A Time to Lead
For Duty, Honor and Country
By Wesley K. Clark, Tom Carhart
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Wesley K. Clark
All rights reserved.
STRENGTH FROM ADVERSITY 1944–1958
My mother, Veneta, was my best friend when I was little, and everyone said she was beautiful. She could whistle, too, so all the other boys in the neighborhood were a little jealous. Her father was Robert Stetson Updegraff, born in 1878 to a family of Dutchmen who had come over with William Penn. His father and grandfather had worked timber across Ohio and Missouri, but his mother died when he was a boy, and he left home early, escaping an angry stepmother. When he ran away, he had been through only a few years of schooling. But he followed his father's line of work, which meant the mills and forests of south Arkansas.
Veneta's mother was a Reynolds, and she had blood ties through them to the Upshaws and Longs of Georgia. Thomas Wesley Reynolds, my great-grandfather, was the engineer who claimed to have built the first bridge over the Arkansas River at Dardanelle, some eighty miles upstream from Little Rock. But it was said that the Reynoldses lost their money in the depression of 1893, and my grandmother was pulled out of private school in the third grade.
Robert Stetson Updegraff eventually worked his way up to become a sawyer, a position of some authority in a sawmill, and he married my grandmother, Elsie Reynolds, when she was sixteen. My mother was born in the small village of Ava, Arkansas, on the eleventh of November 1906, the second of five children.
The Updegraff family never had much. They didn't own a home or even a car. Granddad's reading ability was quite limited, and he silently moved his lips as he traced the line across the page with his finger below the print. But he did have the gift of being mechanically inclined, and he was a hard worker. And he and Grandmother made sure their children finished high school.
Mom graduated from Monticello High School, a hundred miles south of Little Rock, in 1923. Monticello was a county seat, and a number of wealthy families lived there in beautiful homes. Their daughters often went to finishing schools in the East, spent summers in Europe, and, if they chose, went on to college. The boys from Monticello High whose families could afford it went to the University of Arkansas or Tulane or Vanderbilt or to fine colleges on the East Coast. Mom married a young man from the wealthy Bogard family, and they settled in Little Rock. But the marriage quickly failed, and my mother soon found herself alone and adrift in Little Rock. She was young, divorced, and almost penniless. But she was not without spirit.
Like many other young women of her time, she decided to move to a big city where a capable young woman could get a job based on talent rather than family connections. She decided on Chicago, and she quickly found a job there as a secretary in a bank, rooming with her friend Lois in an apartment hotel on the south side of Chicago. She met a handsome man, a lawyer who worked as assistant corporation counsel for the city of Chicago, and they fell in love. Eventually, though they were of different faiths and he was almost ten years older, they were wed. They wanted children, but after seven years of marriage, they had pretty much given up on that dream. Then, as mom used to joke, she thought she had a tumor, but it was me.
In December 1948, I was not quite four years old, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night, then walking around in the apartment. There were a lot of adults standing around there talking, but I didn't know what was going on. I wanted to go into my parents' bedroom, but the adults wouldn't let me. Just a few hours earlier, my daddy had laid down on the blue and green sofa and pulled me up alongside him to read to me. Now something was wrong.
My father was a big man, and he was warm and kind to me. I used to ride in his lap as he drove the car through the park, and he often bought me a present when we went out together. He took me out with him every Saturday morning to visit his friends, and he even took me to see the White Sox play baseball in Comiskey Park. Now I wanted to know why everyone was in our home in the middle of the night, why Mom was so upset, and why I couldn't go into the bedroom and see my daddy. I was looking up at them, but they were holding me back and trying to distract me.
I wasn't taken to the funeral. I later learned that when Benjamin Kanne died of a heart attack at age fifty-one, he left his good name, a diamond ring, a 1940 Buick, and about four hundred dollars in cash. But that was about it. There was no insurance, no trusts, and no other property. My dad had died and left my mom and me pretty much alone. At the age of forty-two, my mom was a widow with a four-year-old son to support. She got back her old job as a secretary in the bank, and I was shuttled off to a nursery school for eight hours a day. I'd never been around many kids, and now there were kids everywhere, and they didn't seem to mind the food or the discipline or to miss their homes, like I did.
After a few weeks, Mom realized this wasn't working, but she never lost hope. Hope and spirit, that's what I remember about her. She gave up her job in the Chicago bank, packed our clothes into the Buick my father had left us, and drove down through Illinois, across Missouri, and back to Little Rock, her home. When we arrived, we moved in with her parents in a little rental house on West Thirteenth Street.
Mom had kept her old resourcefulness. She could type and take dictation, so she soon got a job as secretary in the Commercial National Bank. She lied a little about her age to get the job, telling them she was just forty, and they paid her about twenty-five dollars a week.
I was now a Yankee living in Dixie, and I had a strange name—Kanne—and no father. Granddad was still working off and on at age seventy-one, still looking for saws to sharpen and adjust at Mr. Dierks's lumber mills. Grandmother took care of me, but there were other grandchildren, too.
After a long summer, using my father's eligibility for a loan under the Veteran's Administration, Mom arranged to buy a house, a nice two-bedroom home on North Valentine Street in the Pulaski Heights area. It rained hard that October day we moved in, and I remember standing on the front porch and watching as someone brought a pot of coffee over for us.
The neighborhood was filled with kids, and I found playmates in nearly every house. But I missed my father. Other kids talked about fishing with their dads, or going to ball games, or even just playing catch. But I didn't have a father to take me fishing, or to baseball games, or anything else normal dads did. Mom was one of the only working mothers around, and because of that she didn't socialize much in the neighborhood.
We didn't have much money, although she never mentioned it. And there were other differences that I felt every day. The other kids all thought I spoke strangely, and I had picked up a speech defect that further marked me as being "different." Even as I played and had fun, and ran with my friends through their yards and homes, I felt a strong urge to really belong.
But through all the confusion and occasional loneliness, my mom was my friend. She worked hard to provide for us, and she made do. During the first year or so we were in Arkansas, when it was almost time for her to come home from work I would go up the hill to Kavanaugh Boulevard and wait for her at the bus stop.
I especially remember that, when I was four or five, I took a quarter from her purse, and she noticed it was gone right away. In 1949, that was probably her lunch money, and she asked me if I had taken it. I admitted that I had, and she told me to put it back and to never again take anything that didn't belong to me. I was so ashamed. She never spanked me, and I never tried to steal anything again.
The old Buick wasn't doing too well. So my mother saved her money, and in September 1950 she bought a new car for $600, a two-door maroon-colored Dodge. It was the year-end stripped-down model, with no radio and a standard three-on- the-column transmission, but we were proud of it.
It was about that time that Granddad got hit in the eye by a splinter as he was fixing saws for Mr. Dierks at the lumber mill. He lost the eye, and we visited him in the hospital, where they had put in a new glass eyeball. But after he came home, he gradually slipped into the unhappy state of being old, poor, and out of work, and he no longer seemed to get out much.
There was no kindergarten at the time, and when I was five, I started first grade at Pulaski Heights Elementary School. My mother took me to school that first day for registration, and when they asked after my father, she said, "He's deceased." I knew what she meant, and I choked up. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Tolifero, took a broad view of her responsibilities, and we were expected to learn and to participate in class. And she made sure we knew about the world. This was during the first year of the Korean War, and there was a lot of concern about the action over there. When General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was relieved of his command and later addressed the U.S. Congress, we heard it live on radio in our classroom. His words were spooky and confusing, as he concluded, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away." I wasn't sure what that meant, but the reference to death I clearly understood, and it was a formulation that nagged at me. It seemed a little frightening at the time.
Mom always made sure my clothes were clean and neat, but I was a lot of trouble. My feet were too wide, and they were flat, and so I had to have special shoes. They were the big, clunky kind that you bought at special stores, the places where you put your foot under a fluoroscope that showed the bones inside.
Then there was my speech defect. I knew I couldn't say, "Stop, Spot" or "Run, Randy, run," and I called my neighborhood friend "Wibby Ann" instead of "Libby Ann." I guess people thought my speech defect would go away by itself, but it didn't. In the second grade I was taken once or twice a week downtown to the old MacArthur house on Ninth Street, which had been converted for Special Education. There, a nice teacher had us read as she listened closely. Then she taught us how to form our lips, and we got prizes if we pronounced words correctly. And sure enough, after a few months, my speech defect was corrected.
Looking back on that later, I realized that I was a kid with special needs, who was able to get the appropriate special education that made things right for me. Because I benefited from it personally, I have always been a strong supporter of this particular special assistance many of our youngsters receive from our public school system.
The kids in the neighborhood became lifelong friends, but as we played together, I really missed having a father. I missed some of the activities other kids had with their dads, and there were tears at night. But it was the kid talk that really hurt. Kids in the neighborhood would talk and brag: "My dad did this ..." "Well, my dad, he can ..." And then, the inevitable "Well, my dad could beat up your dad." My mother would occasionally go out with a man at night, and I later would often ask, "Is he going to be my dad?" But nothing ever seemed to come of it.
Then one night, when I was seven, my mom let me fall asleep in her bed because she was going out. I awoke from a dream in which I was holding a big hunting knife. Then I looked and in my left hand was the most beautiful hunting knife I'd ever seen. It was in a scabbard, with a long blade and a beautiful curved brown-and-white bone handle. And Mom introduced me to the man she'd been out with, who'd brought her back to the house and put the knife in my hand.
"Honey, this is Vic. Thank him for giving you the knife."
Gradually, Victor Clark grew into an important force in my life. He was a banker, in his early fifties, and he drove a big Mercury. He would take us both to the drive-in movies, and later on he taught me how to hold and shoot a pistol. He even took me fishing. He taught me how to bait a hook with minnows and worms, and how to cast a line. He had a tackle box filled with the most amazing lures: Lazy Ikes, road runners, jitterbugs, incredible rubber frogs with hooks sticking out of them, and popping bugs with whiskers and feathers.
Best of all, he told wonderful stories: how his uncle George had fought a mountain lion in her den, and how he'd caught big Appaloosa catfish weighing up to a hundred pounds with his bare hands. He also told me how, when he was young, he had played football and basketball, had boxed, and had been very good at swimming, diving and gymnastics. He was five feet nine, and he told me, "Kid, I've got arms like a gorilla and hands like meat hooks."
And these weren't made-up stories, either. He had played semipro basketball and could palm a ball, dribble it low and fast with either hand, and do what I now know was a running dunk. He could walk around the room on his hands, swim like a fish, and sprint really fast. He was like a dream come true as a father. Would he be my father, I wondered?
"Can I call you Dad?" I asked one day. His eyes filled with tears as he said yes.
There were issues. He was married, but was estranged from his wife and son in Texas. His job in Arkansas called for him to travel, and socialize, and win deposits from Arkansas banks for his big bank in Dallas. And he drank. A lot. Jim Beam was always around, on the fishing trips and in his apartment and wherever we went.
And there were emotional scenes, like when he told Mom that his wife, Mary, wouldn't give him a divorce, something that both enraged and frustrated him. He and my mom seemed to argue a lot, but they always made up. He bought me model airplanes, and he took me outdoors with him. He was good to me, and I loved him.
In 1953, he entered a sanatorium in Missouri to dry out for a few months. Then he moved back to his parents' farm in Berryville and did manual labor there for another few months.
In the fall of 1954, he finally got his divorce. He'd long given up his big banking job, but at least the Jim Beam was gone. He married my mother in November, in Greenville, Mississippi, and he moved into our home. Grandmother and Granddad moved down to Monroe, Louisiana, to be with Mom's little brother, my uncle Ray. And at long last I had a father. I soon began to call myself Wesley Clark.
But there were still problems. Dad always seemed to be upset, and it seemed that he didn't, or wouldn't, eat much. He had a job representing Investors Diversified Services, one of the first mutual funds. He drove all over the state trying to sell funds, but unfortunately, he just couldn't do that. He knew too many people, it seems, and they remembered him from when he was a heavy drinker. Even his old friends wouldn't buy from him.
Mom and Dad had no social life, and very little money. Dad wanted to go to northwest Arkansas, where he didn't have a reputation, and start all over. Dad described a place in the country where I could have a horse, and I was all for it. There would be fishing and hunting every day, just like the way he'd grown up. I was ten or eleven, and I got pretty excited about it. But Mom didn't trust his ability to earn a living, and she refused to move. She wouldn't give up her job and she wouldn't give up my education. There was a lot of Busch Bavarian beer drunk, and a lot of shouting and crying. Dad even slept in his car for a few nights. But we didn't move.
The truth was, Mom had gotten pretty invested in my education. Year after year, she'd encouraged me to study hard, and she made sure my A's were rewarded. She bragged about my studies to the girls at work, paraded me through the bank, and even clipped out the newspaper columns listing me on the honor roll. Mom was what in the South we call "sweet" or "nice," but she also knew her own mind. I came to understand that though she had to juggle everything, my welfare was going to remain the top priority. She didn't train me, or coach me, or even try to teach me skills. She just loved me, and I felt it very deeply.
What I really wanted to play was basketball. Dad put up a hoop for me above the garage door, and I practiced faithfully. Free throws, layups, dribbling and the two-handed jump shot. I was always after Dad to teach me, practice with me, play with me. I could beat some of the kids at H.O.R.S.E., and I could dribble, but I wasn't a star. And one day, when I was eleven or twelve, Dad broke the hard news to me: "Kid, you're never going to be a great basketball player. You just don't have what it takes. You need to find a sport you can be good at, something you like, like swimming."
And so the Clark family was surviving in Little Rock, Arkansas. A working Mom, a troubled Dad, a new marriage, an anxious child—love, hope, dreams, difficulties—that was the Clark family in 1957, struggling to make our way. There are a lot of families like this across America, certainly even more today than when I was growing up. If there's a father at home to set an example, that's good, but it still takes strong mothers to make things work. This is especially the case with single mothers, whose numbers among us have grown dramatically over the past few decades. Having grown up the son of a loving single mom, I can tell you, women in her situation, from my own personal experience, just how crucially important you are in the lives of your children. The bonds of love that build up between a single mother and her child can become the bark on the tossing sea of life that will carry those young souls safely to a future port of success and happiness. And your high expectations matter enormously to your youngsters; they are a force that can have a truly life-changing effect on them. Trust me—I was there, and I know. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Time to Lead by Wesley K. Clark, Tom Carhart. Copyright © 2007 Wesley K. Clark. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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