Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Long Journey, A Short Biography Before the Stories

Stories (Click on any you'd like to read.): "Exhausted" "Shadows in the Valley" "Was It Magic?" "The Howling" "The River" "As Ye Sow" "Gray Clouds, Silver Lining" "The Bear-Toothed Lie" "The Eighteenth" "The Cloud and the Hillyville Hill" "The Hand" "The Greenhorn" "The Kiss" "The Specialist"

Essays

Mobridge Memories

The Caterwaul * * * * * * * * * * *

That's me, a one-year-old baldy with a finger in the mouth. A complete future ahead of me. What does one do with a future? I certainly didn't know at one, or five, or twenty, or fifty, or 78. Now I'm looking back instead of forward, and a lot of what I see wasn't very attractive. But a lot was also good--my wife Rosalie, my kids, my teaching career, my five novels, our serendipitous move to Arizona. What more can one ask of life? I guess we'd all say, we could use a second chance.

We vacationed in Brainerd, Minnesota, a few times when I was a wee lad. Great fishing, great swimming. That's about all I remember of these outings. One thing that may or may not have actually happened. I may have just made it up, or imagined it. Two really rotten little boys, probably ten or eleven, decided they wanted to see what a firecracker would do to a frog when one stuffed it up one orifice or another and then lit it. Yes, it really does kill the one stuffed. And another of my frail memories (or maybe another imagined memory), the same two boys wanting to see what would happen if one tied two cats together by their tails and then threw them over a clothesline. Yes, the cats would hiss and claw at each other until one or both were dead. I hope there were never two such boys. If they were real, though, I can just imagine what kind of adults they'd have become--really rotten sadistic bigoted bullies.

High school, ah, high school. I wish my four years at Mobridge High School weren't so negative. Most people look back on those days with fondness. I don't. I had many good experiences there, but way too many bad. I regret that I didn't do better--academically, athletically, and socially. I was a slightly better than average student, bright but lazy, too lazy to get the kind of grades I should have gotten. I played basketball, football, and baseball, all pretty well but all without the success I wanted. I especially look back with aching regret at that state championship basketball tournament in Mitchell. I was playing guard, and in the first game against Kadoka, I was shoved into the stands under our basket just after the game had begun. Came down with my left ankle turned, came down with all my weight on that turned left ankle. For me, end of game, end of tournament, end of baskeball. We finished second in that tournament and I always believe we'd have won it all if I'd been able to play. I was also a social moron. I guess it was shyness that caused me to avoid dating anyone very often. I almost always wanted to get rid of a date early so that I could go home to read my latest book. Wow! Was I ever a social moron.

Here I am, just turned 18, a fresh fish as a Phi Delt pledge at the University of South Dakora in Vermillion. Do I look self-assured in my double-breasted with that awful tie? Believe me, I wasn't. One of the major mistakes of my life was when I pledged to a fraternity and then didn't have a clue what I was doing at USD. That was a year I'd just as soon forget. Or wish it had never happened. I quit going to classes exactly one hundred days before the end of the school year. No one told me I could have dropped all my courses. I just dropped out of life. So, I was ever after plagued by that second semester of all F's, those grades always there on my transcripts, always having to be explained, never being explained very fully to future employers. I was simply too young and stupid to have gone to college at seventeen.

After that disastrous year in college, rather than wait to be drafted, I enlisted in the army in September, 1952, then eighteen and just as stupid as ever. My mom and dad must have been happy to see me go. I was sent to Korea where I managed to grow up . . . at least a little. The war ended five months after my arrival. By then I was a platoon sergeant of the Intelligence and Reconnaisance platoon attached to the 65th Infantry Head and Head Company. How did I become a platoon sergeant? Was it my leadership ability, my innate intelligence? No. I early in my stay in Korea volunteered to carry a BAR, a Browning Automatic Rifle, a truly stupid decision since BAR-men were automatically the first to be shot by the enemy. But it automatically got me a promotion to corporal. And when I was transferred to the I & R platoon, I was one grade step ahead of all the others. When our platoon sergeant, Pop Ferrer, rotated home just after the war ended, I was next in line. Was it a postion I wanted? No. Was it a position that allowed me to grow up and become decisive? Absolutely not. I came home in July, 1954, two years older and one year more mature. But still grievously stupid.

This is at my hotel in Fukuoka City when I went on my first week of R & R (rest and recuperation) sometime in the fall of 1953. That's Dale Plooster in the middle, with Reiko sitting on his knee. And I don't have a clue who that guy on the right is. From the look on my face I must have already been half-bombed. That's pretty much what we all did on R & R's--eat, drink, and make love to our week's "girls." I was still that naive (the nice way to say "stupid") young South Dakota boy who knew almost nothing about sex, but I learned quickly in Fukuoka City.

I went on what we called a skoshi R & R, just before I shipped home in July, "skoshi" because it was small compared to the weeklong R & R's in Japan The place, as I remember it, was just some tents where one could buy drinks, buy a meal, relax and recuperate for a weekend. And there I bumped into one of my fellow Phi Delt pledges, Dutch Erickson. He looked sort of guilty when he saw me and remembered who I was. It seems that I'd loaned him $40 in a poker game way back in 1952, and he'd never repaid me. It wasn't important enough for me even to remember it or feel resentful about it. He gave me the forty bucks and the guilty look went away. So, there we are, posing for the camera, Pabst Blue Ribbons in hand. I never cared much for beer, so I find it odd that I look so comfortable with that can. At the end of 1954, I flew to New York to meet Chuck Cavallero, a friend I'd met in Korea. We were going to write music together, he the lyrics, I the music. We were going to storm Tin Pan Alley with our clever, catchy songs. What in the world were we thinking? Music, theater, film, television, all were nearly impossible to break into without someone in the business to lend a helping hand. And Chuck and I were without such friends. We got jobs with the Washington Detective Agency soon after we moved into an apartment on 86th St. The two owners of the agency, guys right out of Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls, hired us to be snitches in various White Castle establishments. Officially we were paid a salary from White Castle, and unofficially we got cash under the table to let the agency and the owner know what sort of scams were being run in the hamburger joints. The scams were fairly innocuous, but if they went on in all of the hundreds of White Castles on the East coast, they'd amount to a bunch of money. I reported that employees were using only half a bag of coffee to make a pot, then using the other half as their own, not ringing any of the sales from the second pot of coffee. They were also taking the cream and substituting milk. See, pretty innocuous. Chuck continued his dance lessons, and I took some singing lessons. I even thought I might be able to get in Juliard to study musical composition. That shows how stupid I was, thinking I could get into this prestigious school with no musical background except for my half-hearted high school attempts with a trumpet. When our spy work with White Towers ended, the agency officially licensed us as detectives in New York State, even suggested that we might want to practice tailing people. We both declined. I can't remember what Chuck's next assisgnment was. Mine was to go into the Bulova Watch factory on Long Island to listen for covert talk of unionizing. I was called an assistant oiler, a position that never existed until I came along. As I remember, there was never enough for two of us to do, so I spent many an hour hiding in one of the bathroom stalls. My most memorable experience there was the time I broke the first metatarsal on my left foot. Stupid is as stupid does, as Forrest said. I tried to single-handedly stand up a full fifty-five gallon drum of oil. Half way up it slipped from my hands, the rim coming down on the top of my left foot. Thus, for the rest of my stay in Manhattan, I wore a cast from my toes to my knee. We paid to have a demo record made of two of the songs we'd written--"Time Will Tell" and "The Next Time." Nothing ever came of that. It was just too impossible to get a foot, even a toe, in the musical door. Six months of the Big Apple and I was ready to ccome home to my roots. I said goodbye to Chuck and never again contacted him. I came back to work as a butcher in my father's store until college began. Then I returned to USD to correct my earlier mistake. I thought that if I took all the same courses again, I could erase those awful grades. I found out after I graduated that those grades were still there, stuck to me like tar. Stupid.

This was my interview photo, to be used when I applied for a job in teaching. I interviewed with the Elkton, SD, school district in January, 1960, signed a salary agreement for $1800 for the second semester. I took over for a very pregnant woman. Gulp! I was to teach two sections of freshman English, a Spanish I, a Spanish II, a Speech and Debate, supervise one study hall, direct a one-act play for competition with other schools, direct a three-act all-school play, and coach middle school basketball. That's all. All of that for $1800. If that schedule couldn't drive me out of teaching, nothing could. I somehow survived that ghastly semester, nearly raced out of Elkton to return to Mobridge for the summer, went to summer school in Aberdeen with Rosalie, my future bride, and interviewed with the Redfield, SD, school district, which hired me for $4300 to teach two sections of English 11 and one of English 12, one Spanish I and one Spanish II, and one study hall. It sounded overwhelming, but was still a step up from Elkton.

Here I am, looking almost diabolical with my goatee, standing in our mobile home yard in Barstow, California, where we went after I got my masters in Greeley, Colorado. I'd gone to the U. of Northern Colorado in Greeley after three years of teaching in Redfield. I interviewed for a job in Barstow and signed on for nearly double what I'd been making in Redfield, $8300 and we felt like Midas who'd touched gold in the golden west.

We left Barstow in 1969, I to obtain a PhD in English and end my career teaching in college. At the end of two years, the potential market for college teachers had dried up to almost nothing, and there we were, three kids and all bridges burned behind us. I had too much experience and too much education to get back into high school teaching and I had no success sending out resumes to junior colleges. But fate brought Ed Westerling to Boulder on a sabbatical from Southwestern High School in Lakewood, NY. We met, became good friends, and through his influence I was hired to teach in his school . . . for about twice what they'd have had to pay a fresh graduate. Thank you, Ed. Thank you, Southwestern School District.

Twenty-three years later, we were ready to leave the snow and rain and gray skies of upstate New York for the sunnier skies of Arizona. We've been here nearly eighteen years and I have no idea how that many years could have passed so quickly, like Charlie on one of his tears. The picture above shows us standing in front of our new house just after we'd arrived. It didn't take long for us to remove the road runners from our garage door.

Mobridge Memories

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