work. There was a dance that was held every Saturday night about ten miles from my hometown. My good friend thought we should be there that particular night to meet girls and have fun, but I was tired from the long week and decided to stay home and watch a basketball game.

Using language that was forceful and unprintable, he talked me into going. Among the thousand or more young people in the large dance hall that night, I saw a tall, thin beauty that I had never seen there before, and I asked her to dance. We’ll be celebrating our 49th anniversary next May.

A second education sets me up for retirement income

In 1996, I decided to pursue the Bachelor’s Degree that I had passed up after high school. Since Alvernia College (now a University) was offering courses for non-traditional students, I signed up as a Liberal Studies major with hopes of receiving the equivalent of a BA in English.

Because I owned a business, which gave me flexibility, I was able to attend classes during the day to pick up the necessary English courses to reach my goals. After six years of evening, Saturday, and traditional daytime classes, I graduated summa cum laude with a Liberal Studies degree that had the necessary English courses for acceptance into the humanities graduate program at California State University.

While my original intent was to teach during my retirement, I have not done much of that. I taught a class in Introduction to Literature at a local community college, did some substitute teaching, and tutored elementary students. But it was about two years into retirement when a local writer asked me to help her write blogs for her clients, that the seed was planted for my new career.

Right now I have twenty-three clients that keep me writing full-time on a variety of topics that include manufacturing, gardening, insurance, software, finance, and divorce. My clients have come from all areas of the United States, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, and China. I don’t have nearly the amount of income that I had before retirement, but I enjoy being a freelance writer much more than I ever did being a business owner.

I am fortunate to have found a vocation that fills my days with enjoyment and meaning, even if it doesn’t fill my bank account with riches!

Reading, writing and running

I have always loved to read, and that didn’t subside after I retired. Soon after turning forty I took up running, and it has been an addiction at times. Once I started entering road races, my running had a purpose—to finish any race as fast as I could. I was no longer jogging for my health. I was training for the next event on my calendar. As such, I was now an athlete running thirty miles or more per week.

But my running would eventually play an even more significant role in my life. After diagnosing my leukemia, the hematologist informed me that running would become my greatest ally during treatment. Since the high doses of chemotherapy that are required to kill the cancer cells are hard on one’s heart and lungs, I would stand a better chance of survival with the strong cardiovascular system that running had provided for me.

After receiving that unexpected benefit, I have continued running and racing, albeit with a less strenuous training schedule, into my retirement years. Actually, I was excited to turn seventy since it moved me into an age group with fewer competitors and a better chance for a medal in the 5K!

Rotary for service beyond self

Many retirees use their free time to serve their communities and give back a portion of the blessings they have received. I have used Rotary for that purpose. I joined my wife, a long-time Rotarian, soon after I left my day job. There are unlimited opportunities for serving within the organization. I particularly enjoy volunteering at a food pantry and raising funds for three local libraries. I am currently serving as president of my club

If I could go back and start over…

It’s a phrase we have all uttered at some time or another. As for me, life hasn’t turned out the way I expected it would. Does it ever?  Two rounds of leukemia and the ensuing year of recovery for each has left me wondering how many years of my life were taken from me as a result of those harsh treatments.

But I spend little time getting depressed over things I can’t control. I have been lucky my entire life, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Someone once referred to me as a victim of cancer. Are you kidding me, I thought? There are enough “victims” out there already, and they don’t need a lucky dog like me in their club.

I expect my retirement to be long and fulfilling. “Long” is a relative term over which I have little control. “Fulfilling” is all up to me, and I intend to channel my energies into achieving it until the end.

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