1983: Transition Year

Four years sure seemed like multiple eternities while I was in high school. I am certain minutes had 100 seconds (or was it 120?) and hours contained 100 of those minutes. I must have been out of the country when these units were devalued to collections of sixties.

I was a high school teacher for four years, and that time evaporated. Poof! While teaching those reluctant, inner-city freshman, I spent quite a while on the elements of the short story. I taught, though I bet few remember, that every tale has certain components that, regardless of their apparent diversity, must be present. To be a story, (at least a story of consequence and merit) there must be characters, a plot, a theme, a setting, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a conclusion. Our culture, inundated with snappy but mindless visual media, seems to demand spectacular climaxes, preferably garnished with gasoline trucks exploding, gorgeous women languishing nearby, and aging actors leaping just out of harm's way. Real life does not conspicuously label those turning points.

The climax, or at least the climax so far, for the James Clark family, occurred on April 27, 1983. It was a lovely Wednesday morning. The weather in Boise, Idaho had been unusually warm after a cold winter. Life had undergone many changes in the previous few months. The family of four, my wife Cindy, and our two boys, 4-year-old Llywelyn and 2-year-old Evan, had moved to Boise from Santa Fe, New Mexico a little more than six months earlier. There was a fifth member on the way, expected to arrive sometime in early July. Change was in everything.

The Clarks had left Santa Fe in search of a bit of prosperity. Though New Mexico, was (and still is) among the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth, with weather that must exceed the climate in heaven, it is not a place to easily raise a family or earn a living. Of course, having marketable skills makes acquiring ready-cash easier wherever you find yourself. But Santa Fe, a retirement/income-laden/crowded-with-tourists/haven-for-artists (or RICH) city, has little to offer for those seeking modest modes of generating income. I had worked in restaurants and made comparatively good money, but we saw prices going up faster than we could ever expect to catch them. Housing, already insanely expensive to our sheltered minds, was accelerating monthly. Career, a career that had respect and value and honor, was the way to grab a spot on this roller-coaster before it was too late. I vowed to get teacher-certification, and completed one year of the two that would have been necessary, only to realize that starting pay for a teacher in Santa Fe was $9600 annually (when our rent was $4800 annually). Tourists, artists, and retirees don't much care whether the schools are any good. And, based upon my classmates in that program, the worthy citizens got precisely what they paid for.

So off to Boise, apparently hoping the requisite skills would drop down on me from somewhere and make the bourgeoisie corporate titans seek my expertise (because we never really had anything like a plan). Why Boise? We liked it. We wanted to stay in the mountains, and we found the cost of living far more amenable. We had scoured the Rocky Mountain west for three weeks in a borrowed 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with more than 100,000 miles, a dubious transmission, and quirky electronics that stranded us twice. Our little pop-up camper was in tow and two child seats were in the (carefully engineered cramped) back seat. We found and photographed many breathtaking scenes, but not only was Boise lovely, it offered employment. More restaurant work, but that could be remedied once I learned something people would pay for. I had interviewed in restaurants as we traveled, and had a real job offer in Boise, to begin as soon as our reimbursed (Wow! I had never even had a paid day off before this) move was complete. So we rented a 26-foot truck, filled it and a little trailer behind it (we had arrived in Santa Fe 4 years earlier with two knapsacks and two small suitcases) and started over. The truck broke down on the way up, one of our cats vomited incessantly, but that is another story.

We still did not own an automobile. Somehow, the teenage lust to be the owner of wheels never captured me. Though there was no public transportation in Santa Fe, we could readily get around on foot or on bicycles (even with two little boys). And we did not own a house. These two deficiencies were part of the making-it-in-the-big-time plan in Boise. I started work on October 26. Unfortunately, I hated both my job and employer immediately. I worked way too many hours for what now was obviously way too little money. Cindy was pregnant, without a car, and needing more help with those rambunctious little guys. Two kids meant two bike seats which meant two bikes which meant two parents. But that wasn't the worst part. My boss was a bigot, a racist, a sexist, an adulterer, a liar, and a jerk (how big a jerk? check here). But my vision was clouded by my desire to join the rat race. Not very self-aware, I realize now. I was already a rat feverishly running for my life, not just from a cat, but from a lion. Nevertheless, in early April 1983, we moved from the world of pedestrians to drivers. We bought a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit that was an amazingly putrid shade of green. And then at about 7:30 Monday evening (Monday was my only full day off), April 25, 1983, a beautiful day in Boise, we closed on a house. We bought the house we were renting, a cute two-bedroom bungalow in a nice downtown neighborhood. Middle class prosperity was on the way.

Tuesday night I received a call at work informing me that my boss wanted to chat at 9:00 the following morning. I drove off in my new car and came home about 20 minutes later. I had been handed a check, asked to turn in my tuxedo, and told I was fired. We had been homeowners for 37 hours before I lost my job. Our third baby was coming in about 10 weeks. We had not yet made a payment on our first car. Things did not look promising.

And they did not get much better. We struggled, unable to find anything comparable to what I had been earning. I briefly sold insurance for a company that had never changed since the high-priced arm-twisting insurance days of the Forties. I sold computers, or tried to. My big sale, a $500,000 order from the Boise School District, had been so badly underbid by the boss that there was not enough money to buy the computers we had sold. Needless to say, my 10% never materialized. Our perky little VW's previous owners had decided to see how well cars work without coolant or transmission fluid before they sold it. We spent more than $500 on repairs in the first six months. (It could have been worse: we had been strong-armed into mechanical breakdown insurance at the sale and the insurer forked well over $3000 in the same time.) I walked to the bank each month to make the first three payments, as the car was unavailable and stamps too expensive. As you may remember, interest rates on mortgages in 1983 were over 15%. Though our house only cost $42,000, with no down payment our monthly mortgage payment was over $500 a month. A bit hard to pay on unemployment and nonexistent commissions.

We borrowed from family, sold our stocks, and exhausted our savings. But it wasn't enough. I shoveled snow, but it just didn't snow enough that winter. After nine months we left Boise and moved into Cindy's recently-widowed mother's basement so we could get back on our feet. If we could find them.

To add yet another disaster to that year, Cindy's dad died in October. We knew he was ill, but had no idea he was near death. I do not know if the family in Kansas City did. We were sitting in the bed the morning after we found out, discussing our options and our feelings, when suddenly the bed started to rattle. "What the....?" I leapt out of the bed to see what the heck our dog was doing under there, but the floor was moving as well. I stumbled over to the window, looked outside and saw the street lights swaying from their poles. Puzzled doesn't quite cover it. "An earthquake....? In Idaho...?" Yep. Then it was all over, and for us at least, no trace of the movement remained.

We had no money for her to return for the funeral. We investigated options, but they all involved flying through Salt Lake or Dallas or some such place, making it an expensive and long trip. So the day of the funeral we sat in Boise merely sobbing and moping, unable to share with the family or anyone else. What a failure I felt like. Couldn't even make enough money for my wife to go to her father's funeral. How could it get worse?

Thankfully, though it did not get better, it did not deteriorate further. My insurance sales job sent me on the road for a week at a time. One Friday night, driving back from Pocatello, it was snowing furiously. Visibility was zero. Things came up behind me and passed, things I had never seen coming. One of them was a Wrangler that roared past so fast I could not tell what color it was. I saw it about twenty minutes later, at least 100 yards off the side of the road stuck in a field.

Snow was melting and refreezing on the windshield, sticking to the windshield wipers and making them increasingly remote from their target. I stopped under an overpass, broke the ice off, and got back in the car. It was a remote place (there really is no other kind out there) and when I stopped the front wheels were in an icy, slushy mixture that prevented any traction. I placed my shoulder in the door jamb, placed my right foot on the gas, and attempted to get the car going and leap in. My left foot slipped, my right foot jammed up and behind the accelerator, and suddenly I was being dragged diagonally across I-90 on my back. There was a lamp on the overpass, and I looked up into a totally black sky where dense and delightful snow flakes came streaming down at me. It was so beautiful and tranquil. Then the thought cruised through my mind that I would be crushed by a semi barrelling along at sixty and he'd never even know what that little thing was he hit. I managed to pull myself up, get behind the seat and steer correctly before the car crossed the road and sank into the median. And then I realized how close to death or disaster I had been.

So why was this the climax? Well, we realized that only with skills that people were willing to pay money to have me perform could we make it. We decided to get some. I tried several things, including teaching, which was rewarding and exhilarating, if not wonderfully remunerative, and sucking up to a big corporate employer (AT&T) which treated me well before laying me off (twice). But I managed to cobble enough skills together from all the different things I have done and land a pretty cool position documenting procedures and creating an Intranet for IBM. Cindy, after years as a superlative stay-at-home mom, went to school and acquired a Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant's license (or will, when the state of Missouri figures out what the heck they want). And now?

We lived in Independence, Missouri, on the western side of the state, home of President Harry Truman, and five minutes from Arrowhead Stadium, home of the 2003 Super Bowl Champion Chiefs (foolish optimism!). We had a house we enjoyed, a couple of good jobs, and a nineteen-year-old daughter who arrived right on schedule on July 6, 1983. (2003 Note: We moved across the state line to be closer to my job, among other reasons....) She fortunately has no idea of the chaos she was born into. We still own a piece of land outside of Santa Fe, though we had to give away our house in Boise (which would probably be worth $125,000 now if housing appreciated there as it did in other cities). Three teenagers at once was something people should not have to manage, but once the seed was sown there wasn't much choice in the matter. We are grateful for our children and love them very much. They are not perfect, but recognizing that this lengthy narrative represents only a very small percentage of the blunders I have committed, we are optimistic. They are a lot smarter than I was in some ways, a lot dumber in others. But they have good hearts and good spirits and will eventually triumph. They possess many good qualities, and we are proud. But we have learned that even when we can recognize the climax, the falling action has a lot to recommend it. It can be a delightful place to be. We definitely found our feet. And are standing pretty tall.

The time in Boise would have been an utter disaster without the friendship of the people at Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship. Cindy started attending soon after we arrived. I attended irregularly (I was not a believer at that time), though Christmas Day 1983 I walked to the Church pulling two boys in a wagon through eight inches of new-fallen snow.

But their support, unflagging friendship, generosity, and absolute commitment to their belief and their beliefs was an important one in my eventual conversion. I am a peaceful person at heart, and found their message of non-violence, even to the point of death, easy to admire. I am not so sure these days; I still hesitate at the thought of war for economic purposes, and the infliction of our morals on another country is difficult to stomach, no matter how righteous we are and evil they are. Other questions though, for other ramblings....1983 was a tolerable year, even, in many ways, a good year, and certainly a vital year in our growth because we had genuine compassion from Christians eager to share God's love in the ways that matter: helping those who needed help, loving those who needed love, caring for those who needed care and giving to those who wanted. Nowhere else have I seen the message of Christ so fully and completely manifested in the day to day living of a body of followers. I now proudly call myself a Christian, and the folks we met in that disastrous year were instrumental in that change occurring.

Teachers don't count

One story will do the job. In my second semester, after I had been instructed not to question my fellow students, or their propositions, as rigorously as I thought appropriate, I was enrolled in a class the met every Monday night for three hours. It was taught by a very intelligent man who came up from UNM in Albuquerque. He must have wondered what he stepped into. The title was Diagnostic Reading, a class with a worthwhile premise: look at the various reading tests and see what they claim to measure, what they actually measure, and the correlation between the two. Unfortunately, we spent the first 6 weeks of the semester struggling over the difference between mean, median, and mode. Six long weeks, at three hours a pop, spent attempting to get college students (many in their last semester) to understand some eighth grade mathematics. I don't think we ever made it.

Every week I looked at the poor instructor, empathizing with his pain and torment. I had been told to lay off. I did not have a sufficient collegial spirit. So I sat quietly. But the instructor did not. He wondered aloud how such poor mathematicians could be on the verge of becoming teachers. Neither his complaints nor his exhortations accomplished anything. "This, too, shall pass", thought my peers. My final straw came in about the tenth week. Though we rarely found time to discuss the results, our homework for this class was to take one of the standardized tests each week, administer it to some unsuspecting child, and report the results and our interpretation of them back to the class. This particular meeting, after hours of intense math remediation, we presented the scores of a three part test, with each part weighted equally. Two consecutive students responded:
"My student got a 72 on the first part, a 66 on the second part and a 74 on the third part, and his average was 84."
Though outrage should have leapt out of every mouth, we all sat quietly. Her friend spoke next.
"My student got a 75 on the first part, a 71 on the second part and a 64 on the third part, and her average was 88."

No one asked how these two future teachers (both in their final semester and having near-certain jobs at a Catholic elementary school in Española) could add three two digit numbers, divide by three, arrive at an answer larger than any of their original three numbers, and not find the answer surprising!

Welcome to the Mad Haus

Vic, the owner was indeed a jerk. I tell this to people, and they reply "Oh, you're overly sensitive. You're just a whiner because he fired you." Then I share a few more facts. The day of my departure, as I was telling a bartender that I was leaving, she informed me Vic had been having an affair with the banquet manager for the past few months. I was a bit startled. This lady had been the person to whom I had confided my anguish about my inability to please Vic. Long sad conversations about my hopes, my expectations, my frustrations, my discouragement, and my animosity all apparently made their way back to him. Which explained his cryptic remark of a few hours earlier "Be careful who you tell your troubles to." Meanwhile, Mrs. Vic was pregnant with their fifth child during this time.

I should never have taken the job. From the first days I knew that, but I deluded myself. I looked for other work, but there was no place else to go. I wanted out, just not quite yet. The final straw was my hiring a waitress. One of our old battle-ax waitresses (you know the type, the gum-snapping, bleach-blond, chain-smoker named Dixie) quit to move to Alaska. We had an ad in the paper, but only got more of those types. Roxie, Ethel, Mabel, Sal, and their clones came in endlessly. With one exception. A delightful gal applied for the job. She was pleasant, charming, and confident. Had managed a restaurant in California. Cheerful, persuasive, and competent. Also overweight. Not grotesque, but my boss liked his gals slim. And that she wasn't. I did not hire her, knowing he would let yet antoher tantrum loose. After two weeks she called me and asked "When are you going to hire me? You know you're not going to get a better applicant." I knew we weren't, and hired her.

We provided the waitresses with their uniform, a floral print dress. His secretary Vicky (slim and trim) was unsure whether we would have one so large, but we did. However, that didn't prove to them that she belonged. We had a weekly meeting, and he regularly referrred to her as "the fat broad" until several weeks after she arrived, I departed. This was not our only disagreement, but it certainly did me in. Ironically, the fat broad was promoted to banquet manager a few months later, (not sure where the girlfriend went) so apparently my judgement was accurate.