136) Hey Mom

I never gave you enough credit Mom.

As a self-conscience boy of 13, worried about what my friends might think. I criticised you for getting sloppy drunk and stumbling around the kitchen of our little grey house in North Minneapolis.

You smelled like beer on most week-ends and acted like you had no control over your life and your marriage to Jim Wirtz, your third husband.

Your face was swollen sometimes, and at least one of your eyes was badly bruised or red where it should have been white.

I hated that you stayed with Jim even when he was so meant to us. Why didn’t you just leave?

I was embarrassed to wear the clothes you picked out and revealed to me the day before school began.

I couldn’t understand why you seemed to always make what HE wanted for dinner, when he came home from driving his truck all day.

I didn’t know what to think when you came stumbling into my room one night looking for bed to sleep in. Why did this have to happen when my friend Danny was sleeping over?

I hated your hand writing on the notes you gave me to take to school the next day to explain that I wasn’t going to be in school. (I couldn’t bear to face Danny).

When you tried to cheer me up by making jokes, couldn’t you see I was miserable and only wanted for you to leave me alone?

I hated all those things Mom.

But at 13 there was so much I didn’t understand about you.

I didn’t understand your Mom sent you out to work scrubbing floors at the age of 9.

I didn’t understand you never had the glimmer of a chance to finish high school, much less college.

I didn’t understand how when your husband (our Dad) lost both legs in the train accident the enormous responsibility you inherited. And that you sometimes put up with bouts of mean outbursts from him just before you carried him home on your back from the bar.

I couldn’t understand that in men, you always seemed picked out someone you felt sorry for. Our Dad was mean enough but the three husbands that followed had behaviors toward you and I that were hard to deal with.

I didn’t understand, at age 13 that drinking a few beers helped you cope with all of these failed relationships and bad memories.

At age 13 I didn’t see much beyond my small, selfish world.

I didn’t understand you felt you had to stay in bad marriages so that I would have a “Dad” even  if I couldn’t spell his last name and even if he had kids of his own who he didn’t take care of.

I didn’t understand how proud you were of me when I came home on leave from the U.S. Air Force. You couldn’t wait to show me off to the neighbors, which only pissed me off.

When you finally divorced your 4th husband, and moved into your own house, you once told me, “Randy, you have no idea how great it is to be able to come and go as I want, without anyone telling me what to do.”

So you valued freedom and independence.

I didn’t understand where my own longing for these sensibilities came from. Now I know, Mom.

I didn’t understand how complete strangers warmed to you because of your generosity, quick wit and work ethic. I only thought men found you loose. That made me try to be your “protector”, a role you began to resent me for.

I left Minneapolis in 1974 – and except for occaisional visits – I left forever.

You never left and ended up suffering terribly with Alzeimer’s.

Returning to attend your funeral with nearly one hundred relatives in attendance, I experienced fits of laughter. We were all relieved that the other person that had taken over your body had passed and everyone who knew you was more free.

Hey Mom. There was so much I didn’t know at age 13.

13) How a Boy’s Club Saved Lincoln Junior High School

Fair Play, Hard Work and Wholesome Values

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In the last post you read how drum and bugle marching bands sometimes made us feel good about our North Minneapolis neighborhood in the early 60’s. In this post you will read about Woody Larson, who was the Director of The Hospitality House Boys Club (as it was known then).

About himself, Woody once said, “If you cut open my forearms, I would probably bleed hockey pucks and baseballs.”

The next year, in 1963, while attending the 8th grade at Lincoln – Woody Larson (image above) came into the lives of the kids in our impoverished neighborhood on the “north-side”. Woody worked for the Hospitality House Boys Club (the name has since been changed to Hospitality House Youth Development), a Christian organization supporting at-risk youth in North Minneapolis. Woody and his assistant Ron organized an after-school basketball program at the school. The two men brought in new basketballs, nets, t-shirts took a real interest in getting to know each one of us. They told us that hard work, fair play, discipline and persistence were worthwhile qualities.

Hospitality House Youth Development Helped Our Neighborhood Feel More Safe and Made My School Tolerable

Moreover, although I can’t explain why, The Hospitality House Boys Club had a profound effect on my development. Woody and Ron were not only awesome representatives of the spirit of competitive athletics, but many times, as we witnessed, the men stopped some of the bullying and intimidation that some of the guys were going through at Lincoln.

My brother Dean and others in my family, particularly Mom, did their best to encourage my personal development as I was growing up. But often we take inspiration from more objective voices, outside of the family. Mr. Woody Larson and Hospitality House Youth Development, for me, was that voice, showing me that good exists, even in bad places. One lone voice, pitted against a choir, it seemed.

My Gospel Singing Gig

Speaking of choirs, Mr. Larson also helped us form a Gospel singing group. We sang at churches and really anywhere that would agree to let us sing. The group was about 8 – 12 strong. My favorite song was “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho”. “And the walls came tumbling down,” Lowell Thompson would sing in his big baritone voice.

Note: Mr. Woody Larson passed away on January 12th of 2013. I will remember him as a man whose individual efforts, in my opinion, delayed the onset of race riots before the one that occurred in 1967, in our North Minneapolis neighborhood. His work with at-risk youth – especially black – is still legend at The Minnehaha Academy, where he taught for many years.

Image: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/twincities/obituary.aspx?pid=162397533#fbLoggedOut

Other than your parents, who helped you feel “safe” during your childhood?

Next: True Effects of Underwater Kissing and Swimming Pool Acrobatics

20) Thom – My First Role Model; An Entrepreneur and Reluctant Job Holder

In the last post you read about my bad start in college, a journey which eventually took me 16 years to secure my bachelor’s degree. In this post, I will introduce Thom, my most important friend during a time when I was failing everything I tried except attracting girls.

Thom Oozed Self-Confidence and Helped Me with Mine

My best friend and person who influenced my life the most my first year of college was Thom. Thom was raised  in the suburb of Brooklyn Park with the parents who adopted him. Thom wasn’t even 5 feet 8 inches tall and barely 170 pounds but had the more self-assurance and confidence of anyone I ever met. A keen mind for business and a dry, nordic sense of humor, Thom had the ability to instantly get people to like and trust him. I admired Thom’s ability to make connections with the guys in a way that seemed  lacking sometimes in me. Thom would be the first to admit he wasn’t the most handsome guy, during those years and I think folks trusted him even more due to his sincere, earnest nature.

Thom helped me believe in myself during a time I didn’t have a very strong foundation – like the first 20 years of my life. One of the ways Thom helped me was helping us find work in 1968 and 1969 before we enlisted in the Air Force in 1970.

Grinding Metal at Tennant Company – A Maker of Floor Scrubbers

M1XVLqa1TDO_3zpRxWvo6_wI recall one job Thom helped me get was with Tennant Company, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A global company that provides cleaning solutions, one of Tennant’s major products is a line of mechanized floor-sweepers (vintage model shown above).

My job was to operate a hand-held metal grinder to smooth-out welds on the chassis of these floor sweepers. Thom was a welder, and I was a grinder each working the second shift in the factory.

Operating a Snow Plow

Determine to get specialized job training and support his need for independence, Thom enrolled at The Dunwoody Institute (now named Dunwoody College of Technology) in Minneapolis in a program they offered to become a Licensed Electrician. Thom ran a snow removal business on the side and hired me as a snow-plow operator to support his accounts while he attended class. Thom was very enterprising and at the same time, was able to help me. I can never repay Thom.

Image: http://thumbs4.ebaystatic.com/d/l225/m/m1XVLqa1TDO_3zpRxWvo6_w.jpg

Video: http://youtu.be/tEDCY2LEy0A

Did someone help you believe in yourself when you were growing up?

Next: Sergeant Stanley – U.S. Air Force Screw-up

19) The Beginning of My Sixteen Year Journey Through College

North Hennepin Community College – Still an Unremarkable Student

In the last post you read about my struggle to buckle-down in high school there at Osseo and Cooper Senior High Schools in Minnesota. In this post you will read about my feeble attempts at being a successful student at a junior college during the Viet Nam era in the United States.

beerpic_croppedDuring the years of 1968-69, young men of military service age were “safe” from the draft if they were enrolled in college and making satisfactory grades.
Unfortunately, I was not focused, making bad grades and in danger of losing my military deferment. Many of us were politically ambivalent, but hardly anyone in my circle wanted to go to Viet Nam. So, toward the end of 1969, one year out of high school, I enlisted in The United States Air Force and entered basic training in March of 1970.

For your nostalgic amusement I have included a photo depicting my “posse” during the years I was not a high achiever in anything but a youthful appearance. I (Oliver) am seated on your left above.

Restless Romeo – All Testosterone and Muscle on a Hair Trigger

Looking back, my inability to focus on a career goal at the age of 19, put me squarely on a path to spend the next several years without a sustainable plan – or really a clue – for my life. I can blame the events of my early years, but many of my peers made better choices. For all of my bravado and energetic charm, I didn’t have the faintest idea of my gifts or how to leverage them. I only knew I wasn’t clicking in my Minnesota surroundings. I was learning that my restless energy – at times, crackling with intensity – wasn’t helping me with important choices I was facing.

Did you enlist or get drafted into the military? Were you more focused on career when you got out?

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPRAFM0BKXs

Next: Thom, My First Role Model; Entrepreneur and Reluctant Job Holder

18) Did Your Teachers Make You Feel Fear of Math was Your Fault?

Academic Foundation – MIA

In the last post you read why I was the envy of my neighborhood during the winter of 1967. In this post you will read about why my performance in school was so dismal.

In spite of bouncing around for much of my early years as a boy, my self-confidence was pretty good. Except for math, which completely intimidated me. I recall one geometry teacher telling me in front of the whole class something like, “Oliver, pay attention.” “Even when you ARE paying attention, you seem to struggle.” This was devastating to my self-confidence. In my heart, I knew he was right.

What is clear now, is that I lacked the focus, discipline and persistence necessary to succeed in the classroom. Brilliant kids could study at the last-minute and do well in school. I wasn’t in their league. Bright and mentally agile, sure. But I didn’t work hard enough because I had this idea that once I moved to California, the good life would be mine for the taking!

Thin Veneer of Self-Confidence Hid My Insecurities

At age 18, girls were really noticing  me. I was very active in swimming, cycling and arm-wrestling with my  step Dad, Jim. I have always liked meeting new people. On my physical energy alone, I was usually able to make a quick, favorable impression. All of this, I’m afraid, was only a shell. What I mean is, at 18, I had no academic, community, religious or social foundation from which to find a direction there in Minnesota. I was restless and eager to leave.

Did you leave home to live in California?

Next: The Beginning of My 16 Year College Odyssey

17) 1967 – The Year I Was the Envy of My Neighborhood

Okay, I mentioned in the last post(#16), that Mom and Jim enrolled me in the wrong high school. In this post you will read about the coolest thing Mom and my step dad ever did for me.

But during my junior year of high school (1967) we lived in a rented house in New Hope, Minnesota overlooking Lake Magda. The lake was tiny, but the walk-out basement of the house led down a steep, grassy hill to the lake.

Well guess what?

In about November of 1967, my step father Jim did something very cool. He went to the local snowmobile dealer and purchased a 1967 Polaris Colt snowmobile. We stored the machine in our basement and when the snow came we rolled it out the basement door and drove it down the hill to the ice-covered lake. The horsepower? All of 10. Anemic by today’s standards.

But during that winter, I was THE man!


Do you own a snowmobile?

Next: Basic Math Isn’t Hard, If You Learn it the Right Way

16) Why Failing in Seven Schools Didn’t Destroy Me

In the last post you read about the race riot on Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis in 1965. In this post you will read why, in spite of doing poorly in approximately seven schools, I somehow maintained a belief in myself.

In 1966, due to some confusion about school district boundaries, Mom and Jim enrolled me in the wrong high school; one that was out of our school district. So, I was a student at Osseo Senior High for sophomore and junior years, then Cooper (now Robbinsdale/Cooper) for my senior year. Great work Mom and Dad!

Two High Schools: Still One Unremarkable Student

This was an unfortunate mistake because I had difficulty making new friends at school and graduated by the thinnest of margins. Unaware, that was good enough for me. Besides, I was a decent looking kid at 5’11″, somewhat muscular build, with dark-brown hair and blue-eyes. I had a lot of energy, a sharp-wit and could activate the charm almost instantly. I had a good bit of confidence which, looking back, I often used to cover insecurities about my performance in school.

Childhood to Age 18 – A Brief Review

Taking stock, by my 18th birthday (in 1968), I had lived in roughly 15 housing situations, failed classes in no less than 7 different schools, had a Dad who died when I was 4, two more step-fathers, but was still ready to kick some ass. Was I resilient or just naive?

You may have wondered how someone who failed in seven schools – by rough count, as I can recall – didn’t end up in jail.

Here is the answer. Through it all, by luck of good fortune and support of family, I still believed in myself. I also had the ability to get others to believe and trust in me.

The war in Viet Nam was looming.

Were you a superstar or punk in high school?

Next: Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass and Mom’s Top 3 Accidents

15) Race Riot in North Minneapolis in July of 1967

In the last post you read about my swimming pool antics in the suburbs. In this post you will read why my parents moved from our North Minneapolis neighborhood to Brooklyn Center – racial tension.

By the summer of 1967, we had moved to Brooklyn Center, further away from racial tension in North Minneapolis.

One July evening, after the Aquatennial Parade in Downtown Minneapolis, a race-riot took place on Plymouth Avenue North, just three blocks from our old house on 9th and Morgan Avenue North.

The Mayhem

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 9.17.37 AM“Race riots swept through the North Side of Minneapolis in July of 1967. After the Aquatennial Parade, business on Plymouth Avenue were vandalized, and fires were set all over the neighborhood. The photo above shows the burned out shell of a Country Club Market. It was reported that bands of youths roamed the area throwing rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails. The riot ended after a couple hours, but a shooting set off another incident the following day. The result was 18 fires, 36 arrests, 3 shooting’s, 2 dozen people injured, and damages totaling 4.2 million. At least two more riots took place that summer, and in many ways Plymouth Avenue has never recovered.”

Source: http://www.nokohaha.com/2012/04/25/after-the-aquatennial-riot/

It is curious that one of the only buildings along Plymouth Avenue that was spared from the fires was The Hospitality House Youth Development facility – the same organization that helped us so much at Lincoln Junior High School in 1963-1964.

Did you feel safe in your childhood neighborhoods?

Next: Why Failing in Seven Schools Didn’t Destroy Me 

14) True Effects of Underwater Kissing and Swimming Pool Acrobatics

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In the last post you read how a boy’s club saved my junior high school. In this post you will read about my escape from Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis to a safer neighborhood.

Sometime before the beginning of the 9th grade, in 1965, racial tension in North Minneapolis became overwhelming, so we rented a two-bedroom apartment at The Brookview Apartments in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota which lies about 7 miles north of Minneapolis. The apartment complex had a swimming pool and rented to people who had jobs and were mostly not in a state of agitation or planning to participate in a race riot.

New Beginning at Brooklyn Junior High School (1965)

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 8.14.29 AMMy enrollment and attendance at Brooklyn Junior High School in Brooklyn Park – a suburb near Brooklyn Center – was a seminal event in my education and personal development. The school building housed a cool science lab, a new gymnasium an atmosphere where a skinny-white kid like me could feel safe. Mom and Jim bought me a new study desk, lamp and burgundy, grey and orange-colored pennants we put on the wall inscribed with the names like New Hope, Osseo and Brooklyn Center. Moving to a safe neighborhood and providing a better learning environment helped me to see how doing well at school not only was important to my development but could be fun and allow me to look forward to high school with great anticipation.

Still an Unremarkable Student

The trouble is, essentially, I was still a bad student. I didn’t not have the building blocks in place in my coursework or the study habits necessary to succeed. Mom and Jim were fighting worse than ever during the 9th grade, and it seems I was being pulled-into the chaos of their failed marriage whether I liked it or not.

Top Musical Hit of 1965 – “I Feel Fine” The Beatles

I was also becoming very interested in girls and would invite them to the swimming pool on hot summer days of 1965 there in Brooklyn Center. Already a good swimmer and learning one or two acrobatic dives from the pool diving board, I was starting to attract attention from the girls I had invited to swim. As teens do, Betsy Fularo and I would intertwine our bodies underwater and push things as far as we dared in an apartment swimming pool. This song is for you Betsy.

Image#1: http://www.bestplaces.net/city/minnesota/brooklyn_center Image#2: http://www.osseo.k12.mn.us/Construction/images/bjhschool.jpg Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoKt-N-OudU

Were you a good student?

Next: Race Riot in North Minneapolis


12) 1962 – Oliver Finds Tight, Drumline Music in North Minneapolis

In the last post you read about Danny’s sleep over and Mom’s embarrassing mistake that destroyed my school friendships in the sixth grade. In this post you will read about the drum and bugle marching bands I was privileged to watch on Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis was a checkerboard of black and white folks in 1962, each in various states racial agitation. Sometimes people would forget all that stuff and organize parades.

One of them I can recall featured a drum and bugle corps wearing shockingly bright, exquisitely detailed uniforms. The best moments came when they jammed with a kind of syncopated, pulsing, rhythmical beat. The drummers – sometimes 2 or 3 at in each section – would “talk” back and forth, just like “Drumline”, the movie. Dragging the cleats on their shoes between numbers against the asphalt on Plymouth avenue, would spell the movement of the procession as it made its way up the avenue, growing fainter by the minutes.

The clip above is from the movie “Drumline”.

A Sprout of Self-Confidence Breaks Through the Soil

Except for Danny’s sleep over and getting infectious hepatitis, fifth and sixth grades for me at John Hay Elementary were unremarkable.

Since I was borderline athletic, I did win four ribbons at Field Day in the 6th, which marked the onset of summer vacation. The recognition I received that day at the awards ceremony, was the first for me at any school function. My awards were an early sign that physical gifts and fitness sometimes set me apart from others. This was an early building block in my foundation and gave me a great deal of self-confidence.

Cauldron Ready to Boil Over

The beginning of 7th grade marked my entrance to Lincoln Junior High School. The school was directly behind John Hay Elementary, a few blocks from our house on 9th and Morgan, and was about 50% white and 50% black in the racial composition, as best I can remember. We had not yet heard the term “racially diverse” in my neighborhood in 1963. Although I remember several fist fights in the hallway, it is my sense that blacks and whites keep to their own sides and fights were not an everyday occurrence. Guns, knives and drugs were not prevalent in the school. However, most of the time the atmosphere was fully charged.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDXVgqmaYJk

Did you live in a bad neighborhood when you were growing up?

Next: One Sure Fire Way to Stop Bullying in Your Child’s School