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Flocking south with the snowbirds
by Gene Owens

For the past five years, Iíve been carrying on a bantering relationship with a gregarious bunch of birds that fly South every winter from points ranging from the Dakotas to New England, and upward into Canada.

They call themselves snowbirds, and every year when winter turns unreasonable, they seek balmier climes along the Gulf Coast of the United States. They hole up in condos, cottages and second homes bought with funds stashed away for retirement. They speak with Northern or Midwestern accents, but generally blend well with the Southerners who inhabit the sliver of coastline known thereabouts as the Redneck Riviera.

While theyíre in Lower Alabama, they read the Mobile Register, the newspaper from which I retired last August.

The Register annually puts on a ďSnowbird Reception,Ē replete with silly contests, music and dancing. Five years ago, I was called upon to address these Yankee expatriates to acquaint them with the more positive aspects of Southern culture, including its superiority to Northern culture. They took it well, and I now have a year-round audience of Frost Belters who manage to find my work on the Internet and communicate with me by e-mail. And I have an annual gig at Gulf Shores State Park, where I can play the redneck to the hilt.

So it was Old Home Week for me when I returned to speak to an audience of around 1,500 people, divided into three shifts because the facilities at Gulf Shores State Park werenít big enough to hold them all at once.

I was greeted as a fellow snowbird, despite the fact that my year-round home is in the Carolinas, not the Dakotas.

As I explained to them, it snows pretty regularly in the Carolina Piedmont -- about every other year. Old-timers tell about the blizzard a few years back when the snow was so deep it almost covered the grass blades (we donít mow that often in my neighborhood).

It was my first time to address the snowbirds as a retiree myself, and to reflect on the retireeís life, now that Iíve had five months' experience at it.

During the late 1960s, I worked in public relations for Springs Mills Inc., the textile giant that then had about 20 manufacturing plants in both Carolinas.

I often went into the mills interviewing old hands who had gone to work before the child-labor laws. Some of them were retiring with more than 50 years of service.

Many of them dreamed of sitting in rocking chairs, tending their bait beds and fishing every day of the week.

I donít think I could take that much relaxation. I was told once that the human body needs a certain amount of stress to keep going. If thereís no stress to contend with, the body concludes that thereís nothing to do, so it shuts down and soon youíre relaxing in a vault.

So when I left full-time employment, I kept my computer and my Internet connection. I used to get up each morning, drive to work, climb 57 stairs to the third floor, loosen my tie on the way up, and commute back and forth between my desk and the vending machines amid a constant clamor of ringing telephones and clacking keyboards.

Now I get up each morning, make coffee, and walk the dog around the neighborhood. That done, I get back into my pajamas, have a cup of coffee while the dog munches her Begging Strip, read the local newspaper, then step into my office and work until itís time for a siesta. We have no vending machines in the house. As a result, Iíve lost 10 or 15 pounds and still enjoy beer and popcorn in the evening.

My main problem is remembering when to shave and shower. Miss Peggy says retirement brings out the animal in me: Some days Iím a porcupine; some days Iím a pole cat.

Computers arenít the only things that keep my stress at a healthy level. There are the mice who have invaded our condo despite my attempts at evicting them humanely. Thereís the health-insurance puzzle: Why is Medicare divided into Plan A and Plan B, and why do I have to wait until July to get Plan B coverage just because I forgot to apply for it in January 2003, when I was comfortably covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield? (A man from Mutual of Omaha just explained the details this morning, and walked out with a check for a policy that will start picking up what Medicare drops as soon as Plan B kicks in.)

Miss Peggy took to retirement as readily as the mice took to our condo. We left a married daughter in Mobile, but Mom and daughter found a way to shrink the distance. Each of us has a flat-rate long-distance telephone plan. Miss Peggy and Cherie get together most evenings on the telephone and play gin rummy via computer.

We planned an office for me and a studio for her, so that she could pursue her hobby of painting. We now refer to her studio as ďthe junk room,Ē and she does her painting in the comfort of the den. While I was hobnobbing with snowbirds, she sold her first painting -- a magnolia blossom done in oils.

If the artistic career of Grandma Peggy takes off, I may turn my office into a bait bed and take up full-time fishing. I know a few fellow snowbirds who will show me how to cut a hole in the ice during the winter. But first Iíve got to make sure that Medicare Plan B has me covered in case the ice cracks.

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Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.

As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers last year named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.

He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEWís national quarterly. He recently went into semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.


Read more of Gene's entertaining columns:
A Tribute to Johnny Cash
Sic the goats on your kudzu
Roy Moore at the Courthouse Door
All about Gene and Greasepit Grammar
Greasepit Grammar: Misplaced modifiers
Greasepit Grammar: Inertia can get you
Greasepit Grammar: Drinking and dranking
The Wal-Mart Paradox
Taking a week off from retirement to do nothing
Insulation reduces mouse mortality rate

Write Gene Owens at 1004 Cobbs Glen Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at genepegg@bellsouth.net

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