When Professor Bowman asked if I’d be willing to tell a story, I said, “yes,” because that’s what I tend to do. I agreed to do Mortar Board’s Last Lecture one year without knowing what it was and went to the end of the year celebration for Beta without realizing that I was being honored. But, I didn’t know what story to tell. I have a lot of stories that I tell students in class, but those tend to be very short and everyone has heard them multiple times.
I finally figured out what to tell you today when I was reading The Shining at the end of the summer. I’m not going to tell you a horror story, but my story will be about a little boy and family and it partly takes place in Colorado.
And, I’m not sure the story is going to have the kind of bang the theme calls for, but it does deal with something that has hit me with a bang several times throughout my life.
When I was a very small boy, my parents broke up. They never really should have married each other and everyone around them knew that before they got married. But they did and if they hadn’t, there’d be no me. So it’s a good thing, I suppose, that they did. They were separated when I was still a baby and divorced when I was two. Not long after they divorced, my dad moved out of our small hometown to the “big city” of Fort Wayne, Indiana, about a half hour away. I would visit him every other weekend and sometimes he would be in town seeing his family. But, already there was a good deal of distance between us.
After a few years, he remarried and he and his new wife moved to Denver. The emotional distance was enhanced with physical distance.
The summer after kindergarten, he arranged for me to come and visit for two weeks. I should say that I have never liked being away from home. I still find even the best vacations difficult because I’m not in my own bed around my own things following my routine. Still, this was a big adventure for a little kid.
So, my mom and grandparents drove me to the airport in Fort Wayne. I flew for the first time. This was when flying was a lot more pleasant than it is now: big seats, full meals with real plates and flatware, the whole deal. And, if you were a kid flying alone, you got wings and to visit the cockpit and the cabin crew checked up on you all of the time, like a VIP, all of it very exciting for six-year-old towheaded me. I remember being excited and I remember the man who sat next to me. He talked to me through the whole flight and entertained me. I remember him teaching me how to write my name in Korean, even though it must have been exasperating being seated next to a little kid.
Anyway, I got to Denver and my dad picked me up at the old Stapleton airport. I don’t remember much about the time I was there on that visit. I remember more about later trips, including one where the trip out was by Greyhound, but I do remember going to work with him a few times on that first trip. He was a schoolteacher, but he hadn’t found a teaching job yet, so, at the time, he was driving a bookmobile. I can still picture the old school bus that had been painted sky blue with a scene of clouds and balloons and filled with shelves of children’s books.
What I can remember vividly is how miserable I was. I didn’t like what I was fed; they made me eat breakfast and it always involved both eggs and syrup either on pancakes or waffles or French toast, none of which I was used to eating. I’m still not much for a daily breakfast. And, my dad’s wife really like to attempt Chinese food. Nothing was like I was used to and I wasn’t at home.
I cried. A lot. I cried when I was trying to fall asleep at night, but I also cried a lot during the day. I was homesick and there was nothing my dad could do about it. We aren’t a particularly demonstrative or talkative people; I don’t think he knew what to do or what to say. And, though we’re obviously related, we just weren’t family to each other.
He had tried as well as he could, but it didn’t work. And, he was mad.
We’ve gone through long periods, once almost two decades, where we haven’t talked to each other at all. But now we’re perfectly happy to be in the same room almost talking.
So, he called my mom. That wasn’t easy. She had gone to the lake cabin of a coworker, a pretty big vacation for her. In the era before cellphones or even answering machines, it took some effort to get ahold of her and to arrange my early return. Instead of a two-week stay, I was on my way back home after just a week.
I remember getting home, after the flight and the drive from the airport, and getting back to my neighborhood. I grew up on a street that only ran two blocks between the two main streets in my small hometown. It was a quiet street and I was an only child of a single mother when that was still an uncommon thing, so I spent most of my free time going from house to house and hanging out with adults. Next door to us lived the Tacketts, Uncle Ben and Aunt Ginger, and their two daughters who used to watch me when mom was at work. Next to them were the Dolbys, who I called the Doblys. She taught me to read when I was three. There were other Dolbys across the street, his brother. Mrs. Johnson whose husband had gone to prison forty years before—a thing no one forgets in a small town—was directly across the street. She used to give me the toys out of cereal she bought for her visiting grandchildren. Then there was the house on the corner with old Mr Ray. He had had a stroke and I would walk over on summer nights and sit with him on their front porch and talk to him. He never talked back, but he’d smile at me with his eyes. And, I haven’t thought about him in four decades.
Anyway, the first thing I asked for when I got back home was to see Uncle Ben. I had gotten a new bicycle earlier in the year, for my birthday I think. It was a sweet red Schwinn, with a sparkled paint job. We’d gotten it for free because the owner of the bike shop had a habit of not cashing checks. But, the bike still had its training wheels.
I wanted Uncle Ben because I wanted him to take them off. I wanted to really ride my bike. And, he did. And, I did. I don’t know whether I wanted to show that I was growing up even though I hadn’t been grown up enough to go away for two weeks, but it was super important to me to show that I could ride that bike.
It wasn’t just my mom that I had missed, though I’m sure my dad thought I was a mama’s boy. She lives in San Diego now, so maybe. It wasn’t just my house or my things or my routine. It was my family that was missing. And, that family wasn’t just people I was related to. It was the people around me who mattered and to whom I mattered. They were the people I belonged to. They were home.
Through most of my life, I’ve felt like I didn’t quite belong in the way I was supposed to, but there’ve always been people around who felt like, and were, family. At least sometimes, to bastardize Madonna, family’s where you find it.