refriedgringo

Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Hero

"For rarely are sons similar to their fathers: Most are worse, and a few are better than their fathers."

- Homer

* * * *

The only thing about my own father that scared me when I was a child was his temper, I was convinced that he had the capacity to turn into Satan when I was young and when my brother and I would act like young boys sometimes do. His temper was a fire, kindled by a lifetime of frustrations, fueled by a world that had more control over him that he had over his world. I would not have known that back when I was a child because he kept me safe and sane, nestled in the loving arms of suburban lawns and quiet neighborhood streets somewhere east of Los Angeles. He kept my brother and me away from the bad places where children can go wrong before they reach high school and maybe even the seventh grade.

I would not have known that when I was nine or ten, but I know it now.

My father coached little league, played catch with us on Saturdays and Sundays, came to see me play at concerts that likely bored the hell out of him, and so on. Through all of that, not one time was I ever aware of his condescending superiors at work, impossible sales quotas, sweating out a mortgage payment on the house, or whatever. Surely, all of that was there, burdening him, eating at him, and not once could I have connected that with his temper because he loved me and my brother too much to set one feather from his sack of burdens on our shoulders. Nor on our conscience; I was never made to feel culpable in any way for any shortcomings that our family ever endured, my father shouldered all of it for us.

Some Satan he turned out to be.

My father loves to fish, one place that we seemed to wind up at, when I was a kid, was Lake Puddingstone. Lake Puddingstone is a man-made lake just north of where I grew up, now part of Frank G. Bonelli regional park. Back then, we went through a hole in the fence in the dark summer evenings and tied chicken-liver onto treble hooks, and waited for a bite. The old Coleman lantern, which my father pumped at varying intervals, mirrored dozens of other lanterns on the opposite side of that lake. My father’s pole and reel worked left-handed, he would cast and we would watch the crawdads come toward the shore, sniffing the chicken-blood, the lantern offering us a glimpse of the fresh-water world. He cast lines out for my brother and me. Coyotes howled from the hills behind us, but I was always safe.

"They don't give a damned about us," he would say.

"You’re bigger than they are."

And so on. And, of course, he was right about that. They would have rather eaten our catch that evening than to eat us.

* * * *

"And then the dispossessed were drawn west- from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land."

- John Steinbeck from The Grapes Of Wrath, 1939.


An aside, for any fan of Steinbeck: My grandmother could have easily been Steinbeck’s model for Ma Joad; and it was never about land. It was about life. It was about survival.

The funny thing is that I don’t know everything that I probably should about my father’s life, before he was my father. My grandmother went on to California but my father took a pit stop along the way, with his father. I don’t know why or how. I only know a few things about it, mostly how horrible it was for him. I can only imagine having such a childhood, such an uncertain future at sixteen. When I was sixteen, I thought that life would probably be easy, but the older that I get – with what little I know about it – I draw on the childhood of my own father to get by, to justify where I am now.

* * * *

My father was born in Wewoka, Oklahoma, in a time where people in the mid-western United States of America were still scurrying to escape the dusty plains that once wielded an abundance of fruit and grain. Due to a combination of poor land management and meteorological bad luck, the west was infested by backward-thinking poor folks who were barely educated and determined mostly by self-survival. He was born to a nomad, my grandmother’s penchant for moving from one place to another was legendary; as was her penchant for marriage. She swore me to secrecy, to never tell how many men that she married - and so I am held silent on that subject, but suffice it to say that my grandmother went through men like a postmaster goes through stamps.

God rest my grandmother’s wonderful, wandering soul.

About Wewoka: The word wewoka comes from Seminole for barking waters, from some small falls that ran north of where the center of the town currently sits. The Seminole Indians came from Florida back in the days when the United States of America marched their indigenous peoples to reside in encampments many thousands of miles from where they had always lived. My father, who has more indigenous blood than I do, has never felt bad about that. He has known such indigenous people, has grown up with full-blooded Indians in his youth, and has nothing adverse to say about their demise since the European conquest of their country led them to where they are now.

"Ira Hayes had all of the opportunities in the world to do something with himself, to make something great happen for himself," my father would lament.

Ira Hayes was one of the six marines who raised the flag of the United States of America on Iwo Jima during the Second World War. Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian born on a reservation near Sacaton, Arizona. He joined the Marine Corps and fought during the war, and came home a war hero. Ira Hayes died in Bapchule, Arizona, at the age of thirty-two.

Thirty-two.

"He was a drunk," my father told me, "Ira Hayes, like many Indians, drank himself to death. They found his dead body one morning alongside the road. What a waste."

Sacaton and Bapchule are within twenty miles of Casa Grande, Arizona, where my father grew up, in the hot flat expanse of the Arizona desert. My father came to despise Arizona and the dusty, hot days of his youth. His father, my paternal grandfather, wound up running some auto-body shop with my Uncle Jack, somewhere near Casa Grande or some other hellhole so I am told. My grandfather had one functional eye – again, so I am told, his eye was put out by some wayward metal fragment while beating in a fender or something. My only memory of my paternal grandfather is from when I was perhaps five or six years old, he was eating fried eggs and toast in our home east of Los Angeles. He was an old, broken-down man by then. I was too young to remember anything more than that.

"I saw Ira Hayes many times when I was a kid, he was just another drunk Indian on the streets. They weren’t allowed to buy booze, someone had to buy it for them."

Ira Hayes died long before I was born. He blamed his drinking on the fact that only five men in his forty-five man platoon survived Iwo Jima and the war, and that he was not the hero that they were, his "buddies", who died fighting alongside of him during that war. But my father, as a young man, knew more about him than whatever fifty-year old references that I can dig up about one Ira Hayes. Perhaps my father is right about one thing concerning Ira Hayes; true heroes live as an example to future heroes. Perhaps there is that.

My father lived with his father there in Casa Grande for many years, I have no idea where my grandmother was during all of this time. In California, for example, I remember that she managed – alongside my great aunt – the Holister hotel in Central California back in the sixties. But that was many years later than Casa Grande, many years after Santa Margarita. There are so many more disjoined tidbits of family history on my father’s side of the family, it is like piecing together a puzzle without the image on the outside of the box.

I know that my father was pretty much on his own from when he was about seventeen years old. At some point, he met my mother at Roosevelt High in Fresno back in the fifties, they married about the time that he signed up for the United States Navy. My father served as a coreman, and never had very much positive memories of his time in the service. I was born in nineteen hundred and sixty-one in the old Balboa Naval Hospital, in San Diego. My parents scraped up pennies to keep me in milk and diapers, moved to Santa Ana where my little brother was born, and when my father’s time in the service was up, he worked for General Dynamics in Pomona. He hated it, he later told me. They bought a nice house in the suburbs and gave me an opportunity for a wonderful childhood there, some twenty-two miles east of Los Angeles. My father eventually went into sales and became very good at it, although I doubt that he actually liked it very much. He never would have told me, had I ever asked. I doubt very much that it ever occurred to my father to ask whether or not his father liked beating fenders into proper shape.

I doubt that my grandfather would have answered him, one way or the other.

I had a much better childhood than my father did. After all, I had a hero that my father never had. My father shuttled back and forth from Casa Grande to Santa Margarita, California, a few times. From here to there. I stayed in one place, able to see the world with the clear vision that, in all likelihood, my father never had. I had a perspective that my father never knew.

And there is so much more, but I save that for another time. Another father’s day, perhaps, when my memory is not so important as my definition of heroism.

* * * *


Real heroes are ordinary people who do the extraordinary, most often in ways that cannot be measured in terms of stoic bravery or unflagging leadership; that such heroes guide those of us who would otherwise be foolish enough to look toward the shiniest star or listen to the loudest foghorn, we are so lucky. I am so lucky.

My father is my hero. I should be so lucky, then, if my own children would claim me as theirs. But then, you know, I would only point to Ira Hayes, and accentuate the difference between a living hero and a dead one, and then I would simply point to my father...

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