One of my family’s favorite stories is the story of my grandfather when he was a teenager. It’s a story we talk about with great affection. We talk about it with pride and wonder and reverence. It is his coming of age story. My son Ryan is 18 and is making his own story and it strikes me that someday he will be a grandfather and his grandchildren will tell his story with pride and wonder and great affection.
My grandfather passed away before Ryan was born and I realized this weekend that Ryan doesn’t know my grandfather’s story. I have a collection of letters from my grandfather written to his mother during the summer of 1922 and I searched every inch of my house for them. I was obsessed with finding them, compelled by this idea that I thought Grandpa Scott has something to tell Ryan, right now.
In 1921 Grandpa Scott or Don P as his family had dubbed him was enrolled as a freshman at New Hampshire College (now UNH). And on July 6th 1922 his mother received a letter from him with a Philadelphia post-mark. He had stolen his father’s train pass and hopped on a train leaving Fall River, Massachusetts and headed west. He explains, “You’ll remember you asked me what I was so dressed up for. You don’t know how much I wanted to say good-bye. But, I couldn’t very well without a long explanation which would have ended up by my not going at all.” He goes on to explain in his next letter that his plan is to get himself to California and enroll in a university there. “I probably wouldn’t have gone except for two things that came up. I flunked 3 hours and got below passing or K in 4 1/2 other hours. That makes deficiencies in 7 1/2 hours out of 17 hours which will prevent me from taking part in college activities next term and so spoil my chances for manager and other activities. The second cause of my leaving was the baggage job which was getting very hot for me. Although it was my own fault, I couldn’t seem to help it any.”
He started with $26.00 in his pocket and the stolen train pass. He promised to write home everyday. As he made his way west, he hitchhiked, he traveled on trains, and he walked a great deal through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. He did odd jobs on farms and at hotels and lunch counters. He slept on porches and motels (if they were under $1/night) and he was invited into homes because he had the gift of a friendly disposition and was a great storyteller and so was an entertaining guest. About mid-July his letter indicated that he had “finally joined the ranks of the true bums and am traveling by rail, freight and various other methods.” Near Kansas City he caught up with a few others who were headed to Nebraska “there are now five of us hiking for the wheat fields of Nebraska and a more varied quintet has probably never walked through Kansas City for some years. It sure is a strange feeling to be broke 1600 miles from home, but as I am not lonesome and am headed towards a $4.00 a day job, I don’t care.” He hocked his suit and his ‘field glasses’ and resorted to turning his shirt inside out to hide the dirt. “Don’t worry about me, I am having a wonderful experience. I wish you could reach me in some way by mail but it’s impossible so I’m just assuming that all is well and that nothing is happening except good things.”
The five continued together for a long time and on July 26th he found himself in Rapid City, South Dakota “to be perfectly truthful, I haven’t slept in a real bed since the evening of July 19th but have slept here, there and everywhere, like the real hoboes do.” “Don’t worry about me as I am merely roughing it in the roughest way and getting some good experience. And, PS Would send you some nice souvenirs, but you’ll excuse me as my condition doesn’t warrant it.” He reaches Wyoming and admits that while he is close to California he “has almost decided to come back and fight it out.” “My ambition to go to the U of Cal has weakened somewhat as I have come along. I had lots of time to think it over and have decided that as I would have to throw away all my NHC credits, it would be rather foolish to do such a thing as I hope to get my degree in four years. And this trip has taught me the value of really knowing your subject and I expect when I go back to really go to college and instead of just hanging around really go to classes.”
He eventually does reach California in early September. Turns out the tuition isn’t free as he’d been told and Fall semester has started. He tells his parents in one letter that he has decided to head back east via a more southern route. “I really ought to go back to NHC and get a real foundation before I go anywhere else. If I had used any common sense at all, I would have worked more coming across this summer and so avoided the hardships I went through, but they were good experiences anyway. And, as a result, I can now usually hold up my end of a pleasant conversation without stretching the truth a whole lot.”
In his last letter he says to his mother and father, “thanks for the offer of the money for college, but I couldn’t take any after my last year’s college record. I don’t intend to go to school again until I have the money earned by myself and when I have fully realized what I want to study and am ready to go and really work a little.”
My grandfather grew up that summer. I can imagine his mother reading the letters as they came to her and I wonder if she saw his growth, especially his awareness of who he was as he started to realize what he really wanted wasn’t college in California but to succeed back home and to do it on his own terms – it can so clearly be seen when you read them back to back almost 100 years later.
Three weeks ago, my son, Ryan, called me at midnight on a Saturday night. He was at college in Colorado and as it turns out, he was miserable. Freshman year wasn’t everything he thought it would be. He wanted to come home. He said, he didn’t want to keep spending our money on tuition when he didn’t feel he could succeed there. He talked to his advisor, his professors, and then, he withdrew. His Dad drove out to get him. We live in a community where 95% of the kids graduate from high-school and go straight to college. I imagine that it is hard to come home and feel like you didn’t succeed at the thing you think you are supposed to be doing or the thing that seems to come easy to others.
I am proud of Ryan for pulling the ripcord, for being honest and saying – this isn’t working for me. I think my job now is to listen, to hold a space for him so he can figure it out. And, I know he will. My grandfather was a hobo on a pilgrimage to the University of California thinking that was the answer. But, it turns out the answer was an inside job. I think that’s the message from Don P to Ryan and to all of his children, grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. Take the time to discover who you are, steal a train pass, sleep on a porch, get an odd job. There will be hardships but they will all be good experiences anyway and don’t forget to write to your mother while you are doing it because she also wants to celebrate you as you come of age no matter how you do it.