Friday, November 06, 2015

Significant events and decisions….1962 - 63

At long last the end, graduation, was in sight. School had been a grind...a means to an end...I didn’t always enjoy my classes and questioned why I was in the major I found myself. But by January 1962 I could see my way to adulthood, employment and promise. I began to make plans accordingly. First, I decided against changing majors which might require more school. The shortest distance between two points is a straight, I loaded up on classes to try to graduate a term early. That worked out in my favor.

You have to understand that I was not making decisions in a vacuum. I had two big brothers who had traveled this path before me as agricultural majors. I had another brother who had chosen the military after high school and was now going to college in a field he truly loved. I had my eyes open for ways to change my goals without taking too long to get there. I started exploring both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Navy after graduation. Then there was this girl thing going on.

I can’t downplay the importance that Dad had on my decision making. I had consulted him several times about the military. I had, after all, gone from Air Force ROTC in my freshman year to Army ROTC in my sophomore year and was not enamored with either. Dad was a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, but he was not dogmatic about it. Joe chose the Navy, Jim the Air Force and while Dave had not yet affiliated with the National Guard...that was after his ordination, I saw my way clear to go in any direction I chose.
Home on leave 1943
Aleene and I had not yet developed our relationship beyond dating when we were both home. I have to admit it was nice to be able to talk openly with her, but I could not see my way clear to commit beyond that. Long distance relationships are difficult, because it is hard to read the other person: are they sincere, or just having fun? I had scaled back my social life at Penn State, however. Subconsciously, I was committing; I just did not know it, I guess.

She had been to State once and I was scheduled to go to a pledge formal later in the spring. Things were lined up ready to go when I got word she was home in New Castle and  in the hospital with acute appendicitis. I remember visiting her in the hospital...her mom and dad present. There I stood gazing at her in a hospital bed and gown when she slowly pulls something out from under the cover. It was a pledge paddle which had been a favor at the dance. Her brother had smuggled it into the hospital. This was new territory for heart swelled.

Spring 1962 I was on cloud nine...travelling with the Glee Club and because I was focused on I could get in an OCS program, I found renewed energy to hit the books and score some good grades. I could feel that all taking place. Aleene was aware of some of this because when I announced I had chosen the Navy, she said she thought it was going to be Coast Guard. The real reason was that I had one fraternity brother who was a year ahead of me go through Navy OCS and succeed and another wash out of the Coast Guard program in Yorktown, VA. I was committed to the Navy.

Dad knew this and was fine with that decision. He had turned into such a supporter for whatever I decided I didn’t worry about any of the whys or wherefores. I have to add that Dad and I were always a work in least to me. You see, he was called to active duty when I was 9 months and returned when i was four. When he was released from active duty in December 1945 he intruded on my space. I was mother’s boy, not his and I resented his taking over her time. His military, kickass attitude when he came home further alienated me. As a result, I became very attached to my big brothers...they were my heroes. I followed them around whenever I could and was most happy when I was either in the barn or in the field with them. As I grew older and they left home I came around, somewhat, but was not all that enamored with him. Jim knows the feeling and had it rougher because he was much more independent and felt Dad’s control more than I.

Christmas 1956
Jim's first Christmas away

When Jim went into the service and I was the only one left at home things changed. Dad was slowing down in every regard except with his work. He was in his office six days a week. Thinking back, he had no life outside of dentistry. That was a change from the 1930s when he was involved in church boards, American Legion, Boy Scouts (attaining the silver beaver) and Masons. When he came home in 1945 he did none of that. He was in his 50s and did nothing but work.

He kept his hands out of farming...literally. How would you like your dentist to be working in your mouth when they might have been covered with cow pucky that morning? Remember, rubber gloves were not in vogue in the 1950s. But he turned the corner with me one February morning when he woke me up to go check on my lambing ewes. When I did not return from the barn right away he figured there were some new lambs and trekked out to the barn camera in hand. It was his way of supporting me and my farming interests rather than trying to shut them down. He worked hard so I could farm and go to college...I figured that out later, but at the time I was not too sure.

February 1957. 

The background story is essential to understand because on June 1, 1962...the beginning of finals of my junior year I got a call from our pastor in New Castle, Deb Jolley, that Dad had died. I can still remember his words and his tone of voice. Haunting. The family sent a car for me...four hours each way… to bring me home. Whew. I was 20 and had plans...boy did I have plans.

There are side stories to this event and I may take them on in another forum, but this story is about my education in life, so back to that story.

I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of support that was expressed by friends of our family that I never knew existed. There were former scouts, patients of his, former buddies from years before in all the organizations he had once belonged to. My support came from an 18 year old girl who silently came through the reception line at Johnny Hodge’s funeral home and stretched her small frame up to kiss me...right there, in front of her parents and my family. I am not sure who saw it, but she melted my heart. She denies all this today, of course, but I swear it is true.

The problem was, after that week at home I went back to school to take my exams and the big fraternity house was empty...nary a soul was around. All were gone for the summer. I was alone. I took most of the tests (some profs just gave me the grade I had before finals). I was taking five classes. I went from State College to Indiana, Pa for my summer internship in Extension. Again, alone.
I did not process Dad’s death well. I am a verbal processor...and while I can think my way through, I should have been near someone I could talk all this out with that summer. I came home on weekends...Mother and Jim were there, but I went back alone to Indiana...stayed in a single room in an old woman’s house and interacted with staff and 4-H folk, but I was not talking to anyone about death and what it meant. As a result, I think, I tried to tough it out alone...neglecting my relationship with Aleene.

That fall I was back at State focused on finishing up a term early….March of 1963. I would be student teaching during winter term, then out. When I came home for Christmas vacation (about December 8 or 9, 1962 after fall term) I headed straight for the Navy recruiter. He was headed to Pittsburgh on the 10th and offered to take me with him so I could interview for OCS. It was like cascading events...interview, tests, physical, swearing in. Amazing. It took all day, of course, but I went from a wondering college student to a signed, sealed, delivered recruit for OCS all contingent upon my graduating in March (and a clear background check). They had a spot for me in the May OCS class at Newport, RI...or...if I did not graduate...a spot at Great Lakes as an enlisted sailor. Sounds too fast, but it was probably the best thing for me and my Navy career.

A little perspective, here...our country had just come through the Cuban Missile Crisis where the Navy played an integral role in resolving that issue...the news was filled with B-roll of ships and planes and I ate it up. Also, JFK was a Navy hero and I wanted to follow those footsteps. I had a good friend flying in Navy planes off of aircraft carriers. I was all in.

Back home I continued to neglect Aleene...although she does not remember it that way. I recall the turning me, at least. I was out in the barn when a familiar car appeared in our driveway. I was Aleene coming to check up on me….basically, was I in or out? Again, she does not remember it that way, but I recall the conversation with Mother after Aleene’s appearance. She was concerned about the appropriateness of a girl reaching out in that matter. I was not concerned about that. I was afraid that if I did not get my act together I would lose my first love.

Nancy and Aleene
Christmas 1962

Things improved after that Christmas vacation incident. I lived at home that winter while I did my student teaching at Aleene’s alma mater, Laurel High School. I had two trips to Pittsburgh to solidify my spot in Newport on May 20.

Mother and I drove to State College for graduation...I think it was her only trip there while I was a student...oh yes, they delivered me to West Halls in 1959.

Back at the farm, there was not much happening for two months so I signed up for substitute teaching at local schools...and I got some work; probably five or six days. A call came from Penn State from my former Ag Ed instructor...there was a long term subbing job in Hustontown, PA. Was I interested? I recall calling Joe to ask his for his thinking since this school was in the county adjacent to Chambersburg...and he knew one of the teachers there. He gave me the go ahead after he explained that the kids there were from the mountains in the area next to the PA Turnpike, Sidling Hill for those of you who have driven that stretch.

Again, rooming with a retired couple in this little central PA town. The school was Forbes Road Joint High School. The position lasted about six weeks until I had to report for active duty. It is significant because one of the teachers on staff was a recent Navy veteran who went through OCS and was stationed on an aircraft carrier. Just the right person to give some perspective of what I was getting myself into.

By this time I was ready to go, but realized that I was going to be alone...that is...without someone close to talk to. As it turned out, I did not have time to talk to anyone about life and death...because all we did was study, march, take tests and study some more. OCS was hard.

I am going to leave the story there because what happened on the other end...after September 20, 1963 deserves its own telling. Suffice it to say, Aleene and I were serious about each other and leaving her was difficult...for me. She does not remember it quite that way, yet.

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