Chapter 1: On the Street Where I Lived
My wife likes to say I was born into an Andy Hardy movie and remained out of step with contemporary times, that there's something inherently naive about me that keeps me from seeing things as they really are. There's a lot of truth to that statement, but if I were to pick the movie that feels most emblematic of my life story, I would choose Mister Smith Goes to Washington, or some other wholesome film that shows what life was like before we became so obsessed with speed and consumption, a time when your word meant something and people were driven by ethics more than money -- or, at least, most people were.
I'd also want a story with so many other interesting characters that I could step into the background and watch it all unfold. Like most people, I like to be in the limelight -- but only on occasion. I have been blessed with leadership roles and important challenges. Recent events, especially my decision to leave the Republican Party in May 2001, and my integral role in protecting Americans after September 11 as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, have cast me into the national spotlight. But the best of life, I learned at an early age, is being part of something larger than yourself. My decision to become an Independent was prompted by that sense of public responsibility, something I've been trying to explain to folks ever since I made it.
I'm sure it was growing up in Vermont, where my father was the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court and so many of our family friends were in public service, that brought me to this understanding. I was born in Rutland. Although it was the state's second-largest city until recently, it was -- and remains -- a place where everyone on your street knew you and you knew them. There's an inherent bond among Vermonters that's hard to explain to people from other places. It comes from our small size, both in terms of population and actual acreage. When I was growing up, Vermont had roughly 400,000 residents; we shared a value system rooted in hard work, perseverance, and a respect for the individual. Today, even in Vermont's larger cities, most folks know something of their neighbors. And today, with only about 600,000 state residents, Vermonters still regard their politicians with a sense of ownership and expectation that comes out of a neighborliness that seems quite natural -- a respectful familiarity, albeit, but a sense of ownership nonetheless. Because of all of this I grew up with a security and sureness of purpose that too few people experience.
There are, of course, downsides to being known too well, and of people having expectations of you. There have been times when I have felt as if my life was preordained, or that people who thought they knew me sought to make me someone I was not. But, for the most part, I count my birth in the Green Mountain State and my childhood there as gifts that provided me with a foundation on which to build an independent nature. And from very early on in life, I knew that I would serve my community and state. Like Jeff Smith of the Capra film, I grew up a wide-eyed, innocent idealist who went to Washington expecting to actually get something done and to represent the average person rather than the rich and powerful. I just didn't know any better.
I was born May 11, 1934, and came to age during World War II, a time when there was little question about who the enemy was and how to define valor. Then, as now, Rutland's population was a little more than 20,000. Located in a pretty valley rich in natural resources, Rutland was the hub of commerce in my neck of the woods. We were not a hick town, nor can I describe my childhood as a rural one, although I spent most of my free time in the outdoors. The Rutland of my youth was a bustling community. People came here on Friday night and Saturday to shop, go to a movie, or simply to walk the city streets and converse with neighbors. This was the time of soda shops and specialty stores, where the shop owner knew your name and probably your size.
Rutland has always been one of Vermont's most important cities. The state's two main roads intersected here. (Now interstate highways bring many out-of-staters elsewhere.) A railroad that served the entire Northeast was based in Rutland in my youth; many of my neighbors worked for it or traveled by way of it. The city had an odd mix of sophistication and working-class values, grounded in its Yankee heritage and enriched by an interesting overlay of ethnic diversity brought to us by French Canadian, Irish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Jewish, and the few African-American families who settled in Rutland and the surrounding area.
Our city was the county seat, home to some of the state's oldest industries, including the Howe Scale Works, once one of the largest factories in the country, a foundry, dressmaking, and machine-work shops. To the west, the towns of Proctor and West Rutland had some of the nation's most productive marble quarries, finishing sheds, and artisans' shops. And all around us were wonderful mountains and woods, family farms, orchards, and sugarbushes.
A boy could find much to do here -- skiing down Kingsley Avenue and Country Club hill or, later, Pico Mountain in winter; fishing and swimming in rivers and lakes in summer; hiking at all times of year.
But it was our street that was the center of my universe. My parents had met in Rutland. My mother, Marion, was a talented pianist who had grown up in Glen Cove on Long Island and attended Syracuse University before moving to Rutland to teach music and art for the entire school system. My father, Olin, was a Vermont native in a long line of Vermont natives. He had grown up in Enosburg Falls, a town way up north by the Canadian border. There, his grandfather had been a minister and his father a pharmacist. Jeffords Drug Store closed thirty-one years ago despite my efforts to save it after my aunt, Cora Jeffords Pratt, died in 1966. Father graduated from Boston University Law School, where he taught law for a couple of years before moving to Ludlow, Vermont, to work at the law firm of Stickney, Sargant, Skeels, and Jeffords. John Sargant took a leave of absence to join Vermont's President Coolidge as the U.S. Attorney General.
Later, Father was asked to join the firm of Fenton, Wing, Morse, and Jeffords in Rutland. Like many young single people of the time, he took a room at a rooming house, in his case the Brock House, where my mother had been living for several years. Over time, a friendship blossomed into a romance, but I know little about their courtship. My parents weren't much for talking about themselves. One of the few stories they told of these years was that my father came into a sizable inheritance, promptly proposed to my mother, and bought a plot of land on Kingsley Avenue, across the street from where Leonard Wing Sr., his law partner and best friend, lived. They married in 1928.
My mother's father, my grandfather Nicholas Hausman, designed my parents' house. He was a clever man, an architect, who taught me much about life and labor in a way that my busy father never had the time to do. The house, built near the top of Kingsley Avenue, was a lovely wooden colonial, painted white with green trim, with a center staircase, bird's-eye maple floors, and a practicality that pleased all the adults in my life. I still own that house, although I live in Shrewsbury, a rural mountain village south of Rutland. I can't bring myself to sell the family home; I doubt I ever will. We rent it out, of course, because being a politician is not the lucrative occupation some folks think it is.
Everything about that house, the street, the town, seemed perfect to me as a child. If there were things in my environment that were wrong, I never knew about them, except, of course, the life and death events that no one can avoid. Arthur Guild, the principal of Rutland High School, lived at the top of our street. His sons, Malcolm and Jim, were among my best pals and have remained so throughout adulthood. Jim and I spent most of our early years together. Sadly, he passed away a decade ago of cancer.
Next door to the Guilds was a duplex owned by Otis and Ethel Edson; their son Alvin, older than me by eight years, was a budding engineer and one of my early mentors. He was an inventor and for a while I toyed with the idea of becoming an inventor myself when I grew up. The Edsons' tenants were William and Cecelia Paul and their two daughters, Lillian and Dorothy, who were part of our gang. Next to them lived the Wings and their three children -- Leonard, Patricia, and Bruce, all much older than the rest of us kids but friends nonetheless.
Two brothers, Rex and Ned Shaw, had built houses across the street from each other just down the street from us. Rex and Betty's son, Harlow, was also part of our gang.
Also living on our street was Lou Salander, the man behind the politicians and railroad magnets of Rutland, and Harold "The Hawk" Nichols, a railroad dispatcher who became a popular city mayor. I still cherish the days when I visited Nichols's railroad office. He kept track of the Rutland Railroad trains on a big master board. My desire to bring back the railroads to ease truck traffic on Vermont highways, an effort I'm involved in to this day, probably started right back there in his office.
To cap off the experience of growing up in this close-knit neighborhood, Bob Stafford, my political mentor and predecessor in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, lived a stone's throw away, across Main Street.
There was a vacant lot next to our house where we played a gazillion games of football and baseball and where we organized circuses in which I got to be master of ceremonies, play the clown, or try a few feats of daring. The lot is still empty but kids don't play there much anymore. That's too bad, isn't it? We had no TV or computers. We made our own fun. Mother sometimes made me practice the trumpet, but when we weren't in school or at church and if it wasn't pouring or a blizzard, we spent most of our free time outside. Parents back then were not ever vigilant in the way they are today. They didn't have to be. All the moms were home and someone was always aware of what we were up to -- and not afraid to set us straight if our mischief got out of hand. I feel sorry for today's kids, having so little time to develop imaginative games and leadership skills without the constant supervision of adults.
My sister Mary was eighteen months older than I was and we were very close. When I was born, she took on the role of mother's helper. Mary and I have remained close over the many decades. She was quite popular, and as we got older, she played more and more with the girls and I played with the boys -- that's how it was back then.
By the time I was old enough to know what my father did, he was already on the state superior court, requiring him to rotate around the state's courthouses. He was often in the state capital of Montpelier, about sixty miles from Rutland, especially after he became chief justice on the Vermont Supreme Court. All told, he was rarely home during the week, and even on the weekend, he was often away from the house.
My mother was bright, fastidious, organized, and very involved in the community. She cooked our dinner and was always home to make sure we did our homework and ate together. But it was Edith Fuller, the woman who lived with us in the early years of my childhood and did most of the housework, who bestowed hugs and kisses -- and Band-Aids for the occasional boo-boo.
The long and short of it was that I spent most of my spare time alone or with the other boys on our street, outdoors or at their houses. I didn't mind being alone; indeed, I have always enjoyed solitude. I like to say it's when I get my best work done -- in my head.
• • •
I have a few foggy memories of early birthday parties and wagon rides, but the first vivid memory of my youth took place a few days before Christmas 1939, when I was five. We had spent the day decorating the Christmas tree, a fresh-cut balsam that stood, year after year, in its appointed place in the corner of the roomy, formal parlor. Mother probably had 78 rpm albums of her favorite Christmas carols playing on the record player, but every once in a while she would pause from putting up the decorations to play a carol or two herself on the piano. Her favorite was "Silent Night." I loved this moment every year, as we placed the metallic glass balls, the strings of popcorn, and the tinsel on the tree and hung our stockings on either side of the mantel. But this particular Christmas I was in agony. Aldo Merusi, a photographer from the Rutland Herald, had come by to take a picture of Mary and me standing in front of the fireplace with our stockings hanging on either side of us. All the while I tried to ignore the growing pain in my stomach. At first we thought it was the dreaded grippe, but by the time I was doubled over in the bathroom, Mother realized I was really sick. She called Dr. Ed Hines, who came over right away. I can still see his kind face as he bent over me while I lay on my white chenille bedspread. The model airplanes I had hung from my ceiling were spinning around and around and I was crying softly, too weak from pain and fever to wail, although I felt like it. He poked for just a minute, then announced that we had an emergency and he had to get me to the hospital immediately. I don't know where Father had been but suddenly he appeared in the doorway, already wearing his overcoat. Mother dressed me in my new pajamas and Father picked me up and carried me down the stairs, something I can't remember him doing before or after. As we went through the door to our shiny new Buick, I turned back toward the tree, lit up as if nothing were amiss, and said softly, "Good-bye Mister Christmas Tree."
As you might have guessed, my appendix had burst and I was in deep trouble. Fortunately, new sulfa drugs and penicillin treatments had recently been introduced, and Dr. Hines had refreshed his medical training so he knew what to do. He told my parents that had my appendix burst six months or a year earlier, he might not have been able to save my life. This, of course, became a family myth, told and retold, about how the boy that I was whispered "Good-bye Mister Christmas Tree" on his way to the emergency room. Curiously, my father, who was neither an overly affectionate man nor a sentimental one, was the one most apt to retell the story.
Father -- yes, he had a big influence on me. Of course I admired him. I knew he was an important man and that he had values. Others saw him as entertaining, a storyteller, and a rock of dependability. I saw these things, too, but I also felt his unhuggableness. I can picture him now in his dark suit with his stark white shirt and his conservative tie, making it clear that whatever he was telling me was the law and not to be argued with. He never raised his voice nor did he ever strike me. He didn't have to. All he had to do was give me his stern look and utter the words "Your mother tells me..." and I'd be shaking. I rarely could come up with the right answer to his "And what do you have to say for yourself?" Even when I came upon him asleep in his chair after he had returned from playing pinochle at the Masonic Hall, or when he took me on our annual fishing trips to Lake Champlain or along the Missisquoi River, I found him formal and distant.
One of my other early memories is what I call my first honesty test. That new Buick was Father's pride and joy; he kept it nicely polished. One day, just fooling around like any kid will, I took some dirt and rubbed it on the fender. Don't ask me why, maybe just to see if I could get away with it. Later, I was outside playing in a puddle, making a dam with twigs. I had all but forgotten about the dirt on the fender when Father came outside and saw this affront to his precious Buick. Of course, he knew how it had gotten there, but he asked me anyhow. His voice was even and his hazel eyes intent upon me, but he did not yell. I was tempted to lie but Mother had taught me it was wrong to not tell the truth, so I admitted what I had done. He came over, knelt down in front of me, and praised me -- a rare happening. Part of me was listening to his words, but most of me was simply scrutinizing him, looking intently at his face, the fine hairs in his nose, the earnestness of his gaze, the lines on his soft face. It's an odd thing, but to this day, I always feel good when I come out and say what I know to be true, even when it makes someone else angry.
It's not just that my father was distant with me. My parents were formal with each other. I do not recall them ever arguing, but I never saw them exchange physical affection either, other than an occasional peck on the cheek. I imagine now, looking back, that my mother had made some concessions to her husband and was happy enough with them. He had told her before they married that Saturday night was his card game night. He was a man's man, and although my parents had a circle of loyal friends, they weren't much for entertaining. And so my mother developed her own women friends, with whom she often lunched or played bridge, and she had her volunteer activities. And my father worked or went to one of his clubs.
Our world was relatively free of turmoil, other than the occasional appendicitis, of course. That tranquillity came to a sudden end on December 7, 1941. My father had gone to the Rutland Country Club to play cards. I was playing in the backyard, enjoying my time alone. The sun was out; I remember it vividly to this day. Suddenly, my father drove back to the house, hours before his usual return. I immediately sensed something was wrong. He told me in a voice I'd never heard before to get my sister and come into the house. There, we found Father and Mother already gathered in front of the Magnavox cabinet radio in the living room. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were at war. We sat together and listened to the radio for hours.
The radio was a fixture in our lives. On Sunday nights, we usually ate a light supper of cornmeal mush with milk and butter, popcorn and corn bread and maple syrup -- Father liked corn; this was his favorite meal of the week -- and then we retired to the living room to listen to Jack Benny and Charley McCarthy, George Burns and the like. My father would sit in his favorite chair, a deep Morris-style with wooden arms, and laugh and laugh at the programs. He loved the radio. After Pearl Harbor, the radio took on a new significance. It, the Rutland Herald, and letters from the front became our links to the people on our street who were fighting in the war. The war may have been very far away, but at the same time it was right there on Kingsley Avenue.
My father's best friend, Leonard Wing Sr., was among those fighting overseas. Major General Wing was a large man with red hair -- his friends called him Red -- and he was the head of the Vermont National Guard. Within days of Pearl Harbor, he was called to active duty and eventually made commander of the 43rd Division of the army, which was comprised of New England men serving in the Pacific. His son, Leonard Wing Jr., was fighting in Europe. At one point, Leonard Junior was imprisoned in Poland and then escaped safely. Our next-door neighbor, Natalie Shaw, had married army pilot Hugh McLeod. During the Battle of the Bulge he was grounded by fog and taken prisoner by the Nazis, but came home safely. Meanwhile, General Wing was leading his division in battle after battle. We followed the drama as best we could, piecing together the various stories from news accounts, newsreels, and letters home. Jim Guild and I were convinced that we needed to train to fight the Japs and Krauts. We all talked like that. Those words were used in headlines in the papers and in the newsreels that we were finally allowed to see at the downtown cinema. I once made myself sick eating Pep cereal because I was trying to save enough box tops to earn a model airplane. I spent hours in my room building warplanes and daydreaming of fighting the enemy. In my daydreams I was a hero like General Wing.
I saw my father even less during the war. By this time he had been appointed to the Vermont Supreme Court. Each Monday he took the bus to Montpelier, where he stayed at the Pavilion Hotel while court was in session. His stated reason was gas rationing, but it was a habit he continued long after the war ended. Simply put, my father was a frugal man, and it was less expensive to stay in Montpelier than to travel back and forth -- both in terms of time and money. Another way he sought to save money was to raise laying chickens in a coop we had in the backyard during the war. The problem was he wasn't around to clean and tend the chickens; I was.
When letters arrived from General Wing, there was often a message for me, wishing me a happy birthday or telling me some little story about the general's exploits. I had to wait until Father got home to open them, of course. I still treasure those letters from the Philippines or New Guinea, with their six-cent bomber stamps and the general's hand-penned message at the top. On one, dated August 14, 1944, the general had drawn a tropical scene and written, "From under the Southern Cross." Another, sent from Guadalcanal, told of how he had cut his leg while opening K rations with his knife. He warned me to be careful when I used my knife. His letters provided lots of grist for the mock battles the neighborhood kids fought.
There was a feeling of danger and excitement to the war years. At its height, most of the kids on our street, including my sister Mary, the Guilds, Jean Nichols, and Tom and Dot Paul, organized a circus to raise money for the Bundles for Britain relief. Mary, Tom, and I were clowns in the circus, which got a big write-up, complete with photographs, in the Rutland Herald.
When General Wing arrived home on November 5, 1945, the city held the largest parade in its history. There had been parades for the 43rd Division all over New England, but this was the culmination, the grand finale: The general was home. Reporters from Boston and Providence covered the event. General Jacob L. Devers, chief of the army ground forces, flew to Rutland to personally bestow the Distinguished Service Medal on General Wing. In the parade, I carried the flag for the local Boy Scout troop -- even though I was still a Cub Scout. I'm sure the general or my father had something to do with that. But my friends didn't suspect any favoritism and were mightily impressed when, as we passed the grandstand, the general shouted out, "Hi there, Jimmy."
In the weeks after General Wing's return, my father often visited with him at the Wing home or at the country club, or the general would stop by our house. I was in awe. Once, father brought me to a camp on nearby Lake Bomoseen where General Wing, exhausted from the war, was resting. I was so overwhelmed by the man that I couldn't say a word. I froze. I was a quiet kid anyhow, and the fact that I was standing in front of the great commander, my hero, didn't help to loosen my tongue. Father was disappointed in me, as he sometimes was, but I suspect he was also a little pleased that I had shown so much respect for the general.
About this time the Rutland Herald ran a photo of me, Malcolm, and another friend, Jackie Stetson, digging a foxhole in the Wings' backyard. The caption said, "When these three Kingsley Avenue admirers of Maj. Gen. Leonard F. Wing learned that their idol was experiencing trouble in resting well since his return home, they produced shovels and dug a foxhole in the garden of the Wing home. They figured he'd be more comfortable sleeping outdoors than in a soft bed. The idea appealed to the Vermont hero apparently, for he is shown supervising the project." In the photo, I'm wearing a navy sailor's hat that, at the time, was a favorite possession. Another was the Japanese sword that the general had brought back from the war. I gave it to my son, named Leonard in the general's honor, when he reached high school.
Not long after he arrived home, General Wing passed away. Dead of a presumed heart attack. I was lying in bed not yet asleep although it was about ten P.M. when I heard the phone ring downstairs, then the slamming of the front door. I raced to the window and saw the door closing at the Wings' home across the way. A car arrived and a man ran into the house, carrying a bag. Much later, a van arrived and two men went into the house carrying a stretcher. When they finally came out, there was a shape on that stretcher covered with a blanket. No one had to tell me my hero was gone. But much later, when I was a military man myself, I got to see the Philippines that General Wing had written me about. During a two-week tour of active duty thirty-five years after General Wing's death, in January 1981, President Ferdinand Marcos and his military advisers told me personally of their appreciation of the men of the 43rd Division and of General Wing in particular.
But there was little solace for my family and me that year. At Memorial Day, when a special service was held at the cemetery on Main Street, I was the one asked to play echo to the taps. I was ready to break down but I kept playing without making a mistake. I remember the day so vividly that in my mind I often compare it to the day we heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Both were clear, blue-sky days, but on this day all the veterans were gathered around us, row after row of them, crying for General Wing and so many others.
What is there to say of school? I was a good student. I didn't dare not be. But I wasn't a studier. Fortunately, I didn't really need to be. I spent fourth grade in the closet, being punished along with some of my pals from Kingsley Avenue. Over the course of the year, we got rid of four teachers -- all young and inexperienced, and we took advantage of each and every one of them, throwing things, sitting on our desks and refusing to get down, laughing when they cried. We were downright cruel. It's not a proud chapter in my life. What can I say? I was skinny, gangly, and the ringleader of a bunch of rascals. My mother adored me. My father wasn't often home. Luckily, I eventually got over pulling those pranks.
Maybe it was the steadying influence of Grandfather Nicholas. He taught me how to use all sorts of tools, not just saws and hammers but drafting tools as well. I loved working with my hands. With his help, I converted part of the basement of the Rutland house into a woodworking shop and my obsession with model airplanes turned into a full-blown hobby. The other boys and I built planes with rubber-band engines that became more and more sophisticated the older we got.
My mother, sister, and I visited my mother's parents every summer. Their house in Glen Cove was small, like an English cottage. My grandmother Laura Hausman was a great cook with a big heart, very warm and affectionate. The atmosphere in their house was very different from ours, more relaxed and warm. Every day my grandfather and I would walk to Hempstead Harbor to look at boats or dig for clams. He loved to sketch boats going in and out of the harbor while I watched. I wanted to be an architect just like him. Designing runs in our family. One of my great-great-uncles was Baron Haussmann, the designer of Paris. How's that for a claim to fame, many times removed? When and if I retire, I plan to research the history of this ancestor.
If I had any philosophical conversations as a child, they were with my grandfather. Our talks never felt contrived or forced; I knew intrinsically that I could trust him with any confidence. I was a big Brooklyn Dodger fan in part because my great-grandfather had been born on a Brooklyn farm. My grandfather took me to my first live baseball game -- in Brooklyn at Ebbets Field.
My relationship with my grandfather gave me practical aptitude, but the Hausmans, including my mother's sister Doris, spoiled me a little, too. Their only son had lived just eighteen months, so I was particularly special to the family. When I was about eleven, I wanted a dog in the worst way, but my father had said no. One day, Aunt Doris called to say she had put a dog on the train and that I was to have it for my birthday. My father would have nothing to do with it but somehow she prevailed. I met that train with all the excitement of a boy with a dream come true. There was a Kerry blue terrier, full grown but still young and, best of all, already house-trained. Two weeks later the dog started turning wildly in circles. When we took him to the veterinarian, we were told he had distemper and had to be put down. I was heartbroken and cried for weeks, but no other dog was allowed in our household. I did get to keep a cat, an orange tabby and Persian mix named Patrick that I loved with all my heart. Father hated that cat, and the cat must have known it. Patrick's favorite chair was Father's favorite chair, and Patrick's long hair did not go well on Father's wool suits. Father was always swatting a sleeping Patrick out of his chair. One day he came home and found that Patrick had peed on his seat. He discovered this by sitting down. Father was so livid he chased Patrick through the house, but I caught him and hid down in the cellar with him in my arms until Father had calmed down or gone to play cards.
I don't mean to say that my father was a tyrant. He was simply a man who had an important job to do and wanted to spend his spare time as he liked, with as little stress or bother as possible. As I've said, he did take me fishing on occasion. He'd wear his fishing outfit, complete with waders and fisherman's vest; I'd be in my regular clothes, freezing as I waded into the frigid water but loving the brief moments of camaraderie. We once went on a fishing trip way up north along the Missisquoi River, a wild place full of rattling woodpeckers and grouse with the river sinewy and rich with fish. That was a good time, the most time we ever spent together. I think my lasting love of the outdoors is in part mixed up with those brief moments of intimacy with my father. At the same time, however, I know that my father's inability or lack of desire to communicate with me and his deficiency when it came to showing affection or intimacy contributed to my own shortcomings in this area. I've been told many times that I lack the simple ability to carry on a social conversation. It's true. I don't like chitchat. Nor am I very adept at expressing my deepest emotions, even when I sorely desire to do so. Perhaps I should blame my father, but I don't. He was who he was and I am who I am. So many events outside our control make us the people we become; by the time we're adults it's often too late to really change.
Father believed in the value of work. I got my first job at age nine, opening doors during the Christmas shopping season at Wilson's Clothing Store downtown. I wore my brown suit and my galoshes over my shoes, looking quite grown-up. Wilson's was a fantastic place with the heads of all sorts of exotic animals mounted on the wall at ceiling height. My job was to greet people and tell them where they might find an item. But I was still a kid, and would sneak away from the front door on occasion to gawk at the animal heads or to put my feet in a kind of X-ray machine they used to see if a shoe fit properly.
I had a lot of jobs growing up. It was the only way I had pocket money. Besides Wilson's, I worked as a stock clerk in Rudolph's Jewelry Store and as a bicycle delivery boy. When I was older, I ran the refreshment stand at the skating rink at Rotary Field. I may have been a bit too thrifty and sometimes kept the hot dogs overlong. I'm lucky I never poisoned anyone. Once, when I was about fifteen, I got a call from the football coach that Norman Rockwell wanted a model. Would I like to pose for the famous painter? I told the coach I couldn't do it; I had to work. When I saw the final result I was glad I hadn't given up a day's pay to model. There was my pal Billy Farwell immortalized by Rockwell as a youngster with big ears and a big nose, which Billy did not have. He was a good-looking boy. I figured Rockwell would have had a heyday with my awkward looks. Actually, I wasn't as bad-looking as I imagined I was. When I look at photographs today of myself as a kid, I'm always surprised to see that I wasn't homely at all. Reality matters little in these situations, however. It's what you believe that matters. I learned early to accept my ungainliness.
Sports gave me a place to feel good about myself, especially as my parents were far from athletic. I skied early, by age seven or eight, first going down Kingsley Avenue on skis that were quite primitive by today's standards. Later, when a group of ski enthusiasts put a rope tow down Pico Mountain, the Guild boys, the Shaws, and I spent whole days pulling ourselves up and skiing down the mountain.
I loved to hike and camp. And my friends and I went on long treks into the woods. I wasn't much for studying but I enjoyed reading about the outdoors and Vermont history. Often, when we set off on a hike, we were in search of some place we had read about. We hiked to Rocky Pond and Muddy Pond in Rutland, to North Pond along the Long Trail, the oldest hiking path in America, and to lakes and ponds and battlefields as much as forty miles away. I had learned to camp and hike under the tutelage of Craig Perkins, our Troop 9 Boy Scout leader. Everyone called him Pinky, Pinky Perkins. Later, when I was in Congress and placed in charge of helping to get the District of Columbia schools back on track, I used Pinky as my role model of a good teacher. He was a very thoughtful man who never talked down to the troop members. Everything he had us do was a learning experience. If we were at Chittenden Dam, he would ask us whether there would be more energy generated from taking water from the top of the dam or the bottom. We would have to come up with the answer then defend our thought process. He was one of the first people who impressed me not only with the idea that learning could be fun and useful but that young people would perform better if treated with respect.
In sixth grade I was the captain of the baseball team and arranged an interschool competition. My friend George Hansen, whom I had met in Sunday school when we were in kindergarten, loves to tell the story of our early competitions in these sixth-grade matches. I went to Lincoln School near my home; George attended Dana on the other side of Main Street. My team was really up for the game. Unfortunately we were a little too up. The game was called at 49-0 with my team having the 49. George has never let me forget it.
By the time we got to Rutland High School our teams were often the winners of the state championship, or in the running, year after year. I particularly liked football and track and field and also played on the basketball team. All this, as you might guess, was routinely recorded in the Rutland Herald. Later, when I began my political life, I came to appreciate the name recognition that came from all the articles that had been written about me and not simply because I was my father's son. Or maybe that was the illusion I allowed myself to harbor. Perhaps I wouldn't have received so much press attention if I'd been someone else's son. Regardless, it's fun to read those articles now. In one, I'm described as someone "who would never be chosen as a 'typical athlete' on appearances." It goes on to say that I "was a Rutland first stringer just because [I] didn't know what it meant to quit." I think that was meant as a compliment. In another article, I'm shown in my football gear in the hike position with the caption, "Gentleman Jim." The accompanying article says, "When Jim first reported for varsity athletics as a freshman four years ago, the coaches were tempted to pass him by. He didn't appear put together the right way to make a good athlete. But at long last Jim has pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He has what it takes."
As for girls, I had female friends with whom I hung out at the Teen Center, which my sister and I had helped create by convincing the local Rotary Club to let us use a clubhouse they owned. And I loved the dances -- I thought I was a good dancer, I've since been informed differently -- but I never had a steady girlfriend. I was awful shy, and sometimes I'd cover up for that with an odd bravado. Besides, I thought going steady was silly -- and a waste of money. After all, I was my father's son.
By high school, I and the other boys from Kingsley Avenue, joined by Hansen and a few more, had a political gang we called The Machine. I ran for class president at Rutland High School four times, and despite our confident moniker, I lost all four times, though never by more than six votes. One of my opponents during these years was Bernie Rome, who later became a personal friend and strong ally in the Republican Party. So I had political ambitions even then, but I always made it a point to never say anything bad about my competition. My campaign signs said it all: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."
Maybe my classmates didn't know what to make of me. I never wanted to be a Goody Two-shoes and had a bit of the rebel in me. Once I set off a stink bomb in a class and then ran to the bathroom. My father had pushed me to go to Phillips Exeter Academy, his alma mater, but I had refused. Perhaps it was an aversion to following in his footsteps. Or, perhaps, it was that I felt comfortable where I was, that in Rutland I could pull off the balancing act of being the good son and occasionally allowing the scamp in me a little free rein. Still, it's clear I got away with a lot. For example, for reasons I no longer recall, but no doubt because of some shenanigan, I had been blackballed from going to Boys State, the annual mock senate and leadership conference that a select group of high school boys are sent to. But Principal Guild got the parent-teachers' association to send me anyhow as an add-on.
Still, I couldn't push it too far. I was always very aware of my father's position as the top judge in Vermont -- and so was everyone else. Our license plate was simply the number 9. In Vermont, like most states, the governor has license number 1; the lieutenant governor has 2 and so on to show the order of power. Number 9 definitely caught too much attention for a young man who was still getting over his awkwardness at the wheel. I agonized over picking up a girl with that car.
Sports and music provided me with my own identity. In my senior year we were not only state champions in football and basketball but also runners-up in baseball and track. In track, I placed second in the mile and third in the half mile. Our biggest thrill was when our team was chosen to represent the north in the North-South High School football championship to be held in Atlanta, Georgia. Unfortunately, or probably fortunately, our football team was also our basketball team and we were in full season and therefore unable to attend.
I got my love of music from my mother. I played baritone horn and also sang at the all-state music festival. My love of singing remained a lifelong hobby, straight through to my tenure with the Singing Senators, that quartet of Republicans who came to a sad ending shortly before I announced my decision to leave the Republican Party. In high school, four of us guys -- John Hartigan, George Cady, Al McPherson, and myself -- formed a kind of barbershop quartet that we called the Harmogenizers. We got paid $10 a performance -- that's $10 between the four of us. We sometimes sang for the men's club dinners, like the Elks and the Eagles, or at local parties. Times were easy then, or at least they appeared to be.
I don't know where I got it into my head that I had to go to Yale. Yale had a fantastic football team, although I didn't harbor any illusions on that regard, and I had been cheering for The Eli from almost as soon as I could differentiate one team from another. Because of my admiration for my grandfather, I wanted in the worst way to be a civil engineer and architect, and Yale had a great reputation as an engineering school. But I think I was simply taken with the idea of Yale. I never considered applying anywhere else. Today, I can see how young and certain I was, thinking that believing a thing made it so. From this vantage point I also see that there is great truth to that notion. Belief in one's dreams is a powerful tool, one I took to instinctively but later came to rely on with greater consciousness.
Of course, if I had followed Father's recommendation and attended Phillips Exeter, my entrance to Yale would have been almost guaranteed. Instead, I waited expectantly for my admissions letter and was absolutely thrilled when it came. I felt I had achieved that goal entirely on my own.
One of the downfalls of growing up in a fairly insulated place was that one could sometimes be overly trusting -- some would call it naive -- about human nature. My first big lesson in this regard occurred shortly after high school graduation, when a harmless outing with one of my pals almost ended not only my chances of going to Yale but also my life.
My friend Fred Hyland had been admitted to Cornell and asked me to accompany him on an orientation visit. I was always up for a road trip, so we set off, thumbing across Vermont and into New York. We had gotten a few short rides that took us toward Ithaca when a hardtop convertible with three teens pulled up next to us and offered us a ride all the way to Cornell, which we thought was great luck.
I waited in the library while Fred registered, then we went back to the highway to hitchhike back to Vermont. Lo and behold, who came along but the same three teenagers in the hardtop convertible.
"Well, where're ya' going now?" one of the teens asked. They said they would take us to Albany, which was a good deal, as the New York state capital was an ideal place from which to get rides north to Vermont.
I was sitting center front between the driver and one of the passengers, Fred was in the back, and we were sailing along. I was a little concerned about the speed but I was trying to be cool and kept my thoughts to myself. We stopped for gas and then very quickly got back on the road. But now I had a queasy feeling. I didn't remember seeing anyone pay for the gas. We were on a three-lane highway, not the big interstate that now runs up New York's eastern border. Everyone was chatting away but I had my eye on the speedometer as it climbed -- 60, 70, 75, 80, 85 miles an hour. We were going 90 when we came to a red light. Damn if the driver didn't speed right through. I was really worried now, squished down in my seat, when in the rearview mirror I saw a motorcycle policeman chasing after us. I was thinking surely the driver would stop now; I for one was going to get out of the car and not get back in. But no, he didn't stop. The driver seemed to know his way around, or at least I thought he did, because he was taking back roads at breakneck speed with the motorcycle cop hard on our heels. Then we lost the cop. I started praying the driver would drive a bit down the road and stop so Fred and I could get out.
All of a sudden we screeched to a stop. We had driven down a dead-end street. The driver threw the car into reverse and started backing up, driving like a madman. We hadn't lost that police officer; he'd known all along we were headed down a dead-end street and had simply parked his motorcycle to block our exit. When the driver careened out of the dead end, he almost hit the cop. I dove out of the way of the window when I saw the police officer pull out his gun and start shooting. I was yelling, "Look, he's shooting at us." I was flabbergasted by all of this but, like an idiot, I had no sense of fear. Everyone else was ducking while I was watching the officer shoot at us. Fortunately, he was aiming for our tires. The last thing I saw was the speedometer hit 80 as we spun out on the dirt road and went rolling. The car landed upside down and kept going on its hood for what seemed an eternity. When it finally stopped, we couldn't get out. We had to break a window. My heart was pounding and I was probably pretty shook up, but I wasn't thinking about any of that; I was just glad we had finally stopped. Next thing I knew, the three teens were running away and yelling, "Scram, it's a hot car."
Fred and I decided it was best to get ourselves back to the highway and hitchhike as far away as we could, but then we realized that the police would be looking for the driver and the passengers, and that meant us, too. We soon found we were right. Hiding behind some bushes, we could see police everywhere. We crawled through a culvert to get to the other side of the road, where we hunkered down in the damp pipe, quaking in our shoes and trying to figure out what to do next. Finally, Fred said, "We haven't done anything wrong. Let's just give ourselves up." I hesitated at first -- what if my father found out? -- but after some thought I agreed.
We hailed down a police cruiser and tried to tell the officers we were simply hitchhiking back to Vermont when we got involved in the whole mess. One cop yelled gruffly, "Get in" as he pushed us roughly into the cruiser. Another officer grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back, hurting me something wicked as he screamed right in my ear, "Where are those other guys?" I was trying to tell him I didn't even know who they were but he wasn't listening. I hated to use my father's name and truly refrained from doing so, but I considered this an acceptable exception and so I told him my father was a Vermont Supreme Court judge.
The next thing I knew we were driving into somebody's yard and getting pushed into a house. At first I thought, great, they believed me and now they're getting us to a phone or a safe place for the night. It was midnight by now and both Fred and I were exhausted. As it turned out, we were at the home of a justice of the peace and he wasn't interested in our story any more than the cops had been. He kept telling us to quiet down and not wake his family. Within minutes we were charged with attempted murder of a police officer, resisting arrest, grand larceny, leaving the scene of an accident, and Lord knows what else. We protested our innocence but the JP just told us to shut up, then ordered the cops to take us "to the hotel." There was a brief moment of hope before we realized "hotel" was a euphemism for the Albany County Jail.
Now, you've got to imagine what this jail was like. Here we were, two seventeen-year-olds from Rutland, Vermont, who thought we were old enough and savvy enough to hitchhike around New England but in reality we were just two young sprouts still wet behind the ears, and now we were being thrown into dark, individual cells no bigger than closets, each with a bed covered with a stinky mattress, a sink, and a toilet. I was getting more concerned and frightened all the time as the men around us yelled out, "Hey, number twenty-three, what are you in for?" Fred started yelling back, "We're innocent," but I quickly hushed him, thinking our charges might offer us some protection if our fellow inmates thought we were tough characters. Thus, when they asked me, "Hey, number ten, what are you in for?" I responded, "Attempted murder, grand larceny, and resisting arrest." All the while, I was thinking about my stern father back in Rutland but also cracking up because my number on the Rutland High School football team had been ten!
You know the story about having the right to one free phone call? We didn't get ours. Eventually, overcome with fatigue, I stretched out on the bed, hoping to sleep until the morning. But within minutes I began to itch like crazy. It wasn't my imagination: The bed was infested with bedbugs. I sat up the rest of the night on the toilet. At 6:30 A.M. all the cell doors opened and a prison guard called us to breakfast. Fred and I filed out and joined the other men, an assortment of different colors and sizes that were a bit beyond the scope of our usual companions, at a long steel table on which each person had been doled out cornflakes and water, white bread and jelly. I wasn't exactly eating at warp speed when a huge hand grabbed me by my neck and dragged me back to my cell. Breakfast was apparently over. "Where's my phone call?" I asked as the metal door slammed shut behind me. "You're not allowed one," the guard said and stomped away. When the doors opened again for our brief time outdoors, the other inmates immediately gave us nicknames. Fred was Shorty and I, of course, was Slim. Fred was a little slow on the uptake -- forgive me Fred, but it's true -- and he kept saying things that upset the other inmates. I was simply trying to keep a low profile while I figured out how to get us out of there. I was mulling this over when I heard a shout and ran to find that this big, 250-plus-pound inmate had Fred hoisted over the bars with his own belt -- they hadn't taken ours away -- around his neck. Fortunately, I got help from the other inmates and got Fred down.
I don't know if it was true or not, but one of the other inmates told me the guy had killed someone just a month previously and that no one dared squeal on him. By now I was feeling pretty desperate and for the first time began to understand the meaning of freedom. But again fortune was with me. I made friends with one of the inmates, a quiet guy who was due to get released that day. I got some paper and an envelope and wrote a letter to my father that said:
Albany County Prison
July 31, 1952
Fred and I have been detained in Albany County Prison. Coming home from Ithaca we were picked up by 3 boys in a stolen car. Outside Schenectady, NY, this car was pursued by police and was in an accident from which we escaped unhurt. It was at this time we learned the car was stolen. As we did not desire to be left with this car when the 3 boys ran, we also went, running in another direction and were stopped by police. We told them what we knew concerning the matter. For obvious reasons we were placed in jail awaiting a grand larceny charge.
We have written this letter in the event that if we do not reach you by phone, we trust you will know what to do.
I had no money to give to my jail buddy for his help in mailing the letter, but he had taken a liking to the sports shirt I was wearing. I literally gave him the shirt off my back in return for the promise that he would get a stamp and mail my letter to my father. I had just a T-shirt on but it was July so I wasn't concerned.
About five P.M. we were taken out of the jail by a police officer. He didn't tell us where we were going, just drove about ninety miles an hour to the courthouse, where our charges were read again and we entered our pleas. Once again I told our story, who we were and so on. They must have believed us this time, because the judge just gave us a lecture about hitchhiking and then simply released us. We had to hitchhike home, of course.
By now our story had been on the front page of the Knickerbocker News, under the headline "Five Seized in District Gun Chase." The subhead read, "Patrolman Says Stolen Car Tried to Injure Him." The article said, "Five youths were being held at three communities today for questioning in the theft of two cars and a spectacular escape under gunfire of a Schenectady motorcycle patrolman whom they allegedly tried to run down when he cornered them momentarily at 1:30 A.M. today."
It went on to explain the dramatic episode that followed our accident, alleging that the car we had been in, which had Missouri plates, had been stolen two days previously in Lake George, a resort community near the New York/Vermont border. After our car wreck, the three teens had stolen yet another car, one belonging to a motor route carrier for the Knickerbocker News!
By the time we were on our way home, our names had been released to the press and we were being described as two Rutland youths who "inadvertently [got] involved in the affair when they hitched a ride in the allegedly stolen car....Hyland and Jeffords were released Thursday afternoon after questioning by authorities established they were hitchhikers who did not know the car was stolen. The adventure is a reversal of the usual hitchhiker complaint," the story concluded. "Traditionally, the ride-thumber is the one who gets the driver in trouble."
A friend of my father's had read of our ordeal and called him, so by the time we finally arrived home, he was fully aware of our misadventure. He lectured us about the dangers of hitchhiking and made us promise not to do it anymore. Of course, I didn't stop. I hitched all over the country in the next few years and nothing like that ever happened to me again.
But the event did come back to haunt me. Later that summer I had to return to Albany for a military physical because I had been selected for Navy ROTC at Yale. I couldn't lie when I read the question "Have you ever been arrested? If yes, provide details." It took me awhile to put it all down. Hours later, the military was still checking my story. Plus, I had felt a cold coming on that morning and had drunk a lot of water. When the medic finally tested my urine, he loudly proclaimed, "Damn, I think we hit a spring. Boy, you're pissing water." They ended up keeping me overnight so they could check out my story and my urine. Eventually, both cleared the test and I was on my way to the next phase of my life.
There was, however, a happy outcome to the event. My trust in human nature was restored when the letter I had written my father arrived at my parents' house. I've kept it to this day as proof that trust is often rewarded.
Copyright © 2003 by James M. Jeffords