Monday, December 28, 2009

Back to Puerto Rico.


Spring and summer of 65 was a good stretch of time. Actually, the time spent in PR was a good time. My father did well for a while in his life long love, which is TV, and this sprung a number of possibilities for me.

This is a concentrated effort to get back on track; you know… a promise made and all that. So here it goes...

Puerto Rico has the nickname of "La Isla del Encanto" - "The Island of Enchantment" and indeed it is and has everything needed to earn that name. A beautiful speck of land in the outer Caribbean, almost out into the Atlantic Ocean. It has all that you would expect from a Caribbean island... beautiful beaches, music, local drink(s), great people, night life everywhere and great vacation spots. Also, in PR's case, it has had to historically contend with a double personality for many generations. It is a simple culture clash: the people and heritage are totally Hispanic and the economic and legal culture is totally USA. Although it may sound good, at the time of my stay there I realized that sometimes this became a dichotomy and truly impacted on the daily lives of the people. Traditionally, the cost of living was (and is) US based; the wages were Latin American style. This was not always a good combination. Today, some 40 years later this is still the case, although it is my understanding that it has improved somewhat. As part of its history, this has become a political issue and it is up to the people from this beautiful island to decide what to do and which direction to follow. It definitely is not my entitlement to make any comments on the subject.

Back to Inter American U, Tigers Nation. The Bengal tiger was then our mascot; I suppose it is still. When we came initially to the university at its Hato Rey "Campus" (house, if you prefer) it was very clear that those who were at the helm were just as green at their jobs as the just opened local branch. One of the goals of the ones in command was to make sure the students learned English as a second language. This was all well and good; however, at that time, not more than 30% of the local Puerto Rican population spoke any English at all. When these non English speaking students came to a class taught by an English speaking teacher, to say there were communication gaps would be an understatement. If we add to this the fact that some of the teachers had a very heavy southern drawl, this became a real issue. One in particular, whose name escapes me, had an accent so thick that even those of us who had just arrived from the mainland had trouble understanding him. On a one on one conversation, he came across as a nice guy and knowledgeable, but in class he was unable to pass this knowledge on to a group of students who, for the most part, sat there and stared at him. It became one of our goals, as the newly formed student "council" to help management create a class of English speaking students for this teacher. We were able to, and at least this issue was happily resolved. I have to add here that "management" was then extremely willing to listen to most anything which was reasonable and which provided a workable solution to an identified problem. This was truly commendable and I believe it was this open attitude which helped the university, and its new campus, to grow and improve over time.

Meantime, back at the ranch, I was getting to know my newly acquired family, including my father. He was working then in creating a new TV show, which would be called "TeleBingo" and would be carried by Channel 4, the main TV network on the island. What is TeleBingo, you ask? (You didn't? well I’ll tell you anyway...) This was actually a TV game show, which saw the light of day in 1965. It was fully sponsored by a major local supermarket chain and it allowed the viewers to have access to a somewhat interactive (by phone and mail, the only means at the time) participation; those who actually completed a bingo combination, did receive anywhere from a number of coupons to a week's worth of groceries. Today this may not mean much, but then it was important, especially when there were several weekly winners. The show became an instant hit and I was very glad because at last, during a while in his life, my father was able to experience the goodies that came from a successful TV enterprise. I do not mean with this he was without success at other times, he had good jobs and a good income average, but his whole life had revolved around radio and TV and now, for the first (and, unfortunately, only) time, he truly had a success story in his hands. This program and the ensuing business office it generated, gave me a job opportunity in PR, with secretaries and all. Who'da thunk it? Just a few months before I was getting my HS grad diploma in Richland, and now I had a semiprivate office with a secretary... Wow!! Welcome to the new world. Now... If I only knew what to tell her to do...

From this TV related stint came other eventual jobs. One I did manage to get into on a part time basis, while I was at the office, was that of modeling. Yes, yours truly, a TV commercial model. It was fun, although not very financially rewarding. In those years, in the PR market, there were no royalties. Today, everyone who films a commercial gets paid every time it is shown somewhere. That's where the real money is. We did get paid well for the hours of actual filming, but no royalties. I have often wondered what moneys I might have made otherwise, since I did commercials for Pepsi Cola, Pan American, and at least 4 other companies of that size. On the other hand, they were a lot of fun to do... and the female models... Wow!! (Well, I was a handsome devil of about 19 at the time... give me a break !!). Actually, I began a relationship with one of the models, who eventually (well after I left the island) became a very well known personality in that world. I was happy when I heard this; she deserved it for she was a hard worker and truly beautiful on the outside as well as on the inside.

That summer of '65 was very good indeed. After becoming friends with someone who was working at a local English language radio station, I eventually landed a job at the station. WVOZ were the call letters, I remember. Since it was the only English language station then in San Juan (other than the Armed Forces station) we had a captive audience, and it was not small. My regular gig was on the week-ends (I was still working with my father and going to the University) which were complemented with some night sub work. I loved it. I had had radio shows in Cuba, before my leaving the island and this was like a homecoming for me. I was going full throttle forward 20 hours per day, seven days per week and loving it. I even got to meet and interview Jose Feliciano, before he became known internationally; he was then a well known local musician.

Nothing could go wrong, right?

Bye for now.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Walks and Feelings


As often happens, what is originally the intent gets sidetracked and something entirely different comes out. Anyway, here goes.

During the holidays is really difficult to maintain a normal routine, no matter how hard one may try. We have family visitors and it is great, since part of the company is an eight year old “step-grandson” whom I had not seen for some two years. It is fascinating to realize that the growth is not only on the physical plane, but also in the maturity and mental plane. Since I saw him last, he has of course grown about 4-6 inches but has also begun to paint, draw and play the guitar. We can all do this, right? Well, his paintings have been shown at special exhibitions –by invitation, mind you- and he has won several prizes, selling at least one of his paintings for a nice sum. Not bad for a 7/8 year old (just turned 8 about 2 weeks ago). And yes, he has played solo guitar at a couple of school recitals. Not bad, huh? These last few days have given me a chance to get to know him again and it has been a great experience. We have talked about a lot of things and have played basketball. Also, much against his base desires, he has accompanied me in some of my daily walks huffing and puffing towards the end, but hanging in there.

It is truly amazing the amount of tech knowledge these new generation children have stored in their brains. When I was 8 years old, my main topic of conversation were swimming competitions in the summer, school homework (Ye Gads!!) and whatever simple and innocent (by today’s standards) pranks we would play on our classmates and teachers. In our walks, we discussed the difference between the I-phone, the blackberry and the new droids, as well as the new Wii games and other related important issues. He could actually tell me about the standards for each one and why he wanted a specific model for next Christmas (mind you, he just got a touch screen phone a few weeks ago) citing the specific advantages as the reason why he wanted that phone. It was good for me, since as a result of these discussions, I now have a better perspective as to what I want in a phone. We also discussed The Beatles (a favorite of him) and music in general. I introduced him again to basketball, which he loved to the point of asking (and getting) a new basketball to take back with him. Really have enjoyed his visit but, today he goes back to Miami, along with his mother and my wife. So I will be a bachelor for the next couple of weeks.

However, the original intent in sitting today was to retake the Puerto Rico era in my life, an era which was rich in people and happenings and which ended in my eventual draft into the US Army.

Yet, when I sat at the computer and did what I usually do first, which is to open my mail, there was a note from my dear brother Hector who reminded me that this coming year we will celebrate the 50th year of the beginning of the Pedro Pan movement (1960). So I proceeded to open the corresponding page in the Miami Herald www.miamiherald.com/pedropan and started to read the articles and look at the different vignettes and short stories. Many feelings came back to me. Not memories, but feelings. Memories I have relieved in the process of writing these notes, and it was not easy at times to bring these archival moments to my conscious level again. However, most times these memories were separated from their corresponding feelings in order to be able to put them on paper and share them. Otherwise, they would become too personal and I am not sure how much I could actually put in writing. So, after saying this, there are the feelings which surrounded these events. There were, especially at the beginning of the freedom flights, a great number of small children who were sent to this country, alone. These were children who should have been at home, playing with little soldiers and little dolls, in the safety of their family’s arms. Yes, children who were then the same age my little grandson is now. He, thanks to this great country we live in, can discuss issues important to him without worrying about whether his mom will be there at the end of the day or whether he will have to move to a new home, unless by choice (which they just did!).

After looking at these vignettes from then, I looked at the ones which showed some of these young immigrants today and read some of their stories. Many have been able to realize the American dream in their lives, having produced businesses, families and such. It is a matter of opportunity and of, as somewhere in these notes is mentioned, decisions made by parents who sacrificed that which was most precious to them, in order to give their children an opportunity.

So what are the feelings that come to the forefront? On a more primal and older level is a base of sadness, in memory of what was taken at a very early age and never recovered. Above this, is a deep sense of gratitude to a life which was made possible precisely as a result of what was lost. Opportunities, family, love, wealth gained and lost and –hopefully- gained again, health and a host of life memories which would have never been possible otherwise.

In the balance -not a final one yet, I truly hope- the positives outweigh the negatives. In reality, the negatives are now just part of the early memories of those Pedro Pan camp times. Not because of the life we led then, but because of what had created this need to change and to adapt to a new life.

So now, as we are ready to celebrate(?) this 50th anniversary, we can rejoice in the fact that our coming to this country gave us all an opportunity to get ahead, and to show the world that this little island in the Caribbean had a hardy and creative people, willing and able to adapt and to go on living without ever forgetting our origin and our beloved island in the Caribbean.

So, to all my Pedro Pan Brothers and Sisters:

As one of the group, I wish you a Happy/Sad 50th anniversary; May God bless us all!!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

CHRISTMAS 2009

On several occasions the comments made in this space about Christmas have not been the most positive. But they have also been very biased due to adverse circumstances. Yet, when this particular day of the year rolls around, the overall feeling is one of peace; this helps to leave out the rancor, the disappointments and any feelings which might bring about negative thoughts.

It is the day in which we commemorate the birth of the One who came to die for our salvation and to help guide us through this life and beyond. It really does not make much difference what religion you may follow and practice. If you are a professed Christian, his birth is what you will celebrate with all the joy and love your heart can muster. But, what if you are not? Does it make a great difference? Most religions I have come to know along the way will teach you that there is but One who is above all others, and most –if not all religions- will teach and preach about love, understanding and respect towards your fellow man (and woman too). However, some people seem to use their religious beliefs like a convenience towel: use it as you can to scrape the dirt you choose to trod on and then, discard it.

I do not share with these last, whose beliefs are so fanatical they border on being very superficial and meaningless, no matter what faith they claim to profess. Those who truly aim to understand that particular faith which they have chosen to believe and practice, will learn to accept that understanding through love and forgiveness will always win out. Hate and discord will always lose in the end.

As an adult, and after having been reared in a specific religion most of my life I have chosen to, as a cognizant entity, believe in and accept my Christ as the One. It does not matter really with what church or group I may share that belief. My feelings are in my heart and mind. So, on Christmas Day I shall honor and cherish that belief and rejoice in the fact He came to me. Choose what you believe in, but believe and practice what you choose. The more I have come to know people, the more that I must accept that there is indeed One who is a guide and Creator. We, as humans, simply do not have the wherewithal to establish a spiritual goal and get there without some help from someone above.

MERRY CHRISTMAS !

REJOICE IN THE HOLIDAYS AND THE MEANING OF THEM;

IT IS A UNIVERSAL FEELING!!!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The End from Calle Casales

There could be many more postcards from places like Calle Casales written; in fact, there is much more about Calle Casales but this is enough for now. It was a learning experience in many ways and, perhaps, some of it was wasted on a 14 year old who could not understand some of the details and nuisances.

THE END.

There were many interesting days at the factory. Not only the street people I met and befriended, but also those who worked there. They were, for the most part, second and third generation workers. They knew our families and our families knew them, making for the relationship between workers and employers an easy going one. The conditions were not bad; salaries were paid every Friday and the moneys earned, even by bottle washers, were more than enough to feed the family and pay the rent; no cell phone contracts or internet fees in those days. Listening to the radio, drinking a beer, holding a conversation and reading books were still the things to do.

While working at the factory, I learned to “carry” basic accounting ledgers and to deal with merchants, since they would come to the office in order to get “credit”, which was 50% now and 50% in one week. Since the mark up was around 100%, that initial 50% would, in a worst case scenario, pay for the cost of the goods taken. The overall payment rate was pretty good, although there were always those who made a big deal about not being able to pay the remainder of the bill. But these last were the few, not the more. In any event, I learned about dealing with them, setting up their accounts and following up; I learned about the sales process from beginning to end; we had 4 regional salesmen at the time, covering 75% of the national territory. We did not sell in Havana or beyond, with the biggest customers not being in the big cities, but small bars and watering holes in the countryside.

I could not know it at the time, but these basic things I was learning did come back to help a bit many years later, as I became involved more and more in the sales world. I met 2 of our 4 sales “managers”. These were the ones who covered the closer areas to our city; our own province and the province of Matanzas, relatively close by. The other two guys had their cars, but the trip to make it in to the factory was fairly long, so they called their orders in or sent them by telegraph (remember this marvelous means of communication?) and this was dispatched by train to their cities, where the product would then be distributed. Each of our guys had his “company car”, a 1955 Chevy closed wagon in which they went around their territory, taking orders and then delivering the goods.

The two guys I knew were Ramon, a big guy always in his “guayabera” (a typical dress shirt, worn by men instead of a coat or suit; it made for a hot weather friendly garment) and not usually sporting a great sense of humor.

The other guy was Pancho. He was the father of my best childhood friend and, therefore, the target of many of our pranks. His wagon was bright blue (Ramon’s was white) and we knew it had a problem which had never been fixed. The ignition switch was faulty and the engine could be easily started without the benefit of a key. This was a ready made opportunity for a prank and a joy ride.

Whenever we knew that the sales people were coming, another young guy who was working at the factory served as the lookout. He would let me know when Pancho’s car would come around the corner and we would hide behind the entry wall until he came in and parked on the street. After he went in the shop, we counted to 20 and then I would sneak into the car, start it and drive away. Someone else would go to Pancho to let him know that his car was gone, and the show would begin in earnest. Poor guy. I am not sure as to why he did not drop on the spot, since he had high blood pressure and turned red as a beet anytime he was upset. Of course, I paid dearly whenever I went to see my friend after one of these pranks. But he took it in stride and we all had a good time. Besides, being the owner’s grandson did offer a degree of life protection, although there were moments I wasn’t too sure I would come out breathing.

I had been working at the factory now for some 6 months, and enjoying the financial freedom this meant. My salary was 10 pesos per week and, to put it into perspective, a soda cost 10 cents, a bus ride anywhere in the city would cost 5 cents, and a record (yes, a 33 1/3 vinyl type record) cost somewhere around 1.50 to two pesos. On Sundays, I would take the full afternoon and first, take the bus to the movies. Then, before going to the matinee (2 cartoons, shorts, a serial and 3 movies; about 5 hours worth of theatre) I would go to the Chinese restaurant for lunch and a soda, then buy the ticket for the movie and have snacks between the shows. After the shows were over, there would be the bus ride back to the house. All included, about 5.50. So there was still half a week’s pay left. It definitely was a different world then.

One late summer Monday morning, about 10 in the am, there was a commotion at the front door.

-“Compañeros” Said someone who was around 24 years old, long haired and bearded . He was at the door, followed by a group of armed militiamen.

-“Estoy acá para intervenir esta fábrica, en el nombre del gobierno revolucionario” – “I am here to, in the name of the revolutionary government, confiscate this factory”

We all looked at each other and the silence was deafening. Pollux was restrained quietly by the comptroller, Juan, who was standing next to him and knew his man very well. My uncle, my cousin and I had talked about this probability a few days before. Our factory, for some reason unknown to us, had gone unnoticed far longer than other similar places that had been confiscated months before so, in reality, it did not come as a complete surprise when we received this permanent visit. But, it still hurt to realize that the hard work that many people had done, for more than 30 years, was about to be lost.

After the guy was taken around the factory, faking a welcome none of us felt, those of us who were members of the owner family had to leave the premises. And so we did. There was one more hurdle left, and this fell on my shoulders: to tell my grandfather, the original founder and owner.

I took the long way home, in part because I really dreaded the moment I would come face to face with my granddad and also because I wanted to take my time in one last walk through this neighborhood which had brought so much into my life in such a short time. Finally, I arrived at the house and was ready to tell, when I realized my grandfather was taking his nap on a rocking chair, next to the jasmine flower pots, his favorite spot in the patio. He simply loved the aroma of these, his very favorite flowers.

I waited for him to awaken and, when he did, the “speech” I had mentally been working on simply became a blurted bit of news.

-“Abuelo, hoy intervinieron la fábrica” – “Grandpa, the factory was confiscated today”

There were many business people who had committed suicide on receiving very similar news; I was afraid of his reaction because I knew the long and hard years of work he had put into this business. After a few minutes of silence, he turned, looked at me and simply said:

-“M’ijo” –“Son, let’s be thankful we could enjoy it for so many years”. And that was the end of his comments regarding this sad episode. A hard lesson learned early in life, regarding reality and the truly fleeting value of material things. This lesson has been always present in my mind and has helped me get through many a difficult moment in my own life.

End of the postcards from Calle Casales.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Postcards which mark a life

Some people come into a life and leave a light mark; others, by virtue of circumstance, become a fixture in that life they happen to touch, albeit a brief touch. Pata was one such guy. By virtue of who and what he was and then, what he became, he left a mark in my life. To me, this mark has been helpful; I am not sure the circumstances or reasons this mark was left in my life, were all that good for him.

PAT’E PLANCHA (liberal translation: He who walks on a foot like an iron… big, flat and wide).

“Rafelito, dale un trago a Pata” – “Hey, Rafa, give Pata a drink”.

Part of my “job” was to dispense the free drinks every day. These were given out to dock workers who, every time a supply truck would arrive, would come to the back dock and unload the truck, usually for free. Most preferred to be paid in “kind”. Translation: a free drink a couple of times a day. One drink in the morning on their way to the docks and one in the afternoon to get warmed up for the bar, or for the way home.

And it wasn’t just any drink. At the factory, we would produce several types of poison. After dinner drinks; the best selling dessert wine in Cuba, made out of papaya fruit. Also, different kinds of rum, the younger, clear or “white” rum and the darker, oak aged version. One aged for 5 years and one for 12 years. Now, please, these weren’t just any rums, they had been given 1st and 2nd prizes for quality, taste, etc. in more than one exhibition, in Europe as well as Cuba. But, the Piece de Resistance was the “Aguardiente”; literally: “Burning Water”.

Over the years and in different countries, I have drank other “aguardientes”. Some are sweet, some are drier, most are in the league of a liquor, as far as alcohol content goes. If you drink enough of any of them, it will put you out, no question and next morning, the sweeter the version you drank, the worse the headache.

Cuban aguardiente is not sweet at all; it is almost pure alcohol. In fact, we put out two versions of this drink: the milder version, at 90 proof or 45% alcohol. Then, there was the brew that was sold in the eastern provinces. This version was 150 proof or 75% alcohol. This drink, in its two versions, accounted for probably up to 50% of the total sales of the factory. And it had also won more than one prize at fairs and expositions. Probably after one drink, the judges weren’t too sure as to what they were doing.

All the preceding was to establish that this last was the preferred drink of all those who came to the door looking for their freebie. I remember the first time I actually opened a bottle of the stronger version. I made the mistake of doing so a little too close to my face… the cloud of vapor that came out of the bottle almost put me out. And, of course, the guys waiting for their drink laughed at my reaction, saying in the middle of their friendly laughter that I wasn’t still “man enough” to drink this stuff. I guess I am glad about the fact that 49 years later, I have to yet attain that kind of manhood.

One of our more common visitors (also always present at any time we needed to unload something) was Pata (the equivalent of “hoof” – for short). He religiously came every morning between 8:30 and 9am and then in the afternoon between 5 and 5:30 and just as religiously had his drinks.

How to describe this physical specimen of a man? About 33 years old, but looking more like 45. He was tall, about 6’1” or 6’2”, and weighed about 220 solid pounds. He was a light mulatto with green eyes and always ready with a smile and a joke; always after the drink, of course… every morning he would come by and shoot the breeze for a few minutes, take his drink, crack a couple of jokes and then he would go on his way. In the afternoons, the cycle would repeat and, no matter how tired he may have been from a very physical work day, there would always be the flash of the teeth and the joke. He was a definite fixture at the factory, and always welcome by all of us; almost like one more of the guys.

He was but one of the cast of very amazing characters I met while working at Ron San Carlos. And I must say he was one of the most easily identifiable; all knew him around the neighborhood. It is a piece of my life which has never ceased to surprise me, no matter how many times I may go back and review it. Like it happened yesterday and not almost 5 decades ago.

One morning, about 4 months into my eventual 6 months on the job, he did not show up for his drink. I was a little surprised but then, it was just one morning. When the afternoon came about and he did not come at this time either, there was some surprise amongst those of us who knew him. Unfortunately, we had no idea as to where he lived, or whether he had a family. He was just Pata and that is all he wanted others to know and, so it was that we did not know who to contact in order to inquire about him.

About 8 days into his absence, someone who did know of his whereabouts came to ask for a drink. After he drank it, we asked him about Pata. -“Oh, Pata?” he answered, -“He’s coming out of the hospital tomorrow, he had pneumonia and also alcohol withdrawal”, he continued, “I’m sure he’ll come directly here from the hospital”… he paused and with a wink, added –“necesita su trago”… -“needs his fix”.

Sure enough, next day about mid-morning here came someone who resembled the man we knew as Pata. He seemed to have shrunk about 2-3 inches, had lost about 25 pounds and his skin had that sickly pallor which screams hospital room to you. Where there had been a proud, long and sure stride, there was now an almost shuffle movement to his walk. He walked up to the door and stood there; almost was like it would be an exhausting exercise just to talk. We all greeted him and invited him to a drink. At this, he perked up somewhat and looked at us like his saviors. I don’t really think any further descriptions are needed; much to our real dismay, this hard working man had become, in just 10 days, a shell of what he had been. He finished his full drink and then held out the glass (a normal, big size water glass, not a shot glass) and after the second glass looked to a third which, although normally we would not go beyond the first glass, we gave him. He finished it in one gulp and let out a long sigh, as if some life had come back to him.

At this point we realized that this man had literally drunk a full bottle of the 75% stuff, just like you and I might drink a glass of water. After he went on to his daily routine, now with a little more color to his face, we just looked at each other and silently voiced our disbelief. Even some of the hard drinking guys at the office could not actually absorb what had just transpired.

Where is this story going? It is one of the postcards which mark my life. Since that moment, the concept of getting drunk has never been a possibility for me. Yes, I drink. I enjoy a shot of vodka, a glass of wine or two; and no, don’t like beer much. But never will I drink to the point of getting drunk and used to the alcohol; anytime I may have come close, the picture of this destroyed shell of a man desperately drinking his alcohol like it was water, comes into my mind and stops me. I can see Pata before me, like I saw him that day 49 years ago. Something clicks inside of me and a voice which vaguely resembles what I remember his voice was says: “don’t be like me”. Nothing more; but it is enough to stop me dead on my tracks, and I simply answer “thanks, friend…" Then I pray that, in the end, he found that elusive, true peace he was trying to get in the bottle.

Just another page of a postcard of years gone by.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Postcards; continued.


In thinking back to all the people I met in those six short months I worked at the factory, it seems that much life learning was compressed into that span of time. These were people that would have never crossed my path in my other life; that relatively protected one which I had lived for almost 14 years. Me thinks that my lot in life would have been much less had I not spent that time at Calle Casales.
I will be back to my Puerto Rico years; my head is getting on in that direction; yet, there are at least 2 or perhaps 3 other significant short stories from that time. They might be interesting to you. Back now to finish the time I call "Rosie's Time".

Under her wing I met many people who lived in the area and were part of “her” world, as she referred to it. Some of these were true characters and some actually worked at the factory, I just had never seen them under this personal light before. We had many conversations as time went on, but these had to be done without my family or someone who could tell them finding out. Had news of these adventures reached my grandparents ears, I am sure my job would have been cut short and my visits to Calle Casales would be summarily terminated.

It was a streetsmarts school. During the summer months or the week ends, when I would get together at parties with friends, the society girls would all play at being naughty and flirty, without really knowing what this meant. In my daily walking “tours” I would spend the time with those girls whose livelihood and that of their children actually depended on being able to sell their bodies and have that sex the others, usually of their same age, could only talk about as vague insinuations and in between nervous giggles. And then try to go on with life as if this was just a job, and nothing more.

Harry Chapin, the great singer songwriter of the 70's put it best when in one of his songs he talked about the girl who, being an expensive call girl, had achieved her life’s dream: she had become an actress... This self imposed emotional blindness may work for a while; but reality, being the harsh master it is, never failed to eventually grab their hearts and minds, reducing them to not much more than living human remnants.

Every once in a while there would be news in the grapevine about one of the girls having met her death, and not always at the hands of someone else. Then, we would all pony up (myself included) and get the funds needed to send her body back home (usually somewhere in a countryside village) to a decent burial. If there were children involved, the requests would include the funds needed to get them back home to grandparents who often did not even know of their existence.

From Rosie and her friends I learned more than what I could perhaps take in or understand at that age; there was true friendship and interdependence within that mini society; they could not live or subsist without this support network and the open interaction amongst peers. This sojourn into this lifestyle was really an eye opener as well as an experience; it taught me first hand much about many subjects that regular schools would never include in their teacher’s plans. Especially those schools managed by the Catholic Church.

Sometime after I left Cuba I learned from a common friend into whom I ran in Miami, that Rosie had met her death not much longer after I had left. Her lifestyle had finally caught up with her somewhere near the docks, at the hands of some foreign sailors. I truly mourned her and the sadness of her life. Then I thought of her as someone who was willing to live, share and laugh, despite her troubled existence.

This made for an easier remembrance.

Perhaps more postcards tomorrow...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Postcards; continued.


Working, walking and meeting people in this neighborhood, on a daily basis, gave me an early opportunity to learn about aspects of life in my city which were totally foreign to me. It truly was an eye opener.

As I stood before the factory doors, it was like a homecoming of sorts. Many memories came flooding into my head of those times past when, as a small child, I roamed the walls and halls within.

-“Dios Mio muchacho, que te dieron de comer en este tiempo?” -“My God, what in the world did they feed you these past years? said one of the old faces, behind a huge Zapata like moustache. He was Pollux (last and only name to which he answered) a third generation worker and the guy who basically ran the production floor. After a big hug he took me around to the back warehouse.

-“Oye Juanito, mira a ver si te atreves a hacerle cosquillas ahora… A que no?” --“Hey Juanito, I bet you don’t dare tickle him now, huh?” Everyone laughed at the comment and they all, as one, came forward to greet me, laugh and welcome me back now as one more of the guys, rather than the kid who was always afoot. It really made me feel good then and it still does, when I think about those moments.

That morning, when I had walked down Casales Street on my first day on the job, now as a bigger guy (although 3 months shy of 14, I was already almost 6 feet tall, making me taller than most Cubans), I began to take in the realities of this stretch of a city I thought I knew fairly well. Parque Martí (Central Park) was only three blocks away physically, but a world away in feeling and style; the club where we went and where we swam, located on the other, swankier side of town, was another dimension altogether; the long way to school going by way of Santa Cruz Street; Paseo del Prado, the longest avenue in the city then and I believe still; the shopping areas, just on the other side of Central Park. What was known to me of the city where my life had begun and developed had nothing to do with this part of town.

It was relatively early in the morning; work started at 8:30am and it was a 35 minute walk from my grandfather's house. As I turned left into Casales street from the corner of Santa Cruz, the world I knew began to physically change. The further down my steps took me closer to where the factory was, the more unfamiliar the environment became. The neatly stacked boxes of empty beer and rum bottles, remnants of a busy and profitable night, were neatly stacked on the outside of the bar doors, the morning employees having done their early work of cleaning up the inside of the shops. Now, with hoses in hand, one by one they would appear at the front doors like mini fire fighters and hose down whatever happened to have stayed on the sidewalk as a reminder of the night before.

Despite the underlying dirt and the many things which were part of the junk being hosed down, the smell in the air was surprisingly clean and cleaning liquid fresh. I would say hello to everyone and they would in turn respond. At first, it was a tentative response; I was an outsider. As the days went past and I insisted in saying good morning, they also began to respond in kind. After a week or so, I was becoming a fixture of their morning routine and some would actually wave their greetings without waiting for me.

During the return walk, in the afternoon after 5 pm, it was a totally different story. At this time of the day, this business sector of the city was actually gearing up to their busier activity(ies) and many of the young ladies were to be seen, almost as if a collective wake up call had gone out up and down the street. Most were somewhere between 17 and death; a few closer to the latter. There were also children who were playing in the midst of the controlled turmoil. This is when I began to understand (remember I was 13) that these people were just that: people like me, save for the lack of social status, education and/or funds my family may have had at the time. I began to also say hello to these ladies and to their kids.

They, accustomed to being looked down on as lowlife, were much less enthusiastic about establishing contact with yours truly. Especially after finding out how old I was (or wasn’t) and that I had no interest in their more readily available services. There was one in particular. Rosie. She was 16 or 17 according to actual years lived, but was closer to 50 in experience. Sometime at the end of her earlier, perhaps more innocent years, she had been a natural brunette but now her hair had been forcibly changed into that sickly yellow that only comes from putting your head in a peroxide bath. In the beginning she had shown an interest in me, and some of the guys who worked at the factory were kidding me about how I had “conquered” this young street lady. At some point we started a conversation; after realizing that my business potential was really low, she asked me why I was showing an interest in “her” people; I simply answered her that I had always been interested in people, and that it was no different at this time.

This was the start of a short and bittersweet relationship, opening my life into a world that was heretofore truly unknown to me; a sub-society with its own rules, where the wrong word or look, or the wrong introduction could be very costly.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Postcards


Every city has its secrets, its dark spots. Yet, when one looks closely at these spots, they may become the more telling and colorful stories in the city. This is one of those stories about one of those areas in my hometown. It may take two or three posts, but I think it is cool.

Cienfuegos, Cuba. 1960 or thereabouts.

Ever since I had been a small child, the name “Calle Casales”(Casales Street) had a sub-world connotation in my hometown. This was a street that ran about 2 blocks south of Parque Marti, the main plaza in my hometown. It was in the midst of the oldest area in town, where most of the streets end, on the one side, near the cargo piers and going up to the other side of a thick peninsula like piece of land, these few streets would die (so to speak) near the navy facilities, called “Cayo Loco” (Crazy Key).

I lived only two blocks away from Casales and my actual getting acquainted with this (in)famous street came about due to the closing of the school where I went most of my young life. In the early part of 1960, the government seized most, if not all, private schools, but especially those which were run by the catholic church like my school. I remember going to the bus terminal on D’Clouet Street to bid farewell to most of the Champagnat brothers who had been in charge of my education since I had been in 1st grade and through the then current year, with the exception of one and a half years under the tutelage of Padre Varela school, about 150 miles from home, where I was a live in student. In other words, I was (am) the product of, for better or worse, a long education process overseen by the catholic system. This, in of itself, means not much; although this system could easily develop a not so open mind, it is nonetheless a good educational system. However, as this little story develops, you will perhaps understand that much of what I went through during this period was not totally in accord with my -until then- life long learning.

Having set the stage, let’s go back to Calle Casales. No one of any standing would be caught dead over there. Or at least, would try not to be caught there, whether dead or alive. This was the old red district in Cienfuegos, where most of the underworld bars, the “lowlife” (described as such by our elders) and the easy women were to be found. As I came to know some of these people, I always wondered what was to be considered so easy about living the life they were forced to live by the circumstances of their upbringing.

My grandfather had come from Spain in the year 1914 as, practically, a penniless immigrant; after years of working in sales, as a tailor’s apprentice, a trucker and a lot of other things in order to get ahead, he was able to establish the eventual family business: a rum factory by the name of “Ron San Carlos”. The building in which the factory was housed was a big, old building with an open inside courtyard, and a couple of “massive” (to me, anyway) warehouses where there were a lot of casks, bottles, filters and stuff, which I can’t really remember now. There were long wooden tables, where the bottles were filled by hand (not too automated back in the 30’s) and the boxes assembled. In the manufacture of these commodities (there were several lines of hard stuff distilled and bottled at the factory) most of the goods came by rail and/or ship. Also, they were looking for a less expensive area in which to operate. So, when all was said and done, the building in which they ended up was on Calle Casales, on the corner of Santa Clara. On one side, the raiways spur and less than 3 blocks away from the cargo pier; in the center of what would eventually become the heart of the red(dest) district.

When I was around 5 or 6 years old, I had accompanied my grandfather in several visits to the factory; I loved going in there and drive everyone crazy while zooming around a bright red push pedal car. It was perfect; the huge spaces, places to hide, the courtyard. Boy it was playing haven. Somewhere I have a picture of me in my red car (well, it is a black and white picture… but I know it is a red car… no comments!!) in the middle of several “disgruntled” employees and with a big grin on my face. One of these guys, Juanito, would come up behind me and tickle me every once in a while, just to bug me. In reality, it was like an extended family and every time I was there, my grandfather knew that wherever I might be, there would always be four or five pairs of eyes making sure I would not get into something from which it would be difficult to get me out. Those were early, innocent times and it was a fun life.

Several years passed before I went back to the factory again. This time as a “grown man” of 13, almost 14 years old. This came about because of the closure of the school and the requirement that those who wanted to remain studying under the new “management”, had to join the militia youth. Those who did not join had to leave the school. My choice (supported by my elders) was not to join and I left the school, not knowing this chain of events would trigger my eventual departure from Cuba. When this happened I was left meandering the streets, and this situation was really not acceptable. My grandfather spoke with my great uncle, who was managing the factory, and I went to work there with a job that included copying accounting ledgers (boring!!!) taking care of visitors (less boring!) and running around with my cousin (much more interesting!).

So the day came. I could have said yes to the ride offered, or could have taken my bycicle. Instead I chose to walk. Not only have I loved to walk for as long as I can remember but, in doing so, I felt a much more live closeness to my surroundings, especially in this area I had not seen or been to since I was a 7 year old child.

Will be continued...

Monday, December 14, 2009

College Boy, revisited.


Today it became a goal to finish the entry started yesterday. These last few days it has been a little crazy, but I do not want to lose the habit of writing a bit every day. I have started a new "prequel" since the one about my uncle was well received. This one may take a little longer to write and will also be worth 2, maybe three entries but it is special. Thank you for your positive comments.

It has been difficult to get to the computer. Well, actually not to the computer since I spend a good deal of my working day (and evening) at this blessed or bloody machine; which appellation is to be used depends on how the day is going, and how fast it responds to my commands. Lately it has been fairly slow... Poor thing, in the life span reckoning of computerworld, it is going on about 150 years of age. Soon I will replace it with a brand new, space age gizmo and then I will have to learn all over again how to use it. In the meantime, I shall continue to baby, clean, defrag, de-add, debug and, generally speaking, coddle it so that it doesn’t freeeeeeeeeeeeeee…ze on me too often.

These days I am quite taken up with some work in which some associates and yours truly have been involved for the better part of 12 years. Amazing we could go on this long, huh? It seems it is coming to a finalization in the next few days and this does nothing if not generate tons of paperwork but all to a happy ending, God willing.

Where was I when we were last speaking? Just getting started with my Puerto Rico experience, right? Well, it was an all ’round experience. 1964, eighteen glorious years old, lots of hair (well, I do have to state somewhere that my current status was not always so!!) and another yet new world to explore. Obviously, my father was doing all he could to make our encounter an easy one to handle for both of us. I have to admit he was very good at it; an easy going person with lots of patience and, really, this was a true learning experience for me. My newly met stepmother was also a jewel, and this is said in the real sense of the word, not in a sarcastic mode. She had been, and still sometimes functioned as, a commercial model. A very attractive redhead; remember that then was the time of Lucille Ball and many women wore henna red on top of their heads, whether it fit them or not. In Laura’s case, it definitely fit. Very light skin and huge emerald green eyes. The red hair just made her presence known. She was also explosive (as was her deep throated laugh), very emotional and loving. Her daughter, our new step sister Laurita, although a very intelligent and not unattractive young lady, had some issues. I believe she felt overshadowed by her mom’s strong physical presence and was along the way into developing a strong insecurity feeling about herself as a growing woman. My brother Fernando was then a child of about 4 years old. I think he got the best of both parents. Good looking guy (though now that he’s getting older, I’m not so sure…) caring and fairly emotional. Also very creative and carrying his mother’s green eyes. I always remember a photo of him in a military school uniform at graduation time… nice cut, even for grade school!

This was the world into which my sister and I came. A somewhat crazy world which was fine with me. My father had been in the world of communication arts most of his life: radio and television. First in Cuba, then in New York City and, finally, in Puerto Rico. There is a saying in Spanish which reads: “Lo que se hereda, no se hurta”. This, loosely translated, means “what is yours by birth right, is not stolen”. I found out about my father’s lifelong communications love affair when I met him in Puerto Rico. Yet, when I was 13-14 years old in Cuba and following the closure of my school, radio eventually became my outlet.

Some friends and I started a teen radio show in a small town (Cruces, for those of you who are from Cuba) which met with a lot of success and, by the time I left the country, we were on the air 7 days, including 3 hours each on Saturday and Sunday mornings. More on this some other time; for now, suffice it to say that the genes came directly from my pater for, much to my mother’s and grandfather’s chagrin, I have loved radio since early childhood and obviously without any direct influence from him. When we met in Puerto Rico, he was just starting a TV show loosely based on the then well known Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. This gave us a strong common ground, and gave me the opportunity to work with him, in an area that was really enjoyable for me, and it became a school of sorts. This particular show was not of long life; however, the following show he put together, a game show, was more successful and he did well with it for a couple of seasons.

But, back to the University. A group of students had come in from Stateside that year and we sort of drifted together at the beginning of the school year. Most did not speak Spanish, and this gave me an advantage over them. Not that it meant much, except that because of this I was quickly able to expand my circle of friends to include many classmates from PR and several Cubans whom I met in the first few weeks. What we did accomplish, however, was the structuring of the school assembly into a coherent “mob” rather than an anarchic one. Since we had all come from high schools and/or universities where there were student body committees and student-teacher groups we had some experience in the matter and worked with the student dean, who did not.

-“Oye muchacho, ven acá que te quiero presentar a alguien” I heard Laura say to me at a modeling function. “Come here, I want you to meet someone”. That being said, she introduced me to another model, Lynnette. She was 16 years old then, but quite a bit older looking (you know, model and all that) and little by little we became an item. She was very pretty and also intelligent and ‘Cariñosa” which is somewhere east of “loving”. What was I doing at this function, you ask? I was modeling. I had started doing this thanks to Laura’s insistence and was doing OK, including TV commercials and also clothing lines. I told you… we were good looking at some point… tsk, tsk… Lynnette and I remained together for the better part of 8 months and when we parted, it was amicably. The difference in ages was not much and perhaps if we had met two years later, it may have been very different. Her being 16 really limited what she could do and what we could share (don’t be nasty, not that!). She was a junior in HS and I was now a big college guy. No comments, please.

My memories of that first year in PR are somewhat mixed and matched. There were so many things happening at so many levels that at times it wasn’t clear where my head was. I think that my father’s attitude (trying to be non-confrontational) of not saying to me “don’t make this choice, it is not good for you” did not bring about the results he meant to have.

My first full time job in PR was as a door to door magazine salesman. I have not stopped selling since then, and love it. There aren’t too many things that haven’t been “in my sales bag” at one time or another. Magazines, cars, appliances, radio time, home alarms, different types of insurance but never, ever, snake oil. Eventually, life insurance became my life’s work and I truly came to understand and love the product and its sales process.

Well, ‘nuff for now. I will do my best to continue tomorrow.

Be well!!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

An Arrival


The first hello to a father I did not know; the first impression; the first arrival at the house; the first meeting with a new stepmother; the first day at the new university. Too many firsts in too short a time. But then, it wasn't the first time.


It was an arrival. Laura, my step-mother to be, happened to be outside when the car came into the driveway. First, she looked at me and the expression on her face was sort of a “and now, who is he bringing home for lunch without letting me know?” Then, she looked again and, as she put it afterwards, the angle of my face was just like that of a picture they had, and there was a big smile of recognition, followed by an out and out laugh. I would come to know that full throated laugh over the time I was there; it was part of her personality.

-“Dios mio!!” she exclaimed, -“Pero si eres tú muchacho!!!”… -“Oh My God!!!” “It’s you my boy!!” she practically yelled. It took me a while, but I eventually became re-accustomed to the normal levels of local Spanish conversation: loud and louder. This was, after all, the Caribbean and we Caribbean Spanish are not known to be quiet and reserved. If there is a group of us and we have something to say, we will say it out loud. In fact, even when we have nothing or little to say, we will still say it out loud. We also tend to use our hands a lot, waving them around so we can punctuate whatever is being said... And the less we know about the subject, the faster the arms rotate a windmill fashion. As if the faster movements will bring more credibility to whatever is being said. For an outsider looking in, a lively conversation can look like a fight or an argument. We love it. That is a character trait for our “raza” and it is something we will carry to our grave. Probably argue with St. Pete before the pearly gates about just how long they should remain open. And why.

That afternoon, after we (I) had talked for a while, taken a shower and rested a bit, it was time to go to my sister’s school to pick her up. She didn’t know I had arrived; my trip had been kept a secret to give her a surprise. Since it was fall already, by the late afternoon (no “sissy” schools like here where kids are out by 2:30pm, back then they finished at 4:30) pick up at 5 pm, it was dark. We came in and parked at the usual spot, and my father got out of the car to call her over. As she started to walk towards the car, I came out of the other side. The moment she saw me, she screamed (again, not too gently) “Hermano!!” –“Brother!!!” and, dropping her books, she ran and jumped into my arms. Whatever doubts I may have had about any future consequences resulting from those decisions which had to be made for me to come to Puerto Rico, that moment made them all disappear.

We had a lot to catch up on; almost three years of separate lives. And we started right away; there was no one else in the car as far as we were concerned. We talked and talked into the night. For me it was a welcome reassurance that let me know that the reason that caused me to come was a valid one. For her, it was the reassurance of something, or someone that belonged to her original life was now again a part of it.

It does not make any difference how much the family with whom you are –even being your own blood, like it was in this case- will try to make you feel at home. Yes, if all works out well, you will come to eventually feel comfortable and a part of the family and this is extremely important. Yet, these people are not part of your life, as it you had known it to be, before it was terminated through no action of your own. In Richland it took, at least for me, several months before I really felt a part of the Crowley family. And this was a family that never ceased in their efforts to bring me in, for which I am forever grateful. I know it was the same for some, if not most, of the other kids who had come as part of the group. And a few, as is always the case, were not really able to adapt to the change.

Back to Puerto Rico. I truly had no idea what I was walking into. I did not know my father; I did not know either my step mother or my step sister. As to my little brother well, he was that, the little guy. And happy to be a part of this “revolú” (Puerto Rican word which implies commotion, of a constant type).

Life in PR started for me the very next day. –“C’mon” said my father –“We need to get to the university this morning, we have an appointment”. I realize that my coming to the island was on short notice, as far as the enrollment procedures for the freshman classes were. Also, my father did all within his power to get me into the University of Puerto Rico, the largest, government run school. The equivalent of the state universities on the mainland. But this could not be done, because the incoming class had been filled long in advance of the beginning of the school year. But he told me that Inter-American University was a private university, originally run by the Presbiterian Church, but now non-sectarian. I said –“fine, let’s go”. Honestly, I had visions of the universities in the US (very similar to the state run one over there) and expected to drive into a campus like set up, with the administration building, etc. What I did not now at the time, was that this university had a main campus elsewhere in the island, but this was their first year operating in the metropolitan area. Sort of a new, franchise venture.

My father parked the car and started to get out, saying –“OK, we’re here”. I looked around and, truly, saw nothing that could be called a learning center. “We’re where?” – “At the university” he answered. My face must have shown some of the bewilderment I felt, for he quickly added: -“don’t worry, it’s a good school, even though it doesn’t look like much”

I asked him –“Are we here because it is a good school, or because it is the only one that would take me now?”

He looked at me and said: -“in reality. A little of both”... “but” he added with a smile –“it is a good school”.

That’s how I came to know Universidad Interamericana in Hato Rey, Pto. Rico, circa 1964. An old 3 story house (no elevators or air conditioning), converted into a school of sorts, which along with another building, optimistically called “The Annex”, a converted warehouse some 7 miles away, made up the metropolitan campus of the university. There are those who complain when they have to walk from one building to another between sessions but... 7 miles?.

In the long run, my fears turned out to be totally unfounded. The time spent there was a learning experience, in the full sense of the word. Not only academically but, since there was nothing established, a group of us were able to bring the experiences which we had lived in schools Stateside and do a lot of developmental work insofar as the different inter-relational areas... -"Huh, what the... you ask??" Well, what this extraordinarily confusing description refers to, are student groups, social activities, student-teacher committees, newsletter (yours truly being the first editor in chief, reporter, writer, copier, human eraser and distributor) and a few other issues. We actually got to design and order the first flag, with the figure of the Bengal tiger, the mascot image of the university. Today, I’m told that the University has a beautiful, huge, sprawling campus in Rio Piedras, part of the metropolitan area and not too far from where the “Annex” was then.

Well, ‘nuff for now. Next time we’ll go deeper into the life of a college student in Puerto Rico in the 60's, living under the threat and fear of the encroaching Viet Nam era, and other things.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Puerto Rico, Here I Come!


This entry was actually started yesterday. As I sat and wrote, the slow realization that this blog is becoming a "bio" of sorts, comes into mind. That being said, it makes it more difficult to choose what to include and what not. I will continue on; let's see where this will take us all.

EH GADS!!! “How hot is it here? I asked my father while we hugged, by way of a greeting. I had recognized him from some photos I had received some time ago. He just smiled and said –“well, these are the tropics, you know… and the cooler season is still a couple of months away”. Incredible how in two short years, the body changed and adapted to a totally different climate environment. After all, just two years before I had come from a similar Caribbean island.

When the plane’s passenger door had been opened (still had to go down the steps on to the tarmac before going into the terminal then) and I put my head out into the morning sun, it felt like someone had thrown a very hot, very wet towel on my face. By the time I went into the somewhat cooler terminal building and started looking for my father, I was already drenched in sweat. And this came on the heels of a very long and tiring trip. Yet, the excitement and anticipation of meeting my father actually kept me on an adrenaline high and I made it through until we made it to the house, later on.

Back at the beginning of the summer when the decision to go to PR was finally made, our correspondence and phone calls increased dramatically. There was now a need to get to know each other at least to some degree, since this would make the encounter less awkward. And this was something we both wanted. It would be difficult enough in the beginning; anything we could do to make it easier, was welcome. There were many things to discuss and very little time in which to do it. Besides, I had all my going away farewell parties to attend…

There was the issue of coordinating my sister’s arrival and her school, since she had one more year of high school to go. Also, there was my university enrollment. This was a more difficult situation to solve, since by this time (July) all major universities were already closed to new enrollments. There was, however, a new university in town; a branch of an established university from an inland town (even though PR is only about 48 miles wide by 110 miles long, inland could be a long haul due to the mountain roads which dominated the island then) and they were willing to receive any qualified candidate. That is, qualified and paying.

Thus, it was decided that I would enroll at Inter American University, Hato Rey Campus. And so I was informed. In those days Google, Wikipedia, home PCs (or computers, for that matter) and the internet were the stuff of science fiction, so there were not too many places where I could look up this bastion of knowledge and… whatever. Perhaps this was for the best. So, it was set. I would leave as soon as possible (read: as soon as the bureaucrats moved the paperwork forward) and my father would, in the meantime, get one of the rooms ready for me. We would come into a house where there were 4 inhabitants already: my father, my step-mother Laura; my half brother Fernando (then about 6 years old; today a successful media executive in PR) and my step sister Laurita. This last was the daughter of Laura, from her first marriage. Their home was a typical middle-income house in PR. A nice development (neighborhood), with individual homes, situated about 20 minutes from Hato Rey. Most of the homes were built out of concrete and with an open layout, to take maximum advantage of the breeze. This house had 4 bedrooms and two baths. My father and Laura would occupy the master, my now 2 sisters would be in the other larger room, then Fernando and I would each have one of the smaller bedrooms. Of course, this was all decided while I was still in Richland, and it turned out fine.

Eventually, all good byes in Richland were said, especially to the Crowley family. Actually, my farewell to them had taken place before, since they had left for the beach two weeks before and I was with Mr. C., who had stayed behind to keep me company. I was taken to Yakima, to initiate the long trip; first back to Miami, and then a Pan Am flight to San Juan. If I remember correctly, I left sometime during a morning and would arrive in San Juan late the following morning, some 25 hours later. I had a lot to think about during this trip. Once again, the specter of the unknown was just around the corner and I was barreling into it without too much preparation. It became a little scary that it did not faze me anymore to do this.

At age 18, no less, I was becoming a “master” of the unexpected and a person willing to leave one world behind and venture into another. Before you may think -“Hey, that’s great” I will tell you that no, is isn’t. When at such an early age you accept and adopt the concept of “easy” change and of pulling up and going at a moment’s notice, it becomes very difficult to lay down roots later on in life, when it would be very enjoyable to do so; especially for the rest of your family. I have actually lost track of how many times I have moved in my life; of how many dwellings, places and countries I have come to think of as home. Several were to be temporary and even though this was known going in, I came to think of these places as “home” just the same. And just as easily my bags were "picked up" and carried away when the time came to do so; more than once, this time was not necessarily chosen by me. I am not sure this has been a positive character development.

I was finally on my way to this new phase in my life; going to meet the other side of my family (as an aside: just today an e-mail came in from a cousin on my father’s side I had not heard from since before leaving Cuba, where she is now a veterinary research doctor… she saw my picture in internet - ???), my father and most importantly, going to be reunited with my sister. Still, I would have a lot of flight time to think about my life, as it was then known. What did I think were truly my choices? What was I going to study? What kind of school would this university be?

By the time the plane arrived in San Juan’s Isla Verde airport, my head was on more or less straight. The changes had been accepted, along with the new family and the fact that I had to contribute to building up of a father/son relationship (in the long run, it turned out more of an older brother/friend relationship, which worked out fine) and not just take advantage of the guilt feelings I knew my father must have been having. Oh yes, there was a little bit of this also but then, who won't get a little extra whenever the circumstances allow it?

On the way home, we talked about everything but our feelings or fears. This would have to wait for a more appropriate time, perhaps a couple of years down the road… For the moment, we were content to talk about the trip, the island, the university (more on that later…), my sister being comfortable at the house and other not terribly life shaping topics.

About 40 minutes and what seemed to be as many turns later, we turned into the driveway of the house where I would now live.

“Welcome Home!” my father said; “I know we will be OK, and that you will enjoy your life here”.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Skeleton in the Closet; Part II


He was a true character; I would meet others in my daily life and probably will put them, at some time, in these renderings; they were equally or, perhaps, even more interesting. Or maybe they may have appear so because I spent more time with them. But, none of them was my uncle; He was.

Then, the moment he laughed, I knew; it was like a knowing flash. That laughter, coupled with the eyes. He had to be on my grandmother’s side of the family, a cousin, someone related and who had fallen on hard times.

-“You are a relative of the Peñas, aren’t you?” I said, more than asked. I knew I was right.

Still with a twinkle in his eyes, he said to me: -“I’m the best kept secret in this family, my boy”. –“I am your great uncle Eusebio and, also, what is known as the black sheep of the family”.

At this moment, one of the most fascinating summers of my life began to unfold. As it turned out, my grandfather had given his blessing to have him come in to the house when he was in town and make his own lunch, as long as he kept to the kitchen, at the back of the house. This may sound strange but, in that society and at that time, this was a good deed. His own brother, a taller and much better kept and dressed version of him (that was the resemblance I could not put my finger on at the beginning) who was very concerned about what others would say, refused to have him in his house at all.

We hit it off from the get-go and he began to, on a daily basis, tell me in chapter and verse some of the stories of his life. Not all of them I’m sure, only those which could be safely told to an 8 year old. He had dropped out of school when he was in 8th grade, and had done odd jobs in different areas and in different towns. Then, when he was old enough (or looked the part), he joined the merchant marine and went out to see the world.

He talked about towns which were then only the stuff of geography and picture books. I learned about the Venice channels, the lagoons; I learned about the people from northern Europe, the Mediterranean port cities and about the “Brits” as he called them. He became a breathing, living travelogue, with insights no brochure would ever be able to give me. He had been in the merchant marine during the war and had been a part of several convoys, being very lucky in that his ship, although shot at, was never sunk. These stories were a regular part of the telling; I also learned about many towns in Cuba I had never heard off and about the many things that could be done in these towns (Many of which I would come to understand only later in life). Most of these stories included a fight or two, hence the big round scar on his right temple, the thin, tired body and many other not so visible scars.

What I most learned from him was about self respect. Here was a man who obviously liked to drink and whose life had been, by choice, a hard one; his health was affected by his drinking as well as other vices I could not even begin to fathom at that age. Yet, he did not consider himself a loser or a beaten man. What he had, he enjoyed to the fullest. If it was a piece of meat for lunch, it was the best meat; if it was pork, it was simply great! If it were only vegetables on days he did not have the money to purchase something else; the veggies were the grandest this side of town. Of course, I became his accomplice and with cook's help, on those days he was short there would appear, as if on a miraculous cue, a piece of whatever we had had for lunch at the house.

This daily get together would go on for the better part of 2 months and, although there were many people from whom I learned much as a growing child and in later life, I have to say that what my uncle Eusebio passed to me in those afternoon conversations, was that we as individuals should not be bound by parameters imposed from the outside. Only each one of us has the ability to understand what we can do and not do and we should then do it. Or not. But our choice.

His existing was such a well kept secret that many years later, in Miami, when I would mention him to my mom’s life long best friend (and mother of my best childhood friend) she had no idea as to whom I was referring. She would categorically deny to me that this person existed… Amazing!

Sometime later that summer, I came into the kitchen one afternoon for my daily chapter of this wonderful, ongoing novella but the kitchen was empty and too clean to have been used earlier. I waited, but my uncle never came. Later that afternoon I saw my grandmother and her eyes were red and humid, she had been crying. I did not see him again; he became part of my personal “lore” since no one else would talk about him. Her brother, my great-uncle, had ceased to exist and, almost, there was an underlying sense of relief with the older members of the family which, to me, was very difficult to understand, much less accept.

I can only surmise my uncle Eusebio had been in one bar too many and had had one fight too many. Or, perhaps, his heart just gave up pumping blood to that very much tired and abused body. In either case, it had been his last fight and he had lost it. If only the mind could have been saved!!

There could have been many more sessions; his story telling kept me totally immersed in these worlds of his making. Who knows whether some of it was made up or not; if it was, he made it be real in my mind. In fact, years later, as I had a chance to visit some of the places he had talked about, I would recognize some landmarks. And I would smile, remembering those vivid, bright blue eyes and their mirth.

What do you think?

Bye for now.

There are Memories and then… There are Memories…

   Today, being Saturday and most things that needed to be done being so done yesterday, there was some time in which to do not much, so HB...