I was seventeen when my school’s Future Farmers of America team won the national dairy judging competition and our basketball team was runner up for the state Class B championship. Two guys on the basketball team were also on the FFA team and milked the cows before school.
I was also seventeen when I wrote my first personal interest story for the big city newspaper, for which I was the teen reporter. The city was twelve miles and a long-distance phone call away. My first efforts as a reporter had been heartlessly edited, but the editor loved this story, providing a photographer and featuring my story top-of-the-fold in the Sunday edition. Sadly, the subject of my story passed away prematurely of mysterious causes.
I took up drawing old houses and picturesque barns. Several were chewed up and spit out by tornados or fell to the wrecking ball. For reasons I cannot fathom people began asking me not to write about them or draw their houses, barns, or boats. Especially their boats.
I grew up in the Michigan fruit belt in a town that was only six blocks wide, bordered by the river on one side and the mill race on the other. The area was a mishmash of cultures. Migrant workers arrived every summer from places like Laredo and Tupelo. Many stayed. The local stores had records in English, Mexican Spanish, and Polish. My great uncle spoke Dutch. The neighbors on the corner spoke German. My friend Yolande spoke Spanish. The town had two doctors and a Cherokee medicine woman, Princess Carella Redfeather, who was my Aunt Christine’s best friend. Aunt Christine was Potawatomi. I grew up thinking that humans came in a variety of wonderful flavors, like ice cream.
Our home was multigenerational, and additional family members came and went for varying lengths of time: days, weeks, or months. Eight of us first cousins lived within five blocks of each other. No play dates, no formal invitations. If you showed up around one o’clock on Sunday, we just put extra plates on the table.
Five colleges suffered my presence. I got degrees from two. I had five different majors before I settled on two so I could graduate. As I descended from the podium after graduating magna cum laude, Mama didn’t say “Congratulations.” She said, “Whew! I never thought you’d finish!” But what can you expect from a kid who grew up in a house full of books ranging from Shakespeare and Steinbeck to Sinclair Lewis, James T. Farrell, Mickey Spillane and heavy tomes on chemistry and snakes? I was interested in everything.
I’ve survived a number of disasters, some of them acts of God, some strokes of fate, and, some (alas!) of my own making. Close calls adjust one’s perspective. Troubles open your heart. A source of profound joy for me is the opportunity to empower others to be all that they can be.