A transcripted story as told by Katie Herzog
When I drive down the South Hill, I’m always praying for green lights, especially right around Walnut and Fifth. Because if I come to a red light, I am then going to have to avoid eye contact with the homeless people who are often there looking for spare change. That has been uncomfortable for me until recently, thanks to my curious children who are always great at asking the tough questions: “What’s the deal? Why don’t they have their own money? Why don’t they have a job?”
Recently, when we hit a red light, they scramble around the van and grab granola bars out of the big Costco box and we hand them out the window, and one of them always says, “Remember, mom, you always tell us things are going to seem a little better if you have something in your stomach. ” As we drive away we often construct stories for the homeless people. “I wonder if they were an architect who built a huge skyscraper or maybe they were a movie star.” And one of the kids always says, “Maybe they were an astronaut like grandpa was going to be. Tell the story, mom.” In fact, they are much better at telling the story of my dad, their grandpa, than I am, but I’ll give it to you anyway:
When my father was young, he lived on the North Dakota plains. He would pick rocks off this huge field with a landing strip in trade for airplane rides. He would move rocks and the crop dusters would give him rides. By the time he was 16, he had earned his pilot’s license. By 17, he lied and enrolled in the Naval Academy and years later graduated at the top of his class in Annapolis. He rose through the ranks and became a skilled Navy fighter pilot. Handsome and tall, he had the world by the tail. He was in special operations during the Korean War, and his wingman was Alan Shepard, who went on to become an astronaut. But during the war my father suffered a traumatic accident as a result of a reactive decision made by a commanding officer on the aircraft carrier.
My father was paralyzed from the waist down and was sent to a hospital in California. Over the next month, he regained use of his legs and recovered. He also met my mom, who was a Navy nurse. They fell in love and were engaged and married within three months.
Unfortunately, the doctors diagnosed his paralysis as a mental illness and judged him unfit to fly. His commanding officers deemed it a fear of flying, stripped him of his wings, and he was honorably discharged. As my mom tells it, that was a turning point in his life. Everything went downhill from there. With four little boys arriving within about five years, mom said, his behavior started to change. He worked and was a talented and brilliant man, but he wasn’t able to hold a job. He went into debt. His night terrors turned into day terrors and it became unsafe for him to care for his family. Then mom discovered she was pregnant with her fifth child – me.
Eventually he was committed to a psychiatric facility, but in the ‘60s, social services were cut and thousands of mentally ill people were turned out onto the streets. My dad could have been one of them. With a lot of debt, no money and five little babies under the age of eight, my mother was unable to care for him. But she was determined to prove the Navy accountable for his illness. With testimonials from Alan Shepherd and all his wingmen and lawyers and doctors, she won. They assumed responsibility that the accident on the aircraft carrier was linked to his mental state. In this day, it would be referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but now, most everyone has heard of PTSD.
They did get help for him, but not for our family. But it didn’t matter; my mother was amazing, resourceful and not to be messed with. She landed on her feet and we had a somewhat scrappy but wonderful upbringing, which I wouldn’t trade for the world. She worked, scrimped and saved and did what she could. She got my dad into a safe place off the streets and he was safe for what unfortunately was a very short life.
So, when I get to that red light and I see the homeless people, I also see the story behind them. We have to acknowledge that they were astronauts or could have been astronauts. I see my father in every one of them and I see the woman with the stroller on the street corner with the little kids looking for a place to stay. I could have been the one in the stroller.
And finally, I no longer pray to have a green light when I’m coming down the hill.
Katie Herzog shared her grandfather’s story during one of several Story Slams conducted by Gonzaga’s School of Professional Studies during the 2010-11 year. Herzog is coordinator of the University’s Leadership Resource Center.