Mom and Dad Create the World 2
The American century (20th) followed the arc of our immigrant families that peopled the East Coast and midwest in the late 19th and early 20th century. Indeed, the vibrancy of the US economy as it grew through the 40’s and 50’s into a world power must be attributed in large degree to second and third generation immigrants acceptance of hard work, even through poverty, their dedication to bettering their families’ situations, their expectation — their hope — that their children would be entirely different from themselves (what a bold concept!) — better educated, safer, more integrated (less prejudice), and graced with more opportunity.
And, of course, it was not only immigrants: the American identity from our earliest ancestors (all also immigrants) included willingness to meet the greatest poverty, privations, and existential threats in order to live out their ideals of religious and political liberty, and freedom from tyranny. They also were frequently imbued by their various religions a Calvinistic belief in hard work and reward.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the pattern of immigrant integration was a familiar one. From the first generation to the second, these immigrant families vaulted from huddled cultural/language communities to an identified American cohort (my parents) of young English-speaking children eager to seek their fortune in the “land of opportunity.” From that second generation to their children (my generation) was an equally vast gap due to the fact that, uniquely in America, this 2nd generation and their hard work and drive, living through a great crushing Depression and World War II, and with the intervention and support of the US Government, had created an entirely new world.
The story of my parents part in the creation of the Modern World is similar to so many others: two very different people from different cultures meet cute and survive, gaining skills, having children, and ascending the ladder of economic success. In addition, the striking and courageous mobility of those young people settled vast swaths of the Western US and Alaska, departing willingly and sometimes willfully, from cultures and communities of origin. They became adventurers, Americans!
My dad, having escaped from the Iowa farm by riding the rails, was in Alaska, working on the Al-Can (Alaska-Canada) Highway in the late 30’s/early 40’s. He was declared 4-F for military service. A government sponsored project, the Al-Can brought my Dad into direct contact with the kind of government foolishness described in Catch-22 and other books of the period, but also with the successful completion of that major project over time. He also gained the opportunity to acquire skills that would see him through the rest of his life (development, construction, and managing people). After the Al-Can, he moved to Nome and Anchorage where he lived his long-time dream of becoming a mountain man: hunting, fishing, hiking through wild Alaska; alternated with gambling, building houses and carousing when he returned to civilization.
Through his sister, he heard about this petite, brainy, red-haired violin prodigy she was rooming with. My dad had his sister ask if the prodigy would like a pen pal relationship… The answer was yes.
My mom was, against all odds, also living out her dream. She had enrolled in the music conservatory at Illinois Wesleyan, made possible by a working scholarship and completion of high school. Her father and mother were finally, at the end of the depression, embarked on careers as teachers and professors in secondary and university education, and had been able to move away from their depression cabin in Kentucky. Then mom began her letter-writing with an ungainly mountain man born to an Iowa farm, and now living the wild life in Alaska. Beauty and the Beast.
This fairy-tale pen pal story was underlaid, however, with darker lessons that my Mom was learning. Not positive ones that my Dad had naturally acquired. My mom learned, instead, that it was unlikely that any major orchestra would hire a woman violinist. That she might have the skills, but she wasn’t the right sex to be a soloist. Maybe the highest she should aim was instead to be a schoolteacher, or part of a string quartet or trio.
And she learned that a world with men in it was not a safe place: she was raped while on a date by her boyfriend in her last year in college — a fact she did not even admit to her family until forty years later. As a man, I frankly can’t claim to know the devastation suffered by a woman who is raped. But I do know from conversation with close friends and family — which even now leave me helpless and bring my heart into my throat — that such a violation and the humiliation of the follow-up tend to create a breakdown, a loss of agency, a disintegration of personality — the slow implosion of every truth she thought she knew.
I can only guess how important this event was in my parents’ marriage. But soon after, my mom started looking at my dad — who was a 6’4” 250 pound mountain man — not as a witty farm boy curiosity who became a pen pal, but more as a potential husband and protector who promised change and escape from the oppression she was feeling. So, when he came to Chicago after two years of letters, to meet her face to face for the first time, and proposed marriage, she accepted. And her fate joined with all the other women of the era, who were suddenly being encouraged put aside their individual competencies and dreams to marry and have children — the baby boom!!!
After a child, and a life made in the farthest place from Florida she could get, a life beside a rebel and inveterate gambler who was still living out adolescent fantasies of being a mountain man, my mom made a last ultimatum. Our family put roots down in a small town in central Washington State. It was the closest my dad could get to hunting, fishing and manly pursuits, but closer to my mother’s home and family. They settled there in 1948, enlarged the family to four boys, became rooted in their new community, and remained there for the rest of their lives.