I call them the October Years....a special time of life when sixty and seventy describe us….when our priorities are changing, and so are we. When it seems that tried and trusted answers, the ones that have always served us well, may no longer apply.
Some of us will be surprised to learn that adolescent dreams, the ones we were so sure we had outgrown, still have a hold on us. Others will realize that long-held assumptions about their own October Years must be revised.
Those October Years are the ground I till in The Tanner Chronicles, stories set in Tanner, Oregon, the ones that shine a light on a particular slice of Tanner’s population....those who have reached their October or November years. (I refuse to let ‘December’ describe me.) Stories such as Going Poor.
It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially for a dreamer like him. Lane Tipton was old and tired....a survivor of extended unemployment, charity handouts, and scruffy homeless camps. With so few prospects, it seemed he was going nowhere fast.
Though he hoped for something better, it appeared that any future worth living, any chance for the companionship he longed for, would depend on his own dreams and determination. Where would he find those on the road to Going Poor?
“Man. I can’t believe you’re even thinking about doing that. You, of all people.”
Digger Ryan pushed the empty popcorn bowl toward the bar girl, nodding for a refill. Then, draining his beer, he returned to his critique.
“Don’t you remember how you got all over Tyler? You called him every name in the book. Hell, he damn neared cried when you told him that was something no honorable man would ever do. Do you remember that?”
“Come on, Digger. This is different.”
“Of course it is. This time it’s about you. That’s what’s different.”
Of course Lane Tipton recalled his scolding rebuke of Tyler Warren. He remembered telling his friend that he was settling for the "easy way out." Though he preferred not to be reminded of his accusing tirade, that alone was not enough to change his very personal truth.
“I hear what you’re saying,” he admitted. “But there’s nothing else I can do. The unemployment benefits ran out weeks ago. They repossessed my pickup. There’s not a job anywhere in sight. And there’s no way in hell I’ll ever make a dent in the past-due alimony.
“I thought maybe I could pull it off, until yesterday. I tried to use my credit card at the bank to get some cash. They looked it up on their computer and turned me down flat. Said I’d gone over the limit.
“The gal said if I’d pay them five hundred dollars, and sign some kind of loan thing, they’d give me the card back....with a three hundred dollar limit. Otherwise it would be ‘decommissioned.’ So that’s what they did. How the hell can a guy get by when his credit card has been ‘decommissioned’?
“Anyway, Baddendorf, the lawyer guy, says he’ll file the bankruptcy papers for two hundred bucks. He called it a ‘short form’ process. That means there’s nothing for the creditors to divide up....at least not after I pay him my last two hundred bucks. I had to pawn the rifle my dad left me to raise that. He tells me that in a month or two I’ll be out from under everything. I’ll be broke as hell....but free and clear.”
Recollections of that sad drama, played out months before in a dingy Medford tavern, were still fresh in Lane Tipton’s mind. Thinking back, he was inclined to view those few minutes with Digger Ryan as the culmination of his first lifetime.
Those first sixty-one years had seen their share of well-remembered high points. But too often the good times had been overwhelmed by reoccurring struggles. By then he understood that any dreams of something better....perhaps a second lifetime....must be assigned to the future, to what he hopefully referred to as his ‘new life.’
The circuitous, sometimes-bumpy trek leading to that Medford barstool had begun forty-two years earlier when, as a Tanner Southside High School graduate....class of 1969....Lane was off to Oregon State College to pursue a degree in a subject yet to be determined.
Truth to tell, in those less-demanding times a college diploma was still considered something of an “optional detour” for the likes of him, the ones who were eager to get on with life.
In his case, after a year of college....a year of good times and bad studies....he simply stopped pretending. Jobs were a dime a dozen, or so it seemed. Good-paying jobs, the kind that would fund a continuation of his upbeat lifestyle, were not so hard to find.
Well before his twenty-first birthday young Mr. Tipton had learned there was always a demand for energetic, smooth-talking young salesmen. In those days, before they called it 'Marketing,' a proven sales record was a passport to opportunity.
It was one of those opportunities that produced his first job, based in Medford, selling building products across a sprawling sales territory that would in time come to include southern Oregon and northern California.
His youthful success would lead to a liberal expense-account lifestyle, complete with business lunches and company-paid bar bills. As long as he met his sales quotas the ‘cost-of-doing-business’ was seldom questioned.
Lane had been twenty-four when a long weekend that began in Redding, after Marie Compton's Friday-night bartending shift, ended in a Reno marriage chapel. By the time he sobered up enough to realize what had happened he was a married man. Back in Medford, the couple settled into his apartment and within a year celebrated the arrival of daughter Kathy.
To the casual observer it might have appeared that a new Lane Tipton had emerged....a traveling salesman with a family and reasons to be home more often.
There was, however, a fundamental flaw in that logic....a mathematic reality that could not be denied. For years Marie had earned her way in life serving an unruly, often-demanding tavern clientele. Night after night she had faced the male of species in his most unfettered behavior.
But in her new incarnation as a wife and mother she was ready to put all that behind her. She would be a stay-at-home mother. Her husband's income would certainly allow for that.
And perhaps it did. But in time, as son Eric joined the family and Marie’s spending habits grew increasingly extravagant, it became harder for that paycheck to cover everything.
As the credit card balances mounted, Lane responded by spending more time on the road, doing his best to squeeze more commissions from his most profitable accounts....the ones in Red Bluff, Redding, all the way to Sacramento. That in turn meant more nights on the road, and less time at home with his family. He resented that. Marie resented that. Finally they came to resent each other.
Just over seven years after their impulsive Reno weekend, Lane moved out. By then both he and Marie were grateful for a break in the hostilities.
When the divorce was final he had traded Marie’s spending sprees for monthly alimony and child support obligations. Since she had vowed never to remarry or return to work it seemed he might be living with those payments forever.
Yet he could still remember the welcome return of his freedom, the opportunity to be on his own again....at least until a new reality set in. Single life, the second time around, would be a distinctly different experience, one that would always include the daunting need to play financial catch-up.
There was a mountain of debt to pay off, alimony and child-support payments to make, and awkward every-other-Sunday afternoons spent with Kathy and Eric.
To deal with those burdensome realities Lane had taken on additional responsibilities as Regional Sales Manager, while maintaining contact with his own established customers. Life in the single lane had taken on a new look. Rather than exhilarating freedom, he had found it hectic, harried, and very lonely.
Four years of ‘hectic and harried’ had proved doable. By then, however, Lane had reached his ‘lonely’ limit.
Enter Suzanne....a few years younger than him, with a thirteen year old daughter. The lady was everything he wanted....nice to look at, caring, and affectionate. That time the wedding was a Lake Tahoe affair....a long weekend filled with the knowing he had found the right one, the settled relationship he longed for.
Sadly, by the time the newlyweds returned to Medford he was learning something else about his new bride. How had he managed to overlook the pathological jealousy that obsessed her? Not only did she suspect every female who looked at ‘her’ man, she also harbored serious doubts about his willingness to fend off what she saw as their bold advances.
It was a recipe for disaster. A husband who spent two or three nights a week on the road to earn his handsome paycheck, and a hyper-possessive wife who suspected the worst when a super-market check-out girl looked his way. That situation could not last, and it did not.
At least one thing, however, had not changed. The county judge who weighed Lane’s substantial income against the perceived cost of Suzanne supporting herself and her daughter, awarded her a liberal monthly stipend.
Just six months after their Lake Tahoe weekend, Lane had inherited a second round of alimony and child-support payments....and a permanently soured view of matrimony. He was thirty-seven years old, supporting two ex-wives and two children. His dreams of financial success had been replaced by hopes of simply staying afloat.
It would take nearly ten years of hard work and spartan living for Lane to right his financial ship. The imposing mountain of credit-card debt was finally worked off. Although the nagging alimony obligations remained, in time the child-support requirements ended. Sadly, by then he had effectively lost all contact with Kathy and Eric.
Then, just when the Tipton savings account was beginning to grow again, an ill-fated investment in a friend’s Mexican restaurant went sour as fast as the business itself. In a matter of six months his savings account was again a thing of the past.
By then he was approaching fifty and still dealing with hard times. There was nothing to do but start over. But it would be harder that time.
The company had been bought out. Lane’s Regional Manager role had been handed off to a gray-suit MBA, a so-called 'Marketing Expert,' who set about downsizing sales territories in the interest of reducing travel costs. The northern California accounts that Lane had cultivated for so long were handed over to an eager young newcomer, fresh out of college.
It was one afternoon during that harsh time when Digger Ryan tipped his beer toward Lane and explained, “Times are changing, friend. Seems like the gravy train just pulled out of the station....and near as I can tell, it left without us.”
There was truth in Digger's observation. Sales were getting harder to come by. The prime territories were being given to younger recruits, ones with fancy degrees and attitudes to match.
It was a new world. Ethereal statistics and power-point presentations were replacing after-hours schmoozing with old-line purchasing managers. The sales game was changing, turning away from Lane Tipton, leaving him behind.
To a person, his friends knew him to be hard working and dedicated. A few of them were aware that he had spent most of his adult life digging himself out of one financial hole after another. Some of those holes he had dug himself. Others had arrived with the choices he had made.
Still, those who knew him best admired his ability to see beyond his immediate troubles to the hopeful possibilities that were bound to lay ahead. In spite of his trials, they knew him to be a dreamer, the sort who believed in hard work and happy endings.
His hard work, however, had not been enough to deflect the final insult....the dreaded letter, formal and notarized, announcing something less than a happy ending.
It was the week before his fifty-eighth birthday when, citing what it called "the harsh business environment," headquarters had decided that the remaining elements of the already gutted Building Products Division would be ‘phased out.’ Lane Tipton’s services would no longer be required.
He remembered setting the brief, businesslike notice aside, trying to absorb its meaning. No matter what spin he tried to give it, the same sad truth emerged. He was on his own, buoyed by nothing more than an anemic savings account, two weeks severance pay, and what in the end would be fifty-two weeks of unemployment benefits.
He spent most of that time looking for a sales job....a suitable home for an aging veteran who could sell most anything to anyone.
There had been moments of hope, as befitted a dreamer. but in time he was willing to accept anything that offered a day’s pay. In the harsh economic times following what was being called "The Great Recession," it seemed that no one was willing to throw a lifeline to an old and tired peddler.
So it was that two weeks after the last unemployment check had been deposited in his account Digger Ryan listened as Lane Tipton spelled out his newly-formulated bankruptcy plans. He had scarcely finished his explanation when Digger was taking exception.
“Man. I still can’t believe you’re talking like that. I never though I’d hear that from you.”
“Come on, Digger. There’s no other way out. If I don’t do the bankruptcy thing I’ll be buried alive by all that stuff. It’s the only way.
Digger too would remember that moment, when for the first time he could remember it seemed that Lane Tipton had run out of dreams. With no silver lining in sight, it appeared his friend had lost his ‘dreamer’ spark.