The Last Word

Life Happens

You can't always plan the adventures ahead

My parents met in 1954. Dad was in the Air Force, and Mom worked as a bookkeeper. Dad had guard-shack duty at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, where he habitually told women who passed through the gate that he got off at 11 p.m. Mom passed the shack several times while going to work, and she was the one who came back at 11 p.m. They dated, and when Mom discovered she was pregnant, they got married. It didn’t matter that neither had told their parents about the other or that Dad’s tour of duty would soon be up — they made plans anyway. Mom would work, and Dad would go to college on the GI bill and eventually get a good job to support their new family.

My parents moved to California, where Dad enrolled in a community college. My brother Steve was born. There was little money. My grandmother sent greeting cards for every possible holiday so that her enclosed cash gifts would not be viewed as “handouts.” Mom figured out Grandma’s game plan fairly quickly when they received a “Happy Groundhog Day” card in the mail with $50 in it.

When he was 2, Steve was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic mutation carried by the mother and afflicting only sons. My parents were advised to have no more children, but life was happening, and Mom was pregnant within a year. They were relieved when I arrived, since they were learning what life would be like for a boy with Duchenne’s. Duchenne’s progresses quickly, and Steve would go from walking to using crutches by age 5 to a wheelchair by age 9. He would not live beyond his teen years. His mind would be sharp and his wit biting, but his muscles would melt away.

Dad worked during the day and attended night classes in petroleum engineering. A year after I was born, Mom delivered another boy. Eleven months later a third son was born. (I know what you’re thinking, but the birth-control pill wouldn’t be available for another year.) Now all plans were on hold, except the one where my Dad would finish his master’s degree and get a well-paying job to support his family of six.

Dad graduated, and while the new batch of petroleum engineers spread out to jobs all over the globe, he took a job in California. The plan was to get Steve the best medical care, which was in the U.S. Over the next few years we learned that neither of my younger brothers had muscular dystrophy. My parents saw life come back into focus and began to make new plans.

Steve was in fifth grade when we moved to Omaha. He was now in a wheelchair, which wasn’t allowed in public school hallways in 1965 (the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1974 was still a ways off) so he attended a school for disabled children. While his siblings walked to public elementary school, Steve and his classmates were picked up and dropped off at home each day by yellow taxis, courtesy of precise planning and financing by Dad and several other fathers (transportation for the disabled would come much later).

Steve was almost 16 when Dad took a job in Denver, hoping it would benefit both our family and his career. Two months after we moved there, Steve developed a chest cold, and, without the muscle strength to cough to clear his chest, contracted pneumonia. The night he died there was a forest fire in the foothills outside Denver, and the emergency vehicle that pulled into our driveway at 2:30 a.m. had come straight from the blaze. As two soot-covered EMTs wheeled Steve’s body out the front door, our family’s little boat lost the wind in its sails. Our charted course had always been determined by Steve’s needs.

That summer, my parents told us we would be moving to Iran. Dad had a new dream: He wanted to be a cowboy and own a ranch in Colorado, and the only way he knew to accumulate enough money to buy a ranch was to take a job overseas.

Thus began our life as “expats” in an age when an American living in the Middle East was a romantic adventure, not a risky one. We lived in a mountainous region of southwestern Iran in a house constructed of dried clay blocks. The hills behind it were dotted with fat-tailed sheep, and the whole valley reeked of sulfur from huge flares burning off the gas released during the extraction of oil. We were living in a culture rich with thousands of years of literature, art and architecture. We traveled to other continents and lived, worked, and were schooled with people from across the globe. Six years later, the Iranian revolution began and 52 Americans were taken hostage in the Tehran American Embassy.

The revolution launched an exodus of foreigners from Iran. Dad was responsible for getting all of his company’s foreign employees in our southern city safely out of the country. His plan involved a phone tree to spread the word when a plane became available to fly the expats to Athens. It also included a small (125cc) motorcycle with dual gas cans flung over the seat, saddlebag style, for an improbable ride across the desert to Turkey. Dad feared that while he raced around accounting for everyone, he might not make the plane himself. In the end, everyone made it. After six weeks in Greece waiting for an end to the upheaval in Iran that wouldn’t come, friends and co-workers said their goodbyes and returned to their countries of origin.

My parents moved to southwest Colorado into a tiny house on the ranch they had bought two years before. With no job and a large mortgage, Dad made new plans. He wanted to teach math at the local community college and raise cattle, but the numbers didn’t add up. So he looked for another overseas job — one that would pay off the mortgage so he could retire and become a cowboy.

He took a job in Venezuela. Before they left, my parents spent a glorious summer on the ranch, walking the land and branding cows. Dad died a year later in Venezuela, at the age of 48, while playing squash with a British friend.

It seems each plan my Dad made was scattered in the wind, yet he always charted a new course for us. I am almost a decade older than he was when he died, and I’m finally hearing the echoes of fatherly lessons from the past. I’ve learned that life will feel like a series of accidents unless you give yourself permission to forge a path for yourself. That the ground under your feet is going to shift constantly. And finally, if you look at life as an adventure, you just might have a bunch of them.

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About the Author

Deborah Goodknight Hanley

Deborah Goodknight Hanley is the author of the Michigan children’s book Pirates’ Gold and the writer of numerous radio theater scripts for All Ears Theatre. She has a B.S. in Industrial Design and is an LPN. She has lived many places but is happy to have found “home” in Kalamazoo for the past 30 years. Her website is DeborahHanleywriter.com.