On March 31, 2012 my father became an octogenarian. (That means he turned 80 years old. In the interest of being the family historian – albeit self-appointed, amateur, inconsistent – and since the celebration was held in Phoenix mid-March (because that was a time when those involved with educating or being educated could attend) I thought I’d share about the first time I lived in Phoenix. The info was provided by my dad, because, since I had just turned one year old at the time, I don’t remember much.
Dad was teaching in my home town of Hallock, Minnesota by the Fall of 1958. After graduating from college, he and his brother had completed service in the military, having avoided being drafted during the Korean War because, “we were engaged in saving our country from the godless North Koreans by attending Concordia College, [Moorhead, Min.] maintaining a significant GPA, and passing some sort of academic test (which less than thirty percent of college attendees passed at that time), all of which seemed to exasperate our local draft board secretary, Ed Fitzgerald, a WWII vet who had fallen off the back of two-and-a-half ton truck (duce and a half), never saw any action, and got out of the army with a physical disability … and wanted every young male to do his duty to the country.”
Actually, Dad had come back home to farm, but ended up teaching because making a living at farming (without more land or supplementary income) was impossible. I don’t think that’s much different today. Teachers were in short supply – and there was the answer. After trying to enlarge the farm acreage and not reaching consensus with his farming partner (Uncle Lyndon), he looked for other alternatives to increase income and, since he knew that the school counselor was not going to stay around much longer, thought he would become qualified for that position. In his search to find funding for his Masters degree, he discovered the National Defense Education Act.
The NDEA provided a stipend that was more than his teaching salary at the time, and tax free, besides. He could go get his Masters at no cost to him, using the stipend to move and for living expenses while he was attending school. He was accepted to three programs, but chose the one with the best winter: University of Arizona in Tempe, which had the largest education department west of the Mississippi at that time. The idea was to get the Masters in Elementary Counseling and Guidance, since it met the Minnesota requirements for counseling in either the primary secondary levels.
(Digression: My Dad was the guidance counselor at the high school that I attended – the guy who administered the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the PSAT, SAT and talked to students about attending college and which one might be best for them. I remember being fascinated by all those catalogues when I was a little girl, already planning to attend college by the time I was in first grade. And of course, I loved to get off the bus at the high school to ride home with Dad. He would come out of the faculty lounge smelling of cigarette smoke and a weird combination of wool, floor wax, paper, ink and wintergreen lozenges that he kept in his desk. The secretaries in the office would dote on me, and I could use the typewriter – I think it was a Royal. I wrote my very first poem on that typewriter: “I’m Daddy’s Little Darling.” It remains unpublished.)
And so, in 1966, we five kids and Mom and Dad set off on a four-day trip across the country in a ‘62 Pontiac hard-top with no air conditioning, pulling a very full borrowed trailer. I rode in the front (since I was about the size of a football – okay, maybe two footballs) and the other four rode in the back. I can only imagine the cacophony coming from the back seat. To hear my brother tell the story, we had nothing to eat on the way except Vienna sausages, off-brand Elf soda pop and potato chips. My father insists that we picnicked on those when on outings to Phoenix area parks, and that there was a variety of food available.
We stayed at the Country Club Apartments, a place that now gets mixed reviews, although there’s one here that is pretty stellar. My brother, his wife and I visited the old stomping grounds. I remember very little except having my blanket taken away to be laundered, waking up without it and waiting in front of the dryer until it was done. My sister and I were at home with Mom, who loved to be at the pool. In fact, she saved a kid who rode his tricycle into the water, sinking like a stone. She fished out the kid first, then went back for the trike.
While we were there my oldest siblings attended the Encanto School, which is still there at Osborn and N. 15th Avenue. My oldest sister attended second grade, my brother first and my other brother kindergarten. Kevin broke his arm while we were there but that didn’t stop him from becoming the undisputed and still legendary tether ball champion at Encanto. We visited there, too, but there wasn’t anyone around to give the sort of accolades a former champion deserves, so we had to settle for a photo-op in front of the banner and a portrait of the tetherball grounds taken through the chainlink fence.
By the time Dad finished the program in June of 1967, the ’62 hard-top had been replaced with a Pontiac Vista Cruiser station wagon, the kind with blue-tinted curved glass panels on the roof. The upholstery was powder blue vinyl. This car actually had seat belts – safety belts as we called them – and I know this because I didn’t latch mine all the way one day and ended up falling out of the car because I wanted to watch the ground go by. Right. No need for four kids in the back seat. My brothers were shunted into the two fold-down seats in the very back where they choked on the dust that seeped in the loose rear door and window assembly. On the way back, from Phoenix, we stayed in a cabin at the Grand Canyon (slides of which were always shown at holidays), drove through Yellowstone National Park and visited a family that Mom and Dad had met when he was stationed in Germany.
My father ended up putting in 30+ years in the Minnesota education system. In the late ‘50s, he says that he really wanted out of the classroom, but couldn’t talk his brother into getting more land at the time. It took until the ‘70s to buy more acreage: a farm we called Midway (halfway between Grandpa’s and our home) and one called Prairie View (my great-aunties named that one). He says at one point he thought about leaving farming all together, getting into a city school system and earning a Ph.D., but after the year in Phoenix, he’d “really had enough.”
And besides, as old Arvid Walstad pointed out, teaching gave my dad “something to do in the winter.”