Read an Excerpt
HOW HIGH IS UP?
The Tale of a Restless Spirit
By RICHARD S. GUNTHER
Emerald Book Company
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One AN AMERICAN LIFE
There are many who go through the years without changing, but they are the ones who huddle on a chronological treadmill searching for an illusionary security. They never live. Life is an adventure of passion, risk, danger, laughter, beauty, love ... a burning curiosity to go with the action to see what it is all about, to search for a pattern of meaning, to burn one's bridges because you're never going to go back anyway, and to live to the end. Terrified by this dramatic vista, most people just exist. -Saul Alinsky
In the first thirty or so years of my life, I was in many ways a typical American male. I believed in the American dream: the wife, the kids, the house with the sprawling backyard, and the latest model car in the garage. And like my peers in the first half of the twentieth century, I didn't spend time reflecting on who I was, what I really wanted out of life, and whether the American dream was going to make me happy. I was working on faulty assumptions.
Like so many couples who are part of what has been dubbed The Greatest Generation, my wife, the former Lois Goldberg, and I married young, shortly after World War II ended and I'd come home from overseas. We'd met when we were in our early teens, because Lois's uncle was my mother's third husband. That ill-fated marriage ended so quickly, after a scant six weeks, that Lois and I hardly shook hands. Our relationship truly began later, when she was eighteen and I was twenty-one, a veteran fresh from the Pacific. We met again at the beach in Santa Monica, California, one day, and looking at her with more grown-up eyes, I thought, Now there's a girl with a terrific figure. (In those days, women had "figures," not "bodies.") More than that, Lois had a radiant smile, and as soon as we began to talk I realized that while I'd been away, she'd developed into a smart young lady who was very aware of what was going on in the world. She was outgoing and confident, lovely to look at, and had many friends, which was an attraction to me. As an only child, I was somewhat of a loner, and I enjoyed spending time with Lois's wide circle of people.
Lois and I were both attending UCLA, so I saw her often, and I grew increasingly fond of her. I thought she was very cute in her matching sweaters, pencil skirts, and bobby socks-and always very graceful. She told me she had loved taking dancing lessons, and that as a girl, she'd walk to and from school balancing books on her head. I could believe it, because she moved beautifully.
Up until this time, I'd had many girlfriends, and some of those relationships were quite serious. They were very nice girls, but Lois was something special. She laughed often and loud, and was a self-confident, joyful person. The other girls faded into the background and Lois and I naturally drifted into being a couple. We had grown up together in the same tightly knit Jewish community of Los Angeles, so we knew a lot of the same people. We also both laughed at the same jokes and shared similar views about politics and current events-for instance, we both admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He'd been a father figure to us throughout our childhoods, and we both felt he had kept the country together during the challenges of the Depression, and that he'd genuinely cared about working people.
Lois and I also shared many of the same interests, from listening to big bands, like Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, to talking about current events, to attending UCLA basketball games in the evenings with our friends. We found that we both laughed at the same New Yorker cartoons and at the absurdity of everyday life-like the time we ordered breakfast in a diner at 7:00 a.m. when we were taking a break from standing in an all-night line to register for classes at UCLA, and I asked for ham and eggs and a chocolate milkshake. Lois still teases me about my love for milkshakes at all hours, even though I really gave them up in my forties, when I realized that eating a huge serving of ice cream is a ridiculously high-calorie way of getting in a little nutrition with your meal.
In the years just after the war, Lois and I were optimistic about the future and approached marriage as merely another ordinary step on the path of life. We didn't wrestle with thoughts about whether we would achieve emotional fulfillment in our relationship, or struggle to imagine how to retain our individual identities within a marriage. We didn't have the psychological awareness to ask such questions. That we would have children together was never even discussed. We weren't aware that there was any other option when a man and a woman love each other. Life was much simpler. When we married, I was twenty-two, Lois was nineteen, and we just took it for granted that we would travel a linear path to a lifetime of happiness.
Neither of us put much thought to exactly what that lifetime of happiness would look like. One of the greatest changes I've witnessed over my eighty-three years is that people today think much more deeply about themselves and their relationships. Contemporary couples are marrying much later and are aware of all the choices before them, and their expectations of what they will get out of marriage and parenting are often very specific. In the 1930s and '40s, when I was a boy and a young man, no one thought about achieving a rewarding level of emotional intimacy in marriage, or how to improve their parenting skills, or how to avoid making the mistakes our parents and grandparents made. We just got married, had babies, and raised them.
Like many of my peers, I'd gone into the Army as a boy, came out a man three years later, and was quite serious about life. We'd experienced war and had our great adventure, and were eager to settle down and get on with life. The popular song lyric, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" definitely did not apply to me. Courtesy of the Army, I had seen more of the wide world than I'd ever dreamed I would. Glowing volcanoes along the coast of New Guinea, Manila, and the battlefields of the Philippine Islands, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the ruins of postwar Japan. But I was satisfied to remain in my personal corner in California.
In fact, getting married was such a natural event in the course of things that we moved in a steady progression from fraternity pin to engagement ring to setting our wedding date-something we did while standing on the steps of Royce Hall at UCLA. I didn't dwell on the great significance of this step in our lives. I loved Lois, we had fun together, and my instincts were all positive, so I took the plunge. We were married on December 27, 1947, in our hometown of Los Angeles.
We didn't put any thought into how to make our wedding a reflection of our individual identities and our identity as a couple. We certainly didn't write our own vows-that simply wasn't done in that era. Like most of my male peers, I left our wedding details up to my fiancée, who in turn left most of the details to her mother. The result was a happy event involving 150 of our close friends and family. What stands out in my memory is an ice sculpture of two lovebirds, which had a place of honor on the buffet table-a touch meant to be romantic, I'm sure, but I found it rather weird. I also remember being in our hotel room on our wedding night and responding to a knock on the door. In poured a crowd of our friends, who teased us and insisted on continuing the party just a little longer before my bride and I kicked them out and we consummated our marriage.
It was definitely a different era.
Although Lois and I had done our share of sexual exploration together, she lived by a strict code of "no sex before marriage," so no matter how eager I was to consummate our relationship, she held her ground and was a virgin on her wedding night when she emerged from the bathroom in a dark blue negligee with a plunging neckline. I'd had sex with girls a few times, but I, too, was woefully inexperienced. While we were comfortable with each other and glad to finally have intercourse, the sex wasn't earth-shattering. In fact, it took a long time before our sex life was anything like we had fantasized. Because there was so little discussion of sex among our friends or in the media, we, like other couples, had to figure things out on our own over time.
Early Married Life
Lois and I easily fell into the middle class American pattern of wife at home, husband at work. Although she'd always been an excellent student, Lois didn't aspire to a career. She enrolled at UCLA to get an education, not to prepare for any particular vocation. It was a time when most middle-class women simply assumed they'd marry someday and tend to a home and children. If they did get a job to make a little money, they would usually quit after they got married, or after they were married and became pregnant.
For Lois, the path was slightly different. She quit school when we got married, after having attended UCLA for two years, and took a job at the local phone company to bring in some money. She enjoyed being a service representative and having the chance to meet people she otherwise might never have met-hard working, good-hearted women who knew they would have to work at non-executive jobs their entire life. Lois is so smart and good with people that I've often told her, "If you'd continued working, you would've ended up being president of AT&T."
But Lois was a homebody at heart. Her mother, who also enjoyed being a homemaker, wasn't particularly inspired to be a creative cook, so when Lois was a teenager, she sometimes took over in the kitchen, trying out new recipes, and discovered she had a flair for cooking. And since she didn't enjoy a messy house, she didn't mind cleaning. She loved homemaking, was good at it, and we both looked forward to the day when we could afford the luxury of living on one salary and she could quit her job.
In 1948, I graduated from UCLA with honors and a degree in business administration and began to work for a real estate developer, who paid me $50 a month supplemented by the GI bill's on the job training program. Lois earned a little more than that at the telephone company, and I was keeping the books for my mother's apartment building in return for rent. We didn't argue about money because we both were in complete agreement that someday we wanted to invest in my business and were confident that my hard work and vision would pay off. We would sit down at the kitchen table together and work out our budget, figuring out just how much we would spend on everything from milk to an occasional movie to Lois's haircuts. For the first five years of our marriage, Lois never bought a new dress or sweater. We may have been influenced by a Depression-era cautiousness about spending that seeped into the 1940s. Advertising wasn't as pervasive as it is now, plus it was unusual to buy anything but a car or house on credit, so we weren't tempted to splurge. For many young couples, I imagine that being continually bombarded by messages of deprivation, reminded of what they don't have and might enjoy, and encouraged to get into debt to obtain what they want immediately, it's harder to keep a commitment to being frugal. But Lois and I were steadfast in our commitment to minding a budget and were happy living within our means.
I had $2,000 when the war ended and Lois had an equal amount, so she gave notice to the phone company and began life as a full-time homemaker. I left my job to start my own housing development company, using our accumulated savings, plus some money from my mother, for capital. As soon as any profits came in, we took just enough to live on and poured the rest into ever-larger development projects.
Each of us had our own little empire to run-Lois's on the domestic end, mine on the business frontier-yet we were a team, and we communicated well with each other. We didn't disagree about much. On the surface, we got along great, but this was mostly because I was afraid to openly express myself and she was quick to accept my behavior without calling me on my sulking or grumbling. We didn't think to question how we were interacting and would have described ourselves as very happily married.
Lois definitely was less of a risk taker than I was, and the fact that I never had a salary as a young entrepreneur made her nervous. But she did her best to trust that I would be able to keep us afloat and that our investments would eventually pay off. With the blindness of youth, I never had the slightest doubt that I'd be successful. I recognized we were living in one of the most desirable areas in the United States. With the influx of immigrants and returning GIs, and low-interest loans readily available, we were in the position to cash in on a pending housing boom of historic proportions.
The GI bill's scope, providing money for education, housing, and job training for millions of men and women returning from the war, mirrored in scale the ambitious Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe. Of course, I was happy to benefit from the GI bill myself, but I also felt tremendous pride in my country and its willingness to invest in its own people and to show the world that Americans care about others. The mood of the country was one of great optimism, and being young, with so many excellent opportunities in front of me, I was caught up in it.
On a personal level, I felt I was skilled, talented, and hard working. I had the ability to manage details and could also see the big picture of a major project-all of which were crucial if I wanted to do well in my chosen career. Also, I was never afraid to take intelligent, calculated risks, and I knew that was important if I was going to be a big winner. With all this in my favor, I believed it was extremely likely that Lois and my financial gambles would pay off, and we would ride the wave to a big success, and I was ready and eager to roll.
Despite my desire to be frugal, I still wanted us to enjoy ourselves, and occasionally we indulged in a mini-vacation. I remember once when we spent a weekend with close friends who were on their honeymoon, and the hotel we stopped at was so crowded that we all had to share a single bedroom. On a lark, the four of us went to a local illegal casino, where the minimum bet at the craps table was $5, which was a lot of money in those days. I liked (and still like) to gamble and wanted to have a good time, so I threw the dice again and again, until I'd lost $25 and we had just $5 left. I told Lois, "You're lucky. You give it a try."
She reluctantly agreed and to my delight, she was soon winning. When she won back the money I'd lost, she gathered up her pocketbook and chips and began to leave the table.
"Wait!" I protested. "Where are you going? Come on, you're on a hot streak!"
Lois's fiscal caution kicked in. "We've had our entertainment for the night," she said firmly. "We're leaving with the money we came in with."
I knew better than to argue! Lois has always been very sure of herself and rarely backs down, something I admire about her, even though it may be frustrating for me at times, and for the sake of family harmony I often have to concede defeat.
Because we were focused on our common goals of living frugally and investing our money back into my real estate construction business, Lois and I rarely went out. Like many of our friends, we couldn't afford a glamorous nightlife, which we didn't particularly miss. On very rare occasions, Lois would don high heels and a fancy dress, I'd put on a suit and tie, and we would go to a local nightclub and laugh at the Borscht Belt humor of comedians like Henny "Take my wife ... please!" Youngman. But mostly we stayed home, getting to know ourselves and each other, dancing to big band music on the radio, and building a life together. We regularly had dinner at Lois's parents house and my mother's house, and one of the highlights of the week was when we'd go to the home of Lois's aunt and uncle on Tuesday nights to gather around the miniscule screen of their TV and watch the zany antics of Milton Berle on The Texaco Star Theater in glorious black and white.
Sometimes, we'd just sit and talk about our friends, our family, what had happened during the day, and what was going on in the news. In the mid-1950s, we worried together about the Red Scare and cheered when we saw pioneering television journalist Edward R. Murrow's powerful report exposing Joseph McCarthy as a bully, which led to the Wisconsin senator's fall from grace. Lois and I shared a strong sense of social justice, and in our hearts, we truly believed in civil rights for all people. When we talked together about any subject, we felt close and connected, and neither of us dominated the conversation.
Excerpted from HOW HIGH IS UP? by RICHARD S. GUNTHER Copyright © 2009 by Dick Gunther. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.