I was 18, and living in a $55 a month room, next to another room in the a boarding house that was filled with 5-6 winos & street people, in Portland, Oregon.
I had arrived two months earlier, hitchhiked from Indiana to stay with good friends Kathy Glade, and Susan Roudebush, two 47906 girls that had graduated from Purdue university, and were claiming their piece of adventure far away from West Lafayette, Indiana.
I had a missing father I needed to find, knew his name (James Herndon), his profession (writer), and his location (San Francisco, California).
I had talked to Susan and Kathy a lot- about wanting to meet or contact my biological father, and it was Susan, as usual, who took me to task, held my hand as I called my father for the first time. The person that picked up the phone, had to be my brother Jack, who apparently based on the stated age in the letter below- was my brother and born very near to my own birthday, in 1960. He handed the phone to his father, and when I introduced myself, I told him I was his son. He jokingly said, “”figuratively speaking right? You are a fan?”
I replied: “No, I am your son, my mother’s name is Ingeborg Maria Hinderschiedt, and I was born in Lorrach, Germany”.
Well that changed the entire pitch of the conversation, he cleared his throat, had a lot of tension in his voice, and we talked a bit. After the conversation, I sent him a letter and a package of poems, etc, for him to read.
In June, 1980, I got his written response…
Well, I guess I was disappointed. I don’t know what I expected, but I expected more from my father than he was ready to dole out. I thought the letter was glib, and the lecture appropriate- as I probably sent him some pretty morose writing samples, but it really wasn’t the “Lassie Come Home” ending I somehow wanted or needed.
So I forwarded the letter to my mother, and forgot that I had done so (I assumed that in all my travels I had lost it somewhere), only to find it when re-reading all of her old letters after she died (December 7th, 2013).
In all honesty, one of the goals while looking through her things, was looking for some sort of validation that James was indeed my biological father, even though I met a few road blocks trying to ascertain that, and as well- meet my half-brothers.
I tried to get together with James, in 1983, when I had just moved to San Diego. Well, he wasn’t to keen on the idea of maybe having a beer together and finally meet one-another, so it became clear to me- that for whatever reason, this “father-son” thing wasn’t going to work out. So I basically bailed on future efforts, and figured if he wasn’t going to put forth an effort to see his son- well he wasn’t worth meeting. All said and done for 10 years or so.
I called Fran Herndon in 1995- 1998- 2000 something, and something, and a few more somethings. I think the sheer tenacity and the ability to frame his whereabouts (Paris in 1955) made her reconsider the fact that maybe I wasn’t a con-artist looking for a free meal. She gave me Jack Herndon’s phone number, which I called and left a few messages to- but never got a response. It was also clear to me that she hated the man, and was glad he was out of her life. I don’t know what to say about that.
I wrote my mom a letter about my life in Portland, and part of it includes my initial assessment of my encounter with James Herndon.
The bottom line?
I don’t quit on anything.
I have been doing this since 1976 (38 years) albeit in spurts- as I make a surge of inquiries, and then after no net result, just let it lie for 5 or 6 years. But I have never quit anything in my life, and have hitchhiked across this country from West Lafayette IN > Chicago IL > Durham NC > Pittsburgh PA > Portland OR > and back to Indianapolis (to visit my mom- rather than take a direct flight to Orlando FL for Navy boot camp). I gave up a free ride to Purdue university- to do it my way.
James Herndon (1926–1990) was an American writer and educator. He is best known for two memoirs of teaching, The Way It Spozed To Be and How To Survive In Your Native Land. He is considered one of the influential 1970s writers on education, among the ranks of John Holt, George Dennison, Jonathan Kozol, Paul Goodman, and Herbert Kohl.
Herndon’s first book, The Way It Spozed To Be (1968), chronicles his first year teaching, in a poor, segregated junior high school in urban California. This book describes his despair at the inadequacy of the school system and his innovative efforts to teach his students to read, which led to his being fired at the end of the year for poor classroom management.
The Way It Spozed to Be deals incisively with what is still the root problem of ghetto schools: their appalling failure to reach the kids, their obsession with rote learning and imposed discipline, which only drives them further into apathy and rebellion. . . . This book exposes the conflict between image and reality, between the way things “spozed to be” and the way they are.
Herndon’s second book How To Survive In Your Native Land (1971) centers on Herndon’s subsequent decade teaching. Its humorous, Beat style led reviewers to compare Herndon to Kurt Vonnegut.
In How to Survive in Your Native Land James Herndon details classroom life and the inescapable realities of a school situation. This is a compelling vision of what really goes on in school and how the conventional school structure actually affects teaching and learning. The realities may be hard, but Herndon’s humorous touch makes this book easy to read.
In 1973, Herndon privately published Everything As Expected, an account of his then-wife Fran Herndon’s collage collaborations with poet Jack Spicer. The Herndons were part of Jack Spicer‘s circle in San Francisco
Sorrowless Times, James Herndon’s memoir of his years as a merchant marine during World War II, was published in 1981.
In 1985, Herndon published Notes From A Schoolteacher, further musings on American education, including his reflections on his role as president of his local teachers’ union.