Wednesday, October 28, 2020

At His High School Reunion, One Man Has A Revelation About The Worth Of Work

The email confirming the time and date of my high school reunion informed me that the organizing committee was expecting a very large crowd and I should consider that “good news.” They weren’t wrong. It was a very big crowd. Bigger than I expected.

On average, I’d say every dude in the gymnasium where the event was held was at least 40 per cent larger than I anticipated. Why did this shock me? We all get to our fifties along one path or another, add pounds at a fairly predictable rate (about 1-2 per year), and deny that our hairline has receded like a glacier to reveal an expanse of forehead north of the eyebrow latitude.

My class of ’84 had little in common apart from neighbouring postal codes and parents who choose to live outside the city. At one extreme, we had the ultra-rich kids from horse farms and the nearby subdivision who drove to school in new cars and tricked-out vans with murals on the outside and waterbeds inside.

At the other extreme, the more rural kids mucked stalls for three hours before they caught the bus and would have to settle for learning to fix the cars of those posh students. The latter group was more fun and spent their days in the tech wing of the school learning to machine metal, swing a hammer and weld.

It was in the welding shop that I became friends with Davey. He was a nice kid who sold hash. We would use oxy-acetylene torches to super-heat metal so we could do industrial-strength hot knives, knowing the industrial-strength vents disguised our activity. He was super nice and kind of simple, but without ambition.

Looking back, I don’t think he sold hash to make money. Given his own proclivities, I doubt he operated at a profit. I think he just liked being liked by the rich kids who paid him with the money they stole from the parents.

“Hey John,” he said.

“Hey,” I said. His name would come to me, but it was delayed like an echo in a really big canyon of cognitive deterioration.

“How’s it going,” he said. He said it like I had just been up at the plaza eating French fries and smoking his product with the thin kids from the football team, now gathered by the trophy case reliving their glory days of victory and normal cholesterol levels.

“Davey,” I said. “It’s great to see you.” And I meant it. He was a perfectly preserved artifact of my past. From head to toe, he was exactly as I remembered him. Like an actor in a time-travel film, he went from arc-welding class at 10 a.m. straight to the year 2019. He wore the same leather cap, the same style of concert tee shirt under his denim jacket, and the kind of jeans that somehow felt back in fashion. His wallet was still secured to his belt by way of a metal chain and the Doc Martens told me he still fancied The Clash.

A former classmate became a welder and achieved financial independence.

“So,” I said. “What are you up to these days?”

“Not much John,” he said. “Not really working these days, so Tim and I have been fixing up an old motorcycle up there at his place, hangin’ out. That kinda thing….”

That kinda thing?

I felt bad for Davey. The deck was stacked against him even before the Internet. I couldn’t imagine his prospects at his age with his uniform.

“What are you looking for?” I asked. “What kind of work were you doing? Maybe we know someone.” I lied.

“No, no it’s not like that,” he said.

“Like what?”

“Remember when I left school after grade 10?”

“Sure,” I lied. I knew he vanished one day, but I assumed he went to jail. That would explain how he reappeared in a pristine time-warp outfit. His clothes had obviously been in a plastic bag at the prison for three decades. I guessed he was just released with those radical threads and bus fare and this was his first stop as a free man. I imagined he might ask me for cash or try to sell me some recreational reefer so I prepared a hard-luck story about getting by on a writer’s income.

“Well,” he said, “my dad figured school wasn’t gonna be my thing, so he got me a job with him, up there at the pipeline, just doing some welding and stuff, you know.”

“Go on.”

“So, I was in the union by ’86. Hit my 30 years and I’m retired. So, yeah, I’m like, not really workin’ much these days.”

This news took all of my cognitive processing power. I was in a room with 200 or 300 guys who looked like their fathers and probably hadn’t saved a dime for retirement. And here was Davey, retired and looking no worse for wear.

Over the next 20 minutes, I learned that he had risen quite high in his profession, ran a large crew, and served as the union rep. He had two sons who both graduated debt-free from trade schools and had bought into real estate at the right time. For Davey, 30 years of work had worked out well.

He found something he was good at, stuck to it, and got rewarded with a fully indexed pension for life. I wondered how many of our classmates had squandered their income on leased cars from Bavaria and made endless bad decisions within their self-directed trading accounts while trying to find their way to Davey’s current financial state. Being somewhat aware of the statistics regarding my generation and retirement savings, I was able to come up with an on-the-spot educated guess – most of them.

Somehow this big crowd of kids that diverged more than 30 years ago all made it to 2019 on one road or another. No one managed to outwit time, but it hadn’t taken an equal toll. I wouldn’t have bet on the simple kid who vanished from grade 10 to become the poster boy for early retirement or income for life, but there he was – fixing up an old motorcycle with his lifetime buddy Tim like some guy in a retirement (or Viagara) ad on TV and raising his kids on the simple idea that “work works.” I wanted to ask if he planned to move back into the hash business as an encore career – now that it’s legal. But something told me he didn’t need the money and he had all the friends he needed now.

As I think about the next phase of my own life, the wisdom of the welder makes me think the key to happiness might be finding something I like to do, worrying less about the money and trying to find some old buddies who want to fix things in my garage.

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John Ellis
John Ellis
John Ellis is a freelance writer and partner in murmuration, a Toronto-based communication company.