Wednesday, April 13, 2016

One American Story

In 1940 a family moved out of their neighborhood in north St. Louis because the only boy of the family - age 11 - came home with a black schoolmate after school one day. The family moved into an all-white neighborhood, and on the day they moved into their new house the 16 year old daughter (oldest child of five) of the family looked out her bedroom window at the 14 year old boy cutting the grass in his yard and (supposedly, according to her version, repeated in the "good times" of the '50's & '60's) said to herself, "That is the boy I'm going to marry." Whether she said it does not matter to how she saw her own - their - story. She had picked him out as her partner and pathway to her goals.

Four years later, while he was in flight training in the U.S. Army Air Corps, she married him. She was sure he was the one who would rise through the ranks of the business world once the war ended and he had gone to college. It was the way most women of that time who were inclined to upward mobility plotted their way to success and prominence ... and money. Although there were independent professional and business women, they were severely limited in their access to the ladder of success that was a part of the United States mythology.

The war ended while the boy was still in flight training - he never left California's Army airfields - and the couple returned to St. Louis where he enrolled at Washington University and she prepared for the birth of their first child, a girl. For three years, the woman tended him, their first child, their small GI-Bill-purchased house and their second child, a boy. For three years, he worked full-time as a mechanic in a gas station and went to school in mechanical engineering with a load 33% greater than full-time. Eight months after the second child was born, he graduated; and their striving up the ladder of success (Registered TM) began. They moved from St. Louis - the first move of a great many, all dedicated to rising up the ladder of success - to Alexandria, Louisiana, where they lived for one year. Over the next 16 years the family would live in 8 states.

The woman and man did not consider the impact of all these moves - uprooting, loss of friends, chronically being the new kids at school, differing school systems' orders of learning - on their children, the girl and the boy. The parents often said that all these moves were for the benefit of the family: the father's advancement would benefit them all. When the boy was 8 and the girl was 10 they rebelled when told they were moving again; this warning was added by the mother: "Don't ever tell your dad that you don't want to move. It would hurt him, and he couldn't take it."

All family decisions were based on the father's advancement, gender roles and the family's money supply. Thus, the boy's raggedy lower teeth were not fixed with braces because orthodontia was expensive, and lower teeth did not show on boys. When he gave a used baseball to a friend who had just gotten his first baseball glove - but had no ball - the mother hit him and screamed that he should never again waste the family's assets. "Assets" - yes, that is what she said. He was 8 years old. The daughter - a good and enthusiastic athlete - never got a baseball glove because "girls don't need those." Eventually, the daughter went to summer school and took correspondence courses so that she could graduate from high school one year early and get the hell out of Dodge - out of this family that was all about the advancement in money and prestige of the parents.

Fast-forward to 1968. The couple live in a fine English Tudor-style house in an old, exclusive near-suburb of St. Louis, and the man - only 42 years old - is the #3 executive of a large corporation. Because of a crisis in one of the company's major assets - in Australia - and because of his excellence of his work, he and other company leaders decided he was the one to go fix the situation. The asset was major, the crisis was major and the success of the man in fixing it - over a period of 16 months - was major. His salary was increased 50% as part of the agreement for him to go. For 1968 and 1969 he received a bonus of 1/3 of his expanded annual salary. He returned to St. Louis a hero.

He also returned to St. Louis an alcoholic. 18 months later, he was passed over for the presidency of the company when the president suddenly died; the presidency of that company had been the couple's goal for 20 years. 18 months after being passed over he was fired for alcoholism. His ladder had dry rot, and he and his wife suddenly had no position, no prominence, total disgrace (she took on his disgrace; her prominence once based on his position) and no income. Dramatically let down by her partner of 28 years, the wife was undone, resentful, embarrassed, enraged. They sold the big house and moved to the country to try to make a living raising cattle, something of which neither had any knowledge or experience. They toiled and fumbled for five years. She tried to control his drinking. He hid the extent of it - bottles hidden in culverts on the ranch & under the hood of his truck. (She continued to drive the Cadillac of their past life.) She cooperated in denying his drinking - each time he fell over, unconscious, she declared that he had had a stroke. (He "had" 63 of them, she told the son.)

During one of those years, he got a great job in Los Angeles and lost it the first day for drinking. Her rage grew. His rage grew. Their frustration and pain grew. On weekend visits, each would separately take the son for a ride and seek his opinion, "What should I do?" The son responded to each, "Get a divorce." But they didn't. On one visit the son warned the woman of the dangers of the shotgun in the house of this frightening, drunken, bitter man - "He will kill you or himself." She dismissed the warning. After five years on the ranch he killed himself with the shotgun. Both of his adult children, always terrified of him & resentful of their parents living their lives for money and prestige, were relieved. Each had long believed that he would kill them one day - but now he wouldn't.

The woman had been in the hospital when he killed himself, badly injured by a cow; and it was a year before she was able to move from the ranch. With the proceeds of life insurance and partial, then complete, sale of the ranch, she could live indefinitely in her beloved Hawai'i. Within two months she met another man with visions of wealth in his mind. He also had alimony and child support payments in arrears, no assets and a delight in hard drinking. This man had something that the first man had not - an eye for the get-rich-quick scheme, and a player's attitude towards the world, not the driven, workaholic attitude of the first man. He was 12 years younger than the woman, and he had the salesman's gift of seeming to make dreams about-to-come-true. Four months after they met they married. She merged her dream of wealth and prestige with his dream of wealth from investments (some of which were ruses) and schemes.

They lived high in fancy rented condos on the water on the Big Island, and used her money and their joint dreams & shared delusions for some years, till the money ran out. Then, they borrowed from banks willing to accept "stated assets" on a loan application as actual assets, the couple staying ahead of the game by hook and crook. (Except that time when the woman called her daughter and said, "If I don't have $_______ deposited in my account by bank opening on Monday morning I'll go to prison." She was in her mid-60's. The daughter wired 2/3 of her inheritance from her recently deceased grandfather.)

As with the first marriage, this marriage lasted 34.5 years, at which point the husband died. And the final accounting of the woman's lifelong quest for wealth and prominence - which she had talked about and planned for in the early years, flaunted when she had much of both, then plotted and dreamed again - and deluded herself - for many years? Their multi-mortgaged house had no equity, the husband's children had been paying the utility bills for months, and the couple's credit cards had a balance in excess of $60,000.00. She has no assets, her dreams extinguished, everything lost, one (now old) child completely alienated, the other not alienated but not in a position to assist much.

How many families in the heady days after World War II had goals, beliefs and values based on unbridled ambition and the belief that wealth and prominence would follow for those who were white, Republican and Protestant, who worked hard and played by the rules they thought applied? I don't know. This is one family.

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