On the drive back to Carson City, Goodhue was asked why he had become a volunteer fireman. "I've always liked fires," he replied, uncertainly. "Maybe I've never grown up." It was obvious, though, that Goodhue's arrangement with Warren Engine Company No. 1 was mutually satisfactory. During his visit to the fire station earlier that morning, Goodhue had chatted with Fire Chief Les Groth, whose praise for the retiree had flowed like water at a five-alarm blaze. The gist was that Goodhue, a volunteer, worked a lot harder than some of the department's regular firemen.
Bernard (Bing) Etzel was dashing through the Maine woods again, a canoe atop his car and a telephoto lens at the ready. The outing had begun at a swamp of dead cedar where Etzel was disappointed to find that a family of great blue heron had abandoned its nest. It would end eight hours later with a mile-long hike along a railroad embankment, where, as so often happens with bird photographers, the resident black terns and wood ducks proved only slightly less camera-shy than Howard Hughes.
The only respite along the way was a thirst-quenching stop at a roadside A&W Root Beer stand. But then, Bing Etzel was a mere 51, a wiry man who fairly seethed with energy behind horn-rimmed glasses that, together with a fine head of wavy hair, gave him a striking resemblance to Arthur Miller. Two years before, Etzel had surprised his neighbors in Farmington, Maine (pop. 5,400) by selling off his prospering women's wear store and real-estate holdings. Usually only military men or those unhappy on the job retire so young, but the aggressive Etzel had always seemed to thrive on 18-hour workdays.
Etzel himself has trouble explaining why he took to the woods, although he concedes he might not have done so had any of his three grown sons gone into business with him. "But they chose to make their own way," he says with equal parts of pride and regret. "They're slightly anti-Establishment." Etzel did not have any retirement plans beyond the vague goal of becoming a "naturalist." This is a word he utters reverently, saying, "If I could consider myself a naturalist, a real naturalist, I'd be prouder than I was making a lot of money."
Etzel had gardened as a hobby over the years, ringing his white hilltop house in Farmington with great beds of pink-and-white petunias and impatiens. The literature of retirement, rich in inspirational titles like How to Make the Best of the Rest of Your Life or Retirement: A Time to Live Anew, urges prospective retirees to develop just such hobbies. As these books point out, men typically spend years preparing for their careers only to approach retirement, which can last just as long, with a studied casual-ness. But Bing Etzel had no desire to fill his days with any more gardening than he was already doing. "There's such a thing as being overprepared," he says. "I needed a new challenge."
It was only after retiring, while attending Audubon Society slide shows, that Etzel hit upon the idea of becoming a bird photographer. He enrolled in an ornithology course given by the University of Maine at Farmington ("the other college kids and I were a world apart") and soon was tirelessly roaming the woods for 80 miles around, showing the same keen eye for birds that he once did for milady's fashions. "I can't do anything moderately," Etzel admits. "I was like that in work and I'm the same way photographing birds. I look at it as a job. If I miss a day, it's like missing work."
Not everybody puts the matter as bluntly as Bing Etzel, but the pattern by now is familiar: retirees often seem happiest when their leisure takes on the coloration of work. In theory, the golden years should be the occasion for something like pure leisure. Even the Lord rested on the seventh day, and it is consistent with the proper sequence of things that children are told, "Finish your work and then play." The older generation, however, views play not as something natural but as a reward painfully earned. Conditioned to believe that only hoboes and playboys refrain from work—the work ethic again—some older people engage in frenetic activity that hints at desperation as much as it does fulfillment, an example being retirees who hack joylessly around the golf course with what sociologist David Riesman calls "undiscerning ferocity."
The trick is to pursue activity free of compulsion or, harder still, avoid it free of guilt. Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard, says, "The problem of retirement is not how to keep busy, but how to learn to contemplate, to do nothing—to be rather than to do." But as their elders often complain, it is the young who seem most willing to do nothing. And being the Now Generation, they are not bashful about gratifying their impulses, which is something that a newly retired Bing Etzel suddenly appreciated when, having decided to photograph birds, he went shopping for a suitable camera.
Etzel spoke of the revelation as he drove along a twisting road west of Farmington during his busy day in the woods. "The camera I wanted cost a hell of a lot of money," he said, still pained by the memory. "I almost didn't buy it. But then I remembered that Alan, my oldest boy, owned the identical camera. He'd bought his five years before. And where do you think the money came from? From my pocket. And here I was feeling guilty.
"We can learn a lot from these kids. My generation used to think Vietnam was right and that we were the world's policemen, but they made us realize otherwise. They can teach us something about enjoying life, too. They say money isn't everything and that you shouldn't just work all the time. And they're right." He gave the car gas. "I bought that damn camera without giving it another thought."