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Friday, March 8, 2013

Teetering On The Edge

In this photo taken in the early 1950s, the neighborhood boys mug for the camera, using candy cigarettes, wax teeth, fake moustaches, and what looks to be some kind of prosthetic tongue to assume an imagined adult male persona. My brother Bill, standing third from the right, embraces classmate Brian who was one of his many best friends and for a time lived with us when his widowed mother was facing financial hardships. My brother Steve, born in 1949 and at this point thrilled to be included with the big boys, kneels on the left next to Mark, the boy with achromasia who wanted to be part of our family.  Within a few years time Steve would have gladly traded places with Mark. 

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw and learned about them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who have been enjoying the background stories about Neenah and its millionaires, I promise you'll find this chapter just as engaging and part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link us all together.


On Brookside Drive my brothers spent most of their childhood out on the street with plenty of friends and - with the exception of Mr. Burleigh's shaking fist and voluble imprecations - little in the way of direct adult supervision or timely intervention.  Footballs flew into Mrs. King's garden and decapitated her prize roses, a running hose was surreptitiously stuck through an unguarded open window at the Shaul's house, and at a nearby construction site several kegs of nails were turned over, on this occasion precipitating a visit by the police. And these being the days before leash laws, the frequent discovery of a dog pile inevitably led to its being thrown at any other children who happened to be in close proximity - usually but not always foreign to the neighborhood. 

At our home, to which these boys frequently retired (more often than not when retreat was the better part of valor), the activities had a decidedly more creative bent, due in large part to Bob's less aggressive nature and more fertile imagination. In the back yard there might be a hole being dug to China, or an expedition being conducted into the dark recesses of the crawl space under the house. Coming inside they might run the front loading washer with the door open just to see what would happen, or bring in a dead cat to be autopsied, or get the car horn stuck after being expressly told not to go in the garage.  And while all this might evoke images of Beaver Cleaver or Opie Taylor, Mom, being the principal caretaker, had a slightly different take on things. 

"Someone was always kicking, biting, crying, scratching, throwing up or looking for something to eat," she would later recall.

A portion of this chaos was due to Dad, who in spite of the number of children he had fathered was not much interested in taking an active role in raising them.  He was focused instead on the resumption of his deferred teaching career at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, an ivy-covered Presbyterian institution which in spite of the name was located across the bay in San Anselmo. Dad was a graduate of the seminary and had been a teaching assistant there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Now five years later, with the war over and pastoral service in the coastal farming community of Watsonville behind him, he was back teaching speech part time and working on a doctoral degree that would open the door to a professorship, tenure, and for Dad the highly attractive perquisite of faculty housing (having no compelling interest in home ownership as part of his make up).

Dad took a more active interest in his children only at the point when they were old enough to share in his enjoyment of fishing and hunting, which eventually included some of their friends and even a few of their fathers. As these bonds of trust and friendship deepened, the excursions evolved into pack trips up into remote tracts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a perspective that would shape the outlooks and life goals of all these boys. Dwain, for example (shown here with Bill and Dad after an early and less demanding hunting expedition), told them he wanted to become a forest ranger, a career that countered his mother's expectations but that he eventually pursued. When I look at photos like this one it become clear to me that these are the only occasions where Dad smiled with such genuine peace and contentment. 

The seminary also provided Dad with the opportunity of developing its groundbreaking religious broadcasting program,  first in radio and then later television. This involved travel to Chicago and Hollywood to attend classes in scriptwriting and broadcasting at the University of Chicago and the Columbia Broadcasting School. After that came setting up the curriculum, organizing an international church news wire service, and stumping around the country for donations to underwrite the construction of studios in the seminary’s new multi-million dollar library. As the youngest member of a faculty made up of old men at the end of their academic careers, Dad was the golden boy and young turk, and as such the protégé of seminary president Jesse Baird. Pretty heady stuff for anyone still in his early thirties.

In Dad's absence the only dependable adult presence at home was Mom, who had grown up with only an older sister and had little understanding of how to handle the mob of grammar school boys that were regularly encamped at our house. Her job as a de facto single parent was made no easier by my brothers who were not in the least bit afraid of her - that is until the time Dad had been flown out for the better part of a week, ending up in New York City. Calling home to report that he was staying at the Waldorf Astoria (while she had been home tending to the ever increasing bedlam) Mom lost it - or rather she discovered an inner chamber in the private recesses of her demure soul that gave her immediate power over the world around her, a power that proved to be handy from time to time throughout her life.

Grabbing Bob and Bill by the scruff of their necks while in the midst of what was escalating into a particularly fierce pitched battle between siblings, she dragged the two of them into the room they shared and made them lay out their best clothes. From there she marched them back to the kitchen, yanked open the knife drawer, and directed them to go kill each other out in the garage. "I'll hose the blood out into the street and then call the undertaker, and when he gets here I'll show him where your bodies are and let him know where to find the clothes to bury you in." Left standing alone in the ominous silence of a darkened garage, each with a knife in hand, my brothers barely uttered another sound until Dad returned home, happy to receive any punishment he would dole out for their bad behavior as a fair price for being rescued from the clutches of a mad woman. To this day they recall the incident with a respectful silence.

Dad was temperamentally guarded and a hard man for anyone to connect with on a personal level, especially other men.  Through the friends of his kids, however, he fell in several fathers who liked to fish and hunt as much as he did.  One of them was Dwain's step-father, Walt Lampson.  A veteran of World War II and chief mechanic at a Pontiac dealership, he and Dad developed a mutual respect and real enjoyment of each other's company, the closest Dad ever got to having a best friend. Walt even installed a replacement bumper on our car because the old one was rusty, and Dad respected Walt's opinion enough to buy the Pontiac station wagon, the only car Dad ever bought new. Not long after we left Brookside Drive, however, Dwain ran away from home and showed up on the doorstep of our new house on the seminary campus. Thinking it was the right thing to do, Dad called Walt to let him know where Dwain was and to say that he could stay with us until they worked things out. Dwain eventually returned home, but Walt never spoke to Dad again.  The sudden and inexplicable loss of Walt's friendship was a painful slap in the face which Dad never forgot. 

But even when Dad was home, life at Brookside Drive could begin teetering on the edge of chaos in less a moment's notice. A case in point was the Christmas Mom decided to let my brothers participate in decorating the house for the holidays. Following the precepts of an article she read on the subject in a women's magazine, Mom bought a small tree and some unbreakable ornaments so they could do the decorating themselves. It was soon apparent, however, that whoever the author was he or she did not have any children. For while Bill and Bob were capable of placing the ornaments, Dave only succeeded in knocking everything off, which resulted in yelling and shoving, which in turn toppled the little tree over, and that followed by more shoving, yelling and then crying. After six or seven rounds of this, Dad stomped off to the garage and upon his return he nailed the ravaged fir to the floor with a spike. 

Then on Christmas Day, with beautifully wrapped presents from the aunts in Wisconsin piled high around the little tree, the pandemonium began in earnest.  At some point during these proceedings, both Mom and Dad stepped momentarily out of the room (a common story element in most of their accounts of domestic tragedy).  In their absence my brothers decided to be helpful and clean up the mountains of rumpled wrapping paper by stuffing them into the fireplace. This gave Bob the idea of lighting a match, without the requisite appreciation that the damper in the chimney needed to be open. In a matter of moments the house was filled with billowing smoke and the sound of screaming children, the festive holiday coming to an early conclusion when Dad stormed out onto the front porch and pitched the bedraggled little tree out onto the front lawn.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.


  1. Enjoy reading your stories, and seeing the pics, thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Amy. I'm very glad you like them, and I especially appreciated the separate note.