My early childhood was spent on what my dad called a squirrel ranch. We usually had a few acres wherever we lived but all we raised more than one or two of were squirrels. We had chickens, a couple of cows, a horse for my sister and several small dogs. Most of my fun experiences were playing in the woods by myself or with one friend or wandering around Vancouver Lake with a fishing pole, shotgun, or 22 rifle. Other than a camping trip to Spirit Lake once a year we didn’t do many things as a family.
My dad bought a television set when I was in upper elementary school or possibly even junior high. We watched it a little but my mother made it clear watching television was a waste of time. I wasn’t involved in any sports at school besides during recess until I turned out for wrestling in my sophomore year of high school. Being on the wrestling team was a great experience for me. I didn’t learn as much about teamwork as I would have in other sports but I found I could do something well enough to gain a modicum of recognition.
During my school years I don’t recall having exposure to people from other countries or people speaking any language other than English. I met very few African-American or even Hispanic students in my early years. I do recall there being a very dark skinned student named Novar Ortega on the wrestling team. I don’t know if I thought the color would rub off on me or what but I do remember being a little apprehensive about wrestling him. He was a nice guy. Our only interaction was through the wrestling team so I didn’t get to know him very well.
In addition to having no exposure to foreigners or foreign languages or people unlike myself, I apparently didn’t have any outstanding geography teachers to give me a good understanding of all the different people in the world. Possibly this was the seed of the curiosity which turned into a travel bug later. When I traveled to other countries and met their people I learned how ignorant I was about, not only the world, but our country and our system of government.
Until the middle of my junior year of high school I lived in a moderately dysfunctional home. My mother had been raised in a dysfunctional home under the thumb of a dictatorial zealot father. My father was an only child with a very macho religious father and a very timid and frail mother.
Something in my mother’s background caused her to be both very self-conscious about being a woman and very critical of everything anyone else did. I had a sister six years older than myself and a brother four years older than me. Two years after my brother was born my mother became pregnant again and when she was approaching full-term she hemorrhaged one night in bed. Reportedly, she attempted to wake up my dad and he didn’t wake up right away. She lost a lot of blood and lost the baby. She never forgave my father for not waking up. At least subconsciously, she kept it as something she could hold against him whenever they disagreed about anything. This seemed to be her way of living most of her life. When I was born my mother claimed possession of me and insulated me from everyone else, including my father. I never really got to know my dad well. He spanked me only a few times when my mother delegated the task to him because I had done something she couldn’t cure by smacking me alongside the head. When I said something she didn’t like an open handed whack was her default response.
Looking back I realize I felt left out because my brother got to do things with my dad like cut boards and hammer nails. My role was usually sweeping up sawdust. Other than this minor attempt at self-analysis I’ve never felt I had a bad childhood. It was very non-memorable. I didn’t start living and enjoying life very much until the end of my high school years.
My father got a line on a job in Oak Harbor when we lived in Vancouver, Washington somewhere around 1953. They purchased a house on 40 acres near Oak Harbor and then the job my dad was going to get fell through. My brother was just graduating from Clark Community college in blueprint reading and related subjects about this time. He and my grandmother, who needed a place to live moved to the house in Oak Harbor and my brother went to work in a machine shop. Shortly thereafter he was able to buy out the owner of the machine shop. In the middle of my junior at Vancouver high school, my parents told me one day I was moving to Oak Harbor. It didn’t occur to me to ask why or anything about it. Midway through the school year I drove to Oak Harbor in my 1950 Ford and entered Oak Harbor high school.
One of the outcomes of my mother’s control was that she did not approve of us being involved in any organized sports or activities at school. We generally had to come home from school and do chores at home. The chores usually consisted of weeding the garden or digging out bushes or doing some other things relative to working in the yard which was my mother’s favorite pastime. She had a vision of the wonderful end product of a lot of landscaping which never happened. We were always digging holes and moving things and building sheds and tearing things down but the grand plan never developed. It was always too far ahead of our financial and physical resources. For whatever reason, after my brother moved north, I was allowed to turn out for wrestling as a sophomore at Vancouver high school. I did quite well at wrestling as I was physically strong. I went to state in my sophomore year. When I changed schools, Wrestling was strong as a school sport that part of Washington. Oak Harbor did not have a wrestling team and after I got there they decided to go ahead and start one. I have heard indirectly my mother might have influenced someone at the high school to start a wrestling team but I don’t know if that’s a fact. In any case, it gave me an ace in the hole as a newcomer from out of town. I wear glasses and was clearly not tall, dark and handsome so I didn’t have those qualities going for me. My Ford was nothing special but at least I had a car. My wrestling experience resulting in me being the captain of the wrestling team in my senior year.
Until recently I had not given much thought to why I was sent to live in Oak Harbor when it happened. Looking back, I suspect it might have been because my brother got married with very little notice and they wanted someone there to keep my grandmother from being alone in the house. I was not close to my brother so I was not told anything about his personal life.
Within a few months of arriving in Oak Harbor and going to school I had an accident that eventually brought me more benefit than damage. I was a cocky, fast driver and one day I lost control when I turned left off the two lane highway onto a side road. I was going too fast and after moving clear over onto the left edge of the road to be pulled around by the low side of the curve, I was unable to get the car straightened out fast enough. It went off the edge of the road and down a small embankment, rolled over and flipped when the left front corner dug into the dirt. Seatbelts were not common in 1956 but I remained behind the wheel without a seatbelt. I remember thinking as the car was flipping through the air: “So this is what it feels like to roll a car”. When the car came to a stop on the passenger side I fell down against the passenger door. My driver’s window was open and I dove straight up out the window. I hit the ground running as fast as I could until I realized there was no explosion and no reason to keep running. I went back, crawled back inside and turned the key off.
I was working part time in my brother’s machine shop earning enough for gas and miscellaneous things. I had no money saved and my car was totaled. The roof was crushed down and all the glass was broken out. Fortunately, even though I didn’t have collision insurance on the car I did have comprehensive coverage for the glass and there was no exclusion for glass breakage from a rollover. I collected enough money for all of the broken glass to pay for the parts I needed from wrecking yards. A neighbor across the street had a shed he wasn’t using and allowed me to put the car in it while I worked on it. As good luck would have it, he was a body and fender man in a local garage and he gave me some instructions. I pushed the top of the car back out using three hydraulic jacks and lengths of 2 x 4. I got the top pushed back into its original shape and then started driving the car to school even though I didn’t have seats in it or glass in the window openings. There is a picture in the Oak Harbor yearbook from that year of my ford with the heads of several classmates sticking out of all the openings. Even though my 50 Ford two-door sedan had been nothing special, driving it to school and back only partially put together was sort of like having something special. If nothing else my classmates remember me more than they would have without that situation.
Oak Harbor was a very conservative small town with a lot of Dutch reform church influence. It had a Navy base nearby but there was very little in the way of nightlife or “sinful” activities. There were possibly for five people in our class of 80 that thought drinking beer was cool but other than that no one smoked or drank I was aware of.
The day after graduating from Oak Harbor high school I went by bus and train to Fort Ord California for six months of active duty in the Army reserve program. I had joined the Army reserve the year before because my brother was in the reserves and it was something to do. My six months in the Army were spent in Fort Ord California and Fort Leonard Wood Missouri. Several other guys from my class and from nearby towns went into the Army at the same time I did. There were seven or eight of us at Fort Leonard Wood when we all got out of our active duty in December, 1957. One of the classmates, Gordon Koetje, had a relative living in the area who wanted a couple of cars driven to Seattle where they would sell for a higher price. Gordon offered the opportunity for us to ride home with him in one of the two cars for $50 each. I don’t know if $50 was less or more than a bus ticket would’ve cost to get home but for some reason I told him: “No thanks. I’m going to hitchhike home.” I hadn’t given how I was going to get home any thought prior to that particular conversation but after I said I was going to hitchhike home I didn’t question the decision.
When the others headed for home I took my duffel bag and wearing my uniform hit the highway hitchhiking. It was mid December and foolishly I looked at a map and chose going straight north from Missouri to Nebraska before heading west. That resulted in my first experience being outdoors in temperatures between 10 and 20° for an extended period of time. I suffered no great hardship hitchhiking home and did have some interesting experiences. The humorous part is, when I got home, the other guys gave me the impression they were disappointed they had gone straight home and not done something like I did. When they got home they found their friends were all off going to college or settled into jobs and there was really nothing there much fun for them to do.
One day one of my classmates, Art Circo, told me he was going to go to Everett and sign up for Everett Junior college. He asked me if I wanted to go with him. I hadn’t talked to anyone about going to college or given it any real thought but I had met and gone out once with a girl who lived on the north side of Seattle. Everett was a lot closer to where she lived than Oak Harbor so I said: “Sure I’ll go with you.”.
I went to Everett and registered for classes . After returning to Oak Harbor from the Army, in addition to working part time in my brother’s machine shop, I had gotten a job for Oak Harbor Freight Lines loading and unloading trucks. I had saved enough money to cover my expenses moving to Everett and to pay for my first year at Everett Junior College. When I arrived in Everett I scheduled my classes so I was finished by 1 PM. I went to the local Oak Harbor Freight Lines terminal and told the manager: “I worked for Jake up in Oak Harbor and am now available to work here in Everett.” He told me he needed somebody so I should come in the next day when I finished classes. The next day when I arrived at the terminal he handed me a clipboard with a bunch of papers on it and pointing to one of the trucks said: “Your truck is all loaded”. I had not said I drove a truck for Oak Harbor Freight Lines in Oak harbor but he apparently assumed that was the work I had done. I never discussed with him whether or not I had ever driven a truck but I didn’t argue with him when he pointed at “my truck”. I took the truck out of the yard without grinding the gears too much and then started learning my way around Everett to deliver the load of freight and packages.
This experience driving in a new town without really knowing how the truck driver was supposed to get everything done was one of the great learning experiences of my life. Often when I went to the front door of a business they would tell me I was supposed to be in the alley so I’d have to get back in the truck and drive around the block and go into the alley to unload. If I went the alley first some of the time they would say “No. You were supposed to come to the front door.” Because I made mistakes including missing packages because I didn’t know how to read the bills of lading, I frequently had to double back and then work extra fast to make up for the time I lost from my mistakes. After a month or two, because I was really hustling when I worked, I started getting my truck unloaded before my shift was over and would get back to the dock before the other drivers. One of the other drivers called me aside one day and told me: “It is not a good idea for you to come back to the dock with an empty truck before quitting time.” I didn’t see it as a threat but I realize now it might have been close to one. This was a Teamster shop and the Teamsters had quite a reputation for looking out for their way of life. In any case rather than slowdown in the way I worked, I continued working fast and if I finished an hour before the end of the shift I would go into a restaurant and have a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Eating a piece of pie in a restaurant when I lived with my family was almost an unheard of experience. I was in hog heaven getting paid $4.10 an hour, if I remember correctly, to eat pie and drink coffee. Teamsters made good money in 1958.
During my second year at Everett Junior college, I had a philosophy class which was one of the most meaningful classes in my college years. Another meaningful class was a French class. I took French as an elective mostly because I needed an elective and it didn’t sound any better or worse than anything else. The instructor, James Scott, was a very enthusiastic and dedicated teacher who loved seeing people learn and loved the French language. Possibly because of his enthusiasm I made another one of my “on the spot” decisions like the one to hitchhike home from Missouri. With tongue-in-cheek one day while we were conjugating verbs, (Je suis, il es, nous sommes, etc) I nudged the person next to me and said: “This is too much work. I’m going to go to France and learn how to speak French.”, The next fall when my classmates all went on to their junior years at college, I made arrangements with a moving van driver to work my way to New York with him on his truck. After a few days in New York I found Icelandic Airlines to be the cheapest way to get to Europe and I was on my way.
This chapter continues in “My Travels”
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