September 5, 1973—Began classes at Cal State Long Beach
I hadn’t really expected to be going back to school. God knows my time at Lowell Tech had been long enough and the five years I spent there hadn’t kept me out of Vietnam or gotten me a job.
For sure it was a good experience but I think everyone, including myself, was hoping for more. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Hell, hoping for more is the driving force that pushes us all. And when the more isn’t what you expect it to be then you hope for something else.
This Teaching Credential Program at Cal State Long Beach was that something else. Things were finally coming together. This time I was majoring in something I actually believed in. And I was sure it would lead to a job and an opportunity to continue writing. At last, I would be able to look my father in the eye and we would both know that everything was going to be all right.
What he had said the morning I left for boot camp at Fort Dix was still fresh in my mind.
“I hope the army makes a man out of you,” he said, frustrated by my lack of direction. I have to admit, he had a point.
“I hope so, too,” was my understated response.
So I went to Vietnam, did some writing for a military magazine and did the soldier thing in the form of guard duty on the third security ring around the Bien Hoa Airfield. The general feeling was that if anyone got through the first two rings they’d have to be really good and we weren’t going to stop them no way, no how. Still they gave us M-16’s and the code word of the day.
By the time I got out of the army I was more than ready to get back on the road to my future—a journey I has first started in 1964 and detoured from so many times I was losing count. That’s why I was returning to school. Only this time the plan wasn’t to go to college. This time I was going to college with a plan.
So when I called home the night before I was to begin classes I think my dad felt as good about the whole situation as I did. I know he was proud of what I had down in Vietnam. I never came close to seeing the combat he saw and I know he was happy about that. He wasn’t the kind of man who saw the army as some sort of right of passage. He didn’t think things had to be hard just to be hard but he knew that there would always be plenty of hard times to overcome.
We never had the kind of father-son talk you hear about or read about. He never sat me down to “splain” things to me the way my army buddy Cecil’s dad had done with him. The best description of our relationship was that he pretty much let me figure things out for myself but everything I ever figured out I figured was the way he would have wanted me to. He taught by example and I learned by osmosis—and at times it seemed like we were both taking our sweet time.
That’s not to say we weren’t close. We both golfed and bowled and we both liked westerns and baseball’s game of the week. The way I thought was the way he thought, I think. Both of us tended to look at the big picture and go light on the details but we knew the details were there.
He was clearly frustrated with me that morning that I left on the train to Fort Dix. But he wasn’t worried. He hadn’t given up. If he was more than just frustrated I think we would have had that talk but I know that he knew everything would work out.
I think he knew this from his own life. There were no jobs when he graduated from high school in 1938. He went into the CCC’s but before he knew it we were in a war with Germany and he was in Tunisia—Tunisia! He was captured in Sicily and spent the rest of the war in a German POW Camp. I know every stop he made because I recently discovered a notebook where he had meticulously recorded every stop along with the names of fellow soldiers he met. Again, he was short with the details but I know there was a story behind every name and place.
There were about four pages of entries that read one line after another: Aug 2, 1942—left USA, Aug 7—arrived in England, Oct 26—left for Africa, Nov 8—invaded Africa…Jul 10—invaded Sicily…Jul 22—captured, Feb 3—evacuated Stalag III B, until finally he wrote May 31, 1945—boarded Liberty Ship John Lawson, sailed for America at 12:30.
Those five or six years were certainly a bigger burden to have plopped down in the middle of his life than the five years I spent floundering in college were to me but he never made an issue out of it. After the war he simply went back to school and during all that time there really wasn’t any advice anyone could have given him other than to hang in there. So when after school I went into the army and after the army I was returning to school I guess he figured he’d cut me the same slack.
I think he would be the first to tell you, win or lose; there are no good war stories. That’s probably why he never talked about the war. Like him I had done what I was trained to do. I wrote some decent stories. Both of us saw a side of me that if it was there before, it hadn’t been exposed. I think we were both expecting college to be a better experience this time.
Before I got off the phone that night, mom mentioned that dad was seeing a doctor the next day because his back was bothering him. Nothing serious she assured me—just something he wanted to have looked at.
I went to my classes the next few days and around the end of the week I got another call from my mother. Dad had inoperable cancer and the diagnosis was that he wouldn’t live long, which meant six months—maybe—at best.
So there you have it. The up part of the month, which lasted about a week and a half, was now behind me, and the down part had just begun.
I dropped out of school the next day and began making arrangements to return home. The following Monday, September 17, at 9:00 I left San Pedro heading back to Rochester, New York, my latest plan for getting on with my life detoured again after just one week.
There was a lot that I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand how this all could be happening so fast. I didn’t know how dad would take my returning home. Would he think something was wrong when I showed up? But didn’t he already know something was wrong? I wasn’t sure how much my mother said he knew or if he knew anything at all. What I knew for sure was that I had to get back home as fast as I could because there was nothing else I could do.
So I did the only thing I could do. I began knocking off as many miles as I could. The whole trip took up six pages in my little notebook that had previously only contained my bowling scores from various leagues. For the next few years I would record other road trips in this book and thus began my habit of writing down starting times and mileages, eating breaks, sleep breaks and anything else I felt the need to record.
I had lunch in Barstow at noon and dinner in Ashfork, Arizona at 7:00. Just west of Flagstaff I observed that the stars looked like clusters of starfish. A notebook like this can prove invaluable. At 10:15, just outside of Winslow, Arizona I pulled over to the side of the road and called it a day—13 hours of driving and 580 miles.
I woke up Tuesday morning at daybreak to discover I had spent the night at Sunset Crossing, the little known site of Beale’s Camel Crossing in 1858. The wagon trail he surveyed that year became the famous Route 66, which then became the Interstate 40 that made possible my being in the central plains by the end of my second day. I was in Texas by six, Oklahoma by nine, and somewhere around midnight I called it a day, having driven for almost 30 hours over the two days with 1300 miles behind me.
The next morning I awoke alongside a small meadow. It was cold and damp but the sun shining through the uneven morning mist that hovered above the grass and slowly melting into it, painted a picture in my mind that I have never forgotten. I was 27 years old and that may have been the first time I had ever awoken to such a pastoral scene. My notes tell me I was on the Will Rogers Turnpike somewhere south of Joplin, Missouri.
About 1400 miles into my journey I wrote down this opinion in my little bowling score travelogue book: “American ingenuity stops at roof building.” I probably should have written more so years later I wouldn’t have to guess at what my point was. I think I may have been commenting on the number of old buildings (mostly barns) that seemed to be somewhat intact except that the roofs were missing or had collapsed.
Another entry recorded that I pulled behind a diner to rest a bit but I couldn’t sleep because the flies were so bad and yet I couldn’t close the windows because it was so miserably hot. My notes tell me I didn’t stay there long.
I hit Indianapolis around midnight and stopped at the Sugar Daddy Lounge where Charlie and I used to go all the time when we were stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison attending the Defense Department School of Journalism. I probably stayed there until closing and then went to sleep in the parking lot with another 812 miles behind me, still wondering what I was going to find when I got home.
I got a late start the next day—about 10—but knew it was going to be a short day. I planned on visiting my high school buddy, Joe, in Detroit, which wasn’t that far of a drive. I needed a little break from the driving and was excited about seeing Joe and Barbara again. And it would be good to talk to someone else about my father after spending a week talking to myself. And sleeping in a real bed wouldn’t be too bad either.
I got there late in the afternoon and we were in the living room relaxing when the phone rang. It was my sister, Casey, calling to say I’d better get home as quickly as possible. I wasn’t ready to hit the road again but lucky for me, Joe was.
“We better get started,” was all he said. “We can be there by morning if we leave right away.”
We did leave right away and we did get to Rochester early the next morning. I dropped him off at his parent’s home and he flew back to Detroit.
Mom was glad to see me when I got to the house and I realized instinctively that the question that had been on my mind the whole trip was of little consequence. I understood that my sudden appearance wasn’t going to shock my father—and that shocked me. I realized that I was no longer on route to a situation. Rather I was in the middle of a crisis that had come on way too fast with not nearly enough warning.
Dad was asleep and mom filled me in on the details. For the first time I was learning how hard the past few weeks had been on my whole family.
In the afternoon, dad woke up and I helped him eat some soup. What struck me most was how old and how weak he looked. He was not a big man but I remembered him as being a strong man. He tried to eat the soup but couldn’t do it.
“If I can just keep this soup down—” He didn’t finish the sentence that really didn’t need to be finished. That’s all I remember of the visit we had. He didn’t ask about school. Around mid-morning the next day he died with all of us around him telling how much we loved him and that everything was going to be all right.
The next few days went the way you would expect. We were all dazed and tired but everything is designed to keep the family moving along and that is what we did. Not everyone coped the same way. My mother and sisters were relieved because they knew too well how much pain he had been in. My grandmother, living just a few doors down the road, wasn’t nearly prepared for what happened and never really recovered from the shock. She spent the final 20 years of her life unable to cope with his death.
Joe flew back for the funeral and again flew right back to Detroit. I moved back into my old room for the winter until I returned to school the following year. In a sense, it was good to be back in familiar surroundings even if it wasn’t familiar territory. At least I was back home.
I didn’t see this as another detour. This was more like a rest stop on the road to that something more that I was still hoping for. And besides, I needed a rest.
September ended with my car at the garage. I had driven it 2900 miles in four days and then one morning it just wouldn’t turn over. I didn’t blame it. It needed a rest too.
I recall the events of that month often. I still keep records as I did then and my father did before me, but something is different. I feel almost duty-bound to take my obsession with information to the next level. I write stories because sometimes the isolated quotes and data that I have recorded in countless notepads scattered around my desk and throughout the house are not enough. Sometimes you need the details.