Getting to Know America: A Parent’s Perspective

By Jeffery Garrison

I once told a new officer that Washington, D.C. was not only our toughest hardship post, but also the greatest source of culture shock. For those of us who have gone through A-100 or FSI courses on culture shock, it’s still a bit of a problem. Imagine what it’s like for our children.

Like many Foreign Service children, our son Douglas spent most of his life overseas. He grew up in London, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Berlin. My wife, Susan, and I always promised him that we’d return to the U.S. for his high school years. Unfortunately, we found ourselves being pulled into another overseas assignment in Vienna, Austria just as Douglas began high school.

“That’s OK,” said he. “I’ll go to boarding school, but it has to have ice hockey and offer Russian.” After three years in German public school, Douglas was tired of the German language and worried about losing his Russian entirely. He knew that the international school in Vienna didn’t teach Russian, but we discovered that Northfield Mount Hermon School (NMH) in Northfield, MA did fill his criteria. Our boy, who had spent the last six years in Germany and Russia and had traveled all over Europe, went off to the wilds of western Massachusetts while Susan and I headed off for Austria.

Douglas said adjusting to NMH wasn’t particularly difficult for him as a third culture kid (TCK) because he was still very much in an international setting. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t know about the latest TV shows. Susan and I were glad he didn’t have a lot of the reentry problems that we had read about in the FLO book for FS kids, According to my Passport, I’m Coming Home.

Over the next four years Douglas thrived and assumed multiple leadership positions at school. During senior year Douglas went through the college search process and selected Colorado College, a small, private liberal arts college in Colorado Springs. It came as a bit of a shock to Susan and me, however, when he applied for deferred matriculation. Douglas proposed a “visit to America.” Our boy, who’d lived most of his life overseas or in the “freakin’ middle of nowhere” in western Massachusetts, wanted to drive all over the USA to get to know his own country as well as he’d know the countries where he’d grown up.

There was little I could do to oppose the plan; I’d crossed the country hitchhiking in the 1960s, when hitchhiking was still a fun, safe way to travel. Susan worried about all the things that could happen on the road, but realized this was the best chance her boy would ever have to go off and explore on his own. Other members of our extended family thought we were crazy to let Douglas go. We absorbed their abuse in hopes that he wouldn’t have to.

We did all sorts of things to help ready Douglas for the trip. Susan loaded his computer with names, email and street addresses, and phone numbers of friends, former neighbors, and FS colleagues scattered nationwide. To this Douglas added his own list of school friends. I set up an Excel spreadsheet for his to keep track of his multiple bank accounts.

Douglas had worked two summers as a paid clerical intern in the State Department and planned to undertake his travels with his own money (after “allowing” his mom and me to buy him a used pickup truck and put a cap on the back, which doubles as his sleeping quarters). In the interest of earning as much money as possible this past summer, Douglas worked right up to the September 30 deadline for summer hires. After a short delay, caused by my offering to take him to see his favorite hockey team play against the Caps, he backed out of the driveway on October 7, 2005 and began his adventure.

To communicate while on the road, Douglas has a cell phone that’s part of our “national family plan,” so it doesn’t cost to call home occasionally (or anywhere else in the U.S.). He also has a Wifi-enabled laptop so he can keep in touch by e-mail. One hard lesson he’s learned is that running his computer too long on the truck battery WILL drain it (thank heaven for AAA and AutoZone, which will charge a battery for free). Douglas is keeping a journal, but not on his computer. He’s doing it the old fashioned way in small, moleskin notebooks. He tells us regularly about the seven-page letters he’s been sending to friends. We get the occasional post card.

In the beginning of his travels, Douglas found the safest place to park and sleep overnight was in church parking lots-that is until a pastor saw him one night and had the police rouse him. The police offered their parking lot as a safe alternative. Since then, Douglas has discovered that WalMart parking lots, too, provide a safe haven for overnight stays. He tends to spend more nights at WalMarts than anywhere else. Douglas says his greatest problem is finding places to shower, although he has learned that some hotels will let him use their fitness facility locker rooms (but YMCAs and the Salvation Army have turned him away), and the occasional truck stop will let him shower after he fills up.

So far, Douglas has taken day hikes on the Appalachian Trail, camped out on Cape Hatteras, spent a weekend in the Florida Keys, and celebrated New Year’s Eve in a New Orleans jazz club watching the city’s giant gumbo bowl drop at midnight. One night he called home just to tell us how moved he’d been by the Oklahoma City bombing memorial; a couple nights later he was in Lubbock, TX, planning to go to the Buddy Holly museum the following morning. Douglas travels with an annual National Parks Pass, allowing him free admission to all national parks.

At this writing, we last heard from Douglas last night. He was camping on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. He’d spent the previous couple of days in the four-corners region and planned to hike to the bottom of the canyon today. He’s officially out of cell phone range, but he found a pay phone and used a calling card. I expect we’ll hear from him later when he gets back into phone range. He says he has to be in Los Angeles next weekend to see an international rugby tournament for which he’d bought tickets online.

Like all parents, sometimes we worry, but we realize there’s nothing we can do. He did admit that he got off the trail and lost during a hike in the Big Bend region of Texas. He backtracked and eventually found his way back to the truck. When we talked about it later, he said he hadn’t registered with a ranger station or brought a compass with him; at least he had his “camelback” pack, so he had plenty of water. Lessons learned for the next time before he gets to bear country.

Douglas has stayed south during the cold months. He’ll be moving across to California, up the west coast and then back across the heartland of the country, staying to the north in the spring and summer. His only deadline (beside the rugby tournament) is to meet his mom and me in Hilton Head in mid-August to load up a rental van with his college gear and drive to Colorado in time for school.

Douglas gets from this process the experience of a lifetime (can you tell I’m a bit jealous?). Colorado College gets a freshman next fall who will be far more mature and self-confident than he otherwise would have been. What do we think of a “gap year” between high school and college? We’re all for ‘em…and so are colleges. Of Douglas’ six classmates students who were admitted to Colorado College for the fall of 2005, five applied for, and were granted, deferred matriculation.

Jeff Garrison is a retired FSO (1979-2006) who served in Rangoon, London, St. Petersburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, Vienna, and Washington, D.C. three times. His wife, Susan, joined the FS in 1985 and retires in April 2006. They can soon to be found sailing and scuba diving from their home on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Son Douglas, who was born shortly before they went to London in 1987, was the first American to play youth ice hockey with the Red Army Sports Club in St. Petersburg (1995-98).

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