How to handle early, early retirement

Of all the ways to become unemployed, walking the plank because of a corporate takeover may be the worst. You are a whirlwind of innovative industry. Well, at the least you are innocent of conspicuous failure. But the merging company has an innovative whirlwind just like you - doing your job. So, through a kind of no-fault accident, you are suddenly expendable.

This nastiest form of pink slip is fluttering above the heads of 700 employees of Gulf Corporation in Pittsburgh since Gulf's merger with Chevron. Gulf chairman James E. Lee collected $8.4 million in the deal, according to the Wall Street Journal, landing on his feet high, high in the Chevron hierarchy. Captains nowadays don't go down with the ship the way they used to.

But how is Gulf helping out the middle and lower-echelon employees left standing on the deck of their metaphorical Titanic as their metaphorical ship's band plays ''There'll Always Be a Chevron,'' or a brave tune to that effect? Management has hired a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a nurse - no unemployment problem for them! - to teach ''stress management.''

Some employees have grumbled that the guarantee of a job - particularly one like ex-chairman Lee's - would resolve their ''stress'' a lot faster than classes in ''relaxation technique'' and ''rational decisionmaking.'' But, of course, these laggards are not keeping up with the times. For the pop psychology of the moment insists that unemployment and other such experiences once regarded as disastrous are really invigorating challenges leading to personal growth. In fact, people holding down a job or holding together a marriage are made to feel ill-starred for missing the priceless opportunity of ''creative'' unemployment or of ''creative'' divorce.

''You can't be a winner until you learn how to lose'' has become one of the favorite slogans of the '80s, though it seems to appeal more to chairmen of the board and other winners than to those about to hit the pavement with a thud after one of life's little rejections.

We're not against singing off-key, like the chorus in a spunky Broadway musical: ''You can't keep a good man down!'' We're just against this conspiracy to pretend that ''down'' is ''up.'' And we find it in poor taste for bystanders on the shore to shout to survivors of a ship-wreck, ''Cheer up! You're going to learn how to swim.''

We received what may be called the Good Gulf Treatment on our very first job, at the age of 14. At the rate of 30 cents an hour, we were employed as chief (and only) weeder by the neighborhood florist. We took our weeding at a dreamy pace under the summer sun.

After a week of our slow waltz against the weeds, our employer explained that he wanted a rhythm more like a quick foxtrot - and fired us. But, as with Gulf, something in our florist longed to make our involuntary termination an improving occasion. Suddenly bending over and sticking out his lower lip until he looked like a vacuum, he raced up a row of petunias, weeding at the speed of Charlie Chaplin in ''Modern Times.''

''Now that's weeding,'' he panted.

But when he got his breath back, he must have realized that in the years ahead, the inside skills of a professional weeder might not be quite all a boy would need to know. He must broaden the lesson - he must generalize. ''Hustle!'' he cried. ''Hustle and never stop hustling - that's the most valuable advice any man can give.'' Wiping his pink brow, he tottered back to his air-conditioned office, convinced that years later we would thank him for being canned so creatively.

It didn't work out that way. A week later we found employment haying with an old farmer. When it began to rain one afternoon, we sprinted for the barn. Hustle! Never stop hustling! The old farmer sauntered to shelter well behind us. After he gave his cap a shake and stamped his feet, he looked us straight in the eye and said, ''Don't get any wetter walkin' than you do runnin'.'' Now that piece of advice did change our life.

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