Guardian Angel II

angel by maphler, on Flickr
angel” (CC BY 2.0) by maphler


The summer following my first semester at California State University at San Francisco proved to be a real test for my guardian angel. I had no classes in the summer so I set off for Minnesota, to spend the summer with family and relax before returning in the fall. I hoped to find either a summer job to earn money or a volunteer opportunity to get experience working with Spanish-speaking families who moved from Texas to Minnesota each summer to work in the labor-intensive sugar beet fields.

I had very few possessions, nearly all of which fit inside the trunk and on the back and the passenger seats of my VW Beetle. My bicycle fit on a rack in the back, over the engine. I took off on the nearly 2,000-mile drive and ran into a little trouble on my first stop to fill my tank, at the intersection of I-80 and I-505 at Vacaville. Once the gas tank was full, I tried to start the engine. The car didn’t fire up. I had experienced this before and knew what usually worked. I removed the bike from the rack and opened the engine cover.

Once the gas tank was full, I tried to start the engine. The car didn’t fire up. I had experienced this before and knew what usually worked. I removed the bike from the rack and opened the engine cover.

I was about to remove the distributor cap and poke around the points with a screwdriver when a young man wearing a cap with the station’s logo walked towards me. When he got close enough to see what I was doing, instead of offering to help, he said, “Well, it looks like you know what you are doing,” turned around, and headed back to the station.

After poking the points as a friend had shown me in the past, I replaced the distributor cap, closed the engine cover, and then tried starting the car. This time, it fired up as expected. After repositioning the bike rack and wrapping the bike tightly, I took off again.

The drive from San Francisco to my parents’ home took three-and-a-half days. I made it to western North Dakota before I had to play around with the points again. Then, smooth sailing–until I got to the Highway 75 off-ramp from Interstate 94, only two miles from my parents’ home. When I reached the stop sign at the top of the ramp, the car stalled and wouldn’t move one more inch. I engaged the emergency brake, removed the bike, pumped up its tires, and rode three blocks to a gas station on Highway 75 where I arranged to have my car towed to my parents’ home.

AAA paid for the towing. I had $240 in my pocket. I knew I would need $60 for gas and motel rooms to get back for the next semester. The estimate for repairing the engine was $180. I did the math: I needed a job. No volunteering for me. At least I had a no-cost roof over my head while I waited for the car to get fixed.

But this was just my guardian angel’s first job that summer.

S is for San Francisco

From January 1973 through March 1975, I lived in San Francisco while studying at San Francisco State University. Before I enrolled, a package from the registrar’s office arrived with a list of what I needed to bring with me on the day of registration. One requirement: the result of a chest X-ray not more than 6 months old. Since I hadn’t had a chest X-ray in several years and I received the letter in Minnesota, I had to schedule one before I returned to California.

I made an appointment at the Fargo Clinic where I had been a patient as a child. When they finally called my name, the nurse told me I needed a doctor’s order to get a chest X-ray. I showed them the letter from the SFSU registrar that said I would not be allowed to register unless I had the report on a recent chest X-ray. I didn’t have enough time to schedule a doctor’s visit. They relented and for about $80 (a near fortune at the time), I got my X-ray.

But when I arrived to register, I saw a sign that directed those who didn’t have chest X-ray results to join the line to the left. Those with results were directed to the line at the right. What was the first stop for the line on the left? A free chest X-ray. So much for not being allowed to register without one.

The letter from the registrar also spelled out the order of priority for registering for classes, depending on one’s major, minor, and years remaining to complete a degree. Seniors, for example, had priority for classes in their major because they were in their final year and this was the last opportunity to complete all their required classes. For graduate students, the course of study was the most important. From 8 a.m. to noon, for example, I had priority to register for English classes. After noon, I could try to line up classes in other disciplines.

So I headed to the line for graduate level English classes.

Once I had signed up for a number of English courses, I headed for the Psychology Department. There I discovered the rules were quite different. The doors to the registration hall were closed, with a teaching assistant blocking the way to prevent everyone from entering.  Every half hour, someone came out and taped sheets of paper with two or three letters on them to the outside wall. Those whose last names began with one of those letters would then be allowed into the registration hall. It didn’t matter what the person’s major was, or how close he or she was to completing a degree.

I needed a psychology class to meet the requirements of the masters program. I didn’t need a specific psychology class, just one would do. But by the time the W went up on the wall outside the registration hall, none of the courses that would meet the requirement were available. With a last name that began with W, I was used to being among the last called on, but that wasn’t an excuse this time. The letters were being drawn from a hat to ensure their order was entirely random. But that random order had absolutely nothing to do with the instructions in my letter from the registrar.

A few years later, when I was teaching at Southern Illinois University, a cartoon in the local paper showed two boys walking across the campus where a sign on the lawn said “Wipe out illiteracy.” One boy asks the other what the sign says. The other responds, “I think it says ‘Keep off the grass.'”

My first thought on seeing that cartoon was of my registration experience in San Francisco where what was written wasn’t followed. Little wonder that students didn’t bother reading, if they could.

Book Review: The Glass Castle

Five StarstheglasscastleIn The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells of her unorthodox upbringing by her artist mother and inventor father, during which she and her siblings—older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and younger sister Maureen—survived frequent moves across the country, inconsistent access to school, and long periods of poverty so severe the children had nothing to eat and survived by foraging. Her parents believed children needed to learn to fend for themselves instead of being watched over and protected. In spite of the resulting challenges, the children were identified as gifted in most schools.

Throughout her childhood, Jeannette believed in her father, even when she knew he was lying to her and was willing to take the little money the family had for food in order to buy liquor. She recognized his brilliance at the same time as overlooking his destructive behavior, at least until she and her older sister Lori were able to devise a plan to escape and live on their own. Yet even after all four children had escaped their parents’ influence, Jeannette kept in contact with her parents, accepting that their lives were consistent with their principals even though Jeannette, Lori, and Brian at least, rejected their parents’ free-thinking foundation.

The Glass Castle is a tale of the resilience of children under extreme circumstances, an optimistic story of life moving forward. It is story of love, love by parents of their children and by children of their parents. It is a story of survival against bullying, the effects of poverty and hunger. It could have been a depressing story, but Jeannette’s warmth and humor come through, turning it into a story of redemption and optimism.

Genre: Biographies and Memoirs
Length: 288 pages
Publisher: Scribner
Publishing Date: 2005