Sunday, February 24, 2019

Perceiving and being perceived

[from a conversation]

I have thought recently of how I will be perceived rather than how I perceive my father.  I think perhaps your father’s parents probably steered him toward the bursary and engineering – or maybe it was simply toward a position where he was eligible for that opportunity.  In my case I was far too independent to listen to my parents about anything.  We lived in a small house a short distance from where my father worked on the docks.  I was the oldest of three children and my father’s mother (whom I did listen to), Bertha Bristol, who lived with us and had a great fondness for reading.  I was her favorite for some reason and would go with her to the local library where she returned her books and selected new ones (as would I would as well).  Having a library card was something I appreciated when I got it and continued to cherish it as time went on.  I was ten when my parents divorced.  My grandmother had to move away. 

My mother went to work at the Foodman Market in Wilmington and was looking for a new husband.  I remember Ches who was still in the Army.  He brought me some books on military planes.  He also started me on the idea of collecting stamps.  But without much explanation Ches was no longer in the picture and she married Welker Williams from Kentucky who drove a company truck to deliver food to the Foodman.  Welk and I didn’t hit it off although in retrospect he did his best.  I loved reading about WWII, and when a new war started in Korea in 1950, I was “dying” to get in it.  I therefore lied about my age and enlisted in the Marine Corps, but they found out I was only 16, and told me to come back when I was 17 if I could get my mother to sign for me.  I was very independent back then and had no trouble talking my mother into signing for me after I graduated from High School.

I went through Boot Camp at MCRD, Combat training at Camp Pendleton, but when they finished training me, they sent me to the LTA (Lighter than Air) station in Tustin, a relatively short drive to Wilmington, and that is something I couldn’t abide.   I had told friends and family I was going into the Marine Corps to fight in Korea and that is what I intended to do; so I switched with someone who didn’t want to go to Korea and was thus there for the last two combat seasons.  While in Korea I sent money home asking my mother to save it for me so I could buy a 1946 Mercury Coupe when I got home.  Instead my mother and Welk used the money to buy a truck so he could make more money.  There was no money left for my Mercury. 

I was next stationed at 29 Palms in the 2nd 90s, didn’t like the weather and so when the chance came to become a Rifle Instructor at Camp Pendleton, I went there and was very good at it.  The NCOs liked me and let me run the training while they went off to the slop chute.  I did like the duty there, but I also took a long hard look at what the NCOs did with their time and decided I’d rather get an education.

Welk tried to talk me into studying engineering, but I had acquired the idea of a Classical Education some place and tried to approximate it in my studies.  I had become convinced by something I read that with a Classical Education you could do anything.  I believed that, and while the purist would point out that I learned neither Greek nor Latin, I did the best I could with translations, and did a lot of reading in other areas on my own when I saw a lack.  I loved study and was encouraged to keep on past my BA and did so for a while at night.  The GI Bill was enough to live in a garret and do nothing but study.  Instead I married and had to work out of the Teamster’s Hiring Hall on the docks, loading and unloading trucks part time while I went to college full time.    After I graduated, the Teamster’s work wasn’t going to provide enough for me to continue going to school full time.  Besides, I had a lot of bills to pay and so in 1959 after I graduated from Long Beach State College with a degree in English, I went to work at Douglas Aircraft Company in Engineering as “a temporary job” to pay some bills while I continued my education at night. 

In retrospect I doubt that I would have been better off struggling through a PhD in night classes, but that was my direction for a while.  My first wife “struggled through” my fours of college and wanted me to earn a lot more money.  So my academic struggle lasted only about half-way through an MA.  By that time I was doing well in Engineering; although my wife didn’t think I was earning nearly enough money. 

I often wonder how my life would have turned out had I made some different decisions. I did well in the Marine Corps and was well-liked, but I had joined to fight in Korea and didn’t really see myself as a peace-time Marine.  Years later in McDonnell Douglas I worked with a retired Marine Corps Captain who told me what would most likely have happened to me had I stayed in.  I had been promised one increase in rank (to Staff Sergeant) if I shipped over.  The Captain told me that if I had stayed in, I probably would have been sent to Vietnam as an advisor in 1962.  As it was, 1962 was the year I bought my first house, a modest little thing in Torrance with a nice room behind the garage I was able to use as a study, not nearly nice enough for my wife, but I liked it.

And of course I often thought that I should never have married until after I completed my education.  If I was not married I could have gotten the California Bill (a smaller amount of money); which would had allowed me to complete my MA full time.  For my PhD I would have needed to transfer to UCLA; which would have meant a fairly long drive back and forth from the dock area, but,  of course,  that is not what I did.

At this point I am in decent health and so may well live as long as your father did, but I have no idea what my kids, or grandkids (or great-grandkids) would say about me after I’m gone.  I tended to struggle competitively in every role in which I found myself.  In Aerospace, for example, my coworkers would sometimes sarcastically ask me if I’d ever lost an argument.  When they were feeling only a little sarcastic, and someone had a question, they would say “ask Helm, he knows everything.”  My independent manner and decisions were often referred to as being made by “the Helm Aircraft Company.”   Thus, there was probably nothing I did that seemed worthy of being emulated. 

As a former USMC Sergeant in college, I seem to have influenced a friend from high-school and a college classmate to join the Marine Corps.  Neither got very far.  Years later a nephew went into the Army but didn’t get very far either.  All three received something like Medical discharges.  I don’t know what that means.

As to the poetry, I don’t admire the current state of it in the Western world and never had any serious ambitions to make a mark in it.  But I continue to write, why?  To paraphrase something from the Old Testament, “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”  And from the New Testament, “when the Lord comes for you, let him find you about His Father’s business.”  Neither passage makes one responsible for results, and while I have always sought to become as good an artisan as possible.  I am currently reading in the Romantic period.   You said that neither you nor your father appreciated Lord Byron, and while I would have to agree, the idea of him and why he was so highly thought of after the Napoleonic War is very interesting to me.   I went through a period years ago when I appreciated Shelley.  I never appreciated Keats for some reason and was impatient with Blake for creating his own language, but now that I find I may have more time available than I previously thought, perhaps there might be some merit it learning a bit more about his language.  Harold Bloom is very interesting on Blake in The Visionary Company. 

I never managed to become as interested in Giacomo Leopardi as I ought to – or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I couldn’t appreciate his frame of mind enough to spend very much time with him.  Maybe during a mourning period he was appropriate, but now perhaps the pugnacious Blake is more so.  I make no promises, but I have developed some ideas for a slightly different sort of poetry.

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