I remember an early conversation with Mother. I am standing on the stool and washing my hands in the utility room sink. It’s too tall for me because I am only four.
Mother, with tears in her eyes: “You told Wilsie that it was time for her to go home and you wanted her to leave. Did you see that she was angry and that she left after you said that? I felt very sad when you told her to go home. I don’t want you to tell her to go home again.”
Me in 4-year-old language: “I didn’t mean to make her mad. I just wanted her to leave so you could play with me.”
Mother: “Even when you don’t mean to make someone mad, it’s not OK to tell them to go home. Wilsie is my friend and I want her to come and have coffee with me because I want to have time with my friends.”
I remembered this conversation mainly because Mother was so distressed about Wilsie’s reaction to my request. I had no idea that she was teaching me basic social skills and empathy.
I remember another empathy lesson about creatures. I had just entered the kitchen from outdoors, probably with a guilty look on my face.
Mother: “Have you been chucking apples at my chickens?”
Me: “Um, yes but I was throwing rotten apples and I wasn’t able to hit the chickens from across the yard.”
Mother: “I don’t want you to pester my chickens. It’s not right to hurt creatures just to entertain yourself. If you want to throw rotten apples, throw them at a tree trunk, or something that you can’t hurt.”
I thought that Mother might have a point there. I got that it was selfish to harass the birds for the fun of it. It was the earnest feeling in her message that made it memorable for me. I couldn’t believe that she really cared that much about the chickens.
A few years later, I wanted to impress my neighbors Susan and Sandy. While our parents were square dancing I decided to entertain them by taking apart and putting together mother’s table radio. I did well on the taking apart, but failed miserably on repair. The next day Mother and I had a conversation.
Mother: “Did you do something to my radio? It no longer plays.”
Me: “I thought you didn’t want that radio because I don’t hear you play it — so I was showing Susan and Sandy how to take it apart and put it back together.”
Mother: “That radio was my special radio. It’s the only radio that plays my favorite station in Roseburg. I play it when you are gone to school to keep myself company. It’s not OK to just take someone else’s things and take them apart — even if you think they don’t want them anymore. When I saw that my radio was broken I was so upset that I cried. I want you to promise me that you won’t use things that belong to others without their permission.”
I felt very, very guilty about ruining her radio. What was I thinking? I don’t know how to assemble a radio. Anything beyond plugging a vacuum tube into the socket is beyond me.
Mother’s way of interacting helped me to respect the feelings and property of others much more efficiently than other parenting tactics such as lecturing, shaming and punishing.
Mother provided empathy training about the big picture in human events as well. Throughout our primary school years, Mother routinely took time to read to us at bedtime. The most memorable book she read was “Brave Men” by World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. Pyle was a well-known author who covered the War in Europe from the perspective of the ordinary soldier, sailor, and marine.
Pyle told stories from the point of view of men who did the work and the suffering of combat. Through this reading, I began to grasp the terrible cost of war. I don’t know if Mother intended to teach pacifism, but her readings about the experience of war taught me empathy for those that serve and an abiding conviction that war creates far more problems than it solves.
What were one or two things that you did not tell your parents about?
When I was about 12, and wanting to earn some spending money for school, my parents permitted me to work at the bean fields. Mr. Vasche farmed the green bean fields along the Calapooya Creek on the road to Oakland. His youngest son, Gregory, was a schoolmate and was required to work at the bean field as well, but not as a picker.
At the outset, I saw myself as a good worker, as capable as the next person at doing simple work like picking beans. I figured this would be an easy way to make enough for some cool clothes for school. I was oblivious to the reality that accumulating sackfuls of beans to generate a few dollars required a continuous effort with both hands simultaneously working nonstop for several hours.
Moreover, I did not anticipate distractions, the biggest one being female bean pickers. Some other classmates had been “hired” as bean pickers, including my neighbors, Susan and Sandy. I was very fond of these girls, and others, and more interested in interacting with them than in staying on task.
I noticed that the migrant workers from Mexico were doing almost all of the picking at this bean field. I could not figure out how they picked so fast, not that I was trying very hard.
I fell in with a group of boys interested in relating to girls and pushing the bounds of good behavior. This led to my first experience with smoking tobacco. One of the boys had obtained a pack or two of cigarettes, perhaps hijacked from a parent or relative. We slunk away from the bean field to the creekside to smoke cigarettes and plot some way to lure the girls away from the bean field to our “boys club.” Fortunately, bean picking season was over before any further mischief developed.
My parents questioned my income from bean picking, and were discouraged that it was only about $12.50 for several days’ work. I didn’t have much to say, except that the work was hard, the beans were not very plentiful, and there were lots of distractions.
When I was 15, and without a driver’s license, I took three friends to an Oakland High School dance in our old Dodge. Dad had removed the back seat to make room for more cargo, and I substituted upside-down 5-gallon buckets (these were in the days before seat belts).
After the dance I drove Tom and his date to her house in Sutherlin, near the fork where Fort McKay road leads to Umpqua. I had never been at this house before, and the area was dark with no street lights. As we were leaving and maneuvering to turn around, I became confused and shifted the car into first gear, when I wanted reverse.
When I released the clutch, the car jumped forward and ran into the house with a loud bang. Tom flew off his bucket seat, but nobody was hurt. We were all laughing like crazy. Rather than stop and attend to the damage, I drove away hastily and never spoke to my parents about this episode.
The residents of the house were probably frightened by the bang and their shaking house, but nobody ever contacted my parents about the accident, and the old Dodge bumper did not reveal my secret. I imagined the girl we dropped off told her parents, “Never mind the noise; it was just a crazy Oakland kid driving his Dad’s old Dodge. Just be glad I’m home safe.”
What rules did your parents have and which ones drove you crazy?
My parents and I agreed on some rules:
• Avoid profanity
• Speak kindly to others
• Tell the truth
• Treat others respectfully
• Avoid violence
• Help those in need
• Take care of your possessions
• Respect possessions of others
I generally thought these rules seemed sensible and civilized. I saw other rules as arbitrary and harder to accept.
• Do your chores on time
• Do all of your homework well
• Eat all the food you are served
• Be silent and pay attention in church
• Listen to and mind your elders
• Change clothes before going outside to play or do chores
• Read a variety of good books
• Save your money for a rainy day
These rules were harder for me and my objections were logical. For example, I thought I should be able to choose only food that I liked to eat and leave the remainder. In addition, it’s hard to always be on time, hard to be perfectly still in church and hard to remember to change clothes when it’s time for play.
As a child in rural Oregon, my best source of books was the Bookmobile, a van- shaped vehicle stocked with volumes from the Douglas County Library. The Bookmobile stopped at the Calapooya Community Club House once a week. I looked forward to our visits to the Bookmobile.
My reading genre was Science Fiction, and I wasn’t much interested in other genres. I had already read childhood favorites like the Nancy Drew Mysteries, Treasure Island, and the Adventures of the Hardy Boys. So I had a standing order with the Bookmobile to bring at least one new Science Fiction book. This quickly exhausted the available books by the likes of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, and Robert Heinlein.
The Bookmobile woman soon took it upon herself to enlist my parents in encouraging me to be more balanced in my reading habits. Unfortunately, I refused to cooperate with reading more widely until later in life.
Saving money was always hard for me both as a child and as a young adult. One problem was that my Mother tended to be more of a spender and my Dad more of a saver. I sided with Mother, because it seemed more fun to spend money on recreation rather than working hard and saving the rewards of all that work.
As a young child I liked to spend money on small toys, plastic models, and bicycles. At about age 10 I gradually become more interested in clothing, music, and movies. In my high school years I was interested in girls and dating. I was not successful in putting money away for college — even though I was certain that I would be going. As a young adult, there were so many expenses generated by my family of four that accumulated debt basically took the place of accumulating savings.
I did not successfully save until age 40, when I started to take stock and realize that my old age would be spent in poverty if I didn’t enact a savings plan.
What was your relationship like with your family when you were growing up?
My paternal Grandfather, Orra Crouch, homesteaded a rural farm several miles southwest of Leoti, Kansas in 1898. He married Blanche Graham in 1901 in Syracuse, Kansas.
My Father, Harold Crouch, was born in 1915, the fifth child in a family of six children. He had two older sisters, followed by two older brothers. Eight years separated him from his next-youngest sibling.
Harold was a teenager on the ranch when Kansas endured both the Great Depression and the dust bowl. This was a time of suffering for farmers and townspeople in the high plains. Harold had dropped out of school to work on the farm after completing the eighth grade.
Orra gradually developed a mental disorder. He acted paranoid, accusing Blanche of betrayal and marital infidelity. He also accused Harold of theft and complained that Harold was not working enough, while doing very little himself. Blanche petitioned for divorce in 1941, and the court granted the divorce, finding Orra guilty of extreme cruelty.
Harold said that his sisters Eva and Gladys helped Blanche take care of him during his early childhood. It’s clear that Harold did not experience happy marital and family relations in his childhood home, especially in relation to his father.
My maternal Grandfather, August Brandner, married Pearl Finch in 1910 in Selkirk, Kansas. It was an unlikely union because August was 15 years older and he was shorter than Pearl. August was a first generation immigrant, having come from Frankfurt with his parents as a small child. Pearl’s English ancestors had been in the U.S. for several generations.
At the time they married, August owned a farm four miles north of Selkirk and was a respected rancher. Pearl had been working as a school teacher in Selkirk.
My mother, Grace Brandner, was the third of four children. She had two older brothers and a younger sister. As a young child, Grace accompanied Pearl to school where she was told to sit in the back of the room and be very quiet. She did her best to obey.
August was a generous and hospitable man, who would often welcome visitors for supper and invite them to stay the night or longer if they were in need. Grace spoke of August as nurturing and kind to her.
Education was a strong value in the Brandner household and all the children went on to eventually earn 4-year college degrees or more.
Pearl was a strong-willed woman. After August died in 1942, she became responsible for her own support. In the war years she purchased and operated a boarding house in Minneapolis. Following the end of the war and the marriage of Grace and Harold in 1946, Pearl joined the newlyweds in their migration to Oregon. They had already purchased a ranch on the Calapooya River between Sutherlin and Umpqua. When they arrived, Pearl was remembered as saying, “I see you bought yourself a shack in a mudhole.”
The stage was set for family drama.
I was born in 1947. Father was in Kansas working on a wheat harvest and a neighbor drove Mother to Mercy Hospital in Roseburg. Fortunately, the harvest was plentiful and I was a healthy baby. Mother was nurturing with all of her children, to the extent that time allowed. As the eldest, I was an only child for nearly four years and this was a bounteous time for me.
Kathleen was born in 1951, Glen was born a year later in 1952, and Annette in 1956, all at Mercy Hospital. Kathleen had the experience of a middle child, experiencing relative deprivation because Mother’s time and attention was divided between many demands. Kathleen showed an early love for animals and became the owner of many varied pets. Glen was more of an outdoorsman and hunter. Annette was the baby of the family, a role she played with aplomb, dressing up in cute costumes, and posing for pictures.
There was very little physical violence in our family, mainly just spanking for wrongdoing. The most violent sibling conflicts occurred between Glen and me. Although Glen was 5 years younger, he was very strong and quick. I tried to avoid hurting him, and avoid getting in trouble for bullying. Glen was probably fearful of his bigger brother and learned to inflict pain to protect himself. On different occasions he kicked a chair out from under me, knocking me out cold; kicked my head underwater, rupturing an eardrum; and threw a metal-edged toy penguin, drawing blood on my lip. These were three incidents I can remember. Glen probably feels guilty about these incidents, but I figure he was just good at self-defense.
I remember my relationship with my sisters as being supportive and kind, but they remind me I occasionally did mean stunts like throwing walnuts at them.
Our farm was a medium-sized farm in Douglas County. It was possible, but very difficult, to earn a middle-class living from such a farm. Therefore, Dad needed to be a hard-working jack-of-all-trades to avoid bankruptcy. He needed all the help he could get, but could not afford to pay a lot for help.
Father tended to ask for help from us by asking, “would you like to do such and such?” If we said anything but yes, he added scolding and then shaming. His words could cut deep and I developed a rather poor opinion of myself as a helper. I think that he learned these shaming tactics from his father, Orra.
Mother often was an intermediary between Father and me. She would explain him to me by saying that he didn’t have a happy childhood and he didn’t learn how to be kind and loving. She would caution, “Don’t be angry, that will hurt you more than it hurts him.” When I grew older and capable of working for him, Mother passed on compliments that she overheard Dad say to others, but not to me.
Father was often critical of Mother, particularly about household expenses, housekeeping, and her body shape. He had a fixation about overweight people, and he criticized mother for being overweight. She tried many diets and sometimes lost weight but was not able to stabilize at her desired weight. She did not thrive in this critical environment, and had trouble speaking up for herself. Fortunately, Mother had female friends, particularly Elsie Monett, who would get together most days for coffee and mutual support.
Pearl lived with our family most of the time until she died in 1971. Our three-bedroom home was at capacity, and Pearl obtained a mobile home, which was placed about 50 feet from our house. She spent most of her waking hours in our house, walking slowly to and from her mobile home, morning and night.
Father resented Pearl’s constant presence; he and Pearl were often at odds. Their arguments about religion and politics sometimes seemed to be a way to let off steam at each other.
Sometimes my family felt to me like a pressure cooker. I did a lot of reading and had the ability to block out all sounds around me. I would also let myself out the bedroom window and go for long walks in the woods by the creek. It was a way to calm down. Family conflict seemed to reach a peak in my teen years. I was openly hostile towards Dad. I sided with Mom and developed the idea that she should divorce from Father and live separately in town with us children. Clearly, this was a very bad idea, but it made sense in my fantasy world.
It is possible that the conflicts I am portraying are mild in comparison to other families. In any case, I think it would have been easier for us if we were more verbal with our conflicts; perhaps we would have worked them out rather than brooding about it for days or weeks.
Our family was mostly cut off from relatives in Kansas and Colorado. We visited with our cousins, uncles and aunts only a handful of times during my childhood. We depended more on our family and the surrounding community for support and social interaction. Our family seemed to fit into the rural community in our valley. Dad was good at interacting with the neighbors, asking questions, exchanging help and equipment. Mother was good at homemaking, crafts like quilting, and enjoyed joining in on community activities like potluck dinners.
Vacations were short-lived in our family, because there was always work to be done on the farm. We usually took one trip to the Oregon coast each year, sometimes overnight. Longer camping trips or trips farther afield were rare, which helped us savor our vacations.
When I was about 10 or 12, Dad decided to double the size of our ranch by purchasing an adjoining ranch owned by Cal Hunter. This is a strategy that worked well for him as a farmer in Western Kansas before the war.
The purchase complete, Dad set about the task of improving the place. I wanted to help, and felt proud to help plough a field. Dad used our Oliver 77 and a three-bottom trailing plough for most of the work. He borrowed a smaller John Deere Model M and single-bottom three-point-mounted plough from a neighbor. Operating the small John Deere, I was enjoying ploughing round and round the field following Dad with my left front wheel in the furrow.
Oregon has hills, unlike interminably flat Western Kansas. We were ploughing on the contour, rather than climbing at a right angle to the slope. As we progressed, our tractors left the brow of the hill and the slope increased. Neither tractor was well-adapted to the hilly terrain — they were both narrow gauge wheel tractors. I became frightened and motioned with my hand that the ground was too steep. Dad stopped his tractor and agreed it was too risky and sent me home, about a mile away.
Not long after, Dad returned with dirt on his clothes. His voice sounded shaky as he said to Mother, “You almost became a widow today.”
Dad told his story. “I was ploughing on the hillside and a rose bush got tangled in my plough. So I raised the plough out of the ground and pulled out of the furrow. So I backed up, hoping that the rose bush would fall out between the plough shears. I was watching the rose bush and didn’t notice that the plough was about to jack-knife. When I realized what was happening, that the tractor was about to tip over, I jumped off just as the tractor rolled. I was able to jump off uphill; otherwise I would have been crushed.”
Later that day we visited the scene; the Oliver had separated from the plough and rolled end-over-end down the hill and come to rest. One of the large rear wheels had broken off and was uphill from the tractor. This had been a close-call for Dad, and the tractor looked as though it was ruined.
With neighborly help, Dad loaded the Oliver on his truck and brought it home to the Farm Shop. He set to work with hammers, wrenches, cutting torch, welder, measuring tools and a few spare parts to repair the broken tractor. Though it was permanently marked by the crinkled look of hammered-out sheet metal, it was soon operating again, as good as ever.
Dad had drive. He probably should not have risked farming steep ground without better equipment. He evidently thought with care he could avoid accidents. When his attention strayed and a near-fatal accident happened, he was determined to recover his losses and complete a complicated repair through his own efforts.
I associate drive, planning and accomplishment with the trait of conscientiousness.
Mother’s family emphasized learning and education. This was surprising, as Grandfather August Brandner was a Western Kansas farmer/rancher, who probably did not attend school after the eighth grade.
According to Uncle Lowell:
“We also heard a lot about going to college. Perhaps that is commoner in minorities than in other families. At least until Dad became a naturalized citizen we were a minority family. I recall that when neighbors who spoke German (according to Mother) would come, Dad and they would go to the back of the farm buildings to visit in German so I never heard a word of German as a child — when World War I had kindled ethnic emotions.”
All of Mother’s siblings had degrees from accredited universities. Mother earned a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics from Kansas State. Eldest brother Dan earned a degree in Education and worked as a school teacher until illness forced him to retire. Brother Lowell earned his Doctorate at the University of Wisconsin and worked on staff at the Kansas State University School of Agriculture until his retirement. Sister Emma attended the University of Minnesota, Kansas State University, and Pfeiffer College and taught school in rural western Kansas. After her children were grown she studied library science, theater and women’s studies at the University of Oregon.
Mother expected that all of her children would be attending college after high school. She wasn’t specific about which college, or even if it should be private or public. She held the college plan and mentioned it often as we were growing up.
In contrast, Dad stopped attending school when he completed the eighth grade. Even though he habitually read and learned as an adult, he continually expressed feelings of inferiority about his lack of education. In a way, this served to buttress Mother’s case for the advantages of higher education.
Mother inculcated her appreciation for learning by reading to us nearly every day. She read children’s books and even adult books, even after we were quite capable of reading for ourselves. Mostly these were read at our bedside, or in the living room rocker before bedtime. Her voice was expressive and humorous. Somehow, a story was usually more interesting when she read it than when I read it myself.
One summer when I was about 12, Uncle Lowell came from Manhattan to visit for a couple weeks. He undertook a project to build a board fence between Grandmother Pearl’s mobile home and the barnyard. He invited me to help him with nailing the two-by-six boards to the wooden posts and painting the fence white. I enjoyed helping him and remember that it seemed easy although he wasn’t really all that practiced in fence building and carpentry. When it came time to leave, he insisted on paying me wages for my help with the fence. I was surprised and pleased about that, so I wrote him a rather lengthy letter explaining how I had enjoyed working for him. Not long after, he wrote, expressing encouragement for my writing and suggesting that I pursue and develop my writing talent in my college studies. Given that Lowell wrote and edited for a living, I was deeply appreciative for this unexpected praise.
I associate values for education and learning with the personality trait of openness, especially when this value is broadly expressed, as in Mother’s case.
Conscientiousness or Openness, I don’t know which is the strongest in my personality. These traits are sometimes in conflict with each other. For example, the conscientious person is more likely to be religious, deliberate and dedicated. The open person is more likely to be unconventional and spontaneous. I would say as a young adult I was more conscientious and swung more towards openness in middle and old age.
When you were a child, what did you most want to be when you grew up? When you were a teenager? When you were a young adult?
As a child, I wanted to be a farmer, especially a tractor-driving farmer. My favorite toys were bulldozers, tractors, trucks, and cars.
Dad often told stories about farmers on the Great Plains. His stories usually centered around their large machines and the extraordinary acreage they could farm in a workday. Dad’s brother Owen was a Western Kansas farmer who actually operated jumbo-sized tractors, cultivators, and combines. Dad’s stories about Owen and the machines of the Great Plains impressed me and I dreamed of being a mechanized farmer.
As I tired of playing with child’s toys, I was attracted to actual machines around our farm. I eagerly went into the fields and rode “shotgun” with Dad in his tractor-farming work.
My fascination with machines also led to imaginary play with actual machines. Dad bought an old TD-14 bulldozer for use in logging the hills on our farm, and I was captivated with the idea of operating that machine. For a time, it was parked not far from our house and I would often go out and sit at the controls, vocalizing machine noises while pulling levers, pushing pedals, and imagining myself being a grown-up cat-skinner.
In my teen years, I had an opportunity to operate the TD-14. Despite my mental practice, the machine was more than I could safely handle. In a forest setting, one needs to be very cautious, because there are many impediments and hazards, and it’s easy to get into trouble. On one occasion, I managed to get the bulldozer high-centered on a fir stump, so that the bulldozer could not go forward nor back. Attempts to get unstuck only dug a deeper hole. The practical solution was to raise the machine to clear the stump by stuffing material under the tracks. It must have taken nearly a day of hard work for two grown men to feed cut blocks of wood under the tracks and get the bulldozer unstuck.
At Oakland High School, my interests broadened. Learning of the sort needed to do well in school came easily for me. I was able to perform near the top of my classes without a lot of self-discipline and hard work. It was important to me to do well, but being first wasn’t important to me. I didn’t want the extra attention and hard work that went with being in first place.
I developed the habit of reading a lot in my teens: farming magazines, popular magazines, news magazines, and all the science fiction books in the Douglas County Library. This habit of reading broadened my general knowledge and helped me perform well on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. Our guidance counselor attempted to influence me towards a professional career. He said, “Your scores suggest you can succeed at any career you choose: doctor, lawyer, accountant. Anything. You can gain entrance to almost any college of your choice and you should do well there. Choose a four-year university to start and avoid trade and technical schools.”
I took my counselor’s advice to heart began thinking beyond the life of a farmer. This set up a significant internal conflict, because Dad had told me more than once that he hoped I would grow up to become a farmer and inherit the family farm. When Mother and I talked about what occupation to become, she seemed to lean toward the professions as well. She could probably see that I wasn’t well suited towards the life of a farmer, especially one who would remain close to home. It must have been painfully obvious to her that the relationship between Dad and me was frayed.
In my mind, I leaned towards a career as a physician. I doubted that my manual dexterity would make me a surgeon, but imagined myself doing well as a specialist in some other discipline like pediatrics or family practice.
I remember when I broached this topic with Dad. “I want to be a doctor, and I want to enroll at the University of Oregon in pre-med, and then transfer to Oregon Health Sciences University.”
He looked as if I had punched him in the stomach. “You know that becoming a doctor costs more than $100,000 and takes 12 to 15 years of training. We are common people and can’t afford that kind of education. We have 4 children to educate and we can’t afford to keep you in school that long.” Neither Dad nor I knew anything about the resources that medical students were able to tap to help finance the high cost of their education, but his passionate refusal was enough to dissuade me from medical training.
I decided that I would need to pick a different profession – one that required only a four-year degree. I picked Engineering and Oregon State University. During my four years, I narrowed my field of study and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering.
Using the placement services at OSU, I was offered a career-conditional appointment to the engineering pool at Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon. As a young engineer, I found that my interests were suited to developing computer software, and I was assigned to a team of young professionals who were creating software for a new digital power system control center.
This part of my career was intensely satisfying. My education had not prepared me for this work, and constant learning was required to accomplish anything useful. Our team was constructed mostly from people with the same level of experience and we learned together and helped each other. Software development is addictive work, because it provides a lot of intermittent reinforcement. When I occasionally got my code right, I could progress to the next task.
I had gone from farmer to medical doctor to electrical engineer to software engineer and, as a young adult, I was very happy with my occupation.