Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shane's Teen Journey Story, Part One - Adversity Prepares Him for Puberty

For some time now I've been interviewing people about their teenage experiences. I write about their accounts in a form I call "teen journey stories." The stories reveal the impact of their teen years on the rest of their lives. Every story is different. I change their names and other superficial details to protect their identities.  In this post I feature Part One of Shane's story.

When I spoke with Shane, it was from across a long conference table in a spacious office in his home overlooking Lake Travis near Austin, Texas. He’s a small, slender man with the build of a long-distance runner. He claims he has no time for exercise and jokes that his energy keeps him fit. Indeed, his body was in constant motion and he didn’t sit down once during my interview. The meeting was hard to arrange, because he’s usually away tending to his many businesses and laying the groundwork for new ones.

As I listened to him talk about his early life, it seemed clear to me that the seeds for his teen journey were planted before he reached puberty. His earliest memories are of the time when his family lived in extreme poverty. In 1948 his father was employed as a tree-topper for a Montana logging operation, and the family lived in a one-room shanty with a dirt floor and an outhouse. They hand-pumped water from a well and used an indoor fire pit for cooking and heating water. Even though Shane was only four years old, he was assigned specific chores. He said the chores were hard for him, but they forced him to think about ways to make them easier.

Shane was the oldest of three boys. The family struggled for many years, but he told me that it never occurred to him that his family was poor. It was just his life, the only life he knew. In the summer, Shane and his younger brothers helped their mother pick grapes to supplement the family income. They were paid only a few pennies for each tray of grapes. Shane said he picked over 200 trays per day, so the pennies added up.

His mother was a major influence. She was a bright, college-educated woman who worked as an elementary school teacher in Bozeman. She later became the school principal. As a parent, she had a warm, nurturing style. Since his father was usually away working, it was his mother who played catch with him, encouraged him to get involved in athletics and take his education seriously. She attended baseball games and scout meetings and expected him to work hard and excel at everything he did. Shane said he never wanted to disappoint his mother.

By contrast, his father was demanding and wouldn’t hesitate to use the belt to keep the kids in line. He didn’t show affection easily. He had done hard things in his life, and he expected his sons to measure up. A product of the Great Depression, he quit school at the age of nine to go to work to help his family. At the age of 14 he lied about his age to enlist in the Army, and he saw combat in both the Pacific and European theaters, including Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he married Shane’s mother, whose German parents had settled on a cattle ranch not far from Bozeman, Montana. When Shane’s family moved to Bozeman, his parents opted to live in town because they didn’t want to work the ranch. Instead, his dad got a job as a welder for the Union Pacific Railroad.

His father wasn’t a typical welder. He was fascinated by the science of it, and he taught himself so much about metallurgy and mechanics that he later opened his own shop. As he learned more about equipment maintenance, he expanded the business to include repairing commercial vehicles and heavy equipment. He created a niche by offering proactive service. His customers paid more to ensure that vehicles didn’t break down while in use. His reputation spread around the state, and eventually he had a fleet of especially equipped maintenance vans that performed maintenance on site.

Shane admired his father’s honesty and fairness and how hard he worked to create a successful business. His father was like the hero in the Horatio Alger novel Shane found in a used book store. It told the story of a boy who saved his money to buy a broken-down truck. He repaired it and used it to haul feed and hay for local farmers. He earned enough money to buy another truck, and eventually he owned several trucks. By the time he retired, he was the wealthy owner of one of the largest truck hauling businesses in the U.S. During his youth, Shane read the novel so many times that it fell apart.

When Shane was in the fourth grade, he had an argument with a teacher. When she grabbed him to use a paddle on him, Shane elbowed himself free, accidentally giving her a black eye. This incident upset his father, who decided the boy needed to go to military school to learn discipline.

Shane hated the regimentation, and he didn’t like being away from home. To take his mind off his troubles, he went out for football, basketball and baseball. Because he was small for his age, he didn’t get many opportunities to play on the football or basketball teams. But he excelled as a second-baseman on the baseball team. When he returned home at the age of 12, he was still small for his age, but he was physically strong and had learned about teamwork and responsibility.

And then two things happened to Shane that almost never happen to a young boy, events that shaped the rest of his life. These incidents, and the consequences that followed are the topic of Part Two of Shane's story.

Shane's story about the talk he had with his uncle inspired me to write this book...

Conversations with the Wise Uncle

And this book for teen girls...

Conversations with the Wise Aunt

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .

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