Tom Margenau

My wife and I recently celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. We were married on June 1, 1974. I was a relatively new employee of the Social Security Administration, having been hired a year earlier. How that came to be makes for an interesting story.

After graduating from college, I floundered around for a year or two looking for work. Finally, I decided to take a federal civil service exam. Within a month or two, letters arrived from various federal government agencies inviting me for interviews.

The first letter came from the Federal Aviation Administration for a job as a “sky marshal.” Older readers may recall that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a spate of airline hijackings. So the government was beefing up the air marshal service that had started in the 1960s. The interview did not go well. They were looking for tough young men, preferably with military training, who were familiar with guns, not a bookish nerd who barely knew the difference between a six-shooter and a peashooter.

Next, came a letter from the Internal Revenue Service. Once again, I didn’t impress them. They wanted someone who was good with numbers. I was never into math, and could barely balance my checkbook.

After three or four more failed interviews with different agencies, I had pretty much concluded that a career with the federal government was just not in the cards. And so, when a letter arrived from the Social Security Administration about a job in Springfield, Illinois, I just threw it in the trash.

About two weeks later, I got a call from the manager of the Springfield Social Security office. I was living in my hometown, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and he said the reason he called was that he was born and raised in the Lake Michigan seaport city and he thought he’d try to help a fellow Sheboyganite. He asked if I had received their letter. Thinking quickly on my feet, I lied and said, “What letter?” I then cursed the post office (apologies to all my postal service friends out there). He promised to send a follow-up invite.

About a month later, I found myself reporting for duty at the Social Security office in Springfield, Illinois. And following a long training class, I was assigned to Springfield’s new branch office in the small farming community about 50 miles south called Litchfield.

One of my duties there was to take calls from the insurance billing clerk at the local hospital. She would call almost every day to verify Medicare numbers so she could complete the billing process for various elderly patients. Her name was Becky Bachstein. We had been exchanging these calls for months when her boss decided to play matchmaker by inviting me to the hospital for lunch to meet Becky.

That was in January 1974. Five months later, we were married. Of course, I’ve often thought about the serendipity of our meeting. I mean, if the Springfield Social Security office manger hadn’t been from Sheboygan, and if he hadn’t felt inclined to call me, that Social Security job invite would have remained in my trash basket — and who knows where I’d be today? And who knows who Becky Bachstein’s boss would have invited out to lunch with her instead?

I promise I will tie something to do with Social Security into these reminisces. But first I must share another cute story involving my courtship with Becky. Please indulge me. After all, how many 45th wedding anniversaries do you get in a lifetime?

The story involves asking Becky out on our first date. (That lunchtime get-together arranged by her boss didn’t count.) On an upcoming Saturday night, I was going to invite her to the most popular movie at the time, “American Graffiti.” Starring Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss, and directed by George Lucas, it is the story of recent high school grads cruising their summer nights away in 1962 before going off to college.

Anyway, the tagline to the movie was this: “Where were you in ’62?” And I had cleverly (or so I thought) planned to use that as an opening line in my date invite. Now, in 1962, I was in seventh grade. And I fully expected Becky’s response to be something similar. So imagine my shock when she answered, “Oh, that’s the year I graduated from high school.” And then she turned the question on me. “Where were you in ’62, Tom?” Not wanting to admit that I was just a youngster and that she was about to “rob the cradle,” I merely replied, “Oh about the same.”

I suddenly realized I was talking to an older woman! I’d had no idea. My mind raced. What should I do? I thought of coming up with excuses: “Oh, I forgot. I’m washing my car Saturday night and I can’t go.” Or, “I’m sorry, but Saturday night is when I polish my shoes.” But I wisely decided I’d forgo the excuses and take a chance by asking this older woman out on a date. And thank goodness I did. It’s been a fantastic 45 years. And believe it or not, all these years later, she’s still five years older than me. But she looks and acts 10 years younger.

OK, so what is my Social Security tie in to all of this? Well, I thought I would look back to see what Social Security was like in 1974.

In 1974, there were about 30 million people getting Social Security benefits. Today, there are just shy of 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. Think about that. There are about 325 million people in this country. So that means that about 1 out of every 5 people you meet on the street is getting a Social Security check.

In 1974, Social Security paid out about $61 billion dollars in total benefits. In 2019, the program pays more than that in a single month! In fact, Social Security recipients collect $85 billion every single month. Social Security spending makes up about one-fourth of the entire federal budget.

My love for Becky Bachstein has continued to grow for 45 years. And so has Social Security.