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? 

Stelton to El Refugio: A Seventy Year Odyssey

I was born in 1936 and grew up in the Ferrer Colony which occupied about half of what was the North Stelton section of Piscataway Township, New Jersey. In 2008 I moved permanently to El Refugio, Department of Ahuachapán in El Salvador. You’ve probably never heard of either of these communities which are so far apart yet have so much in common.

My primary toddler and childhood caretakers were my parents and older sister. As my world expanded so did the number of my caretakers. In those days, most women stayed at home except to shop. They cleaned house, washed clothes, cooked and baked, cared for their own children and any chickens or cows they might own. The men went out commuting to work to finance the family’s needs. The women also kept their eyes open through living room windows or from front lawns. If a child came into view on the street or playing in a driveway, there were always a woman’s eyes alert for any danger or mischief. So it was that I had many mothers. Often they’d invite me in for milk or a snack. We’d talk and close emotional bonds were established. 

Stelton women loved babies and children. I remember being jealous if we encountered a mother pushing a baby carriage or stroller and she’d pick up the little one to goo-goo at, tickle or hug. But it made an impression on me that kids are special. Just as I needed adults to love me, so did these usurpers of my mother’s attention.

Stelton men were mostly tradesmen and blue-collar workers. While many were also intellectuals they worked with their hands and had much experience to share with a young boy. If curiosity led me to watch Shapiro and his adult sons making dental plates, someone would show me how it was done and even allow me to participate in the process. A carpenter would encourage me in the use of his tools and teach me why such-and-such was done this way rather than that. Adults treated us children with respect and helped us to grow with knowledge, skills, and a capacity to reason intelligently.

My own upbringing helped me to relate in perhaps a big brotherly way to younger boys who didn’t have a similar developmental experience. I always seemed to be a leader among my peers on the playing field or in Boy Scouts. It was in the Master’s plan that after a variety of work experiences I should become a teacher.

As an educator I tried not to model myself after my own school teachers but after the older boys, men and women who had shaped me. I was an encourager, a motivator, an acceptor rather than a grade-giver and critic. My payoff came from watching my students truly grow emotionally as well as educationally. There was always a lot of love in my classes and in the years after my kids had moved on. Just as my childhood provided me with multiple parents, my adulthood provided me with many, many children. Just as Roger the boy felt he could open any door on School Street and find sanctuary, kind words, and a treat, Roger the man’s door was always open to provide safety, encouragement, and  love.

Many of my students were migrants from Mexico or were born in the U.S. to Mexican parents. Their culture in growing up was similar to mine. Large extended families in small agricultural communities were the norm. Many adults were present to teach and protect the children. It was natural for them to be able to relate to me and I to them than perhaps to other teachers. I literally became part of some of their families and they of mine.

In the years after I left teaching, I came to feel an emptiness that came from relationships that lacked the warmth and mutual caring I experienced with my students and their families who were also my neighbors. The void was often unbearable. I really felt that my life had lost purpose and was now meaningless. But then I came to Central America on a ten-day short-term mission trip to help repair the damage done by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. That trip was followed by another. Then several more until I realized that I had found my “Stelton” in El Refugio, which translates to “the refuge”.

Among my many projects was teaching English and children’s songs to the students at our church’s school. I met the families, mostly led by mothers, and relationships grew. I witnessed with joy the many “parents” my kids had. I observed boys working on an equal basis with fathers, uncles, or older brothers at cutting firewood, hoeing in cornfields, mixing mortar and laying brick. Girls followed their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers caring for babies and doing the same difficult chores that their elders performed. It was like being home again after some sixty-five years.

When I met Margarita, two of her children were my students. Two older children attended other schools. Among all the families that I visited with toys or food for gifts, this family stood out for a number of reasons. Adriana was the most adorable four-year old when I first met her. She was the baby of her class and all the five and six-year olds mothered her. It was impossible not to pick her up when her class was over and snuggle her like a teddy bear. Her mother and I became good friends and then we fell in love. I missed having a family and here was the possibility of having one. But these children had never known a father or a father’s love and had a hard time relating to me. I never pushed. I knew that Margarita had no experience with having a real husband around to love his own children so it was difficult for her to understand how I longed for hugs that she didn’t tell the child to give me or for Adriana to sit on any other lap but Margarita’s.

We’ve been married almost four years. The school closed and I’m at home most of the time. I adopted Adriana and she has my name. As she’s matured so has her understanding of what it is to have a dad. I walk her to school. I attend teacher conferences. I encouraged her to participate in the Miss Chiquitita contest, to participate in school parades, and to be a leader in her class. It’s been hard for her to not always go to her mother for help with homework or school projects. She’s learning that I dearly want to be as close to being her mother’s equal as possible. She spends more time talking to me now. She’s figured out a lot about operating the computer but I still enjoy sitting with her and listening to her tell me what she’s doing. Still, she’s mommy’s little girl in a lot of ways.

She follows Margarita like a shadow and Margarita shows her how to do all the things girls need to know in this society. Just like in old Stelton! She and Margarita shower together and she brushes and combs her long hair just like her mother does. Even our pastor called her “little Margarita”. I like that because big Margarita is a very special and wonderful person.

Last night we had a magical breakthrough. About 1:00 a.m. I heard Adriana call “Mommy.” Margarita sleeps like a log and I hear everything unusual so I asked her what she needed and started to get up. Margarita awoke and beat me to the floor. She went into Adriana’s room to question the child. A couple of moments later she came back preceded by our daughter who jumped into our bed and snuggled up to me. As I squeezed her little body in my arms Margarita said she’d been scared. I couldn’t imagine what might have frightened her but I knew she had come to me for safety. This was a first. She soon fell asleep and I laid there thanking God for this little angel’s trust and love. Margarita reached across the pillows and rubbed the top of my head. I told her how happy I was and she seemed to understand.

As I write I think of all the times that little Roger woke up with pain in my legs or frightened by thunder and lightning. I would cry until my mother came into my room. If she’d take me to the rocking chair and hold me on her lap the pain or the fear would soon go away and I’d be able to sleep. Adriana gets scared during thunder storms and when the neighborhood cats are making out on our metal roof. When I’m gone from this earth I want Adriana to have the same kind of soothing memories that I have of my mother. Memories of a father’s love.

Adriana, My Joy

Adriana will be ten in May. It is paradoxical how she can be a little girl one minute and as womanly as her mother the next. She can take out her dolls, her doll carriage, a box with cloth, paper flowers, and fake jewelry and enter a private world to which only a child can migrate.

This morning I approached her as she sat on the cement path abutting the garden between the house and the backyard bathroom. Flowering bushes towered above her as she found a space between stems and thin trunks to hang a hammock. She had one naked doll leaning on a bush as she removed articles from the white box containing her treasures. She looked up with the sweet smile of a child and I smiled back. I said, “I love you” and wondered if she could understand why I said it just then.

The mind, whatever it is, is a wonderful construct. It can process and print out so many images in nanoseconds. I saw little Roger sitting on the path under the weeping willow tree making roads in the dirt with his cars creating his own world apart from the real world. I could smell the sweet aroma of mommy’s peonies, feel the cool breeze and hear the rustle of the lithe willow branches. The little girl’s eyes locked on mine as if she wanted me to walk through the barrier that separated our worlds. But then the image changed. She was in the kitchen watching the tortillas warming on the stove while her mother was outside feeding the chickens. Then she was leaning over my shoulder as I watched the presidential election results on the computer. She was asking what the numbers meant and how to decipher the percentages. My heart pounded with excitement as she showed inquisitiveness, curiosity, a desire to learn. I felt my eyes watering and a silent voice shouting ‘that’s my girl’.

You have to understand something about the culture here in El Refugio. Adults don’t question. Adults don’t change. (Notice there are no direct objects in the previous two statements.) What you see is, was, and will always be. Some authority made all the decisions a long time ago and only God can change any of it. As a teacher, as someone who as a child had challenged my elders, my teachers, and everything I could read demanding to know, to have explained, to dissect, I saw my educational task as one of stimulation, excitation, daring my students to push their intellectual constraints and expand their concepts of the world. It wasn’t an easy job in California. It was almost impossible here in El Salvador. Motivating children in a culture of dire hopelessness for anything different is extremely frustrating. But here was my daughter asking. Asking! Waiting for my responses and focused on them. One question led to another until I couldn’t contain my emotions and I just hugged her so tightly.

 

Coming of Age in El Refugio

Our son Luís turned twelve on January 30th. For the past few months I’ve noticed a deepening in his voice. He’s grown taller than his mother. When we go to church in our old neighborhood, he passes the hour outside on the street corner with much older boys and young men–listening rather than participating in their conversations. He’s been given hygiene instructions by his 6th grade teacher (along with his male classmates) regarding deodorant and body lotion use. He’s taken to taking a pre-school shower as well as another one after-lunch. (Schools here have morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate the high student-to-classroom ratio.) Our shower and toilet facilities are some 40 or 50 feet from the house proper with a garden in between. It’s ideal for privacy.

It’s been 66 years since my own puberty arose with that surprisingly wonderful yet frightening experience of wet dreams. Wonderful in enjoying my first inexplicable orgasms and frightening when I felt I had to conceal the strange sticky stuff that I encountered in my pajama bottoms. I didn’t want to know how my mother would react when she found it while doing the wash. From my earliest memories, shame was continually drummed into my conscience regarding bathroom functions being private and “doctor” was never to be played–especially with girls.

I grew up in a small rural community. How small was it? Our two-room school comfortably contained k-2 grades in one room and 3-5 in the other. Boys and girls never played together during recess or lunch. Physical education mandated mixing the genders in order to have enough players for team sports. Fifth grade was the first awareness my male contemporaries had of breasts. We referred to those curious buddings as tits. You never said “tits” in front of your mother. If you said it in front of a girl, she’d tell the teacher and you’d be in trouble–even if you didn’t know why. No one would explain this Victorian concept to you. We heard the word f**k from older boys but hadn’t a clue as to what it meant. It was just another “cool” word. Until my father bought a brand new blue serge suit and put it on for us to see. My mom and sister must have has some nice complements for him. They asked 9 or 10-year old me what I thought. With a big smile on my face I eagerly replied, “You look like a f**k!” Again, no one explained why I received a smack on the face for what I thought was a statement of great approval. I was questioned as to where I learned that word and replied that all the boys use it on the playground. While the sting on my cheek was fading I was told never to use it again. That’s where I was during my early grammar school years.

Sex was a secret kept from children. No one ever answered honestly the question, “Where did I come from?” Boys and girls went shirtless during the summer and we didn’t know there was any difference beneath our underpants. Truly an age of innocence! There were moments of curiosity. I once saw Ruthie Dotson squat to pee in the middle of School Street. We were aware that girls wouldn’t join us in swimming from time to time giving a vague or incomprehensible explanation for their non-participation. Then Alvin Petty introduced us to the “f**k book”. Alvin must have been 18 or 19. He’d come to the playground and talk to us little kids. Then he’d break out a small cartoon book and share it with us. The popularity of Disney characters increased as we watched Donald and Daisy Duck getting it on and read those forbidden words describing the action and the organs used.

In our early and mid-teens, while hanging out at night by the highway to watch the latest cars go by and offer our comments to one another along with wishes to be old enough to drive, Alvin Petty would park across the road in a darkened parking lot with Priscilla Frary, a young lady of questionable repute. One night we dared cross the highway to see what they were doing. They were in the back seat, Alvin on top of Priscilla. We couldn’t see much in the dark but it was our first vicarious experience in live pornography. By then none of us had ever seen a girl our age nude. I wasn’t exactly sure why I would get an erection walking down the hall of our middle school. I would try to walk in a way that my pants front wouldn’t bulge, maybe hold my books in front of it while changing classes, or wear long shirts not tucked in. In those days I’m sure we all masturbated and wondered what it would be like with a girl other than Mary Palm and her five daughters.

Back to son Luís and the source of this essay. I normally use a lap top on my desk. But we also have a personal computer that my kids use for research, games, and watching Shakira videos. I use it to read free books a few chapters at a time when I’m in the mood for adventure in the old west. Yesterday I opened the P.C. to Favorites. I clicked History to find the last page I had read on Monday. In the list of pages sought I found porn sites. I remembered that on Monday morning the kids were in school, Margarita and I went shopping in Ahucahapán, and almost 21-year old son Juan was at home. In the afternoon we were all in the house and I would have noticed either Luís or his 9-year old sister Adriana watching porn on their computer to my right five feet away. Since I’m not happy with Margarita’s adult son sponging off my pension and straining my good will with Salvadoran culture’s concept of family, I called my dear wife and showed her about eight porn site addresses on the calendar. I explained my theory and told her I would have to put the computer under a password. I mean, here’s a young adult who works sporadically, can’t keep a girlfriend because he can’t support one, and must have urges despite his social impotency.

Mother had to defend her older son and inquired of Luís if he had knowledge of any of this. With a little prodding and the realization that he was trapped, he offered that one of the older boys he hangs out with on the above mentioned street corner had taken him to the cyber café and introduced him to porn. He either wrote down the addresses of their favorite sites or he learned how to Google “pornogrofía“. I checked the calendar further back and found that he had been enjoying the video delights for at least the past three weeks.

I am a stranger in a strange land. I have often mentioned in these blogs how cultural differences go much further than language, music, and food. I have also criticized what I call a lack of logical reasoning among the locals and attributed their way of thinking to some primeval cultural adaptation that has carried forth like a human appendix, omnipresent but useless. Gender-specific body parts and natural functions do not have the same moral and emotional attributes as they do in U.S. culture. There are not code words for urination, defecation, genitalia, and sexual practices to keep children from using “dirty” words or learning too much too soon. Here, soon enough is when the organism becomes aware of a change in himself or herself and has the capacity to act upon it. Hence, coming of age is not determined by a religious rite or a legislative act. It is determined by nature itself. This concept is diametrically opposed to my own upbringing and has led to frustrations, neuroses, and legal problems among my  elders, contemporaries, and youngers.

Upon gaining all this information about Luís’ discovery of sexual intrigue, I added it to such changed behaviors as taking more and longer showers or time in the bathroom, a desire to stay at home when the rest of us go out, and an increasing pattern of extra time in bed. The North American dad in me said something needed to be done. But what? And why? Was he doing anything different from what I would have done had the technology been available to me at his age? Did I not discover a book in my parents’ chifferobe with drawings and prints of naked adult male and female and more than once review them with fascination? But then I considered the prevailing culture. Once again there was a stark conflict between the teachings (or lack thereof) of my youth and those of my Salvadoran son. Further, I recalled visiting a family in Mexico and arriving a bit early. The mother was in bed with her boyfriend and the youngest daughter, about nine, was next to her mom. That struck me as horrendous. I doubted that the child was unaware of their coital activities or what they represented. In time I learned that I was correct in my assessment of the situation and that it was normal, not taboo, not something not to be talked about.

American me put a password on the P.C. so that only I can open it. It will be available to Adriana upon request for whatever purpose. Luís may use it for study purposes for three weeks but not to play games or watch Shakira videos. Salvadoran me won’t bring the subject up again to our son. As usual, Margarita handled it well and according to her culture by pointing out that porn is immoral and can lead to unfortunate consequences. That’s good enough for me. But in the past few weeks we have bought pecheras, training bras, for Adriana who is budding and insisted that she wears more than her bikini panties in the house. I guess I’ve become somewhat of a prude in my old age. I’m certainly going to try to protect my daughter from any misadventures while she’s under my roof and still my responsibility. I hope Luís will grow up respecting his sister and all girls as well. Womanizing is unfortunately part of this culture. I can’t change that but maybe I can help our son to respect women and respect himself.

I Hate Interruptions

First nine paragraphs Nov. 27, 2004, finished Jan. 18, 2014

Maybe it’s just me! So much is, but I hate interruptions. It seems as if I’ve always hated interruptions. I don’t just get miffed or annoyed or angry at interruptions. It’s more than the normal “I don’t like interruptions”. I hate interruptions!

Perhaps it started when I was a little boy and my mother called me from my fantasy world of war or construction projects or trains to eat, take a bath, or go to bed. I’m not sure, but I’m sure those interruptions were the seeds being sowed. I had no options as a child to determine my agenda. My mother did that for me for eighteen years and might still be doing it subliminally.

I’m a person who generally focuses on what he is doing and, for most activities, I dont care to stop until I=m done. That is not to say that I can’t multitask. I can handle two or more related, even unrelated chores and see them all to completion before I’ll stop for any kind of break. Compulsive? Yes.

I remember such adages as “What’s worth doing is worth doing well.” There is a Puritan ethic that has somehow crept into my behavior. Could it be something genetic I’ve inherited from my New England forebears?

In school I hated homework. In mathematics I saw no purpose for the repetition of effort once I had demonstrated proficiency in a skill. Once I knew nine times six was fifty-four it wasn’t going to change, was it? Once I read a fact I never lost it. I have held on to the trivial and the significant with equal tenacity until my late sixties when a marine layer began to settle in my brain. I almost always completed my homework despite the unsavory aftertaste. Could it have been out of fear of my mother’s wrath if I did not finish it? Hmm!

My analysis continues into my adulthood, although many might question how adult I was post twenty-one. In marriage and fatherhood I hated to be interrupted. Short of a life-and-death emergency, and perhaps even then, a conversation being initiated while I was reading the paper, engrossed in a T.V. plot, or studying the family finances would set me off.  I found that I was always busy, always engaged in something important, always insisting that I would attend to others’ needs and wants “when I am done”.

Now in my penultimate years, I realize that the “work” is never done. It will never get caught up. Life is a paradox. The more I do, the further I am from my goal. It is an exercise in conflicting ideologies, the Protestant work ethic versus the pleasure principle. If I allow interruption, even embrace it, I’ll never get done. And if I keep plodding at my self-delegated assignments, I’ll never get done.

Still, I hate the telephone. It never rings when I’m doing nothing. I’m never doing nothing.  Fortunately, I’ve dug myself into a place where no one calls me to ask about my day.  “My day was going well until you called me and took me away from Jeopardy!” I want to say.  But I’m as civil as I get. Small talk was never my forté. It’s like homework. You do it because someone corners you into doing it. I’d rather listen to the general flow of conversation in a group than to be engaged one-on-one. Someone engaging me is…an interruption.

If I go to the ball game, I want to watch the plays. I don’t want to talk much about it unless some novice needs an explanation. Even that’s an interruption because then I have to try to catch up on the action. What did I miss? Couldn’t that question have waited until they changed sides or had a time out?

Now, in 2014, I’m in a totally different environment. I live in semi-rural El Salvador. I’ve remarried for the last time. We’ve got two kids. The culture has so many differences. They are used to commenting while watching television. It might be during the news but it’s just as likely to occur during a movie, drama, or game show. It drives me batty for two reasons. The first is because I consider it rude to talk when someone else, in this case the actors or contestants, is talking. No, they won’t be offended. They’re on film, tape, or in a studio far from here. The second has to do with my level of understanding of Spanish and my need to fully focus on the source of the spoken or sung words. I won’t improve if I don’t “get” what either the TV or my wife is saying. But I’ve learned to hold my peace. It’s different here.

At 78 and in retirement I’ve been able to critically examine some of the patterns in my life. There is a contrast between my need to work on one task until its completion and my wife’s contentment to start one thing, leave it, and go on to do the same with two or three unfinished tasks and their residue scattered about the house and their utensils likewise. But not living “a place for everything and everything in its place” is another topic. Yes, I am not unlike Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory”.

I’ve also learned that when I’m writing and trying to synchronize my fingers with the speed of my thoughts, I do stop in the middle of a sentence when my daughter wants to show me something on her cell phone or her latest bit of hair styling on one of her dolls. Margarita has learned to sneak up quietly and pause just off my shoulder to wait for my acknowledgement. That scares me about me. I may be the Kountry King but I have no royal status. I just have to hope I’ll remember what I was going to write.

I am accorded some deference, however, by family members in certain instances. I don’t have to respond to vendors, solicitors, church ladies, lost souls, or little kids who come to the door calling or knocking. I can also expect first dibs on the separate-from-the-house bathroom in the morning without fear of interruption. And if I get there having forgotten the key, Margarita will run out back to unlock it for me.

The children have somehow learned not to interrupt mami and papi when they’re in bed. Although they’re used to having dialogue with their mother when she’s showering or using the john, they know when I’m eating, sleeping, or toileting it’s private time according to my culture and barring a real emergency I want to enjoy the peace and quiet I’ve delight in.

All in all, it’s getting better for me and those around me. Now if only I could silence the several super trucks that warm up their Diesel engines at 4:30 a.m., the bike-riding bread vendors who honk their infernal bulb horns from 5:30 on at too close intervals, and the guy who hawks quesadillas and tamales Saturday and Sunday mornings at 7:00. If I could sleep in the early morning I wouldn’t have any quarrels with the churches that start blasting electronic band music from one direction while some shrill-voiced angel of mercilessness squawks atonally over a loud-speaker from the other from 8:00 p.m. ‘til 10:00 or midnight or 2:00 a.m. I love my sleep time. I hate interruptions.

The dreaded bread vendor's bulb horn.

The dreaded bread vendor’s bulb horn.