The other day, having run out of other topics of cogitation, I began to wonder how much of what has happened in my eight decades of life can be attributed to my own doing, or to sheer luck, either good, bad or somewhere in between.
The fact I survived this long can be easily attributed to the mysterious workings of fortune. When I was a teenager and accepted a dare to drive down a narrow country road at seventy miles an hour on a moonless night with the headlights turned off, sheer luck kept the car from veering off the road and smashing head-on into a tree, maiming or killing me and the foolish passenger who had egged me on. On a more salubrious note, the fact I accepted my brother’s invitation to accompany him to an art gallery where I met the woman who would light the dark corners of my life with the glow of enduring love was also a matter of pure chance. I could have just as easily stayed home and read a book or gotten stoned and listened to music or stared at the flickering images on my little black and white TV.
But is it really possible to draw a clear distinction between agency and chance? There’s a saying about people making their own luck, which I take to mean doing everything possible to put oneself in a position to take advantage of opportunities that unexpectedly arise. Whether or not that works in practice is hard to say, but it’s undeniable that matters of chance like who your parents are and where you were born can critically bend the trajectory of your life.
My father was a farmer, just like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather, who homesteaded a piece of land in Iowa in the 1860s. My father seldom talked about his feelings, but there’s no doubt he hoped that my older brother and I, or at least one of us, would follow in his footsteps.
His great-grandfather’s homestead expanded and the family prospered until the Great Depression, when almost all was lost to low prices, failed crops, and finally, a bank foreclosure. When my father came of age and got married, he worked as a hired man, the bottom rung in the farming echelon. Through hard work and perseverance he became a tenant farmer, sharing his crops with a series of difficult landlords, and eventually he and my mother saved enough money to buy their own land. But by that time my older brother was about to go off to college, and I was planning to follow. Whatever the precise details of my father’s dream, it had faded under the glaring reality that neither of his sons wanted to follow in those footsteps deeply imprinted by the lives of his antecedents.
But it wasn’t my doing. If chance hadn’t bestowed upon me an older brother, it’s as likely as not that I would have stayed on the farm and entered into some kind of partnership with my father. It goes without saying that my life would have been radically different, although the details are uncertain, given such major changes over the past fifty years as the disappearance of small family farms and the rise of industrial-scale agriculture.
How does my brother enter this picture? When he and I were kids most of the reading material in our house concerned religious subjects, but when we went to our grandparents’ farm we could read their magazines—Life, Look, Colliers, Argosy. Even when the weather was good my brother would want to pore over these magazines instead of playing outside, and because I didn’t want to play alone I also spent hours looking at photographs and reading what I could understand as well as some of what I couldn’t. Their house was remote, at the end of a long, narrow dirt road deep in the timbered hills of western Iowa, but from it we saw mountain ranges and oceans, cities with tall buildings, foreign countries. Most importantly, we saw beyond the narrow boundaries of our rural lives.
Later, when the family piled into the car and drove to the county seat for shopping or other business, I followed my brother to a store that had a rack of magazines, and we used the little money we had to buy the latest issues of Hot Rod and Car Craft. Cars were our means of imagined escape from the farm, in particular cars with customized bodies and souped-up engines that implied the thrill of speed and movement away—away from the tedium of milking cows and feeding hogs and other chores that had to be done, day after day after day.
At some point we bought MAD magazine and were jolted into another state of consciousness by its irreverent humor and its blithe dismissal of sacred cows and the notions of order and propriety embraced by our parents and other adults. We could turn its pages and laugh uproariously at the things they took seriously, even their ideas about sin and damnation that pervaded the atmosphere of our growing-up years.
I can’t believe those MAD magazines escaped our parents’ notice. They may have just thought it was harmless juvenile humor, without ever perceiving the subversive effect on me and my brother. Would I have used my hard-earned money on that magazine if not for my brother? Impossible to say, although I have no doubt that he was the first to pick it up and show me the cover with Alfred E. Neuman sitting at a schoolroom desk holding a copy of Mad with a schoolbook hidden inside it, an image that was not only hilarious but irresistible.
Sometimes my brother and I fought like cats and dogs, and I’m sure there were moments when we hated each other. From time to time I would bitterly resent the privileges bestowed upon him, not because of what I perceived as his superior intellect or ability, but his greater age. When he was sixteen and allowed to drive the family car I was nearly suffocated by a sense of unfairness. When he left home for college the fact that I was still in high school felt like a severe punishment I had done nothing to deserve.
When I was finally liberated from the tedium of chores and endless work in the fields, I went my own way, sometimes in a more or less straight line, sometimes zigzagging in both a literal and cerebral sense. The one constant is that I never regretted leaving the farm and forcing my father to abandon his dreams. Once I got over my disappointment that my brother wanted to look at magazines instead of playing outside, once I opened the pages of those magazines a journey began and it was impossible to turn back.