Note: this post is one of four I adapted from a talk given to the Unitarian Church in their continuing session “Tea and Odyssey,” an exploration of people’s journeys through life.
My early life
My grandparents were farmers, born in Missouri. They migrated to Nebraska to raise wheat, chickens, and families. Their ancestors were farmers all the way back to the Middle Ages in England and what became Germany. To care for their crops, livestock, farms, and families, they learned to do everything for themselves, and not to depend on anyone. During the Depression they followed that ethic and passed it on to their children, even when it meant cutting themselves off from a community that could help them. My parents taught me the same values.
My parents had two boys: My brother Roger, 3 years older, and me. We grew up in Southern California, where my father worked for the aircraft industry. My parents stressed education and wanted both of us to graduate from college even though they hadn’t until much later. Roger got a football scholarship to Whittier College, and I got an academic scholarship to UC Berkeley. He went on to become a Clinical Psychologist, and I started working in the computer industry after college. I earned a master’s degree in Computer Science much later.
Like many Midwestern farm people, my parents didn’t talk a lot, held back their feelings, and avoided arguments. I learned to copy them and didn’t learn to express myself until I was older. My father in particular didn’t give us much affection. He came from a broken home. His father married young, left his wife and children, and literally ran off to join the carnival. I never met my grandfather. When he died in 1952, he owned a traveling carnival in California. Maybe because of that, my father disliked entertainment as a career, and he discouraged my love for performing music.
They read a lot and encouraged us to read. My mother took me to the library on a regular basis, two miles away from our house, and saw that I never had an overdue book. By eight years old I had read every Laura Ingalls Wilder and Doctor Doolittle book in the children’s section, and I was sneaking into the adult section to read science fiction.
Strong beliefs about right and wrong formed their moral code. Not stealing or lying were the obvious rules. I was a kid, so naturally I broke them. One day in 4th grade, I stole a quarter from my mother’s dresser where she kept change, walked two blocks to the candy store, filled up with as much as I could think of (and still had change). I cut school with a friend, and we hid under a bridge, ate the candy, and told each other dirty jokes. I don’t remember getting caught and punished, so I must have pulled it off. Despite my wayward impulses, I managed to learn moral and ethical rules, and eventually I briefly majored in Philosophy at Berkeley and studied ethics.
Nominally, my parents were Methodists, although they never said much about it, and I can’t remember them ever attending church. They dropped me off at Sunday school when I was in 4th or 5th grade. I sat in the back with a fellow rebel and made snide comments. I didn’t like the teacher, and I suspected she was insincere about liking us. Later in Minneapolis, an offshoot from the antiwar movement was called the Jesus Freaks. They influenced me to study the New Testament to see if it supported Liberation Theology. I didn’t reach any firm conclusions and gave up the effort.