For a few brief moments while working patrol one night back in the 1970s, I thought I’d been shot in the chest. Fortunately, I was wrong. Let me explain. Prior to my “shooting,” I’d been eating dinner at a local restaurant. The meal included french fries and ketchup. While still at the table, I received a radio call to contact a citizen. I quickly scooped up my last fry and was off to “see the woman.”
I drove to the location and walked up to the front door. When I knocked, the porch light came on and a middle-age woman opened the door. Her face rapidly went from a calm demeanor to that of shock and fright. This was followed by the words, “Oh my god! Have you been shot?”
Her pupils were about as big as small pizzas, and her gaze was locked on my uniform shirt. Looking down, I now saw a bright red glob of what looked like fresh arterial blood. We all know the power of suggestion and how the mind can play tricks on you, so again, for a split second, I thought that I’d indeed been shot.
I responded to the woman’s observation with a less-than-macho, “Have I?” I couldn’t process yet how it had happened, but by then my mind was swimming. I finally realized that the “blood” was a gob of ketchup attached to one of my shirt buttons.
Before I realized this, one of the things that went racing at warp speed through my mind was that I wouldn’t live to enjoy my retirement. Luckily, I did, and I’d like to share some relevant thoughts.
The No. 1 piece of advice I can give you is to choose your life partner wisely, with an eye toward the long term. Pick a spouse not only on looks and personality, but on the ability to look at goals beyond the here and now. Understand, too, that your retirement will be a major event in their life as well. One cop I knew built a dream house on the Colorado River for himself and his domestic watch commander. Not too long after, they divorced, and he ended up living in a condo in Cleveland. I don’t want anything like this to happen to you.
Clearly, retirement is one of those goals that requires preparation. Having a good life partner to help realize and share in this is important. Some cops don’t recognize this, and, in my younger days, I was living proof of that. I got too wrapped up in being on the streets and destroyed my first marriage in the process. (R.K.’s interpersonal relations advice column ends here.)
Although your spouse may be your best friend, I’d also suggest you stay in touch with other people you’ve grown close to during your career and/or find new friends. The opportunity to meet with some fellow cops and tell huge lies about how great we were is something I look forward to. It adds such an enhanced texture to my retirement, and it will do the same for you.
Get Ready ’cause Here It Comes
As early as possible in your career, you must get some sound advice and embark on a savings and/or investment program that’s within your means. Even if your job includes a solid retirement plan, develop additional, independent options to support you in your golden years. You can’t stop the years, but you can prepare for them.
What worked for my wife and I after we bought our house was getting our foot in the door with rental properties. We followed up with our own modest monopoly-for-real program as we progressed, but made sure we stayed within our financial capabilities. Add to that the important aspect of raising your kids right and I realize that what I’m proposing is a challenge, if not an outright impossibility for some. But your retirement preparation must be based on finding the right balance without overextending your finances. (We all know what’s happening to too many good folks throughout our nation who got themselves into serious trouble along these lines.) You may also want to look at investing in long-term medical and retirement care for your later days.
Like a lot of issues in police work, mindset is another aspect that’s appropriate to consider. In one sense, this boils down to adjusting your outlook for the big changes that will come when you “pull the pin.” Do this before you retire rather than trying to do so afterward—or worse, not at all. I worked with a sergeant who was a tremendous street cop and absolutely loved the job, even though he’d put in more than 30 years. He ended up retiring when he thought he should rather than when he wanted to. His positive attitude deteriorated because he had moved out of his element too quickly, without being fully prepared for this big life change. Knowing in your heart and your head that it’s time to go is key. I’ve seen cops hanging on to their jobs for far too long because they have no life outside of work. They didn’t prepare for that next step in life.
I really recommend that you find something—anything—that keeps you busy, that gets you involved in activities that are right for you. Those of you who know me are aware of the fact that although I “retired” in one sense, I haven’t really done so completely. I’m not ready for that and so I plug along doing things I truly enjoy, such as teaching and writing.
In the same context, if you like firearms, here’s a piece of advice for you: Shoot one of your guns at least once every two weeks and slowly breathe in the wonderful aroma of burning gunpowder. I got this (and some other advice incorporated into this piece) from a guy named Al LaMons, who sent it out on the eve of a friend’s retirement.
Also, stay healthy. Exercise both your mind and body on a daily basis.
Eventually we’re all going to permanently depart this place for our everlasting horizontal destinies. (Are you shocked I’m bringing this up? I can assure you that you’re not going to miss out on it, so why not face it like you did so many other challenges in your career?) One suggestion is to make the necessary plans in advance so someone in your family doesn’t have to.
Some years back I put down good money for the place where I want to lay around waiting for eternity to end. When this happens to you, I guarantee you won’t be able to watch how they handle things or what they do with you, so if you want to go out in a specific manner, take care of it yourself. If you want to take this a step further, make up a folder with your instructions and preparations in it. Make sure it’s easy to find, especially if you end up living on your own. Clearly, this isn’t for your benefit. More than a few times in my career I’ve had to babysit the dead longer than I wanted, while hoping the relatives could be located or the coroner would get there to take over. But I also had to deal with other instances where we found that folder with the words “funeral plans” written on it. I silently thanked those individuals who had passed on for their thoughtfulness. Pay it forward to your family or even a fellow cop who may someday thank you for your thoughtfulness and maturity.
I hope all of you who serve honestly and honorably as law enforcement professionals enjoy a wonderful retirement. As a cop who worried I’d never reach that day—while looking at an embarrassingly big gob of ketchup “blood” on my chest—I can’t stress how important it should be to you. I also hope you take steps now, regardless of your age or how much time is left before you “punch out,” to ensure your post-career plan is as full and complete as possible. You deserve it.