Thirty-nine years of hard work in the auto glass industry had given me Popeye forearms, or so my co-workers said. The many hours of pulling a cold knife, using caulking guns, hefting windshields, and finally working with an Extractor had made me strong. The years and years of constantly dealing with the problems and difficulties of auto glass installation had given me a keen mind. I was as good an installer as anybody could find, and it made me proud. I was fulfilled in my work.
Sure, I had noticed some decrease in arm strength in recent years; not much though. Besides, I knew that was to be expected as we age. And at 57, I was older than any other auto glass installer I had ever met. But I loved my job, and I figured as long as I could still do it well, I would continue indefinitely.
One spring day in 2010 I had loaded up a rear window for an older Mercedes Benz in my van and drove over to Madelia, a small town some thirty miles southwest of Mankato. I quickly found the house, and there sat the Mercedes out on the street in front. In just a few moments it became clear to me that the window I had loaded in the back of my van was not going to fit; it was meant for a different model. That meant it was necessary for me to go up to the door and try to make contact with the customer and let them know we’d order the correct one and return as soon as we got it.
I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell … nobody came. I knocked, hard … still nobody. Nobody was home; they were probably at work. I headed back to my van to get my work order and find the phone number to give them a call. As I stepped off the steps, I felt my leg somehow give way, and down I fell to the ground. I thought, “What the…? How did that happen?”
I tried to stand up, but my body would not cooperate. It was like I was paralyzed, except I could still move. I was getting scared. I tried rolling around onto my side, which worked, but I still was unable to get up. Finally, I think it was by force of will, I managed to get to my feet, though my legs were in agony. I knew something was terribly wrong. I called back to the shop and explained to them what had happened, and told them I had to go and see my chiropractor. You see, this was not the first time I had problems with my back, and that seemed to be what the problem was. I called the chiropractor’s office and got an appointment for that same afternoon.
Dr. Kuch gave me the familiar treatment he had often given me, and I felt better. But he knows what he’s doing, and he told me to let them know at the office that I wouldn’t be back at work for a few days. I made a few more appointment for the rest of the week, and in a couple days it was clear that the same-old same-old wasn’t going to do the trick this time. Dr. Kuch told me I had a disc in my lower back that was bulging, but he said he had a treatment table that he could put me on and do a series of treatments, and it would most likely fix it over a period of time. I told him if he could fix it without surgery, I was all for it. So we proceeded.
I went back to work in a week or so, in pain, and continued with chiropractic treatments every other day for several weeks. Gradually my back improved, and the shooting pains down my legs got better. At work they made accommodations for my condition, and I was gradually able to get back somewhere in the neighborhood of “my old self”. Work was still a painful thing, but I could function, as long as I had the opportunity to sit down and occasionally lay down when I got really sore.
One of my co-workers, a man I had worked closely with for many years, talked with me often about our health and our jobs. He had had heart problems and a cancer scare, as well as hernia surgery, and we were both aware that our days as auto glass installers were numbered. But I thought he would be the one to retire first. But in the winter of 2013 the boss informed me he was interested in hiring a younger installer from another local glass company to help us two old geezers with the work. He would keep me in the shop to do the work in there, and give my van to the new guy. I figured that would be all right. It would cut down on my workload some, and hopefully give my back more time to heal.
I found that it wasn’t quite that simple. The pain continued. I could no longer climb big trucks to work on them. Even climbing a ladder became a difficult proposition. I had to be increasingly careful how I handled my tools and the glass so I wouldn’t put my back out. It wasn’t long before everything I did on the job was painful. I was now sixty-one years old, and I just wanted to hold on for a few more years until I was old enough to receive my full social security payment when I retired. That would be five more years, at age sixty-six.
One day in early October, 2014, I came to work early, as I usually did. I was surprised to see the boss drive into the parking lot a minute or so after I did. I unlocked the door, and he followed me in. He asked me to come into his office. He said it was clear that I had come to the end of the line. He said he’d let me work until October 31, and then I’d be done. He’d give me severance pay, and wouldn’t fight it if I want to file for unemployment. I took the rest of the day off and went home to tell my wife.
I signed up for unemployment; I took their classes on looking for a job. I searched for work online, and I pounded the pavement. The want ads were a frequent companion. I applied to auto glass companies, but no go there. Who wants a 61-year-old installer with a bad back and legs and pain in all his joints? I applied for numerous other jobs; jobs driving a delivery van, jobs delivering mail for the US Post Office, jobs driving for a courier service, as well as retail jobs and other things. I had several interviews, a couple of which went so well I really expected to get a call saying they wanted me to come and work for them.
It finally started to sink in. For most jobs, I was too old. The employers wouldn’t say it, because they didn’t want to get sued for age discrimination. But they had younger people applying, and when they weighed it all out, a young, healthy, if inexperienced, worker was more desirable than an old, broken-down (though mature and reliable) fat man.
My unemployment ran out in June of 2014. I had IRA money I could tap into, so I did, every two or three months, but I knew that wouldn’t last forever. We went to the Social Security office three times, checking on how much money I would get, not signing up the first two times but going home and hoping we could hold on a little longer. Finally we knew it had to be done. I hadn’t reached my full retirement age; I still haven’t. But the amount I would get every month reached a point that we could live with, and my IRA money was getting so low that we knew it was time. So now I’ve been on Social Security for three months; it’s nice to have that guaranteed income every month.
I’m still looking for work. But now I would be happy with some part-time job that will give me a few hundred dollars a month to supplement my Social Security. When you get old, for some reason they still keep sending you bills in the mail, and they don’t like it if you don’t pay them.
One of the hardest things about this time for me has been that nagging feeling that you’re not wanted or needed any more. Even with all your experience, not just in your job but in life itself, they won’t give you a job. Maybe it’s easier if you can go out the way you want to. But in my case I was forced out before I wanted to retire, and that has been hard.
It has now been more than two years since I walked out of that shop for the last time. Some things do get easier. Most of the pain I had those last few years of working is gone. I still have some in my lower back at times, and I have to be careful. But it’s not like it was. And the pain in my shoulders, elbows, and wrists is pretty much nonexistent now. And I’m settling in. Where I used to get up at 5:15 AM every workday, I now routinely sleep until 7:30, sometimes later. My mind is no longer filled with work and technology; I’m now free to read and do Bible study whenever I feel like it. I am available to do things with my wife; in fact I rarely do anything without her any more. And it has freed me up to enjoy my grandchildren, and that may be the best thing of all.
I still have things here around the house that need to be done, and it’s getting hard to do some of those things because of money, and also because of my physical health. But I still hope to be able to do most of those things, and as my body continues to heal from my old job, I will be able to concentrate on improving the things in the house that need work.
I think I’m getting better … but I’m still getting older. But that’s life.