If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with a deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold . . .
I will hold my house in the high wood,
Within a walk of the sea.
And men that were boys when I was a boy
Will sit and drink with me.
–Hilaire Belloc, The South Country
Today I am sixty-five years old. Those are words I never expected to write. I did not write them until I awoke this morning, just in case . . . The men in my family are notoriously short-lived, dying well before 65. As my wife and friends will tell you, I expected to be among them. I was not morose about my prospects, but they told me many times to quit being maudlin. So when I turned 62, and collected my first Social Security check, I turned my attention to getting as much fun as possible out of what remaining months or years that remained for me, not expecting that there would be many. Wonder of wonders, I am still here.
On top of a Bad Lands butte this spring, my friend Mike Jacobs called me a medical miracle. He’s partly right. I’ve survived six major surgeries and an attack of blood clots in my lungs, which I was pretty sure was the end. But in May of this year I finished one of North Dakota’s most strenuous hikes, to the top of majestic Bullion Butte and back; two weeks ago I took a long hike through the wilderness of Theodore Roosevelt National Park with my wife; and last week I spent five days in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument canoeing with a group of friends. Not bad for a dead man.
A few months ago I was at my longtime barber’s shop in Mandan, the most retro place I go these days, a gathering place for kibitzers and mostly old Mandan High School sports fans. As I was about to depart, my barber, Kent Preble, said to the hangers-on “Look there at Fuglie, he’s already retired, and you guys have to go back to work this morning.” One of our friends replied “I still have to work a few years. I don’t want to retire poor.” To which I said “There’s nothing wrong with retiring poor.” What I didn’t say is it is better than dying while you are still working and never getting to enjoy any retirement years.
And it surely is. Lillian and I have a warm house, “with a deep thatch,” in the “high wood” of Highland Acres in Bismarck, North Dakota. I’m within a walk of my own sea, the Missouri River. And many, many summer evenings, “men that were boys when I was a boy” do indeed sit with me on our patio sipping wine and, perhaps too often, talk of days gone by instead of the future. But the future is not ignored.
Last week, for example, on the return from our canoe trip, we made plans for next year’s trip. This is a trip that started with a float down the Little Missouri River in 1976. 2012 was the 37th consecutive year we have gathered in warm weather as a group and had an outdoor adventure, most often a canoe trip. Three of the original group from 1976 are still a part of it—Mike Jacobs, Ken Rogers and me. Ken is the only one who has made all 37. Mike and I have missed a year because of our wives’ health problems. We started, along with Mike Kane, as four friends in 1976, and became six in 1978 when Tim Wild and Larry Remele joined us, and eight in 1980 when Bill Knudson and Bob Dykshoorn became part of the group. Along the way we lost Mike Kane to Michigan, Tim Wild to Seattle, and Dykshoorn and Remele to death. Four of us remain, with four we have added along the way—Jeff Weispfenning, Larry Dopson, Mike Burbach and Gerry Reichert–to keep the group constant at 8.
That trip is one of the things that keeps me going—keeps me excited, in fact. I’m still like a schoolboy in the days approaching the annual event, and I don’t settle down until I’ve had a burger and a beer in the Jordan bar on the way to Virgelle, where we launch our canoes.
There’s much else to excite me at 65, in my active retirement years. Hunting. Fishing. A great garden with my great gardening partner, Lillian. Golfing. And concerts. Oh, the concerts. This year will likely be my best concert year ever. By November 15 I will have seen Gillian Welch, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Neil Young with Crazy Horse. Just the other day, I sat down and updated the list of all the concerts I have been to that I can remember (okay, I can’t remember much about a few of them, but I know I was there). It’s a lot. It’s what I have enjoyed over the years. I’m going to put it at the end of this article. If any of you want to show me yours after I’ve shown you mine, feel free to put it in the comment section. I’d love to see it. Four acts I regret not seeing, and will never see: The Beatles (although I can honestly say I don’t know anyone who ever saw the Beatles live), The Grateful Dead (although I stood outside Wrigley Field in Chicago one night and listened to the sold-out concert going on inside the stadium), Credence Clearwater Revival (although I did see lead singer John Fogarty solo in concert) and The Band (although I did see drummer Levon Helm and his band in concert).
I’m going to keep going to concerts, and I’m going to keep wearing the tee shirt my mother-in-law bought me, which says on the front “I may be old, but I got to see all the cool bands.”
Meanwhile, this week I joined the ranks of Medicare beneficiaries. The transition from my family Blue Cross program to Medicare and a prescription drug supplement was seamless. In fact, the notice I got Saturday from Blue Cross notifying me that I had transitioned into my new plan said “This is a grandfathered benefit plan under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” Thank you, President Obama. Screw You, Rick Berg and Mitt Romney. Obamacare works just fine. In fact, yesterday I saved three dollars on the first prescription I refilled under my Medicare/Obamacare plan.
A year ago today I awoke to the Beatles’ “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” on the stereo. Lillian had it on a loop and it played pretty much all day. I loved it. And she still needs me. I fixed the toilet and changed a flat tire on the trailer this year. And she still feeds me, although I’m contributing more to that effort now, with my increased time hunting and fishing and long days in the garden.
So, as long as I’ve got a little jingle in my pocket, to pay for the bread and milk and eggs, and to buy concert tickets, shotgun shells, Lindy Rigs and seed potatoes, I’m happy. We grow our own vegetables and freeze and can enough to enjoy them year-around. We buy our grass-fed beef right off the hoof from my brothers-in-law. We deepened the thatch on our house this year with new windows to cut down the heat and air conditioning bills. We keep the oil changed and the tires inflated on our old cars, which between them have almost 300,000 miles. Our vacations usually involve tents and camp stoves. We spend more time at the library and less at Barnes and Noble.
And all of that is pretty amazing to me, every day, because I am not supposed to be here. This truly is life the way I envisioned it would be when I got old (although I still don’t feel old, and really, my hair is blond, not white . . . really). I worked 40 years. I earned this time. I am so grateful for it. I look back with sadness at my dad’s early demise, and imagine how much he would have enjoyed retirement—he had all the same interests as I do—except concerts. Am I happy at 65? Yes, incredibly happy. Am I worried about tomorrow? Not a bit. Although if I last too many more years, my pockets are going to start getting lighter, and I’m going to have to buy a lucky lottery ticket, or start drinking REALLY cheap wine. I guess I can live with that.
JIM’S LIFETIME CONCERT LIST (SO FAR)
Smoky Robinson and the Miracles. My first big concert, Hollywood Bowl, Fall 1968
Led Zeppelin (Santa Barbara)
Blind Faith (Santa Barbara)
Jefferson Airplane (San Francisco)
Jefferson Starship (Bismarck)
Fleetwood Mac (Grand Forks)
Rolling Stones (Minneapolis, Fargo)
Moody Blues (Denver-Red Rocks, Denver-Fiddler’s Green, Fargo, St. Paul, Bismarck, Moorhead)
James Taylor-Carole King (Minneapolis)
Bob Dylan (Bismarck, Minneapolis, Duluth-With Paul Simon, Fargo)
Paul Simon (Duluth-With Bob Dylan)
John Prine (Bismarck)
Emmy Lou Harris (Red Rocks with Down From the Mountain, Telluride, Winnipeg)
Neil Young (Winnipeg)
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Denver-Red Rocks)
Crosby, Still and Nash (Fargo)
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (Minot)
The Beach Boys (Los Angeles, Fort Yates)
The Eagles (Denver-Red Rocks, Fargo twice, Bismarck)
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Minot)
Elton John (Bismarck)
Billy Joel (Los Angeles, Fargo)
Rod Stewart (Fargo)
Alison Kraus and Robert Plante (Denver-Red Rocks)
Jackson Browne and David Lindley (Missoula)
ZZ Top (Bismarck)
Paul Revere and the Raiders (Fort Yates)
Herman’s Hermits (Fort Yates)
Foghat (Fort yates
Blue Oyster Cult (Fort Yates)
Bobby Vee and the Shadows (Bismarck)
Leo Kottke (Bismarck)
Leon Russell (Bismarck)
Leon Redbone (Bismarck)
Joan Baez (Bismarck)
Alison Kraus and Jerry Douglas (Boise)
Alison Kraus and Union Station (Fort Yates)
Dixie Chicks (Minneapolis)
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood (Bismarck)
Willie Nelson (Minot)
Roseanne Cash (Minneapolis)
Nancy Griffith (Fargo)
Lucinda Williams (Fargo, Minneapolis)
Roy Clark (Bismarck)
Williams and Ree (Minot, Bismarck)
Emerson Drive (Dickinson)
Chuck Suchy (Niagara Falls, Bismarck, Cross Ranch, Medora)
Suchy Family (Bismarck-Mandan and Medora)
Ben Suchy (Bismarck-Mandan)
Andra Suchy (Bismarck)
Rascal Flatts (Dickinson)
Nashville Bluegrass Band (Medora)
Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Medora)
Special Consensus (Logging Camp Ranch, Cross Ranch, Bismarck)
Celeste Krenz (Mandan)
Patty Loveless (Fort Yates)
Winnipeg Folk Festival
–Emmy Lou Harris
–The Swell Season
Telluride Bluegrass Festival
–Mumford and Sons
–Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
–Emmy Lou Harris
–Trampled By turtles
–Old Crow Medicine Show
–Yonder Mountain String Band
–Robert Plant and the Band of Joy
–The Punch Brothers
Down From the Mountain Concert at Red Rocks
–Emmy Lou Harris
–Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
–Alison Kraus and Union Station
Grand Ole Opry
–Flatt and Scruggs
–Others I can’t remember
The National Symphony (Bismarck)
Lawrence Welk (Hollywood)
Howard Keel and Katherine Grayson (Hollywood)
Concerts I shoulda seen and probably never will
Credence Clearwater Revival
Three Dog Night
The Grateful Dead