Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together.
Home for Christmas
The snow was falling thickly that Christmas Eve day in 1967 and sticking to the streets of our North Idaho town. Starting to barely accumulate by noon, it would build to ten inches by nightfall…a lot for our town. It would bring the normal frantic last shopping day of the season to an early end, with the hilly main streets closed to those without chains. In a town where deep snowfall was rare, most did not have chains. Worst than the lack of chains, perhaps, was the fact that the town, which averaged maybe 18 inches of snow a year, did not own a snow plow.
It was my first Christmas break from college. I drove the 500 miles in my Volkswagen Fastback easily, arriving in Lewiston the night before and beating the winter storm by hours. Over time I would become accustomed to the 11 -12 hour drive over the primarily two- lane mountain roads that traversed the western side of the Rockies, between home in North Idaho and the Southeast corner of the state where I attended Idaho State University, but that was one of my first trips.
On Christmas Eve my Volkswagen navigated deftly up and down the hills of town, delivering my mother’s carefully wrapped presents to family friends along with other deliveries to family members and picking up a few last minutes items at downtown stores. The real purpose of all the errands, I suspected, was to show off the new college son…me!
Though I had known most of the family friends I visited that day, I had not encountered many of them in several years. This was the first time I had spent in the town since enrolling in college at the other end of the state immediately following high school graduation.
I’m not sure what kind of reaction I was expecting from those family friends, or from my grandmother or aunt whom I would see that afternoon as well. I wasn’t nervous about my decision to go to Idaho State University, even though there was somewhat of a tradition in our family to attend the state’s major university just 30-miles away from our town. My older brother, Gordon, was in his third year there, my mother had graduated from that school as well, and my aunt had attended there along with several cousins. It was assumed, growing up, that you will go to college -- that was not a question in our household -- and you would go to the University of Idaho. Neither topic was ever discussed, it was just assumed. Most of the family friends I would see that afternoon were U. of Idaho alumni or at least strong supporters of the school.
It was a radical decision, I thought, and an unknown one in our family and circle of friends, to go somewhere so far away and to an unknown school at that. That snowy day in December was my return to “face the music” of my decision.
The State of Idaho at that time had just two four- year universities, and three or four junior colleges. There were only about 400,000 people in the state then, not a lot of population to support a full blown public university system. The traditional senior land-grant school was the University of Idaho at Moscow, 30-miles “up the hill” from home in Lewiston; while Idaho State had started as a “normal” school in the 1920s and didn’t reach four-year university status until the late 1950s. Idaho State was an unknown entity in our North Idaho region, interaction between it and the northern part of the state was mostly non-existent.
(For those of you who follow such things, the Boise State University that is making a lot of noise in the national college football world as known then as BJC – Boise Junior College. My son, Chris, and I are ardent fans and I have even converted Mrs. Steve to a casual fan as well,)
I don’t think my parents ever understood my decision to go to Idaho State. I liked to say the decision was rooted in academics. Additionally, Idaho State had awarded me a scholarship in journalism to attend there (at $350 per semester, and not a huge amount of money even then); that its journalism staff had poured a lot of public and private praise on me the previous spring and I certainly enjoyed that, it had never happened to me before; and that I felt more comfortable at its small campus (student population then 4,000) than at the state’s much larger university (with 6,000 student then). And all of that was absolutely true. But all of those reasons are not why I really went there.
I also liked to say, at least privately, that Idaho State was as far away from home I could go to school and still stay in-state. In state was not important to me, but the difference of in-state vs. out of state costs at many colleges I looked at, was amazingly steep and unaffordable. I was anxious to break out of our small town society and its familiar surroundings. Everything around me felt too close, too confining, too constricting. I felt that the family knew everything I did, every step I took, and judged each of those closely. I loved being away from home, being away from our town, on my frequent summer trips in those years, trips following local sports teams for the daily newspaper, or the summer on the farm, or another summer adventure climbing in the Cascades.
Coming home that first Christmas was going to be a trial, I was sure, on my decision to leave Lewiston and North Idaho. I expected some criticism and sharp comments. The first one caught me off-guard: ‘I was pleased and proud to see you ran for office’, my mother said, she had seen the article in the student newspaper that came each week from Idaho State, ‘I didn’t know you were interested in politics.’ I had run for freshman class president that fall, maybe as a statement that I was making a break from my comfortable home in the North. I was caught off guard, I didn’t expect a bit of praise from my mother, who I knew was disappointed in my decision to attend the school. It was the first of many from her that vacation. My father didn’t say much, but his attitude had changed toward me, as did the attitude of most people I saw that day.
That afternoon navigating the deepening snows of Christmas brought a continuing series of surprises: There was a stream of support for my decision to leave Lewiston, to follow my desires rather than the family’s tradition. There were questions about everything in my new life, as if I had moved to another planet or another country, rather than just across the state. There were questions about potential girl friends (no), fraternity life, classes, the outside employment I held, religion at our school (it was a 70% Mormon population both on campus and in that region of the state), college sports, outdoor life in the remote regions of Idaho that most had never been along with endless other topics.
It was an eye-opening afternoon for me: Instead of criticism of my decision of leave Lewiston and North Idaho from the family and friends I saw that day, I sensed pride in what I had done and what I was doing. It was something I had never experienced before.
But there was something more: Before I left the town earlier that year, I was treated by the adults in the community as just another high school student. For those who went to the nearby University of Idaho and returned to Lewiston frequently, the way they were treated by the community didn’t change, they were still local kids whose every move was scrutinized and judged. It would take ten years or more for my classmates to break that community attitude.
But that attitude broke for me that Christmas Eve day. The community didn’t judge me anymore, it treated me on my first visit back as a mature adult making mature decisions, and living a responsible life. Leaving home that year was a big decision for me, although I didn’t understand the implications and the sociology of it for many years, it was the right decision for me. Coming home for Christmas that first year immediately confirmed, to my pleasant surprise, that my decision had been the correct one.
(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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