Read Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family Online
Authors: Robert Kolker
Then the games would change. Donald would pound his brothers on their arms, right on the muscle, where it hurt the most. And then he would start staging fights. Michael against Richard, Richard against Joseph. He’d have two brothers hold a third one down while he took swings at him, then tell the others to take their own turn on the defenseless, captive brother. The command, to some of his younger brothers, was unforgettable: “If you don’t hit him and hit him hard, you’re going to be up there next.”
At first, all this seemed to happen without Don and Mimi doing much of anything about it. It wasn’t that they weren’t told—it was that they couldn’t believe Donald was capable of the things his brothers accused him of doing. “I begged my parents not to leave him there when I was home,” said John—the third son, four years younger than Donald. “Donald, I think, was my father’s favorite. He’d take Donald’s word over anybody’s. In the meantime, I had to go find a place to hide.” Mimi also, according to John, “didn’t know the half of it. I tried to tell them about my oldest brother, and they just ignored me.”
Tattle Tale Tit, your tongue shall be split….
In Mimi’s and Don’s view, it might have seemed pointless to get too deeply involved in the gripes and vendettas of teenage brothers. In every family with lots of kids, a pecking order was inevitable. Donald would take command when Don and Mimi weren’t around, and Jim would seize power when Donald was gone. “The older brother would control the situation,” remembered Michael—the fifth son, who was eight years younger than Donald—except one time when Michael dislocated his elbow in a fight with Richard, who was younger, and Richard rose in triumph. Michael, in turn, once slapped Mark so hard, half his face turned purple with a bruise. The walk to school wasn’t safe. If you didn’t form a new alliance each day with a few brothers, you were basically asking to be dominated.
These conflicts, Don and Mimi sometimes thought, were best settled between the boys. Interceding too much might send the wrong message, and the boys might never learn to get along with one another on their own. And even if they had wanted to determine who was wrong in every instance, they would have had trouble figuring out whose fault it was. Because while Donald might have ruled over the other boys with an iron fist, Jim never stopped gunning for Donald’s position at the top of the heap.
IF DONALD WAS
the model son, Jim was more of a maverick. This meant embracing the James Dean and Marlon Brando spirit of the time—the leather jacket, the fast car, the defiant snarl. He had tried being more like Donald first and came up short. As an end receiver and defensive back, Jim had been good enough to, one time, block a punt and score a touchdown in the same play, but he never could outperform Donald on the football field—or in falconry, for that matter. Soon, he saw no upside in trying. Jim couldn’t fail to notice his parents’ expectations and attention always swerving past him and toward his older brother, and that angered and shamed him. There was, naturally, one person onto whom he could direct all that rage. Which was how, from his teenage years onward, Jim always seemed to have a score to settle with Donald. “It was like a pact with himself,” Michael said.
Jim and Donald never seemed to stop wrestling—in the basement, in the bedrooms, on the shrubs in the backyard. Jim was smaller, and so when Donald beat him, he’d go off and lift weights, or try to round up some of his younger brothers to gang up on Donald. That never worked. The other brothers were afraid of them both. Once, Jim slammed a storm door in Brian’s face, cutting his mouth. The skirmishes extended beyond the nights Mimi and Don were out, and into the daytime when they weren’t around, and then every waking hour. Once the fights started spilling into the living room, Don and Mimi knew they had to intercede. Michael remembered being in third grade and seeing his father, usually so aloof, running at teenage Donald at full speed and tackling him, to keep the boy from hurting one of his other brothers. This struck Michael as impressive at the time. But Don must have known he was on borrowed time. Donald was a football star. All the boys were only growing in one direction.
Different command styles are appropriate in different situations, and so Don searched for the right approach. At first, to him, this seemed like an issue of setting the right tone. Something about the family atmosphere seemed too highly charged with young male vigor, and it was his job to help them find their way, each of them, toward manhood. Ever the benevolent patriarch, Don would try to sell the boys on books that could improve their personalities, smooth out the rough edges.
The Power of Positive Thinking
was one. Another was
Maxwell Maltz’s popular 1960 self-help book, which introduced much of the public to the idea of creative visualizations. Don thought these books might offer the boys a road map out of their conflicts. He’d get them all around the long dining table and lecture about harmony. When that didn’t work, Don decided that he could at least impose order, something the military had taught him well. So he brought home boxing gloves. And he made a new rule: No fighting without them.
Richard—the sixth son, nine years younger than Donald—remembered the dread he felt when he put on those boxing gloves. “All the brothers were all-state athletes, you know, in top-notch shape,” he said. “So when a fight broke out, it was a real fight.”
THE GALVIN HOME
became a place where two different realities existed at the same time: the wrestling pit and the church choir; the wildness of the boys and the model family Don and Mimi believed they had. A little mischief could always be waved off, especially on a military base where competition and power and might were almost part of the drinking water.
But for many brothers—John, Michael, Richard, and Matt—there was a growing sense of being lost in the shuffle, even neglected, feeling less than safe, treated like a number and not a person, raised to take the illusion of protection as the real thing.
The private and public faces of the family were sometimes hard for others to reconcile, too. Visiting their cousins in Queens, the boys seized every unsupervised moment to break every rule in the house—climbing up on top of the garage roof, shooting at windows and birds with a BB gun. The East Coast cousins were both thrilled and scandalized. Then, months later, the cousins would get Christmas cards of Don and Mimi and the kids, a saintly family tableau, everyone dressed perfectly in pajamas around a tree. The disconnect seemed strange to them, even then.
For the moment, Don and Mimi chose not to see what was happening as anything other than roughhousing. These were boys, a lot of them, living in close quarters. It would be unrealistic to think that they would never fight. And the oldest, Donald, was still such a source of pride—a clean-cut teenager who was featured in a photo taking up nearly half the front page of
rappelling from a falcon-nesting spot high up on Cathedral Rock. Just like his father.
PETER, THE TENTH
son, was born on November 15, 1960. This time, Mimi had a long stay in the hospital afterward with a severe prolapse, along with a blood clot in her left leg. Now there were fewer jokes about how Mimi ought to wear garlic to bed to fend off her husband at night. Her doctor gravely told her that her childbearing years were behind her. Fifteen years of more or less continuous pregnancy, labor, and delivery would seem to be enough for anyone. But Mimi did not seem interested in listening, even when others pleaded with her.
“Really, dear, you should give poor ‘Major Galvin’ a turn at the hospital,” Mimi’s paternal grandfather, Lindsey Blayney, wrote to her. “But, seriously, I am concerned about you.”
In truth, asking Mimi and Don to stop at ten children was like asking a marathoner to stop at twenty-five miles. Stopping struck them as ludicrous—not now that Don was rising in status at the Academy, and they both were feeling comfortable back in Colorado. Besides, as if it weren’t obvious to everyone yet, they still did not have a girl.
In 1961, mere months after giving birth to Peter, Mimi became pregnant for the eleventh time. Over Christmas, shortly before she was due, she and Don and the ten boys assembled for a photo on the grand staircase in Arnold Hall, the central gathering place at the Academy. The boys wore identical Eton suits from Lord & Taylor, paid for by Mimi’s mother, Billy. Mimi’s grandfather Lindsey called the photo “startling” when he received his copy in the mail—all of those children, with no sign of stopping. He predicted that Mimi’s next delivery would be twins, which would make for an even dozen.
He was wrong, but Mimi did break new ground on February 25, 1962, by delivering Margaret Elizabeth Galvin.
of Colorado broke the news with a short article:
AT LONG LAST, IT’S A GIRL!
Don had predicted as much, but that didn’t keep him from joking to his cadets, “Dang, that was supposed to be my quarterback.”
Mimi didn’t bother disguising her joy. “She is the most beautiful one yet to come into our family,” she wrote in one letter. “She makes each day a mother’s dream.” She also found room to boast about the rest of her children. Donald, she wrote, “plays a lovely classical guitar and is an outstanding high school athlete. His grades are wanting but as his principal states, ‘I wish all the boys were as fine as Don.’ ” Jim, Mimi said, was “a good all around boy and a great help to me.” John (number three), with “curly brown hair and sparkling blue eyes,” played clarinet and piano with dedication, plus ran a paper route with sixty-five stops. Brian (number four) was “our shining prodigy at the moment,” making Chopin’s tragic overture “most tragic” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Can-Can” from
“most gay.” Michael (number five), who played the French horn and liked to read, was “the delicate member of the family.” Richard (number six) was a “mathematician” who also wanted private piano lessons, “but with two taking private lessons he will have to wait a while.” Joe (number seven) was in kindergarten, learning his letters and numbers and phonetics. And Mark, Matthew, and Peter (numbers eight, nine, and ten) “are my constant companions at home. Like teddy bears, they are always getting into one thing or another. One day I found they had vacuumed the dish waste out of the sink with a new Electrolux!”
Money was going to be tighter than ever, no matter how many extra political science classes Don could teach at the local colleges. Parochial school clothing—two pairs of shoes, two shirts, and pants—cost about a hundred dollars per child. Between feedings for the baby and snacks and meals for the others, Mimi put her Bernina sewing machine into overdrive, making all the clothing herself. But Mimi would say the horizon turned pink on the day Margaret was born. As if by magic, the world had finally cooperated with her and given her what she’d wanted the most. She also said she wanted another—a twelfth—which delighted Don, but alarmed her obstetrician.
When their twelfth and final child, Mary, was born on October 5, 1965, Mimi was forty years old. Her doctor told her flat-out that if she got pregnant again, he would refuse to treat her. He urged her to have a hysterectomy, and Mimi reluctantly agreed. She and Don figured there would be grandchildren to look after, sooner or later.
By the end of November, Mimi was back on her feet, announcing in the Colorado Springs
that roles had been assigned for the Colorado Springs Opera Association’s upcoming production of Verdi’s
The Masked Ball.
That same year, the local chapter of Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne Club of America named Don Galvin its Father of the Year. Mimi had to laugh. “I had all the babies,” she would say, in that mixture of sweetness and sharpness she’d long since perfected. “He got all the degrees and all the applause.”
WHEN HE WAS
about seventeen, Donald smashed ten dishes to pieces one night—all at once, while standing in front of the kitchen sink.
Don wrote it off. So did Mimi. Donald was a teenager, moody. It was the 1960s. Other kids were doing worse.
But Donald knew there was something wrong. He’d known for a while.
He knew that despite the similar hairline and strong jaw and athletic talent, he was not like his father, and that he was never going to be. His grades were mediocre, not the grades of the son of a man whose children considered him the smartest man in the world. His fights with his younger brothers were little more than his own ham-fisted attempts to control them the way a father ought to. He failed at that, too.
He knew that being a star on the football field and having a friendship with another person were two very different things. Sometimes, he would say later, he thought of people as kind of like IBM cards he sorted through his own computer for information he could use. He knew that made him unusual.
Donald recognized how trapped he often felt—frustrated that he was not the person he wanted to be. But at other moments, increasingly often, he seemed completely oblivious—a stranger to his own motivations and actions.
Something was happening, and he couldn’t figure out what. More than anything else, he was afraid.
In the autumn of 1963, the Galvins moved from their quarters on the Academy grounds and into a newly constructed split-level house in Woodmen Valley, a densely pined collection of dairy farms a few miles out from the center of Colorado Springs. Don had paid a few thousand dollars for three acres of land at the western end of Hidden Valley Road, a four-mile dirt trail that terminated in a gravelly cul-de-sac. Theirs was one of the first in a new line of suburban homes meant to cater to Academy families who wanted a little more room. Before construction, Mimi tied ropes around every tree and bush on the property to make sure the contractors wouldn’t cut them down.
To many of their Academy friends, Woodmen Valley was backcountry, the middle of nowhere. But Mimi, whose feelings about the outdoors had reversed completely since first coming to Colorado twelve years earlier, loved how unspoiled it felt. So much of Colorado Springs had been built up and paved over for the military; not just the Air Force Academy, but Peterson Air Field, Fort Carson, and most recently NORAD, the nuclear defense coordination headquarters embedded in the Cheyenne Mountain defense bunker between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Woodmen Valley was just a fifteen-minute drive from the center of downtown Colorado Springs, and yet living there, to Mimi, felt as far away from the nuclear age as could be—more timeless, more natural, more authentic.
A short walk from their new house stood a convent that had once been a tuberculosis hospital—the Modern Woodmen of America Sanatorium, for which the surrounding Woodmen Valley had been named.
The valley’s geology was a little less red and more white than in the rest of Colorado Springs—leftover feldspar and quartz gravel from the eroding mountains that had settled there, millions of years earlier. Beyond the pines, there were enough large rock formations to have once sustained a tourist attraction called Monument Park. The boys could fill their days exploring the rocks famous enough to be named: Dog Rock, Grandma Grundy, Anvil Rock, the Dutch Wedding Rocks. But the magic of Hidden Valley Road was that it had enough trees and rolling hills to seem like a forest, tucked away from the avalanche of rock. Deer wandered by the patio door at breakfast, and blue jays squawked from the branches of the pine trees overhead.
The house itself was an early-1960s low-slung box, more long than tall, coated with the usual mix of siding and stone. Inside, a carpeted sitting room connected to a kitchen and dining room, just large enough for a mammoth dining table made by a family friend that could fit two people on each end, if needed, and six down each side. From the front hall, one half staircase led up to the bedrooms while another led down to a sublevel that, by necessity, the Galvins used for more sleeping space. Margaret, Don and Mimi’s eleventh child, was eighteen months old; she would have a bedroom of her own, upstairs near her parents, with pale lime-green carpet and a large pine tree outside the window. Mark and Joe shared a room on that floor. On the ground level, Peter and Matt shared a room with twin beds. The older boys still left at home were in the lower level, sleeping on corner couch units that unfolded into beds at night.
For Mimi, everything about the house on Hidden Valley Road shouted
Enough of a living room to accommodate wrestling matches, enough of a kitchen to cook all day for the family, enough space outside to breathe when you needed to, or to play football, or ride bikes, or fly falcons. Mimi and the older boys put three coats of paint on every wall. And she herself started work on a rock garden in the back, near where Frederica the goshawk stood guard. Don built a large A-frame mews on top of the hill in the backyard that housed more birds, including Hansel and Gretel, two hawks they’d take flying on the sprawling lawns of the Carlson family’s nearby dairy farm. Their prized birds—Frederica, followed by her successor, Atholl—also were permitted to perch on the living room coffee table. For the first time, perhaps, the Galvins were home.
DONALD’S FRESHMAN YEAR
at Colorado State coincided with the move to Hidden Valley Road. None of his inner fears were on display, not to his family. He told them he wanted to be a doctor, and he saw how proud they were to hear that. His job, after he left home, was to maintain that veneer. On Hidden Valley Road, the power vacuum among the brothers was seized by Jim.
Having long since stopped competing on his older brother’s playing field, Jim instead set out to dominate in the areas Donald seemed weakest. If Donald won childhood, the first round, Jim would win the next round, real life. Jim tried assuming the role of the younger boys’ cool big brother—the brother in the biker jacket, the brother who drove a black ’57 Chevy, the brother most likely to offer to sneak a little Bacardi into your Coke. The younger Galvin brothers appreciated it sometimes, but remained mostly wary, particularly after Jim started hitting on any girls they brought home with them. Jim liked being known as provocative, and if he came off as menacing, so much the better. He had, he thought, a certain confidence, or brashness, his other brothers lacked. “At sixteen, we knew something was wrong with Jim,” said Richard, who was seven years younger, “but we just thought it was okay, just being a boy—out drinking, carousing, delinquent activity, skipping school.”
No longer burdened by the Galvin family’s demands of perfection, Jim drank more than Donald had, went out more, and got in trouble more—culminating in a stunt that got him kicked out of Air Academy High School in the middle of his senior year, the same year that the family moved to Hidden Valley Road. He and a friend were at the Academy’s jet center, clowning around on one of the planes. Jim was inside the cockpit, and his friend was just outside, when Jim pushed a button that made the plane move slightly, enough to send the other boy flying backward, colliding with the tail of the jet. An inch or two in a different direction and that boy might have died. Jim was forced to transfer to the local Catholic school, St. Mary’s. This would have been a shock if it had happened to Donald. Not so with Jim. The consolation of being a washout is the benefit of low expectations. Jim had nowhere to go but up.
Nor did the expulsion humiliate the Galvins as it might have another proud, striving family. Mimi understood how to take the worst possible bad news and cast it aside, moving on as if such a thing had hardly mattered to begin with. She’d watched her own mother do it, when her father left the family in scandal. Don, too, knew how to blot out the darker aspects of his life, leaving a number of subjects undiscussed: the horrors he saw firsthand during the war, his failure to advance in the Navy, his troubling hospitalization during his Air Force posting in Canada. And so now that they had hit their stride in Colorado, they were not about to let their strong-willed son’s ridiculous mistake define them. It was simple enough for Don and Mimi to decide that the problem of Jim, as they saw it, was already on its way to being solved. He was finishing high school and would soon be off on his own. Maybe he would take a year of community college to clean up his academics for a real four-year program. But no matter what, as Don always told Mimi, Jim would have to grow up sooner or later. All the boys would.
For Mimi, coming to Hidden Valley Road was meant to signal the beginning of her family’s long-awaited von Trapp family–style idyll. With Donald no longer living at home, and Jim about to leave, she felt as if they all had that perfect life now, almost within reach. What if what they’d needed all along—Donald, Jim, all of them—was some extra space to spread their wings? She wanted a house filled with music, and she enlisted the boys to help her. The boys learned piano on a bargain-basement $850 baby grand that Don and Mimi found in a shop downtown. John and Brian and Matt and eventually little Peter all played flute. On weekends, Mimi would throw a symphony on the record player and tell the story behind it, explaining the music with encyclopedic detail. When the boys got a tape recorder, they’d tape the Saturday morning Metropolitan Opera broadcast for her, and Mimi would play it all week long, alternating it with sing-alongs to ballads and folk songs by Burl Ives and John Jacob Niles. In the neighborhood, the Galvin kids played kick the can and capture the flag and kickball and Simon Says with the neighborhood children—the Skarkes, the Hollisters, the Turleys, the Warringtons, the Woods, the Olsons. In the fields and forests of Woodmen Valley, Mimi taught the children to identify wild animals, like the bobcat that lived in the small dark cave in the white cliffs down the road.
As the 1960s progressed, the habits and motivations of the younger generation became more mysterious and frightening to the parents of the Galvin children’s friends. Not Don and Mimi. The Galvins remained good Catholic New Frontier–era liberals, permissive socially but disciplined domestically, tolerant in their hearts yet strict in their ways. They prayed for the president who had died just a few weeks after their move to Hidden Valley Road, and they prayed for the president who had taken his place, and as the conflict in Vietnam escalated, Don, a colonel in the Air Force, held his tongue about how he felt. Only later would he tell his boys that the unfortunate ones who had been sent to fight in Southeast Asia were nothing more than, in his words, “assassins in uniform.” Most of his sons went to parties, played rock ’n’ roll music, and stayed out late. As long as they came to mass on Sundays, dressed appropriately, all was as it should be.
THE GALVINS HAD
done all the right things in all the right ways, and now, just as Don had always trusted they would, good things seemed to be coming their way.
Just before the move, Don, who was nearing the twenty-year mark of his military service, transferred to a new post at NORAD. His title was information staff officer. This was another job briefing generals, like the one he’d had years earlier, only this time, the job had an element of public relations, sending him out to deliver speeches to clubs and organizations around the country, explaining the international defense control center that coordinated the continent’s first ballistic-missile early warning system and the deployment, if or when the time came, of nuclear weapons located at eight hundred separate military installations in the United States and Canada. Back home, the Galvin boys, who along with their schoolmates were the first generation to grow up living with the prospect of possible nuclear annihilation, thrilled at eavesdropping on their father after dinner, when he filled in generals with end-of-day briefings on the kitchen phone. Back at headquarters, Don gave tours to reporters and visiting public officials, often working in mentions of his bevy of children and his beloved Academy falcons. Colonel Galvin “was apparently gone on birds,” wrote a columnist from the
in Hammond, Louisiana. “He kept telling the group how he trains falcons (to hunt) and was instrumental in getting the Academy’s sports teams named the ‘Falcons.’ ”
The greatest of all the good things happened in 1966, when Don retired from the Air Force and started a new career as a grant-in-aid man, overseeing programs funded by the federal government for the benefit of the states—first as the vice chairman of the Colorado State Council on the Arts and Humanities, and then as the first full-time executive director of the Federation of Rocky Mountain States. This new organization counted seven states in the American West as members, from Montana down to New Mexico. Soon enough, Arizona would make it eight. The Federation was a quasi-governmental group, formed to help the region attract industry, banking, the arts, and major transportation projects. The governors of each of the member states took turns heading the group. But the real man in charge, day to day, was Don Galvin. He was putting both his political science degree and his military experience into action as a sort of domestic diplomat—a liaison between the government and the private sector and nonprofit worlds. The older boys who were still at home were in awe of him. “He was telling governors what to do,” said Richard, the sixth son, who was twelve when Don started the job. “You knew he had the presence, but man, when you heard his voice, it resounded.”
With his new career, Don’s—and, by extension, Mimi’s—horizons were only broadening. What was once a quiet life in Colorado among the falcons now seemed like a stepping-stone to the world stage. In Washington, Don lobbied for a new railroad from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Cheyenne, Wyoming; and a pipeline to bring water south from Canada or Alaska; and the western United States’ first public television station. The Federation pooled risk capital for experimental industrial projects, worked to find new mineral and water resources, formed a science advisory council for technological development, and promoted tourism with touring art exhibits and support for the Denver, Phoenix, and Utah Symphonies and the Utah Civic Ballet, which Don renamed Ballet West. The new name actually was Mimi’s idea: “
spells Mormon all over it,” she’d said with a roll of her eyes. But Howard Hughes had just named his new airline Air West; maybe if they followed his lead, Mimi suggested, Hughes would donate one day?