A Left Turn from the Right Lane… And Getting Hit with a Baseball Bat

My Great Grandfather George Marshall would probably have objected to my traveling off to Africa in the Peace Corps.

I didn’t start off as a likely candidate for the Peace Corps. My family had conservative values that suggested other priorities. Our Republican roots dated back to the foundation of the Party. My Great Grandfather, George Jr., claimed in his 1920 biography that every Marshall born since the Civil War had been Republican. His big issue in the 20s was immigration. Sound familiar? Too many Italians were crossing our borders and staying. A bit ironic, perhaps.

The Marshalls were still Republican when I came on the scene in 1943. My father’s credentials were tainted. He belonged to a union. But he still voted Republican. Abe Lincoln had been a family lawyer to distant cousins and Pop believed that the worst thing that had ever happened to America was Franklin Roosevelt. 

How dedicated was I to the cause? Let me put it this way: My first political debate on behalf of the Grand Old Party put me in the hospital. 

I was in the 4th grade at the time. My mom sent me off to school proudly wearing an “I Like Ike” button. It was the 1952 Presidential election and Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson. Another boy’s parents were equally dedicated to Stevenson. He was wearing an Adlai button. The two of us ended up in the boy’s restroom in a heated debate. I learned an important political lesson: Never argue politics with someone carrying a baseball bat. Lacking political sophistication, our discussion had quickly deteriorated into name-calling, the heart and soul of most political campaigns. I had a larger vocabulary of four letter words and was winning when the Stevenson devotee wound up and hit me across the thigh with his baseball bat. I ended up in the hospital with a knot on my leg the size of a softball. Like most martyrs, my devotion to the cause was only strengthened.

I graduated from high school Republican to the core and envisioned a future of wealth and power. It was not the type of future that would accommodate a detour to Africa and the Peace Corps. Had I been old enough to vote in 1960, I would have voted for Richard Nixon. He was running against Jack Kennedy, the founder of the Peace Corps.

I was about to make a left turn from the right lane, however. Old values would clash with new. College was looming. I spent my first two years at Sierra, a community college nestled in the rolling foothills east of Sacramento. I then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, the flashpoint of worldwide student unrest in the 60s. Sierra would liberalize my view of the world; Berkeley radicalized it. 

The process of liberalization started during the first hour on my first day at Sierra. The faculty had arranged for a speaker to kick off the school’s Howdy Day welcome. Dr. No Yong Park, a Chinese man with a Harvard education, stood up in front of a sea of white faces and smiled like he had access to secrets we didn’t. 

“You think I look funny?” our speaker asked with a grin.  His question was greeted by nervous laughter. As naive as we were, we still knew enough to be made uncomfortable by such a question. 

“Well, I think you look funny,” he went on to much more laughter, “and there are a lot more of me who think you look funny than there are of you who think I look funny.” 

It jolted my perspective. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the South in the early 60s and I was sympathetic with its objectives. Providing people with equal rights regardless of race, sex, religion or other arbitrary factors seemed like the right thing to do. But I had never perceived of myself as being a minority. Instead, I belonged to an exclusive club. In 1961 white males dominated the US and the US dominated the world. It was easy to assume that this was how things should be. The fact that it might be otherwise put a new spin on the issue. What if I, or my children, ended up in a situation where we were in the minority and lacked power? I added enlightened self-interest to my list of reasons for supporting civil and human rights.

More shocks were coming at Sierra. My “rock that was Peter” ended up on an active fault zone; I met an environmentalist before the word was created; and the Cuban missile crisis with its threat of nuclear annihilation forced me to rethink my views on international relations. But these are all subjects for next Wednesday.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: It’s back to the beautiful Oregon Coast to visit another state park: Harris Beach near Brookings. I’ve been going through the photos since we got home a week ago. There’s enough material for five posts! I’ll start with an introduction to the park.

Monday’s Blog-a-Book… Another tale from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : Held at gunpoint at Lake Tahoe, I go into training for both Berkeley and the Peace Corps!

19 thoughts on “A Left Turn from the Right Lane… And Getting Hit with a Baseball Bat

  1. I liked a little girl in our 1952 neighborhood very much. Her name was Sally Stevenson but our family was Republican. We didn’t talk politics. 😊
    The Republican party was more inclusive then. My father was honored by the NAACP in 1940, long before it was sheik for white people to be part of the movement. He was a professional union organizer in Pittsburgh then completely controlled by Democrats. When we moved to Buffalo, then completely controlled by Republicans, he helped found the Town Party – which didn’t have much more chance than the Democrats. I don’t think he liked the corruption that came with one party dominance. He passed in 1953, so I have no idea where he would have come down on the issues of the 60s except civil rights.

    • Big tent Republicanism, Ray, which I am 100% for. Our nation needs two strong parties, and I still have enough conservative values to appreciated the need for ongoing discussion and compromise. Good for your dad. He sounds like a man I could have been friends with. Sorry he passed so soon. That must have been tough. –Curt

    • I was fortunate to have a number of good mentors along the way, and my dad, too, brought his own wisdom to the table. He was a good man. But ultimately, I made up my own mine. A couple of thousand non-fiction books I’m my library helped with the process. Independent reading and lifelong learning have been my best teachers, G.

  2. Love your history. I grew up with a Democratic father and a Republican mother. The Democratic roots were stronger for me (not my sisters). I am the oldest child and Scoop Jackson attended my parents’ wedding.

    • Now there’s a name from the past. Scoop Jackson was a good man, strong on environmental issues and human rights. No wonder you developed Democratic leanings.
      On the stories; Thanks Peggy. I’m having fun with them. –Curt

  3. “I had a larger vocabulary of four letter words and was winning”
    I can only imagaine your mom sending you off with the I like Ike button and 4th grade no less….. yikes.. Well, you did a complete about face no doubt rattling bones in the grave of your Great Grandfather (great picture).
    Berkely and the Peace Corps will do that to you.
    Now look at you.. a burner dem 🤣🤣🤣💖💖💖👏👏👏🤗😘

    • I suspect Great Grandfather George might be rattling bones, but I’m not sure. He raised a very unique set of kids… 🙂
      A disadvantage of learning all of those four letter words so young is that they get lodged in your brain and come out on occasion, as poor Peggy could tell you. Grin.
      Actually, Sierra planted the seeds. They grew up at Berkeley and in the Peace Corps. As for Burning Man… a logical extension. 🙂 –Curt

  4. Love the title and the personal background story. I’ve careened all over the road through the years, but quite a while ago, I settled pretty comfortably on the centerline. Actually, that’s not quite true as I probably veer left on most issues, but I feel strongly about considering opposing positions and adjusting as necessary. “Truth and compassion,” from another comment, might just sum it up for me, too.

    • I am far more on the moderate side of the equation than I am on the radical, Lexi. It’s too easy to end up on the “my way or the highway” perspective if one drops too far into the left or right-wing way of thinking. Viewed from the far right, I would be regarded as a dangerous radical, from the far left with suspicion. Having said that, I have a great deal of respect for conservatives like George Will and liberals like Elizabeth Warren. Both have important perspectives for our society. Truth and compassion seem like a good creed to me. –Curt

  5. Loved reading about your background and especially your experience listening to Dr. No Yong Park. Moments such as this, of self discovery, are so important to seeing the bigger picture of the world and understanding ourselves within it, which often creates more compassion and awareness. Thanks for sharing this story, Curt.

    • Thanks, Kelly. Appreciated. Life has ever so many lessons to teach us. The challenge is in being open listening, and taking the lessons to heart. I have been fortunate to have good teachers, mentors, experiences and books. 🙂

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