Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Forward: A Stranger in A Strange Land

"... for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land...''

~ Exodus

"Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground ...You will be a restless wanderer on the earth."
~ Genesis

I have come to believe that children are a product of their environment, genetics and their parents. Traits, habits, vices, the "sins of the father" are passed on from one generation to the next. Some absorb the good, some the bad, others a combination of both. This is true with my family, I can see the mark of Cain stamped upon us. While a few of us have found a separate peace, others continue to writhe and contort in agony, spiraling ever downward. So, to begin to understand me, you have to know a little bit about my parents and the families they came from.
Both of my father's parents came from strong, outspoken, authoritarian families. Grandpa Karl came to the US from Switzerland in 1920 and Grandma Bertha’s family came from Germany in the mid-1800’s.
Grandpa was frugal, strict and expected obedience. This was due in part to the times; it was the Great Depression and it was tough to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Despite this he was a bit mischievous and had a good sense of humor and moments of unexpected generosity. But the children were expected to behave, obey commands immediately and to be seen and not heard.

My father was one of seven kids and by all accounts (except his) very ornery from birth and had frequent visits with the thick leather barbers strap in the woodshed. Growing up on a farm is hard work and dangerous, but Grandma used to tick off on her fingers the long litany of Dad's transgressions and when she’d get to her tenth digit she’d stop, sigh, and continue again on the first hand. His accidental brushes with death were numerous and humorous. When he was 17 he answered an ad in the paper looking for experienced cattle handlers. He was so much trouble in school that when he went to his principal to ask permission to leave school for a year, the principal thought it would be the best thing for both of them! He went to Texas and then on to Athens, Greece helping to transport wild mustangs. When he came back to finish school, the Principal told him he still wasn’t mature enough to graduate. Now, most people reading this would say, “Oh, the principal must have had it out for him”, but not if you knew my dad. Looking at him now I realize that he must have had some form of Attention Deficit Disorder. But Grandma strong armed the principal into letting him graduate, he went to college, met my mother, graduated, married my mother, served 4 years in the navy, went to grad school and got his masters degree. It sounds like just your average story, but I am telling you, any one of the above is so fantastically impossible for my Dad to accomplish it would be like me finding a bar of gold in a peanut butter sandwich!

My mother’s father was kind, soft spoken, a Rhodes Scholar, a minister and later a college professor. His ancestors were Protestant Huguenots who emigrated to the "New World" from France in the 1600’s to escape religious persecution. Proud of his heritage, he liked to tell us that there had been a relative in every war beginning with the French and Indian War. Grandpa wrote a book that no one would publish titled “The Mistakes Jesus Made”. Grandma Evelyn's family were farmers, and her father believed that the woman’s place was in the home. Grandma ran away from home to go to college and went on to pick up several degrees and a doctorate.
Grandma Evelyn ran the family with an iron fist too, her words were a knife that cut cruelly deep; if anything, Mom's childhood was much harder than Dad's. Mom grew up to be hard headed like her mother, but compassionate like her father. She disobeyed her mother and chose the university she wanted to go to, then switched and went to nursing school, finally married the man her mother forbade her to marry.

So, the union of my parents brought together two extremely outspoken, hard headed, authoritarian, fairly well educated, dominating personalities. Loud, their whispers were in normal tones, their normal voices almost shouting. And when they shouted the rafters shook! Hardworking, motivated, self centered, both were sure they were right about everything. Brutally honest, tact was something that they both lacked, although Mom would eventually learn it. They probably should have never had kids, but they did. God tried to stop them and succeeding for many years, but my parents found a way around that. In 1958 they adopted me, and then in 1963 they adopted my brother. By then the damage was done, so God threw in the towel and let them have two more kids naturally.

Born in Chicago, over the next six years mine was a Gypsy's life; I lived in four other states besides Illinois. Then in 1965 we left America for a long vacation, a ten year vacation. Nothing was the same after that.Many decades later I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere else, yet the experience influences my life still. I have often wondered how we would have turned out if we had never gone. Maybe my mother's cancer would have been discovered sooner, maybe she would have lived. Maybe family, neighbors and teachers would have shielded us, but I think not. For my brothers at least, I think that perhaps things might have been better, at least on some level. Maybe my father's dreams of title and fortune would have been realized in one of them. As for me, that ten year interlude opened the world to me, it transformed me and showed me a way to break the curse. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything now.

The stories were always there, crying to be held, scratching to come out. Occasionally I would tell my family a story or two and one day my wife said "you need to write these down so our children and grandchildren will have something recorded about your life". I jotted down some anecdotes, but it wanted to be something more. Then a friend asked me to "guest blog" while she was on vacation. I wrote a short piece on what it was like to come back to the States in the summer of 1976; the floodgates were opened and my memories poured out.
These are my recollections of growing up in the Philippines, of good times and bad. I am burdened by a debt I can never repay, to people and places that will never be seen or heard again. Now I see that life is a circle, I see the end of the road in the distance; I am almost back to where I began.

"They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream."
~ Ernest Dowson

1 comment:

  1. Well written! Enjoy your style a lot, keep pushing those keys!