New Year’s Day 55 years ago I was a newly minted 17-year-old on the cusp of one of the most significant years of my life.
In less than five months, I would become a Fair Grove High School alumnus, one of 39 pictured in our ’65 Eagle yearbook and 48 who started the four-year journey to graduation in 1961.
But, on New Year’s Day, I was likely not thinking about graduation. That was months away — an eternity in teenager time.
The weather was warm, climbing to 41 degrees by afternoon, according to National Weather Service records. I may have gone rabbit hunting, but I probably spent at least part of the day cutting wood and burning brush piles. Other than milking a couple of cows night and morning, I don’t recall exactly what I was doing on this day 55 years ago, but I’m sure it wasn’t watching football or recovering from New Year’s Eve partying. We didn’t do those things when I was a boy. New Year’s was no big deal.
But, being a senior in high school was a big deal, especially for a young man. Though I would not have to register for the draft for another year, every day brought me closer to the reality of being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Yet, even that possibility seemed distant, too far in the future to worry about.
Maybe I should have been making plans for the rest of my life, but I was just a kid. Two days earlier I had been just 16.
Life was simple and uncomplicated. I’d never been faced with big decisions, like deciding what to do with the rest of my life. Little choices, I was used to making — like how much hay to throw down from the loft or which side of a tree to notch for felling — but I’d never had much say in the big stuff.
Day-to-day farm chores spared me worrying about what to do on any given day. Growing up on a farm was like having a full-time job before and after school. Participating in track and FFA contests was like asking the boss for time off. Luckily, I had an understanding boss. That my younger brothers were finally old enough to milk my cows helped, too.
I suppose New Year’s Day 1965 was not much different from today. We’re essentially the same people then as now. Human nature hasn’t changed since Eve picked an apple, Adam took a bite and blamed her for all the calamities to befall us ever since.
But, I’m not sure it’s so uncomplicated for a 17-year-old today as it was for me.
It seems kids are coached to worry, when they might as well just let life happen.
I didn’t have much choice on that count. No one at school talked to me about college until the last few weeks of high school, and that talk didn’t include anything close to a school or scholarship suggestion.
The one thing I remember is the counselor asking me what I’d like to be, and I said something like, “I dunno, maybe a weekly newspaper editor.”
True story, true aspiration, but no one was listening.
I think most teachers figured students of my caste were destined to become day laborers or farm workers, likely do stints in the Army, and at best become skilled tradesmen, but never darken the doors of college classrooms. I’m likely wrong, but none pointed me towards academia.
I’m pretty sure kids today are expected to have some sort of life plan even before they start high school — like they have a clue what they really want to do with their lives. They don’t, but by the time they figure it out, they’ve already been put on different train.
My late brother Russell, for example, was pegged to be an engineer. At the top of his class, he garnered grants and scholarships to attend the University of Missouri at Rolla. Counselors weren’t paying attention to what he was doing in art class. After a year or so at Rolla, he transferred to Southwest Missouri State College to study art, subsequently earned his master’s degree in New Mexico and became one of the state’s most highly respected landscape artists.
Of course, none of us saw that coming on New Year’s Day 1965. Russell had a new slide rule in his pocket, not a paint brush.
At the same time, I’d never touched a typewriter. Dad wouldn’t even let me take typing in school — said I’d never need it.
He wasn’t right about everything; but, he wasn’t far off, either. If I had come from money, rather than a farm, I would have gone to MU to study forestry. I didn’t need a counselor or my folks to explain one simple fact of life — money for college would be up to me.
I knew that long before Jan. 1, 1965, but it didn’t concern me much. I knew how to work. I was bound to graduate in May. Uncle Sam wouldn’t get my number for nigh a year, neighbors would be needing help in the hayfield — paying help — and I’d soon be able to drive our old truck to the creek.
Life was good on this day 55 years ago.
Even if I didn’t have a plan for my life, someone bigger than me did.
Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer and former editor of the Buffalo Reflex. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. ©️ James E. Hamilton, 2020.