Paths Intersecting at Obscure Angles

Donald Shephard

I have just returned from a visit to England. I spent three days in London with two of my high school chums, Roy and Alan. When we left Buckhurst Hill County High School in 1958 we had nothing but university grants and vague dreams. Now we are all three retired in comfort.

Roy is formally known as Dr. Roy Oliver B.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc. He was a researcher and lecturer at Dundee University, Scotland. Alan was a solicitor and switched to property management and venture capitalism. Together they started a company that manufactures sheets of collagen. It is called Tissue Science Laboratories.

We talked about the time Roy and I scaled the two story school, shinned along the roof and climbed the cupola. We altered the décor of the cupola with some balloons and a little red paint. Naturally, there was a furor the next day. Alan told me that, although “everyone knew the culprits”, nobody squealed in order to protect our chances for university careers. I was surprised to hear that. I believe that my life would have been more difficult if I had not graduated from university. Clearly, the loss of Roy’s scholarship would have been disastrous for himself and for all the surgery patience his collagen product has helped.

I did not like high school. The teachers gave me a good education in a rather authoritarian manner. I realized later that some of the information was biased by the past glory of the British Empire. Today I am still in awe of the tiny island that painted the world-map red but I no longer believe, as we were taught, that the British were accepted because they are inherently fair. I found the rigidity of my high school education inherently unfair and for some other valid enough and personal reasons, I was an angry young man in those days. Today, I am mellow in my decrepitude. I do not judge our actions on that cupola graffiti night but I do look back forty-seven years and try to understand.

It was in this pensive state that I left my friends to go north to visit my family who now reside in Yorkshire. I was glad to get out into the country away from the frenetic pace of London. My sister lives with her dog in the village of Skelmanthorpe in the county of West Yorkshire which was the West Riding of Yorkshire when I was a kid. She cares for my mother who lives in a retirement home about six miles away in the village of Moor Bottom. We went together to see our mother the day I arrived up north.

That six mile trip is unlike any six miles in this country. We drove through the villages of Skelmanthorpe, Shelley, Holmfirth, Honley and Moor Bottom in that short distance. At no time did we go in a straight line for more than half a mile. Although we crossed fifteen intersections, none of them were right-angled. This is the norm in England. There are two explanations. One is that roads followed the high ground to keep carts, carriages and stagecoaches from bogging down in soggier ground. These roads also followed property lines which were established by the Enclosure Act of 1801. In West Yorkshire fields are delimited by dry stone walls with the exception of the wide open moors. The roads we traveled twisted and turned around these walls.

A second explanation, and the one I favor, involves the good men who built those quaint old roads exclusively with muscle power. We call them navvies a shortened form of navigator. I believe the navvies kept their backs to the wind. Whatever the cause, there is not a straight road or a right-angled intersection to be found.

At my mother’s apartment, we discussed my visit with Roy and Alan. My mother stated her often repeated position that separately Roy and I were good boys but together we were trouble. Once again she brought up the night the policeman’s knock roused her from her midnight slumbers because Roy and I had been singing patriotic songs at the top of a horse chestnut tree which was unfortunately right outside the police station. (That is a story I will tell you all about some other time.)

I mentioned that I would have had a very different life if I had not gone on to university, the first and only member of my family to do so. My sister reiterated that a degree is a waste because there are not enough jobs for graduates and many have to work at fast food places to survive. I do not agree with her but neither do I argue because she is older and therefore has the alpha female position in the family more so now that she looks after our mother. I have worked as a farm hand, a construction worker, a factory worker, a chemical plant employee, a grape gondola driver and an English teacher in Japan among other long forgotten jobs. Nevertheless, that first degree opened enough doors to make me affluent in retirement.

As we flew back to San Francisco, I thought about the various paths we have all taken. Roy became a university lecturer and author of much fine research. He has a young wife and four children, three of them in their teens. Alan became an attorney, and a property and money manager. He has two grown sons and several grandchildren. My sister is widowed with two grown children and five grand-children who call her “groovy-gran”. Her wisdom has come from the school of hard knocks. I have three sons no sign of grandchildren and hope is fading fast. Roy, Alan, my sister and I are all comfortably retired.

In all our sixty-plus years our lives have twisted and turned like the lanes in the Yorkshire Dales. We have been restricted by walls, both of stone and of emotions, constructed by our ancestors, our friends, our families and especially ourselves. The many intersections between our lives have rarely been clean, square, right-angled meetings. Rather they have been obscure, obtuse, oblique intersections or mere glimpses in the night. Still, I am glad to have met them all again to look at our varied paths and to help me understand their many twists and turns. I still favor that keeping-your-back-to-the-wind theory.

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