Happy Birthday to Me – Tom Margenau

I’m submitting this column to the newspapers on my birthday. I was born June 22, 1949. That makes me 73 years old. And I’m kind of surprised I made it this far. Why? Because I didn’t inherit the best of genes. My dad died at the age of 47. He had six brothers. And of those six uncles of mine, only one of them lived past the age of 60. So again, I was thrown into the shallow end of the longevity gene pool.

Of course, the reason I’m still here has as much to do with lifestyle choices as it does with genes. My dad smoked heavily all his life, and he drank more than a little. I never once saw my dad take a hike or a bike ride or do any kind of physical activity — other than his job. (He was a janitor at a church and school complex.) On the other hand, I’ve never had a cigarette, I drink just an occasional glass of wine, and my wife and I try to take a bike ride every day.

So anyway, here I am still kicking at 73. And before I end this column, I’ll tie this into something to do with Social Security. But it being birthday number 73, I’m in a bit of a nostalgic mood, and I want to share a couple stories with you.

I mentioned that I never saw my dad (and my mom, too, for that matter) do any kind of physical activity, except for their jobs — and of course, chores around the house. But that’s not to say they never did anything. My dad served in World War II in the Army Air Corps as an airplane mechanic on various islands in the Pacific, getting B-24s and B-25s ready for their bombing runs. And my mom was the number one player on her high school tennis team. So, they had active lives before jobs and kids and bills and mortgages got in the way.

Speaking of jobs. I mentioned my dad was a janitor, and some people might say he was “just” a janitor. But I remember as a kid thinking he was about the most important person in the world. He was the custodian at the Catholic church and school that we attended in Sheboygan, Wisconsin — Saints Cyril and Methodius. After the parish priest and the nuns, he was just about the most respected and admired and crucial member of the church/school community. And as his oldest son, and helpmate, I wasn’t far behind.

So, because of my dad’s status, I was a “BBOC” (big boy on campus) within our elementary school. And my BBOC status had a lot to do with keys! Yes, keys! Let me explain. My dad had a keyholder gadget attached to his belt. I bet there were 50 keys attached to that key holder that would get him into just about any room in the whole complex. And as the No. 1 son and assistant custodian, I had a duplicate set of keys. And that really impressed my 1st through 8th grade classmates. I mean, if you wanted to get into the locked teacher’s lounge after hours to see what treasures were hidden there, you could come see me. If you wanted to sneak into the usher’s office in the church to search for lost collection-basket quarters on the floor, I could get you in. And if you were a nasty little boy and wanted to see what mysteries were behind the doors of the girls’ bathroom, I had a key. Gosh, I relished those days as the janitor’s son and the kid with the keys!

Adding to our status was the fact that we lived on the grounds of the church/school complex. The church had built a new convent for the nuns, and they let my dad and his family move into the old convent. How many kids grew up in a house that had a painted relief of the last supper etched into one of the walls of the dining room? And how many kids had a rec room that was a former chapel, complete with an altar that we used as a play table?
I think I shared a story in a past column about the new convent they built for our school and parish nuns. It came complete with a swimming pool, which was something I could never figure out as a kid. I mean, why in the world did nuns need a swimming pool? They certainly could never use it. Gosh, if they jumped in, they would get those big, black head-to-toe habits all wet, wouldn’t they?

Well, one day, my brother and I were determined to solve this mystery. We were helping my dad by cutting the grass around the nun’s convent. There was a big, high fence surrounding the backyard swimming pool. But I found a tiny hole in one of the wooden slats of the fence. We peered through. And, my goodness, there were Sister Rose and Sister Irma sitting at the pool, in swimsuits! To be sure, they were extremely modest (and black) swimsuits. But still, they were swimsuits! And these were our 2nd and 5th grade teacher nuns wearing not much at all! OMG! They had hair! They had legs! And most shocking of all — they had breasts! We couldn’t believe our eyes. These heavenly creatures that we had grown up believing were only one level below angels turned out to be just women! My brother and I couldn’t wait to share this news with our classmates. I’m surprised we didn’t start a rebellion of disillusioned little Catholic boys and girls!

One more quick story. Earlier, I mentioned I had the key to the girls’ bathroom. It actually was the key to a janitor’s closet that was within the bathroom. Well, one day after school, I was helping my dad by cleaning the bathroom. While doing so, I heard the unmistakable sound of a nun approaching. (They wore rosary beads around their waist that made a distinctive jingle as they walked.) What I should have done is say, “Excuse me sister, I was cleaning in here. Let me leave and give you some privacy.”

But instead, I panicked. I slipped into the janitor’s closet and closed the door. I was just barely breathing! I heard the nun enter one of the stalls and proceed to do what people do in there. And once again, little 10-year-old me was shocked! I just didn’t think that angels/nuns did those kinds of things! The nun finished her “business” and left. But I don’t think I came out of that closet for an hour afterward. I was so traumatized! Combine that incident with my swimming pool discovery, and I’m surprised I didn’t try to report my findings to the Pope!

OK. Back to me and Social Security. I just turned 73. And my wife is 78. (I still can’t believe I married an older woman 48 years ago!) Anyway, we’ve now reached the turnaround point in our Social Security lives. I mentioned before that we both bucked tradition and the advice of financial planners and took our Social Security benefits at age 62. So, for many years, we’ve been living on the gravy train of early benefits. But now we’ve reached the times where we might have been ahead to wait until a later age to start our benefits. In other words, we’re now starting to be on the losing end of the Social Security gamble (of when to start your benefits). But you know what? We don’t care. We’ve had fun for the past decade or more spending our reduced Social Security benefits. And we’ll continue to have fun spending those benefits for whatever time we have left on this earth — and before I face eternal damnation for sneaking a peek at those nuns in swimsuits!

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1 thought on “Happy Birthday to Me – Tom Margenau”

  1. Happy Belated Birthday, Tom. I feel a kinship with you as it seems we’ve had parallel lives. I turned 72 in May. My dad was a WWII veteran in the South Pacific. My wife is three years older than me and we celebrated our 48th anniversary in May. I went to 12 years of Catholic School. At St. Jerome Elementary school in LA by the LA Airport, we had two well respected janitors, John and Peter, (not the Apostles). Our teachers were Sisters of St. Joseph who wore the black habit with the rosary beads around the waist, so I knew exactly what you meant when you heard the good sister coming down the hall. At the time we considered the nuns as adversaries, but as I matured, I only have gratitude for the fine education and morality they instilled in us. Keep up the great writing.

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