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Anecdotes Commentary

A Special Fourth of July Shindig

IMAGE of one of the recurring cookouts organized by 613th TFS Squids (file photo from the mid-1970s).

 

Like most Fourth of July celebrations, the one coming up on Tuesday is not going to be any different than many before. There will be fireworks, parades, talk of freedom, lots of barbeques and plenty family gatherings. I bet a lot of folks are going to have Monday off too, and if that’s the case, it’s going to be a four-day weekend for all of them. Woo-hoo!

In this part of north Texas where I live, a lot of people will spend the day frolicking at a lake someplace. There are tons of manmade lakes around here. I won’t be doing that; I will spend the day at home taking care of some self-imposed honey-dos, mainly getting some writing done. I will also barbeque. Chances are I will be alone, unless my daughter swings by. My wife is in Costa Rica taking care of her 100-year-old dad. She and two sisters that live in the United States take turns to be with him. He’s still in pretty good shape, is very active and spends a few hours everyday working in the garden and stuff related to the house. He reads a lot too and is well informed about this and that.

Our son and his wife, by the way, live in California. The grandkids live there too, along with a whole bunch of relatives. Brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces and lots, lots more. It’s a big family and gets bigger once I include those that still live south of the border. I know what you’re thinking, so I’ll say it for you: “Mexicans breed like rabbits.” Well, no longer true. Our numbers keep shrinking as we discretely dip our feet into the melting pot.

Returning to the talk about barbequing, let me tell you, I love to cook outside, throw meat and fixings on the grill and have a beer, maybe two, while I perform chef duties. I’m pretty good at it I think, especially when I do pork back ribs. They’re usually finger licking good; that’s what I’ve been told more than once, anyway. Of course, there’s a good chance that some of those folks that have given me compliments might have been fibbing, you know, just to be nice. Then again, maybe not. I’ve seen some of them licking their fingers and the bones of those ribs.

I learned the art of grilling them while watching others do it when I was in the Air Force. Had several opportunities to watch, but the one that is well stuck in my brain took place on a Fourth of July holiday. We were stationed at Torrejón Air Base near Madrid, Spain, but we had to spend every third month in Turkey, at Incirlik Air Base. Sort of like my wife and her sisters going to their dad’s home to help him. We took turns with the other two squadrons.

Someone in our outfit, the 613th Tactical Fighter Squadron, came up with the idea to barbeque pork back ribs in front of our Incirlik quarters to celebrate the civic occasion. It was in the mid-1970s. I tell you, those were great ribs. Cooked by two, maybe three Squids (that was the nickname given to the members of the 613th TFS) who would not allow anyone to get close to the grills with the racks of ribs to try to help. They were master grillers; they proved that skill set as they performed their art with lots of patience. They took their time doing their job. It’s a requirement with ribs, you know.

By the way, the phrase “Patience is a virtue” has become a cliché, but have to repeat it here; the Squids attending those grills had plenty of that virtue. Not a rack of ribs got burned and not one was bathed with sauce before it was time to do so. The reward? Finger licking back ribs for a whole bunch of hungry aircrews on temporary duty near the southern shore of Turkey. Not a bad way to spend the day celebrating America’s independence.

Of course, there are many other activities tied to the coming holiday. For me it will again be grilling pork back ribs and maybe some corn on cob, Mexican style. Whatever you do, though, have fun (and be safe). And, one final thought. I’m not a Texan, but I’ve gotten used to some Lone Star talk, therefore I’m going to try to parrot a few words that I believe are appropriate to salute the festive occasion, the way a Texan would say them:

“Have a great Fourth of July y’all.”

 

AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez

 

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Anecdotes Commentary

An Early Menudo Treat at Strawberry

PHOTO: Strawberry Lodge, about half an hour west of Lake Tahoe (in northern California).

 

It was a weekend trip to a large mountain cabin at Strawberry, a point on the map on the east side of Kyburz, on California’s highway 50, less than an hour away from Lake Tahoe. Most of us in the Chavez clan signed up for the trip. Some of us came along for the hiking and to do family things. A few had the intention of making a trek to the casinos on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.

Granddaughter Elisa, our mother Lydia, and granddaughter Connie, at our mother’s home in Stockton, California.

Our mother came along too. The lure of the Nevada casinos was too much. She loved pulling the handles on the one-armed-bandits, always hoping to beat the house. Sometimes she did. She also came for the family fun and to breathe the mountain air. And to cook. She loved to cook.

She brought along a large pot, beef tripe, and all the ingredients to make and serve “menudo.” No one paid much attention to the trappings she had brought with her until our first night at the cabin. Sometime before midnight, our mother cleaned up the tripe, threw it in the pot, added a few spices, and began to slow cook the concoction.

As the night progressed and the menudo began to release a pungent stench that permeated every nook and cranny of the cabin, many of us complained, including me. It was a strong smell. Every hour or so, though, our mother would get up and stir the pot. During her last foray, she added hominy to the soup. Don’t know when, but before the morning sunrays lighted up the cabin, the menudo was done.

DIDN”T MIND HAVING FUN. Our mother with grandson Al, in a store in Old Sacramento, California, sometime in the late nineteen eighties.

By the time we got up, our mother had already set up the large kitchen table. There was a pile of bowls on it. There was also a pile of large spoons and all the trimmings required to go with that feast. Warm corn tortillas, chiltepines, oregano, diced onions, and slices of lime. She had also brewed a large pot of coffee. No one complained about the smell, then. It was a great breakfast.

That’s how our mother was. She loved to cook for all of us, and to make us happy in her own way. She also loved seeing us together, enjoying life and sharing with each other our joy. During special occasions, we all trekked to her house and played and celebrated at her place. We ate her food and the one prepared sometimes by other members of our clan and had fun there. We yelled and caroused and did more yelling and in between that fun filled time we ate and ate again. Our mother, even after turning eighty and becoming the target of the slings and arrows flung by old age, she tried her best to keep tasty treats awaiting our visits. She did a good job doing what she loved.

We also trekked to our mom’s house at other times. It was good being with her. The food was good too. For those of us that loved that Mexican staple called menudo, no restaurant in the world will ever match the taste, the look and the trimmings of her version of the centuries old delicacy she served us. She stored the previously cooked menudo in small plastic containers in a freezer in her backyard. Our job was to retrieve a container or two from that hiding place and bring it or them to her kitchen. She would then take over and heat up the concoction, add hominy and lots of love to it. She would then cut up limes, cilantro and green onions and place them on a plate. On different containers she would bring us oregano and hot sauce. The red stuff, like the one she learned to prepare in her native state of Michoacán. By the way, we weren’t allowed to help her prepare the meal. That was her duty, she often repeated it. Our job was to eat it, enjoy it and have fun at her place.

We did. Over and over again.

NOTE: Our mother, Lydia García de Chávez, passed away nine years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2008. She was eighty-one years old at the time. I write this anecdote to celebrate her life and to tell the world about her and her cooking. She was good. Really good. A strict, but loving mom who kept us on track and taught us the great value of getting an education. She pushed us, loved us and kept us together. We got a great start in life because of her doings. As I mentioned before, she was good. And still is.

 

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Anecdotes Commentary

New York, New York

IMAGE: Visitors take photos with the charging bull during a cold day in Wall Street.

 

Going to New York in the middle of December was a no brainer to me. But not to my wife. She feared that Manhattan would be cold and miserable at that time of the year and was also afraid that all of us would get stuck in a small room with nothing to do and unable to do much outside because of snow and bad weather. She also worried about not returning home on time because of cancelled flights.

“I don’t know why we have to go there now,” she complained a few weeks before leaving.

Playing for change in Central Park

I wanted her, our twenty-something daughter, and me to experience the Christmas season in the city that never sleeps. I planned to show them around during such a special time. I had been in New York before on several occasions, for business; they had never been there.

It was a good thing that we all went. They both loved it. My wife hasn’t stopped talking about the trip with friends and family and she’s already planning to spend the New Year’s Eve celebration there next December.

Makes sense. We had a ball during our short, five-day visit to that magic, ethnically diverse and sophisticated metropolis. We were there from December twelve to the sixteenth. It was cold, no doubt, especially on the last two days of our stay, but it was fun. We had a fairytale kind of time there, quartered in a small, but cozy airbnb studio in the proximity of 53rd street and Second Avenue, living the life that mostly dreams provide. And near almost everything. On foot, on Uber or the subway.

Nani serving hot dogs and pretzels near Rockefeller Center.

Gotta hand it to airbnb for providing the means for finding economical and convenient lodging all over the globe. That alternative way of securing a place to stay works for me. Instead of having to pay a ton of money for a small, often smoke tainted room in some chain hotel in Manhattan, we got a nice studio near everything, with plenty room, a kitchen, a fridge, plates and wine glasses. And lots of coziness, for close to the same price.

The host, or perhaps the previous tenant, left a six-pack of beer in the fridge. That was nice. It feels good to down suds after a long flight and a ride from the airport.

New York, however, is not about spending your vacation time stuck in a room. The stay in it was good, though. While there, we had wine and cheese one night along with pizza. On another evening, we enjoyed Chinese take out and ramen from neighborhood joints. I was also sent out (by wife and daughter) to fetch breakfast, fresh morning bread and (on one night) microwavable popcorn from a CVS nearby.

We also ate out. It was fun. Pizza on the first night. Italian two days later. I know, we had too much of the same thing. But hey, that kind of chow is great in New York. It’s hard not to have it at least twice.

We did a lot during our visit. Our daughter was our guide. Young people are good at that, I must admit; all they need is a cell phone and the fingers to do the walking (much, much faster than in the old yellow pages days). It’s amazing; kids can find anything via those darn wireless and magically connected thingamajigs. She found restaurants, places of interest, transportation and much more just clicking on that phone. That’s why we were able to do a lot. Thank you daughter.

In just four days we managed to check mark many bucket list items, the must do things of life. Went to the Rock and up the 65th floor and from that vantage point got to admire the city’s skyline at night. I had a rum and coke at the bar of that place. Pricey, but worth every penny. My ears, by the way, are still popping from that quick rise in the Rock’s elevator. Just kidding.

Saw the NBC studio (from the outside) on our first night; it was being prepared for the following morning’s Today Show. That was fun too, especially for my wife. She bought a couple of pastries at the Bouchon Bakery right across the place. The next morning, while relaxing in our room, we noticed the notable bakeshop in the background in one of the scenes of that day’s show with Hoda and Kathie.

World Trade Center Memorial.

It was a great trip. We followed trail after trail in Central Park and walked quietly in the halls of the New York Public Library. Went to the Metropolitan Museum and were awed by its art collections from all over the world. Saw the Christmas Spectacular show performed by the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Spent an evening at Times Square. Visited stores and ate in small cafes, in the street. Saw the city; felt its vibrancy.

It was a happy time. It was also a time of reflection. On Thursday, the coldest day of our stay, we visited the World Trade Center Memorial. Seeing the names of the fallen carved on stones brought back memories of a time of despair and human suffering. But also of uncompromising resolute to move on and continue to fight for the ideals that have made this country a beacon of hope and freedom.

Statue of Liberty as viewed from the south of Manhattan.

After leaving the Memorial, we walked towards the south, past Wall Street’s charging bull, and to a small park next to the bay. From there we saw the Statue of Liberty. It was far away, but the silhouette was conspicuous. A great dame lifting her lamp welcoming the world’s people to New York and America.

 

AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez

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Anecdotes Commentary

Old Fighter Pilots Just Fade Away

PHOTO: Ed Rasimus (left) and Air Force friends at finca party in Spain.

 

NOTE: I wrote this piece almost a year ago for my other blog, thevirtualcolumnist.com. During our few and final mini-reunions with another Air Force buddy, Carlos Lerma, Ras had bugged me about writing a book on the Mexican experience in America, but I insisted on wanting to write novels. With his unique way of telling it like it is and after reading a proof of my wannabe novel, he told me to stick to writing commentary. Great guy that Ras.

*  *  *

It’s tough when you lose a friend. Especially an Air Force buddy and a fighter pilot like Ed Rasimus. We called him Ras. He died on January 30, 2013, but I was reminded of his passing about ten days ago, on September 29. He would have been seventy-three years old on that day. Several other buddies posted tributes to Ras on his Facebook page. I did too. It’s weird, he’s gone, but his social media connection still lives on.

We both served in the 613th Tactical Fighter Squadron in the seventies, at Torrejón Air Base, near Madrid, Spain. He was an aircraft commander; I was a backseater. For a while, he was also the Ops Officer. Ras was a good leader and had a keen sense of humor. We got to know each other well. That usually happens when you’re in the military and you get deployed a lot and spend week after week together with your buddies in different corners of the world. You become family.

I lost track of Ras after I left the Air Force in seventy-seven, but sometimes thought of him. I had this wild idea of writing a novel in which the leading character was going to be a retired fighter pilot, someone like Ras, living with his honey in Costa Rica, soaking in the sun and sucking suds at proverbial retiree joints. I had plenty justification for modeling my novel’s leading man after him. There was a suave side to Ras and a sophistication not usually found in folks that hurl their bodies and aircraft to the ground for a living.

He was at his best at our Finca parties, the fun, afternoon shindigs in real bullrings, in which we had a chance to make fools of ourselves trying to fight well-grown calves. (vaquillas). We had two of those events while I was stationed in Spain. Ras went all out for them. He dressed the part, not as a bullfighter, but like one of those aficionados that yearly run the bulls in Pamplona. He wore the jacket and the red scarf and along brought a real bota filled with tinto (red wine). There was a Hemingwayesque look to Ras, which translated in the ring into flirting with finesse and genuine bull fighting skills. He was good. No calf ever took him down. He would follow his act with a stroll before the crowd of friends after taking several sips from his bota. It was expected of him, to bring on his swagger.

After thirty-four years, I ran into him again. It was in 2011, at an F-105 Thunderchief dedication ceremony at the Frontiers of Flight Museum near Love Field, in Dallas, Texas. Ras was there as one of the speakers and to sign his published works. He had written two books on his travails flying bombing missions in North Vietnam. He had also co-written “Fighter Pilot,” a book about Robin Olds, a legendary Air Force ace. It was nice seeing Ras. He made a couple of his typical remarks, sarcastic but fun. I just laughed. It seemed like yesteryear, he hadn’t missed a beat. It was a happy reunion. Before leaving the museum, we promised to see each other again for beer and chow. He lived in north Texas, about forty miles from where I lived.

There’s much to be told about that brief span in time that began in the museum encounter and the three lunch and beer meetings we had thereafter. To truly savor those moments, I must save them for a future column. For now I just want to say that Ras didn’t live much longer after our last, May 2012, mini reunion. Two other Air Force buddies were with us on that memorable rendezvous.

I’m sure he fought back and tried to hang on to life so he could write more books and give us additional insight on the dubious war he fought in Nam. But he didn’t make it. It was easier for Ras, I feel he would agree, to dodge bullets and missiles when dropping bombs on Hanoi than to fight the ravaging trials and tribulations of a terminal illness. Those final excruciating days were, without a doubt, challenging times. Yet, he was tough through the end. A few days before his death, he was still writing on his blog, still telling us how it was and how it ought to be. There is no doubt, he had some good insights about America and about the world we live in.

He was the Ras of old, tough, genuine, to the point. A fighter.

He never gave up, never complained about his illness. Having known him well, I bet he accepted his fate and planned appropriately for his final flight, to trod once more “the high untrespassed sanctity of space,” to put out his hand and touch “the face of God.”*

*From the poem “High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

 

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Anecdotes Commentary

Joyful Distractions While Learning English

IMAGE: Scene from the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.” Cherubino (partially hiding), Sussana and Count Almaviva. Author of watercolor unknown.

It’s tough to learn a second language when you’re older.

That happened to me when I came from Mexicali and to America. I was only sixteen then, still young, but when it came to picking up a foreign tongue with ease, I was already too old. Except for our sister Amanda, who was seventeen, the younger boys and girls in the family had an easy going learning the new country’s vernacular. They were immediately immersed in the language at school. It didn’t take long for them to become proficient in it. Not so with us two, Amanda and I. We were old goats, I guess.

That learning curve hurdle didn’t stop us, though, and in the spring of 1963, we both signed up for several courses at Imperial Valley College, near El Centro, California. Among them was a Spanish language class. We took it so we could use the lab next to the classroom to learn English. It was a good call. The professor, John Gardner, took us under his wing and guided us through the learning process.

The lab, however, became a refuge and a place of wonderment for me. Besides a set of 78-rpm records and some reel-to-reel tapes to be used in our study, there were some surprising recorded jewels in that room: LPs with music of the fifties and the early sixties, albums of Broadway musicals, and several sets of recordings meant for learning other languages. I have to confess; I spent a lot of time in that place listening to other stuff that had little to do with the English lessons.

Every time I had a long break between classes or during lunch, I would go to the lab and find solace there. Instead of diving into the assignment, I would first listen to music. There were plenty choices, in different genres. One of my favorites was a Nat King Cole LP in Spanish. The album had some great songs, but the best one was “El Bodeguero.” It’s a cha cha chá, great dancing music with memorable lines, especially those stating: “Toma chocolate, paga lo que debes.”

After listening to a few tunes, I would switch my efforts into learning English. I used a Berlitz language course that came in a box with several records and supporting written materials. Listening to the words and phrases was fun, but it often became boring. The course required students to repeat them over and over again until they were forever stuck in the brain. That repetition soon became unbearable, but I usually tried to continue the drill for as long as I could.

After a while, I would go back to the music or to other language courses. I delved into learning a few sentences in German, some French, and a lot of Italian. There’s no doubt, I procrastinated and wasted a lot of time in that lab. Understanding and speaking languages other than English or Spanish was a lot of fun, though. You could very well accuse me of trying to sabotage my lessons and I would agree with you. But the place was just like a candy store to me. It had a lot of stuff that I hadn’t had before. I had to enjoy it.

The Spanish language teacher, by the way, was also a tenor who had often participated in the school’s musicals. He loved to sing and was about to perform in an upcoming opera, Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” He was to play the leading role. One day during class, a student asked him to reprise a rendition of one of the arias. He acceded and sang it for us. He was good and had a powerful voice. I didn’t fully understand then the meaning of all the words sung in Italian by Mr. Gardner, but that cadence and that delivery stayed with me forever.

In the aria, Figaro makes fun of Cherubino, telling him to stop messing around with women and to go to war instead, as he should. Soon after listening to Mr. Gardner’s performance in the classroom, I looked in the lab for a recorded version of the opera. I wanted to listen to it again. I was lucky and found it. It was an album with the entire soundtrack. I listened to it repeatedly, especially to the aria that begins with “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso,” and ends with “Cherubino alla vittoria, alla gloria militar.” It was the aria sung by our teacher in class. I eventually learned all those lyrics. It was easy. All it took was hearing them and repeating them over and over again.

That’s how you learn a new language. With lots of practice and plenty repetition.