Much stock is placed in what is deceptively called “higher education.” While there is value in technical education, I found that the best education dose does not occur in class. I am particularly fortunate that I was not only able to partake in but to undertake what amounted to graduate studies in lower education.
My studies began when I was six and saw something I didn’t recognize in the grocery store. It was a brown object covered in scraggly brown fibers. When I asked my dad what it was, he replied: “It’s a bear egg, would you like one?” I agreed, and my first lesson had begun. According to my mother, I spent the rest of the day squatting on the thing waiting for it to hatch, not realizing I was incubating a coconut. Only when I began to build a nest of blankets so I could sleep with it did my dad admit his joke. He claimed then as he would on all such occasions, that he was delivering lessons on critical thinking. He seemed to derive great joy from critical thinking and instructed his children at every opportunity.
Another lesson was administered a year or so after I tried to hatch the coconut. I had seen a documentary on the monster known as Bigfoot and decided that the area must be infested with them. This was not wholly unreasonable, Our apple orchard lay in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and if you walked straight out our back door, you could continue for 80 or 90 miles before encountering any sign of humanity. Compounding matters my father was acquainted with a gentleman who had taken a now-famous film of Bigfoot. Coming from this background, I accepted the television program uncritically and spent the night in mortal terror. After waking the family several times, I was allowed into my parent’s bed, where I eventually fell asleep. The next day we awoke to two or 3 inches of snow, and like most kids my age, I headed out to play. I spent most of the morning building a large and elaborate snowman, abandoning the project only when lured inside for lunch. My brother, who had returned from college for winter break exchanged a meaningful glance with my dad. After lunch, I went back out to discover that my snowman’s head had been removed and placed at its feet. A long trail of human-like footprints in the snow emerged from the Orchard proceeded to the window of my bedroom as if someone or something was looking inside, and then to the decapitated snowman where the maker of the tracks had apparently performed a rain dance before returning to the trees. I don’t recall much else besides fleeing for the house. I’m willing to bet money no one got any sleep that night either.
As I grew older, the lessons became more sophisticated. My parents entertained frequently and possessed a reasonably well-stocked liquor cabinet. When I was about 17, I was left alone for three days while they attended a function out of town. Despite promises to the contrary, I invited some of my friends over and free of supervision, we decided to sample some of my parents stock. Not only did my parents foresee this possibility, but they also prepared a trap. Later they revealed that they had saved old bottles for this occasion, and shortly before their departure these were filled with various noxious substances including vinegar, salt water, and cod liver oil. And placed in the front of the cabinet. As a result, we regarded anything mildly alcoholic with deep suspicion.
About a year later, as I struggled with a heavy schedule of extracurricular activities, schoolwork, and a part-time job, my father decided I needed a lesson time management. On a typical day I would leave for school about 7 AM and after a semester or so I had gotten my wake-up routine down to a science, taking precisely 15 minutes to dress, eat and hit the road. My dad, who kept farmers hours would usually head out to wherever he went during the day about 6:45 AM and would catch me returning from the bathroom and wish me a “good morning.” If I was running behind, this was modified slightly to “good morning, you’re going to be late.” One morning he passes by my door and says, “it's 7:05, you’re late!” I wake with a start, glanced at my alarm clock, and sure enough, it’s 7:05. Bedsheets went north, and I went south as I sprang into panicked action. I dressed quickly, dashed out the door and roared off to school, which as it happens is closed on Saturday.
Years would pass and much to my surprise, I found that I had children of my own. Unlike me, they are not terribly gullible. My seven-year-old daughter refused to be taken in by my claim that “ground beef” was so named because it was found on the ground. Likewise, her little brother, merely glared at me when I suggested that the ice cream he was eating was called “eyes cream” and consisted of puréed eyeballs. In retrospect, knowing the boy as I do now, I suppose it’s possible that he didn’t care one way or the other.
I did have one minor success; we owned a rather gruesome garden gnome that for reasons unknown to the children, would change position, traveling a few feet each night. Eventually, my son noting that it was creeping up on his bedroom window, launched a preemptive attack smashed it “accidentally” with a shovel.
But my favorite example occurred when a friend and I then aged 16 or so, borrowed my dad’s car a considerable quantity of beer and the twin teenage daughters of a neighbor. We drove to a location famous for dealings of this sort which possessed a beautiful view, looking out over the city. The evening was proceeding promisingly when what appeared to be a large tan shirt knocked on the driver’s window. Occupying the shirt was the muscled torso of deputy sheriff Thomas Wentz, who also happened to be the brother of our high school guidance counselor.
In that place and time, lower education was held in considerably more esteem than now so rather than arresting us as would be the case today. Deputy Wentz took the beer and followed us as we took the girls home and explained to their father the circumstances of the evening. He very kindly, I thought, allowed us to live although this could have merely been due to the presence of the deputy. We then repeated this process for my friend’s parents, and then we finally took the car home to my dad.
Our sentence was to spend the entire summer polishing the aluminum warehouse where we kept the tractors and other machinery we used on the Orchard. Once the warehouse was shiny enough for my dad, we spent the remainder of the summer doing yard work for the other parents involved. Neither of the girls would ever have anything to do with us again although we did get to spend some additional time with them in school that fall when our guidance counselor enrolled us in an alcohol abuse course.