Stumpy was 68 years old when we first met. He was old and slightly bow-legged. He had a crop of gray hair bulging out from under his hard-hat, a two or three day beard, almost pure white. Always, he had a bandanna tied around his neck. He was a little heavy, he had enjoyed many a good meal.
His hands were as big as any I’ve known. When you shook hands with him, your hand was in a machinist’s vice. He talked with a Dutch accent. He laughed a lot.
Stumpy was always on the move, walking like a man possessed.
A poster child for a bumble bee. Remember, he was 68 years old.
Stumpy was a Crane Operator. He spent twelve hours a day, operating a crane and shepherding his roustabouts on a ship’s deck halfway around the world.
Stumpy came from South Africa, good solid Dutch stock. His family had been down there for a hundred years already. He told me he had a wife and two grown sons back home.
“All I’ve ever done, my entire life, is work. My family had a small farm. That’s where I grew up. I like to work. Work is what keeps me alive.” he told me.
The last time I saw him, off the coast of South America, he was still working, still hustling his roustabouts and he was more than 72 years old. Still moving fast enough so the youngsters followed him, like baby ducks follow their mother.
“Stumpy,” I said, “I’m mad at you.”
“Why?” He asked.
“You are years older than me, most people shut it down when they reach 65 or so, and you’re still out here on the ocean, still putting in twelve hour days on the deck.”
He just laughed.
“I need to do something. If I stop, I’ll die. I’m not ready to die.” He rarely made a statement more than five or six words long. English was his second or third language. “You know, I own two farms back home. Big ones. We raise a thousand head of cattle and row crops. That’s where I spend my days off.”
I’m feeling lazy already. Speechless. I had been thinking about retiring early.
“I started with nothing. I was born in 1943, in South Africa. We didn’t have a thing. We farmed just to live. Now, I have two sons, they’ll get my farms when I’m gone. Life’s been good. I don’t know how to do anything but work. It’s good for me!”
He punctuated the last statement with another laugh. He kept on talking.
“I am thinking about slowing down. I’m thinking about quitting this crane operator’s job when I turn seventy-five. I’m getting too old to be out here on the water. Maybe I’ll buy me another farm.”
We had that last conversation nearly two years ago. I think about Stumpy a lot. He taught me about never slowing down. Never.
Wherever you are today Stumpy, my hat’s off to you.
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