Sunday, January 23, 2011

Uprootings: Towards an autobiography?

Perhaps my least favorite science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein is Job: A Comedy of Justice. In it the lead characters keep getting yanked abruptly from one version of the universe to another, and from one location on earth to another, without any rhyme or reason. I wonder if my distaste for this novel reflects the abrupt discontinuities in my own life, discontinuities which I can only call “uprootings.”

My first two uprootings I do not consciously remember.

Being born, of course, is an experience shared by everybody. A consciousness thrust abruptly into a universe of space and time, a new baby, finds the world a “blooming, buzzing confusion” as the philosopher-psychologist William James so colorfully put it. It takes us all a while to be able to make sense of what is going on, like a projected slide that is totally blurred and then gradually brought into sharper and sharper focus. And then, just when I probably was starting to get my bearings, whammo!

This second uprooting occurred when, at age 2, my father jumped from being a high school band conductor in Adrian, a very small town in the boondocks of Depresssion-era eastern Oregon, to become an engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. West coast to east coast. Peacetime to wartime. Small town to big town. Poverty to moderate prosperity. This, I also do not consciously remember, though it must have been quite a shock at the time. For the life of me, I cannot remember how my mother and I got to Washington, D.C. from Oregon, though it must have been by train---air travel was not the thing, back then, and she didn’t learn to drive until I was 17 years old. Dad had gone on ahead, due to wartime urgency. This was in 1942, after Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II.

I can only remember a few details about life in Washington, D.C. A bright spot was eating lunch with my mother at the children’s restaurant at Woodward and Lothrup department store----they served rice, which I dearly loved and must not have gotten at home. I also remember the spectacular electrical storms during the tropical summers, and I had not become afraid of lightning yet as I did later when we had returned to Oregon, so I would watch them out the window with great interest. I do remember a stray dog that was a great favorite of mine running around in the rain during such storms, and how my folks unsuccessfully tried to get me away from the window when the police came out and shot the dog, which upset me greatly.

At one point I came down with measles and had to stay in the dark for days on end, as it was thought that light during this disease would damage the eyes. Dad had a shortwave receiver that I played around with during this time, though I have no recollection of what I listened to. At another point I was sick enough to have an antibiotic prescribed, probably when they first came on the civilian market. There were no pills, so my mother had to jab me in the fanny with a needle to give it to me.

When I started school I learned to dread going off on the bus. Older kids once took one of my shoes away and threw it out a window. I was so scared that I couldn’t learn much, and was nearly held back in the first grade because I couldn’t learn to read. Still, Washington, D.C. was the only place that I could remember living.

My third uprooting was in 1946 when Dad’s work at the Naval Research Lab (the development of airborne radar) came to an end and we moved back to Oregon, where he again became a high school band conductor in Redmond. Redmond at 3,000 people was much bigger than Adrian but much tinier than Washington, D.C. I can remember this period, our journey across the U.S. by car, learning to read by reading road signs and ads flashing by.

Life in Redmond was very different from life in wartime Washington, D.C., and the difference was all positive in my book. I haunted the local library, learned to swim, took piano lessons, learned to ride a bicycle, started playing the clarinet, joined the Boy Scouts, went to church potlucks with my parents and younger brother, had a few friends. Life was not bad!

And then my fourth uprooting hit me from the left and from the right in 1952 at age 12. My grandfather deLespinasse, age 72, suffered a stroke in March that left him paralyzed on his left side and requiring constant help. My grandmother couldn’t handle it by herself, so as soon as school let out I was bundled off 150 miles to their residence in Hubbard to help take care of him. Hubbard was a town of 600 where I knew nobody my own age and couldn’t leave the house for more than a few minutes to bicycle downtown for the mail or to do a little shopping for the household.

I spent the whole summer in this depressing situation, becoming so bored that I listed to every word of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions that ultimately nominated Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower, a rather unusual activity for a 12 year old. I very much looked forward to returning home to Redmond at the end of the summer, but it was not to be. Dad had decided to leave teaching and go back into electronic engineering, a decision that required him to move frequently from one project to another for the next several years. Rather than uprooting the family several times a year, Mom and I and my brother moved to Salem, which I suppose was to be closer to Hubbard (20 miles) than we would have been in Redmond, but also had more job opportunities for Mom and more cultural opportunities for all of us.

Of course this move was a shock, since I was cut off without even being able to say goodbye to friends in Redmond, and I knew nobody my own age in Salem. But at least the move was before school started, so I did not have the pain of changing schools in the middle of the year.

The next uprooting came in 1955, when Dad’s professional travels came to an end and he landed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California. It was nice to have the whole family together again, but this time our move came during the school year. I was a sophomore in high school in Salem, but in Vallejo the sophomore year was still in the junior high school and the high school only accommodated the juniors and seniors. So I was back in junior high school, a terrible shock! And the class I had been doing best in, bookkeeping, in Salem, wasn’t even offered at my new school, so I had to drop it. Once again, I knew no one my own age, and as usual found it difficult to make friends, though I finally did make a few.

My next uprooting came when I graduated from high school in 1957, and it was the first one where I had anything to say about where I would put down my new roots. When I had gone to the University of California in Berkeley to take the S.A.T. they had put us at first in a big classroom that held 750 students. Then we were broken up into smaller groups and put in “small” classrooms that only held 200 students! This convinced me that I did not want to attend a large university. Since my parents had met in a physics lab while students at Willamette University and Willamette was in Salem, Oregon, a town where I already knew my way around, I applied there and only there. It is a good thing they accepted me!

At the same time I relocated to Willamette my folks moved for a year to the Philippine Islands, where my father was managing a military electronics project for RCA, his employer. Although I had two aunts in Salem and my grandparents 20 miles away in Hubbard, I immediately became pretty much on my own as a result of this uprooting. But I thrived at Willamette, did well academically, got to know lots of people and made some good friends. I really did not want to graduate, but of course that had to happen.

However at the beginning of my senior year a couple of faculty members had me come in and asked if I had considered going to graduate school and becoming a college teacher. In all honesty, the idea had never occurred to me. I hadn’t known any college teachers become coming to Willamette, and people usually don’t think about becoming a college teacher when not even sure they will graduate. However my original goal of going into the U.S. Foreign Service (which is why I had taken three languages at Willamette---Spanish, French, and Russian) had become less attractive thanks to my work the summer before my senior year as a management intern for the Oregon state government, which had paid well and was educational but not habit-forming. Also, the thought of being able to hang around college all my life was very attractive since I had enjoyed my four years at Willamette so much!

So I applied for graduate school at five places (U. of Oregon, U. of Washington, M.I.T., Harvard, and Johns Hopkins), was accepted at all five, and ended up going to Johns Hopkins because it and M.I.T. had offered the best financing and the Willamette faculty convinced me that the program at M.I.T., though excellent, was not appropriate for someone who wanted to teach political science at a school like Willamette. Going to Johns Hopkins was probably a mistake on my part, as it turned out, but it was a very productive mistake and I don’t think my subsequent career would have been at all the same if I had not gone there. (Of course it might have been better, but I am not so sure about that.)

The shock of moving from Willamette U. to Johns Hopkins makes the term “uprooting” seem totally inadequate, but this time (like when I went to Willamette) I had done it all by myself and had no one else to blame. All my friends were at Willamette or scattered around the country in other graduate schools. Willamette was a small friendly school, and its political science department a small friendly department. Johns Hopkins, though not large by major graduate school standards, was larger, and the political science department was very “cold”. The faculty for the most part not only neglected the undergraduates, but they paid as little attention as possible to the graduate students. There was no sociability to speak of, no invitations to dinner in faculty homes. For the most part the other graduate students in the department did not socialize much, either.

I finally got to be quite good friends with one other graduate student and did some visiting with other Willamette graduates who were in grad schools up in the New York/New Jersey area. But Christmas dinner my first year was by myself in a Chinese restaurant, the only place I could find open on that holiday. To make things worse, the novelist Ayn Rand came in to give a talk, and to prepare for that I read her novel Atlas Shrugged, which sank me into a very bad depression! (Later, though, I used that book to good effect in a special class at Adrian College.)

1 comment:

  1. This is a great start at an autobiography. Keep it coming!!


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