Facing An Unusual Rejection — 1965


The 1960’s brought pain to the USA.  People ran from the draft to avoid the Viet Nam War. So many that served died. Those that lived through it returned to a country unwilling to accept them.  Assassins murdered heroes.  Civil rights activists paid a huge price to loosen the bounds of racism and segregation.  The Hippie culture provided a home to those wanting to escape the status quo.  Many young people sought an identity different from the one bestowed upon them by their parents.  Rebellion was rampant.

I was one of the most fortunate of children and never desired to rebel.  My parents affirmed me and never made fun of us even in a joking way.  The formation of a positive self-image is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give their children.  Mom and Dad often said, “You can do anything you really want to do.”  There was no doubt that our parents believed in us and assumed we would make good decisions.

They used our bad decisions as young children to teach us that disobedience, a lack of respect for others, and a poor work ethic brought immediate negative consequences.  The infrequent correction we received was quick and harsh.  In the long run, I believe that method of parenting was definitely the best for us and our parents.  Our parent’s rules and expectations were clear.  I am thankful the punishment delivered by our parents was painful enough to help us decide we didn’t want to repeat the same mistake twice.  For us, “once and out” meant once in trouble and we wanted out of anything that might lead to similar consequences again.  Simultaneously, we never doubted our parents loved us without condition.  The day I graduated from high school, my parents quit trying to overtly guide or direct my life.  Somehow, they saw me as an adult and gave me full latitude to make the right decisions based on what they had engendered earlier.

Somehow I managed to get through college without smoking weed or even getting drunk. About the wildest things I could muster in my days of finding a place in a crazy world involved my obnoxious wardrobe and a variety of practical jokes.

My College Role of Theseus in “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream

And then it happened!  I was 19 and experienced my first rejection from a member of my family. Rejection slaps our self-esteem in the face. My dad and I worked together at J. I. Case Company, a factory building backhoes for the growing international construction market.  He arranged for me to have a summer job during my break from college.  We worked the evening shift, 3 p.m. until 11 p.m.  Nevertheless it was beastly hot in the plant because of a lack of air conditioning. I would walk to his work area during my break to say “hi.”  Dad had warned me if he was talking to any one in white shirt and tie, to just walk on by.  He didn’t want a foreman to get the idea I was slacking on the job. My work attire was a sight.  I worked in jeans cut off just below the knees in a zig-zag to resemble pirate pants. I had ripped out the neck of a sleeveless fraternity sweat shirt into a deep V, revealing my hairy chest.   Additionally I wore a wide-brimmed straw hat as my statement of self-identity–“a farmer, beach bum.”  With my hard-toed work boots and bare calves, I looked unlike any of the older men in the plant. I was truly a sight to cause sore eyes.

One evening I sauntered over for a brief check on Dad; he was deep in a conversation with his foreman so I kept walking.  When we got off work Dad said, “You know what the foreman said when you passed by my station tonight?”

“Nope, what did he say?”  I questioned.

Dad sort of smiled and repeated the man’s words, “Bob, see that tall lanky kid, he is the biggest hippie in the plant! Isn’t he a fright?  I wonder how he got hired?”

I said, “What did he say when you said I was your son?”

Dad replied, “I didn’t tell him.”

My father had indirectly denied the I was his son.  Maybe that should have hurt my feelings, but no way.  I was so certain, after nearly 20 years of solid affirmation, that my Dad would have stood up for me under any situation that really mattered, that one incident was inconsequential.  So I laughed it off.  But my mind I immediately went to work to create a payback for the little pip-squeak foreman.  He was nearly a foot shorter than me.  And, he weighed 30 pounds less.  He always walked around the plant like a little boy hiding behind the authority of a white-shirt and tie.

One evening about a week after his comments about my demeanor and dress, he was rushing by my work station on the way to another part of the plant.  I spoke in a strong voice, “Sir, can I speak to you a moment?”

He said, “Certainly, what’s on your mind?”

I asked, “Do know Bob Watkins in the radial drill division?”

“Yes.  He is one of my best men.”

I continued, “Do you know who he is?”

He said, “What do you mean?”

“Bob Watkins is MY father.

The poor fellow sort of wilted as his mind recalled his conversation about me.

I said, “Look, Dad told me you said I was the biggest hippie in this whole plant.”  I edged closer to him maximizing my height advantage.  “Is that true, Sir?”

He suddenly found it very difficult to form a complete sentence as he tried to explain and then half apologize.

Finally, I smiled, “Hey, don’t worry about it.  But do me a favor and tell my dad that I told you that even though he wouldn’t claim me, I CERTAINLY claim him!”

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