Dixie Lee Lesko, nee Brown Sept. 2, 1957-Feb. 8, 2015

 

Doris & Dixie Lee September 1957

Doris & Dixie Lee
September 1957

Dixie Lee Brown was born prematurely in Middlesex Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. She spent her first days in an incubator as was the practice then. I remember holding her on the day Doris and I brought her home. She was so incredibly tiny. She weighed about four pounds and fit easily in my hands. She was ugly–but not for long.

She cried with the teeniest mewl and waved her wee arms about as babies do but she was loved. As she grew she had allergies and other baby problems that meant doctor’s visits and special care but she was loved.

Every other year Doris and I created another daughter. First came Karen Jeanne. Dixie was a loving big sister. Next came Lorene Marie. Dixie was even more a loving big sister.

Dixie, Karen, & Lorene               1962

Dixie, Karen, & Lorene
1962

Unfortunately, her father was a rectal sphincter and he abused her mother physically and emotionally for the most immature and selfish of reasons. The marriage ended in divorce and the demise of the family. Doris remarried and their petition to adopt my daughters was granted by a judge whose area of expertise was in business and criminal law, not the family court judge. His logic was he’d be saving me child support.

  "Uncle" Daddy with Karen, Dixie, & Lorene      Easter visitation.

“Uncle” Daddy
with Karen, Dixie, & Lorene
Easter visitation.

During their childhood years there were long periods of time when I was unable to see them but Dixie managed to get to a pay phone from time to time to call me. Visits to their home were infrequent and Karen managed to “disown” me. By the time I moved to California in 1978, the children were old enough to become closer to their real father. Dixie had lived with us for a short time. Lorene came to her old house to say good-bye.

     Dixie, Dad, and granddaughter Kathy

Dixie, Dad, and granddaughter Kathy

I flew home to New Jersey several times and motorcycled across country two or three times to visit all three of my daughters and their growing families. Dixie had made some unwise choices in her life just as her dad and others have made. She was still my daughter and still loved as always. The girls were not happy with our move to California, but I needed to move on from the by then two divorces. It was one of the worst decisions of the many I have made in my 79 years. I wished they could have understood the pain and helplessness I’d gone through from not being with them as they grew up. A pain that would never subside.

Dixie too fled from her problems. She chose to move to North Carolina where a friend helped her get restarted. I never saw her again but we’d write to each other and I’d call her as well. Then suddenly it all changed. I’m told it was the drugs she had used back in New Jersey that distorted her thinking and she stopped communicating with me. My grandson Michael also stopped our regular Email conversations. My heart has been broken ever since. But I always loved my daughter.

I hated California almost from the beginning. It never felt like home. I added to my university degrees, had a good job and some good friends. My third wife and I had our kids and the chance to realize the “American Dream”. But unforeseen, unexpected and this time undeserved circumstances blew the dream to smithereens. I lost everything including my family, my position in the community, most of what I owned and my savings. I had to start all over again.

  Roger in Nicaragua Working on a building.

Roger in Nicaragua
Working on a building.

God works in mysterious ways indeed! He led me to a humbling job and then caused me to have to give it up because of surgeries I needed. It was during this off-time that my church called for volunteer short-term missionaries to help in Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch. Money was provided for my passage by the church. It was a wonderful experience that led to several more annual trips to Central America. Being single again in 2008 and frustrated with my life in the U.S. I moved to El Salvador. I became very active in my church here and regained the sense of fulfillment I felt had been taken from me in the U.S. Through Email I kept in touch with my children. But over time they stopped communicating for various reasons I’ve been told.

I have pictured my Grandpa Roscoe, who died before I was born, living alone apart from his estranged wife and children and perhaps discovered one day dead at 75 in a lonely room. He’d been active to be sure but alone. I imagined my own last days being like that, thousands of miles from my uninterested and uncaring children who were living their lives as though I never existed. I never considered that any of them would precede me in death.

Adriana & Margarita,     Mis dos amores.

Adriana & Margarita,
Mis dos Amores.

I continue to serve my church and community as best I can. But my focus is on my wife and especially my daughter. I live to ensure her a better life than her mother could have imagined, a life certainly better than her own. Sometimes I wonder about Adriana’s perception of me as a father, as her father. My girls were always great huggers, jockeying for position on my lap, three kids wanting to hold my two hands. Adriana isn’t like that for the most part. I can count the times she’s kissed me on the cheek on one hand. Her mother had to encourage her to give me a hug at bedtime. A man who has lost the confidence and love of his natural and adopted children is insecure. As a teacher I thrived on the love of my students. As a parent I had little to show. Adriana is perhaps a measuring tool in my last years as a father. Among all my endeavors and successes, the most important endeavor, fatherhood, feels like a loss.

But this morning when Adriana found me sitting on the edge of my bed crying aloud over the loss of my first daughter, she threw herself into my arms holding me ever so tightly and lovingly. Not one of her typical hit-and-run ‘OK, I’ve done my duty hugs’, but so genuinely in tune with what I was feeling. I don’t know how many times a day I tell her that I love her and how happy she makes me. No one child can make up for the loss of or separation from another. No one child is more loved than another. As I wrote to my grandson Michael, Dixie’s son, love is forever. I will always love Dixie, my other children and grandchildren, and Adriana.

 

It’s Been a Long Ride but the End of the Trail Is in Sight

 

I’ve been retired from any real job for around fifteen years. It’s been a great ride in that I’ve been to places I never would have dreamed of even visiting let alone making my home in any of them. But El Refugio has treated me relatively well compared to my previous fifteen years in California. I’m enjoying my freedom, my church and community, but most of all my family. Not to take anything away from 3/4 of my previous wives or most of my girlfriends, Margarita is as close to the perfect wife as I could want. She takes such good care of me and seems to anticipate my every need and wish.  Our son Luís at thirteen can be a handful. Sometimes I wonder if he’ll amount to anything for all the hours he wastes doing nothing. We’ll watch fútbol together on TV if Barcelona is playing or on my laptop when there’s no TV coverage.

FBC

Ten-year old Adriana is a miniature version of her mother. She checks me when I forget something and corrects me when I misspeak in Spanish. I’ve come to depend on her for many things. She’s been letting me help her more with her homework and that makes me very happy. She’s not only mommy’s helper but her confidante as well. I enjoy watching them do “girl things” or study the Bible together. Still, she’s got plenty of little girl to allow her to make clothes for her dolls and do their hair. She’ll kick a plastic ball with her brother and ride her bike around the yard. I do my best to spoil her.

03-16 12 Adriana & Margarita

Adriana & Margarita, mis dos amores.

 

During these years I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world in which I’ve lived but experienced little of until the turn of the century. I’ve had to learn to live with the extreme disapproval of most of my children. I forgive them their ignorance and realize that if they can be happy without a father or a grandfather for their children, I can’t mourn their loss only pray that they don’t experience the same now that they’re middle-aged. They’ll never appreciate what they’ve lost and what they’ve cost my grandchildren. But my life is the better for needing to focus my attention on the needs of others rather than my own wants. I believe God has blessed and rewarded me in gifting me Margarita and the children. Her extended family might not fit the image that my blood relatives envision as ideal (albeit their lives have not made them role models for their kids) but people here are closer to living in God’s love than they are. My in-laws, my nephews and nieces, legitimate or not share their love with me as I share mine with them. Love and caring here go beyond family lines. Little things. It seems I’ve become a godfather to a two-year old girl, daughter of a teen-age mother who is part of Margarita’s Single Mothers’ support group sponsored by a nearby church. I saw the child’s front teeth yellowing from lack of oral hygiene. I bought her a little tooth-brush and paste. I gave the young mother some advice on the importance of caring for baby teeth to have healthier adult teeth. She has been following my advice (which sometimes is contrary to local beliefs). I’ve never seen the child with shoes. Yesterday, I bought her a pair for $3.00. She was sick and stayed home with her mom but I gave the shoes to her great-grandmother who was deeply appreciative.

Before I married Margarita I did a lot of similar things for families of my students and members of my church. Little things. Adriana is accepting my philosophy that there is more in life awaiting her than looking for a man with a steady job and having his babies. She wants to be a dance teacher. This past December during “summer” school break she began dance lessons, something she and her mother would never have considered before I entered their lives completely. She’s learned poise and public presentation because I could give her the clothes she needed to enter the Miss Chiquita contest four years ago. I do my best to encourage the kids in our community to excel at what they love to do even if it won’t earn them a dollar. It helps them to do better at what might earn them that precious dollar. It all feels so good. Little things.

On my four and five- hour bike rides I have made friends out of acquaintances and acquaintances out of strangers along my route in the nearby city of Chalchuapa. If a kid greets me in English I’ll take the time to give him a little more vocabulary. If a family hears me translate “God is love” into Spanish for a child’s understanding, I’ll get to talk about Jesus to the mother. If I see a three-year old boy sitting at a table with his mom and grandmother who sell fruit on the curb and he tells me he doesn’t have a ball to kick I’ll stop at the local store and invest 30 cents in a plastic ball for him.  If the boyfriend of a long-time dear friend wants help in his English studies I invite him over and we set a schedule for him to converse with me. Little things.

It is so far removed from the U.S. life here that one has to adjust to the absence or unavailability of restaurants, movies, places of entertainment, transportation to visit relatives and friends, books, hobby and craft materials, familiar clothes, foods, and personal items, technology needs, and other items you don’t spend too much time thinking about when you need or want them. But it’s not too far from the Stelton I grew up in 70 years ago.

Unfortunately or fortunately, I was not a life-planner. How I’ve spent my life happened more at chance than by design. Therefore, after several wives and children, more jobs than I can remember before choosing an advanced educational program that led to an entirely different career, and acquiring some unearned credits in the California prison system, I should not be surprised to find the long and winding road has brought me to this unlikely destination surrounded by some of nature’s most beautiful landscapes, some of her most beautiful women, a family which loves me unconditionally, and some fantastic spiritual experiences.

I confess that as I approach the 80th anniversary of my birth, I feel the aches and pains of joint overuse. I yawn more than your cat. I can fall asleep watching an exciting or emotionally stimulating TV show. And the longer I have to wait for my wounded “good” knee to self-repair the more frustrated and depressed I will be. But when Margarita comes up to where I’m sitting and plants her soft, full lips on my soft, Anglo-thin chops I feel rejuvenated. When Adriana creeps up on me to let me watch Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry, Prince Royce, or Wisin and Yandel on her Android tablet, I am surely a kid again.

Roger & Margarita

Roger & Margarita

I have no doubt that when I’ve reached the end of the trail I won’t be alone. I’ll have a smile on my face and a beautiful, loving woman holding each of my hands. I can’t ask for more than that! Thank you, Lord.

 

 

The Kastle is Krumbling and Kollapsing!

 

 

 From August 2, 2014 (I’m trying to finish old drafts I’d started.)

 A year or so ago I felt ten or fifteen years younger. I was jogging almost every morning as the sun rose. It seems I was busy with Margarita once we saw the kids to the schoolhouse door. I had a dog to walk and chickens to raise. I played my guitar now and then. The kids and I took bicycle rides–not the 50 km ones I’ve done recently–around the neighborhood and to the park so we could play.

In January of 2013 our landlord wanted to double our rent so I taught him some English and we moved to our current house. It was larger, the roof leaked less during the rainy season, and it was closer to what little there is to have convenient in El Refugio. The family we rented from was amiable, cooperative, and was happy at the improvements we made to the property. We deducted the costs from the rent. The two men who lived in the two separate apartments on the property were no problem. They were helpful and friendly as well as we moved our chickens into unroofed “rooms” at the rear of the property.

One of the men, Don Saul, is part of the family who own the property. The water and electric bills still bear the name of his long-dead father. The other rented a smaller room for $10 a month and was rarely here. He was a night watchman at one of our schools and I imagine he could sleep on the job. By day he either found other work or he worked in the lovely garden behind our house. Unfortunately, he wasn’t paying his rent and he was asked to leave. When that happened the family raised our rent by $10 but didn’t offer us the departing gentleman’s space. This was eight months after we moved in. We ate the raise and life moved on.

We’d gotten over Don Saul’s friend’s robbing our bathroom of toilet goods and light bulbs and put a lock on the door. Then we had a music issue with him. He loves norteño music as do I. But the bass volume was extremely loud and unbearable in our house with its metal roof. The vibration amplified the bass painfully in my ears to the point where I couldn’t remain in the house. Margarita spoke to him and to the family member to whom we paid the rent. It took some convincing but they liked us as tenants and he turned it down–for a while. When he began entertaining the community again and Margarita was too shy to confront him, I went to his door where he stood smirking. I could barely hear my voice telling, not asking, him to turn the volume down. He just stood there like the senile old coot that he is. I shouted at him in both Spanish and English and he wouldn’t budge. I threatened to kick his ass but he seemed to be enjoying hassling me. Margarita tells me this was July 10th.

I haven’t spoken to the man since the robberies, but he likes to talk to Margarita in the morning when she’s washing the dishes or hanging clothes outside. He told her he wants us to move. She told me this a few weeks ago and I told her I’m not moving. I will not look for another house. I have lived in six houses in six years and I will die in this house since I will never be able to afford one of my own.

In the time that we’ve lived here, we’ve learned that like everything and everyone in this world, the house and location have their downsides too. There are few pedestrians who pass our house and that shut down Margarita’s cooking-on-the-sidewalk business. Then we learned how noisy it could be with a few local families owning large trucks that they warmed up at 4:30 a.m., the Chinese motorcycles with no mufflers that used our street to get to the main road, and the incessant horns from the bicycle bread vendors. The family across the street owns a bus whose route leads to a farm community. Seasonal workers gather in front of our house awaiting the driver and they are quite vociferous. Sleeping in is an impossibility.

The family of a couple of my ex-students with whom we are friendly own a house a block from where we used to live in Barrio Nuevo. It’s a much quieter location, still close to the school and on the microbus route. It looks nice from the outside. The owner told Margarita that there are three bedrooms. At present, Luís has a large room to himself but Adriana shares the big room with Margarita and me with a wall of furniture between. She would be able to have her own room and we would have the privacy we haven’t enjoyed in 20 months. But I’ve never been inside the house and have no idea what kind of space is available. I’ve bought a lot of large furniture for the bedroom, living room, and kitchen. I will not live in a crowded space. I don’t even know if there’s a place for our chickens.

The owner lost his wife a couple of years ago and is raising two kids younger than Adriana with the help of his mother-in-law. He drinks a lot during the day. Every six months he tells us he’s got problems with the current tenants but they never leave. I passed by last evening and they were enjoying dinner. But I remember how much damage was done moving here in Margarita’s brother’s antique pickup and the brutal handling of good stuff by our helpers. I do not want to move. Since I haven’t seen the inside of the house I don’t know if I should even think about it. But Margarita won’t let me forget.

Part of me would like to get away from this old fart who somehow seems to be in his shower adjacent to our bathroom when we get up in the morning. I’ve got a ten-year old daughter who has finally stopped playing in the yard bare-chested in her panties as she did in the privacy of our old house. I might be happier with an overall noise reduction and to live among old acquaintances and friends.

We (Margarita’s son Juan and I) recently finished rewiring the electricity from the house to the bathroom and the chicken coop so we can now use switches for light rather than plugging in an 80 meter length of rotting insulation wire segments and having to pull chains on the various light fixtures. I’m not giving that away! 

That’s just the first part of the krumble and kollapse kalamity. The main concern is about me. I am aging too quickly. I’ve enjoyed a long run of good health and activity. I think that once our church school closed down my mind started shutting down as well. When the perra who destroyed the church’s CDI program for kids continued with her husband and extended family to make the church their personal fiefdom, I who came here as a missionary to serve it had no alternative but to leave. That left me with no regular activities to occupy the bulk of my days. No planning, no supervising, no teaching, no working with kids and their families, no mental challenges other than trying to understand the local brand of Spanish in my own home.

Then my wonderful legs, the legs that ran marathons, 10 k and 5 k runs regularly in the U.S. decided they’d had enough. I had lived for more than 30 years with pain in the right ankle I’d broken sliding into second base but now my left knee screamed, “No more!” It took me a while to develop a bicycling program for myself but I did it. I was able to keep my weight in check, follow my rides with stretches and upper-body exercises, and feel good about my old body. But in the last couple of months my mileage has dropped dramatically. I feel strong while I’m on the road but as soon as I get off my bike I find I can’t put weight on my bad right ankle and the left knee is sorer than normal. I walk like, well, an old man.

My hearing has not been 100% for the past 40 years since the air hose gauge at a gas station didn’t work and a bike tire exploded in my ears. I’ve had an annoying multi-tonal ringing ever since. It’s gotten to a point that if two people are talking at once I can’t distinguish or separate the voice of one from the other. Certain voice ranges are impossible to hear clearly. And the worse part is not being able to understand Margarita when she talks too fast. My tendency is to just nod my head as if I understand. I’ve agreed to things I wouldn’t have agreed to or was surprised to learn I’d assented to something I didn’t remember. That called into question my mind vs. my hearing. Either way it is frustrating.

I have eye glasses for regular wear but my current prescription hasn’t helped me to distinguish people at what used to be a normal distance. I have bifocals to carry with me to church for reading and to the store so I can read expiration dates on the milk bottles. I don’t wear the bifocals when I walk on the street or even in the house in fear of misjudging a change in ground levels and a fall. I have a third pair that I use exclusively for the computer. I also have contact lenses which I haven’t worn in years. If I try to walk with them I’ll see the world as a blur. So I have to change glasses often. From all the time I spend on the computer for lack of anything else to do, my eyes get very tired soon after supper.

I try to explain to Margarita who I am and why I get depressed. There is no one like me in her world. Salvadorans are content to sit on their asses all day and just eat and talk. That’s the main reason we’ll never see eye-to-eye about her son Juan who was content being a parasite until I finally got him out of my house. I have been active all my life. I have never been content to do nothing. I don’t believe in wasting the daylight hours relaxing, watching TV, or sitting on the park bench to fantasize about my past or chat about the hot chicks walking by. I’m a very light sleeper and she doesn’t understand that even if we had a darkened bedroom and air-conditioning, I wouldn’t be able to take an afternoon nap like she and the kids can.

I don’t like to compare any of my U.S. lifestyles with my current Salvadoran mode. There are regular things I wasn’t crazy about doing in the U.S. that I can’t do here but would love to have as options. We can’t go for a drive for lack of a vehicle and the means to obtain one. We have no real restaurants with a variety of meals to break the gustatory monotony. No adult recreation facilities for entertainment. Certainly nothing for seniors. And while Margarita has duties and responsibilities with the church, the school, helping her ailing mother at her house, in addition to her house chores, I’m only able to participate in a smidgen of her activities. When I’m motivated, I write. Sometimes I’m kvetching as in this piece other times I’m trying to educate, inform or entertain. A couple of videos I started a while back I’ve slacked off on because they involve either walking or biking with my camera. Walking hurts and I don’t want to risk having my camera stolen.

Since writing the above we’ve changed churches. The new church meets five afternoons or evening per week. I’ve been asked to play the guitar for the praise songs and Margarita is leading a cell group in a nearby neighborhood that is already growing. She’ll be doing some preaching at the church as well. There are a few members whom I have known for years but most congregants are new to me. We currently meet in a comfortable-for-30+ house while a large church is being built across the street. As excited as I get anymore, I’m excited for this new adventure.

On the way home from church a week ago, a car was approaching a group of us. I made for the side and tripped in a hole in the road and smashed my right (good) knee on the corner of the curb. I haven’t been able to ride since. I literally haven’t a leg to stand on with both knees aching. Last month I set a distance record for myself of 423 miles. I was on a pace to break 500 for March but that’s not going to happen.

We have had another incident with Don Saúl’s elderly lady visitor. When we left for church on Friday evening she was pounding on the garage door which is his point of entry to the property. We told her he had left earlier. She opted to wait for him. He must have come home while we were gone and let her in. When we got up Saturday morning Margarita saw she was missing some chili pepper and peppermints she had planted. She confronted the old man and he evaded the issue. A call to his niece wasn’t very helpful.

Margarita also told the niece about his increasingly strange and potentially dangerous behaviors regarding his lurking and voyeurism habits. He recently cut his bushes and flowering plants to a height low enough for him to be able to view our house and activities from anywhere in the yard. I found him at 4:00 a.m. lurking near our outdoor bathroom as I exited it. He was just staring at my startled countenance focused on the wraith in a nightshirt like Marley’s ghost. His other strange habit is listening for me to pass gas on our toilet and muttering some intelligible comment. Perhaps a curse. He does burn candles at night.

I have acquired an English student who will be coming to the house a couple of times a week for help. This will give my routine a little variety. I don’t know how long it will be before I will feel able to ride my cobweb covered bike. But this hiatus may turn out to be a good thing. I’ve been ignoring my guitar, my video projects, and probably a host of tasks I had intended to complete with all the free time I have.

The kountry kastle is krumbling and I can’t do anything about it. I’ll endure the pain in my aged legs as best as I can. I may even endure and outlive the old pain in the butt who lives behind us. My goal is to see my daughter grow up happy and independent. With God’s mercy and Margarita’s love I just might make it.

 

 

 

 

Sports and Sportsmanship

 

Like most American boys and men I enjoy sports. I have my preferences. My favorite sport has always been baseball. My second favorite is basketball. Since moving to El Salvador I have become an aficionado of fútbol, what I used to call soccer. As a boy I never participated in soccer. AYSO either wasn’t organized or just hadn’t gotten to Central Jersey. Getting the guys together for a game of softball or baseball was my focus throughout my teens. It didn’t matter if the field was dry or wet. It could be sunny or threatening rain. There could be puddles or deep mud on the base paths. I’d be out looking for someone to start a game.

Basketball didn’t come into my sports schedule until my mid-teens. We had no basketballs or baskets. There were no local recreation centers for the sport. The NBA was in its infancy and wrestling had more TV time–for those few of us who had televisions. But we did manage to put together the Jive Five and play a few years in another town’s Recreation League. I wasn’t very good at it because we had no one to coach us and we really had no roll models to emulate. I became a nominal Boston Celtics fan because a couple of their players’ off-season jobs were playing in  the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization. Football was always available and willing to push those of us who preferred baseball off the field as fall approached. September to me was a bad month. It marked the advent of a new school year and the return of football. I didn’t like football. Someone always wanted to trip you or throw you to the ground. That’s not fun! If you tore your pants or scraped the skin off your leg, you’d probably get in trouble with your mother. It wasn’t worth the effort so a few of us would prolong the baseball season as deeply into autumn as possible. Eventually, we round-ballers would have to give in to the prolate spheroid set and join the bloody “sport”.

Boxing and wrestling are also sports. Boys get into fights sometimes spontaneously over an insulting word or phrase, or some unwelcome physical contact interpreted as a challenge. Other times the fight is scheduled  for after school to avoid dealing with teachers and principals. I hated to have to fist fight. You can get bruised and bloody as in football. I could see no sense in settling a difference with fisticuffs. It would be bad enough to earn a black eye for kids to make fun of but hell to answer to your mother. After telling you how stupid you were she’d then call the mother of your opponent to either call her child a bully or to lay the blame on him for hitting first. The kid would get mad because you squealed and he’d be looking for you again the next day. I preferred wrestling.

In wrestling you drastically reduced the chance of shedding blood, scraping skin, or fracturing a bone. The object was to make the other guy “give” by exacting pain or by pinning his shoulders to the ground to a count of three. It therefore helped if you were just a little bigger and stronger than your antagonist and if you knew enough about the best places to apply pressure and pain. That was my forte.

Our exposure to professional sports came via radio and newspapers until television became affordable for we country kids with working class parents. Living so close to and being influenced by all things New York we had our baseball rivalries amongst us. The city had three teams in those days, the New York Giants, the Yankees, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Interborough rivalry made for great arguments while waiting for the school bus or when choosing up sides. Pro football and basketball never seemed to stimulate such conversations during their respective seasons. In those days the three major sports didn’t overlap as they do today. No one followed hockey.

As television became more common, our sports vision expanded. We could now see professional wrestling and boxing. I remember listening to Joe Louis’ championship fights on radio. Now we could see two men pounding the pudding out of one another. It never appealed to me until Cassius Clay came along.

Wrestling was another matter. My friends and I would often engage in wrestling matches evenings on the front lawn of our local school. Now we could watch Gene Stanlee’s haughty flair and Argentina Rocca’s flying drop-kicks. We had teachers and that made our matches more daring. We had little thought of our heroes being merely athletic actors with predetermined conclusions to their performances. It wasn’t as sophisticated and intricate as today’s WWE enterprise but it was the McMahon dynasty’s baby back in the day.

We were taught the value of sportsmanship. Sports had rules. Sports were judged fairly. Athletes had respect for their opponents. There was no place for trash talk or animosity. At the end of the contest the antagonists shook hands and congratulated each other for their effort. The winner didn’t gloat and the loser didn’t sulk or make excuses. He might promise to do better at their next meeting. We really never thought about the financial aspect of professional sports. We rooted for our team and our favorite players.

With baseball as the dominant sport, we knew our idols had off-season jobs and accepted that as the norm. They lived modestly with their families just as our families lived. Contract signings were more about who would be back for the next season than what their salaries would be. Sports were fun. Players were loyal to (owned by) their teams and fans and were missed when traded. DiMaggio was always a Yankee. Mays a Giant. Musial a Cardinal. Williams a Red Sox. Snider a Dodger. We got used to that.

There have been so many changes, eye-openers to what sports have become during my lifetime. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles it was like having our right arms amputated. Free agency suddenly emancipated those in bondage to their owners. Players became able to negotiate moves to other teams. Loyalty went out the window. New sources of revenue for Major League Baseball meant the end of post-season jobs to make ends meet. Salaries skyrocketed. Chemical enhancement for performance broke the “unbreakable” records. It became more obvious that it was all about the money. Scandal followed scandal. No one needed to throw a World Series as in 1919.

Leagues in the four major professional sports were able to expand the number of teams. End of season playoffs were also expanded. New markets were opened to increase fan base, sales, and income. Network television lost out to cable and satellite providers but overall viewer numbers increased. Even wrestling with its bad actors in great bodies grew in popularity filling arenas and selling their brands. WWE is everywhere. Vince McMahon, Sr. would be so proud of his son’s growing the family business to where it is now. Rich professional teams are able to buy the best players. College football and basketball team players are now looking for a piece of the action from the NCAA. College sports are big time money makers for schools and sponsors. Be a regular in the top 25 of your sport, qualify for the increasing number of bowl games and March Madness, and watch the money roll in. It’s all about the money not how you play the game. To me it’s very sad.

 

Loving America

I am an expatriate living in El Salvador for nearly seven years. For the most part I feel an emotional as well as geographical distance from my mother country. But I do follow news and opinions as much to see how the changes are affecting family, friends and the world at large as to not forget my first language.

There’s been a lot of controversy on the news recently regarding President Obama’s love for America. It awakened some thoughts about love for one’s country over the nearly 80 years of my life. One particular blog on Huffington Post prompted me to write this personal essay.

I grew up during WWII. The word “patriotism” was thrust at us via the radio and movies. We lived next to the army camp from which soldiers were shipped to Europe to fight to keep America free. Kate Smith sang “God Bless America”. Frank Sinatra sang “That’s America to Me”. Elton Britt sang about a blind man who was unable to join the military in “I’d Like to Give My Dog to Uncle Sam”. Loving America was never questioned–unless you were of Japanese, German or Italian descent. All 135 million of us united in a common cause, to defeat the Axis powers and keep America free. We were still Democrats and Republicans but somehow our President and the Congress were able to work together to get the job done. We saved paper, scrap metal, grease to donate for the war effort. We survived with ration stamps for food and gasoline. We developed substitutes for goods we couldn’t import. We loved that America! We believed in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. We paid little heed to the issues of segregation, discrimination, and many other negatives that needed correcting to make the words of our Great State Papers become a reality for all who lived here.

Mr. Blow (in his Huff Post blog) rightly comments that we haven’t gotten there yet. The 21st century has carried us by our own volition even farther from the ideals we took for granted during the 40s and 50s with the inception of the Cold War, democracy vs. communism.

America has strayed from the concept of E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. The “one” has been rent into “many”. There is no common goal. Even the artificially created wars beginning with Viet Nam have not brought us together. We are not of one mind in domestic or foreign policies. The progressives continue to be assailed by the backward thinking conservatives who are trying to recreate a fanciful past that never really existed and was before their time, their memory.

Who loves America? There are too many “Americas” in America today. I lived through the McCarthy era, the America for Americans era (that didn’t mean Native Americans), the America, love it or leave it era, so many eras that further divided America into opposing camps. In 2015 I don’t even trust my own memory to recall the America I used to be able to say I loved.

Now I live in El Salvador. As different from the U.S. I lived in for 70 years as day is from night. Do I love El Salvador? No. It’s another piece of real estate on Planet Earth. Much smaller than the U.S. Fewer inhabitants than New York City. But it does have one language. It does use the U.S. dollar so I don’t have to do any calculations when I shop. It has its own tropical beauty and a lot of people who will never have what you have. Is a country like a sports team to root for as the best in the league? A genre of music? A particular poet’s or writer’s work? I don’t think so. The world has gotten much smaller since the 1940s. We are almost all connected and close in one way or another.

I’ve learned it’s not about countries and trying to be the biggest, baddest, most generous, or most controlling. It’s about people. All people from all parts of the planet. Ask me if I love the Earth. I’ll tell you, yes. It’s got lots of problems. Mostly of our own causation. I’d like to resolve or see resolved as many of them as possible through the efforts of all people of good will. If the U.S. can be a leader in resolving problems rather than causing them in its efforts to be number one, I just might be able to say, yes, I love America.

A Bluish Green Christmas 2014

It’s Christmas Day. It’s also my seventh Christmas in El Salvador. I will try to explain why Christmas is both green and blue here. Green, as opposed to the familiar white Christmas, is the predominant color of the environment. We have no memories of white Christmases past, no culture of Santa with nine reindeer (counting Rudolph) landing his sleigh on snow-covered roof tops or coming down chimneys with a sack full of toys, no Frosty the Snowman with eyes and buttons of carbón and a carrot nose, and no carolers bundled up with their own red noses glowing as they sing the familiar traditional songs of the season at front gates and doors.

Although we are in the early phase of our six-months of winter, the town and the rural areas are verdant with brightly colored flowers everywhere. Oh, there are some houses behind tall iron or chain link fences that are strung with colored lights and through open doors you might see un arbolito de navidad, a small Christmas tree, and an occasional nativity scene. Television has influenced this poor nation with visions of sugar plums (large screen TVs, a 125 cc motorcycle in every living room, “American” clothes, and a hand-held communications device) dancing and sprinting in many folks’ heads.

Christmas is NOT a big day here. The 24th is what is mostly celebrated as Nochebuena, the good night. We know that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th and most likely wasn’t born in December or close to it. The date was chosen because it was nine months after March 25th, the day ascribed to the angel’s annunciation to Jesus’ mother Mary.  The Catholic church reckoned the 25th to be the day of Christ’s Mass in 336 A.D. while Constantine was emperor in Rome. What tradition has passed down to us is that he was born at night. So this mass was celebrated between sunset and sunrise, hence the night before the proclaimed date of Jesus’ birth is what came down to us. This of course was before the day was taken over by commercial rather than spiritual interests.

Thus many businesses and offices which would be closed in the U.S. carry on as usual here. People have to go to work on the 25th so they celebrate the night before, Nochebuena. How they celebrate was quite novel for me during my first few Christmases here. Families get together and have a big dinner, usually chicken or a meal they wouldn’t normally have except for holidays and celebrations. Such is the economy in Central America. Then they willingly risk their children’s well-being by setting off an hour or two’s worth of fireworks and rockets. Despite the graphic results they’ve viewed on TV of children with missing fingers, hands and eyes lying in hospital beds, and warnings from police, emergency room personnel, and some of the highest office holders in the land, so-called adults buy in bulk to sell from in front of their houses to their neighbors and friends. Such is tradition in El Salvador. The sound of explosions and debris landing on metal roofs goes on until after midnight or the exhaustion of their pyrotechnics.

Christmas for me can be a very blue day for several reasons. Trapped in the cob webs of my mind are memories of childhood Christmases, Christmases with wives and excited children, the horrors of trying to balance Christmas lists with disposable income, walking trips around Manhattan to see Santa at Macy’s and wondering how he could be on his throne and on most street corners as well, the humongous tree and skaters at Rockefeller Center, lunch at the Automat or Gluckstern’s, and the tragedy of my mother’s decision to ban Christmas in favor of Chanukah. Mostly happy but fading-with-age memories of scenes in which I have only once acted a part in the past thirty years.

Since Margarita has been a part of my life I have typically followed her custom of spending Nochebuena at the Olmedo homestead about a mile and a half from El Refugio in Casa Blanca. There have been times when family members would come a distance to visit with the family’s matriarch, Margarita’s mom, and there would be lots of talk, some of it interesting and easy to follow. Margarita’s sister would be the fireworks supplier and I’d watch powerless to object as my kids lit sparklers and haphazardly tossed explosive pyrotechnics on the driveway with woods and dry leaves on both sides. Once my short interest span kicked in accompanied by lion-like yawns, I would make my way to Margarita’s former shack (now cleaned and the rickety bed made) to try to sleep with the sound of explosions ringing through the woods in competition with Uncle Marcos’ music blasting from his home a rural block away. 

My aching, aging legs have kept me from visiting my mother-in-law as often as I’d like. I love her dearly if for no other reason than for having birthed the beautiful woman who is my wife. Last night I was torn between accompanying my family and staying at home. I didn’t look forward to another long walk along the highway and the uphill climb on a hard, rough, rutted and rocky road. I would miss a couple of never-miss TV shows that only air on Wednesdays. Although I knew there would be fireworks close to our house in El Refugio that would probably keep me awake beyond my normal bedtime, at least I had the escape of television and my computer. Due to the proliferation of gang members in and around Casa Blanca and their sudden burst of deadly criminal activity, it is not a place to walk out of after dark if I should choose to leave out of boredom.

But my angel daughter, Adriana, asked me if I were going with them. I asked her if she wanted me to go and she said yes. I hemmed and hawed a bit but thinking of her and how I’ve become more a part of her life recently as she’s grown up I said OK. I told her I wanted to have supper before I left because I was hungry and they wouldn’t eat all the good food they’d be carrying until a couple of hours later. I also said I’d take my bicycle so I wouldn’t have to walk the whole distance. I’d only have to push the bike up the hill for the last 1/4 mile. But in the back of my mind I had decided that if I were not enjoying I’d have a means of returning home in ten minutes’ time.

Margarita and the two kids left ahead of me while I put on my jungle clothes but I passed them on the highway and got to Casa Blanca first. I “hid” my bike on her front porch and remarked to myself how son Juan had made some improvements to the front of the house to afford himself some privacy when he showers. Inside it was typically cluttered with kitchen articles that Margarita has given him since he went out on his own. The bulk of the house was unappetizing and it reminded me of one of the many reasons I would never move to Casa Blanca.

I decided to start walking back down the hill to meet them coming up. I knew Margarita would be carrying three bags of food and what they’d need for overnight and that Luís, a typical Salvadoran male at age twelve, would be empty-handed and Adriana, the spoiled princess, might have something light to carry. I thought I’d meet them at the second turn in the road but when I got there they were no where in sight. I continued down the hill realizing I was going to have to walk back up a second time. I sedated my angst with the thought that this time I wouldn’t have to push my bicycle.

At a slight curve in the road I could see the family including daughter María clustered in the shadows of dusk. When I arrived they were concluding their conversation. Our older daughter gave me a hug and a blessing. She turned to go to her house and we began the climb. I took a bag from my wife with a comment about our son’s lack of respect for his mother and proceeding empty-handed. As I expected, his little sister had a bag but didn’t get too far before handing it back to her mother.

At my mother-in-law’s house they unpacked their cargo and I sat on the porch listening to the chatter. Luís and Adriana played with his cell phone. Mom got a phone call which lasted a while. Margarita was busy sorting out the pre-cooked supper–for which no one was in the mood.  Luís found some French rolls and decided to make himself a cream sandwich. Adriana wanted one as well. They had hot chicken and gravy, rice, and a fresh salad waiting for them but they chose bread and cream. It’s like they become semi-savages again once they breathe the air of Casa Blanca.

Margarita saw I was bored so she offered me Pepsi. I wasn’t thirsty and I didn’t want soda. She asked me if I wanted a little more salad. She’d forgotten to put radishes in my salad at home and must have wanted to make it up to me. Whenever I buy radishes they disappear before she makes a salad. Adriana likes to snack on them. But I declined having eaten enough salad for one day. Suddenly the kids decided they were hungry so Margarita set about preparing their supper. She again asked if I wanted anything. I didn’t. The TV had been on with a children’s Christmas program that no one was really watching. It’s like Luís needed some background noise to accompany his torturing his sister. The news came on at 7:00 and Adrian cleared off a chair, placed it in front of the TV and offered me the seat. They all sat on the porch eating.

The news here is not really news and it almost never affects our lives here in “the provinces”. I watched for about fifteen minutes and decided I’d rather be alone in my own house where I’m comfortable. I always have something I can occupy myself with. I can only listen to conversations about who died or was killed and who he was related to for so long. I don’t know these people. I don’t know their relationships. When my mother-in-law turned to verify that Negritos originally came from Africa, it confirmed my need to get home in time to see “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and watch college students and professional people not know on what continent one will find the Republic of South Africa and use all their lifelines to guess Asia. I kissed my wife and mother-in-law and got on my bike. I somehow made it to the highway on the poorly lit double-rutted trail safely passing three young men smoking something suspicious. I wished them Merry Christmas as I turned the first corner and they returned my salutation. Phew! I was happy to enter the highway where there were few cars but enough to light the bike lane so I wouldn’t hit any pedestrians or other bikers. I made it to the house in ten minutes. I cruised past the park and saw maybe two dozen people including kids. Nobody I knew so I went home.

I was able to enjoy “Millionaire” before the fireworks began in earnest. There wasn’t anything on TV to interest me so I worked on my two computers and tried unsuccessfully to connect Adriana’s new mini-tablet to the Internet. When I was ready for bed it was still noisy but I didn’t mind. I was just so tired.  I missed my good-night hug from Adriana and missed Margarita beside me. But I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until a little before eight. I could have slept longer. There were no big trucks with growling engines at 4:30 a.m. and no bread vendors squeezing their horns beginning an hour later. Not everyone has Christmas day off. What woke me up was two neighbors with their volume on eight or nine yakking in front of the house. Once again I missed my wife and daughter as I began my day. A little bit blue surrounded by a whole lot of green.

D-Day in El Refugio; Musings on WWII

It was just another Tuesday when an 8-year old boy woke up to receive his daddy’s good-bye kiss and hug before leaving for work. In another week the unpleasantness, to put it mildly, of Blanche P. Bieler’s third grade would be over and there would be ten weeks of fun and play before I’d have to return to her classroom for fourth grade. I don’t recall if it was mommy or my sister Sally who cooked the hot cereal of the day or if the warm last days of spring brought forth one of my favorite cold cereals to the table by the window overlooking the weeping willow tree. At that time cereal boxes were  treasure troves of puzzles, games, and surprises. A boy could cut up the cardboard box along the dotted lines and make airplanes. Not just any airplanes, but planes of the U.S. Army Air Corps and the Navy. There were even balsa wood models in some cereal boxes.

Kellogg's Variety Package

Kellogg’s Variety Package

This was in the era before TV. We got our news from the radio, the newspapers, and from the newsreels at the movies. I followed the war news faithfully from December 7, 1941 studying my geography books with their atlases to learn about the places that were blanketed in battles. The radio news lacked the editorial bias found on that medium today. Americans were united in one cause: defeat the Axis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific theater. The yellow journalism of the William Randolph Hearsts was a precursor to the rabble-rousing “journalism” of today’s Fox News but we could trust our radio news readers and most of what we read in the papers.

Through my school, we briefly had pen pals in England and I learned first hand from a little girl what the blitz was about. From the newsreels I saw the damage caused by bombs, shells, and bullets. Most of my toys were ships and planes. The games I created were war games. I had nightmares of masses of German bombers slowly approaching my school darkening the skies with their numbers while I tried to outrun them for the safety of my house. I also created pre-sleep fantasies from the book “Anton and Trini”, two Swiss children whose real story has long ago been forgotten. But I, in my Navy plane, would rescue her from the Nazis. My fantasy was unaware that Switzerland’s neutrality kept it out of the war proper. But I was eight.

My daddy would come home from work at 5:00 p.m. and I would always be at the door for my hug and kiss. He would have the morning editions of the New York Daily News and Daily Mirror. We also took the local Daily Home News from New Brunswick, an afternoon paper published in the morning. This day there was some excitement as he entered our little house. The allies had invaded France. American, British and Canadian troops had crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy. I couldn’t wait to open the papers and see the arrows indicating which forces had landed and where. Suddenly, there was an image of our boys marching across France and into Germany almost as if it were a Fourth of July parade.

How can I describe my “participation” in the war. I cut out photos of our generals from the Sunday magazine section and posted them over my bed. My cousin Bill gave me a pack of photos of WWII airplanes that I treasured into adulthood. My mother made me a uniform of khaki to go with the army hats, patches, and badges I had collected from friendly soldiers or from the dumps at adjacent Camp Kilmer. I helped collect scrap paper for the war effort and participated in patriotic school endeavors to support the troops.

WWII Generals

WWII Generals

To an eight-year old boy eleven months is a long time. To a soldier in combat it must be eleven life-times. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for these young men with their rifles, bayonets, hand grenades and artillery slogging through mud, crossing bridgeless rivers, being sniped at in forests, and fighting door-to-door with the enemy. But I read every word and studied every map until the 8th of May in 1945 when V.E. Day was announced. That was also a day to remember.

I was nine. I decorated my bicycle with paper ribbon of red, white, and blue and rode up and down School Street while some of my neighbors and other kids came out to shout their cheers for this great day. We all looked forward to the boys coming home. Our family would get to see at least some of the 20th Engineers whom we had entertained when they’d go “over the hill” to spend some hours at Maw Brown’s enjoying coffee and refreshments while I had to go to bed early. They’d mostly come from the south and introduced us to real country music. It certainly made an impression on me. I didn’t really go to sleep.

But finally the greatest day of all came. On August 15th, just days after the nuclear holocaust that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the Japanese announced their unconditional surrender. If V.E. Day was a birthday party, V.J. Day was Christmas and Chanukah wrapped up in one. The war was over. Peace had come to the world. There would be lots of work to do to rebuild cities and reunite surviving families. But we believed the killing had ended.

Seventy years later I watch the news on my computer screen. I see how a paratrooper who was part of the invasion of Normandy recreated his jump. I see men in their 80s and 90s who have come so far in life for perhaps their last reunion to France to celebrate not just a great military initiative, but to remind us that there are no winners in war. We all lose something of ourselves as well as loved ones, property, human dignity, and more. Seventeen world leaders from nations involved in WWII, nations whose boundaries have changed, whose demographics have changed, whose forms of government have changed. Europe’s traditional enemies have formed an economic and a political union. They mostly share one currency and pledge mutual defense of one another. What would Roosevelt, Churchill, De Gaulle, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo think if they could see the world they helped to shape? What would they think of the problems we face early in the 21st century?