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For him, 55's a milestone on a pleasant stretch of road

[Times photo: Jill Sagers ]
Jim Thomas, 55, and wife Linda Thomas, 53, rent an apartment for half the year on Indian Rocks Beach.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2001

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH -- Jim Thomas made sure no one could throw him a surprise party when he turned 50 in 1996.

"Let's just say I made myself scarce. I felt terrible. I sounded old."

When he turned 55 last month, it felt like cause to celebrate. He had met his longtime goal of retiring by age 55 and spending as much time as he could in the warm embrace of a Florida winter.

"Now, it's time to play," Thomas says. He is sitting in the living room of his rented apartment, framed by swaying palm fronds outside the window. The sound of the Gulf of Mexico mixes with rock 'n' roll on the radio.

Thomas retired in 1999 after 30 years as an electrical engineer in Kokomo, Ind. He worked for a company now called Delphi Delco Electronics Systems, better known for decades as the division of General Motors that made A/C Delco parts.

"I never thought I'd make it past 10 years, much less 20 or 30 years," Thomas says. "But I always knew I wanted to retire young."

In many ways, Thomas is the prototype of the oldest baby boomers. He was born not long after the new year began in 1946. His father came home from World War II to marry the girl he left behind when he went overseas.

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The oldest boomers still want what boomers have always craved: everything. They want to retire yet work, kick back yet keep active, have fun and live well. They'll still be rockin' -- just not on the front porch.

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HUDSON -- As Linda Bonasera describes her childhood in New Jersey, she makes it sound like life in a Norman Rockwell painting: "loving family," "such good times," "We were so innocent," "Grandma lived nearby."

Baby boomer chronology
The baby boomers born in 1946 lived their youth in some of the most exciting and turbulent times. Here, year by year, are some of the events:

Baby boomers by the numbers:
Number of babies born in America in 1946 -- 3.4-million.

With a laugh, Thomas remembers looking across the street into the window of a neighbor's house, trying to spy what was on the glowing screen of her television.

He remembers the excitement of getting their first TV when he was about 8 and watching such shows as Winky Dink and You, which probably qualified as America's first interactive kids' show. Winky Dink was a boy cartoon character who got into trouble each week with his dog, Woofer. Kids, using a plastic sheet and crayons from their official Winky Dink kits, placed the sheet on the television and drew whatever Winky needed: a bridge or the rest of a secret message, for example.

More than 45 years later, the excitement of the show rushes back to Thomas, but his memories turn a bit darker and soon reflect the odd mishmash of American history in the late 20th century.

He saw "colored only" water fountains during a family trip in the South. The Midwestern boy thought they dispensed tinted water. Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that was launched in 1957, "made us think they were going to drop the bomb on our head." He thinks of practicing nuclear attack survival in school, then recalls the optimism he and his family experienced when John F. Kennedy was elected president.

When his memories shift to Kennedy's assassination, Thomas struggles with the emotional impact he so clearly still feels, even though he was a high school senior at the time.

"I think it made you realize that -- I don't know -- it's not in your control. Things are not always going to go your way.

"It's not always going to be a good world."

Thomas graduated from high school in 1964 and soon got a letter to be assessed for the draft. He passed easily, but as many others of his generation did, he got a deferment to go to college.

"I remember my father didn't want me to go. He said, "I fought the war to end all wars,' " Thomas recalls.

Thomas settled in Kokomo and had two kids before he divorced. He and his present wife, Linda, 53, married 16 years ago; between them, they have four children and six grandchildren. The couple split their time between Kokomo and Indian Rocks Beach.

They travel, exercise, take walks on the beach and, well, enjoy doing nothing after years of raising their kids and working.

"I feel fortunate, because with all the changes in how companies fund retirement, putting more emphasis on what you put in, I'm not sure many younger people will be able to afford to stop working by the time they are 55," Thomas says. "Younger boomers will have it harder."

He is starting to feel he can relate more to the experiences of people older than he is, such as his mother, who is in her late 70s.

"I hope when I do become old, I want to be around other people, and that I still have my health," Thomas says. "But for now, at 55, I feel pretty good."

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