In June of 1999, Dad retired after working 31 years at the Ford plant (they gave him service credit for the four years he had been laid off). I returned to Atlanta to join my mom and brother for his retirement ceremony at the plant. All those years of fruitless battles, struggles with supervisors and the hapless union, and the long commutes to work were finally coming to an end for Dad. The light at the end of the long tunnel had arrived, but Dad had mixed feelings about it all. On the one hand, he was glad to be done with the back-breaking work that he could no longer do, but he dreaded the days ahead when there’d be nothing to occupy his time, no friends to joke with every day.
We parked in the vast lot near the plant, one that looked like an over-sized Ford car lot itself, and made the long trek to the mouth of the yawning plant. Airplanes from nearby Hartsfield roared overhead (the plant lived in the shadows of the airport’s runways), hushing any words that we might have said. Instead, we walked in silence with Dad leading the way in that slow, slightly hunched walk he had acquired through years of arduous labor on the humming assembly lines inside.
I had only been to the Ford plant once or twice when I was a child. I didn’t remember much of it, but it seemed familiar when we walked through the sun-blanched doors into the glare of the overbearing fluorescent lights. A tall escalator, one that had broken down many years ago and injured almost a hundred people, greeted us and took us to the offices where Dad would say his final goodbyes to his career.
The cleanliness and orderliness of the plant impressed me. It was nothing like I had imagined from the stories Dad had told me. In my mind, it was dirty and ramshackle, a grinding relic from the early industrial era. Instead, the aisles were wide, garnished with gleaming robots on either side of a line that slithered along the floor. Men in overalls worked diligently alongside cars in various stages of construction as the mechanical snake hissed and jerked its way through the plant.
Above the production floor in a bland lounge with an array of sloganeering posters and government labor notices, we waited for the ceremony to begin with Dad fidgeting nervously as he often did when he became the center of attention. I had imagined that there would be more people there to celebrate the retirement for someone who had given 31 years of his life to the cause of American manufacturing might, but instead, it was just us and another man with his similarly-small family.
The plant manager and a supervisor walked in and greeted us. We all nodded our heads and gave the perfunctory greetings, and the ceremony started much like a business meeting starts – let’s get down to our purpose today. With a few words, the manager and supervisor thanked Dad and the other man and presented them with dinky, gold-colored watches and flimsy certificates. They shook hands and exchanged superficial thank yous before the managers disappeared leaving us to congratulate Dad. The whole thing lasted ten minutes, if that. Dad’s life of 31 years had boiled down to ten rather inglorious minutes. While I was proud of Dad for all he had done, I felt sad, too. Was this all there was to life? Cradle to grave.
Dad didn’t like to waste time being sentimental or introspective, at least not in front of other people. He gathered his things, and we all left. He walked out of the plant that day saying goodbye in the only way that resonated with him. “I’m glad I don’t have to drive down here anymore.” He had always hated that commute from North Georgia to south of Atlanta, a trek of over 50 miles one way. And that’s how it ended – one final commute back through the bloated guts of the city into the over-developed beehive to the north.
Afterwards, when we took him to lunch, Dad avoided talk about what he would actually do now that retirement was a reality rather than some imaginary, hopeful point in the future. I suggested that he visit me in Memphis or that he and Mom go somewhere to get away and actually enjoy life for a moment. He nodded and smiled, and I knew he’d never do such things. He said his back hurt too much or that Mom still had to work her job. As long as I’d known him, Dad had been a connoisseur of excuses. I could almost recite the responses verbatim before he said them. Had I still been the petulant teenager I once was, I would have rolled my eyes and given him the sigh to end all sighs, but I was pretending to be an adult.
On the four-hour drive back to Memphis, accompanied by the static of fading radio stations and the monotony of a few CDs, I was struck by how much I was exactly like my Dad. He had entered the Ford plant in his youth and exited a hobbled old man after years of grinding work with not much to show for it beyond the scars of wear and tear. I was on the same path. I had never taken a real vacation. I had difficulty stepping away from work. I made excuses for not taking time off. Did I really want to exit my career many years later with nothing to show for it?
It seems melodramatic, but the sadness that tinged my dad’s retirement put it in sharp relief at that moment. I resolved to make changes. I’d find another job, one that didn’t require much travel. I’d cut loose all of the anchors that hung around my neck at that time. Relationships that had lasted way past their expiration date would be severed. I’d rip off the band-aid in one swift motion. Most importantly, I’d take a real vacation, not a day trip wedged into the crevice of another harried business trip. My career exit, still a few decades into the future, would not be one of despair and finality. It’d be grand and enlightening, at least within the realm of my small reality.