Me Thinks It Was Called “Life”
A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To The American Dream
BY JERRY HUFFMAN
I grew up with two dads. Or more accurately, two conflicting images of what a dad should be. First, there was the image of Ward Cleaver on Leave It To Beaver, the generation defining, if fictional television account, of the American Dream. Ward wore a suit every day. My real dad, and I say this with love, was a factory guy.
Ward worked hard. Dad worked hard. Ward golfed on the weekends. Dad, even when he was exhausted, would usually play catch after dinner. He did the best he could, bless his heart, (as did my mom) but paying the bills came first. When I had the chance in 1984 to take a job in Europe, Dad pushed me to go. He was wise enough to know the life experience would mean more down the road than I could imagine then.
When I was 30, I was working as a radio news anchor for an overseas network. From there, I thought, it would be a short jump back to American television as a foreign correspondent. Foreign correspondent in my 30s? That would have been a big time, American Dream.
Yeah, but that didn’t happen. Life did.
When I was 40, the suits at a FOX O&O, (TV lingo for a station that’s owned and operated by the network) where I worked for three years as a segment producer, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “…times are tough, even for Rupert.” In a blink, I was sitting on the curb with my career in three boxes next to me. The world felt particularly cold that November.
In my 50s, I started over as a freelance publicist and I enjoyed the vibe of working with talented, energetic, and younger people. I found myself getting more excited helping a rookie writer score her first column than seeing my own name on the byline. Then I had to deal with, and overcome, my first-ever serious health crisis. The Dream had gotten bumpy, but eventually evolved for the better.
Now, I’m 100-some days from turning 60 and the economic ice under the feet feels thin. I’ve watched some people, including my better half, punch their retirement tickets. Most seem happier. Some seem panicked. The smart ones are thinking about an encore career – that newly-defined life stage when Baby Boomers have the energy, and hopefully the money, to do something that truly matters other than worrying about news ratings and the “value” of PR strategies.
When I look five years and 100 days down the road, I’m still not convinced retirement is in my future. The 401k numbers are there, but modest. Social Security seems more like an afterthought than a lifeline. I still enjoy working in PR, but trying to get today’s cub reporters interested in a story, whose parents are likely younger than me, leaves me cold.
Before dismissing me as a Johnny-come-curmudgeon, know that I consider myself extraordinarily lucky. I’m blessed in so many ways I’ve lost count. Married to a wonderful woman who for 28 years has pushed me to make being happy a priority.
Life, until I got dumped by FOX, had been fairly easy. Getting “not renewed,” as it was called back then, devastated me. In the end, it turned out to be the greatest break of my career. It eventually put my wife and I on the road teaching journalism across Kazakhstan and Central Asia. It also led to bringing a young Uzbek man home with us for a few years to finish his education, which changed our lives as much as it did his. We traded a perfectly planned future for a chance to be later-in-life parents of a teenager.
Life did work out, but losing a job changes you forever. Twenty years later, the memory of getting not renewed still gives me flop sweats. Once you’ve been tapped on the shoulder, you do everything you can to make sure it never happens again. God help you, if you’re in your mid-50s and the accountants come looking for you. I still speak up at work but I never want to come home and tell my wife I’ve lost another job.
To use the overused golf metaphor, I’m on life’s back nine. I still can’t imagine retiring, but to quote a favorite teacher, “one day, some day.” I pray hard my own encore career won’t involve asking, “Do you want fries with that?” But if I can still wake up feeling happy most mornings, the world’s longest winning streak will continue.
Ward Cleaver was a scriptwriter’s fantasy. My dad was my real world role model. Flaws and all, he worked hard up until a few weeks before he died, loved his family, and every time life knocked him down he got back up. I’m so grateful I learned the value of that life lesson before it was too late.
The mistake I made was buying into the media crap that an American Dream had to be bright and shiny to be real. Our American Dream, the one my wife and I share, now looks nothing like Ward Cleaver’s–it ain’t even close. Our version is dented, a little rusty on the edges, and could use some polish. But even with its dings it sits on the mantle next to his and hers Emmy awards for our TV news accomplishments, and photos of our days as globetrotters.
The American Dream we pursued didn’t actually change, even when it was out of reach. What changed is how we defined ourselves—and the Dream, dents and all, followed.
Jerry Huffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
When Jerry Huffman was 14 he realized there was little chance he would ever replace Sandy Koufax in the Dodger’s pitching rotation. Instead, he landed on a career in journalism. He’s covered stories in so many countries he’s lost count, and once got locked up in Tajikistan for refusing to pay a bribe. Since 2011, he’s been running Go2GuyCommunications. Jerry, his wife Carol Larson, and their two cats, TK and Bando, live in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
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