[This is an essay excerpt from an upcoming book of essays, Moxie Matters: Life’s Beginnings in a Small Maine Town, which is slated for release in late 2010.-jb]
I’ve been many things in my life—baseball prospect, writer, husband, father—this last one is the moniker, in hindsight that might be the most important for me, primarily because this is how I got connected with my son, Mark.
Parenting is the hardest activity many will ever do in life. The irony in this is that there are really no manuals to follow. Oh, there are a wealth of books, written by America’s expert class that tell you all the “right” things to do, or how to skirt the laws of man and incorporate corporal punishment into the mix, or utilize manipulation and subterfuge. I have little good to say about the likes of these.
For most, you figure it out as you go along, often, trying to run counter to the models inflicted upon us by our own parents. Later in life, you look back at our imperfect predecessors and realize that they didn’t do as bad as we had originally thought they had—subsequently, the damage wasn’t as permanent, or the scars as deep as we had originally feared.
Another irony of parenthood is that as soon as you receive that little bundle of joy (mixed with the pain associated with childbirth for the mother), you begin preparing for the inevitable day when they leave the nest (if you’ve done your job right). Granted, there are always the kids that are still living in they’re parent’s basement when their pushing 40, surfing porn sites in their underwear. But if you’ve got any wits about you as a parent, you recognize that if you’re lucky, then you’ll have your son or daughter for the first 18-20 years (and possibly a few more during the transitional years of college, or those years after high school when they’re getting on their feet) before they spread their wings and fly away.
For Mary and me, those formative early years with Mark were special. At the time, we were 1,500 miles away from our own parents. This required us to rely on our own limited knowledge about what parents are supposed to do, with some assistance from Dr. Spock (one “expert” that I found tolerable/helpful), and the very few other experienced parents we had contact with. Looking back, it was most stressful for me when Mark would get one of his frequent bouts of bronchitis that left him with an awful cough, which usually kept me up at night wondering if he was going to make through ‘til the morning. Mary was more measured in her approach, knowing Mark could manage and would survive. He did or course, and began growing into a chunky, good-natured child.
When Mark was five, we moved back to Maine from Indiana. Mary’s parents were building a new house, and had plenty of space, so they offered us the second floor for a domicile until we got settled and could find a rent of our own. What we planned on being a couple of months turned into 14. The upside of this time (despite the little irritations that come with moving back in with family) was that Mark developed a very strong bond with Joe and Joan, Mary’s parents. Additionally, the country location, tucked back into the woods provided Mark with his own outdoor playground to build forts, fight Indians, and be a little boy.
With invested grandparents helping out, we had the best of both worlds. Unlike in Indiana, where childcare was always hit or miss, and a strong dose of luck, back in Durham, we had Joe and Joan to watch Mark part of the time, as well as my parents, who lived across the river, in Lisbon Falls. Mark grew up knowing both sets of grandparents, and they took an active interest in his well-being.
I’m never quite sure how Mary and I did it—turning out such a wonderful young man like Mark. Maybe it had to do with the love and concern he sensed from us, and his extended family. I look back at my own imperfection as a parent, and Mary and I talk about it from time to time—children don’t come with a playbook—you just figure it out as you go along. Things managed to turn out ok, with a few speed bumps thrown in to keep the journey interesting.
Mark was born in Indiana; technically, I think that makes him a Hoosier. We had ventured out for the middle of the country while Mary was five months into her pregnancy. I was following what I thought was a calling from God to attend Bible College. Mary was following her husband down the first of many rabbit trails to come in her marriage. It’s little wonder that Mark can pack on a whim and move, since we packed up our U-Haul truck and drifted 1,500 miles to the west without much thought about security, or what our new locale had in store for us.
Being young parents (when Mark was born, Mary and I were both 21) may have left us a bit short on the material side of things. Most of our first year in Indiana found us dreadfully close to running out of cash. This was before credit cards allowed young families to get hopelessly saddled with debt. Actually, I got my first taste of the credit bug in Merrillville, Indiana when I needed $300 worth of car repairs to my ’74 Plymouth Scamp. Firestone was more than happy to offer me a revolving credit plan. I was able to get my car repaired and later, even added a set of retread tires, and it only cost me pennies on the dollar every month. We were now on the highway to American financial servitude.
While money always seemed in short supply, our young family managed to be together as often as we could. Stranded halfway across the country, all we really had was one another, and a handful of fellow Bible College students. Once the failure of that experiment became apparent, we no longer had that small circle of support to cling to.
When we landed in Merrillville in August of 1983, we had a contact from our pastor back in Maine. He knew an older couple that had left a small country church where the husband pastored, only to move to Indiana and sit under the anointed teachings of Pastor Jack Hyles, at First Baptist Church in Hammond. Hyles was half of the namesake of Hyles-Anderson College where I was preparing to enroll in September. Clayton and Catherine Beal were living in a housing complex comprised of duplexes, four-plexes, and relatively new apartments that were carpeted and came complete with air conditioning. This housing option was appealing—less than a mile from campus, plus we had the requisite security deposit and first month’s rent, not to mention that we knew little of the area and needed to unload our life’s belongings soon, since we were paying by the day to keep them ensconced in the back of our U-Haul. The decision was an easy one to make—we became residents of Pine Island, like so many other first year Hyles-Anderson College students.
Clayton and Catherine were two heavyset, jovial people that had become good friends with Dan Chamberland, the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist in Topsham, the church we attended in Maine. The met us at Hyles-Anderson, after we had been on the road for 2 ½ days cooped up in the truck’s cab, making our way across the country. It was late in the day on Thursday when we rolled into the college’s parking lot. Mary had been sick much of the day. We had just weathered the traffic nightmare that was Chicagoland, particularly the busy I-80/94 corridor, and it was beginning to dawn on us that maybe this move to Indiana should have been given a bit more thought.
We spent that evening, and the first weekend with the Beals. Then, on Monday, we unloaded our belongings (with the help of a few students we met on Sunday, during church) into our new apartment on Matterhorn Drive, in Pine Island.
Mark’s birth was one of the happiest moments in my life. When I first saw him after he entered the world, I was overwhelmed with emotion and love for this tiny little bundle of humanity. Mary and I had brought a brand new life into the world. While we were both elated by Mark’s birth, the responsibility that comes with being a new father was quietly descending on me. My life had changed in an instant.
During the first year of our marriage, I wasn’t one to go out with the boys, or have a bunch of activities that kept me away from Mary. Our relationship was characterized by spending most of our non-work time together. Being there for Mark wasn’t going to be an issue for me. Still, there is that moment when the realization of exactly what fatherhood entails hits you. You become aware that you now have the responsibility for someone placed in your care and that’s pretty daunting. But like many young parents from time immemorial entrusted with childrearing responsibilities, we began figuring things out as we went along. I learned about colic, and diapers, and rashes, and bronchitis (something that our young son was susceptible to).
Things slowly began unraveling on the Bible College front. Around the same time that I misplaced God’s call, we found a cheaper apartment, miles away from the school, in Hobart. This tiny community, which had a lake in the middle of town, and a library down the street, became a haven for our young family. Hobart was where we began to figure some things out about life and started putting our young marriage and parenting responsibilities for a toddler into a clearer context, relying more on our own experience, and less on what someone claiming to speak for God might have to tell us.
After finding employment difficult to secure (unemployment in Northwest Indiana in 1983 was close to 14 percent), and taking a security job that paid a shade more than minimum wage, in Chicago, I eventually found an employment situation that would allow us to finally have more money coming in at the end of the month than was going out. Even better, it had health insurance, an HMO, which was something we desperately needed. I had been carrying my Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan under COBRA (costing us $350/month, which was the same as our rent) while Mary was pregnant and afterwards. Even with this plan, a holdover from our jobs we left behind, we still exited St. Margaret’s Hospital, Mark in tow, owing over $5,000.
I went to work for the State of Indiana Department of Corrections. This wasn’t necessarily the employer I thought would help our young family get off our financial backs, but it became an employment oasis for me and our family.
I first learned about Westville Correctional Center from students at Hyles-Anderson. Several male students had found jobs at the medium security correctional center, located about 30 miles east of Crown Point, the town where the college was located. I’d see them in church on Sunday morning, in their blue shirts, and gray slacks that were the garb of the guards at the facility.
I inquired of a fellow student that I knew that was working at Westville if they had any openings. There were usually openings for corrections officer positions, but he mentioned that they also had openings for their psychiatric unit. Since I had worked at Pineland Center for the Mentally Retarded and had direct care experience, I thought that this experience might help get my foot in the door at Westville. It did.
During January of 1983, shortly after Mark had been born, I got the good news that not only had I scored well on their employment exam, I was being asked to come back for an interview with their Director of Nursing, and Shift Supervisor. My interview with Doris Bowman and Lila Barnes went exceptionally well. They asked me if I was available to start. I told them I’d like to give the security company in Chicago at least one week’s notice, but I could start after that.
The job at the correctional center boosted my pay nearly two dollars/hour, plus provided us with a comprehensive insurance plan. Additionally, once I completed the six weeks of training, I’d be eligible to pick up overtime shifts. Later, I’d regularly work two to three overtime shifts per week, which helped Mary and I begin to pull ourselves out of the financial hole we’d fallen into after our move to Indiana.
I’d continue working at Westville for the next three years and seven months. During that time, I’d leave the Bible College, and we would move from Hobart to an affordable, but much nicer duplex in Chesterton, a community that was situated near the shores of the Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park. The Dunes became a significant place for us, as Mary and Mark often spent the day together at the beach (when I was working) and on days that I had off, we often would head to the lakeshore to experience a wonderful recreational setting that was inexpensive and invigorating.
In retrospect, relocating to Chesterton was positive on many different levels. One of the important ones for Mark was that our new duplex we rented was in a neighborhood with an abundance of children Mark’s age, and older. Having grown up in a neighborhood, I knew the advantages that come from having to fend for myself with peers in a variety of play situations.
By-and-large, this was a great experience for Mark. He developed a couple of close friends. The dead-end street was safe for riding his tricycle up and down in front of our home. Except for the time he left the used tricycle behind my car and I backed over it by accident, there were very few negatives to living in Chesterton during the three years we resided there.
My work schedule during Mark’s preschool years was perfect for our family. I worked a second shift position (2:15 pm to 10:45 pm) at Westville Correctional Center. After six months, I had transferred off the psychiatric unit to the infirmary. This was less stressful, as I didn’t have to deal with inmates sticking objects into various parts of their bodies, or administer psychotropic medicines that were strong enough to immobilize a horse.
The work schedule at Westville was six days on, two days off, and every third weekend involved having a three day weekend. This was a routine that worked well for the three of us. I got to spend my mornings with Mark every day. Beyond that, long weekends usually involved spending at least one day (during the summer) at The Dunes, and another one exploring the area as well as we could with our older cars, one of them routinely breaking down, or requiring some minor repair. This usually chewed up one of my days off. The upside, however, is that while not the world’s most mechanically-inclined person, I got to know how to do some basic repairs like changing a starter, alternator, and even doing a brake job. I also began accumulating a few tools, as well as the hands-on experience about how to utilize them.
What I recall most fondly from those days when we were poor, young and inexperienced as parents was how enjoyable it was just spending time with Mark. In Hobart, mornings in warm weather meant walking one street over from our apartment, located over a pizza parlor. One of the “perks” that came with this apartment was cock roaches, attracted by the ample supply of food, downstairs. I’d buy a loaf or two of day-old bread for the ducks. Then it was another block down the hill from Main Street to toss bread chunks into Lake George.
I remember crossing Main Street and reaching my over-sized hand down and feeling Mark grasp it with his small hand and fingers and knowing he trusted me as his father without a second thought. It’s hard to describe exactly what it means to a young father to know that your own flesh and blood has that kind of faith in you. It will be a few more years before the bubble bursts and Mark will realize that I have feet of clay just like everyone else. Until then, it’s pretty special.
Mornings spent feeding ducks at Lake George, a day with Mary and Mark along the shores of Lake Michigan, or coaching Mark on how to hold his first bat and pitching to him in the back yard are but a few of the memories that reign eternal.