November 11, 2013—
After WWII, when my dad decided to forgo an army career, he also turned his back on the GI Bill. I think he regretted that, later; he should have gone to school but all he could think of was getting home to us and getting back to work. Years later, when he was in his late 50s, Dad did enroll in a college course. He took Freshman English. His report was that he had done ok but it took too much time away from his life. My mother, on the other hand, wanted to go to college. Both of her sisters had done so and only the Depression had kept her from enrolling. So it was that soon after we moved to Okmulgee, my mother went to school.
The closest college was a branch of what was then known as Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State University. The A&M universities had begun as land-grant colleges in the 19th century. The “A&M” stood for “Agricultural and Mechanical” and the institutions had a responsibility to provide such extension services in farming and local industry as were fitting. The branch nearest Okmulgee was housed on the grounds of a former prisoner of war camp, one of more than thirty built in Oklahoma during the war to hold German POWs. The locations of these camps were regulated by three basic criteria: 1) they had to be in a temperate climate zone; 2) they had do be at a distance from major industrial and urban areas; and 3) they should be located in areas where the prison population could alleviate agricultural labor shortages caused by the war-time draft. Most of Oklahoma fit the bill.
When my mother began classes there, the college still looked like a prison camp. The German prisoners were gone (although some had stayed after the war to live in Oklahoma under a relocation program) and the barbed wire had been removed, but the air of a stockade hung over the exercise fields, garden plots, latrines, motor pool, and cell block. Courses were taught in barracks converted to classrooms and the camp admin buildings housed the library and the offices of the deans and registrar and the like. There were no tall trees, no “campus” green, no quaint walks or shady nooks. There was nothing collegiate or romantic about the place. Not that that made any difference to my mother.
I wish I knew more about that year, as far as what courses my mother took, what interested her. All I know is what she told me about the place many, many years later as she and I drove upstate from New York City to the little house in the country my wife and I had been renovating for twenty years. I had promised myself that I would ask her about that second year in Okmulgee because I had been haunted for quite some time by a memory of a remark my grandmother had made. I was in college then, living with her to save money, and we had some privacy issues between us, mostly that she wanted to regulate my comings and goings with a bit more Methodist rectitude than I was inclined to welcome. Too many infractions of her rules on my part drove her to exasperation one evening and she told me that I was just like my mother; that she, too, had no respect for decency and that was why she had had an affair. It was a wonder, she said, that my dad had not left her back then in Okmulgee.
Well, dear reader, I ignored her angry revelation; that is, at that point in my adolescence I had little interest in what my mother had or had not done so long ago and certainly was not interested in my grandmother’s moral indignation about it or me. But as I got older and became more familiar with infidelity than I care to remember, that conversation returned to me from time to time. And as I watched my parents age and came to understand more what tensions and betrayals slept beneath most marriages, I also came to believe that those that underlie their marriage were my mother’s betrayals. So it was that as we entered the last stretch of the New York State Thruway that would take us to New Paltz and beyond, I asked her.
Yes, she said. It began in her first English class. It was as simple as that. She loved writing; she was certain she was destined to write. (And she did write for the rest of her life from that point forward. She wrote plays and poetry and short stories and journals and articles and songs and jokes and began novels and more stories.) In that class she met a man. A writer. A veteran. Returned from the war. A plumber who wrote poetry on the GI Bill. A single man, he lived at the college, in one of the barracks fitted out as an ersatz dormitory for the men. No women lived there; my mother was one of the very few women at the college.
How, I asked, did you do it, then; “it” was, of course, the “it” at the center of all such betrayal. How did you do “it” in a dorm room?
“Oh,” she said, “we didn’t. Not there. At home.”
“The house, you know, in town. Your dad would go off to work and you would go off to school and he would come over or I would go to classes and he would come back with me. Of course we met at night for a beer or just to drive around, but we only had sex at the house. In the daytime.”
She thought she was in love and he with her and he wanted her to come with him, leave us and move…somewhere, not the dorm but maybe a house in Tulsa. She wanted to go and she told my dad all this. I can’t believe that I knew nothing of it. In movies the sensitive child (and I was alert, if not particularly sensitive) picks up the cracks in the façade, senses the deeper flaws, feels intimations of the train wreck that is to come. Nothing; I knew nothing. And I never did. Not even, to this day, the veteran’s name.
How had my mother and father so reconciled that moment with the rest of their lives together? How could I have not known something had gone wrong? As I look back I see other episodes as behind a scrim coming clearer; other betrayals? Fights that had no origin that I could fathom then make sense now. Once about five years later, at a time when we were very poor, so poor that other kids from school were too embarrassed to come to my house to play, she threatened him with a kitchen knife and I stood there as he wielded a chair, like a lion tamer, in front of him, between him and her, between him and the knife. I don’t know how it ended; nobody died.
I think a lot of that was the poverty. I didn’t know then just how poor we were and maybe family who lived near us then would say it wasn’t that bad. It was not oppressive to me but it must have weighed on them terribly, especially on her, since she had, as you can guess, given up the poet/plumber. How that happened and more about poverty and my mother next time.