I turned 70 this weekend. Doesn’t seem like I’ve done much to get here – except hang around. Luck, good genes (which might be considered another kind of luck) and a little more luck. I got lucky and found the Wallowas 41 years ago, and quit smoking 30-some years ago because of a bad cold and town team basketball. And I am one of the truly lucky ones who has found work to love – and loved my work.
In high school I worked in my dad’s gas station (tools and a work bay in which to shine my ’52 Ford) , at a NAPA auto parts store (wholesale parts), and on a flower farm where I improved my Spanish working next to Mexican laborers (who had mostly escaped Texas’s 45 cents-an-hour jobs for 90-centers in California – something I didn’t learn in school!). In college I worked in libraries, and got paid for refereeing intramural sports.
After college it was the Peace Corps: two years as a volunteer in Turkey and another two there as a staffer sandwiching a year on Washington, D.C., staff. That stint even included going on loan to the German Peace Corps for a month and a week with the Norwegian Peace Corps.
I stumbled into Wallowa County courtesy the Oregon State University Extension Service in 1971, where I worked for my best boss ever, Wyoming cowboy Chuck Gavin, and after five years of that opened the Bookloft in Enterprise. For 12 years I was a private businessman – emulating my father, who rarely worked for anyone else, but found a way to make a living with milk routes, gas stations, a blueprint shop, and fixing radios and TVs at home and taking pictures at weddings on the side.
In 1988, with help from friends in the county and around the country, I started an educational non-profit called Fishtrap, which is still going strong – I get to attend events now! And, over the past three or four years, I have been wrestling with a library project left to me by Alvin Josephy, the historian, friend, and mentor who helped found Fishtrap and find the writers, editors, and publishers from across the country to make it work.
Retirement? Years ago someone told me that I had always been retired – if being retired means doing what you want to do. So I have had the good fortune to find work that I love. But part of that comes from being coached into it. Go to college and “find your calling,” we were told in high school in the ‘50s. “Major in Liberal Arts so that you can learn about the world and find your place in it,” we were told in college. And for what it’s worth, many of my high school and college friends – an engineer, a doctor, a few teachers, one of whom turned golf pro at 60, nurses, carpenter, realtor, etc. ― are still working! Because they like it.
And here I am at 70 with a new job: building the Alvin M. and Betty Josephy Library of Western History and Culture at the new Josephy Center for Arts and Culture in Joseph. This week I go to Tacoma to give a talk on Alvin Josephy, Indians, and the Civil War. For the past two weeks I have been reading Alvin’s book “The Civil War in the American West,” scribbling notes, trying to make sense of his research and insights into American history.
More Indian tribes were decimated and more Indian land was lost during the war years than at any comparable time in our history, writes Alvin. The Sioux were pushed out of Minnesota, Cheyenne and Arapaho were massacred at Sand Creek in Colorado, and the biggest single massacre of Indians in our history, at Bear River in Idaho, happened during the war.
Closer to home, Union County was named by Union sympathizers in a vote so close and stormy that an armed insurrection had to be put down a month later, and nearby gold mining camps named Sumpter and Dixie expressed miners’ sympathies in a war that was fought across the country.
So what can I tell you on turning 70? I can tell you that we are still fighting the Civil War, that states’ rights and federalism, north and south, individual wealth and community wealth, are still at odds. And I can tell you that lifelong learning, good friends, and good work remain life’s sweet spots at any age.