~ The Beginning ~
On May twenty-first, 1946, at Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a decent hour and with dispatch, I entered the scene. I knew right from the start that I was okay; it was the rest of the world that worried me.
World War II had just ended. In fact, President Harry Truman didn’t officially declare the end of the war until I was seven months old. Other events of this auspicious time included: Emperor Hirohito of Japan declared that he wasn’t a god; people paid ten cents for a loaf of bread while the minimum wage was forty cents an hour; the US military was racially segregated; and one of the best songs on the Hit Parade was “The Gypsy” by the Ink Spots.
Growing up in the middle of it all was me, asking questions and looking for answers. I wanted to use my turn wisely yet in the background my personal clock was already ticking. How best to live my allotted days? Does life, especially human life, have an essence, some quality that makes it special? Is the meaning of life personal or is it the same for everyone? Is there wisdom I need to know to live my best life? This is my account of what I eventually figured out.
Famous people have biographers to tell their stories. Others—those with free time, a tale to share and a way with words—compose an autobiography or memoir. A memoir by an unknown like me suggests either an inflated ego or a genuine belief that I have something important to share. Unfortunately, a flotilla of others has similar beliefs. Neil Genzlinger, in a New York Times article three or four years ago, “The Problem With Memoirs,” complained:
“Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every¬one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under¬privileged child or been an under¬privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.”
I wrote this memoir because of two realizations: 1) I learned that anyone can be your teacher, which means I may have something of value for you and 2) my ordinary life turned out more profound than I had any right to expect. Given my modest talents I have lived an extraordinary life. I am content and wish that for everyone.
Realization number one occurred when I was a psychology graduate student in 1969 studying the complexities of human existence at the same time I was in the navy defending our country against communism. While on duty I brought coffee to the officers, wiped their spills off counters and mopped them off floors, emptied ashtrays and, for my official job, copied coded numbers and letters from rough notes onto a clean twelve-by-twenty sheet of paper. I know, not exactly an inspiring defense of American freedoms. During school, however, I conversed with giants and pondered the great issues of humankind. At that time, I was examining the existential question of who is more involved in life, a participant in the thick of things or an observer who can see the big picture.
In the shadowy depths of an empty hangar one afternoon, I was sitting with a fellow sailor on low stacks of airplane tires waiting for our squadron of fighter jets to return. To make things more understandable for someone who wasn’t able to finish high school, I explained my participant-observer dilemma through the metaphor of a basketball game, being either a player or spectator. “Which is a better way to be involved in the game?” I asked my simple friend, expecting him to shrug and say, “I don’t know.” Instead he answered, “It’s whatever you want.” I was silent for a moment, completely taken aback. Of course it’s whatever you want. Why didn’t I see that? In that moment—two guys sitting on airplane tires discussing life—this slight, not very bright young sailor in faded dungarees was my teacher. In the same way my sailor friend enlightened me, I hope to provide something of value for you.
I want to share my search for the meaning of life. What I have written is, to the best of my recollection, true. However, accuracy is not important. A friend of mine once commented on his religion, “It doesn’t have to be verifiably true,” he said about their dogma, “it just has to be right.” In that same spirit, what I’ve written is as right as I can make it. This memoir describes my search and includes a few extra thoughts in the Detritus section and a few sources of inspiration and influence in the section after that.
I define myself as slightly above average, with a few highs and not too many lows. I can’t spell, remember names, faces or phone numbers, or much of anything else, and my mechanical aptitude officially measured in the fifth percentile (which means most household repairs hold the potential for disaster). I was a mediocre scholar, tight with a penny and maybe three times a year I behave like a complete jerk.
On the plus side, I’m a fair to good athlete, am compassionate, hardworking and willing to admit mistakes. As for intelligence, I’d be welcomed at a Mensa meeting, but my mental firepower is tempered by a severe case of naivety, maybe even outright gullibility. I’m good in the present, pretty much forget the past, and don’t do well understanding the nuances of the future. I’d make a terrible strategist in just about everything.
However, on most measures of ability and other definable human characteristics, I’m above average. I don’t think I’m great in anything, but I’m below average in only a few relatively unimportant areas. Letter grade-wise, I rate myself an uninflated B.
Although in the larger world I’m above average, in my family I am not. My four-year-old granddaughter declared confidently that my poor memory was because I “have the smallest brain in the family.” I believe she is right. My brain is shrinking more each day and now is the time to tell my story before it is too late and my brain disappears altogether.
Which brings us to the issue of my story being of benefit to you. What good is reading the memoir of an above-average guy who is below average in his own family? Memoirs should be written by interesting people about interesting things or according to Neil Genzlinger, not written at all. I’m not very interesting, while over the past three thousand years or so very famous and very wise men and women have already written about the big questions of human existence. What is different here is that the insights I have gained allowed this slightly above-average person to live an extraordinary life. The New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra once said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That’s pretty much what I have been able to do, many times.
For me (and everyone else), the main challenge of life has been to finally understand who I am, to accept who I am and to express what that is. I am and will be the only one of me. I think that’s a big deal. An additional challenge is how to be this unique person given all the pressures and influences of life, and to be the best me, however that can be done. I was lucky; I had excellent teachers, some famous, with whom I could sit down over coffee and learn from. I’ve had the right friends who were willing to share difficult truths. Even those who didn’t like me seemed eager to share their particular insights for my personal improvement. I listened to all of them. I also tried out much of what they suggested and learned from my successes and failures.
This book is the backstory for my earlier book Personal Wisdom which, between the first inklings of the concept and eventual publication, took almost twenty-five years of pondering, discussing and writing. In that book I was concerned about how traditions can keep people rooted in the past and how current fads can push people in wrong directions. I advocated for people to stop being rule followers and become rule makers. I also shared a little of how I acquired personal wisdom; this is the more complete story.
This book acknowledges the finality of death and emphasizes the responsibilities of life. I’ve lost family and friends and know my turn is coming much too soon. I can imagine lying in a hospital bed thinking that I’ve pictured this moment for years and now it’s arrived. It’s an unsettling thought. In that future hospital bed I want to feel the contentment of a life well lived and not regret missed opportunities, the transient rewards of selfishness, a wasted life.
In 1946 the world had some growing up to do and, of course, so did I.
~ My First Great Year ~
I was seventeen. I had a good year when I was fourteen and discovered what girls were all about, but that didn’t last so I couldn’t consider it a great year, especially since my parents refused my pleas to buy a Lambretta motor scooter. Kenny Cox from across the street had one. I can still see him peeling out his driveway in a steep lean and racing down the street. And I can still hear the whine of the engine and the clicks as he shifted gears. Of course, I didn’t have the money to actually buy a scooter, or pay for insurance and gas, and there was no place to park it, but I really, really wanted one.
For the record, this was the kind of year the world was having: first-class postage went from four to five cents; ZIP codes were introduced; the Beatles were gaining fame in Europe; Governor of Alabama George Wallace’s inauguration address included these six uplifting words, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”; radio stations labeled “Louie, Louie” obscene; and the thirty-fifth president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
In 1963, I was just beginning to dream and the vision of Camelot was dead.
I won a tennis varsity letter for being half of the number one doubles team. This allowed me to wear a white letter sweater to school every Friday. It also meant pulling on a leather and felt varsity jacket no matter how hot the morning. I was a jock—junior grade, because it was tennis, not football, basketball or baseball. The redeeming feature was that some tennis players played these sports, which I hoped would give tennis a little cachet. It didn’t, of course, but I was good at tennis and not good at anything else. A varsity letter was worth the stigma.
In my school, taking college prep courses made me one of the early nerds. Some of my neighborhood friends were hoods, looking cool in black slacks and white T-shirts with a pack of cigarettes tucked into one rolled-up sleeve and, most potently, black shoes with pointed toes as sharp as a knife. My mother wouldn’t allow me to wear those points, but finally approved a pair of black Flagg Flyers with an external tongue that flipped up and down to open and close the shoe. At the same time, I was enamored of folk music, sad ballads and the self-image of being a deep-thinking beatnik, which I became simply by wearing a dark turtleneck sweater and blue jeans. I dressed any style well enough to be a qualified middle-of-the-pack member of every school and neighborhood clique, no matter how large, small or antisocial.
My life at seventeen was about as satisfying as anyone could ask for. In the early sixties it was good to be male, white, decently smart and living in the suburbs of Detroit. I kept out of trouble and adults seemed to think I was a good kid. Teachers were kind and supportive. I was personable, an odd trait in a teenager. Life was unfolding well.
Here’s how my high school life could be. My biology lab mate, Eddie (as we shall call him, after smarmy Eddie Haskell of TV’s Leave It to Beaver sitcom fame), kept bragging about how superior his lab reports were.
“Hi Bob,” he said one morning. “We got our lab reports back and I got another hundred. You,” he added, pointing to my report sitting on the top of the lab desk, “got an eighty-six, not bad, a solid B.”
“Thanks,” I said, picking up my report and looking inside, which confirmed what he said.
“This is my fifth hundred in a row. I don’t think I’ve gotten anything less than ninety or a ninety-one. My average has to be a ninety-seven or ninety-eight, at least. Have you gotten anything above a ninety yet?”
“We should get our national test results today. I’m really looking forward to finding out how well we did.”
As he said that, our teacher walked into the room and announced that he indeed had our national science achievement test scores. He said we’d all done pretty well and he would hand out the scores later, but there was one surprise he wanted to share. At that point, Eddie was shaking with excitement. This was the news he was waiting for. One student, the teacher said, had done extremely well.
He looked straight at Eddie and said, “Eddie, eighty-seventh percentile nationally, that’s quite an achievement.” Eddie beamed, and looked at me with an expression I can only describe as saying, “I am Mr. Genius (and you’re not).”
The teacher continued. “But that was not the surprise.” He paused for dramatic effect. “One of our class scored at the ninety-sixth percentile.” He looked at me. “Bob, well done.”
I was proud of my humble acceptance of the teacher’s praise, my wry smile toward my fellow students, and my gentle wave to acknowledge the thunderous applause that echoed off the lab walls. I declined being carried down the hallway on the shoulders of my classmates. Never, ever have I been more satisfied with such a karmic outcome. Victory was sweet, but it was a bit sad, too. Comeuppance is a tough experience, especially for someone like Eddie. I didn’t know my own devil’s handshake was only a few weeks away. Got an A in the class, although up to that point I had been grazing in the land of B.
I took our Swedish exchange student to our junior prom. My invitation and our subsequent date were written up in our local paper and included a quarter-page photo. I had heard that Swedish movies included bare breasts and simulated sex. Made me wonder what our exchange student might be interested in doing. As senior class vice president-elect, I was pressured into making sure she had a date, and the date had to be an acceptable example of our school and American culture. I was promoted as the perfect representative of gentlemanly conduct. She was a beautiful blonde with a movie-star figure, so I was happy to ask her and happy when she accepted. She turned out to be a door hanger, didn’t like dancing, didn’t really enjoy the culture of the Motor City and didn’t really like me. Not even a kiss at the door when I took her home. I ended up fulfilling a civic duty and still living midcentury, middle-class American morals.
My social highlight of the year occurred at one of our basketball games. I spotted a girl I had never seen before in the crowd. She was beautiful—her hair, her figure, her smile; I was gob-smacked. Didn’t know it could happen, but it happened to me. We became high school and college sweethearts. I married her right after we graduated from college.
So far, so good. Age seventeen was about as easy and satisfying as it could have been. One moment, however, lasting all of six or seven seconds, took my life down a path I could not have imagined. My emerging worldview and sense of well-being were eviscerated; I took a hit I don’t think will ever heal.
This event had its genesis maybe ten years earlier when I discovered my dad’s small collection of history books, including a two-volume set, World War II in Pictures. With horrified fascination I returned again and again to peer at the photos of double rows of hangings, men slumped at posts after executions and worst, men standing in line, arms tied behind their backs, waiting to roll down a slope to be bayoneted by Japanese soldiers. I had seen photos in magazines of southern blacks with twisted necks hanging from trees so the brutality of death wasn’t new, but the World War II photos were incomprehensible. This was horror on such a colossal scale it didn’t make sense. But that was transient distress; my life at seventeen was filled with the concerns of a teenage male: getting the family car on Saturday night, wishing my face would clear up, camouflaging inconvenient erections and otherwise trying to look cool.
My world changed one afternoon in a social studies course called Intercultural Relations, an advanced class for college prep students. We were studying World War II. The teacher put on a scratchy black and white documentary movie and left the room, headed to the teachers’ lounge for a smoke. We watched the usual bombs falling out of planes, big guns lobbing shells into cities and sides of buildings burning and crashing down into piles of smoky rubble.
Then the scene changed, becoming more intimate and darker. An American pilot was on his knees between two sets of railroad tracks in an industrial area. His head was down. No one else was visible. A Japanese soldier entered from offscreen with a rifle, pointed it at the pilot’s head and pulled the trigger. The pilot slumped to the ground. The soldier walked away. The movie moved on to other portrayals of the war.
I was stunned. I had never witnessed someone actually being killed before. The casualness was horrifying. There was no ceremony like in the movies or on TV. No roll of drums. No blindfold. No final cigarette. The event was as casual as going to the store and buying a loaf of bread. The pilot was alive and then was dead, lying between ordinary railroad tracks outside a factory on a cold, gray day. The soldier who shot him and then walked away could have returned to a delayed breakfast or maybe to a place nearby to shoot someone else, it didn’t matter.
The bell rang and we all gathered our books, three-ring binders, pencils and pens and rambled into the hall to join hundreds of other students.
The image of the pilot and the soldier haunted me down the hallway and to my locker. Other students jostled one another, slammed locker doors, yelled down the hallway, but I heard nothing; only the silence of the pilot lying still and the soldier walking away.
How was I supposed to comprehend this? My only field of battle was a tennis court. It wasn’t even a tough sport like football. In football you smash into people and they smash into you. You try to knock them down and they try to knock you down. You get bruised; maybe there is blood. Excitement multi-plies every second, people in the stands are cheering, standing up as the player runs to daylight, and groaning and sitting when he’s tackled. If you were a player, the next day you’re tired, sore, you can see the black and yellow of your wounds. Football is ceremonial mayhem, the surest and finest road to high school glory.
In tennis we wore tight white shorts, tight white shirts, white socks and white shoes. As gentlemen tennis players, we kept our own score and called our own lines, the ball out or in. One time I hit an overhead smash, really pounded the ball and the other boy called it out. Coach was watching; I was open-mouthed at the call. He had made it clear that he didn’t want any of us wildly smashing at our overhead shots, something we teenage boys did regularly. Coach came over and said, “He really needed to see the ball as out. You keep playing well, and make the correct calls.” He wasn’t mad. I was worried because he’d said that anyone he saw missing an overhead would have to run laps. That was my only concern about the out call, running laps.
Tennis is genteel. If you’re uncertain if the ball is out or in, you make the call to the benefit of your opponent. That’s what we were taught and what all of us on our team did. It was actually fun. Our shot might have hit close to the line and our opponent had to call it good or out. Sometimes they’d admit, “Didn’t see it,” and we would have to call it. Saying “It was out” about our own shot felt good. Opponents often caught on to calling close ones in the other’s favor and we would have a grand match. Some of the other teams didn’t play that way, which gave us added incentive to beat them. Fair was its own reward and dishonesty was a call to action.
Now a man was dead. Twenty years earlier, half a world away, this killing had actually happened. A man, maybe a father, a brother, a husband, certainly a son, was forced to kneel down on the stones between railroad tracks and was deliberately shot in the back of the head. Someone had ordered that this man should die. Others probably watched. A few had to pick up the body and do something with it. A photographer stood to the side to take pictures. This piece of film was intentionally spliced into others to make a documentary that a producer had decided was ready to be seen. Thousands have looked at it. Why me? Why did I have to see it?
I talked to the other kids in the class. Their only concern was which parts of the movie might be on the test.
I felt the absence that was left by the killing. A man wasn’t coming home. No children would be born; any children he had wouldn’t see their father anymore; his wife became a widow. His parents could change the blue star in the front window of their home to gold. Maybe they did; it must have been with a heartbreakingly hollow sense of sacrifice.
My paternal grandfather died in World War I, a victim of mustard gas in the trenches. My maternal grandfather died of a heart attack, collapsing on a street in Glasgow, Scotland, years before I was born. My only uncle on my mother’s side died in London during an air raid in World War II. When I was a child both my grandmothers were still alive and living in Scotland, along with my father’s surviving siblings and half-siblings, maybe eight in all. In my lifetime, death hadn’t visited my family and family wasn’t nearby anyway.
I had no place to put the image of the killing. I had no understanding of what legitimized shooting someone in the back of the head. I had no idea about life beyond my white, middle-class, suburban boundaries.
I didn’t sleep much for a week, didn’t study or go out either. This began the era when my mother noted, “He never smiled.” I wasn’t sad; I don’t think I was even depressed. I was more disappointed that life was so barbaric and man’s inhumanity to man so normal.
Before the movie, I was under the impression that I was growing up in a world that made sense; that leaders knew the right things to do and did whatever that was. I accepted that a few bad people did bad things, but believed that many smart people, smarter and more experienced than I, made smart decisions and the world continually matured. That didn’t seem to be the case. The world man was creating was far from the civilized place I thought it was. But I was a kid; who was I to complain? The world just was and maybe growing up was to accept that.
What made 1963 my first great year was the recognition that I knew nothing of importance. I began the quest to figure out life—where it goes and what to do with it. I could no longer trust that those in charge had some invisible store of wisdom and were taking good care of the world. It seemed that doing the right thing was up to me and I had to figure out what that was. What is the essence of being alive—of being human?
At the same time, my religious faith was faltering under the onslaught of science and boredom. Stories of God sounded more and more like fairy tales. He was either unconcerned or was losing the struggle with the Devil. Everything I had trusted and counted on until that time I found severely wanting.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.