Criticism — From the May 2013 issue

Our Town

How Roger Barker made Oskaloosa, Kansas, his laboratory

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Not long after moving to Oskaloosa, a town of 725 people in the hills of northeastern Kansas, Roger Barker, the new chair of the psychology department at the University of Kansas, approached a young couple who lived near him with a request: Might a group of researchers follow their seven-year-old son around for a day, documenting the boy’s every word and movement?

Jack Birch, a salesman at the town hardware store, and his wife, Joan, a clerk at the county courthouse, said yes, and on April 26, 1949, eight observers with timers and clipboards, working in half-hour shifts, assembled a minute-by-minute account of an ordinary day in the life of Raymond Birch.

Harper & Row published the report in 1951 as One Boy’s Day. An editor of The New York Times Magazine found the book interesting enough to pay Oskaloosa a visit. In an August 1951 article she rhapsodized about how Barker and his colleagues “brought child psychology out of the laboratory to study children in their natural habitat, much as a botanist goes into the fields to study flowers.” Townspeople knew the good that came from agricultural research stations, so they accepted “the idea that perhaps some day as much can be known about raising children as raising corn.”

For all but a few of the book’s 435 pages, Barker and his co-author, the psychologist Herbert F. Wright, offer nothing more than an unadorned ticktock narrative.

7:00. Mrs. Birch said with pleasant casualness, “Raymond wake up.” With a little more ur- gency in her voice she spoke again: “Son, are you going to school today?” 

7:01. Raymond picked up a sock and began tug- ging and pulling it on his left foot. As his mother watched him she said kiddingly, “Can’t you get your peepers open?” . . . He said plaintively, “Mommie,” and continued mumbling in an unintelligible way something about his undershirt.

7:07. Raymond turned to his dresser and rummaged around among the things on it until he obtained a candy Easter egg. He held up the candy and commanded, “Sit up, Honey, sit up.” The dog obeyed promptly and Raymond pushed the candy into her mouth.

7:08. He came out of the bathroom carrying a bottle of hair oil.

7:09. Mr. Birch patted Raymond on the back, then turned and started toward the kitchen. On his way to the kitchen, Mr. Birch called out, teasingly, “Well, let’s get on the stick, Bub . . .” Raymond said nothing, just went on combing his hair. 

An hour and a half — and some forty pages deeper — into Raymond’s day, we see a girl chase him on his way to school.

Raymond, looking a little sheepish . . . stopped right where he was, beside the bushes. He seemed reluctant to join the girls, yet appeared not to know quite what to do with himself since Susan had stopped chasing him. As he stood there, he picked a leaf off a bush, put it in his mouth, and nibbled on it.

In the evening, a researcher enters the Birches’ washroom as Raymond’s mother gives him a bath: “Raymond concentrated his attention on one toe of his left foot. He rubbed the soap back and forth, sawing away between his toes.”

The Birches gave the researchers seemingly unlimited access to their lives — a measure of how deeply Barker and his team of scientists, most of whom had moved to Oskaloosa within the previous two years, had insinuated themselves into the social fabric of the town. Barker, in the preface to One Boy’s Day, writes that the book “marks . . . a milestone in the degree of participation of a whole community in a scientific undertaking.” But the book was just the start. Barker hoped to map the lives of all 119 of Oskaloosa’s children — and eventually those of its adults as well. He wanted nothing less than a psychological portrait of an entire town.

Oskaloosa covers a mere square mile, but it sits on a kind of pedestal. At its borders the streets abruptly stop and the land drops off into Ozarks-like hill country. It’s a thirty-minute drive along a two-lane road to the nearest major highway, I-70, which runs west to Topeka and east to Kansas City. Oskaloosa is one of the only county seats in Kansas without a railroad depot.

The town of modest wooden houses was built around a leafy square with a Victorian courthouse at its center. When Barker arrived in the late 1940s, there was a drugstore with a soda fountain, a Farm Bureau office, a bank, two beauty parlors, a tavern, an auto-supply shop, a law practice, a post office, a coffee shop. The Oska Theatre screened two features a day, and the American Legion hall hosted a Saturday-night dance. “If you were to take a bicycle ride with a ten-year-old boy,” Barker said, “he could show you every house in the town in a half hour.”

Barker planned to stay awhile. After he was hired by the University of Kansas, Barker and his family moved into a tumbledown firetrap a few blocks from the Oskaloosa courthouse. (Barker’s daughter, Celia, later recalled that electrical wiring dangled from the ceilings.) Then he rented a suite of offices, on the second floor of a former bank building on the square, and remade it into the human observatory of which he’d long dreamed. He named it the Midwest Psychological Field Station, and in his publications he called Oskaloosa “Midwest” — a pseudonym that cast the town as an archetype.

The job of selling Oskaloosa on a townwide study fell to Herbert Wright, whom Barker had hired away from Carleton College. Wright was a Midwestern minister’s son and a World War II veteran, a raconteur with a baritone voice. He was in many ways the perfect complement to Barker, a quiet, slender man with pale blue eyes and a limp from a childhood bone disease.

In the middle of a wretched September hot spell, Wright rang the doorbells of four prominent Oskaloosans Barker had deemed critical to winning over the town: the Methodist minister, the state senator, the school superintendent, and the editor of the local newspaper.

According to a diary he kept of these first contacts, Wright explained to the men that he and Professor Barker were looking for “a small, representative American community” where they might study “how children actually behave in real-life situations.” The little written on the subject, he said, concerned children in big cities near major universities. That was “unfortunate,” Wright said, “because a large share of the more important people in our country” — General Eisenhower of Abilene and President Truman of Independence were Barker’s favorite examples — “come from rural localities.”

Might Oskaloosa be suitable for such a study?

The town fathers liked that tiny Oskaloosa might have something to contribute to science. “To say the least, these people appeared to take their children, and children in general, seriously, and to consider them worth study,” Wright noted. All the same, “I’m sure that when I left them, they were still wondering eagerly what in the world our next steps might be.”

Once Wright had seeded the soil, Barker gave a talk at the Rotary Club. In the age of the atomic bomb, he told the town’s Rotarians, it was more important than ever to understand how children got along. As the Oskaloosa Independent reported in November 1947:

Mr. Barker mentioned that the children of Oskaloosa were selected for study because they are considered typical of the children of Kansas, and the Kansas children, according to statistics, grow up to be better adjusted than those of the nation at large.

(The story ran atop the front page, between notices about a high school football game and the arrest of three men on charges of wheat theft.) By comparing the lives of children in Oskaloosa with those of children in other communities, “the investigators hope eventually to be able to give some pointers on how children develop into good citizens” and “why children in places like Oskaloosa turn out so well.” None of their discoveries, Barker predicted, would come as a surprise. He was interested only in “getting down in exact form things that are common knowledge to the people of Oskaloosa.”

But doubts persisted. Oskaloosa was more accustomed to farmers in bib overalls than to professors in tweed. Rumors circulated that the Barkers were Soviet spies. One mother issued Barker’s field workers a firm warning. “You’ll be watching us,” she said, “but don’t forget: we’ll be watching you.”

Barker’s wife, Louise, a warm and voluble woman, became the project’s ambassador at women’s clubs and met one-on-one with families with young children. The Barkers and the Wrights — and soon other researchers — enrolled their children in the public schools. Barker’s son, Jonathan, later said conversations at the dinner table could at times resemble an ethnographic fieldwork debriefing. The families joined church choirs and bridge clubs, as well as the American Legion, the Eastern Star, and other civic organizations. They shopped on the square and hired local women as typists and high school students as janitors.

The psychologists worried that their immersion in Oskaloosa’s everyday life might compromise the “naturally occurring behavior” of the “free-ranging persons” they hoped to observe. But their gamble earned the town’s trust. “The smartest thing you people have done was to come out here to live,” one Oskaloosa father told them. “You never could have done what you have if you had just come up a few hours at a time from Lawrence” — where the University of Kansas is, a half hour’s drive to the southeast.

Before long, the sight of clipboard-toting researchers quietly taking notes became a fixture of town life. When a mother saw her eight-year-old daughter playing with one friend while a second sat silently off to one side, she scolded her child for leaving the other girl out. “Oh, that’s all right,” her daughter replied. “She’s the psychologist.” When the mother took a closer look, she noticed that the other girl was busily pretending to make notes on her friends’ play.

Barker’s methods were well outside his discipline’s mainstream. B. F. Skinner, Edward Tolman, and the other giants of midcentury psychology were sending rats through mazes, clocking human reaction times, and administering personality and I.Q. tests. Most research psychologists saw the controlled experiment as the only path to truth — and respect — for a young field still grasping for legitimacy.

Barker had a Ph.D. from Stanford and had taught at Harvard, but he had grown up among farmers and tradesmen in small-town Iowa, and the lab struck him as a refuge for cosseted elites. Behavior was a natural phenomenon, he argued, not a set of tricks that “subjects” performed in the artificial, highly manipulated confines of the laboratory.

“Although we have daily records of the oxygen content of river water, of the ground temperatures of cornfields, of the activity of volcanoes, of the behavior of nesting robins,” Barker wrote,

there have been few scientific records of how human mothers care for their young, how teachers behave in the classroom (and how the children respond), what families actually do and say during mealtime, or how children live their lives from the time they wake in the morning until they go to sleep at night.

One Boy’s Day was the first of eight books Barker and his colleagues would write about Oskaloosa, and it remains in many ways the most striking. In the introduction, Barker and Wright note that on the day of the study “nothing out of the ordinary happened.” It was just another Tuesday in a small town. Aside from a brief description of “Midwest,” One Boy’s Day offers no context, no analysis, and no conclusion. All the same, Barker insists in the book’s defiant first sentence, “One Boy’s Day is a scientific document.”

Stretches of the book are mind-numbingly granular:

9:52. Using his thumb and forefinger and dropping his jaw, he tried to press his cheeks together so that they would meet between his teeth. He exerted much effort in the attempt.

But other moments capture the beautiful exuberance of a certain strain of American boyhood. Near the courthouse flagpole before school, Raymond finds a baseball bat in the grass and picks it up. “Oh, boy!” he says. He tosses a stone in the air and swings, but accidentally clips the flagpole.

8:24. . . . This made a wonderful, hollow, ringing noise, so he proceeded to hit the flagpole again.

8:25. He went around and around and around the pole, hitting it with the bat as he did so, until he became so dizzy that he fell down, bat and all.

Raymond’s day spans thirteen hours and thirty-three minutes. He mumbles with a mouth full of toast at breakfast. He claps along to the song “Mister Sun” in music class, and though his teacher whispers, “Softer,” the observers report that “there was no perceptible difference in the volume of Raymond’s clapping.” When a teacher announces recess, he “popped out of his seat as if jet-propelled.” After school, he and a few other boys play games like “big gorilla,” “monkeys in a cage,” and “bombs away.” After a supper of hamburger patties and creamed potatoes, with chocolate sandwich cookies for dessert, Mrs. Birch orders her son to the piano.

When Raymond finished a brief series of notes, he looked up at his mother expectantly. He twisted his whole body so that he was looking almost straight up into her face. Her concise order was, “Once more.”

Finally at 8:25 p.m., Mrs. Birch sends Raymond to bed.

The book is filled with allusions to the theater. The authors describe the town as “the stage upon which [Raymond] played his roles.” The parts of Raymond’s day — “Getting up,” “Going to School” — are “scenes”; Midwest is “The Setting.” A list of Raymond’s family members, neighbors, and friends is formatted like a dramatis personae. And when Barker peeked out from behind the curtain, he saw an audience that included not only social scientists but also “artists and laymen who are interested in the contemporary scene.”

Barker wanted to democratize psychology, to strip away its pretenses. The simple language of One Boy’s Day was insurance against intellectual faddishness. “Barring a revolution in written English and in the social conventions of Western mankind,” he wrote, “our recorded day in the life . . . will have the same meaning in 2055 as it has now in 1955.” Scientists, artists, and others might use it in any number of unforeseen ways. “Theoretically neutral” records like his, he felt, merited preservation in a “museum of human behavior” that would be psychology’s answer to the natural-history museum or the herbarium.

Barker completed several more day-in-the-life studies, but he eventually abandoned his plan to observe all of Oskaloosa’s children. The studies’ demanding logistics and the “public relations problem,” as he put it, of obtaining permission to shadow children made them impractical, but the daylong “specimen records” also brought Barker to a new insight: psychology needed to dispense not only with the lab but with individual human subjects altogether. “[W]e shed the blinders of individual psychology, and it became clear that how a child behaves is not only determined by what he or she wants to do but by where he or she is,” Barker recalled in an interview with the Journal of Counseling & Development in the late 1980s.

For example, Raymond could not ride his bicycle, as he clearly wanted to, in the courthouse where his mother worked (the stairs and the “rules” were absolute barriers). We also observed that there was more similarity in the behavior of Raymond and Roy in arithmetic class than between Raymond in arithmetic and Raymond in recess. How could we account for this? Obviously, recess “did something” to Raymond.

Recess and the courthouse were what Barker soon termed “behavior settings” — places that induced predictable patterns of behavior. But how many other behavior settings did Oskaloosa have? Barker wanted a map of every public place in town, and he wanted to know precisely what people were saying and doing in each of them.

The field-station workers clipped event announcements, photographs, and meeting notices from the Independent. They collated programs from church services and school assemblies. They compiled lists of bridge-club members, schedules for bingo games, and minutes of 4-H meetings. Graduate students recorded the goings-on at high school basketball games, the shoe-repair shop, and every other place, from the school’s utility room to the Methodist church’s Ladies’ Aid Sunday Evening Film. Barker guarded these primary documents with an archivist’s zeal. At the end of each day, he locked them behind the steel doors of the former bank’s vault; to lessen the risk of fire, he ordered his staff to unplug every electric device before going home.

As Oskaloosa’s ephemera piled higher and higher, the psychologists realized they needed to impose order on the welter of source material. The plain language of One Boy’s Day, fine for a twenty-four-hour observation, gave way to the sort of specialized lingo — “occupancy time,” “penetration,” “participation range,” “territorial index” — Barker had once rejected. The data analysis became so complex that Barker acquired an IBM Type 075 Card Counting Sorter. It was so heavy — several hundred pounds — that the shippers refused to carry it up the office steps, leaving the job to grad students and professors. (One student, Phil Schoggen, later a professor at Cornell, remembered that it was his wife’s job to stand on the sidewalk and warn away passersby “in case the rig gave way and the whole thing came crashing down.”)

The first round of calculations showed that in a town of one square mile there were no fewer than 585 public settings where Oskaloosans gathered at least once a year. The list ran from small spots like Tills’ Watch Repair and Mrs. Matson’s Home Laundry to big ones like the football field.

As Barker scoured this first “behavior setting survey,” he began to see that each place had what he came to call a “standing pattern of behavior.” These patterns held up, meeting after meeting, basketball game after basketball game, church service after church service, regardless of who showed up and who was in charge.

The repercussions for psychology seemed profound: if you wanted to know how people were behaving, it was less important to know who they were than where they were. An individual’s emotions, motivations, and life history were secondary to his or her location. A school wasn’t just some classrooms and a gym, but a context whose physical layout and social forces shaped — or, in Barker’s stronger language, “coerced” — the actions of the students.

The kid who’d rather be fishing and the great-grandmother mourning her husband may have very different thoughts as they sit through a sermon. But their outward behavior looks remarkably similar. As Barker wrote in a 1968 book, Ecological Psychology, “All inhabitants of the genotype Drugstore behave drugstore, and all inhabitants of a Tavern behave tavern.” Or, as he wrote elsewhere: “One can hardly avoid, even with the strongest intentions, doing as the Romans do when one is in Rome.”

School hallways — narrow and without chairs or ledges — encourage walking and deter sitting or lying down. Wide, open surfaces like the football field, courthouse lawn, and school gym invite running and exuberant play. If you try too hard to resist such forces, built-in regulatory systems either nudge you back in line or kick you out. Barker called these correctives “deviation-countering mechanisms” and “vetoing mechanisms.” Bridge clubs turn away poker players. Teachers shush loudmouths, and if that doesn’t work, principals expel them.

Lawmakers, the police, and other “practitioners of motivation” grasped these principles instinctively, Barker wrote. Ban knife possession by minors and you’ll have fewer stabbings. Paint double lines on highways and you’ll have fewer head-on collisions. “In all these cases, the aim is to ensure ‘good’ behavior by rearranging ‘outside’ conditions.” (Barker saw no point to inner change, lumping psychotherapists and preachers together “among the few practitioners who aim to control the behavior of others by altering conditions within the person.”)

For a while, Barker gave every appearance of carving a new path in psychology. From 1947 to 1958, he won more than $260,000 in research grants — an enormous sum for his era, much of it from the newly established National Institute of Mental Health. Margaret Mead dropped by the Midwest Psychological Field Station, as did foundation presidents, bureaucrats from Washington, and researchers from universities the world over.

In 1963, Barker received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (later recipients included Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky) and the NIMH gave him its career research award — a kind of genius grant that freed Barker from the distractions of teaching and paid his salary for as many years as he was willing to work.

The following year, Barker and another member of the psychology department, Paul Gump, published Big School, Small School, a critique of Kansas’s growing enthusiasm for school consolidation. The notion that bigger was better, they argued, was false. In a three-year study, they ran behavior-setting surveys of thirteen high schools in eastern Kansas, with student populations ranging from thirty-five to 2,287. Smaller schools may have lacked, say, swim lessons, health clinics, and sculpture classes, but in most respects they offered the same broad categories of opportunities as bigger schools, and with an important advantage: they actually got students to take part. In the smallest schools, 53 percent of seniors reported participating in five or more kinds of extracurricular activities; in the largest schools, just 4 percent did.

Barker saw participation as critical to a child’s development. Small schools made students feel competent and needed: you didn’t have to be unusually gifted to play in the band, act in the play, or make the football team.

Barker eventually turned his findings into a general theory of the relationship between place size, population, and behavior. Because less populous places have more settings per capita to keep up than do larger ones, they put more pressure on each individual both to participate and to lead. The fewer people in a place, the more “claims” the habitat makes on each person and the more roles (“performances,” in Barker’s terminology) each has to play. Shorthandedness, or “undermanning,” as Barker called it, was a virtue. Small towns — and small schools and churches — had so few people that they couldn’t afford to exclude or discriminate. You might not like your neighbor, but to keep the town going, you learned to get along. You mowed her lawn and she looked after your kids, and in the evenings you took adjoining seats on the school board.

Barker came to believe that nothing less than our national character was at stake in the survival of towns like Oskaloosa. America had from its birth been a place with too much work and too few people. On the frontier, settlers had scraped together livelihoods and civic institutions in an “unfinished” land. The demands of the physical environment, Barker thought, were the bedrock of our egalitarianism and our democracy. With enough behavior-setting surveys, scientists might one day arrive at a set of ideal sizes for various kinds of institutions and communities — schools, businesses, churches, towns, even nations.

But Barker’s hoped-for revolution in psychology never came. Behavior-setting surveys and day-in-the-life studies are expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming. In the 1960s, advances in computer science, linguistics, and neuroscience shifted the field away from its focus on observable behavior toward the inner workings of the mind.

As time went on, even loyal benefactors seemed at a loss about precisely what to do with him. In denying one grant application, an NIMH official wrote that Barker’s studies “seemed to bear no relation to the work of other investigators or to relevant bodies of sociological and anthropological theory.”

Barker died, in Oskaloosa, in September 1990, at the age of eighty-seven. Toward the end of his life, he, too, began to question some of his early formulations. He had once argued that behavior settings did not depend for their survival on any single individual. When one person leaves, the setting “coerces” others to pick up the slack, and life goes on much as before. The sharpest rebuke to that theory, however, was the fate of Barker’s field station itself. Though his colleagues tried to keep it open with new grants, it could not survive without him. The Midwest Psychological Field Station closed in 1972, running out of money the very year its founder retired.

When I visited Oskaloosa, in December 2010, the town no longer seemed profitably “undermanned.” Its population had grown only slightly since One Boy’s Day, to about 1,100, but many of Barker’s behavior settings had vanished.

I had a map of local businesses from the 1940s that I’d copied from Barker’s voluminous archives, which are housed at the University of Kansas. Gone now from the square are the bandstand, the hotel, and the grocery stores. In 1960, a tornado destroyed the town’s majestic courthouse; its replacement is an insipid modern box. The Oska Theatre has been dark for decades.

Parker’s variety store, one of Oskaloosa’s oldest retailers, remains, but it closed its century-old pharmacy a few years ago. (The store’s name recently changed to Country Corner Variety.) Barker considered the variety store the town’s most important setting. Many Oskaloosans I spoke to still see it that way. “If that ever closes,” Frances Snell, a third-generation Oskaloosan and former member of the town council and the school board, told me, only half jokingly, “we’ll just have to shut the town down.”

The courthouse and county offices keep alive a couple of small restaurants, a bank, a law firm, and a bar called Stinkys Other Side. But most townspeople told me that they do their shopping in Lawrence or Topeka.

A dozen older Oskaloosans agreed to meet me at the local genealogical society one afternoon to talk about changes in the town since Barker’s day. Donna Ward, a retired county register of deeds, told me about a photograph she has of her mother and around a hundred other students at Sunday school at the Presbyterian church. “Now we’re lucky if we have sixteen at Sunday worship. And we don’t have Sunday school.”

A raft of social organizations and women’s auxiliaries have disappeared. “Several clubs were really good and just kind of died on the vine,” said Nancy Reed, a retired accountant. “It was lack of participation, and age, and the fact that women went to work.”

According to the U.S. Census, 1950 was the first decade in which Kansas’s urban population was greater than its rural one. Barker had settled in “Midwest” at almost the precise moment small towns began to fade from the American landscape. New interstates allowed for longer commutes. Television and air-conditioning sucked people off porches and into living rooms. Large chain stores began pecking away at the livelihoods of family-owned shops on town squares.

Barker’s books, still available in the town’s tiny library, are a record of how much has been lost. Together with the documents and photographs in Barker’s archive at the University of Kansas, they offer a richly hued portrait of a Midwestern town at midcentury and of that town’s chief booster, a man who exalted the small and the ordinary.

Raymond Birch” is a pseudonym; the field station cloaked not only the town’s identity but also that of everyone in it. When I first phoned people in Oskaloosa, most said they had no recollection of the boy’s real name. Some took a guess, but none of these bore out.

Eventually I got an email from a woman I had not contacted. She wrote that her late mother had told her that their long-ago neighbor had been “the child referred to in a book written by a KU professor.” The child’s name was Gary Morgan. He now lived in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

I found an unlisted phone number for Morgan and called it. I told the man who picked up that I was interested in discussing One Boy’s Day. There was a long silence. It was either an unwelcome subject, I feared, or one he hadn’t thought about in a long time. Perhaps it was both.

“I remember,” the man said finally, then cleared his throat. “I remember waking up one morning and there was a strange person standing in my bedroom with a notepad.”

The route to the town where Morgan lives (he asked that I withhold its name) runs past a John Deere dealership, two taxidermists, and a sign announcing the time of the fire department’s bingo game. I pulled into the driveway of a vinyl-sided brick trilevel on the main road. Morgan opened the door as I was walking up. He is a trim man of medium height with a graying mustache, red cheeks, and a somewhat impish smile. The boy in the book is now seventy-one years old.

He led me to a pleasant sunroom, where his second wife, Janet, joined us. A wall clock decorated with images of Harley-Davidsons marked each hour with the growl of a revving engine.

Morgan and his family had been living in Oskaloosa for just a couple of years at the time of the study. His father had been a security guard at Hercules Powder in Sunflower, Kansas, but lost his job when the company, an explosives manufacturer, laid off workers after World War II. A hardware store in Oskaloosa hired him as a salesman, and the family moved to town when Morgan was in first grade. He was an only child.

“Even though we weren’t quite as innocent as maybe Norman Rockwell painted,” he said, “we were still a lot more innocent than today’s standards.” He remembered that people set pies on their windowsills to cool, and that when the owner of the lumberyard went fishing in the middle of the day, customers took what they needed and left cash on the counter.

His memories of the Barker study, however, were less sunny. Though One Boy’s Day reports that Birch’s parents explained the study to the boy the night before, Morgan remembers feeling blindsided when he woke up. “I was very embarrassed that I had to get dressed in front of some stranger,” he said.

But as the day wore on, the book shows, he grew accustomed to and even solicitous of his pursuers. He flashes them shy smiles, holds doors, and offers one a glass of water. He tells his mother he wants to be “one of those” — a psychologist — when he grows up and performs a series of bike tricks to impress them. “I probably had a swelled head because somebody was following me around,” Morgan said.

All the same, he has never read beyond the book’s initial pages. He is discomfited by the existence of so unvarnished a record of his seven-year-old self, he told me, and has trouble seeing its usefulness. I appeared to be the first person outside his family to have asked about it.

The Morgans left Oskaloosa when Gary was in the seventh grade, after his father got a job in a nearby town. “I lost track of everyone I went to school with and didn’t try to keep in touch,” he said. “I moved on.” Because of another job transfer, the family moved again, to western Maryland. Morgan worked as a right-of-way representative for a Pennsylvania power company until 1997, when he retired following a series of heart attacks.

Toward the end of my visit, Morgan led me to a bookcase in his living room. From a shelf filled with pulp fiction and glossy romance novels, he took down a jacketless hardcover with browning pages: a copy of One Boy’s Day. Barker, Wright, and their wives had signed the first page. One of them, probably Barker, had added this inscription: “To the Morgans, especially Gary, the real author of this.”

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is the author of My Father’s Paradise, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. This is his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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