SI Vault
You can'T PuT ouT THe Fire
Jerry Kirshenbaum
November 12, 1973
Even with time aplenty and money to spare, retirement is often disconcerting. For some, frantic involvement—in sports or in the community—offers solace
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November 12, 1973

You Can't Put Out The Fire

Even with time aplenty and money to spare, retirement is often disconcerting. For some, frantic involvement—in sports or in the community—offers solace

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Along the highway to Reno, Goodhue stared out the window at the open space that enticed him nine years ago—he was just 52—to pull up stakes in Massachusetts and settle in Nevada. Born into wealth, a descendant of an old Yankee shipping family, he had been active in what those of his genteel background insist on calling "investments." Goodhue enjoyed successful investments, yet the biographical notes that he dashed off at five-year intervals for his Harvard Class of '35 alumni reports tended to focus self-effacingly on failures. On the class' 20th anniversary in 1955, for example, he reported that he had bought a clock factory and complained about "the 24-hour-a-day problem of keeping a struggling company struggling."

Shortly after penning those words Goodhue went to Nevada for a divorce. There he met Janice Duncan, a bright and personable woman who became the second Mrs. Goodhue four months later. He also discovered the rustic charms of Carson City. In 1960, his class' 25th anniversary, Goodhue noted that he was negotiating for "'a few acres of Nevada sagebrush." He and Janice ended up building a large contemporary house that crowned the tractless prairie west of Carson City like a terminal on an airfield. At the housewarming, his new neighbors gathered near Nathaniel Goodhue's swimming pool and cheered as he mounted the gravel roof and put up a Cape Cod weather vane.

Goodhue gets back to Massachusetts regularly for sailing, an old passion of his, but otherwise finds his amusement right there in Nevada. His life is an odd mixture of withdrawal—or what gerontologists call disengagement—and involvement. Much of his time is spent alone under a vast Western sky. He rides horses on a friend's cattle ranch, goes skiing in the Sierras, brandishes his trusty air gun at the pigeons that poke uninvited at his backyard bird feeder. His appreciation of solitude was sharpened when his two grown children and their sizable families visited for 10 days last Christmas. "The noise level got pretty high with all my grandchildren around," Goodhue recalls. During one 24-hour period, he locked himself inside his bedroom and Janice brought in his meals on a tray.

But Goodhue is no grizzled recluse. He has shown a taste for community affairs reminiscent of Lee Rasch's, serving not only as a volunteer fireman but as a member of the Carson City Library board. "I just feel I want to contribute something," he explains, a modest expression of public-spiritedness that nevertheless pleases his wife, who was an alternate delegate to the 1972 Democratic Convention. "Nathaniel wasn't an active citizen in the East," Janice Goodhue says. "Now he's an active citizen."

All this has made retirement a richer experience for Goodhue than it was for an earlier Nevada settler named Dominique Laxalt, a French-born Basque shepherd. Laxalt was patriarch of an extraordinary family—his children included a Nevada governor, an author and a prominent attorney—but kept so busy tending his flock in the mountains above Carson City that he saw even less of his family than Goodhue did the time he barricaded himself in the bedroom. Then Laxalt sold his sheep and came home to Carson City, a trauma that Robert Laxalt, the author's son, recounts in a poignant memoir, Sweet Promised Land.

"To keep busy, he chopped wood," Robert writes. "At every pretext, he escaped to the mountains to haul down dead tree trunks and limbs, stacking them in the backyard for sawing and splitting. After a few months, the yard looked like a lumber mill, and there was firewood stacked neatly in every conceivable corner of the house. Everywhere we turned, there was firewood. Little rooms that we had forgotten existed were jammed with it, and in order to walk through the alley one had to thread one's way warily through towering avenues of firewood." Laxalt built an elaborate corral and took to pacing the floor. Then, after learning of the death of another recently retired Basque shepherd, he sneaked out of the house one morning at dawn. Robert Laxalt writes: "He had gone back to the mountains to stay."

The work that Dominique Laxalt performed as a shepherd—riding horses, hunting and the rest—is, paradoxically, the same sort of activity that retirees like Nathaniel Goodhue now pursue as sport. This suggests that retirement itself can be an expression of the work ethic, which might help explain Goodhue's ambivalence on the subject as he finished his daily dip one afternoon in his swimming pool. It was midsummer, but shrunken patches of snow were still visible on the distant Sierras. For added inspiration, Latin rhythms issued from a poolside speaker. Toweling himself, Goodhue sat down and crinkled his eyes against the blazing sun.

"I don't miss business one single bit," he began, a confession that would not surprise discerning readers of the Class of '35's alumni reports. "In Nevada the pace is slower and the people mind their own business. There's no country club I feel I have to belong to." In the next breath, however, Goodhue was saying, "I'm busier here than I ever was. I don't even like the word 'retirement.' When you say you're retired, it sounds like you're doing nothing."

Nobody would have taken Nathaniel Goodhue for a slacker as he sped along the road to Reno in his Land Rover. Passing beneath the high country where Dominique Laxalt used to tend his sheep, Goodhue could see a curl of smoke on the horizon. He came to a housing development and pulled into a driveway. The other firemen had already arrived to find a homeowner illegally burning rubbish. A call sounded just then on the fire-department radio in Goodhue's Land Rover: "Ten-seventeen."

"That means it's under control," he shrugged.

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