I asked the millwright who just finished complaining about the pulp mill superintendent wanting to repack recovery boiler doors on the fly, “Is this what you want to be doing when you're fifty?” I was the shift shop-steward for the local union, and the millwright wanted me to file a safety grievance. I would because the millwright would have flames coming out of the boiler while its doors were open, but the practice was less unsafe than that it was a hot, dirty job. "If you don't want fire in your face, what are you doing about getting out of here?"
Both the millwright and I had talked often about quitting Georgia-Pacific's pulp and paper mill at Toledo, Oregon. We were both hired in 1965; we had worked together unloading chip cars, the millwright being my helper. I had continued up the pulp mill's progression ladder. He had transferred to maintenance. But we still hunted together, still saw each other outside of the mill almost daily.
The question I asked the millwright was the one that had been troubling me: what did I want to be doing when fifty? This question had begun troubling me before I was hired at the pulp mill; before I ever punched a time clock.
As a sixteen year old freshman living in Willamette University’s (Salem, Oregon) Matthews Hall—as a legally emancipated minor—I tried to envision myself at fifty …
The day after I graduated from high school, I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Reno. I had, the previous summer (between my junior and senior year of high school), spent time in Sausalito before flying in a Lockheed Electra to Reno, where I stayed with my Aunt Caroline, and learned enough about her business that the summer after I graduated, I worked for her: I cut out casino change aprons, riveted on snaps and buckles, and eventually monogrammed hotel and motel linen for her.
I had a full tuition scholarship to Eastern Oregon, LaGrande, where I planned to head for fall semester, but mid-summer, Willamette University's registrar's office telephoned my aunt to see if I wanted to accept a scholarship they had for me. I had started but had never completed the application for that scholarship. The school counselor completed the application and sent it to Willamette.
Throughout high school, I wanted to attend University of Alaska, then only at Fairbanks (actually at College Alaska, five miles outside of Fairbanks). I suspect Alaska was the dream of many boys my age. Statehood came when I was a ninth grader; so Alaska was current events in social studies classes. Jack London's stories were popular reading. And that cultural monomyth of the rugged individual taming the frontier was foregrounded in television westerns, in movies, in how we were fighting the cold war. I read all of the back issues of Alaska Sportsman and Outdoor Life that I could find. Several Alaskan homesteaders were earning cash money by touring the Lower Forty-Eight, showing, in essence, home movies of their wilderness experiences—I saw every one of these movies that came to the Oregon coast. I was smitten by the myth of Alaska.
But attending University of Alaska didn't seem feasible considering the state of our family finances: we were Lincoln County poor, with Lincoln County then having the highest poverty rate in Oregon, Washington, or Idaho. So early my senior year, I began applying for scholarships to other colleges, with Eastern Oregon being the first college to which I applied. The college offered me that full-tuition scholarship before I completed any other application, including Willamette's.
Eastern Oregon is a fine school, and I should have gone there. But Mom, Aunt Caroline, everyone I talked to thought I should accept the scholarship to Willamette, a more prestigious school to them than was Eastern Oregon. As far as they were concerned, the right college made the person. A degree from an elite university was to them like having an AKA pedigree.
I accepted Willamette's scholarship, something that made me very uncomfortable. I didn't like notifying Eastern Oregon that I was declining their scholarship after having accepted it. This was a compromise with my principles that I strongly disliked: I felt like I was spitting in Eastern Oregon's face. But I deferred to Mom and Aunt Caroline, and I traded a little bit of integrity for social status.
I have heard and I'm sure you have that there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors—if something feels wrong, a multitude of counselors won't make that feeling go away. There are times when inner voices should be heeded, and learning when to heed an inner voice is an art, not a science.
Eastern Oregon would have been a better social fit than Willamette, where my dorm-mate vomited and had to go to bed when, after skinning them, I left a couple of muskrat carcasses lying on newspaper on our room's floor. They were only there for as long as it took me to stretch their pelts. Five minutes. But he happened to walk in during those few minutes, and the shock of seeing two small animals without their skins—there wasn't any blood visible—was more than he could bear. (I was actually excited about trapping the backwaters of the Willamette River there at Salem. Nobody had for awhile. Muskrats were easy to catch, and for each 'rat there was a mink that wasn't trap wary. I was certainly more excited about trapping than I was about German, ROTC, or English Literature.)
Willamette University’s offer of the scholarship was so unexpected that it seemed like divine providence, not that I necessarily thought about divine intervention or predestination at the time. Rather, I was fascinated by Reno that summer of 1963. The lights, the hustle, the energy of the Biggest Little City—I was sixteen, and the braless craze had already reached the clubs where I delivered the change aprons that were the mainstay of my aunt's business. I actually, while gawking at bouncing breasts under a sheer blouse, walked into a light pole in downtown Reno; so I know a little about that gaze Feminist critics find everywhere. That freedom of breast movement hadn't yet stolen north to the Oregon Coast. By the time it did, it had lost its novelty.
My uncle repaired my aunt's sewing machines as well as running one of them. He had previously worked as a slot machine mechanic, and as a bartender in the clubs. He could tell when a slot machine was out-of-balance: some of these mechanical machines could never be balanced, and he seemed to know where the clubs hid those machines (the clubs moved machines around every so often). When I went into the clubs with him, he would find a defective machine, would play it for a few pulls, and would usually win a jackpot before going about his business. As a result, he always had several hundred dollars hidden in his wallet, money my aunt didn't know he had.
I couldn't have gotten into the clubs if I wouldn't have been delivering aprons. I wouldn't have seen the sequins and the feathers, nor have felt the hardness of the women wearing change aprons. But I was a gawker although I tried hard not to be noticed gawking. I wondered whether my uncle was happy with his marriage. He seemed to light up when he had his hands around a galloping change girl, his expression. He was a functioning alcoholic, and he drank to defeat the paranoia his drinking caused. Years after I moved to Alaska and after my brothers no longer lived with Aunt Caroline, he shot her with her deer rifle. An accidental discharge? That's what the police determined, but my aunt never thought so. She survived, divorced him, but without him she didn't function well and ended up with a legal conservator.
Both my aunt and my uncle were alcoholics. And while they were married to each other, their need to keep going, to earn enough to pay last month's bills never gave them time to reflect upon their lives or lifestyle.
But as a gawker, I noticed something: I tie fishing flies. I have tied many, many minnow imitations that have caught sly, old trout. I start with a hook, wrap it with thread, add tinsel and feathers, now a little flashy mylar, whip a head and paint on an eye. They almost look real. With a good presentation, they sometimes appear more real than flesh & blood minnows. But when a trout accepts my fly for the real thing, it is hooked and in a fight for its life.
When I left Reno that summer of 1963, that was how I perceived life there. The lifestyle that revolved around the clubs is like a minnow imitation that I have tied. If a person accepts it, the person is hooked and is in a fight for his or her life. The person might win (I have a trout throw a hook every now and then and get away, but most don't). More likely—as when I released nothing, not even undersized fish, when I was keeping trout for fish fries while I worked in the pulp mill—the person is devoured by an Adversary whose presence should have spooked the drift.
At the end of that summer, I rode a Greyhound back to Oregon to accept that scholarship to Willamette. But before going to Salem, I returned to the Coast where I found an empty house: Mom and my stepfather had moved without bothering to tell me. My extra clothes were in two boxes in the middle of what had been my bedroom's floor. They smelled of mildew, an odor that provided me with instant introductions to the Hawaiians living in Matthews Hall—when my dorm room's door was open, every Hawaiian student who walked down the hallway would wheel into my room as if he were on autopilot and would ask from what island was I. And when they learned that I had a hunting knife with a heavy enough blade to cut pineapples, I became one of them. I became the only Howie invited to share with them their care packages from home.
From the beginning, I knew I didn't belong at Willamette. Academics weren't really a problem. Money was, or rather the lack of money was. I didn't have the clothes, the mad money, the car that students from wealthier families in Portland or Seattle had. Of course it can be said that my age was a factor: I was still sixteen. But no one knew how old I was. I wasn't telling. (I know now that if two years older, I would have been better able to handle the social inequities that resulted from my lack of money.)
While everyone else was out partying on the weekends, I used to lie on my dorm room bunk and wonder if there was anything I really wanted to do with a degree from Willamette. I had no desire to be an attorney, or a politician, or for that matter, do any white-collar job. I wanted to shoot, hunt, fish. I didn't want to either have a boss or be a boss … if there would still have been beaver to trap in the mountains or a gold field to stake and claim, I would have been gone before dinner.
Mom and my stepfather were caretaking a farm not far from Salem. They had left a phone number with Willamette's registrar. So I got together with them after I hitchhiked from Rose Lodge to Salem in time to begin classes.
I hunted deer in high school with a British Enfield, .303. I disliked the inaccuracy of its two-groove barrel, which on its outside appeared to have been chopped out with a hatchet. So my stepfather, as a gesture of apologizing for moving without telling me, took me to Montgomery Wards and bought me a Springfield .30-06 for thirty-five dollars, a lot of money for us at the time.
This is the rifle I used in the Ochocos that fall. I shot a large three-point (Western count) mule deer buck opening day so I was done hunting for the season, and I left the rifle with Mom and my stepfather. Three weeks later, Mom leaned over its muzzle and splattered herself all over her bedroom ceiling.
The court ruled, because I was in college even though I was sixteen, that I was an emancipated minor. My brother Ben insists that I was actually seventeen when the ruling was made. That might be true. Regardless, I was free to do anything I wanted (that was legal). So on those weekends when I was virtually alone in the dorm, I began to question whether I was brave enough to defy everyone's expectations for me. First born male. Honors student. Big and bright. I didn't know. Conforming to expectations was easy. Defying conformity wasn't.
If I didn't take a degree in math or physics, subjects in which I excelled, I would be a disappointment to everyone. To family, relatives, teachers, even to Dad's memory. But in becoming a math major, I had already compromised my primary interest which was history. However, there seemed to be no jobs for historians except as teachers and there were then too many of them. And the nation needed engineers, mathematicians, physicians: we were going to the moon and beyond. The future was scientific.
But it was the past that interested me. I wanted to know and to tell the story of how we reached this particular point in time and space. So as I stayed behind in my dorm room, I began to wonder what, really, did I want to do when I was fifty. I didn't know. At best, I knew what I didn't want to be doing. And I knew of no one I could dribble ideas off who didn't assume that I would take my degree in math and go on to have a financially rewarding career. That was the given around which their discussions of my future rotated.
My younger brother Ken, now the Honorable Dr. Kenneth Kizer, has a little different perspective of the five years between when Dad died and Mom committed suicide. From an Internet biography of Ken, I recently learned that he was an orphan. I was surprised; for I never thought of myself as one.
Dad was in the 3rd Division, 15th Infantry, C Company. Mom said that he was drafted in that first lottery in April 1941, but that might not be actually true. It might be that he enlisted spring of 1941 to avoid the draft. Regardless, his wartime experience began in Tunisia and ended in Austria. On the basis of points, he was discharged in July, 1945.
He would not talk about the War. One of the few things Mom got out of him was that something had happened at Anzio which caused him to distrust all doctors so when he had a sudden heart attack, he didn't immediately seek medical help.
Mom lost a baby, a naturally occurring abortion in her sixth month, the Saturday previous to Dad's heart attack. She went through labor and child birth; she delivered on the living room floor. I was there and saw the fetus, its arms and legs. I was eleven. Ben, Ken, Caroleah and Marie, all younger, were upstairs. I saw because I was sitting on the bottom of the staircase, keeping them upstairs.
It wasn't until the following Saturday that Mom was up and around. Dad decided she needed to get out of the house and he took her shopping at Troutdale, east of Portland, Oregon. I disliked going shopping so I was allowed to stay home.
Evidently while in a store, Dad began to experience chest pains. He went to the car and sat while Mom finished buying whatever she was after. About twenty minutes. When she and my brothers and sisters finally returned to the car, Mom knew Dad was in serious trouble. But he insisted on driving everyone home rather than going to the hospital. Another twenty minutes. He died as soon as he arrived home.
Until I was older, I didn't understand how the hormones of childbirth and the shock of being suddenly widowed without family or financial help can effect a person—I saw the effects, but I wasn't sympathetic or even tolerant of the resulting craziness. Mom had a nervous breakdown, and by the time she had healed enough to realize something was wrong with her, she leaned over my rifle. Ben claims not to remember anything prior to his tours in Vietnam. Ken was young, only eleven when Mom ended her mental torment without ever realizing that she had other choices.
It took me many months there in the dorm at Willamette to realize that I, too, had choices if I had enough courage to do what appeared like foolishness even to me. Staying in a situation is so much easier than leaving. Fulfilling the expectations of others is less frightening than knowingly disappointing those same people. Peer pressure isn't necessarily exerted only by peers. A person locates him or herself in that descriptive metatext of the American dream or American experience which culture inscribes upon individual psyches. For most of us rebellion is an emotional response to affronts, not an intellectual decision. Among my peers, rebellion became conformity. For me to rebel against rebellion and to also not conform it the wingtips and Brooks Bros suit image required considerable thought and the application of very little good sense. But it was me listening to that inner voice that said leave.
The court sent Ben to live with Aunt Caroline in Reno; Ken was sent there almost a year later. Both emotionally and physically, I was distant from them, and I lost contact with them when I went to Alaska a decade after my year in Matthews Hall. I have since had a little contact with Ben, but none with Ken. The choices we made and didn't make sent us in opposite directions socially.
There in Matthews Hall, I decided I didn't want to work myself to death as Dad had—Dad worked twenty or more hours a day, seven days a week, as he tried to make up for the years lost fighting Nazis. I also decided I didn't want to find myself in the type of mental and emotional pressure cooker Mom found herself after Dad died. What I really wanted to do was play. Not at games. But at everything I did. I decided when I was fifty, I wanted to be doing something I couldn't then imagine.
I found it nearly impossible to visualize myself at fifty: Dad died when forty-two. Although Grandpa Kizer, at seventy-nine, had only died a few months before Dad, I couldn't visualized Grandpa as anyone but an old farmer hoeing his corn and beet fields; I couldn't imagine him as a middle-aged man. And my stepfather was sixty when he and Mom married.
But when in high school I had spent weeks each fall sitting under Red Bridge there on Lincoln County's Salmon River, plunking for Chinook salmon and listening to the old men talk about the Depression, about hand-falling timber twenty feet across on the stump, about solid rubber tires, and a host of other things that were even then flotsam in the current of history. Some of their sons, the age Dad would have been, would fish with them on weekends. And I listened to the stories of what it was like to work for the WPA, or to attend high school in 1932, the year Dad graduated.
In a way, I wanted to do what the old men were doing: I wanted to tell stories. But it never occurred to me that storytelling might be a vocation. I grew up believing that a fellow told a story as part of his social interaction with another person.
I have met a few people who as teenagers or even younger knew what he or she wanted to do all of their life. I can't say that I envy them, but knowing certainly made their lives simpler. Most of us, however, don't know what we want to do, and we have few plans for getting wherever we would like to go, and we end up right where we were headed even though we didn't know we were going there—I once heard a similar concept expressed by a minister as a person reaps what he sows, not what he thinks he sows.
The saddest thing I encountered those years plunking for salmon was listening to the few old men who had hated their jobs. Invariably, they had ended up as bitter individuals, mad at a world that they felt had cheated them out of happiness. They saw themselves as victims. A company, a corporation, politicians, a political party, somebody—the who didn't matter—had trapped them and had held them figuratively captive in whatever job it was that they hated. All of those fellows were difficult to be around. I pitied their wives, if they were still married.
But most of those older fellows plunking for salmon had liked working in the woods, or in the mills. Their main regret was that their way of life was quickly passing. There wasn't any old-growth timber left, at least none with any size. And they told stories to remember the good times and the not-so-good times. Their stories validated their experiences and gave to all of those years when they worked too hard and made too few dollars meaning and closure. Their stories were not attempts to keep the past alive as much as they were a means for contextualizing a way of life within the historic past.
While alone in Matthews Hall on those weekends, I wondered if I dared leave Willamette and study gunsmithing at Oregon Tech, knowing if I did I would fail expectations for me. I thought of vocations as skills or crafts or trades in which a tangible product was produced. Karl Marx would have approved of my conception of vocation; for I thought only in terms of being part of the determining base. And with trapping beaver in the Rockies as much a part of history as was old-growth timber, building guns was, really, as close as I could get to shooting, hunting, fishing as a vocation.
I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was fifty; couldn't envision myself ever becoming fifty, the number an artificial one stuck away off in the future just as 1984 wasn't a real number. But I knew I didn't want to end up like either Dad or Mom. I also knew I didn't want to work as a mathematician, or even as a physicist. I believe I would have been good at either, but I would have preferred playing chess professionally, something at which I was also good.
I transferred to Oregon Tech.
As far as Aunt Caroline was concerned, I threw everything away. She thought it was too late to save Ben, but she redoubled her efforts to make sure that Ken didn't turn out like me. He didn't. He went to Stanford and UCLA's medical school, then into the Navy and the world of political appointments.
After twenty years in Alaska, I returned to the Lower Forty-Eight and stopped by to see that millwright who had complained about repacking the boiler doors. We were still friends even though he hadn't heard from me for years.
He had, after thirty years, retired from the pulp mill; he had bought a little farm, and he had become a gentleman farmer. He drove a new Dodge Ram, had a new John Deere three-cylinder diesel tractor, had a new barn, a new hay bailer, a new house.
He told me what happened to the different fellows with whom we had worked. A surprising number were dead. Of those who still lived most were working at the mill, many driving the same cars they were before I left for Alaska. And I told about fishing in the Aleutians, about hunting Sitka Blacktails on Kodiak, about moose hunting on the Kenai.
He said, "Ever since you left here, I've been a bit envious of you. I always wanted to go to Alaska."
His admission surprised me. There was no reason for him to be envious of me. For all of those years I struggled to just get by, those years I ate salmon and halibut and venison and very little of anything else, those years when everything I owned was on the boat, those years in Erdman's ghetto, he had been earning excellent wages. He had bought a few stocks. We had talked about buying stock in Tandy Leather when its stock was three dollars a share. While I didn't know if he had purchased Tandy, I knew he had a stock portfolio and that his net worth was tens of times what mine was. He had things, grown children and grandchildren, and as much as anyone, a good life—he had never been interested in carousing, fast cars and faster women, which was why I was visiting him.
I could have stayed working for Georgia-Pacific just I could have continued at Willamette when I had no idea of what being fifty would be like. But I chose to strike out on my own. I built rifles for awhile, owned an outboard-chainsaw dealership, fished commercially, and made a very modest living as a wood carver. Financially, I haven't done well.
Years ago, I took a new minister hunting on Kodiak Island. Our first afternoon across Ugak Bay proved very successful, but we ended up weathered-in for five days. It looked like we wouldn't be able to return before Sabbath, and he worried about who would preach what with him gone. He worried that his wife wouldn't line up a replacement speaker in time. He worried about who had the key for the building. He fretted and fiddled with his zipper pull until it was too late to return for Sabbath services. And when he finally resigned himself to not being back on the Kenai Peninsula for the weekend, the weather broke. The wind died down. The sun came out. We harvested another deer, making twelve altogether for three of us. And that night as we sat in the tiny cabin, its walls and ceiling still dripping water, I told him that we have to do these things like being weathered-in so we will have stories to tell our grandchildren.
But it was what he told me that I have remembered: when we left on that hunting trip, he felt guilty because he hadn't finished cleaning his garage. About halfway to Kodiak, though, he looked at me and said, "You know, five hundred years from now it won't matter whether I got that garage cleaned out." It was his intention to be around five hundred years from then. Changed, certainly. But here.
Now that I am fifty-plus, almost seventy, I find that if I had a few dollars more I would be right where I wanted to be but didn't know where that was as I sat alone in Matthews Hall so many years ago. I have arrived at the destination I couldn't then conceive.