Only to be with you
I really didn’t want to go to Gem State Academy. GSA represented a lot of things about my family, my family’s expectations, and my notions of small-town Idaho that I just didn’t want to deal with. I’d made my feelings known, and my mom at least had seemed to respect those wishes. We talked about alternatives, and my parents agreed to let me go to the other major prep school in town, Bishop Kelly.
That last sentence is almost impossible to believe even now, twenty years later.
I’ve talked about this before in different places, but let me point out that Gem State Academy was actually named Gem State ADVENTIST Academy. A boarding preparatory school run by the Idaho Conference of the North American Division of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Without going into deep details, the SDA church is one of the most vehemently anti-catholic of the protestant splinters that ultimately fell from the nail-holes Martin Luther pounded into the door of All-Saints Church in Wittenberg. Bishop Kelly on the other hand, was THE regional catholic preparatory high school. Nationally recognized and with a competitive admissions process.
My family has a long history with Gem State Academy. My Great-Grandmother was one of the first teachers at the original campus on Indiana Street in Caldwell. She taught from 1920 to 1932. My grandfather went to Gem State in 1942, spent two years there, ran away to Portland to build Liberty Ships in Kaiser’s shipyards, got drafted the day he turned 18, and then spent two years serving in the occupation of Japan. Grandpa came back home, finished his senior year and graduated. He was an oldest son fulfilling his parents hopes that he would graduate and go on to college. He did, and he married the little freshman girl who’d waited for him, bringing her back bolts of silk from Japan that she used to sew her own wedding dress.
Graduating from college wasn’t in the cards for my grandpa. He put in two years at Walla Walla College and discovered that a “real job” was more important than the job he was trying to get with a degree. He left college and went to work for the same company for the next thirty years. They had two sons little more than a year apart, who fought like only brothers too close in age can do; and one daughter who came a decade later and who seemed to float along in life in ways that only a surprise baby girl can achieve.
Of the two boys, the oldest was serious and reserved, and carried the family traditions of service and faith right along with the expectations that he go to college and finish what his father had only started. He resented his younger brother’s care-free spirit and disregard for both rules and expectations. Like almost every kid at Gem State in the mid 60s, my dad lived on campus from the summer before his Freshman Year working in one of the “industry” jobs to offset his tuition, right through until he graduated in May of 1967, summers included. Six hours of classes, electives after that, and never less than four hours of “work experience” in the bakery, or on the school farm, or in the school-run laundry, or at the conference printing-press five days a week. Summers were just work experience from sun-up to sun-down; and no matter what season it was, the day of rest on the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday was the only relief.
He got passing, if not remarkable, grades and was as industrious at work as he was in the music classes that he loved. His teachers said he was “dependable” and “hard-working” and “serious” with a perfect attendance record for both work and classes. He also didn’t miss a single church service from the day he stepped on campus until the day he graduated, as diligent in his duty to his family’s faith as he was in his duty to his family’s expectations.
Faith, and Duty, and Expectations; these were the hallmarks of his conversations with his father, his letters from his mother, and the topics at the dinner table when he would return to his parents house for holidays and home-leave weekends. And make no mistake, his parent’s home wasn’t his “home” anymore. His home was 10′ x 10′ room he shared with Greg Stein on the second floor of the Men’s Dormitory facing out over Montana Avenue and what seemed like the whole of the Treasure Valley. Essentially leaving home at fourteen; living under a dormitory roof, under the rules and regulations of a private boarding prep school in the 60s, and under the weight of the expectations that land on the shoulders of the oldest son.
As planned and expected, my dad did graduate from Gem State Academy, and went on to Walla Walla College; following the footsteps already in front of him. He put in one year, with unimpressive grades and no sense of direction while his friends were being drafted to go fight in a war for French Indo-China that even the French didn’t want any part of…and he could feel his number coming. Along with his best friend, a boy that had grown up with him as a roommate and closer than his brother for the last six years, they volunteered for the Army; hoping to get a better assignment than if their number came up in the draft board’s lottery.
Their gambol paid off, and they spent two years in DC as part of Operation Whitecoat, never once setting foot anywhere near Vietnam; of the boys he knew who served in McNamara’s Folly, if they weren’t with him at Whitecoat, they came home in pine boxes. After that, my dad went back to Walla Walla College with an honorable discharge, commendations for his service, and survivor-guilt that no amount of tears will ever wash away.
Within weeks of returning to the campus in College Place, my dad’s little brother, now a junior and well on his way to a turn in dental school at Loma Linda and a successful career he’d planned out for himself, decided to introduce my dad to a girl he’d worked with on the Yearbook the year before.
She was a double art major, a very good student on the Dean’s List with a 4.0 average, but hardly a girl you would call studious or reserved. My uncle thought her relaxed nature might take some of the edge off of my dad’s malaise. She was much like their beloved little sister, a surprise daughter born a decade after her closest sibling, and who had grown up enjoying the successes of her family without remembering the lean years. Perhaps a bit spoiled, she was from a large, successful family and had grown up just a couple of hours away with a wide social circle, due in no small part to her trendy looks and engaging charm.
The day they were introduced they sat in her office and talked for four hours straight, ignoring anything else in the world. Walking back to his dorm that evening, my dad told his brother he was going to marry that girl; and nine months later he did.
My mom taught my dad how to study, how to laugh, and the difference between The Doors and The Beach Boys. My mom wasn’t tied down by expectations because she’d spent her whole life overcoming them. Fighting Dyslexia, my mom didn’t learn to read until she was in the fifth grade and has never forgotten the teacher who told her parents that she was “too dumb to be educated” and recommended that she be taught a simple trade. It was her older brother, now a teacher, who worked with her every day after school and taught her not only the subject material, but how to learn.
She spent her life proving that teacher wrong, finishing college with two degrees and five minors while earning a 4.0 GPA; and rising above the expectations she’d begun her life with. There’s a family legend that my mom read every book in the Wenatchee Library. Even though she denies it, I think there’s a reasonable chance it’s true.
When my parents were considering their last year in college, they talked about leaving Walla Walla and going to a public university somewhere else…like Hawaii or California. It would be cheaper, and they could see somewhere outside of the cloistered walls they’d grown up in. See the “real” world. My dad may have wanted to, he may have even seriously considered it, but the shadow of his father’s decision to leave Walla Walla College before he graduated loomed large, and they stayed where they were, where they were expected to be.
My dad had a deep love for music and music history, and an eye towards law school. He ended up with a degree in communications, planning on either becoming a newscaster like his heroes Murrow and Cronkite, or to go on to law school and work in boardrooms and courtrooms using the tools of philosophy and reason that he had enjoyed so much as an undergraduate.
After college he did neither of those things.
They moved back to my mom’s home town where she got a job in the administration office of the local junior college and he got a job in sales, designing and selling business forms from a little office in downtown Wenatchee. Two years later they had their own house built as a gift by her father, a successful local custom-home builder, and a newborn son.
Two more years went by, and they had begun to chafe at the life they had. They had expected more than small town jobs and small town accomplishments. They expected more of themselves, and they decided to move somewhere and find it. The final choices were Portland, Oregon where they both had family and friends; or San Francisco, a place they’d been on vacation and loved.
The proximity and practicality of Portland won out, and they moved to Vancouver, Washington; close enough to find jobs in Portland, just over the I-5 bridge, and still be Washingtonians.
For my mom, the next five years were a whirlwind. She got a job that she loved working for the Evergreen school district that combined her love for education with her love for getting things done, made close friends who convinced her to submit three chapters and a synopsis to Pocket Books that would eventually launch a career, and had another son despite the “think pink” signs decorating every free inch of her office.
For my dad, Portland was battleground where he would face defeat again and again. His father had worked for the same company for thirty years after leaving college, rising to an executive position through hard work and diligence in the post-war boom of a recovering economy retooling in a time of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard enough. My father faced a series of sales jobs as the youngest guy on the team, always working with fewer leads, fewer contacts and fewer opportunities than the guys already familiar with the territory; and he did it in the teeth of the Carter recession. He worked hard, but he couldn’t ever find the success that was expected of him.
I was six years old the first time I remember going with my dad to his office. I was only there for an hour after school, but I remember sitting in that fake-wood-panel room watching my dad cold-call in the ugly florescent light. I have never seen a caged animal look more miserable.
Like any purgatory, this one was temporary. He saw the job ending long before anyone told him to pack up his desk. He’d swallowed his pride and talked about the situation with his father a couple of weeks earlier when we’d visited for Thanksgiving, and a possible plan had been born:
Taking his retirement fund and his pension, my Grandpa had decided to open his own Insurance Agency in Boise. He had thirty years experience underwriting coverage, and he decided he could do better agenting the coverage he already knew. He offered my dad a chance to move to Boise and get his agent’s license, then work against commission for any business he could bring in.
Tired, beaten, and about to be out of work; this was good enough for my dad.
This was NOT good enough for my mom.
When my dad proposed, my mom said “yes, as long as I never have to move to Boise.” It sounds cute, but she wasn’t joking. In a world where my mom achieved so much to be proud of, she was never what my grandmother expected for her son. My grandmother expected a stay-at-home wife with dinner on the table and a smile on her face. What she got was a career woman who couldn’t boil water (that’s not overstatement) and found the stove to be an enemy to be defeated, not a tool to be used. My grandmother’s great talent wasn’t her cooking or her sewing or her perfectly kept house; it was her ability to render my intelligent, professional, successful mother completely insufficient deep down in her own heart and soul.
The real reason my mother refused to move to Boise wasn’t the lack of a Mall, or the tiny job market, or the brutal two-season weather, or even just the smallness of everything about it…no, it was the fact that her mother-in-law could stop by unannounced at any moment. She couldn’t face living close enough for my grandmother to drop in with a casserole and a smiling barb about the condition of the floors or the clutter on the counters.
So it came to a head. My father left one afternoon, ostensibly to find a place for us to live when we got there; and my brother and I stayed with my mom, ostensibly while she tried to sell their beloved home. I certainly wasn’t fooled, and honestly, neither was anybody else. We lived for four months on Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, dry cereal, and Mission Macaroni and Cheese. After the first time, it was decided that I would make the Macaroni and Cheese from then on, once we got a new pot (see “can’t boil water” above).
I don’t know what changed. At some point she missed him more than she hated the thought of Boise. I know he hated every minute apart, but he was determined not to fail again. He felt he had one more chance at success, and he expected himself to find it. He demanded himself to find it. At all costs.
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my friends and “move to some tiny town in the middle of nowhere” (to quote my mom). It would be years before either my mom or I ever forgave him, even a little, for any of it. We were more like angry prisoners than willing participants, and he knew it. Every minute of every hour of every day. It was just one more thing telling him he wasn’t successful.
For my mom, things got better. After one miserable job for a miserable ass-hole on the top of the mole-hill that was Boise politics, my mom had sold enough books to become a mainstream writer for Pocket Books. She went on to have a successful career, win awards and make friends and fans around the world, and make better money than anyone expected. It even helped with my grandmother, as she ended up working from home, which was close enough to “stay at home mom” for my grandmother to back off and allow her to have her “writing hobby” without too much interference or too many askance looks over family dinners.
But it wasn’t my Dad’s success. He was happy for her, and he certainly enjoyed the income, but deep down he was still struggling against the failures of his own expectations, and the expectations of the father that had given him a second chance. I remember very little about my dad during this period except for his stress and frustration, and his attempts to build a bond with his son’s by taking them camping. Other than that, his eyes were focused away from us and on other things. Much of our day-to-day stuff fell to my mom and onto her overcrowded desk; and when she was working against a deadline, much of that stuff fell to the wayside.
Including my application to a Catholic high school with a competitive admissions process.
My parents presented a unified front when they came to me and told me that the application had arrived too late, and that mistakes had been made, and they were sorry. My mom was crying, and I know she meant every word. My father didn’t have the patience for it, and simply thundered back at my protests that I was “expected to live up to the people who gave me my name” and “appreciate the opportunities I was being given.” The phrase “respect my Adventist heritage” also got tossed around once or twice.
End of argument.
The down-side was that Gem State and Bishop Kelly had significantly different schedules, and school had started three days ago at Gem State. The next day we drove up to the campus, I registered for classes, received a schedule based on openings and not what I wanted to take, and then took my stuff out of the car and hauled it up to the dorm room I’d been assigned; in front of the entire student body milling about after classes. Congratulations, I’m the freak that showed up late. Of all the ways I wanted to start high school, this was pretty much dead last on the list.
I set down the last box of books and clothes on the thin mattress and looked at my dad who was staring out the window that looked over Montana Ave and out across the Treasure Valley. He turned to face me and held out his hand, offering a handshake between men to his oldest son.
“I lived in this very room for four years when I was your age. You’ll do well here. Our family has always done well here. Something to build on.”
Our faces reflected each other’s unspoken misery in the cheap fluorescent light, each of us trapped in a cage forged from the same expectations.
[Word Count: 3100]