Not Innocent: Ervin and Life on the Farm (part 1)

This chapter will come in bits and pieces, and not necessarily in the proper order.  It’s going to be way longer than what would be good for a blog post, so I’ll break it up into pieces that seem to be somewhat cohesive.  It’s far from all written, so you’ll be getting “first draft” material.  The purpose of this chapter is to show what Ervin’s life was like, what his family life was like, essentially the ‘environment’ in which he lived his life.

Blogically Yours,

Wedding: Ervin’s parent’s Sarah and Fred

Ervin Kaser’s parents, Fred Kaser Jr. and Sarah Frauhiger, were married February 7, 1905. Ervin Oren Kaser was born on their farm November 16, 1905. A daughter, Velma, was born November 17, 1906, but died three days later. She was followed by a daughter Veneta (1907) and sons Orval (1911), Harvey (1913), Melvin (1916) and Calvin (1922). Calvin was a “late in life surprise,” born six years after Melvin when their mother was nearly 42, and I’m the youngest of his four children, so I’m lucky to be here to tell this story. Much of what’s in this chapter comes from my father Calvin, a natural story-teller himself, for which I’m deeply grateful. (According to him, it was only after he was born that she realized, when someone pointed it out, that every one of her children had a first name containing the letter V.)

The Kaser family home

In August 1914, Fred entered into a contract to purchase a little over 21 acres on the corner of the Silverton-Stayton Highway (today called the Cascade Highway) and Evergreen Road, and the property was paid off and the deed transfer recorded March 24, 1920. They built a new house on the property in 1921 (shown here), which is where Calvin was born.  Fred sold to the local school district about an acre on the corner of his farm, which is where the Evergreen School stands today (additional land was acquired by the school district in following years to expand the school grounds). Fred and Sarah lived on this farm for the rest of their lives. They bought another 7 acres on the back-end (west side) of their farm, recorded in 1942, although the private purchase probably happened much earlier.

Much patched farm clothes: Melvin, Orval, Calvin and Harvey (1927)

Fred was a hop farmer, as his father had been before him. Fred grew up farming hops, and that was pretty much all he farmed his entire life, other than the usual chickens, pigs, cows and horses necessary to life on a farm in those days. All of the boys helped run the farm with their father. Fred told the boys that if they worked on the farm without wages, then when they turned 21, he would either give them $1000 to spend however they wanted, or he’d help them buy their own farms. At some point in the late 1920s or early 1930s, Fred bought 20 acres immediately west of their farm (behind it on Evergreen Road), and those 20 acres would eventually be transferred to Ervin and Mary Kaser on November 24, 1941. Ervin lived in an old run-down house on that place off and on throughout the 1930s.

The family farm wasn’t large. They usually had two or three cows for milk, cream and meat, along with hogs and chickens.  They did all their own butchering, made sausages from pig intestines and beef and pork meat, made sauerkraut from cabbage they grew, and besides large sacks of flour and sugar, grew most of what they ate.  At one time the farm had been covered in large fir trees which had already been logged off by the time Fred and Sarah bought the property, covered in tree stumps. Fred cleared the land using dynamite, ax, shovel and horses. The last stumps, on the lower part of the property, were cleared when Calvin was 4-5 years old, around 1926. Fred used horses to drag the stumps into piles for burning.

The family in 1930 (left to right)
Orval, Fred, Harvey, Veneta (back), Calvin (front), Melvin, Sarah, Ervin

The following is Calvin’s description of working in the hop yard, told to me verbally, and I’ve cleaned it up some for readability, but otherwise the words are his:

I started working full time on the farm when I was 13, right out of grade school that June, and went right to work in the hop yard, and never let up. Anytime it was nice, you were working in the hop yard, or you were making poles or hop stakes, that was quite a job. There were 100 hills to a row, and I forget how many rows there were, but you had to have a stake for every hill, maybe 20,000 of those every winter. You pounded the stake in by the hill, and then tied the string from the wire down to that stake, and they had to be replaced every year.

You’d go out and get a fir tree that looked like it would split pretty good, and cut it into 16 inch lengths. I sometimes made them with a fro, a piece of iron about a foot long by 2 inches wide, with a sharp edge on it, and it has a ring on one end with a handle. And then you’d put the fro on there and hit it with a wooden mallet and split the wood off. I didn’t use the fro much, I used an ax. And you just took a block of wood and cut it down into chunks the width of a double-bladed ax, and you’d slab these off into ½ or ¾ inch slabs, and when you got them cut off into slabs, then you turn the slabs around and hit them the other way, and the stakes would fall down, because you were always sitting at a chopping block. You had a box made there, and that box about level-full would be about 200 stakes. We didn’t count them, but we counted the first one, just to know about how full to fill this box. Then you just lay a piece of binder twine down in the bottom of this box, and then lay these stakes down in there nice and straight.  When it was full enough, you tied the bundle off and stacked them up.

Then in the spring, you’d put a bundle of stakes in a bucket and take them out and drive them in the ground by each hop hill after the hops had been cleaned out and hoed, one stake by each hill. Very rarely would a stake last two years, drive them in in the spring and by the next year they’d be rotted and broken off. After the hops were picked, you’d go out with a butcher knife in your hand, and you’d grab this vine and cut it off about this high off the ground, and then you’d drag it along as far as you could hold a big hand full, and then drop them on the ground, and that was how a lot of these stakes got broke off. It was nothing but back-breaking work, working in the hop yard, everything you did was stooping over, everything but tying the strings up on the wires. As soon as the vine got up to the wire, you went through and ran your hand down over the bottom 3 feet of the vine and stripped all the leaves and the arms off, because it didn’t produce much hops down there, and that way the plant didn’t waste energy on those leaves, and they could get wind-whipped and tear the plant down.

Usually, in January or February, we’d get two to four weeks of cold weather. At night it would freeze, and then during the day it would warm up and you’d be out there working in your shirt sleeves and getting a sweat up. And at night, it would get cold and freeze up again. And, when we were making hop poles and that kind of stuff, when the ground was frozen in the morning, that’s when we’d go and load up the hop poles we’d made the day before and haul them out, because by ten o’clock, the ground would be starting to thaw, and the damn truck wouldn’t go, you’d slip in the mud.

Usually the trees we made into hop poles were 6-8 inches in diameter. Of course, they went up there a long ways, and we’d usually get two 12 foot poles out of one tree. At that time, there was still a lot of timber around here, and the trees would come up thicker than the hair on a dog, and hardly any limbs on them, and rather than cut them down with a saw, I’d cut them down with an axe. I got pretty damn good with an axe, it didn’t take too many blows with an axe to knock a tree over. The anchor poles, that’s a different story, they’d have a 10-14 inch top on them. We used a small post for the center posts, and a lot of times we’d cut a 12-foot pole and split it with wedges.

I think of all the timber we sawed up back then, for wood and for poles. My god, I can remember some of them big old growth firs we’d fall down, use them for furnace wood. Some of them damn things would be 4 and 5 foot through. I can remember Ervin bought that drag saw, first time I’d ever seen one, and we thought that was the cat’s meow. Most of them old growth were full of pitch, and you’d try to do it with an old bull fiddle, and the pitch would get on there, and you’d just pull on it. And you had a bottle there with oil and kerosene mixed together and you’d pour that on there. And of course, some of them had so much pitch in them it would just run out of there, my god, you wouldn’t believe how the pitch would run out of there. With the drag saw, you just set it up there and when it started hitting the pitch, you’d just pour the oil and kerosene on. But the grain would be so fine, that you’d stand up there on top of those 4 foot wide blocks and drive two wedges in opposite each other and split it, get it broken in half, 16 inch thick blocks, and most of the time you could take an axe and just peel pieces off all the way around. Oh we made hundreds of cords out of prime timber. Of course, at the time, they wouldn’t have taken those that were full of pitch. And some of the time, the tree might be dying, but today, even if the heart was goady, as we called it, dry rot, there’d be that much meat around the outside of it, and that’s what we used to make our hop stakes out of.

But the poles, 14 inches was about the biggest. You’d set them in the ground about 3 feet. And we always peeled them, take three strips, peel the bark. In the summer time then, when it started to dry out and the top of this 9 foot that was out of the ground would start to get hard, and with this wire around the top choking them, and in the winter after 2-3 years with the rain coming down, it would rot the top and the top would come off, and we’d have to replace them. After they rotted off at the ground, we’d saw them up and use them as wood for the hop dryer.

1930: Ervin on new tractor as the young hops are sprayed

But you didn’t want the post too big, because you had an eight foot row, eight foot apart. Now, if you put a 12 inch post in, you’re down to a seven foot row to get the machinery in there to work the ground. So that’s why we were so particular when people were hoeing the hops, to keep shoots from coming up further out into the row, or pretty soon you couldn’t get the machinery down through there. There’d be a few hills would die out each year, but usually it was from injury, and most of the injury was from people hoeing hops. Because as this vine came up, after you picked the hops, you cut the vine down off of the wire. And usually right after hop picking, before the sap got out of the vine and they got too dry, we’d go along with a corn knife, and in later years something like a butcher knife, same knife we used for suckering the hops, cutting the suckers off, we’d go along and grab this vine and cut it off at the ground, and leave a stub. And we’d hold these vines until you got a hand full and then you’d drop them. And when you got through, you’d have these rows of piles, and you’d roll them all together and then burn them.

In the spring when the guys were hoeing, it was real easy… you’d have a stick about that wide, where your hop hill was… and you’d plow the hops, take a horse with a 10” plow… and I’d go through with the tractor and have two #12 bottom-plows on it, and plow the ground to the center of the row, go down and come back, plow the ground away from these rows. And then Alvis [Alvis Brunner, first cousin to Calvin’s father Fred] would take the horse with this small plow and he’d go down and plow the ground away from these hills, as close as he could. And then the hoers would come along, and they’d pull all this ground away from this hill, to get the grass and stuff out of the hill, and also to cut this dead vine off from the year before. We’d tell them to take their knife and cut that off, but if you weren’t watching the bastards, there’d always be one or two that would take his hoe and chop it off. Well, then when you got the ground all cleaned out from the hill, and you’ve got all the new sprouts coming out, you covered the hill back up, and then you couldn’t see. But then the next year, you could tell where this bastard had been hoeing, because that row had a hell of a bunch of dead hills in it. They’d cut down into the crown and it would rot.

Row of 20 shacks for the migrant hop pickers and workers to stay in.

So we really had to watch those guys. Of course, we’d tell them maybe twice, and the next time it was, “Go on down to the house and collect your pay!” But they just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t do that. I fired several guys. I was just a kid, and I know they didn’t like it, to take orders from a 16-, 17-year old kid, but Dad couldn’t be out there to look after it, so it was my job to look after it.

Calvin Kaser, about 18 years old, with pole for lowering and raising the hop wires.
The hop wires have been lowered for the pickers to pick the hops into baskets.

It would be the same way when they’d sucker. When you trained these vines up, you’d usually take four vines, you’d have two strings coming down and you’d train two vines up each string from each hill. Then you had a whole bunch of other vines around here, and you didn’t want that, it would take strength from the plant. So now you’d cut these off. Well, a lot of them, you had these four vines coming up and you’d have some around here and you’d take a slice off here and a slice off here. You always took the four strongest vines, and you’d have some coming up in the middle, and what you were supposed to do was get in here and cut these back right to the crown of the plant, but not into the crown. Well, what they’d do is leave a stub about this long. And if you left a stub, with a joint, out would come two more arms immediately, and pretty soon instead of having a clean plant, pretty soon you’d have a bush about this big around. Then, too, you had to be careful with cutting those, or you’d cut off the vine that you had trained up. And there’d be some, you’d get on their ass about leaving these too long, and then they’d just go like this around, and man they were keeping up and moving right along, and after about 20 minutes, you’d look back and here the vine was looking like this. A hop vine, you damage it, and it wilts right away. Then you’d take them back and show them what they were doing, and some of those guys would get pissed off, oh, they’d get pissed off. The women that worked in the hop yard doing the training and the suckering, they were the best. They couldn’t do the hoeing, it was too hard of work, but the women that did the training and suckering, I never had any trouble with them, never did.


Not Innocent: Awareness

Here’s the first chapter, more of an extended introduction, about how I became aware of Ervin Kaser, his murder, and everything else.  It may be a few weeks before I post further pieces of this, as I’m in the process of going through dozens of audio tapes that I’ve made over the past 10-12 years, looking for pieces that apply to this story, and listening to and transcribing the tapes is a painfully slow process.

I have very few clues as to the date of my earliest memory that relates to the murder of my uncle Ervin Kaser. I was probably between six and eight years old, certainly not more than that. My mother, Wilma, barely reached five feet if she was a little sloppy with the yard stick, and in my memory I wasn’t more than two thirds of her height, if that. We were walking north on First Street, between East Main and Oak Street, on the left side of the street. There used to be a dime store along that block, and I think a jewelry store of some sort on the corner of First and Oak. All of those buildings are gone now, replaced by a parking lot for the nearby bank. I remember it being a fairly nice day, so it was probably in the summer. Just as the two of us reached the corner, we encountered a man coming from the other direction, and both he and my mother came to a sudden stop. He smiled, touched the bill of his hat, and said something like, “Good morning, Mrs. Kaser!” My mother didn’t say anything to him, but the tension in her body was obvious as she recoiled from him. She grabbed my hand and said, “Come on!” and pulled me around the corner and down the sidewalk. As I struggled to keep up, I asked, “Who was that?” Her only answer was, “Cap Oveross.”

I was young at the time, but even then, the emotional intensity of that brief encounter was obvious enough to burn those few seconds into my memory forever. I don’t know how or when I became aware of who Cap Oveross was and why my mother had reacted that way. I don’t remember if she explained about my uncle’s murder on that day or not.

We moved into a new house in early 1961, and in the garage there was a pull-down folding ladder that gave access to the attic. A small area had been floored with plywood, and it was used as a cramped storage space. For an eight or ten year old boy, of course, that space was magical, and who knew what fascinating things you might find up there? My folks had an old round-topped trunk up there with a miscellany of items. I can imagine the kinds of stuff that was probably in that trunk, but the only things I remember for sure were a large dime-store scrapbook and a paper sack with three old magazines. I’m pretty sure that it was my discovery of those, and the questions that followed, that were the real beginning of my awareness of the murder of an uncle I never knew.

The scrapbook contained many, many newspaper clippings from the Capital Journal and the Oregon Statesman, both Salem newspapers, from the Portland newspaper The Oregonian, and from the local weekly Silverton Appeal-Tribune. They covered the entire run of events, as reported in the newspapers, from the killing of Ervin Kaser through the trial of Casper “Cap” Oveross, his acquittal, and a few brief mentions afterwards.

The paper sack contained three magazines, the August 1955 issue of Real Detective (“Whodunit?”), the October 1955 issue of True Police Cases (“To Love, To Die – Never cheat at the game of love”), and the August 1955 issue of Official Detective Stories (“Me, I Shoot. Anything Wrong with That?”). These magazines were the typical sensationalistic nonsense that graced the news stands of the day, a hybrid of Great Depression era pulp detective fiction magazines and actual news reporting. All of the stories were sensationalized to one degree or another. In one, everyone’s given a short nickname: Ervin is Erv, Emanuel (Mannie) is Em, Melvin is Mel, and nowhere is Cap’s actual name of Casper even mentioned. I’m being generous when I say the prose was florid:

The news of what had happened started coming over the telephone wires strung through the big Oregon firs within an hour of his arrest, and they couldn’t believe it. Some of them slipped into their fur-lined windbreakers or big red-plaided lumber jackets and drove into town to talk it over.

Another reports a host of conversations that couldn’t have possibly have been known by the writer, between the police and witnesses, the police and the District Attorney, between the police and the suspect Casper Oveross, although they seem reasonable based upon the bulk of the police reports.

I took the magazines and the scrapbook down out of the attic and started asking my parents about it, and they answered what questions they could. I was always fortunate that my parents had little reticence to talk about pretty much anything I asked. Unfortunately, as I grew up and moved away from home, got married, had kids … life happened. By the time I thought about digging deeper into it, most of my aunts and uncles had passed away. However, they probably wouldn’t have told me any more than what they’d already told the police and was in the police reports, and some of them probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it anyway. So, I can only tell this story from the information available. Police reports, newspaper articles, sensationalized magazine stories, a few verbal memories, a few court records. There are no transcripts of the trial itself. Because the verdict was “not guilty,” there was never any possibility of a re-trial or appeal, so the court recorder’s records were never transcribed and appear to be long gone. And yet, a reasonably complete story can be pieced together, and that’s what I’ll try to do throughout the rest of this book.

Some years ago, my father had a friend who was a Deputy with the Marion County Sheriff’s office, and he made a photocopy of the County Sheriff’s file on the case. After reading through it, his comment to my father was, “You know, that was the worst miscarriage of justice I have ever witnessed or heard about in my life!” A few years after that, I applied for and received a scanned copy of the Oregon State Police case file which was a close duplicate of the County Sheriff’s (they sent copies of reports to each other), but it had a few extra pages and a few crime scene photographs that were not in the copy from the County Sheriff’s office. Also, the State file had been somewhat redacted: the names of people who had been minors at the time were blacked out, as well as one person who had asked to be treated as a confidential informant, and one instance of medical information regarding Ervin’s wife Mary. But even without the non-redacted County Sheriff’s reports, it would have been relatively easy to replace the names that had been redacted, as it was pretty obvious who was speaking or being spoken about, as most of them were well-known family members and neighbors.

Reading those police reports and newspaper articles transports me back to a different time, a different world. Modern forensic science was just beginning and was quite primitive compared to today’s standards. The police were often just average Joes off the street with no particular background in law enforcement, sometimes without even having graduated from high school. My father, Calvin, was an officer on the Silverton police force for about six months in the early 1950s, and his formal education stopped at the end of the 8th grade, he was needed to help run the farm in the late 1930s. The police reports are often rife with misspellings, and sometimes out-and-out wrong names, and the phrasings used by the writers of the police reports and the newspaper articles sound quaint to our ears today.

But before diving into the details of the murder, the investigation and the trial, who was Ervin Kaser? Where did he grow up? What was his life like? What was he like?

To be continued…


Not Innocent: February 1955

I’ve started work on a book about the murder of my father’s oldest brother, to be called Not Innocent: The Murder of Ervin Oren Kaser.  The book is not intended for general publication, but is something I’m putting together for my family, of which many of the younger members have never even heard of Ervin Kaser or the fact that he was murdered.  The killing was planned, premeditated, and quite fascinating 57 years later.  At the time, it was horrific, frightening and incredibly sensational, in the way that sex and celebrities and everything else is sensational today on “entertainment news” TV shows and tabloid magazines (at least, for 15 minutes…).  Below  is the preliminary Introduction to that book.

Blogically Yours,

In February 1955, Silverton, Oregon was a small town with a population of around 3150, less than a third of today’s population of almost 10,000, surrounded by vast farm lands and mountain forests. This was before the wars in Iraq (both of them) and Afghanistan, before the Twin Towers came down, before Clinton and Monica, before the other Bush and Reagan and Carter and Ford and Nixon and Johnson and Kennedy and Oswald. This was before Vietnam, before race riots and civil rights marches, before the Summer of Love and sex and drugs. Getting into trouble then consisted mostly of drinking too much on a Saturday night and tipping over some farmer’s outhouse, or stealing some chickens and inviting the unknowing owner of the chickens to your barbeque. Television was in its infancy, and even if you had a television, you were lucky if you received two or three stations, channels in today’s vernacular. If a single woman bought or sold property it would say “an unmarried woman” after her name on the deed. If someone was shot on TV (usually in a western), you only knew it because they fell down and stopped moving. Shocking was when a man said goddammit! in public in front of a woman. There were no drive-by shootings and no cable channels with blatant sex scenes, no flood of cop and lawyer shows every hour with splashed-red gory murders.

In February 1955, few couples “lived together outside of wedlock,” having a child outside of marriage was a life-altering scandal. It happened, and people had affairs, too. But the social mores were much stricter, there was a higher social price to pay for breaking the standards of proper behavior. There were no cell phones, your phone was tethered to the wall by its cord, and you couldn’t carry it around the house or across the country side. Most people had “party lines” where 8 to 10 people all shared the same phone line, and you could lift your receiver at any time and listen in on someone else having a ‘private’ conversation if they didn’t hear the click of your receiver coming off the hook. Most men wore a hat, and they weren’t baseball caps or stocking hats. Pretty much every car driven in America was made in America by an American car manufacturer. So were the televisions, radios and just about every other device. “Made in Japan” was synonymous with “trash.”  “Made in China” didn’t exist because China was a communist country and we had no political relations with China, let alone trade relations.  Only in trashy detective novels and magazines and in far-away big cities did people commit murder.

In February 1955, I was just a few months past my second birthday. My life consisted of learning to walk, talk and not make a mess in my pants. I was still too young to know that the world was a little bigger than my mother’s arms. I was just beginning to learn that I was low man on the totem pole with two older brothers and an older sister who would one day take joy in washing my face with a dirty dishrag. I was too young to know my aunts and uncles and cousins, or even what aunt, uncle and cousin meant. I was too young to know the meaning of love and sex and jealousy and rage and murder.

In February 1955, my father’s oldest brother was 49. He sat in his car in the driveway of his home in the farm land south of Silverton, Oregon. It was a cold, clear February night, just before 11pm. A slug from a 30-30 Winchester hunting rifle pierced the steel post of the driver’s door, entered his back, severed his aortic artery and came to rest nestled against his heart. Three more shots quickly smashed into the car, but my uncle was already sprawled on the floorboards and seat of the car, dead, murdered.

In many ways February 1955 was a more innocent time. But no time is truly innocent. The more things change, the more things remain the same. No matter how bad a person may be, there is good in them. No matter how good a person may be, there is bad in them. We’re all guilty of something.

No one is innocent.


We Are So Lucky

Some events are so statistically unlikely, so far-fetched, that we sometimes have to just shake our heads in amazement when they actually happen. The odds of winning the Powerball Lottery is only 1 in over 175 MILLION.  That’s a number that’s hard for us mere humans to REALLY comprehend.  If you worked 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year (ie, no vacations, no holidays), and earned $100 per hour (don’t we wish!), you would work 2,080 hours per year and earn $208,000 per year.  At that rate, you’d have to work 841 years to earn $175 million.  You’d better start when you’re very young, Methuselah.

175 million is MORE than HALF of the population of the United States today.  If you lined up that may people in a single line with each person taking up only 2 feet of space in the line, the line would be over 16,500 MILES long.  That’s 2/3 of the way around the earth’s equator!

And yet, on a regular basis, someone ‘beats’ those long odds.

I’ve been a genealogist (a “family historian” for you unwashed masses) since I was a teenager.  My father was the last of seven children, born when his mother was 42.  I was the last of four children.  I’ve researched my paternal line, which goes back to the Bern Canton of Switzerland around 1870 and stays there clear back to the 1590s (Kaser, or as it was before getting Americanized, Käser, was an occupational surname which meant cheese maker; maybe that’s why I have such a cheesy sense of humor).  It’s quite fascinating to see the long list of your ancestors and their children over the centuries, to see in each generation how many children were lost before reaching adulthood, to see how many times your direct ancestor was the last child in their generation.  It was not uncommon for 3 to 5 children dying young out of a family of 8 to 12.  We often take our mere existence for granted, so I found myself amazed at the simple fact that I was here.  What were the odds?

And yet, someone always has to be the last.

If my parents would’ve had one more child, then that child would have been the amazing final child, and all of the descendants of that child would have been the lucky ones, the ones who just BARELY clung to existence.  Or if I’d not been born, then my sister would have been the lucky one, and her descendents hanging on the bottom rung of the ladder.  But regardless of which position on the familial ladder we each cling to, it’s actually amazingly lucky that any of us are here.  If you take an average generation as 25 years, that’s 4 generations per century, 40 generations per millennium, 40,000 generations per million years, at least! The further back we go, the shorter and shorter the time it takes for the generations to reproduce.  We’re talking hundreds of millions of generations stretching back to our earliest ancestors at the beginning of life on this planet.

And in each generation, our ancestor survived and reproduced while many, many others died with no offspring.

We, as individuals, are so lucky to be here!


Bullying and Being Macho

Nobody likes bullying except the bullyer, but it’s always been with us (people do it, chimpanzees do it, birds do it), and I can’t see how it will ever go away.  Bleeding heart liberal idealists are always whining about this and that and asking, “Why can’t we just blah, blah, blah?”  Don’t get me wrong, I’m fairly overweight when I step onto the “liberal scale,” but I’m more of a realist than an idealist.  As I look at the world around me, I try to understand how it works, how it’s worked in the past, how it could work in the future (and how it’s unlikely to work in the future), and why.  It’s that understanding of why that seems to separate the realists and the idealists.  Realists use the word why to mean the reason why things are a certain way (and probably will stay that way, or will probably change).  Idealists use the word why as an interrogative complaint about how things are vs. how they wish they would be.  We need both types (even within the same person), because a realist mindset tends to make things work, and an idealist mindset tends to change the way things work.  Both are good, but neither are always appropriate or useful.

The idealist in me has always wanted to get along with everyone, not rock the boat (unless everyone in the boat enjoys having it rocked…).  I grew up mostly in the 1960s, so I was definitely of the “make love not war” religion (but that’s another subject entirely…).  I’ve also always been an independent cuss: I don’t like being told what to do, how to behave, what to believe, or much of anything else.  It’s made for an interesting balancing act: trying to get along and be accepted and getting the approval of others, while at the same time doing my own thing, not following the crowd, standing alone.  In high school, I knew and was friendly with a lot of kids, but I was friends with very few.  I had two or three fairly good friends, and my girlfriend Sharon (now my wife of 37 years) had two or three fairly good friends, but I was friendly with most of the kids in the school.

The ones I was not friendly with were the jerks, the jocks (except some of them) and the bullies.  Mostly we just ignored each other, and I was fine with that.  They weren’t going to change me, and I knew I wasn’t going to change them and had no desire to do so.  But sooner or later, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I’ve always been what could be generously termed as ‘slender.’  I weighed about 115 as a freshman, and by the time I graduated I was 145 and just a half-inch shy of six feet.  A strong wind could have blown me away if I’d had enough of a cross-section for the wind to get a hold on.  I was on the wrestling team all four years, but mostly because I thought at the time that everyone should do some sport or activity, and I didn’t care for football or basketball, and both of my older brothers had wrestled before me, so why not?  I was wiry, strong for my weight, had quick reflexes, but most of the time you wouldn’t know it just looking at me.

One day Sharon and I were standing in the hall during lunch or between classes.  Suddenly, I found myself shoved up against the lockers with the collar of my shirt being steam-pressed by the fist of a bullying jerk a few inches shorter than me while a couple of his buddies crowded in on either side.  To this day, I have no idea why they chose to pick on me at that moment, and I can’t recall what he said as he pressed me against the lockers.  It was the first and only time I was ever bullied like that, so it took me quite a bit by surprise.  But I knew how to behave.  I don’t know if it was from being the youngest of four kids in my family and having grown up having to defend myself against older siblings, or whether it was from all the books I’d read and all the movies I’d watched, or if it was from the things I’d been taught by my folks and uncles and aunts and teachers, or if I just inherently understood the situation and the “personality dynamics” of the situation.  It wasn’t from watching John Wayne movies, or I’d have shoved back and started swinging.  I didn’t want to fight, but I knew that whining, “Let me go, please, let me go!” was not the right thing to do.  I knew that only strength of will and determination not to be pushed around would end the situation in an acceptable (to me) fashion.  I didn’t think about it in words, I just knew.

I stared straight into the kid’s eyes and, in as steady and commanding of a voice as I could manage, I said, “”  The kid just held onto my shirt, pushing upwards. I became aware of Sharon standing close by saying, “Don’t fight, don’t fight,” over and over.  I knew that was the wrong behavior, it was like standing around a campfire waving an open jar of gasoline over the flames.  I turned my face towards her and uncharacteristically said, “Sharon. Shut up!” then turned back to the bully, again staring him straight in the eyes and, speaking levelly, slowly and forcefully, said, “”  After a moment, he let go, shrugged, made some sarcastic remark, and turned and walked away.  He never bothered me again, and that’s the only instance I can remember of ever being a participant in bullying.  I’m not a big fan of macho, but in a moment like that, I’m convinced it was the only appropriate response.  Others might (and frequently do) choose differently.  The idealist in me didn’t want to fight.  But the realist in me knew that cringing was not a good solution either. The me in me found the solution that worked best for me, avoiding the fight while preventing any future continuation of the bullying.

Would I have fought?  Damn right.  But I wasn’t going to take the first swing.  Was I scared?  Probably some, but mostly it was just adrenaline rushing to places that didn’t need it.  Was I brave?  Looking back, I don’t think so. I’m pretty confident that I could have “taken him” if shove had come to push, and I think he realized that he might have grabbed the wrong nerd that time.  Mostly it was just the me in me refusing to be told what to do, how to behave.  I refused to be forced to cringe and whine.  I refused to be forced into starting a fight.

Looking back at my life so far, my two driving personality characteristics have been an overwhelming need to be accepted, approved of, admired, and a burning need for self-control, control of myself both from within and from without.  Those two have set up a sometimes stressful dynamic, as being accepted and approved of can frequently be at odds with being independent from control by others.  And that need for acceptance and approval is kind of like being an alcoholic: every ‘hit’ only lasts for a little bit, and then you need another and another and… Fortunately, with age, I’ve learned to provide myself with most of the approval and acceptance that I need, and not demand it from others quite so much.

Of course, that’s just satisfying my need for self-control.  Some days, you should just stay in bed.

Blogically yours,

July 1, 2012