Third grade
The Third Grade in 1957

        Judy Schmidt's white house poked above the opposite horizon five miles across the low and broad Bamber Valley south of Rochester, Minnesota, in 1958.  The row of cottonwood trees marked the Zumbro River, far to my right, on the banks of which stood old Bamber Valley Elementary School, pictured here behind the third grade. The county road ran from the school, across the stone bridge, by the site where the new school would be built and on to my left to the foot of Christopherson's Hill.  From where I stood, it seemed a low mound rather than a hill that left me sweaty and breathless when I climbed it, but affording myself a different view of the whole valley. From two miles away, the black and white cows appeared to stand in small motionless groups.  The Institute Road wound in and out of the woods up from the hill to the animal research division of the Mayo Clinic.  One hundred and twenty feet below me, the tar and pebble, rectangular roof of institute spread out across the hill top.

Water tower
Water Tower

    Had Judy looked out of her window with a telescope, she would have seen me squatting on the red conical top of the water tower above the trees that surrounded the institute.  In a time of fewer lawyers, the waste of the facility, wads of bloody gauze, crusty and brown, broken beakers and test tubes, and, most valuable of all, used syringes, lay heaped in open garbage wagons.  Skulls of small animals could be dug out of the ashes of the crematorium.  And ladders that climbed the legs of water towers were not locked against eight year old boys with nothing to do on spring mornings.  Scaling that ladder was only the fifth scariest part of the whole test.  And it was a test.  Boys who climbed the water tower moved into a circle of the elite.  They were licensed to walk and speak more slowly, not talk at all with the weakest boys, and affect a lofty indifference to the petty concerns of third graders.  The next scariest part was getting over the railing around the catwalk encircling the barrel of the water tower.  At the top of the side of the tank, the ladder leaned over backwards to get around the lip of the top of the tower.  Bushes and trees, seen under my arm, directly below were round and stemless.  Sweat on my hands made this passage terrifying, still only number three though.  Touching the watermelon-sized, warm, red beacons at the summit enlisted me into a society of secret warriors.  No boy ever degraded membership in that proud fellowship by chattering about it in elementary school.
     I surveyed the valley and wondered if Judy was watching me through her telescope.  I savored the taste of the breeze I knew was reserved for hunting red-tailed hawks.  Faintly, through my hips, I felt the tower swaying beneath me.  The tank and legs of the tower were concealed by the red top and it seemed to me I sat on a stationary saucer floating on the eastern edge of Bamber Valley.  The final step was for myself, not Judy, my brothers, or the other boys. I stood, looked straight up, and reached into the blue void with fingers splayed.  The valley, the hill, the tower, and even my own body all vanished.  I could sustain this for only a few seconds, which was long enough to burn the vision into my permanent memory.  My knees buckled.  I turned and fell.  My elbows striking the metal called up a hollow echo from within the tank below me.  I attempted to dig my fingernails into the red paint.  When I could breath again, and had decided to return to the ground, I discovered the scariest part of the expedition: I had to climb over the lip of the top of the tower backwards, groping with my feet for the rungs below.  This was the one passage about which I had no choice; the rest of my life was over the lip of the tower. 
    On Monday morning, Judy didn't give me a silk handkerchief.  She didn't let on to anybody that she saw that I was a different boy than the one who had left school on Friday afternoon.  Her gaze lingered on me briefly, I thought, silently and respectfully, which is the right response, of course.  A fuss would have been meaningless, silly, and embarrassing.

Lucky Dice
Lucky Dice

    In June of 1968, I turned down a ride to Woodstock because I wanted to work at Kentucky Fried Chicken for $1.90 instead.  In another life I accepted that ride and heard Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sing Teach the Children, discovered acid early, dropped out of conventional society, and moved to Haight-Ashbury.  There I joined a commune, shared a sleeping bag with an earth-child, gotten into marijuana and anarchism, danced in Golden Gate Park, attended dozens of Grateful Dead concerts, and came down in 1973.  Then I joined the back-to-the-earth movement, lived in a serious commune, and worked on an organic farm in the valley.  Today I have a beard, a mustache, long hair, and more children.  I am dirt poor and less anxious.  Instead I chose $1.90 per hour.

Zimbabwe Home
Zimbabwe Home

    Given how pious, fastidious, and desiccated my grandmother Irene was, I would assume that my father was the result of a rape did I not know that my grandfather was as immune to joy as his withered wife.  As it was, my father was an unfortunate, late, and accidental imposition upon his loveless and centerless parents.  They taught him that he might earn their love, or at least lack of disdain, with enough hard work, but that no achievement of his would ever offset the grief he caused them by distracting them from themselves.  What if my father had grown up with a whole personality?  Then he pursued his dream of working with Dr. Schweitzer in Africa.  His beautiful, adventurous, and loyal wife followed him and made his work possible.  I was born in Gabon and survived the diseases of Africa.  Then I really didn't attend St. Olaf College on the other side of the world or fall heir to the blessings and curses of that path.  Dad didn't have the luxury of exploring his addictions and he lived into old age.  I became a citizen of Zimbabwe, followed my love of science, attended the University of Heidelberg, and returned to Africa as an engineer.  I married into a rich English family, had six children, and screwed the colored help.  None of that happened because Irene and Charles spent more time in the bathroom than the bedroom
    Adele could have been on fight 88 on 9/11.  I became a single parent with enough money to stay home and brood.  My anger teamed up with my native snootiness and I became another bitter, fearful conservative.  People gathered into two groups for me: good and bad.  I was eager to nuke every damned Arab city on the planet.  To secure the services of a large-breasted twenty-four-year-old babe, I married one, got my wheels fucked off until I discovered that mine weren't the only wheels getting fucked off.  In the divorce, I lost half of my wealth and all of my concern for the wellbeing of humanity.  None of that happened though because a secretary in New York scheduled a meeting for a Friday instead of the following Tuesday.

Millstone
Millstone

     Mom could have dumped Dad in 1962 as she should have.  She moved back to Florida.  I became a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The excitement of winning a Super Bowl prevented me from discovering that shouting, jumping up and down, and drinking too much beer with the guys at a football game is an embarrassing way to behave.  I went to the University of Florida, and without being tempered by the horrible years I survived in the sixties, became an insufferable prig.  I married a rich Jewish girl in Miami, wore white shoes, sold real estate, and became a cocaine addict.  I didn't benefit from the moderating effects of living in Minnesota, being well-educated, LeRoy's friend, or Adele's husband.  I was snarky Bush operative.  Instead, because the men of my hometown punished women for leaving their alcoholic and violent husbands, she didn't do the right thing.
    I could have died of the polio I contracted at thirteen months.  End of story.
    A motorcycle on the road to Mayowood on a spring morning came so close to hitting me that, as it passed, its handlebar brushed against my shoulder.  Say it hit me.  I was paralyzed.  I navigated the ugliness of Central Junior High School in a wheelchair.  With no social life and aware of the narrowness of the gates before me, I was a better student.  I attended MIT, became an electrical engineer, got in on the computer revolution early, and retired at forty-five with a lot of money.  Then I did volunteer work with disabled kids and was very happy.  I missed that path by four inches.
    What if I had gotten the addiction gene along with four of my five brothers?  I did marijuana and gin in high school.  At St. Olaf, I did cocaine and speed.  I did better in school, took a more conventional route, majored in math and physics, and got into computers.  I moved to San Francisco, earned an advanced degree in electrical engineering, married a brainy serpent, divorced and remarried several times, and had three children by different women.  Driving high on coke, I hit a kid on a bicycle and was sent to prison for a year.  I sobered up, established a balanced life, married a good woman, joined Microsoft in 1987, made ten million dollars, and quit.  No Kai.  No Adele.  No church.  No Minnesota.  No LeRoy.  I became a street counselor for homeless kids mixed up with drugs and the law.  All because one sperm instead of another among millions got there first.   
    I am who I am today because in 1964 I thought Linda Glatzmeier thought I was creepy, because ninety years ago Irene and Charles Sullivan were a waste of perfectly good protoplasm, because a corporate meeting in the fall of 2001 was on a Friday, because the men in Rochester fifty years ago blamed the wife when the husband was an immature jerk, because one of my membranes resisted the penetration of a single polio virus, because a motorcycle passed harmlessly four inches to my left, because $1.90 looked good to me, and because of a few switches on my chromosomes.
    I am a twig born along on a torrent of inches, ounces, and seconds.