I had no idea what I was going to become. I had picked rocks out of the family garden, gathered hay at the farm up the road, and built houses with my uncle.
And I enlisted in the U.S. Navy soon after graduation, as a so-called “Kiddie Cruiser.” That’s what they called the program in which if you enlisted while you were 17, your first enlistment period ended when you turned 21, with credit for the full four years active service then required of all reasonably healthy young men. I stayed 20 years.
My parents hunted on my friend Chester’s grandparents’ farm, outside the town in which I lived. Chester taught me to squirt milk from the cows’ udders at the cats who gathered ’round at milking time. In their kitchen is where I learned to run the cream separator – a machine comprising a large bowl, several filter layers with a spout each for the milk and cream to flow into bottles, and a hand crank that required a young person’s arm to turn at exactly 60 revolutions a minute. Or so Grandpa Roy said. Looking back, I can only guess that he knew when the tireds had started to slow the crank.
“Keep it going,” he’d admonish.
The closest I got to social work was one afternoon sitting on the cellar steps with Chester as he cried about something that had made him really sad. I don’t remember what it was. There’s just that snapshot memory. I lost track of him after high school. We both joined the Navy, though not together. I heard he was stationed on the USS New Jersey, a left-over World War II battleship that had been recommissioned to fight in Vietnam.
I look back, though, and think I know what turned me into a social liberal – a book titled “Peaceable Lane,” by Keith Wheeler. It was the story of Lamar Winter, a successful fellow with a wife, a young daughter, and a Jaguar XK he drove, as was befitting his young age, a little too fast. Peaceable Lane was a suburban enclave for what later would be called “yuppies.” Picture large homes, perfect kids, swimming pools and sports cars with foreign nameplates.
Winter had purchased his new home with the aid of another buyer. Winter was black. The community was white. In the 1960s, that was a volatile combination. Winter ended up dead against a tree after he entered the subdivision at his usual rate of speed and swerved sharply to avoid hitting a white kid who ran in front of him.
That book was published in 1960, the year before I started high school. It was included in an issue of Readers Digest Condensed books – a bi-monthly collection of condensed novels that included authors such as Leon Uris and Frederick Forsythe and took me on many trips to lands I never thought I’d actually visit. Later, James A. Michener took me on multi-generational time-travels to the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore, northern Colorado, and to South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Those books were not, in my case, Christmas presents, but they were among the best gifts my mother gave me. She taught me about equality and Christianity – she wasn’t perfect, but it’s always easier to discern the errors of our predecessors than to notice the folly of our own actions. But she gave me the world in those books and, indirectly, taught me to be human.
Books are the finest kind of gift, especially for Christmas. They last forever.