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A Bush in Hand Raises Thoughts About Life

November 12, 1987|Joseph N. Bell

The other night--for reasons too convoluted to try to piece together here--I got curious about the name of one of the men in my Navy Flight Training Squadron 40-something years ago. So I got out my Slipstream, which is the Navy's version of the high school yearbook, and looked him up.

I found the information I wanted, but I found something else, too, that startled me. On the facing page, in the class after mine, is a picture of Ensign George H. Bush, Greenwich, Conn. I knew vaguely that he had been a Navy pilot, but I had no idea that for more than a year we had apparently shared the same training facilities. Hell, we might even have tipped a beer together in the cadet mess.

All of this is little more than a curiosity--especially since George's political views and mine are several light years apart--except for one thing: George is one of the few contemporaries of mine whose career might still be on the upswing.

One of the toughest lessons that age brings is the disappearance of your contemporaries from the work scene, especially at a time when you know they are certainly as good as--and probably a lot better than--they have ever been.

I was in the magazine writing business, but I suspect this same evolution holds for every field. When I first broke in, I was working with young assistant editors about my own age. As I got older and better, so did they. They also moved up in their various organizations so by mid-life they were in positions of authority--editors, managing editors, even a few publishers.

Then a few years ago, they started to disappear. The nature of the business changed. New owners came along. Younger people began pushing from below.

It's a painful process, and one that leads to a scene I must have played out several dozen times over the past decade.

I would call one of my editor friends to pitch an idea. His secretary would answer the phone in a strange, tight voice.

"Can I speak to Ray?"

"He isn't here any longer."

"Say what?"

"He's left the magazine."

"What do you mean, left? I talked to him last week."

"Well, he resigned rather suddenly."

I would ask to speak to one of his associates who would give me some guarded, frightened explanations that made little sense. Then in a few days, I would get a letter or a phone call from the "resigned" editor, usually angry and embittered at the palace revolution that cost him his job.

The worst instance I can recall was the dismissal of a good friend who was managing editor of a large national magazine published in New York. When I got the "he's no longer here" treatment, I called a mutual friend--the editor of another magazine--to find out what had happened.

It seemed that the magazine for whom our friend--we'll call him George--worked had been sold to a group backed by Arab oil money. The new owners had assured George that he was indispensable, and on that basis, he had committed himself to some heavy expenses. A month later, the publisher called George in and fired him. George was 62 and was regarded by writers who knew him as one of the best professionals around.

George flipped out. He stormed back to his office and barricaded himself inside, piling furniture against the door. He finally had to be removed forcibly by security guards--and this agonized act has apparently made him unemployable ever since.

Now admittedly this is an excessive case. George was in a cutthroat business and probably should have been better prepared emotionally for what happened. But when we reach our 60s, our work defenses tend to be down. We know our skills, and we know the level to which we've honed them. We've paid our dues many times over and have the wistful feeling our associates know and respect this. We don't want to coast. We're full of strength and energy, but we would like to apply it to activities that make use of the experience and whatever wisdom we feel we've accumulated. And so often, we never have that opportunity.

What does all this have to do with George Bush?

Well, George is turning this process around. At the age of 64, he's going after a better job. Maybe politics is one of the few employment categories in which age--at least up to a point--becomes an asset instead of a liability.

On that count, at least, I wish him well. I just hope he doesn't make too many analogies in campaign speeches about squadron leaders and wing-men and that sort of thing. Some of us were there, George. We even have our pictures in the same book.

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