My high school graduation was on a Saturday night near the end of May in 1969; though it was only 52 years ago, a mere moment in geologic time, it seems the better part of an eon ago.
There were 28 graduates, counting me, in my graduating class, so the actual graduation ceremony was a short affair. Most of the friends that I hung out with actually went to the other, bigger high school in Lewistown, Fergus County High.
So after turning the tassel on the hat to the other side to symbolize the start of a new era, we all proceeded to our homes, where we were going to change clothes and make haste to the graduation parties. The party was a much bigger event than the graduation ceremony itself, with more guests, more attendees, and marginally more booze.
I was a little surprised when I got home that my parents had actually reached home before me because I'd let the full weight of my foot come to rest on that accelerator, but I soon discovered that they had come right home to intercept me, at least my Dad had.
I came in through my usual way, the garage door, and tried to beat it down the stairs to my room. My Dad met me at the door. I went to go left around him, but he went right and blocked me. I tried right, but he moved left. It became obvious to me that my Dad either wanted to dance or had something to say. I made eye contact with him, and said, "what's up, Pop?"
He cleared his throat and looked me in my eye. The look wasn't stern, or affectionate, or angry, just steady.
"Now you're a graduate, son. That means that you no longer live here in this house. As of becoming a graduate, you're now a guest in his house. I'm not saying you need to leave, especially not right now. But as a guest, you're now expected to act like a guest, so I expect you to pick up after yourself, help out with domestic chores, maybe even help with expenses as they arose. In short, you are no longer a child living here. You're now you are an adult guest in my house. Do I make myself clear?"
I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but yes, I received the message loud and clear. I was an adult as of crossing that imaginary line in the sand. Gone were the days of childhood idylls, the days where you could around in the dirt and mud all day and expect to come back to a plate of milk and cookies. Utterly gone, too, were the days of comic books, dime novels, sitting crosslegged in front of the TV watching Westerns, torturing (and being tortured in turn by my) siblings, trick-or-treating, and walking barefoot to Spring Creek to go fishing.
As I pulled up my Levis and buttoned up my pearl snap shirt, I continued rolling the repercussions of true adulthood over in my head. The loss of all those childish things ached a little, although, of course, I had already given most of them years ago. But still, I reflected that my childhood had been pretty good, all things considered, and that I'd probably look back on it pretty nostalgic-like once I would have proper distance on it.
By the time my second-to-last button was snapped, I could begin to detect another thought coming on. As Alice Cooper would say a few years later, "no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks" because, thank goodness, "School's out forever."
(Nevermind that I went to college within a year and encountered twice as many pencils, books, and dirty looks than I'd ever seen before).
Wait a moment, now that I was an adult, I no longer took orders from anyone, and I could now consider any criticisms as mere advice, and probably ill-conceived at that. I was a free man; I could now make my own decisions and suffer any and all consequences of those decisions. If the advice was good and I took it, well, good for me.
(Nevermind that as adults with jobs, we all have to take orders all the time, endure ill-conceived criticisms, suffer the consequences of others' bad decisions. But at least we get paid for it.)
So, I moved out the following day, after the party.
My Dad was an old-schooler, but he was a perfect role model. He worked hard, all who knew him were his friends, and he would take the shirt off his back and give it to anyone who asked. I figured all I had to do was be like him, and I would be a success.
I had talked Dad into purchasing an apartment building a year or so before. He had told me that he needed something to do in his retirement, or he'd go nuts, having worked so hard for so long that he knew nothing else and had even come to enjoy it in his rugged way.
We had gone together and looked at an apartment building that I had found for sale. He said the building sure could use some work. I pointed out that he could repair anything, and with just elbow grease he, would improve the property and the resale value. He did the math and pointed out that the rent would make his payments. Historically, real estate goes up, and he eventually decided it was a good investment.
So with just his magic touch, he became a landlord. I pointed out many times that his Christian attitude, generous nature, lack of greed, and willingness to help anyone would serve him well. He ended up owning three different properties, all of them paid for in full in his first ten years of retirement. He ended up with about 25 other rental units in all.
All the properties were purchased with almost nothing down and on a contract for the deed with the previous owners. At least twice that was a widow, who lived the rest of her life rent-free in the buildings my Dad had purchased from them. They lived on the monthly income he provided them while he fixed their leaking sinks or what-have-you at no charge. I jokingly called him a slum lord, but he never, not one time, raised the rent on a rented apartment. Only when they became vacant would he even consider it. He always did onto others, as he would have liked to have done onto him. He often would provide rent-free to someone down on their luck.
So I rented an apartment from guess who. I didn't exactly move far that summer.
I have looked back on my graduation day many times. The story could be taken as my Dad was mean and tough on me. But that is not how I have ever looked at our little talk that night.
In fact, I know that he did me a huge favor that day. I have made my way in this dog-eat-dog world through sheer cussedness and a teaspoon of luck. I have raised my four boys to the best of my ability, but lots of mistakes were made along the way. Many times I think I was way too hard on my boys, teaching them what I could, often falling short. Dad was my role model. He taught me how to be a man by example. Even now that he is gone, I still try to consider what my Dad would do and to teach them to do the same thing, but it can be difficult.
For one thing, I wouldn't make the same ultimatum to my kids. I know that it made me what I am, but to do so to my own kids seems cruel. Maybe the world is darker now than it is then - back in that time, I could easily afford the rent on my surprisingly spacious first apartment on the wages paid to an 18-year-old motorcycle salesman. It's not a problem with my boys' own strength or resolves; it's that the old Montana, the one in which my own father learned to be a man, is gone and replaced by a new Montana that eludes my understanding, one in which the price of an apartment is untenable for most recent High School graduates almost the whole state. I understand why my Dad did what he did, but my instinct is to do the opposite; I want to hold them to me as long as I can because I know it is a crueler stranger world they are entering than the one that welcomed me to adulthood so kindly 52 years ago.
Still, even though I was close, able to come to dinner whenever the fancy struck me, or I needed a free meal, I wonder how he felt in those first few days after I moved out. He still had my little brother Neal around, and that would have mitigated the loss, but with my sister and I both out of the house, did he grow the miss the sound of little feet running through the halls, jumping on beds, arguing over who got to play with a certain toy. Did he miss the noise we made? Did he miss us wrecking the old house?
I think he probably did. Because I find it a little difficult to bear the idea of my sons leaving the house for god.
And I know I miss Dad each and every day.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.