Monday, November 30, 2009

First Half of Senior Year

I did play the lazy one over the holidays, and today I found out there is an internet issue with my computer connection. So, over the next couple of days, I will get in as I can. I am not sure where these writings are going, but I know there are several issues during my senior year on which I will touch, but don't know how deeply... Anyway, life goes on...

When September 1963 rolled around, we were ready to start our last year in High School. Most of us in our group did not really know what would be there at the end of the school year but, that was many months away. Now, it was the beginning of a senior year excursion; a time to enjoy our school, our friends, and all that would be going on during that year; the very things that the year before we had not really have the ability to enjoy.

During the summer, our group had been getting together on a regular basis, but now that the school year had started, we were including more of our American friends in these parties. These parties were, by today’s standards, relatively mellow get togethers; no hard stuff, no smokes (those who did steal a smoke once in a while would go out quietly to get their cigs) and mostly music, dancing, conversation, jokes and party food. Actually, it was not bad. Somewhere along the years with new generations and complications coming in, simplicity has given in to more complex purposes, issues and behavior. I guess we were then more naive or perhaps more innocent; on the other hand, it may have just been a simpler world in which we had a better chance to behave as "kids" and learn the survival skills needed for our adult years.

But even in that simpler world, one still had to get a passing grade to graduate from High School. I guess that has never changed; therefore, parties were only reserved for the week-ends (of course, not to interfere with the Hi-Spot on sat. nights!!!) at the house of one of the families.

That first half of the school year brought our first true Halloween celebration, with a visit from my girlfriend and her friend, all dressed up. After the surprise visit and a good laugh at the costumes, we went out for cokes and hamburgers and enjoyed every minute of it.

Perhaps for all of us, everywhere, the telling event of that semester was the death of John F. Kennedy on 11/23/1963, at 12:30 (Dallas time) or, 11:30 our time (Wash State). It is always asked of those who were old enough then, if they remember where they were at the time the news came out. I remember. It was my before lunch period and it happened to be American History. The class teacher received the news from the office and he remained silent for a moment. Then, visibly shaken, he gave us the news. It was a shocking moment for all of us. Some started to cry, others to pray that it wasn't so. But it was.

The President had visited the Tri City area some months before and the reception had been incredible. Now, that same man was lying, lifeless, in a hospital in Dallas. For us, as a group, it was a true shocker. As unbelievable as it may have been for our American classmates, for us it went beyond being just unbelievable. It was something we just could not believe as a possibility in this country where we had come to get away, precisely, from this kind of situation. It could have not happened, it could not be true; but we eventually had to accept it and learn to live with it. With the reality that negative occurrences could happen anywhere.

The holiday of Thanksgiving followed this much mourned death. This time we had a nicely done bird, with all the trimmings and where we all sat at the table on time. Somehow it seemed that life had to go on and that we had to show the world we were a strong nation; that the system would take care of the country. What we as students did not understand then, was that events had begun to evolve in an ever faster rhythm on the other side of the world; events which would shape the lives of our generation very strongly and in way we could not even yet imagine: the Viet Nam years were coming upon us. Like the proverbial Mack Truck and from the blind side…

But this was yet to fully impact us; at the time, the fact that basketball season was coming on was a very important issue. Back then, at Col-Hi, basketball was truly the king sport. With a great gang of five lead by Ray Stein (as he lead in many areas), along with a very productive bench, great things were expected from the season. We were not disappointed.

Seattle, here we come!! After an overwhelming season on the winning side, our team got ready to go to State finals in Seattle. My girlfriend Tresha had let me know that she, along with a group of her girlfriends had made plans to go to this event. At the time, I just said Great! But, under the table, I started my own campaign at home to be allowed to go (with a little bit of spending money, of course…) to the tournament. My campaigning met with success and a few days before the tournament, I informed T. that I would also be going and, wouldn’t that be great?? Well, apparently it was not. The enthusiasm with which this bit of news was met was truly underwhelming. It seems she was looking forward to a few days on her own, with the girls. To say I was not disappointed would be a lie; yet, in an effort to uphold my dignity, I said to her: -“don’t worry… we will probably not see each other while we are there” -“as a matter of fact, if you don’t look me up, I will do likewise”. Well, in us boys, maturity doesn’t start to set in until it is too late to do any good.

I had found a couple of guys (brothers) who would be going up in their car, and were looking for some company to share the cost of gas and room, so I joined this expedition. In the end, we had close to 10 people staying at the hotel room (most in through the window) and no, Tresha and I did not cross paths until the last day, despite the fact that we were all at the same hotel. On the first day at the hotel, my friends brought out a bottle of rum and proceeded to get blasted. I am not a saint, but hard drinking has never been one of my vices (my family in Cuba had been in the liquor business and I had seen many things which fully convinced me that getting blasted was not man's greatest accomplishment). So, when at the end of the drinking evening and in a not very coherent status they decided that a little cruising was called for, I had to literally invent a story in order to take the keys away. I went driving around Seattle, with nowhere to really go and having not ever been there before. By the time I found my way back (literally…)they were both out of it, and it was the end of that would be adventure.

On our return, the car’s transmission dropped out (a 1956 dodge, much abused by then) on the crest of Snoqualmie Pass… walls of snow on either side of the road. We were lucky that the car was very close to a road station and it was left there. Now, how to get back to Richland… Mike had his Bomber jacket on, bright green and white and, as we walked on the road while pondering our fate (and becoming frozen lollipops) a Richland bound car stopped and offered us a way home. They had seen the colors and that is the reason they stopped to pick us up. This had been a real good time trip… today, some 46 years later it is still in my memory banks as a significant episode.

My girl and I? We had some high level conversations after we got back home and eventually we made up and went on with our relationship and lives.

‘nuff for now… Be well.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving, 2009.

We should, at least once a week, sit down with paper and pen and put down those things for which we are grateful. Often, we are besieged with all the negatives, and forget the many positives we do have in our lives. Turn this around and look at the pluses; you will come to realize these outweigh the negatives.

Somewhere else in these rambling notes it has been mentioned that I teach ESL, on a part time basis, to a small group of Spanish speaking immigrants who are trying their best to make some headway in today’s environment. Yesterday, in class, we spoke about the Thanksgiving holiday, its history and what it means. Then, I gave them a special homework: Identify five things for which you are truly thankful, and tell us why.

Last night, I started thinking about this homework I had given out and decided that it should be required life writing; that everyone should take a piece of paper and a pen, and start writing those things for which each one is truly thankful and, I thought, I should do the same.

In this year of many changes and happenings, what am I truly thankful for?

  • For every sunrise, I am thankful;
  • For every sunset, I am thankful;
  • For the food on my plate, even though I complain it makes me fat; I am thankful;
  • For being able to walk, to run, to dance; I am thankful;
  • For the trees that turn to beautiful colors, I am thankful;
  • For the cold winter days, shrouded in mist and snow; I am thankful;
  • For the spring mornings which bring new life to the world, I am thankful;
  • For the day I was told I had cancer; the care and concern in my wife’s eyes was a beautiful message of love; for this I am thankful;
  • For the doctors and nurses who helped me and for the day I was told that the cancer was gone; I am thankful;
  • For my children who, despite my not having been fully there for them, are well and on their way in life, I am thankful;
  • For the difficult times lived; they were just a way to make me be a better person, I am thankful;
  • For my brother and his family, who received me despite having already a full house, and gave me a new shot at life in doing so, I am thankful;
  • For the family who many years ago sacrificed their love and life so my sister and I could have a better world, I am thankful;
  • For the country which did give us this new world and many opportunities, I am thankful;
  • For the many friends found in this new home city, I am thankful;
  • For the many opportunities presented, I am thankful;
  • For the many “things” I have had over the years, and which have been lost due to misjudgments and bad decisions; losing them taught me that “things” are truly not important. For this I am thankful;
  • For the understanding that the truly important issues in life are the values we hold dear, I am thankful;
  • For the many old and dear friends whom I have been able to contact anew, I am thankful;
  • For understanding that those dear friends who have sadly passed on are in the loving arms of Our Father, I am thankful;
  • For the innumerable memories –both good and not so good- which span a lifetime and 5 continents, I am thankful;
  • To my Lord Jesus; for truly always being there, helping me through my darkest moments, despite my having turned my back to Him. He never waivers and will accept me, as I am, with open arms. For understanding and accepting this, I am thankful;
  • For being able to think, for seeing this beautiful world and its wonders, for the music I can enjoy, for wanting to sing, even if not well, for laughing and, yes, for crying also; in the end, simply for being… I am truly thankful.

God Bless You And Your Family!!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Senior Year Approaches; Then Begins...

Senior year was the most important year in the life of a HS student. It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new life. For some, it might be college; for others (back then especially) the armed forces in what was the beginning of the Viet Nam "Conflict"; for others, work in a family business, gas station, shop, you name it, the choices were many; perhaps more than what may be available today. This was the beginning of that senior year for most in our group; for us. That group would be dismembered at the end of that senior year and it is only now, after many years and generations collectively produced, that some of us have come together again, at least virtually... We hope to make this a true reunion soon.

We found Senior year in the US to be a year of frenzied activity for the student as well as the immediate parent(s), usually the mother. It still is, except the frenzied activity now starts early in junior year, if you hope to snag a meaningful scholarship in a meaningful college/university for your child or grandchild. There was no indication for me as to what my future would hold. In essence, the responsibilities the foster parents had, technically ended at graduation from HS. However, in many (most) cases, the bond which had formed between foster family and exiled child, had become strong enough for the families to try and do their utmost to offer one last bit of support, which could be in the form of some college tuition help or, as it had been planned in my case, the consecution of a work/study scholarship in a catholic college. Unbeknownst to me, Mr. C. had approached Portland University, his Alma Mater, in order to secure such a benefit. And, apparently, after taking into consideration all circumstances, they had given in. But, as had happened in Cuba, I never knew about this option until choices had been already made and committed to.

I had answered the letter from my father some 3 weeks after I had received it, establishing a small opening to further news. I had been lucky. As a child, after my parents had divorced, we went to live with my grandparents and my grandfather became my day-to-day father; also, the society in which I was raised was a pretty closed one. My hometown was a traditional town, dating back to the late 1700’s and many of the families went back 8+ generations. Small town big hell; everyone knew everyone else and, even though the town had around 100K people, you could not go very far without running into someone who knew your family. In this environment, it was customary that in case of a divorce, this issue was never talked about. The guilty party (usually the father) simply disappeared from life, as if written off by the elders. The only evidence of that person passing through the mother’s family would be the child (or children) left behind… pretty difficult to make them go away… When I say I was lucky is because, even within these parameters, no one in my family ever spoke badly about my father and, as a result, I was not predisposed against him. So I was able to, eventually, sit and answer the letter, allowing for the possibility of establishing communication.

A couple of weeks had passed and I had pushed aside the letter and the new contact with the other wing of my family; I really did not know anyone from my father’s side; as far as I was concerned, my family tree only had branches on the one side (well, genetics was not my forte…). But, for now, all attention was placed on the beginning of the senior year at school and we (the Cuban gang) had prepared just the party to celebrate that start.

Hector, Manny, Roberto, Nelson and his brother, Jorge and his sister; Yara, Rebecca, Cecilia, and yours truly (and, I’m sure, someone whose name escapes me now) decided that a small bash, along with some friends (especially boyfriends and girlfriends) and the rest of the families’ brothers and sisters, who could show up, would be a nice send off for the summer. Of course, the menu was very simple: lots of records, Coca-Cola and root beer, chips and dip, and my favorite: oven roasted mix of peanuts, small pretzels and other goodies, with lots of salt… A big deal was a complete three ice cream Sundae (did I mention that diet was not a concern then?) and this was usually served towards the end of the party; sort of a: “well folks, it’s getting late!!”. We did have a simpler view of life then, much different from the view of succeeding generations. But even with the (relatively lax) supervision from the adults, we still managed to steal a kiss or two (or three) from our girl, hold hands and just enjoy the company and the time we had together.

We were given certain choices at the beginning of the year, as to what would be our load, assuming the basic R’s had been covered. This was also a new thing for us. In the system under which we had studied before, the full academic load from grade one through graduation from HS, was decided by the national dept. of education. This included all topics and the academic years in which they had to be taken; the only choice we could actually make was whether we would graduate from HS with a science related degree, or a liberal arts degree. This choice was made at the end of the 3rd year of HS (out of 5) and it was predetermined by the road you wanted to follow in life. Teachers, would be writers, and “free” thinkers (Boy! Little did these know!) would opt for the liberal arts road, while the ones thinking about being an MD, a mathematician, or any sciences related career, would opt for the science related degree. Then there were the nerds of the time, who would take on a double load and graduate with both degrees. Had life been different, I would have been headed for the sciences degree since my field of interest at the time was medicine.

Getting back to Richland, we loaded on the courses we all needed since the eligibility of transcripts from Cuba for credit was very limited, and many of us were doing 3 years in the span of 2. I remember French, English writing, math at 2 levels and American history. I’m sure there was one other one, but I can’t place it now. And, of course, Homeroom. The most important period of the day…a lot of homework got done in this hour. Also, a lot of gossip went around.

The first half of the senior year was good; and not that the second half was not good, but by then circumstances would begin to bring on many decisions and other family (mine) issues which we would be requiring attention.

Basketball season started. I remember that at the time we were at ColHi, this was a basketball school; there were no other sports which would grab our time and attention in the same manner. With Ray leading his gang, the basketball front five and the all important bench would make itself felt as local champs (much to the consternation of then eternal and bitter rival, Pasco HS) and then at state tournament time, where second place (If my memory serves me) would eventually be ours, and I was there to see it (that is, in Seattle).

My lady’s name was (still is, I truly hope!!) Tresha. I met her during the summer and then once the school year began, we became “an item”, and we lasted –albeit with some ups and downs- through the year, into the summer and until the day I left Richland. Many beautiful memories of our relationship and yet, there are also some bittersweet ones. I hope she has had a full and rewarding life…

More on this and other memories tomorrow…

Be well; Bye!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Summer Pickings; 1963

Still a bit rusty, but back to the computer. There are so many things to write about... sometimes is overwhelming so you must forgive me for exercising somewhat of a censor's role. It truly is impossible to cover it all; but there are memories which jump up when I sit here and those are the ones that win out in the end.

In the process of choosing what to write regarding that first summer in Richland, there is a blur of activity that goes through my mind. Heat comes to mind; as well as the big pool at the park, where I would eventually join the swimming team; also, getting up at 4am in order to go pick cherries with my foster brothers Mike and Pete. This last was another minor culture clash issue. Not because of the concept of work; The Good Lord knows we have all worked our tails off over the years, in many different capacities. Then, we had just come from an overprotective culture, where the “children” of the house did not work until he/she graduated from University, nor was the child (often in his/her teens) expected to work for a living (or for spending money, as it were).

When the school year was coming to an end, the talk around the house was about two things: the school dance and the kind of summer work that each able person would do. Able person was defined as anyone over 15. The first item had all my attention, but I truly did not understand the idea of the summer job and thought this was an optional road to follow, but not mandatory. Well, I was wrong! And Mr. C. was quick to point out that I was expected to join the summer labor force. I still did not understand, but followed the leader and went with Mike (he had the inside track, since he had been there the summer before) to put my name as a picker, since all the better jobs were already taken; Mike had talked to the farm owner the week before, and had secured the tractor driving duties… he knew that on any hot summer day in the Yakima Valley, driving a tractor is better than picking the trees.

When I titled this note “Summer Pickings” it was, among other things, in reference to the job we did have. Also to those things which come to mind and that were important. For example: getting my driver’s license. Did that too, and it was not easy. Took me three tries to get it right. That blessed VW Bus was not easy to manage until you got the hang of it. Another was joining the swimming team. Although it had been several years since I had swam in competition, I knew enough to understand that this was a matter of getting down and training every day. Form would follow daily training and speed would follow form. This had been my sport since I could remember and felt comfortable doing it, even though it did require a definite time commitment.

Once we had the hang of the part time job, it became a routine, and we did save some of our money. The family had a summer outing: for two weeks of the summer, the parents rented a cabin in Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast and took everyone in the family as the summer “get-away” vacation. I still remember cresting that old road just before hitting the shore; it would all be laid out way down there in front of you, and it was truly an awesome sight. The time spent there was more family time than anything else and I understand that today those children, now with their own children, still get out there sometime during the summer. I hope to “crash” one of those gatherings; there are so many stories and so many years to catch up on… I would probably assume that these children’s children may also continue the tradition started back in the late 1950’s.

What else is summer? Cook-outs… girlfriends (one in particular), dances; You who are reading this, remember the Saturday night HiSpot? How could you not? Then there were the night races… sometimes the guys who had the better cars would go out to a lonely road and race the quarter mile… Guy stuff, you know? A way to blow away the clutch or some other part of the car.

Rattlesnake hill… now there was a place not to have a picnic! It was much better to go to the A&W Root Beer shop and have a float along with fries… luckily, the diet routines had not hit yet. That was something the rich did (today, after seeing what the lean stuff costs, that concept hasn’t changed much!), we did the floats and the fries loaded with catsup, and enjoyed every last piece of the french fries. Public transportation was reduced to either your family’s car or your friend’s car. If these were not available, then you hoped that wherever you had to go, was close by. Especially when the thermometer hit 100+.

In reality and for the most part, these were much simpler times than what our children’s children go through today. If we wanted to get lost for a while, we did. No cell phones to locate us, no GPS (those would have destroyed the always handy “I got lost” routine) and no way to communicate until either you showed up ready to be called to account, or found a public phone to make a call. There was no way to call and remind us of whatever had been left undone. We would deal with that issue whenever we got around to getting back to the house.

-“There is a letter for you Raf”, said one of the boys, one summer afternoon. Getting mail at that time was an occasion, so this letter created some sort of expectation as to what news it brought. Honestly, I was a little surprised myself. It was not my sister’s handwriting and she was the only person with whom I was corresponding.

I went to my room and only then noticed the name on the return address: Rafael Alcazar. I knew I had not written to myself, and had never been to Puerto Rico. There was only one person from whom this letter could have come: my father. Only issue: I had never dealt with him before; last time I was aware of him had been sometime around my second birthday when he left, not to come back.

As it turned out, he had been aware of our coming to the states and was also aware as to our present location(s), since my sister had also received a letter from him.

It took me a while to answer this letter. It was an introductory contact from him, hoping to open the door to more communication and, eventually, it did. In the long run, my life changed in more than one way with the receipt of that letter and the opening of that door. My sister’s life also changed. More on this, perhaps, at a later time.

The most important short term issue that summer? We were going back to school as seniors now (WOW, we had made it!!). Also, I met the girl who would become my girlfriend for the rest of the time I was in Richland, and strengthened friendships and bonds with the other guys and girls from our Spanish group, as well as many American friends who still, today, come to mind when I think of Richland.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In Between and In Betwixt

As I sit in front of the computer, there are many thoughts that come to and through my mind. What to include? What to gloss over? What to leave out? How accurate are these memories? After all, it has been 47 years since we first arrived there and the memory train may have been derailed or detoured along the way. The Lord knows there have been many roads taken and, not always, it has necessarily been the high road the chosen one.

Through the graces of Facebook, Twitter, and other of these social networking services (not to forget the old tried and true phone book), I am now in communication with some of the people who were part of this group and we all hope that, as time goes on and the word spreads, we will be able to find many others and re-establish the bond we once had. Perhaps some are gone from this world; I know I thought for a long time that my brother Hector had died in V’Nam, where he went as a Marine. Yet, there he is in Miami, “vivito y coleando” (this means “alive and well”, sort of…) and getting bigger thanks to the good cooking of his wife. Needless to say how happy I was to be able to connect to him again, thanks to the good word of a mutual Richland friend, Gary Setbacken (also a Marine). Another from the group, Manuel (short Manny) is also well in Miami, where he runs his construction outfit in the company of his sons. Becky and Stella are alive and well and have given the world a good number of little “Cubamericans” (Oh My!! third gen. already!! years do fly...) to help build the newer generations. Through them (the grandmas ;) not the children) we are contacting others…

Sadly, some of those who were a very important part of our lives in Richland (at least mine) have gone on, and this saddens me. Not that we may die, this is an accepted part of living; but it saddens me that people whose presence was integral to a very important period of my life have gone on, without my being able to let them know just how important they were, and the good they did. These, as all others who already lived, worked, studied and functioned as part of an existing Richland society, were people who could have simply gone on with their lives, but chose to share their lot in order to make ours better. Some were classmates; some were simply friends made in the course of a too short stay and in my case, a husband and wife who, along with their 6 surviving children (and in memory of the one who had recently died) gave me loving shelter and helped point me in the right direction at a time when, for a 16 year old, the wrong direction would have been easier to follow.

I know I am supposed to be writing here about the first summer in Richland, and all the things we did then. Some that were old and some which were new to us. BUT… allow me to on a grayish, cool Saturday morning and still nursing a headache from the minor surgery yesterday, go on a rambling, directionless expedition… That summer of ‘63 will not go away, but will faithfully wait until I get to it, probably tomorrow or Monday.

Where were we? A long list of names of those beautiful people would be too long to include here, and a short list would be too unfair to those not included; so, let it just be said that those who were there and part of this “experiment” had a heavyweight effect on us; all for the positive. Even in those instances when the contact was not totally positive, it was still part of the overall learning process.

Well, ‘nuff for the rambling process. I guess it must be the catgut (03) which sits on the top of my head. It is very unnerving to pass my fingers through my hair at the top (well… what’s left of the ever thinning hair) and come across a stiff, sticking out little piece of nylon. It feels weird. Almost like being pre-wired for a chip to be placed in my brain... ugh!!

Be well! Tomorrow is a new, beautiful day and to be lived.

God Bless!

Friday, November 20, 2009

No Blog Entry Today..

Today there is no blog entry. I had to spend most of the day taking care of a skin lesion on the crown of my head. Truly beginning to look like a crown, because every time I look, there is less hair... Anyway, apparently the little piece taken was almost an inch long by half inch wide and the MD closed it with very tight suturing, so as not to have to take a graft from behind my ear. So, in essence, I had a rear face lift and it does feel tight. Now I understand why, after the second face lift, it is very difficult to smile... ;-)

Anyway, shall retake the guiding principle tomorrow... Write! Write!! Write!!!... Right on!! Had a chance to talk with Hector in Miami a while ago and we were reminiscing about the days "of old" . Many memories to be shared with those who made them so.

Thanks for all your comments; they are my biggest incentive to come back every day. Right now, I am on my way to an analgesic and to bed; my head is letting me know in no uncertain terms that someone intruded in its domain today.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Christmas is Coming!!

Some Random Thoughts About Christmas Past

One of the things quickly learned in this wonderful market oriented society of ours is that, once Thanksgiving Turkeys are finally digested (including leftovers, etc.) then it is just a short head slide into Christmas. Suddenly, it really hit each of us that this was to be the first Christmas spent irrevocably away from home. Actually, is like a bug that begins to gnaw at your insides, but you don’t really know what it is that is bothering you. There were then so many things going on at once, that the focus was on the many issues and not the upcoming holiday.

It wasn't until caroling set in (back then, there was an identifiable division of time between holidays) and your classmates and friends started talking about gift exchanges and party invitations that one began to identify that little bug chewing at your insides. If I am to be honest in what I am writing, it has to be said here that Christmas has never been the same for me since I left my family’s home; the familial environment, the traditions, and all that it had made the holiday what it was, no longer existed after my becoming an exile. Only for a number of years while my own children were growing up, did I allow myself to truly participate in the preparations and the general yuletide feeling. More for their sake than my own. Back then in ’62 and for a couple of years thereafter, Christmas holidays were a depressing issue. Eventually, it would become again a more festive occasion but it truly never regained the emotional status it had before. I do not refer to the “meaning” of the holiday from a spiritual point of view; this has never changed nor will it. Just to the emotional and personal side of it.

We were barreling into the holiday week and it was a truly grand spectacle in our home and all around town. Everyone was excited; from the little ones looking forward to Santa’s arrival, to the older ones trying to figure out if the budget would allow for some of the more awaited gifts to actually come to them. As for me, there really was a minimal budget with which to work (it was called an "allowance" then) and it did not allow for too much. It was agreed that only the adults in the family would actually give presents, while we received and shared. I do not remember what it was I received; most likely, some form of clothing since my foster parents were very practical and there were too many of us to do any extravagant gifting. And the cold!!! None of us had ever been in such cold and, as Mr. C. would say with his usual dry humor: -“Just wait until the real winter sets in!!” Unfortunately, he was right.

We went to Mass regularly at Christ the King, where we were also living through the catechism classes one night a week (I think it was one night, although sometimes it felt like one week in a night). And I mean “live through”. We actually fell asleep many times; in the winter because of the heat and in the summer, because we were tired from all of the day’s doings. Most times, because it was made into a very boring exercise.

-“Rafael, qué haces?” I would recognize the voice of Hector behind me. He and Manuel were “sharing” foster parents, and they lived only a couple of blocks away from us. The usual teenage answer of all times… -“nada, y tú?” –“Nothin’ and you?” –“why don’t we go over to the house?”

There were about 6 of us who lived within walking distance from each other so that, during the first few months, we would often meet at one of the houses. These were times to vent frustration at the language, or at things and rules we still did not understand or to simply sit back and give support to one another.

That first Christmas was specially bittersweet. I am not going into the details, since these have already been touched upon. Too many memories were then too fresh still in our minds and hearts. Our families and peer groups did all they could to try and soften this impact, while understanding this was a daunting task. We are ever grateful for the understanding and for all the support they gave each of us. Most knew when to come forward and when to hold back, which is just as important.

In truth, I do not remember much about the Christmases spent in Richland; not because these memories are blocked away and not because my foster family would not do all in their power to include me; these celebrations just had no room in my heart at that time and I (as well as most of us probably) simply went through the motions.

Eventually we would all become one of the guys and/or girls in the school. There were activities and clubs to join: debate for some, French for others, International Society for most, Student Committees, and sports. I joined the Richland Swim team, since this had been my sport for most of my life in Cuba. We did OK, winning gold in some races. Then there were boy and girlfriends to have and with whom to share our time and emotions... More on this aspect of our lives on another occasion. In all, we became typical American teens.

What greater compliment to a host country, city and school than to be able to say that a group of kids from a different part of the world, who spoke a different language and were brought up in a different culture, were, through the collective efforts of its members –students, teachers, neighbors and host families- successfully incorporated into the mainstream of its society.

As I sit here and think back, there are many memories which are not as clear as others. I try to pick some of the people who were part of our everyday life; some are ever present but with others, is not as easy. There were just too many people involved; in fact, a whole damn town did its best to make sure we were OK.

What should I pick for the next post? Perhaps summer 1963. Our first summer in Richland, our first summer job ever…

Bye…See ya!!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Kulture Klash Numero Uno

What happens when different worlds collide...

There is an old saying which wisely states that visitors and fish, after three days start to “smell”; time to move on. Don’t get me wrong; by no means do I wish to imply that after three days my welcome wore out. Not at all! However, the daily routine had to be reinstated in the household(s), especially in a household that due to the (now increased) numbers, depended on this routine to function properly. In our house, both parents worked, Mr. C., as many did in Richland in those days, worked at Hanford Works. Mrs. C. God Bless her, worked her tail off at home, keeping everyone in line and also did some work as a part time nurse at Kadek Hospital, the local hospital. She did mostly special care.

On Monday, I was introduced to Columbia High School, the proud home of the Bombers! Somewhere along the way, due to political correctness and/or local changes, the school has been rechristened Richland High School and I believe that the logo and/or name “Bombers” has suffered some attacks. No matter, Col-Hi, the home of the Bombers lives on! I have to add that it is truly amazing how some would do their all to change other people’s lives and memories just because their own ideas may not be agreeable to related issues; guess what? What is, cannot be changed after the fact. We shall now get back to the story at hand. Rah Rah!

I did not know any schools in the US yet; my own school in Cuba had been a good size one, but nothing compared to the campus style high school which we would attend. We were coming from a camp school “al fresco”, under the trees, to a school which sprawled over the top of a small hill and beyond; several buildings, a football camp and a lot of green spaces. I really don’t remember how many students there were at the time. I think somewhere around 2,000 (I may be short here!) but however many, it was a lot to us.

Most of us were brought in by our respective foster parents, in order to have several acquaintance sessions with the counselors, teachers, etc. It was a little bit like a circus atmosphere, where all concerned wanted to take a look at these people who came from so far away. Luckily for us, the school already had a successful international student exchange program, so there was a precedent as to what to do with us. But that program handled one student from each of the 3 or 4 countries which participated. In our case, all of the sudden there were 10 or 12 kids from Cuba which, after all, wasn’t as glitzy or catchy as Japan, Sweden or France… Also, the students who came through this program, spoke English; our group, if you were to put our collective English knowledge together at that time, it was enough to say -Good Morrrning, “jow are ju” (pronunciation was tough for a while). So, the rules and expectations had to be somewhat amended.

I will make an aside here. Often my style of communication tends to be on the irreverent side. However, there is no subject dearer to my heart or to the hearts of those of us who lived in this beautiful town than the people we met, with whom we shared our lives and who shared with us their lives, their homes and, most of all, their love and friendship.

Having put that on the table, let’s go on. One of the most definitive issues with which we (at least, I) had to quickly deal, were the P&B lunches. Today, I love P&B (after the army tour, this is almost a delicacy!) and always keep a jar handy at home. HOWEVER… then, we were coming from rice, beans, bananas, chicken, etc. There were times at Matecumbe when we were fed P&B but at these times, for the most part, these strange things were largely ignored. In fact, Cubans in Miami were convinced that Peanut BUTTER was something used for cooking; they could not understand the strange flavor our traditional dishes would acquire when this butter was used to cook them. Ahhh! What the lack of language will do to you… Once into the daily brown bag routine at HS, however, we could not ignore them anymore. So I have to say that hunger brought us into the P&B, chips, coke and cookie culture. The most immediate issue was not an earth shattering philosophical issue, but a matter of basic food.

We herded (literally!) together for a couple of weeks, while getting our bearings and getting accustomed to the new culture and to the fact that it was getting cold! And it was only late October. We were coming from a climate zone which traditionally forced us to break out the sweaters and jackets as soon as it went below 78 degrees. Here we were already kissing 40 at night and in the high 50’s during the day. I remember we went to school semi bundled while everyone else was basically still in shirtsleeves. We did OK in school; in the beginning there was leniency on the academic side of the house and much help from everyone. When I say everyone that is exactly what I mean. Classmates would come and offer help and teachers would go out of their way to help.

It was now November, and I was headed straight for a major “Kultural Klash” (hence the title for this entry). P&B was a matter of acquiring the taste, but it was not a truly major issue. There is, however, a holiday which is celebrated only in the US: Thanksgiving. Although today it has spread somewhat to other countries, then (1962) the turkey hunt was strictly an American issue; we knew absolutely nothing about it, or how important it was as a family holiday.

Unfortunately, for those who gave us the briefings at the airport, it was more important to make sure we did not chew gum in public, than to let us know about these cultural issues.

All I knew when I got up that fateful morning is that there was no school, and that there was a long week-end ahead of us. One of our Cuban friends (the only one who had been living in Richland for a while and whose mother was in charge, more or less, of the overall local program) had a car, and it was a day ripe for “cruising”. I remember it was a 1956 white Ford (see, us boys will remember the really important things!!) and we had it for the day. So, it was he and his brother, as well as Roberto Negrin, and myself. Off we went into the center of the city, into West Richland (where I would later on spend some good time due to a good boy-girl relationship) and other parts. We were just cruisin’; nothing to do and a lot of time in which to do it, or so we thought. Sometime around 2:30 we decided to head back. If we had been able to do this without an incident, I think we would have still been in time to salvage a turkey. However, we had a flat tire on the way back and, by the time I arrived at our household, it was past 6pm.

What can I say? There was this family I had just joined sitting with very long and hungry faces, in a circle (wagon circle comes to mind, with me being the attacking Indian at that moment) and, on the dining room table there was this turkey which, at some point had been beautifully cooked. Now, it was a somewhat dark and dry mass, a far cry from what it was intended to be.

There was a short lecture about the holiday and what it meant in the US. In my still broken English, there were a lot of excuses and ramblings on. I came close to ripping my garments, but not quite. Once they realized why this had happened and that it had never been an intent on my part to ignore such an important moment, they were actually very gracious (in all honesty, probably more than I might have been had it been the other way around) and we ended up having the turkey with lots of liquids to push it down…

When two very different cultures meet and you add a healthy pinch of language miscommunication, there is a recipe for minor (and sometimes major) disasters. It is truly a testament to this family’s character that they reacted then and in many other occasions with such grace, understanding and care.

Is there any question as to why I came to love them as much as I did?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Welcome to Richland; Hello Family...

There are defining moments in life when, despite all that may be happening, a little bit of sunshine breaks through to let you know you are not alone, and that all will be OK; not free and easy, but doable. My first meeting with my foster family and my first morning at their home was just one of these moments in my life.

There are people with whom, when one meets them, the bond is immediate. That night, in that small side room somewhere in Yakima, Washington, at the moment we both laughed at her remark, that bond was formed. I cannot say honestly that it was a perfect bond since there was much to learn about and to adjust to, but there was an immediate element of trust and considering the circumstances of our meeting, this would be plenty as a start point.

We finally boarded the “little bus” (dearly noted, a 1962 orange and white/cream VW bus) which would take us in a ride of two and a half hours from Yakima to Richland. It was now about 12:15 in the morning and we were all tired but, at the same time, excited about this new chapter in all our lives. For me, it would be a new family; for them it would be having a stranger in their midst, at least until we came to know each other better.

If you already have a large family that includes a husband and wife as well as 6 children of your own, ranging from ages 15 ½ (their oldest was basically a couple on months younger than I) to 1 ½ years, why would you go out and commit to have yet one more “child” to raise (albeit for a few years)? Especially when this strange person comes in with a language and cultural handicap? The answer is simple and transparent: this was a truly good family. Their inner bond was strong enough to share with others who were in need of the same type of support. And I was the very lucky recipient of this sharing.

Finally, we arrived at their (which now would become “our”) home in Richland. It was late and the tiredness of the long trip, the nerves of the new situation and the suspense which had built up over the last 12 hours did not really let me see the town and, truth be told, back in 1964 there was not much town to see yet. I understand today Richland (I still subscribe to the electronic “Tri-City Herald” to try and keep up with my “original” home city in the States) is a full fledge city, with all the positives and negatives this may bring. I followed Mr. and Mrs. C. into their home on Marshall St, a bi-level split ranch which they had renovated a short time before. Now the basement was fully built and it had, besides the main TV room, two bedrooms and a bath. I was given the corner room, which had been Mike’s (the oldest) and who now was away at school. Next to me was Pete’s (second oldest) room and we would share the common bathroom. As we walked into the living room, there was Mary, a 16 year old, daughter of the family next door and who had been the best friend of the family’s oldest girl, who had died in an accident a year and a half before.

-“Hi Mary, this is Rafael” said Mrs. C. to her. Shaking the cobwebs from her head, Mary just said a mumbled “Hi Rafael”. Shaking my own language cobwebs, I also said “Hi” to her. It was somehow explained to me that she was the “babysitter” a term which, along with its attached meaning, were total unknowns to me. Although at the time I did read and write enough English to get by, my spoken knowledge of the language would take a few months to get to the point where I could hold a conversation or discussion. So, being tired and confused while trying to appear calm, cool and collected, I let my mental imagery go to work and wondered (luckily not out loud!!) “Why on earth would you want someone to sit ON your babies?”

Today, I sometimes teach ESL to Spanish speaking students. One of my repeated warnings is, simply: “Don’t think in Spanish when you are speaking English… the confusion which you may create may be hazardous to your health” That incident, some 47 years ago, is still a good example of what can happen when one mixes the two idioms.

By 3:30 in the morning we were all in our respective rooms. Any hopes to be able to go to sleep I may have had, were doomed from the beginning. Of course, the bathroom was right next to the bedroom but, to me, getting up to go felt like embarking on an expedition. It was embarrassing to flush; it would be heard all over the house and, look at the time! They would all awaken and come down to investigate what was going on!! Anyway, I know it is foolish, but that is how it felt to me. It was extremely quiet, a late fall night, cold and crisp and not a noise being heard anywhere in the house. How could I do something that would make so much noise? Eventually, nature pushed and I could not wait any more; I actually did get up and go to the bathroom. No one heard the flush and no one came. Went back to bed and somewhere around 4:30 in the morning, sleep finally came.

“A-THUMP … A-THUMP… A-THUMP !!” Sometime late morning I was awakened by this strange rhythmic thumping noise… while my mind was slowly catching up to my new surroundings (and “surround-digs”), to all that had gone on the day before and to try to reconcile this with actual reality, it sounded like the house was coming down in pieces around me…

I got up from bed and slowly put on a bathrobe (it was in the early 1960’s, it was a strange home and I was somewhat shy - many changes in this latter aspect of my personality as time went on…) and, after all, it was my very first morning in this family’s home and I did not really know what to expect. Who knew what rituals or what strange goings on were the cause of this persisting noise…

My bedroom door faced into the main downstairs room and I, full of trepidation and curiosity, slowly opened it…

AH ONE!!! AH TWO!! AH THREE!! THERE YOU GO, DON’T STOP NOW !! I looked into the room and there was my new foster mother, all 5’2” of her clad in her grayish sweat suit, jumping up and down to the rhythm of one Jack LaLanne. That image has never gone away from my memories and, most importantly it, at that moment, somehow made me feel that all would be OK; that these people would truly be able to help me along the way.

-“Hi, how did you sleep?” –“Oh dear, I hope I didn’t wake you up?” –“but I have to do my exercises, especially on the weekends”. -“Oh my… welcome to our home”. –“we really want you to feel at home here” “everyone went to get something to bring back for breakfast, and they should be arriving soon” -”why don’t you take a quick shower and you will be ready”…

As you can imagine, 70% of what was said, sailed right over my head. All I could say was “Hi… good morning” and smile like a fool. I thought to myself, while smiling, “Damn! 4 years of wasted afternoons learning English, when I could have been playing with my friends.” Of course, my thought process was in full Spanish, not a trace of English anywhere. I think she sensed this situation and slowed down considerably. I was saved by the rest of the family coming in then, loaded with doughnuts, coffeecakes, and sweetbreads of all kinds. This along with fried eggs, sausage dripping fat and hot chocolate were the Sunday morning staple. In 1964, the concept of “healthy” eating was light years away. Then it was just “good home cooking and eatin’” healthy be damned! It was a magical moment for me…Mr and Mrs. C., Peter and Annie, Timmy and Matt and Mary Jane, better known as the little “red devil”. All of 1 and a half years old and everyone’s mascot. Her favorite apparel on weekends, especially in fall/winter, was a bright red full body pajama suit (remember the trap door ones?) and, therefore “The Little Red Devil”. In fact, I think it was me who at one point called her that and it stuck.

There are moments in life when the way is defined and decided. As much as I have thought about this over the years, I am convinced that the burning down of the community house in Iowa was part of a greater design to bring me into this family. They provided me with desperately needed support, guidance and love. Not that there were not very difficult moments; we came from different worlds and cultures and sometimes they clashed. In the end, we all knew this was a temporary situation. Yet, in the all too short two years I spent with them, my future life was drawn and my direction pretty much set.

On that day, seating around that breakfast table for the first time, eating all that good stuff and, in the middle of laughter fighting off the rest of the guys for the best parts, Richland came full force into my life and there it has stayed. So has the family who shared their home, hopes, love, joy and sadness with me. Each one of them, to a degree or another, has stayed in my heart and is part of whatever I have done over the years.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Have Buns, Will Travel.

There are moments when nothing comes to mind; and then there are moments when the flow of ideas and emotions is difficult to stop. In fact, the thoughts then outpace the fingers in such a fashion that, at the end of writing whatever is coming out, a rewrite is usually in order… too many “missteaks”. Not that there aren’t enough ideas in the back of the mind; the problem is to bring these to the fore and put them into words in a coherent fashion.

When the trickle slows down to a stop, then what to do? I like to start a mental word association game and usually it gets the flow going. See? I have said nothing but have already put together two paragraphs… It's a way to get the juices flowing. Eventually it brings me back to the subject at hand and then it begins. The Title above? Many years ago, for those of you who remember black and white TV, there was “The Palladin”. A gunslinger (good guy, of course!) who had a business card which read: “Have Guns, Will Travel”. This was an allusion to the fact he was for hire and would go anywhere there was a job to be done. So… in my case, for lack of guns, I have buns. They have sat on the seats of many airplanes, buses, trains and cars over many years of traveling around the world, literally. Wherever the job would take me.

With this trip on which we were now embarking, our new life was truly beginning. Even though we had been at a camp in Miami for some months and away from our home, country and families, the environment in camp was about as “Cuban” as those in charge could make it. Rather, by being themselves Cuban, they were just doing what they knew how to do best. We spoke primarily Spanish, we ate Spanish, we played in Spanish and we did all things in Spanish. And not just any Spanish; Cuban Spanish. It has been said that Latin America is composed of 17 countries divided by a language and, after having visited and worked in all but one of them, I can attest to this fact. So when I say Cuban Spanish it was like we never left home insofar as the daily routine, the language, the yelling, the chaos, the food, etc…

In going to the other physical extreme of the country where most people did not know where Cuba was or, for that matter what it was, we were really leaving all the old issues behind and venturing into the Brave, New World (I know this phrase is taken already, but I use it with all due respect Mr. H.). Camp Matecumbe had accomplished its mission: to allow us to spend some time in the middle, a limbo of sorts which allowed each of us to slowly come to grips with a reality that was too crushing to handle all at once.

We arrived at the airport in Miami very early in the afternoon, for a flight that left around 2pm. We were flying non-stop to Portland, Oregon and, from there we would board a smaller, local flight into the city of Yakima in the State of Washington. There, we would each be united with our foster family, who would then drive each one of us into what would be our new home and family for at least the next 2 years.

The afternoon flight started on time and without many problems or issues. Just the normal panic attacks when we learned this flight would take some 6-7 hours (remember… most of us had spent all of 45 minutes on a plane before this) and that, by the time we were to arrive in Yakima, “if all went well” it would be around 10:30pm.

-“Qué quieres decir con ‘si todo va bien’?”. - “What do you mean ‘if all goes well’?” I asked the guy in charge. –“Well, it is just a figure of speech” he answered. We looked at him and said -“at 25,000 feet up (we had learned this much) we would rather you choose a different way of putting things into words”. At that, we all laughed. It just showed that everyone’s nerves were right at skin level. It did not take much to bring them out.

The flight was actually so unremarkable that I do not remember much about it. We were tired, so we slept some and we looked a lot out the windows. Not that we knew what we were looking at… that was too much to be expected. Eventually, we arrived in Portland sometime around 7:30pm. It was already dark and this, being the beautiful Pacific Northwest and deep into fall, meant that it was dark, windy and rainy. We all went into the airport building, and there some of the people from the group were taken into a separate room. It turns out that they would stay in Portland, while the rest of us went on to Washington State. After we had something to eat and stretched our collective legs, we were herded into a side room, from which we could not only see the plane (much smaller twin engine DC-3) which would take us, but we could also see that the weather had taken a turn for the worse and now was truly raining hard… and there was lightning.

Have you seen an old black and white suspense movie, in which the hero was trying to make a getaway in a stormy night with lots of lightning and thunder?, and every time a bolt would come down, there was this puny silhouette of a plane which was lit up in the foreground, sitting all by itself in a lonely, almost abandoned tarmac? Well, if you have, you know now what we were looking at that night.

We thought for sure that the flight would be delayed, postponed, cancelled, bewitched or something; there was no way we, normal people, should be flying in these conditions. But, in the end, we were piled on to the plane much against our judgment and desire. To this day I remember that the collective knuckles on that plane almost came through the collective skin in the back of our collective hands. Literally, we picked up speed from the very end of the strip and, finally, left the ground with not too much space to spare at the other end.

Of course we made it into Yakima, albeit after a somewhat rough flight. By the time we arrived, the rain had actually stopped. But it was also 11:30pm; we were an hour late. All of us were taken into an interior room where, after a long day and rough travel, the “PIC of TT” (Person in Charge of Tired Travelers) started to talk to us about our obligations and, you guessed it, to remind us that we should not chew gum in public.

Eventually, one of the families who were waiting for us knocked on the door to find out if we could all get going and, at that time, we were each introduced to the family heads (husband and wife) who would serve as our foster families.

I came into a side room, looked around and saw this 5’2” sprite lady who came up to me and starting at my shoes, slowly looked all the way up to the top of my head (actually, my forehead, she could not see the top of my head!!). She cocked her head to one side and said:

-“My, my… no one told me they grew them this tall down there”

At that, we both laughed, and that was my introduction to Mrs. Lenore (Lee) Crowley, one of the sweetest, most loving ladies I have ever met.

More on her, Hobe (Mr. Crowley), the rest of the family and my introduction to Richland tomorrow…

Friday, November 13, 2009

Summer Ends; Life Begins...Anew...


-“ You are going to Richland, in Washington State”, said the camp director to me.

-“¿Como se come eso?” Literally: “How do you eat that?”. A slang question which meant one was confused and did not know absolutely anything about the matter at hand.

-”Well… that means you are going as far away as you can go in this country, without going into Alaska”

-“Am I going alone?”. The fear of, once again, breaking whatever minor roots we had been able to develop became suddenly very real and overpowering.

-“No. there will be 3 of you going from here, and 6 or 7 from other camps”. “I think you will like the family at whose home you will be staying”.

-“When are we leaving?”. “We need to get ready and I need to say my goodbyes”

-“Well, we would like to see you go no later than the second week of October, since the school year is already starting, and none of you can really afford to loose too much time”.

With this dialogue, my second major move in less than a year would begin. In trying to recapture the feeling of those days, I remember having the overwhelming sensation of being a pawn in a major parlor game, where the players and movers were totally unknown and hidden from me. The only troubling issue for me: it was my life that was being played out. As the years have passed, I have come to realize that this is not a foreign feeling throughout life; even those who think themselves as totally self contained, are really a part of the greater game. I guess, because of the circumstances, we just accepted this earlier in life than most.

That afternoon was spent more on reflection than on feeling anxious about the change and the new place where I would be going; that would come in due time. After all, I was by now a veteran of life, at my 16 years (just had had a birthday a couple of weeks before) was a proven traveler, or so I thought. I had been on a plane already (albeit for 45 minutes) and another trip was nothing. I looked up Hector, better known in camp as “Hercules”; he had come into the camp some 3-4 months before and we had struck a casual friendship then. He was to be one of the other two who were going from this camp, and I believe he had also been tagged to go to the place that had burned down and was waiting for relocation. Actually today, some 45 years later, after thinking him dead in Viet Nam, we have re-established contact and renewed the friendship that developed in Richland and now, stronger than ever before.

I’m not sure about those days we spent getting ready to travel. My sister had already gone, my ex girlfriend and her family had gone on to Louisiana, I had no friends in Miami, so my goodbyes were confined to the camp people who had become my family.

We found out that some additional people would go on to Washington State, but to different cities. One of them, Douglas, has just come back into my life not too long ago; he still lives there, near Seattle, now a retired country gentleman (not bad for a Cuban boy, huh?) after working many years for a major company.

Everything we did during those days had a sense of finality to it. Every game we played (even the one which popped my right knee, still bothering me once in a while today), every trip to downtown to outfit us for the trip, every jam session, every swimming race, every walk in the “jungle”, every moment of deep sadness which every so often came to me, when thinking about those left behind some time before… everything was treated as a unique happening. The final day in camp was coming, after having had almost 6 months of this transition period in my life, during which I saw many come and go.

We all had one bond, no matter where in the world we should end up: the pain of loss.Don't misunderstand, Nor is it pity or milking a bad situation for all it’s worth. It was our reality, as we felt it then. At ages 15/17, when we should have all been able to take our girlfriends to the movies, go to our schools, go to parties at our childhood's friends houses, spend holidays with family, have the security of knowing that at the end of the day there was a familiar home to which to return, there was none of this. In truth let it be said that there were many people who worked their tails off in order to help put some order back into our lives, and for this we will always be grateful. All of us, I am sure, are also extremely grateful for the opportunities found in our new home country. But the personal losses suffered at that early age, could not but mark us for the rest of our lives.

Our final day in camp was fast approaching. I looked up those who had becomed good friends, and spent time with them. Some would go on to foster homes elsewhere, some would be happily reunited with their families and end up in a city where there was a job to be done, some would turn too old to stay in camp and would have to go on their own in Miami. These last would have some help for a while from catholic welfare. Unfortunately, of most of these I have lost track of over the years. I truly hope they found their niche, their home, a new family of their own and a full life.

-“CHIQUITICO”… “no puede ser que te vas”. We all had our nicknames in camp. Thus Hector the bodybuilder was, of course, called Hercules. I, with a 6’2”, 200 pound body was called “little one”. “Little One” , “I can’t believe you are leaving” This was “chicharo” a short guy who had become a good friend to many of us. “please don’t forget us, even if we don’t see each other again”. I can say that, on both counts, that statement and request have come to be true.

We were already on the bus which was to take us to the airport. It was mid-morning and a beautiful, sunny day (fall in Miami… the best part of the year) and the bus was already loaded and ready to go. When I say loaded, this is in comparison to how we had arrived some months before. We actually had a suitcase each, full of clothes. We had also been given a warm overcoat (Boy, would we need this!!), a little bit of money, and many, many instructions. We travelled as a group, and I am sure there was someone in charge; I just don’t remember whom.

We left the camp in silence, each with our memories of the place we were now departing. It had become our home, family and, in reality, our world. We took these memories and kind of bound them in old hard leather, inside our hearts and minds. They are still there today, 47 years later. Not only of the place itself, but what it truly had meant to all of us.

On our way to the airport, we eventually broke into song and laughter. A little bit like saying –“we have mourned the departed, (in this case it was more like "we have departed the mourning") let us now continue on with our lives”.

And so we did.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Summer Camp; Pedro Pan Style



he summer of 1962 was a time that brought total change to my life, as well as to the lives of all who were at the camp, when we were forced to grow from being teenagers to being a semi-adult in his (her) teens. Gone were family and lifelong friends, as well as any kind of familiar surroundings. I could no longer go find my Saturday and Sunday gang to enjoy the park or the movies. I have to quickly add that those who were in charge of this growing monster called Camp Matecumbe, went well beyond any reasonable expectations in the care and nurture of us. They really did the impossible and, with a somewhat limited budget, they made us feel welcome and at home. We were given clothes in which to hang around the camp, teachers so that our schooling would not fall too far behind, natural classroom settings under the trees and weekly trips to downtown Miami and to Crandon Park and the beach. I remember Richard’s Basement, a store where with the few dollars we were given as an allowance, we could actually get some bargains. There was this bright, mint green shirt I bought at one time… but I guess that one better gets filed under “experiment” since, after I actually had a good look at it in daylight, I never really had the guts to put it on.

Several of the tents had “pets”. We were actually on the then fringes of the everglades, with all the attending wildlife one tends to find (perhaps, and sadly said, used to find) there. Minus the current pythons; these are an unfortunate late addition to the habitat. At one time, under the wood planks of our tent, we had a wildcat which gave birth to a litter. Needless to say, we admired from a distance; also fed the mother from the same distance. There were stories of snakes, “giant” spiders, etc… The only babies I do not remember coming across were alligators. Luckily, these were still keeping to the further reaches, where we could not bother them.

We had our classes, we played baseball and basketball –of sorts- as well as imitation American football. I remember there was this one guy –can’t recall his name- who had belonged to a private club in Havana, where they had had a football team and he had been a part of this team. He did his absolute best to initiate us into the mysteries of this sport (remember from where we had come, and under what circumstances) and, I swear, we did our best to try and fall into a formation… of sorts. However, after starting a play (after all, who would start with “jot, jot, jot, cuatro, izquierda” For my English speaking friends who are reading, you can read this as "hut, hut, hut, four left"), this poor guy would usually end up hitting his head against a tree, as we went everywhere but where we were supposed to go.

There was also a swimming pool. This was important, since there was no air conditioning in the tents or the cabanas, and the pool served as a cooling medium (Miami, Everglades, summer…it was hot and humid). We had daily splash parties and swimming competitions. Besides, until the new buildings were built sometime in late summer, the shower situation was truly not good. There were about 30 showers for some 400 guys… I won’t even mention the bathroom issue… I will leave that to your imagination. Being a boy’s camp, and surrounded by nature… when in a hurry… Oh well!! Luckily we were young and very pliable to circumstances.

All in all, it was a summer for memories. Often at night, we would sit around the central area and have an impromptu “jam” session. Since we had no instruments but were far enough from civilization to have no complaining neighbors, we would use the (in)famous comb-in-paper for a lead instrument, and the metal backed chairs would double as drums and bongos. Hand sized rocks would be the rhythm section, against the flat of the metal, and hands would beat the bass percussion (read: bongo) against the wooden part of the seat. We would then harmonize along. Actually, after a while it began to sound pretty good. There was one guy, Alberto, who had been a drummer in Cuba and he actually had the sticks and a good rhythm to go along with them. Sometime that summer I even ran into a couple of “fans” who used to listen to a radio show of which I was a part in Cuba. They were very excited; I was very surprised.

Then, there were the almost-every-Saturday night dances at the girl’s Homestead Refuge. These homes were different. There were about 15-20 homes with a husband/wife team in each. Usually, the couple would have a daughter of their own living in, and would serve as foster parents to about 6-8 girls in each home. My sister was in a home there, so this gave me an advantage when it came time to pick the boys to go dancing. I always had the excuse that I had to see my sister… it worked and I usually got in the bus. Besides, I did dance pretty well, and this was important because we always had to show up the guys from the other camps. It was a “guy” thing, you know?

At some point in the summer, I met with my girlfriend from Cuba. Ours had been a Romeo and Juliet romance. She was my first “novia” - the first serious girlfriend, at age 13 – and had left Cuba about 6 months before we did. I remember waking up at 4 am the morning I knew they were leaving, and actually hearing the car go by the corner of our house (they lived a block away)… I was really impacted. Anyway, we met again that summer in Miami and relived our romance a little bit. We would again be separated and this time, for a good 40 years, 5 marriages (between the two of us), as well as several children and some lifetimes. It was a good reunion, but we both realized the torch had long ago become a good memory.

We did, at camp, have a period of 2-3 weeks that was truly underwhelming. As mentioned before, in a camp originally intended for about 125 kids, there were about 450-500 “guests” as a day in, day out average. So… when one guy broke out with the chicken pox, guess what? Most everyone who had not had it as a child came down with it. Yours truly included. A second cabin (about 40 beds per cabin, as opposed to 12-16 per tent) had to be made into an infirmary, in order to keep everyone who had the pox as far away from the rest as possible. Everywhere I touched my body, it itched. Later I found out that, because we were mostly between 15 and 18 years old, we really were on the fringes of being too old and having this become a very serious issue. But this was later; then, we just felt lousy, bored, itchy and all around miserable.

It was not all fun and games; there were the occasional fights (boys will be boys…), and there were the very real and difficult remembrance moments, where any one of us would suddenly realize that the probability of never seeing family again –or for several years, in the best of cases- was a very real one and this realization was conducive to a real down and out funk. Often, when this happened we would go out into the "jungle" by ourselves, just to get some private moments and get through these emotions.

Then, there were the constant rumors around camp, as to where we would be sent. Sometimes we would be readied to go to a certain location, just to have something happen at the last minute and the relocation would be postponed or cancelled, as had happened in my case.

Around late August I was called in and told to make myself ready; that I, along with 8 other children, would go to a farm home in Des Moines, Iowa, a place we had never heard of. After some prep time, it turned out that the home we were going to occupy was burned to the ground about a week prior to occupancy. The cause of the fire was never really identified, and we came to think (I hope unfairly) that the locals did not really want incoming exiled kids who might possibly have horns and tails.

The Good Lord has many ways of working his will. This change in plans, in the long run, became a huge (with a capital H) advantage for me. When I was finally placed with a foster family, they turned out to be incredibly loving and caring, as was their community. More on this some other time.

Around late August, my sister went to New York (Tarrytown) to live with our aunt, uncle and the cousins. They had left Cuba in 1960, two years before us and were more or less established, with my uncle in a good job. Not extremely well paid, but good overall benefits, considering there were 4 –and now, with my sister, 5- children in the household. I chose not to go in order to minimize the additional impact; it was better to have my sister go live with them, in family. We would not see each other again for some 30 months.

September came around and I remember having the feeling of uncertainty regarding my relocation. Every day I would go to the main office and ask about my “ticket out”. Don’t misunderstand; this did not mean I hated Camp. It had become my home and the kids and adults-in-charge my family. But we also knew this was a transient set up and that in order to get ahead, we had to go to a normal environment, learn English, go to a regular High School and join the mainstream of society. Sometime in late September, I was called in to be told that I had to begin to get ready to leave Camp Matecumbe.

I had to get ready to go, to abandon that world in which we had been living and which was somewhat surreal; Chicharo, Negue, Douglas, Luis, Alberto; the teachers and counselors… especially one female teacher about whom many of the guys dreamed, sometimes in our sleep and sometimes while awake… then, there were many others only whose faces I remember, who had become friends and family during this summer, and who would fade into the past as life went on, like an old and very dear picture that has faded over the years as we hold it over and over, in order to try to hang on to and relive those special moments. With some of the guys I have come into contact again many years later; others, unfortunately, have been lost along the way.

This crazy, sad, happy, beautiful and confusing summer, is a preface to my once again breaking an established life routine, leaving camp and coming into my new foster home, city and school. I was shown where it was on the map and, when I looked at its location, it seemed to me that I would be on the other side of the world.

Doña América and other memories.

I know she has already been mentioned somewhen along this line of sometimes unhinged memories as they relate to moments of my life , but y...