While it’s probably been obvious for some time, I am as of now officially an Old Fart, because yesterday I applied for Social Security benefits from the federal government.
I will be 62 later this year, the earliest age at which one can draw such benefits. You can get more money per month by waiting until you’re 65, and even more by waiting longer, but I chose to apply now because I do not trust that the rascals making up Congress won’t find a way to destroy Social Security by then.
After I filled out my SS application, I thought about all the money the government has siphoned away over the years. They began taking part of my wages and stuffing them into Social Security since I started delivering papers for the Akron Beacon Journal in 1963, 50 years ago.
By the time I got into high school, I began working at the Kent State University book store, then got a job at the university “supply center,” working on a crew that moved dormitory furniture and university officials’ offices from one building to another. After a few years of that, I started a job winding copper thread around tiny electric engines at a factory, but gave that up for a “better” factory job driving a forklift on the night shift at Smithers Oasis, then the only factory producing their floral foam, used in the bottom of vases to keep flower arrangements in place.
Smithers was a horrible place to work, with foam dust so thick you couldn’t see across the room, and awful acid fumes, but the wages were better than anything I could find in the late 1960s. Until we moved to southern Ohio, and I began working for a Canton auto parts company, driving trucks full of automotive testing equipment up to Cleveland nearly every day.
A couple of years later, I finished up my university degree and landed my first newspaper job (not counting the paper route), working at first as an unpaid intern at the Wheeling Intelligencer, then as a barely paid reporter and, after two years, as the city editor. This latter meant a big salary step-up to a whopping $10,600 a year. The job consisted mostly of figuratively whipping a small group of reporters every day, so that they would each produce more copy than you would think was humanly possible. On Christmases, the owner would come downstairs to the newsroom, pull me aside and ask me the names of the reporters and copy editors so that he could make it seem more personal when he gave them their annual turkey bonuses.
After a couple of years I had had enough of that, and quit to began writing freelance articles for a business newspaper in Pittsburgh, and press releases for a West Virginia gubernatorial candidate. I also began running the office for a demolition company that had recently come out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Before it went bankrupt, the company’s name was The West Virginia Company. After bankruptcy, the owner renamed it West Virginia Company.
I spent most of the day answering the office phone while everyone else was out tearing down buildings. “West Virginia Company,” I would say.
“You guys still owe me $3,000 and I want to know when I’m getting paid,” someone on the other end of the line would say, approximately.
“That company was The West Virginia Company, and they went bankrupt,” I would say. “This is not that company; this is a new company.”
“But you said this was The West Virginia Company when you answered the phone,” they would say.
“No,” I would correct them, “I said this was ‘West Virginia Company,’ which is the new company that reorganized after bankruptcy.”
The conversation would often end in vitriol and cursing.
Those were the days, and they eventually prompted me to get back into newspapers.
I became a regional reporter for the paper in Anderson, S.C., then editor of a business newspaper in Phoenix, Ariz., then editor of another one in San Diego. Then I became business editor of a statewide paper in Little Rock, Ark., that was locked in a circulation battle with another statewide paper that had just been purchased by the Gannett media empire.
It was one of the last great newspaper wars, hearkening from back in the days when all of America’s larger cities had at least two or three dailies. We worked hard, long hours, fighting for our jobs every day. In a way, it was like having a giant literary pie fight, getting scooped and then trying to down your opponent by throwing a big scoop back in his face. After four years, our smaller, poorer but nimbler paper beat out the big Gannett daily, bought it out and closed it down. And almost immediately became less aggressive in its news coverage and a more boring and unfocused place in which to practice journalism.
This period coincided with the rise of the Internet, in which I had developed almost an obsession. I headed back to Phoenix and went to work for a Cox Cable division starting up an all-online news operation to take on the established Arizona Republic. A couple of years later I was offered a new position in Houston, helping Time Warner start up a broadband Internet division that was to include a news “portal.” But while the job wouldn’t start immediately, my wife already had found a good position in Texas with a company that was willing to pay for our move and help sell our house. So we left for Houston and I worked a few months at a web development company making its living from the greatly feared but mostly imaginary Y2K “crisis.”
Then the Time Warner job commenced and, in just two or three years, America Online and Time Warner merged. Word around the company was that AOL was going to come in and start running the Internet division, so I left ahead of the layoffs and became general manager of another Houston web development company.
Two or three years into that one and the owner – several years younger than me but facing a divorce, a lawsuit and more than two packs of cigarettes a day – died unexpectedly, leaving the business to his wife because the divorce had not been finalized. One of her first acts as owner was to fire the company’s accountant, a move that did not fill me with fuzzy warmth. I decided to leave and start my own business.
But a day or two after I quit, the core group of programmers and the fired financial guy asked me to meet with them, and start up a new business together. We formed a database applications company, and took on some major petroleum and medical industry clients. The company did well and began growing, and in fact still is doing business today. I found, however, that as president my real role was chief salesman, and I really did not enjoy sales.
So I sold my stake in the company and went back to the news business one last time. We had moved south of Houston by then, into a county of more than a half-million people, served by just a handful of small news outlets, and the Houston Chronicle, which was on the wane and provided less and less coverage. I started a “24/7” online news site, run at first by my wife and me, then later me and one saleswoman, as my wife got a consulting offer she could not refuse. FortBendNow (as it was called) specialized in breaking news and local government and political reporting, and attracted a fair-sized loyal following rather quickly.
We even began attracting advertising, but then, in late 2007, media advertising began drying up, just as the big recession began building on the horizon. I was unable to see a profitable path forward, and sold the business to a former newspaper publisher, who I then worked for as a consultant for another year and a half or so.
Then I had an idea for using a certain combination of software and web coding that I thought would allow me to quickly and easily develop web sites for small businesses and creative individuals, set up so that the buyers could change the content on their own sites, without the bother and expense of paying a developer every time they wanted to make a change. It was a good idea, but after only a very few months the recession had hit full force, and I found myself in competition with many of the big Houston web developers, who began chasing smaller jobs they never would have been interested in before, because demand from big business had rapidly and almost completely dried up.
That brings me to now. At this moment I have made plans to close down what remains of my little web development and hosting business and, hopefully early next year, enter official retirement and begin subsistence farming. Despite everything else I’ve done, I believe in my DNA I was always supposed to be a farmer.
It’s been a long, mostly interesting and sometimes very strange half-century. And I don’t know what to make of it. But except for today, I don’t intend to dwell on it, either.
If you spend too much time looking in the rear-view mirror, it’s hard to see where you’re going.