LOCAL VIEW –Empire’s Refuse–

If you are going to rule an empire you had better be prepared to orphan your children. You are simply going to be too busy at work, too busy traveling, too busy burning the midnight oil. For others is the quaint life of a villager, the wholesome connections of family and community, this thing called “roots”. You are different. You are “going places”, and that snips your roots.

This phenomenon is well known by those who have parents who had careers in the military. Friendships were brief, due to constant transfers.  Even if the parent “got out” of the military after “only” twenty years, there was a sort of scar that came along with the pension. However this is the status quo; one does not join the military without knowing sacrifice is involved. True, some only are aware of physical scars from the battlefield, and are naive about the scars of homelessness, at first, but soon they get the advice of those who have had to endure the homelessness longer, and accept the loss as a price they pay for the security of a pension.

In like manner those who sign up to work for a business corporation accept lives where “promotion” often means a new home in a new city. People accept the fact sacrifice is involved to “get ahead”. It goes with the territory. However sometimes a small voice asks them, “Are your own children worth sacrificing?” Sometimes the small voice is not their conscience, but the child itself.

I have noticed this often, reading the biographies of people who dared to be great. In the lives of famous leaders and Hollywood stars and billionaires is the sad refuse of disgruntled offspring. Churchill had a daughter who committed suicide. To be great and a hero is not without a price that can cut to the core of your heart.

Personally, if I have a shred of greatness, it is because I have chosen the opposite. Likely it is because my father was a great surgeon, and was busy at the hospital, and I missed him terribly. Therefore, when faced with a choice of making big money by ditching my family to work in Kuwait, or making peanuts by working in my quaint village, I chose to stay home.  I chose “the wholesome connections of family and community, this thing called ‘roots’ “.

I think it was the right choice, but it had a humorous outcome. I now run a Childcare that promotes the values of an old-fashioned farm, where both the mother and father worked at home. But my customers are young couples who have no “roots”. Believe it or not, some young mothers don’t even entertain the possibility of a mother staying at home with their children. When my wife asks a young mother, weeping about leaving her child with strangers (even though we are nice strangers), “Did you ever consider staying home?” the young mothers look astounded. They never even considered it.

The humor lies in the fact we sometimes try to talk our customers out of buying our services. We ask them to simply add up the costs of Childcare, a second car, insurance for that car, gasoline for that car, clothes for a job, and compare that cost to the money made. Is the working wife worth the sacrifice involved?

Often, even though financial loss is involved, it is “worth it” in terms of the mental health of the mother. To  stay at home would involve being ditched all day by her husband, who would have all the rewards of the workplace society, and then to have him come home wanting to sag in an armchair and stay home, when she has been in solitary confinement with a rugrat all day, and simply wants escape. Such living is not conducive to a happy marriage.

In any case, the result is that I get small children plunked in my arms, as the mother beats a hasty retreat. And one thing then becomes quite clear. The little child resents the change. I can coo and soothe all I want, the little one basically tells me to go get stuffed. Their eyes regard me with all the affection of a spitting cat.

In some ways it hurts my feelings. After all, I’m not a bad guy. I am adept at cheering up such miserable children. Eventually they are seduced by my sheer kindness into accepting me as a sort of foster parent. On somewhat embarrassing occasions they refer to me as “Dad”, or, on a few even more embarrassing occasions, “Mom.” Then the Mom or Dad show signs of jealousy, when they arrive to pick up their child after sacrificing more than eight hours away, and see the little one walking hand in hand with me, and giving me a big hug before departing. And this makes me feel guilty. What is worst is that many children save up some particular despair for their Dad, or especially their Mom, and after eight hours happy and healthy, dump a complete melt-down onto their parent, rather than acting glad to see them.

Obviously the situation is unnatural, and is due to people sacrificing their children for something they see as “greatness”. Oddly, it is not famous leaders and Hollywood stars involved, but ordinary folk. How far our world has fallen!

This brings me back to when Britain had a great empire. Believe it or not, it was in my own lifetime, and I got to see a hint of its glory. One aspect of its glory involved what they called a “Public School” (and the USA calls a “Private School”.) Busy parents, often far away in “the colonies” (India or Singapore, Africa or the Caribbean) had their children brought up by surrogates, just the same way I bring up other people’s children as a surrogate. The children tended to be older, but the teachers  faced the same wrath I face.

In my own case the situation arose when I was a senior in highschool, at the young age of sixteen,  and my stepfather, who taught at Harvard, was well aware of the influence Timothy Leary and LSD was having on local youth. He was worried about what a burned-out hippy I was heading towards becoming, and (I think) decided I might be better off away from college, than I’d be going to college. He suggested a “post-graduate” year might be helpful to me, as I was so young. He asked me, showing me this picture, “Would you like to spend a post-graduate year at this school in Scotland?”

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I likely spoke some hip gibberish like, “Far out! Dynamite and out of sight! That place looks groovy, man.” I also likely breathed a big sigh of relief, because I found the entire business of “applying to college” was “a hassle, man. A real bummer.”

I had no idea what I was in for. The school had no interest in “spontaneous improvisation” or in “being mellow”.  They believed in this horrid thing called “discipline”.

The above photograph is from the summer, when the days were twenty hours long,  In December the days were around six hours long . I could not hitchhike home, because the Atlantic Ocean was in the way. There was no place to buy drugs, and I went through a withdrawal without even knowing why I was acting so weird.

The experience likely saved my life. I’d like to write about it, but one thing always stops me. It is this: In order to write about what I went through I’d have to describe a terrible ingratitude.  I, and many of the other boys, saw the teachers (who I hated to call “masters”, though they demanded it), as the “bad guys”. In actual fact they saved my life, but in order to accurately describe how they did so would involve portraying them in an unflattering manner. They were the “conservatives”, and we boys were the “counter-culture”.

I had a friend at that school who (oddly, it seemed to me), was far more appreciative of the clammy castle we found ourselves plunked into. He was from a military family, and was far more used to being transferred hither and yon, in a state of perpetual homelessness. The castle was just one more place, and he appreciated how unique it was, compared to other places.

I was quite different. I knew what “the wholesome connections of family and community, this thing called ‘roots’ ” was, and was angry at my parents for ruining it with divorce, and especially angry at my stepfather for uprooting me and plunking me in a remote castle in the far northeast of Scotland, tricking me by never explaining the discipline such a school involved. It was like I thought I was going on a picnic and discovered I’d joined the Marines.  A lot of the other boys at the school were equally indignant about being uprooted, and equally irreverent towards authority figures. Therefore I cannot tell the tale of Dunrobin School, in Thurso, Scotland, without sounding ungrateful towards the very men who saved my life.

The tale simply has to involve all the ways we boys found to break the rules, and the scorn we had towards the rules. Meanwhile these same rules turned me from a burned out speed-freak of seventeen, weighing 148 pounds, to a hale youth of eighteen weighing 182 pounds. I went from a know-it-all who knew little and thought “Shakespeare is for sissies and snobs” to a youth with a thirst for great writing who passed his English “A-level” in only two terms, and passed his Economics “A-level” as well. It is incredible how much they improved the raw youth they were given, but I didn’t have a clue they were doing what they were doing, and saw them as “oppressive”.

Now, as an old man looking back, I feel ashamed. Perhaps it is because I now know, through running my Childcare, how utterly exhausting it can be to be soundly cursed by youth for treating them well. Recently, when the fire department visited our Childcare to educate little ones about how to behave if ever faced with the reality of a fire, one little chap found the subject utterly horrifying, and wailed on and on, and utterly exhausted me. Someone took a picture that is a little embarrassing, for it shows me understanding that caring for the young isn’t all peaches and cream, and can exhaust you.

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Though the teachers at Dunrobin were younger than I now am, I think at times I must have exhausted them as much. It’s especially embarrassing because I was not two years old. I was seventeen, and should have known better. I didn’t. I treated them like crap, just as the two year old treated me like crap, without the respect I deserve. (Perhaps, as they say, “What goes around comes around.”) Also I could outrun my teachers. A two year old can’t outrun me. I could occasionally even out-think teachers. (So can a two year old.)

This is not to say the indignation of the two year old is not justified. Why is he being exposed to the brutal reality of burning homes, when he could be at home with his mother in a house where the fire stayed in its proper place, on the hearth?

In like manner, my indignation, as a seventeen year old, likely had its justifications. However grim reality steps in, and places parents into circumstances where the best they can do is hand their own flesh and blood off to complete strangers. My stepfather actually made a wise choice, handing me off to Dunrobin. It saved my life, (though I will confess I have never been so close to committing suicide).  (I’ll tell that tale in chapter ten.)

In any case, among the boys at Dunrobin, few appreciated how lucky they were. If I am to tell the tale truthfully I must be honest about the resentment. There is a very beautiful irreverence the boys had towards limitations placed upon their freedom, and the ways they found around discipline are hilarious and brimming with joy. In a sense they restore your faith in the ability of joy to overcome a Gestapo.

However to call the very teachers who saved my life a “Gestapo” is the height of ingratitude.

That is why it is so difficult to write the story of Dunrobin. It has been something I planned to do for years, but I keep putting it off.

I suppose, as a lover of freedom, it is hard to admit freedom isn’t free,  discipline is necessary, a river without banks goes nowhere and becomes a swamp. But perhaps I’ve thought long and hard enough about the subject to be able to describe both the joyous student’s disrespect for discipline, and the less joyous insistence upon discipline, on the part of the teachers.

I just want it clear how good discipline was for me, though I loathed it. I want the few remaining teachers left alive to know I still love freedom, but am grateful for their discipline.

Hopefully this post will be continued, with tales from my youth. I will end this “introduction” with the simple fact Dunrobin looked a lot different from the picture my stepfather had shown me, when I saw it first hand, as I walked down to the front door, from the train station, back in September, 1970.

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