LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW
"Gary, will you stop looking out the window." Since these words are about all I remember from my grade school teachers in rural North Carolina, they must have often been directed my way. As a child, my mind was always outside the classroom—wandering the woods, dreaming of other times or places, and wanting to see what was on the other side of the hill. Said more sharply, the same scold came from my junior high and high school teachers in urban Pennsylvania. Now, looking back, it seems reasonable to suppose that this oft-heard reprimand of my early life foretold much of the rest of it.
Photo: McWilliams family picking cotton, circa 1950.
My North Carolina childhood was so different from that of most modern young Americans that it could have been from another planet. My childhood was rural and "poor white" in the American South. It was my mother and all her kids having to pick cotton to have enough money for groceries. It was drawing water out of an open well with a long rope, a windlass, and a bucket. Once, a cat fell into the well and drowned. Not having an automobile, we had to hand-carry water in buckets from the home of our closest neighbor, a half mile away. It was not wearing shoes, not even at school. Shoes were reserved for church on Sundays. It was an outhouse for a bathroom. I remember my mom worrying aloud about copperheads on the trail and black widow spiders under the seat. It was bathing in a wash tub in the yard—we bobbed for apples before getting in. The only showers I knew were during summertime rains when we could stand under the run-off of the tin roof of the house. It was an endless cutting of firewood with a hand saw. It was a house so full of holes that you could, as my daddy once put it "sit in any room and tell which way the wind was blowing." It was my mother washing clothes in a tub, and sheets and underwear flapping on clothes lines. It was Sunday dinner, when my father was there to hunt, of squirrel stew (yes, those darling guys that climb your trees) or cotton-tail rabbit fried in lard.
There were seven kids in the family. Widely spread in age, not all were present at the same time. My oldest brother was off in the Second World War when I was a toddler. The next brother followed to the Korean War. My one sister mostly lived with better-off relatives in Knoxville, Tennessee. When she was there, this older sister, then a teen-ager, largely raised me, my mom so occupied with my younger baby brother and all the rest. This early bonding with my sister might explain my later ease of intimacy with people of her gender.
No two of the seven kids were alike. I was always the "outdoors man"—the one who hunted with homemade bows and arrows and fished for crappies and catfish with a cane pole. Our rented house had an old barn, no longer in use, and several other out buildings. One of my boyhood pastimes was shooting down the wasp nests found in all the corners with a sling shot. I must have liked the thrill of being chased, the danger of getting stung. I loved the woods, where I explored everywhere I could walk to, where I made tree houses and forts, where I swung on vines like Tarzan, where I caught lizards, turtles and frogs. My area of North Carolina must have had a very large Indian population at one time because there were many arrowheads to be found. I collected them by the score. I also collected rocks—crystal of quartz, feldspar, and pyrite, and rocks with peculiar and intriguing shapes.
I differed in another way—when weather, punishment, illness, or injury confined me to the house, I read. My mom got me books from the traveling county library. What I read, what must have nurtured the imagery that filled my childhood mind, were stories about early American explorers and frontiersmen—Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, Lewis and Clark—all pure and unadulterated heroes then. Daniel Boone lived in my area of North Carolina before crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains to Kentucky. "Boone's Cave," overlooking the Yadkin River, was nearby. I sat inside imagining I was him. My sister relates my telling her when I was seven or eight that I wanted to be an explorer when I grew up, and that I refused to accept her, "But, there are no places left to explore."
My mother was a hero. Somehow, with all the kids, with no running water, with our being out in the country with no vehicle, she kept the family fed, in clothes, and on track. In spite of her burdens, she never showed distress enough for me to recall. It was her love, good humor, and chocolate-chip cookies that I most remember. My father, with only an eight-grade education, often had to leave home to find work. He sent back whatever money he could. He loved the outdoors, which to him meant hunting and fishing. As a young boy, it was often said that I was the "apple of my daddy's eye." I guess that was because I inherited his love of the outdoors, because it was only me of all the boys who went hunting and fishing with him. Before his marriage to my mom, my father traveled the West. Regrettably, he died before I, or anyone else, thought to ask him more of what he actually did. The little I do know suggests that his work was always physical and outside. As I write this now, I can only imagine his westward ramblings, and wonder the proximity of my footsteps, taken many years later, to his own.
When I was eleven, my life suddenly and drastically changed. My father returned home one summer day and announced that the family was packing up right then and there and moving to Pittsburgh, where he had found steady employment. The move to Pittsburgh was a shock. It was to an urban life that I did not know. We moved to a purely working class, steel-mill neighborhood where everyone seemed foreign—most with Eastern or Southern European surnames that I could not pronounce. Everything out-of-doors was blackened with soot. The little woods to be found, postage-stamp sized parks, offered little to explore. There were no arrowheads. Even the rocks—shales and limestones—were grey and uninteresting. We, rural southern immigrants into the industrial north, were still dirt poor. I wore hand-me-downs that were way out of fashion and never fit. I remember the absurdly pointed shoes, a post World-War-Two style called "spades," that I had to wear in absence of anything else: they were noticeably bigger than my feet. On top of other embarrassments, I had to endure the nick-name "Y'all," because of that oft-used contraction in our family vocabulary.
My father did not believe in giving his kids an allowance. He said that when he was our age, the precise opposite was the norm—children were expected to work and financially aid the family. I expect, however, that we received no spending money for the simpler reason that he did not have anything in excess of that necessary to keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. For the kids, it was simple—if we wanted money, for new clothes for example, we had to go out and earn it. I had a paper route. I started at 5:30 every morning and delivered papers until 7:30, then went to school. While walking up and down those endless hills of Pittsburgh, carrying my heavy sack of newspapers, I always read the front page news as well as the sports and comics. As a consequence, I came to know world politics, and history and geography, to an extent well beyond the norm for a youngster.
Our rental house in Pittsburgh was small. Four brothers shared one tiny bedroom. There were two sets of bunk beds—the younger boys, of course, on top. I remember having the walls above mine covered with maps. I would lie in bed and think about all those places. We had an old globe on our commonly used desk. Half the countries were pink, for British possessions, or purple, for French possessions. I would spin it and let my finger fall to some place, then go there in my imagination.
Everyone has had one or two exceptional teachers in their lives. They were the inspired teachers, the very rare ones who infected you with their passion for the subject matter, who made you think and love thinking, who made you want to learn more. Mrs. James, my geography teacher in seventh grade, was the best teacher I ever had. She employed one pedagogical device I remember to this day. Students were to invent an island, place it in any ocean of the world, and then, based on its longitude and latitude and the topographical features assigned to it, describe and map its weather systems, rivers systems, mineral resources, energy sources, agriculture, and local industry. No dragons, no monsters, no fluff of fantasy, it all had to make real-world sense. My island, named for its shape, was Boot Island. With the understanding she imparted, Mrs. James made the outside world an even more alluring place for me.
My whole young life was within the Cold War era. By newspaper, I kept up with the daily unfolding of events. An assignment for a ninth-grade English class was to write a fictional story. I got into it, spending long hours on the Cold War spy thriller: A Tear for Triganoff. It was my first attempt at creative writing.
Wilkinsburg High School was staffed by the usual assortment of teachers, ranging from the very good—the school's chemistry teacher wrote the book—to football coach—they were good football coaches. An average student at best, I was still inattentive, looking out the window, wanting to be somewhere else. The stuff of adolescence—concerns about pimples, popularity and girls—certainly added to my daydreams. While in high school, I had one exceptional set of experiences. One of my older brothers, Wayne, had become something of a beatnik, a bohemian of the times. Seven years older than me, he had been in a college Junior Year Abroad program in France. He returned from France wearing un-needed sunglasses and a long, unkempt beard. My father, describing his first reaction to seeing Wayne in the house, said, "If I'd had a stick, I would have killed it." Wayne had an amazingly broad world perspective as a result of his travels—he had also been in Japan in the army—and his ensuing interests in history and philosophy. As a teen-ager I was regularly exposed to viewpoints on religion, politics, and philosophy that few of my peer group ever heard. Wayne loved jazz and took me, the kid brother—well under legal drinking age—to hear cool jazz in the black bars of the city. I remember a place in the Hill District, then Pittsburgh's most notorious ghetto, where we were, most conspicuously, the only white people inside.
Mainly because my family attended a Lutheran Church, and to a lesser extent because of athletics—wrestling—I received a scholarship to attend Thiel, a small church-affiliated college in western Pennsylvania. It was a nice school, for nice boys and girls. I did well in my courses and surprisingly enjoyed learning. I also did well on the wrestling team. Things were good. I was feeling more buoyant, more on top of the world, than I had ever in my life. Then, over Christmas vacation, Janice, my steady girl from high school, dropped the bomb: "I'm pregnant." We had had sex once. In a state of shock, Janice and I eloped and married, as prescribed by the mores of the time. I dropped out of college, got an apartment with Janice, became a father, got a job. It was, as Kazantzakis' Zorba described it, "the full catastrophe."
Luck reversed the following year when my mom found employment at the University of Pittsburgh. At that time, free tuition was granted to family members of university staff, even if clerical. I wanted to continue my education so, working at night, I attended regular daytime classes. I majored in political science and enjoyed the subject matter. This was during the Kennedy years, a time of political optimism. Dr. Richard Cottam, a favorite professor, enthused me about his area of specialization, the history and politics of the Middle East—and more specifically, the history and politics of Iran.
While attending the University of Pittsburgh, I had a series of night-time jobs. An interesting one was for a company that made topographic maps using 3-D technology and aerial photography. Wayne, who learned the skill in the army, worked there and got me the position. Unfortunately, I was not very good at it. I also worked a while in one of Pittsburgh's many steel mills—it was a place of sound, color, and light if there ever was such a thing. I was not particularly good at my job there either. The only thing I seemed to excel in was "book-learn'n" as my father called it.
I continued at Pitt to complete a Master's Degree, with a specialization in Middle Eastern politics. Unfortunately, the strain on the marriage was too great. With both my wife and me working full time and on opposite shifts and with me also trying to be a full time student, we seldom even saw each other. No wonder we drifted apart. But, in reality, we never had a marriage in the first place—neither of us had the maturity to be bound, was ready for the responsibility in any way. I do not think I ever left my state of shock during the whole five-year episode. I did well in school, even with the little time I had, because it was an escape. Janice and I divorced at about the same time that I received my Master's Degree. Although I was to stay active in his young life, my son, Brent, lived with his mom.
My future was unclear. I had applied for a fellowship to attend Princeton University to study Farsi, the language of Iran and Afghanistan. I had vague notions of working for the State Department. I was informed by Princeton that I was first runner-up for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, that if I waited a short while, it would likely fall my way. How different my life might have been had I done so—one of those many roads not taken. Instead, going with a bird in the hand, I accepted a teaching fellowship from Penn State.
When I entered Penn State, I looked the perfect graduate student of the times—well trimmed beard, the proper pipe, herringbone tweed sports-coat with leather patches on the sleeves. I was serious enough in my studies. My Ph.D. adviser, Dr. Ruth Silva, was fanatical not only about good scholarship but also, and every bit as much, about good writing skills. Somehow, I made her "ok" list. Sadly, I witnessed many other of her Ph.D candidates have their hopes drowned in red ink. Writing objectively—taking the writer's persona out of it—was drilled into me as a social science graduate student. Truly objective writing, of course, is complete illusion, but the attempt, or pretense, of doing so was a major component of the academic ideology of the time.
The seriousness of my academic commitment did not sustain. One reason was that, induced by the fat fellowship, I erred in going to Penn State. My main interest in political science had been in the international arena, particularly in Middle Eastern politics. Penn State's political science department turned out to be weak in those areas. I switched to American Government, which interested me less. But the main reason for the decline in my academic ardor was outside the classroom. It was the late sixties and I, twenty-five years old and just freed from five years of suppressing, depressing, unhappy marriage, was primed to be swept along with the excitement and experimentation of the times. My life style became increasingly hedonistic. Off came the graduate student uniform and on came the tattered Levis and sandals. The hair grew long, and the beard with it. As time went by, I frequented the library less, the bars more. I drank, danced, and enjoyed the 1960s "liberated" women.
Alice introduced me to smoking pot. Before long, smoking pot became daily routine. I also tried the psychedelic drugs around at the time. Smoking pot and dalliances with hallucinogens may have been bad for some people and they may have been bad for my future career as a political scientist, but they contributed to something for which I shall forever be grateful: to my re-discovery of nature. I had become so buried with books, and, while married, with work, that that vital part of me had simply gone dormant. I began to take the time—perhaps when skinny-dipping in a mountain stream with a gang of friends, or perhaps when romping in a meadow with a flower child of the era—to again experience the sheer wonder and joy of the natural world. I picked berries for the first time since my North Carolina childhood. I started hiking. I bought a used inflatable raft and floated local rivers.
I also did my first international traveling, a trip, in 1968, to northern Ontario and Quebec. Francis, a friend and a fellow graduate student, was my traveling companion.