Gather round children, it is once again time to dip into Uncle Bob’s Story Time Vault.
It’s graduation time across the country, and several millions of young men and women are getting their high school diplomas, and much to the joy of their parents are getting ready to head off into the unknown future, filled with the promise that comes with this important milestone in their lives.
Thinking about this the other day put me in mind of another such graduation day that took place a long time ago, in a small town in central North Dakota, a day that was something completely different. At least for one student.
So, you adults in the room, grab yourself a glass of your favorite Cabernet, have a plate of a nice Brie, find your favorite easy chair and sit down to here the story of the Graduation That Never Was.
The year was 1958, the place was Carrington, North Dakota, a small town in the central part of the state located at the junction of US Highway 281 and US Highway 52.
It was there the senior class of Carrington High School was looking forward to graduation that spring 59 years ago.
I was a member of that class of 50 plus who was thinking about what happens next, and not having any solid answers as we approached graduation.
1958 was early in the second term of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. The fifties, often referred to as the “benign” fifties had been a period of modest prosperity. The cold war was heating up, the Interstate Highway System was just getting started, and the seeds of what would lead the United States into an increasing involvement in Indo-China were being sown. Bill Haley and the Comets scored with “Rock Around The Clock” and “Shake Rattle and Roll.”
All of those events with the exception of Bill Haley and the Comets went relatively unnoticed in our small town on the prairie.
As I said, I was a member of that class. In fact, I was elected vice-president, on what was to be my second attempt at an elected office, and my last.
Dick Swarthout was elected president, and he had all of the credentials. Football star, basketball star, dating cheerleaders, etc., were all part of his bona fides. I had none of those, but that’s another story. I was elected vice-president, in what I suspect was a pity vote.
Reader note, a digression, or in cinematic terms, a flashback is coming.
My first foray into elective politics came during our freshman year, 1954-55, Swarthout and I had cooked up a scheme whereby he would nominate me for presidency of the freshman class, and I would rise and give this campaign speech, which I had stolen from Stan Freberg, a comedian and advertising guy prominent back then.
After Dick had put my name in nomination, I stood up and delivered the first and only campaign speech of my life.
“Students arise, to long have we cringed under the whip of teacher totalitarianism. Elect me, and we’ll overthrow the principal, turn his office into an automatic car wash, and put picture windows in the girl’s gym.”
As I uttered that last sentence, Bert Skakoon, our class advisor said, in a rather loud voice, “Kallberg sit down.” I did, and my political life was over. I think I may have been ahead of my time. Come to think of it I was all of 14 at the time.
Anyway, back to 1958.
So you understand, while I may have been vice-president of the senior class, I was not their best student.
In fact, my academic credentials were rather anemic. That is not to say I did nothing during my four years of high school, but as my English teacher Edna Fylken, who believed in me more than was justified, told me one time I “needed to apply myself more.” Translated, to use a more modern term, I was the classic underachiever. I had no problem with that.
Looking back at those years, in my defense, I was in Luther League, sang bass in the church choir at Trinity Lutheran. I wrote for the school newspaper, “The Cardinal,” in fact my last year was as the sports editor for the paper, something my friend Willie at the Elbow Room would find funny today.
I was in band, playing at one time or another clarinet, alto sax or drums, choir where I sang baritone and bass, sang in the mixed quartet, with the help of librarian Carol Moreland formed a drama club, went to the State speech contest two years running and got highly superior for interpretive reading, played drums in a group made up of my brother Jerry on bass, John Cousins on piano, and sometimes Denny Marcussen on tenor saxophone.
Miss Fylken was responsible for my success at the State speech contests. She worked with me my junior year when I did James Weldon Johnson’s “Creation” from memory, something I performed several times after that. What I did the next year was not as memorable.
So, one can see that I wasn’t totally absent during my high school years, even though unlike my brother, Jerry, I played no sports at all. Music and speech was where it was at for me.
In other ways, I was sort of an outlier. I smoked from an early age, drank beer from an early age, and had a general distrust of authority at an early age. That meant I was out of the mainstream even in such a small town as Carrington. I was okay with that
Another thing that set me apart, in some ways, was that spent a lot of time around people older than me. That meant guys in my brothers class two years ahead of me, and the class in front of me as well.
There was also the gang at the Rexall Drug, owned by Mayo Meadows. It had a great soda fountain, and I used to go there at noon for a chocolate coke, or cherry coke, and visit with folks like Doc. Duntley, the local optometrist, Merle Bauer, who worked at the Foster County Independent, and Ken Kaupaun, the druggist. They all became my friends, even though I was just this 16 year old kid, and they were to be important later on.
So now, if you have hung with me this far, we come to the reason for this story. In the spring of 1958, I was a couple of months from my 18th birthday. Our class was getting ready for Baccalaureate, which was held the week before graduation. Prom was behind us, and in a few weeks, we’d be down the road.
Speaking of Prom, I did go my senior year. I had not gone my junior year because I couldn’t find a date. That didn’t bother me so much, for I went to the prom banquet and then later on headed for Hawk’s Nest, SW of Carrington with some friends for a night of partying.
My senior year, Steve Tracy, in the class behind me, and I both had dates with girls from New Rockford, about 10 miles up the road from Carrington. Steve had a car, and I had a date with a girl named Janelle, and it was all in all a good night. The fact that I even went to the prom was evidence that I had fully expected to graduate that year.
Graduation announcements had gone out to family and friends, along with photos of the newly about to be minted graduate.
Then, (Cue the ominous music) I got the news. I would not be getting a diploma on graduation day because I was short a credit, or was it two, I can’t remember.
I was stunned.
I asked the powers that be why they had waited almost 4 years to tell me I needed another English credit. Evidently I had dropped that in the 8th grade, but not one person had told me I could have made it up in the last 4 years, and then I would have been able to get my diploma on graduation day.
I was pissed.
Shortly after having this dropped on me I went to mixed quartet practice, and was told by our music teacher, Leonard Borlaug, we would be performing at Baccalaureate the coming Sunday evening. I told him I wouldn’t be there, and he insisted I had to be there, a notion I disabused him of when I walked off the stage. I felt bad in a way, because I liked him. After all, he was a music instructor and I learned a lot from him.
I felt guilty.
I felt guilty because I thought I had let my parents down, and that only fueled the anger I felt at having spent four years on extra-curricular activity when I could have picked up the credit.
My parents, like me were disappointed, and I think more worried about me than anything else. They were supportive, as they always were, and made me feel okay in spite of the public disappointment I found myself in. That’s not to mention there would be no photographs of the new graduate with his parents for the scrapbooks. That wore on me. I couldn’t give them that.
Baccalaureate came on Sunday, and I spent the night working at the Rainbow Gardens where we ran roller skating on the weekends.
Comes now graduation night. It was hard. I had already received responses to the announcements we had sent out, and I decided I would go to the ceremony at the high school gym.
I donned my suit and tie, and told my folks I would be okay, and went to the gym. There I went up to the balcony and found a place by myself and watched as my classmates paraded across the stage and got their diplomas.
After the graduation ceremonies were over, I went home, changed clothes and joined friends for a trip out to Hawk’s Nest for a night of bonfires, singing, drinking and carrying on till the sun came up.
As we were driving back to Carrington early that morning, I couldn’t help but think that while I missed this graduation, some day soon, I would have my own. I could live with that.
While my plans for the future were put on hold with the event of The Graduation That Never Was, I got a job at the Foster County Independent, working with my church choir and Rexall Drug friend, Merle, and went to work on a correspondence course from NDSU to pick up the English credit. When I finished that course, the woman who was handling my work gave me an “A” and she wrote that she thought I had some promise as a creative writer.
After I got my delayed diploma in 1959, I found that they had typed over the word eight and added the word nine. The interesting thing was that they, like me, at one time assumed I was going to get a diploma. I laughed, and thought that’s okay. I can live with that.
After surveying my options that winter, I found that joining the Army was my best bet. My family had no money, and that was before anything resembling student loans was available. And god knows, I wasn’t going to get an academic scholarship.
So in June that year, my mother drove me down to Jamestown where the Army recruiter put me on a bus that would eventually take me to Fargo and from there to Fort Carson, Colorado for basic training.
I was was just 18, but I knew someday there would be another graduation day in my future, but that is another story.
Just a note to let you know that over the intervening years, I have attended many of the reunions of the class of 1958, and have enjoyed them all, and still consider them my friends.