Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t

Christmas has held a special place in my life as a child, parent and husband to the affectionately and appropriately named Christmas Carole.

But the Christmas that sticks in my memory was the one I didn’t celebrate.

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It was 1968 in the middle of the Vietnam War, student protests, political upheaval and racial unrest. I was a senior in college and editor of my college student newspaper.

The Falcon had a tradition of publishing a satirical edition before the Christmas break. Our satire pushed a lot of repressed buttons and the newspaper was suspended.

Since my work at the newspaper paid for my tuition, the suspension left me in the same position as a Christmas decoration dangling from a tree limb.

Even before the suspension, I planned on remaining in Seattle over the holiday break to work. I needed the money to pay rent at a Queen Anne boarding house and for food and gas.

I worked for a firm located on the Seattle waterfront that dealt in raw fur. It bought pelts from trappers, measured and graded them, then sold them to designers who turned them into high-fashion coats, hats and wraps. Furs ranged from Alaskan wolf to wild mink. But by far the largest amount of pelts we handled were from beavers.

My employer was a family-owned business with a second-generation operator, Irwin Goldberg. Irwin was a graduate from the University of Washington and attended every home football game as a proud fan. But he refused to hire UW students. Instead he hired “Christian boys” from my college because he said we showed up for work. When he hired me, I didn’t argue with his logic.

As a matter of religious conscience, Irwin worked on Christmas day, but was afraid to ask any of his Christian helpers to join him. When I volunteered to work, he hugged me and said he would pay me double time. In light of my financial circumstances, it was like a gift from heaven.

Working alongside Irwin typically involved us measuring the beaver pelts, while he graded them by running his hand through the fur and judging the color. He sorted them into stacks, paying careful attention to the stack that would fetch the best price per pelt.

Most days, Irwin would engage in light banter. This day, he and I engaged in one of the more fascinating day-long conversations of my lifetime. We talked about our respective faiths. We talked about the Vietnam War. We talked about defining moments in a life. We talked about the value of a college education.

The day passed like a blur. I drove back to my boarding house not feeling tired, but feeling energized. In the daze of the newspaper suspension, the question mark over my college education and the self-doubt, I suddenly felt a resolve. I  could somehow see light at the end of the beaver pelt.

The suspension of The Falcon had attracted media coverage. AP Seattle bureau chief John Wetzel had taken a special interest in the situation. The next thing I knew I received a call from the American Civil Liberties Union. There were a lot of questions. The only one I can remember is, “Do you want to stay with the newspaper?” I said “yes.”

Before winter term began, the newspaper was reinstated and I had my job back. We didn’t publish any more satire, but we still talked about the war, free speech and civil rights. I wasn’t the most popular kid on a campus where these topics weren’t welcomed, but our coverage sparked serious conversations that might never have occurred otherwise.

I often have wondered what persuaded college officials to relent. One of the trustees who vouched for me was the father of a close friend. One of the associate editors was the son of a dean and the registrar at the college.

But I can’t help but think that Irwin Goldberg, the Jewish graduate of the University of Washington, played a role. In passing one day as we measured and sorted beaver pelts side by side, he mentioned a call he got from the ACLU after Christmas.

“They asked me about you,” Irwin said matter of factly. He never mentioned what he told them. He didn’t need to.

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