A Nomad’s Past …

24 Jan

I discussed this blog with my buddy Larry last night. He and I have this “brothers from a different mother” thing going on. It started when we met a little over 20 years ago at a sound production studio I was writing for back when I lived in Silicon Valley. We had similar backgrounds (extremely dysfuntional families and all), shared political beliefs, a nearly-identical sense of humor, and an undying love for the Boston Red Sox!

Anyhow, Larry felt that I should open up a bit more about my background … that it would add a bit more “humanity” to the blog. But that’s a tough thing for me. When I started this journal, I made a promise to myself … “Jeff, you’re not going to talk about the bad stuff that’s brought you to where you are today.” So I’m going to try and walk a tightrope between that promise and letting readers know a bit more about my life..

Pompton Lakes

Downtown Pompton Lakes, NJ circa 1960 – this was the “downtown” I grew up with.

As I wrote on my “About” page, I’m 61 and living in Charleston, SC. This is the 7th locale I’ve called “home” (actually, there have been six – I lived in one of them twice, almost 35 years apart). I was born in northern New Jersey … you could probably see the New York City skyline from the hospital room. I grew up in Pompton Lakes, one of those little bedroom communities just outside the city, and probably had childhood experiences that were similar to a lot of guys: little league; cub scouts; 4th of July parades; fishing and swimming in the river that ran by our house; and hanging out with friends.

I experienced my first road trips back then – for four summers, the family would pack up the car and drive down to Tennessee to visit my grandparents. They had a tobacco farm outside of Knoxville. With the exception of the “stop touching me” episodes my brother and I went through in the back of the car, I loved the drive.  I also liked the various “touristy” spots we’d hit  along the way (the one stop I remember most was at Luray Caverns in western Virginia). Funny, but when I was a kid, I wanted to be a truck driver. Even then, I loved the idea of traveling around, and might have become a trucker except for one thing … I was afraid of the size of the big-rigs. (I think that’s what’s kept me from getting an RV – the fear of trying to drive anything that big!)  There wasn’t “Interstate” back then between New Jersey and Tennessee – we rode along the old Highway 11. I used to love the hills that would make you get that odd, weightless feeling when you took them a little too fast.

the farm

I used to work tobacco in that lake!

As an aside, Frank and I took a road trip this past summer, right after he came to live with me. It was back to my grandparents’ old farm. I found it on a Google map. The farm wasn’t there anymore. It had been replaced by a “McMansion”, and the farmland had been ground under, replaced by a huge lake with an island. The couple living there were very gracious though, when a stranger knocked on their door and explained how a part of his youth had been spent working in the tobacco fields where their lake now stands. We spent about an hour talking about the area. They didn’t know about the farmhouse – it had been knocked down by someone else before they had bought their home. But they appreciated meeting the grandson of the guy for whom their street was named – Mynatt Cox Road.

I lived in NJ until the start of 10th grade, when my father was transferred by his business down to Dallas, TX. Dallas was a bit of a culture shock for me. First off, the high school was huge! There were more people in my 10th grade class than there were in my entire high school up in New Jersey. Even though I lived next door to the biggest city in the U.S., I was never living in it, and the section of Dallas where our home was felt more “city” than “suburb”. I had my first “on my own” road trip back then. Two of my friends and I, Danny Trout and Emery Hatcher, drove to visit Danny’s grandparents in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Not a long trip, pretty uneventful (if you don’t count us sidestepping a barrier and continuing on down an unfinished part of interstate until we ran out of road and had to retrace about 10 miles of driving – I guess those barriers actually meant something!). But it continued to build up this bond I had with being out on the open road.

Harper Hall, U of Nebraska

That third floor window on the far left? I lived there for a bit.

Spent 10 years living in and around Dallas, with the exception of two years spent in Lincoln, NE during college. I didn’t do well in Lincoln.  First off, the best pizza in town came from Chicken Delite.  Chicken Delite!  There’s something sacrilegious about that, especially when you grew up on Tony’s Pizza (or pizza from any other  mom-and-pop pizza joint in northern Jersey).  Secondly, I hated the geography – flat, windy, cold and land-locked. I heard something about there being a contest where first prize was a two week vacation in Lincoln. Second prize was a four week vacation in Lincoln. I think that about says it all. I spent less time in class and more time occupied with other “stuff” because something happened that had a big impact on me – while playing street football with some guys in my dorm, I suffered a bad accident, nearly tearing off the ball of my left foot on a manhole cover (mama’s don’t let your babies play street football barefoot!). This happened only about 10 days into my freshman year. I was on crutches for about 6 weeks and on a cane for a year.

I rarely attended class since it was tough hobbling around campus. But the cane didn’t keep me from hitchhiking, which had become my favorite mode of getting around. And I did a lot of hitchhiking! I was one of those guys you’d see on the side of the road holding a sign. I think walking alongside the road, trying to manage a backpack, a sign and the cane might have softened people up enough to give me a ride because it seemed like I never had to wait too long to get picked up (and that was in spite of my “look” which, because of my size … I’m always been a big guy … was probably more “biker” than “hippie”). My two longest hitchhiking trips were to Nashville and Denver, but there were plenty of side trips as well. And then there was the trip I took back to New York City! My girlfriend had an old beat-up VW beetle. We had some friends who planned on spending a summer in Europe, so Mary and I decided to drive them to New York to catch their plane. Four people … with luggage … packed in that little VW! The water pump went out in Joliet, IL. Instead of spending two days tromping around Greenwich Village, we wound up camped out in a little field next to a gas station, waiting for a water pump to be delivered and installed! And what I remember most about that was that none of us were particularly bothered by it! Go figger.

Mary broke my heart shortly after that (not the first time that happened, and it certainly wasn’t the last by a long shot!) I wound up back in Dallas, needing to work since I wasn’t ready to go back to college. I went to some employment agency where I took an aptitude test that said I would do well as either an actuary or an accountant (if I knew then what I know now, I would have told them “Screw you” and headed out the door)! Anyhow, I took a job as an accounting clerk with Fruehauf, a company that built truck trailers. I used to love seeing the truckers come in with their rigs, but was envious of their time out on the road. I would have given anything to overcome the fear I had of driving something that big! Instead, I settled on driving vacations. I’d work my vacation days around holidays so that I could maximize my available time. And then I’d hit the road – not to go to any particular place, or see any particular thing. I’d just drive! New Orleans, El Paso and Minneapolis were a few of my destinations … but when I got there, I’d just turn around and go home (but by a different route if I could manage it). You see, it was the drive that mattered. The time on the road. Not the particular destination!

Smokey and the Bandit

I wasn’t as good looking, but I drove around with a CB mike in my hand just like Burt Reynolds!

I left Fruehauf to go back to school, at North Texas State. But I had also gotten married. I decided to cut back my class load to part-time at NTSU. I planned to work so my first wife, Wendy, could go back for her Masters degree. I held a variety of jobs after that. I sold trees in a nursery. I managed a pie shop / restaurant (Winn’s Pie Pie Pie) in Denton. I ran a tuxedo shop. And all the time I was taking night classes in accounting. I was finally able to land a job with a small accounting firm in north Dallas, despite not having a degree. I still don’t know how that happened, but it was a great job. I’d have to visit clients and would drive all around the Dallas area to see them. That was about the time that CB radios were made popular in movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Convoy. It was well before cell phones – that was how we’d call back in to the office to let them know where we were. I had two “handles” – when I was calling for work, I was the “Number Cruncher”, but after hours and on weekends, I was the “Bigfoot”!

Breaker 1-9, you got the Bigfoot, eastbound on I-20, how ’bout one of you westbounders lookin’ back over yall’s shoulder and givin’ me a Smokey report, please. Come back now!

While working at the CPA firm, Wendy and I were frequent chaparones for the local chapter of an international youth group named “Adventure Unlimited” that was associated with our church. We … and other “adults” … would accompany kids on various trips. We did a ski trip to Ruidoso, NM, a weekend rafting trip down the Brazos River, another weekend trip down to the Galveston shore. (I use the term “adult” loosely … I have to admit that I was as big a kid as any of the ones I was responsible for on those trips.) None of that’s really important, except that the people at the national headquarters took a liking to me. In late 1977, they called me to interview for a position that had opened up at their headquarters in Denver. I wound up taking the job, which required a move to another part of the country.

I’ll stop here and resume the story tomorrow. As I write this though, I think it’s easy to see that being “mobile” has always played a big role in my life … maybe more than I remembered.

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Posted by on January 24, 2015 in Musings


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