Many people have succeeded in life by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, as the saying goes. These people are to be admired for their determination and grit. We often use the same phrase as a suggestion to those who are struggling. “You just need to get up off your duff and pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” some have been heard to say. The problem is that not everyone has bootstraps, or boots for that matter.
Seventy years ago this June 11 my Dad, Harold Clifton Brown, graduated first in his class from West Point. Born the first son of an electrical engineer and a Norwegian immigrant who had briefly written for silent films, things looked pretty bright for his future from the start. He soon had two brothers to play with and his parents were doing pretty well providing for the boys. His dad, Harold senior, worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light. He was called “Brownie” by Grandma Brown, and she took care of the boys and the home. When Dad was about six, Brownie died of a sudden illness, leaving Grandma to provide and care for three young boys. It was 1924.
Through the worst of the Great Depression Grandma Brown worked hard and raised the boys. Dad did pretty well in school, except in the area of conduct.
Third column from the left is Conduct, preceded by attendance numbers. According to the scale it was his worst area.
Yep, Dad was a bad boy with potential. This was recognized by U.S.Senator Fred Brown (No relation. And no relation to the former Seattle SuperSonic.) of New Hampshire who appointed Dad to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Dad continued to work hard once at West Point and in the end was incredibly successful. He served in World War II with the Corps of Engineers, earned a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Science at the University of Chicago after the war, and eventually retired as a Colonel. He went on to work fifteen years as an analyst for Boeing.
Funniest caption ever.
So dad had a bit of a rough start, but his life by most standards was successful. He certainly pulled himself up by his bootstraps, wouldn’t you say?
In no way do I consider myself the success Dad was. I went to college, reluctantly. My record as an undergrad was undistinguished. I flailed around at a variety of jobs for six years afterwards. Something finally clicked and I got my teaching credentials with a 3.74 GPA. Since then I’ve been gainfully employed as an elementary school teacher. But I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. Couldn’t find them. So how did I get where I am? I’m white, male, grew up in an upper middle-class community, and I’m the son of a very successful father and saintly mother. Had but one of those puzzle pieces been missing I might be missing too (See Depression).
So when I hear or read about people using examples of others overcoming long odds to “make something out of themselves” to justify criticism of those who fail at same, I get agitated. Sometimes I even get hot under the collar. On rare occasions it gets my back and my dander up. Way, way up. If someone opines that you should stay out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat, well, better make yourself scarce, because that’s one too many cliches.
Sometimes people need help to simply lead a normal life. We all are products of our families, communities, nations, and genetics. Fortune determines the variety and quantity of each. Genetics can impact ambition, health, and talent. Our families impact our self-image, values, and attitudes. Community and nation provide opportunity, resources, and security. If fortune is kind we find it easier to make our way in the world. If fortune shorts us in one or more areas we struggle a bit more. If too much is missing, ambition can find little room to grow.
So, when I see the alcololic homeless man vomiting by the side of the road I try not to judge him. I don’t call him “loser.” I see the me that might have been had my circumstances been slightly different.