MY Meandering Tale

 My dad was 63 years old on the day of my birth. He owned and ran a card parlor on the corner of Gambling and Payoffs in San Diego. My mom was 25 years his junior. It was 1949 and I became a card-carrying member of the baby boom generation. My paternal grandfather fought in the Civil War. My great uncle, on my pop's side, was P.T. Barnum. My mom's family were 100 proof Irish; Hanrahans and Fitzgeralds. 


I began life as a San Diegan. But, as a wee toddler, my family moved to Los Angeles. A few years, one Catholic grammar school and two public schools later, we relocated to San Francisco. My dad died. Another few years, one more public school and another Catholic grammar school later,  we found ourselves in Daly City. Thus I began, in earnest, my peripatetic campaign to attend a new school with the advancement of each passing year. In retrospect, this was probably just the natural consequence of the collision between our frequent relocations and my mom's determination to see that I got a proper Catholic education.


Two more public schools plus graduation from Our Lady of Perpetual Help and I was ready for High School. That same year, the Beatles landed in America. I promptly bought a guitar, formed a band and began to twist and shout. With a total of three songs in our repertoire, we entered and won our first band battle. Before the dust could settle on our trophies, the group broke up. The truth is that we had run out of excuses for declining offers for gigs. Three songs and a lot of stage gymnastics make for winning band battle performances. But, we realized that our meager playlist would have made for painfully repetitive music at dances. 


My family migrated to Huntington Beach in 1965 after I was invited not to return for my Junior year to that bastion of Marianist training, Riordan Boys Catholic High. I never did bump into Surfer Joe, but I did take up a liftetime passion for scuba diving.


In due course, I finished my High School career at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. A Catholic High School, true. But at least it was coed. I continued to play and teach guitar until I met Jose Feliciano. At that precise moment I realized that my treatment of that poor, defenseless, stringed instrument could only be described as cruel and unusual punishment. I ceased torturing both the guitar and the audience. 


I spent my first year after High School refining my pinochle game. Then I avoided the draft by joining the Navy. Four years in the Service rehabilitated my appreciation for education so I headed back to school.


College was terrific. I enrolled at San Diego State, grew my hair fashionably long, bought a motorcycle and set my sites on Phi Beta Kappa. Three years later, I found myself sitting in a sea of mortar boards trying to remember in which direction to flip my tassle. I was desolate. Then I discovered why God created grad school.


A total immersion course in Russian at Indiana University convinced me of three things: 1) Bobby Knight was the greatest and most volatile basketball coach I was ever likely to see in action (I audited a class he taught in Military History), 2) Midwest college campuses dwarf West Coast schools in both structure and space, and 3) my "pronounced" accent would forever cripple any hope of passing for a native Russian. 


I decided to move on. Being oh so Irish-Catholic and already in Indiana, the writing seemed to be on the wall. I took a bus to South Bend and announced my intention to study at Notre Dame. It was probably my audacity. They assigned me a seat in the Graduate School of Government and International Studies. Thanks to a Ph.D student's last minute defection, I inherited her scholarship. My carefully husbanded GI benefits and a loan secured my spot in the M.A. class of 1978.


Winter in the midwest is a thing to behold...briefly. Unfortunately, it persists for an eternity. Clutching my masters degree, I skipped Jimmy Carter's Commencement Address and beat a path back to sunny Southern California.


A job as Head Resident of Touton Hall on the campus of USC kept me off the unemployment rolls. As a foot soldier in the Army of Tommy Trojan I learned three things: 1) it is best, while at USC, not to advertise one's previous affiliation with the Fighting Irish, 2) in an average year, the University of Southern California fields more Catholic football players than does Notre Dame, and 3) SC's School of International Relations breeds more political dissension amongst its faculty than any collection of governments one might study. 


My employment compensation included a tuition remission. So I took a course in Defense and Strategic Policy Analysis from a Professor Bill Van Cleave or, as he was affectionately known by students and faculty alike, Dr. Strangelove. I wrote what I thought was a tongue-in-cheek paper on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Van Cleave liked it and offered me a fellowship. Thus, I began my career as a Hawk. Calculating the circular error probability (CEP) of an incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), assessing the deterrent value of the mutually assured destruction (MAD) policy, measuring the lethality index of a nuclear ground burst versus an air burst detonation and evaluating the cost benefit of placing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (mirv's) on submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM's) became the objects of my ever-narrowing attention. 


I might eventually have vanished into the obscurity of the RAND Corporation, SRI International or some other defense-related think tank had I not encountered one intractable, academic reality: faculty feuds. A doctoral committee requires a minimum of three professors. In USC's School of International Relations, I could not find three members of the faculty who could sit together at the same table without the risk of violence. Consequently, I elected to add a fourth field to my studies and spent the next year exploring the dubious value of Psycho-Politics and Conflict Research. (Yes, you read that correctly)


To supplement my slender financial resources, I took advantage of an actors' strike by accepting a series of marginal and uncredited roles in a variety of television programs and theatrical films. The high point of my brief dramatic career lasted less than ten onscreen minutes and involved my enthusiastic portrayal of Loni Anderson's masseur in "The Jayne Mansfield Story."


In due course, having exhausted my hiatus, I returned to the internecine conflicts of my department, but not for long. Dr. Van Cleave had been a significant presence on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. However, Reagan's election did not produce the desired appointment for Van Cleave as Secretary of Defense. The new President owed enormous "debts" to the Bechtel Corporation. Dr. Strangelove was, instead, offered chairmanship of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Since it was Reagan's intention at that time to dismantle the Agency and not U.S. nuclear arms, Van Cleave was not appeased. Coincident with the head of my doctoral committee's loss of stature, the Department doves moved in on Van Cleave with Hawk-like ferocity. 


Consoling myself with the realization that I need no longer punctuate my speech with constant reference to acronyms, I bid farewell to USC and to academia. I went scuba (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) diving (okay, so there was still the occasional acronym). After about six months, I surfaced for air. It was at this juncture that I was compelled to acknowledge three things: 1) I was 32 years old, 2) my student loans were shortly going to come due, and 3) I was utterly broke. The realization that my net value was composed of some sheepskins, an honorable discharge and a diving certificate propelled me into action. I went to work. Worse yet, I went to work for the Government. 


Suffice it to say that the housing costs in and around Langley, Virginia are steep for someone on a government salary. So, I started my own firm. For the next several years I undertook appalling assignments for exorbitant fees. But, eventually, youthful exuberance gave way to lower back pain and I did what any self-respecting, over-educated character with few practical skills would do; I went to law school. Later on, I returned to Southern California where, in 1993, I was afflicted with an acute attack of "Mid-Life Crisis." 


I got married to a gal about half my age. Common ground was a bit of a problem. We both bought CD's. Mine stored money. Her's stored music. Two years later we dissolved our civil marriage civilly. Lisa and I shook hands and became good friends. In hindsight, buying a convertible would have been a more prudent treatment for my mid-life crisis.


These days, I live in a small, rustic Southern California town only a few miles, but a century, East of Disneyland. It features miles and miles of horse trails, storefront hitching posts and watering holes (both for equine and human). As a bachelor, I did not have so much as a gold fish. As a divorced fellow, I acquired four dogs, three cats, one horse and a tree squirrel. Life is odd, isn't it? I think it was J.B.S. Haldane who said that life is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine.

WraithSword WraithSword
56-60, M
4 Responses Mar 14, 2009

Hi<br />
My name is Tom Nicholson and I am in the process of creating my website - and would appreciate if you would consider including your story. If you visit my website you will hopefully appreciate my vision and I want stories like yours to help realise this.<br />
<br />
Best regards<br />
<br />

I must confess that I may have skimmed a line or 2 of your story, not because I found it uninteresting by any means, I have always done that -skim then reread don't ask me why - I hope you do write your autobiography and get it published - if you haven't already done so - I have always found stories more enjoyable when, while reading, I can "hear" the author telling me the story - like I did when I read yours. I hope to find such talent in myself when I begin my recounting my tale.

this is a wonderful story! you are an exceptional writer-thanks

Loved your story!