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It Seems to Come Down to a Simple Thing Called Respect

AMERICAN FAMILY: On the road with the Sipchens. * Thursday: The Last Stop.

September 16, 1997|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAINES JUNCTION, Yukon — "Bear!"

(Actually, it's a moose.)

"Bear!"

(No, wolverine.)

A stump is a bear and a rock is a bear, and finally Pam confesses her maxim for survival here: "In Alaska, anything big and brown's a bear, OK?"

Hmm. Is there a lesson for our children in that? Is the survival instinct a family value?

Pam and I and our children--Ashley, 13, Emily, 10, and Robert, 7--have spent the summer touring the United States, reporting on American families. Now, as we head north on the Alaska Highway, the foliage already is blazing in a yellow and orange mottle.

Autumn leaves? Sigh. It must be time to start wrapping things up.

And one thing I promised the bosses back home is that I'd report on a term that buzzed through recent political seasons: family values.

In fact, one of the first things we learned on the road was that we weren't alone in our quest for values this summer. Everywhere we went, we met other families, and few were simply sightseeing.

That doesn't mean anyone could define the nebulous term. But some were ahead of others.

One morning, at Cowan's Gap State Park in southern Pennsylvania, my family bicycled off to explore the woods. I opted to infiltrate another campsite, drawn by the scent of several dozen sausages grilling over a campfire and the sight of a young man breaking a full five dozen eggs into a stainless steel bowl.

Bryan Hammaker, a 34-year-old forklift operator, was designated cook for the morning. Twenty other Hammakers from four generations scrambled after Frisbees and Nerf balls or sat playing cards beneath an enormous blue tarp.

Twenty-five years ago, matriarch Janet Hammaker and her husband began taking their six children for weeklong vacations at this shaded campground overlooking a scenic little swimming and fishing lake. When Janet's husband died two years ago, there was a moment when the family's ties must have seemed as vulnerable as life itself. But Janet figured that the way to knit the fabric of her family together again was to keep its traditions strong.

So what does the Hammakers' magic bonding ritual entail? "Not much," Bryan said, cracking two eggs at once. "We stay up every night till 2 around the campfire."

"Doing what?" I asked.

"Talking."

That answer echoed what we heard from Arizona to Maine: Summer is the time to coerce family togetherness, building enough boredom into the gatherings so that aunts and cousins and siblings will sit around polishing family mythology until the good stuff sparkles like legend, and the bad disappears into black humor and cautionary tale.

It's also a natural time to sort out the family's values.

I asked Janet what values she tries to instill in the sprawling, wisecracking, roughhousing, embarrassed-by-such-serious-talk crew that surrounds her.

She keeps it simple: "The golden rule, do unto others. Always be kind. Be as trustworthy as possible. And if you're going to have a family, give 'em love. Family is the center of my life, and love is the center of my family."

I suspect that most of the people we talked to this summer were trying to say just about the same thing. More parents than I expected summed up their values with the same word or hyphenate: "Christian" or "Judeo-Christian." Others called out a litany of specifics they hope to instill: the work ethic, cooperation, appreciation of nature.

An elderly woman we met in Wyoming began her list with "civility." She also lamented that today's young women dodge their duty to serve on volunteer boards. "They don't want to do anything that impinges on their tennis game, their bridge game," she said.

On the Iowa State Fair's cacophonous midway, an unemployed roofer and his scraggly extended family had other concerns. He remains the only person we met all summer who cited "honesty" as a priority for his children. "I teach them, 'don't steal.' "

Those disparate encounters reminded me that despite all the worry these days about "moral relativism," morality is relatively easier for middle- and upper-crust folks. Which may explain why the most bedraggled parents we met also were the most adamant that their kids learn right from wrong.

*

A trip like this, by its nature, generates odd juxtapositions and unusual layers of association.

Our second day on the road, more than three months ago, we all met around a conference table with former Vice President Dan Quayle, who first kicked the term "family values" into circulation.

Quayle talked about discipline and rules and (after admitting to regrets that he'd been a bit of a slacker) the importance of education. Then he turned to Ashley and administered an impromptu lecture that sounded a lot like one we'd given the kids that morning.

"You're going to have a hard time living up to this in the next 14 weeks," Quayle said. "But you've got to respect everybody that's around this table: mother, father, brother, sister. . . . You have to respect them for who they are. And they need to respect you too."

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