The Accidental Counselor

California State Park Ranger “Jeff” Jeffrey Se...
Image by mikebaird via Flickr

People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.  ~Ogden Nash

It was “career day” at San Marino High School in sunny 1977 Southern California.  Our school district was determined to better illuminate for students the intricate machinery of the working world in hopes of aligning our nascent avocations with future vocations.

In Homeroom, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to ascertain our strengths, weaknesses, passions and peccadilloes.   The teachers and counselors were told to take this process very seriously and I can distinctly recall being reprimanded during the assessment as I rolled my eyes at the questions.

1.Which words best describe you:  a) follower b) leader;

2. Your best work environment involves  a) working indoors standing up b) working indoors sitting down c) working outdoors standing up d) working outdoors sitting down.

I looked for the missing answer – e. none of the above.  I mean a lot depended on if I had to sweat or walk very far to work. Did the job pay at least $4.00 an hour?  Could I perform this task while watching TV?  Would someone need to inspect my work before I could go home for the night? I needed to clarify these questions. I raised my hand. “ I don’t know, Turpin.” whispered my perpetually annoyed homeroom teacher, Mister C.

“Just try to find one that describes you.”  “ What if none of them describe me?’ I chirped.  He scolded, “don’t get smart, mister.  You have 15 more minutes. “

The test results were collected, tabulated and cross-referenced with our most recent grades.  Together this data was somehow triangulated to provide a rich social X-ray into your potential as a contributing member of society.   Once you were labeled and categorized, you were scheduled to meet with your “counselor” to discuss the findings.

My mother was highly skeptical of these educational gimmicks that periodically worked their way through our school district.  Guiding four sons from elementary through high school, she had experienced every charlatan and their new age educational reforms. She had seen them all – the “academics”, the “socialists” and the 26- year-old“ Ivy league PhDs” – cycling through the school district as teachers, principals and superintendents.  She distrusted profiling tests that attempted to pigeonhole a child early in their development – especially during sophomore year where most kids were still trying to understand rudimentary geometry and the deep mysteries of the opposite sex.

My career and college counselor tripled as a social studies teacher, driver’s education instructor and junior varsity baseball coach.  He was a nice, slow moving brontosaurus and clearly not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. Personally, I was delighted that my JV baseball coach was my ombudsman to the real world.  We never really discussed work, college or even what my father did. We just talked baseball.  Time would fly as we chatted about the Dodgers and our own JV team.  Suddenly, he would glance up at the clock and say, “Oops, time’s up. Better get you to fifth period. See you at practice.”

On the day of my career day debrief, I received a packet that explained the testing methodology.  I was excited.  Perhaps the results would be my burning bush in life – revealing to me my predisposition to be an entertainment czar or an international import/export mogul. I went into Coach’s office where he sat, feet on his desk nursing a mug of coffee with the word “ Coach” stenciled on its side. “ Well, Turpin, let’s see what we have here.“ He opened to an official looking testing scorecard that was pre-populated with graphs, charts and complicated percentages. He looked at the report as if it were written in German.  He clearly had no clue what the bar charts and median scores meant. I held my breath. “ So, it says here, let’s see, that you – – should really consider a career as a fish and game warden.”

I waited for more but that was it.  “You know coach, my Dad’s in Advertising, does it say anything about that?  I’m also a pretty good artist and I actually like English” He seemed stumped that I had not just accepted my fate.  He hesitated and handed me a brochure that said “ Fish and Game Warden – A life of adventure.” Everyone had been talking all day about careers.  The girl behind me was going to be in international fashion.  The straight A, math savant in the front row of my Geometry class was going to be a banker.  And moi?  I was going to arrest people for illegal fires, and not carrying a fishing license.

I initially did not say anything at dinner that night but I was worried. I had been pre-programmed by my father to believe that a vocation involving a shovel, heavy machinery or a shirt with my name stenciled on it was a vine that would bear limited fruit.  Success did not come from sitting in a fire tower glancing across an ocean of evergreens looking for a puff of smoke.  I did not tell my mother but as usual, she found out.  She had found the crumpled Fish and Game warden brochure in my blue jeans’ pocket.  She confronted me and I promptly spilled my troubled guts. She listened intently but was secretly seething.  She was clearly concerned that Coach was slated to also be my “college counselor”.

It was at this moment that she privately declared war on the school district and their college admissions counseling program.  To protect her boys and their friends, she would go into business for herself as a college applications consultant.  In retrospect, it was a brilliant move for a woman who had subordinated much of her own life to keeping four potential felons on the straight path toward college.  Her “competition” were part-time educators and overworked, multi-tasking idealists. Marketing would not be a problem. She was already somewhat of a micro celebrity among other women in our town for her candor and pragmatism in dealing with boys.

Over next ten years years, she took on hundreds of surrogate children and their parents as clients.   She learned every loophole, admissions officer preference, essay styles and moods of universities across the country.  She also could divine within the first hour of meeting a kid those oh so important intangibles – was the kid an over achiever or underachiever?  Was he/she spending too much time smoking in the east parking lot? Did they have undetected learning disabilities? She could tell who was mature enough to handle a larger university and which kid would be likely never to be heard from again if they entered the Greek system of some massive state school.

She was tough and candid with her protégés but admired by the kids and parents alike.  There was only one casualty – my father, who could not understand her need to work and fill his home with teenagers after he had worked so hard to get them out.  He kept urging her to sell her business or quit.  Her hours were killing him – as she was often unavailable to cook him dinner or talk when he staggered in from a business trip. He tried to put his foot down.  She simply ignored him.

The worm turned one spring when my father decided to join an exclusive business lunch and dinner club in Los Angeles.  It would be the perfect place to host clients and it was close to his office.  Yet, what was supposed to be an application formality had suddenly become, at best, a 50/50 chance for admission when my Dad’s contact on the new member committee had quit. His membership sponsor apologized.  He simply could no longer promise success with so many applicants – many of whom had better contacts than my dad.

The fateful afternoon arrived when my father sat down to lunch with the membership committee.  He did not know a single person.  There would be no one to vouch for his character or citizenship. A sense of gloom came over him as he realized his application would most likely be rejected.  The serious chairman of the committee leered at him and hesitated.  He looked perplexed as if he was trying to jog his memory. “Turpin , Turpin, Turpin.  Your wife isn’t Ruth Turpin, is it? “

My father stammered, “Y-e-s. Ruth is my wife.”

“Well fellahs,” said the gruff chairman with a grin, “ This man’s wife helped get my daughter into Stanford. The least I can do is let her husband into the California Club.”

That night he arrived home and sheepishly recounted the story to my Mom.  He never uttered a disparaging word about her business again.  He finally understood that helping all these kids was her sweet revenge on life and the school district as well as her personal antidote to the emotional trauma of an empty nest. To this day, a year does not go by that someone will come up to me or one of my brothers with a quizzical look and say, “Turpin, Turpin, Turpin….Is your mom, Ruth?“

And not a fish and game warden to be found.

Watching for Falling Rock

Bell Rock in Sedona, Arizona, USA
Image via Wikipedia

Watching for Falling Rock

When I was eight years old, my grandfather moved from Southern California to Sedona, Arizona.  My dad did not completely understand his father’s decision to exile himself from civilization and his immediate family. The move was cause for consternation and subtle tension.

Yet, my grandfather had wanted a new start.  Suffering from chronic arthritis and the emptiness of having lost his wife of 30 years to breast cancer, he had remarried to a woman that neither son really accepted as their true mother.  With a private resolve, he longed to renew his life among the great red rock mesas and cliffs of the mythic West.  He did not view this retreat from humanity or family as a resignation from life but in fact, a beginning born out of the ashes of tragedy. My grandfather’s renaissance rose like the phoenix and over the next fifteen years, he transformed into a quirky artist, high desert outdoorsman and amateur Native American historian.

His letters were rich narratives describing the desert as a vast and ever changing ocean of life. He came to understand the hidden power and the healing presence of the natural wonders of the world. He was reborn at the sight of the Grand Canyon and cured of his gray flannel color blindness after gazing across the Painted Desert.  He marveled at the swirling, polished ravines of Canyon De Chelly. He often wrote to us of the ancients that had lived in these sacred places — the Navajo and Hopi who had walked as one with the land prospering in cliff dwellings under great overhangs of red rock and limestone.

We would travel over hundreds of miles of broken, lonely space to visit him in a mobile home outpost whose floor was a carpet of rocks, red soil and saguaro cactus reaching up to a great blue house of sky. We preferred taking the overnight Southern Chief Amtrak that followed intermittent stretches of Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago.  My grandfather would navigate his car up the serpentine roads of magnificent Oak Creek canyon to pick us up in Flagstaff on the 7AM train.  It was our first taste of freedom and he would begin to feed our restless imaginations from the moment we stepped on to the cool dry morning air.  He would faithfully retrace his route down the canyon’s nauseating switchbacks descending into warmer air and the backwater pueblo that rested like a homestead in some John Ford movie.

During our visits, he would take us hiking and point out the more hidden aspects of the desert and the natural world that seemed so foreign to suburban children.  At night, he would tell stories of the West and always regale us with the timeless classic of an Indian brave named Falling Rock who had disappeared trying to warn his people against the gathering threat of soldiers and the encroaching tide of pioneers.  The story always concluded with Rising Star, the Navajo chief and father of Falling Rock, consenting to the Army to peacefully lead his people to a life on the reservation in exchange for help finding his lost beloved son.  “That is why you will always see signs that say, ‘ Watch for Falling Rock’, he would conclude – allowing the weight of the night and the unsolved mystery of a boy swallowed up by history to settle on our narrow shoulders.

Over the years, the LA train deposited fewer boys on that summer green platform.  Finally, there came a day when no boy wanted to spend a “boring” week in the hot desert with an old man and his dog.  When he died, it seemed like some ancient tie had been severed.

As the years carved lines onto our faces, my three brothers and I went the way of men and built our own lives, allowing obligations and temporal commitments to eclipse the sage scented memories of four squinting, crew-cut boys standing next to a man with a hiking stick and a white and brown dog.

My brothers and I intuitively understand that we are bonded by a thousand invisible sinews forged during those summers of diving into an ice cold canyon creek, dodging cholla and cactus across a blazing hot broken field of rocks looking for arrowheads or sitting silent bathed in the glow of a twilight fire. Those strands stretch across a thousand miles of ribboned interstate and time. We remain mirrors of one another but we are each painted with a slightly different mix of colors from a palette of sunshine yellow 60’s, brown and orange shag 70’s, chrome and silver 80’s and black and blue 90’s.

We are a genetic collision of German resoluteness, Irish mischievousness, English hooliganism and French elan. We were pounded in the same blacksmith’s forge, alloys created out of a firebrand conservative and a new age free spirit. Over time, the boys that had once scoured the mountainsides for Falling Rock and marveled at the mysteries of great lightening storms and ancient tribes – lost their sense of wonder. As Kurt Vonnegut once lamented,” We do, diddly do, what we must, middly must, until we bust, bodily bust.”

We now only see one another when life crushes one of us with an unforeseen landslide. We gather at odd, unpredictable times, rarely achieving a quorum for a dinner or lunch –separated by miles and our own dreams. To find ourselves together unobscured by the shadow of a funeral, crisis or life milestone is a rare and fragrant moment as fleeting as a night blooming cirrus.

Observing the silent march of our independent lives, I was determined to bring us together for the simple purpose of celebrating our connection to one another.  The storms of the previous two years had not left us untouched and had formed new fissures of uncertainty across our paths.  Fear is a funny thing.  It seems when you need people the most, you often choose to isolate yourself – choosing to follow your own best thinking which often excludes those that know you best. While your partner or spouse may be there for you, no one knows you like your brother.

I became obsessed with getting my brothers together.  What better place for us to gather than among the red rocks of Sedona?  Perhaps this special place that was so symbolic of our childhood and spiritual rebirth could reconnect us to the powerful mythology of our past.  It had been over 30 years since we had communed in that sleepy community of hippies, artists and restless souls in search of some great intangible.

I sent out an earnest invitation reminding each brother that hospital beds and church pews were not appropriate locales for reunions. I challenged everyone to retrace one last time those same ribbons of highway to the crimson rock sanctuary of our grandfather. I was nervous that the memories of those few summers had been swept by life’s flash floods leaving only rock strewn gulches of empty space in their wake.  Gratefully, everyone accepted.

As the long gray line of boys arrived, I was pleased to find us falling comfortably into old stories, gently dredging the sediment of our past and current lives. Our birth order remained forever established but had clearly molded from a line to a circle. With the addition of our own children and partners, the group had swelled to thirteen.  Those outside the inner sanctum of boys could only watch in amusement as our sarcasm, hyperbole and humor rekindled a thousand stories. To their chagrin, neither my father nor our mother were able to attend to defend themselves from our relentless revisionist barrage of warm hearted lampoons.

Our time together dissolved too quickly under warm, wind swept days and cool mountain evenings.  On the last night, a sunset burned tangerine pink illuminating the great citadels of iron and limestone to the east. We paused and said nothing as if we all understood how brief our time together would be. We were ten years old again – laughing and recklessly hurtling through life like dust devils whipped up by a sudden burst of canyon wind.  The energy from forty summers past returned to radiate from somewhere among those great iron, lime and sandstone monuments.

On my final day, I looked back one last time across the great canyon lands and was warmed by a new memory and by the thought of our own shadows that would now forever dance among the mysterious Kachina who dart unseen across this mythic landscape. I turned, not wanting to say goodbye, rolling on to stretch of canyon highway that would lift me over a mountain pass and gently descend into suburban Phoenix.  As we narrowed between two monoliths called Cathedral and Bell Rock, I noticed a warning sign, “Watch for Falling Rock.”

At that same moment, perhaps on a dusty blood red road, the silhouette of an old man and dog can almost be seen disappearing into the adjacent National forest.  He comes here every day to walk his dog at twilight – and on this night, he is pleased because his grandsons have returned one last time to honor him – – simply by the act of never forgetting.