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Commentary Stories

Reyna Grande Comes to Frisco

IMAGE: Reyna Grande signs books at the Frisco campus of Collin College. Photos by Pedro Chávez

 

Sometimes you get the unexpected. That happened on Tuesday night, September 25th, at the Collin College Conference Center in Frisco, Texas, during a Hispanic Heritage Month event that featured Reyna Grande. She is the author of a couple of novels and the award-winning memoir The Distance Between Us. A sequel to the autobiography, A Dream Called Home, will be released on October 2nd. Her memoir is used widely in schools across the country. She was born in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, in 1975.

The event was made possible by the Student Activity Fee Advisory Committee (SAFAC) and the Center for Scholarly and Civic Engagement (CSCE), and was spearheaded by communications studies professor Whitney Pisani. She teaches at the Collin College Plano campus. Professor Pisani had been in contact with Ms. Grande for the past year, trying to find a way to bring her to the school for the speaking engagement. The deal was finally wrapped up about four weeks ago, according to the professor.

It was probably worth the wait, especially for students who read the memoir as part of their class requirements and for others that were present at the event, because Ms. Grande didn’t disappoint. Besides explaining how she ended up coming to the United States as an undocumented immigrant in the mid-nineteen-eighties, she also discussed some of the content of the book The Distance Between Us, and answered a few preselected questions from students. Ms. Grande’s main focus of her talk, though, was about a different kind of distance: the one that divides people.

That was the unexpected part of the presentation. She first mentioned the current “Hispanophobia” that according to her is being promoted by the current administration, vilifying people of Mexican ancestry in the United States. But she also explained that blaming newcomers to the country has been around for a while. She mentioned, as an example, Founding Father Ben Franklin’s fear that German immigrants would not assimilate and President Theodore Roosevelt’s verified anti-immigrant’s beliefs.

“There have been many dark times in our history,” Ms. Grande said as she recalled the discrimination of Irish immigrants, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. But she was also hopeful, mainly about the current state of affairs and name calling that is taking place in some corners of America.

“Fifteen years from now,” she said, “we are going to look back and realize how we came together as a country.”

Ms. Grande is probably right. Judging by the full house of diverse students and others that came to listen to her at the conference center, the inner soul of the country seems to be on the right track. Especially with schools and professors that promote the understanding of other peoples’ cultures and idiosyncrasies, like Collin College and professor Pisani. Institutions and folks that effectively take steps to shorten the distance between us, trying to eradicate misunderstandings, ignorance and other ills that tend to pull us apart.

“I want to be a global citizen,” mentioned Ms. Grande towards the end of her speech. It was another hopeful thought about people and about an often divided world.

“We can come together as a global community,” she added.

 

AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez

 

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Commentary Stories

Gerald McKelvey, a Great Guy

IMAGE: Jerry (left), Amanda (center), and other family members or guests at Al’s and Melissa’s wedding, last year in California. (Photo taken by the studio contracted by the bride and groom).

 

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, tells us the translation of a line in a Scot poem by Robert Burns, “To a Mouse.” Those words fit well in this story about my brother-in-law Gerald McKelvey, a fine gentleman of Irish ancestry who loved poetry and loved to write. At around two o’clock in the morning, on the second of July, Jerry, as he was called by all of us, pushed the door that took him into the ever after. He was seventy-seven years old.

He had a stroke while bathing early last Friday, June 30th. He and my sister Amanda were getting ready to travel from their home in Manteca, in northern California, to a place north of L.A., to hook up with family. It didn’t happen. That’s how it is sometimes; the specter of death knocks at the door when we least expect it and throws a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans.

Hard to believe. He’s gone. Won’t see him again or listen to his loud, but gentle laugh or partake with him any more in those joyous moments we once savored, but often took for granted. He won’t be around anymore. Tough to understand.

On the other hand, Jerry will be remembered for lots of good things. He lived life to the fullest. Amanda and Jerry had fun. They traveled, visited family, their kids, went here, went there, and used their home as a recurring rendezvous for all of us. For the ones on the Mexican side, our mother’s offspring, other relatives, and for friends. We went to that home often to gather, to eat and to have fun. Jerry was okay with all those festive occasions. If it got too loud, he just turned off his hearing aid and went about doing his things. Loud talk problem solved.

By the way, when all of us get together, we’re loud. Everyone talks at the same time, too. We’re Mexicans, you know. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Jerry will also be remembered for amusing peculiarities and over time we learned to appreciate his individuality. He was no cowboy, but he wore a cowboy hat. The last one was black. Western wear was his thing, that’s for sure: big buckle, studded shirt, bolo tie. He was also no Native American, but he loved to display Native American art at home. He loved patriotic stuff too: displaying Old Glory on appropriate occasions, the American eagle in bronze, and other objects that reminded those present of the nation’s patriotic heritage.

He and Amanda met in San Diego sometime in the late 1980s and had been married for more than twenty years. They both had made the trip to the altar once before and had kids from those relationships. But they both loved each other’s children. In my book, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Losing Jerry, I’m sure, it’s going to be tough on Amanda. It’s always that way, I believe, when you lose someone you love, the person with whom you shared your life. I feel for her and I’m wishing her the best. In my heart, though, I know she’ll be okay. Besides, she’s tough as nails, just like our mother was, and has a whole bunch of caring people by her side, helping her overcome her grief.

Our family and others tied to us, let me add, have a way with love and caring. We feel the pain, but at the same time know that the show must go on and that we all must learn to overcome the trials and tribulations that we find along the way, as we travel on the journey of life. But, we must also have fun.

That’s what Jerry did. He lived, loved, had fun and had a hell of a ride. Hope to see you again, cowboy.

 

AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez

 

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Commentary Stories

Ed Rasimus, Fighter pilot

 

IMAGE: Ed Rasimus during a book signing event at the Dallas Museum of Flight, 2011, Love Field, Dallas, Texas.

 

A MEMORIAL DAY’S REMEMBRANCE: A HERO’S BURIAL

Approximately four years ago, Ed Rasimus was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a solemn occasion, with military honors, with family and friends, and an act that included the throwing of nickels on the grass to “save a fighter pilot’s ass.” Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go, but his wife Carol was there, along with a cadre of Air Force buddies whose jobs of yesteryear involved the hurling of explosives to the ground and picking aerial dog fights with the enemy’s flying machines.

For those interested on viewing the events of that day, please click on the link below. It’s a video of the ceremony and the act that followed at the O-Club: the singing of “The Balls of O’Leary” by Ed’s friends of yore. Don’t know the name of the person that produced the video, but it was posted on Ed’s Facebook page by James Gundel.

Edward J. Rasimus, our friend, was a retired fighter pilot and the author of three books about the Vietnam conflict. He co-authored the last one, “Fighter Pilot,” the bio of legendary ace Robin Olds. Robin and daughter Christina were the other co-authors of that book. Ed flew over two hundred and fifty combat missions during two tours in Southeast Asia. I met him in Spain, near Madrid, at the 613th Tactical Fighter Squadron. He was the Ops Officer then; I was a WSO, a backseater, in the F-4 (a dual seat fighter jet also known as Phantom II or Big Ugly). I flew with him on several occasions, at Torrejon Air Base and at other NATO outposts. Also had the pleasure of parting bread with him and, of course, a few tequilas. He knew about chow, about wine and about enjoying life to the fullest. He was classy, too. I learned a lot from him. About a lot of things. He was a good soldier, a good man.

Some twenty years later, when I lived in San Diego, California, I stumbled upon a book on the shelf of a Super Crown bookstore in La Jolla. The book was called “Fast Movers;” it was written by John Darrell Sherwood. Before browsing its pages, I had the premonition of finding something about Ed in that book. Don’t know why.

But I sure did. His name was printed first on the table of contents. It read, “Chapter 2: 100 Missions North. Ed Rasimus and the F-105 Experience. Page 38. What a find. In that chapter, the author writes about First Lieutenant Ed Rasimus, sitting at the O-Club at Travis AFB on his way to Vietnam. And talks about Ed’s background, his training and about his fears. Wanna know the rest? You gotta read that book.

For now let me just tell you that “Ras,” as we called him then, was one of a kind, not just a fighter pilot. He was a leader, of all of us, the airmen that flew with him. The ones that parted bread with him and learned from that master that the final mission in life is often never planned.

Boy, we really miss Ed and his teachings. Rest in peace, sir.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/iHaoUlMam80?&autoplay=1&showsearch=0&rel=0feature=player_detailpage

AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez

 

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Commentary Stories

Virtual Fence, a Border Tale

IMAGE: Border patrolman opens gate to a dirt road next to the Mexico-United States border fence.

 

NOTE: The following piece is one of several fiction stories that I called “Border Tales” when they were first written. I began creating them in 2006. The topics are based on events that were current at that time. Unfortunately, the problems aired then are still with us today. The writing is based on real dilemmas that affect us all. It is work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are products of my imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

VIRTUAL FENCE

National City, California. Circa 2006.

 

“Why do you say it’s not a real fence?” asked Carlos.

“Because it isn’t,” answered Jeff, an agent with the Border Patrol. “It’s just a virtual fence, you know, a sort of make-believe fence that is real, but it isn’t.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Make believe? Real, but not real? C’mon man!” Carlos still did not understand what Jeff was talking about.

“Ok, Carlos,” Jeff replied. “I said sort of make believe. I should’ve said a fence that is there, but it’s not really physically there.”

“You mean, like an invisible fence?” Carlos asked.

“Yes, that’s it, like an invisible fence,” Jeff replied. “But one that will help us stop illegals from crossing the border.”

Both Jeff and Carlos lived in an apartment complex on the east end of National City, not too far from the San Diego-Tijuana border. The people that rented the apartments were mostly connected with the Navy or the Border Patrol. The proximity to the military installations and the border area made it convenient for them to live there.

“I think I get it, now,” Carlos said. “The fence is not really a fence; it’s really a line on the ground telling people not to cross it. You know? A line, like those imaginary and invisible lines we used to point to with our fingers to tell others not to cross them when we were kids?”

“And if they crossed them, we’d kick their butts,” Jeff corroborated. “Yeah, the virtual fence is basically the same thing, but on a much larger scale, of course.”

The fence that they were both discussing was, according to the government and other folks in favor of it, an electronic tracking mix of devices that was to be built along the Mexico-U.S. border to warn the border patrolmen of possible incursions of unidentified objects and people coming from Mexico. The ploy had been pushed by a number of congressmen and senators with close ties to government contractors who had built a number of these gadgets to be used in war operations. Some of the devices were judged to be at best faulty, after having been tested in actual war, but were still being described as cutting edge technology by the contractors and their insider allies – the spineless folks we often vote for to protect our rights and our money in the halls of the nation’s Capitol.

“So how does this virtual fence work?” Carlos asked.

“I don’t know for sure,” Jeff said, “because we don’t have it yet. But, from what I understand, once in place, the virtual border fence will track the illegals as they enter our territory.”

“For how long?” Carlos asked.

“For a little while,” Jeff replied. “But, hopefully, we’ll be able to catch them while they’re being tracked.”

“What if they get out of range from the tracking system or what if more illegals than you and your partners can catch come across at the same time? What do you do then?” Carlos continued his questioning, playing, as he often did, the Devil’s advocate.

“Then is business as usual,” said Jeff. “That’s what we do now when we’re overrun by too many crossers. We just catch as many as we can and hope that the rest can be caught later on at work sites.”

“You mean, during your show of force raids?” asked Carlos.

“Yeah, Carlos, during our workplace raids,” Jeff replied, sounding somewhat upset. “Yeah, the raids, the ones you call ‘chicken shit raping’ of your people.”

Carlos had been in the Navy for over three hitches and was currently assigned to a ship based at the 32nd Street Naval Base in National City. Originally from Mexico, Carlos was a naturalized U.S. citizen who hadn’t forgotten his roots or wasn’t afraid to rally for the rights of what he often called his brothers and sisters that crossed the border looking for work. While living at the apartment complex, he repeatedly discussed the issues affecting the undocumented with many of the border patrolmen that also lived there. During some of these discussions, sometimes under the influence of mind altering malts and spirits, Carlos had become acquainted with some the joys and fears that filled the cop-like minds of his green-uniformed neighbors. Most of the border patrolmen liked Carlos, though, especially those that praised the food that both he and his wife prepared for the weekly by-the-pool potluck parties. They also liked his sense of humor and his ability to deflate heated discussions with his timely one-liners.

“Okay, Jeff, I won’t mention the raids to you anymore,” said Carlos, displaying his usual disarming grin as he mimicked the arm movements that normally adorn a heartfelt hug. “That’s my virtual abrazo, Jeff,” he added.

Jeff laughed, but insisted on talking about the recent raids the Border Patrol had made on several day-laborer centers in San Diego. “It’s our job,” he said. “We need to show the illegals that we mean business.”

“You mean business as usual, right, Jeff?” Carlos told his friend. “You know, a few mean raids that scare our people half-to-death, as you guys, the enforcers, just go on with your own lives while most of those living in the shadows of what many call legitimacy, suffer from never-ending traumas caused by the ever present fear of not knowing when the next raid is going to come about. Right, Jeff?

“C’mon, Carlos, you’re getting too damned serious,” his neighbor replied.

“Serious? You damned right I’m serious! You’re killing my brothers and sisters, Jeff,” said Carlos. “With fear, with family separation, with uncertainty. Your actions are no different than those taken by our government during the Viet Nam war, when we dropped napalm and cluster bombs on innocent civilians, on children. Remember that little girl in that infamous photograph? That little Vietnamese girl that had to get rid of her napalm stricken clothes and ran naked away from her burning village? Remember? She was an innocent child. Remember her, Jeff?”

“I don’t. I’m too young. It happened before my time.”

“But, it happened, Jeff,” Carlos replied. “And there’s nothing virtual about that reality. Or about the Border Patrol raids and fear tactics I’m talking about. And all the other acts that you and your buddies carry out with the excuse of protecting our borders. They’re real, Jeff. And just as bad as what our government did in Viet Nam.”

“Why are you so serious today, Carlos?” asked Jeff. “What happened to your sense of humor?”

“My sense of humor?” Carlos replied.

“Just call it virtual, just like your fence. It’s there, but it’s not really there.”

 

AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez

 

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Commentary Stories

The Art and Times of Bob Kilcullen

bob-kilcullen-1a-1965-training-campPHOTO: Taken during 1965 Chicago Bears training camp at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana.

 

NOTE: This is the introduction to Bob Kilcullen’s biography, a book still waiting to be published. Bob is an artist who is still drawing and painting. He was a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears for about nine years. He played for George Halas and was part of the 1963 Chicago Bears world champion team.

 

Bob Kilcullen was a hyperactive child, filled with energy and unable to remain focused on a single task, unless it required extreme physical exertion or utmost attention to detail. Most of those about him saw him as a problem kid, out of control and hard to handle. He suffered from ADHD, but no one called it that then. Those close to him couldn’t help him, except for a teacher and a few friends outside the home. The teacher was Sister William Claire, a Catholic school nun who taught fifth-grade. “She had a great sense of humor,” Bob recalls.

 
To get out of the classroom and to find solace on activities he liked, Bob played sports, in school and after school. He also worked on a farm during the summer. He grew up in south St. Louis. He was born there in 1934. When he was six or seven, Bob remembers being run over by a car driven by a local judge. Bob and his older brother were playing ball with friends in an alley close to their home. The judge, who Bob claims was driving drunk, dragged him under the car, a Packard. Bob was lucky, though. He had a few bruises and survived. Someone took him to a hospital on a paint truck, was treated, and was later released. The judge never apologized.

 
Bob hated school and didn’t do well in class, but excelled in sports. He played ball for the Southside YMCA, in the Stags AC baseball team. Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola were once players in that team. He also played football and once in high school, he helped Southwest High win its first public schools football championship. He was recruited by two universities and ended up playing for Texas Tech. After college, he went on to play for George Halas and the Chicago Bears. In 1963, Bob and his team beat the New York Giants and won the World Championship.

 
Bob also liked to draw. While in elementary school he drew a scene of children sledding. The drawing won an award and was displayed in his school. A local newspaper reporter came to visit Bob and wrote a story about the drawing and about Bob’s artistic bend. In college, he was the arts editor of La Ventana, Texas Tech’s yearbook. Over the years, Bob has tried to find financial success as an artist, and he’s still trying. He still draws and paints.

 
ADHD still haunts Bob. His mind is an eternally turning whirlwind. Some eighty years after being born, his body no longer pursues hard physical activity, but his brain does, in its own way. He’s always thinking of something, thinking of ways to get things done, or figuring what needs to be done to improve this or to improve that. He’s not at peace at ease; he needs action, work. That’s how it is with Bob. At home, he spends most of his free time at his desk drawing. His work place is a makeshift studio, a crowded room, probably meant as a waiting area for visitors in a modest house where he and his family live in north Texas. The walls are covered with his art: paintings, oils, acrylics, drawings. The largest piece is an oil-on-canvass painting that takes over one side of the room; it is a painting of a horse with its prominent legs and hoofs shooting out from the wall. The smallest piece is an unframed ink drawing of Prince Charles; the piece rests on top of the desk, propped up against the wall next to the window.

 
The painting of the horse goes back at least three decades; the drawing of Prince Charles is more recent; maybe no older than a decade. The desk is busy and covered with file folders, pens, pencils, drawings in progress and one or two mementos. When Bob mentions some clipping or letter or other written evidence of the stuff he’s done, he will more than likely say that the keepsake is somewhere on his desk. And it probably is, but there’s no need to let him find it.

 
People trust Bob; it’s not necessary to see the evidence. There’s also a bookcase filled with books, mainly about football and the Chicago Bears. The name Halas seems to stand out among the titles. Two large dogs live inside the house. They’re tame, but scary, especially when they quietly begin to sniff and inspect those who enter the place. They don’t jump on people or bark, they just sniff and walk around them slowly and after a while lie down not far from them. “These darn dogs,” says Bob. It doesn’t take long to forget the dogs, though. Their quiet presence tends to disappear into the setting.

 
As briefly mentioned before, Bob played professional football for Halas, in the late fifties and part of the sixties. He was a defensive lineman. Just recently, Bob was invited to go to Chicago to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of winning the 1963 world championship. There aren’t too many Bears players left from that year’s team, maybe twenty or so. He says that only ten of them were able to make it to the shindig; the other ten are no longer able to travel.

 
Bob is a large man. He’s not the bulging kind of big, though. He’s just tall. He says he lost weight during a bout with cancer in 2001. Not a good way to lose extra pounds, but it is one of those collateral benefits most cancer survivors would rather forget. At almost 80, thirteen years past that fling with death, Bob looks good. There’s no apparent evidence that the disease once struck him. He walks mostly upright; his speech is clear and deliberate; his mind is still sharp and able to retrieve facts from the past, except for a few moments when he forgets what he wanted to say. Some people blame that on age.

 
After playing professional football, Bob tried hard to make it as an artist in the Chicago area. But he was never able to sell enough drawings or paintings to consistently put food on the table. He and his wife Katie already had three children. In 1968, Bob and his family moved to Connecticut to be closer to the art world and to continue to pursue his calling. But Connecticut was no different. Bob was again unable to gain sufficient income from his art to make a living and after two years, he and his family moved to Saint Louis, the place that had seen him grow up. He had a job lined up there; he was to work selling commodities for a broker. The job helped pay the bills, but it was a bad fit. Besides, Bob’s heart was still in the arts, so during his free time, he continued to ply his creative energy on paper and canvas.

 
On a friend’s advice, in 1973, Bob, Katie and their growing family moved to Dallas where he was given a chance to strike it in commercial real estate. It worked. The job not only helped him earn a decent wage, but also provided the venue in which one day he would help define the urban future of the center of Dallas. Bob did something that till now has been buried and forgotten in north Texas history. He was instrumental in convincing James Clark and other Dallas key art lovers and museum board members to build the Dallas Museum of Art at the place where it currently thrives.

 
Sometime in late 1976, Bob found a potential site for the arts venue, on Harwood Street near the freeway. Some civic leaders involved in the museum’s expansion and the building of a new facility, wanted the venue to remain in Fair Park or someplace close to it. Bob thought otherwise. He believed that the facility would better serve the public if it were located close to downtown, to public transportation, and to the center of Dallas. Eventually, Bob convinced them about the salient benefits of having the museum built in what is today the arts district of Dallas. After given the go ahead by the museum expansion project leaders, Bob secured options to buy the land. A ballot measure to finance the project and build the museum followed, but failed on the first attempt. It won the voters’ approval, however, during a second round.

 
Bob’s done other things besides football, art, and selling commercial real estate. In 1969, he played the leading role in the film “Finney.” It was a low budget production that went nowhere. Bill Hare was the person behind the film. In his October 23, 1969 review, Roger Ebert said, “Finney could have been one of those films we’re always looking for.” Of Bob’s acting, Ebert added: “Bob Kilcullen, the former Chicago Bear who plays Finney, is a gruff and likeable actor.” The movie flopped, though, and Bob’s incursion in film began and ended with “Finney.”

 
Kilcullen has also tinkered with inventions. In January 1973, he received the patent for his “Scootle,” a wooden coaster for tots to help them learn to walk and propel themselves with their own feet. Bob still has the prototype he built when he first thought of the gadget. The wood is worn and the paint faded, but it was once used extensively by his children to move about the house. Bob tried to commercialize the “Scootle,” but after Mattel, the toy company, came up with its own plastic version of a coaster, he gave up on his plan.

 
While selling commercial real estate in the Dallas Fort Worth area, Kilcullen got in the restaurant business with a partner. It was a smokehouse located near Main and Preston, in Frisco, Texas. It was in the mid-1980s. The venture didn’t do well and after a couple of years the restaurant closed. “If anyone wants to write a book about how to fail in the restaurant business,” says Bob, “they need to talk to me.”

 
Other doings had better results. After moving to Dallas, Kilcullen became involved in charity work. He was once the president of the Big D chapter of the NFL Alumni Club. During his term, the charity, with help from local donors, paid for a trip to Paris, France, for eight young women from the Girls Club of Dallas. They were being rewarded for their distinguished careers or community service accomplishments. “It was a cultural tour,” says Bob.

 
During the last eight decades, Bob has taken on more than just a few challenges, usually striving to stay busy to fight off the pernicious demands of ADHD. He understands the malady and so does his wife Katie. Over the years, after poring over innumerable scientific journals and medical studies on the condition, both her and Bob have acquired more than a layman’s take on the causes and effects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

 
They both have learned to cope, too. Bob has used his knowledge to learn to accept the ailment and live with the anxiety that often trumps his everyday life. In a way, the daily struggle has helped him. His creative self has risen to herculean heights and, according to my own experience after examining countless art samples, the findings point to feelings of despair and pain masterfully splashed on many of his creations. Bob’s garage is filled with some of his paintings and his drawings. Some of those works of art paint troubled minds. Faces with eyes wide-open, struggling faces. Painted with reds and yellows, blacks and other colors that convey distress and agony.

 

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Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Six

PHOTO: Fig tree like the ones in Figarden, California, in 1962. Getty Images.

 
Working as a helper on a fig-picking tractor did a lot for me. More than anything, I felt good about getting a check each week. Every Saturday I would ask my father to take me to the small store in Figarden so I could cash it. I usually bought a soda and an apple turnover, sometimes other things. One had to buy something to get the check cashed. By the way, I really got to like those turnovers. They were tasty. I had seen them at the store the first time we went there to get food essentials on credit. I really wanted one then, but I knew I couldn’t have it. It’s weird. Sometimes you want something you can’t have.

The helper work gave me confidence. It was like a test, sort of like jumping off airplanes, like Billy did when he was in the Army. Not everyone could do it. I think my parents were proud of me, too. One evening, I overheard my mother telling someone else at the camp about my job and about how tough I was and that I hadn’t quit. It made me feel good. Besides, I really liked my job.

One day, though, I thought I was going to have to go back to picking figs by hand. It had been less than two weeks since I had started working on the tractor when Billy told me that we were going on strike. It surprised me. It had to do with demanding a raise for us two helpers, from one dollar to a dollar and a quarter an hour. The tractor operators were paid more than that and were fine with their pay, but both decided it was time to pay the helpers more money. My counterpart wanted it; he had been making only a dollar an hour for several years.

When the foreman, who was also the son of the grower, came by the orchard to check on us, he found us sitting down by the tractors. The operators told him about the work stoppage and the reason for it. They stated their demand for higher pay for us, the helpers. My English skills were very limited then; I just understood a few words. One word said by the foreman stuck in my head, though. He called us “bastards.” Once the son of the grower left, I asked Billy to translate the word for me. “You don’t want to know,” he said. I later learned what it meant.

We went back to work soon after the tractor drivers talked to the foreman. He agreed to talk to his dad and to be back later that day with a response regarding the raise. I felt good going back to work right away and liked the possibility of getting a raise. Close to quitting time, the foreman returned and told us that his father had agreed to raise the pay from a dollar to a dollar and five cents an hour. He added that if we didn’t like it, we could leave. We stayed. Just before leaving the orchard, the foreman called us bastards again.

That was a memorable summer. Besides learning about strikes, I also learned how to drive Billy’s car in the orchards’ dirt roads. Billy showed how to shift gears and how to apply the clutch. His car had a standard transmission. That’s what most cars had then; there were very few automatics. It was fun driving the car. One day, though, I hit a short pole that I hadn’t seen as I was backing up. I felt really bad. The pole made a big dent on the rear, left fender. Billy just laughed when he saw it and told me not to worry.

I also made some progress learning English, not from Billy and the other two workers, but from a big guy that used to come by to pick up the boxes we filled up with figs and other junk. He was young, around twenty years old. I exchanged a few words with him and found out that he was going to Fresno State College and that in the summer he worked for the grower. He didn’t know Spanish, but when he spoke to me in English he pronounced the words very slowly to help me understand them. I was surprised; I was able to comprehend most of those words. Maybe it was the way he said them or the way he tried to explain things with his hands. It’s amazing how we can communicate with others with the aid of body and facial expressions.

I don’t recall his name, but clearly remember the way he picked up a one-gallon jug of water with his forefinger and drank from it. He was big. He worked hard and fast too. He would pick up those heavy boxes like they were nothing. Sometimes he would pick up two at the time and hand them to the driver, who was on top of the truck stacking them.

It was truly a memorable summer.

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Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Five

Tractor in an orchard. Getty Images.

 
On the same day that we started working picking figs by hand, I was offered a chance to become a helper on a contraption that swept up the figs off the ground. It was late afternoon when a man working for the grower came looking for me at the orchard where several members of our family and myself were still learning the ropes of our job. The man had met me before at the camp. He had mentioned, in passing, the possibility of needing a helper for one of the two fig-picking machines. He had heard that the previous worker, a local man who did the job the year before, was probably not going to return. But he still had to confirm it.

The job involved hard work, he said, but thought that I was big enough physically to handle it. I think he was just trying to build me up so I would take the job if available. It made me feel good, though, to know that a perfect stranger would think that I was fit enough to do a man’s job. I was only sixteen.

Once offered the opportunity, I accepted it. It paid a dollar an hour and I would work directly for the grower. Our mother and father liked the idea of me working by the hour. So far that day, we hadn’t made much money picking figs by hand.

I joined the other three members of the crew the following morning. All three spoke Spanish and were of Mexican heritage. I was assigned to work with Billy, an operator of one of the two tractors. I can’t remember the names of the other driver and his helper, but they were both from Arizona. They spent part of the year in central California following different crops.

The contraption consisted of a tractor with a sweeper and a trailer behind it. It moved up and down each row in the orchard and picked up figs along with dirt and all kinds of trash lying on the ground. A conveyor belt brought the mix from the sweeper to the trailer and deposited it in wooden boxes that I had to place under an opening at the end of the belt. It was dusty back there. I don’t remember using a mask or gloves, but I probably did. The opening had a rubber and canvas flip cover that prevented the mix of figs and other stuff from flying in different directions.

The boxes filled quickly. Once full, I had to push them to the left and place an empty box under the opening. The task was made easier by a metal rack with rollers on it and on which I could place up to five boxes: two empties, two full ones, and the one being filled up. Whenever I had an opportunity I would pick up the loaded boxes and stack them on the back of the trailer. The empty ones were stacked on the right side and next to the rack, where I could easily grab them.

It was hard to keep up with the flow during my first day. Besides, it was difficult to see sometimes. There was a lot of dust blowing into the trailer and under my face as the boxes were filled up with the mix. There was also dust coming from the sweeper, which also diminished the visibility, not only in the trailer area, but all around the contraption.

Towards the end of my first day, I was really tired. It was tough lifting those boxes filled with figs and trash after a while. Each one, I heard, weighed an average of seventy pounds. Every so often we had to unload the cargo by a dirt road. It was sort of a break, but not really. Stacking those heavy boxes on the ground was no picnic either. No wonder I was told it was hard work.

After doing the job for a few days, it got easier. My body adjusted and grew stronger. Besides, it felt good being part of that crew. Billy and the other two men told me that most helpers didn’t last long. Most of them quit within a few days they said. They couldn’t handle the workload, they added. Hearing those comments made me feel important. I hadn’t quit yet and wasn’t about to do so.

After a while, Billy showed me how to drive the tractor and allowed me to run it for a couple of rows. He would climb on the trailer and do my job so I could do his and take a break. I felt accomplished driving the tractor. Resting for a few minutes felt good, too.

One Sunday I visited Billy at his home in Highway City, just a few miles south from our camp. He was married and had a couple of children. He invited me so I could see some old photos that were taken when he was stationed in Korea with the U.S. Army. Billy had a lot of pictures. They were of him and his Army buddies. Most of them were Mexicans, I could tell, maybe Puerto Ricans.

At work, Billy often talked about his time in the military and the number of jumps he had made as a paratrooper. He was really proud of having served. He also talked about his two brothers. One of them had also joined the Army and had made over six hundred jumps. That was big, he said. His other brother tried to get in, but wasn’t accepted. He was flat-footed.

 

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Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Four

PHOTO: Fig tree with fruit. Getty Images.

 

It felt good having a place to stay and knowing that soon we were going to also have food to eat. We selected the house that was next to the entrance of the camp. They were all the same, though. It had an elevated large bedroom with a wooden floor and a small room with a dirt floor and open windows that served as a kitchen. It had a wood stove. There was a set of restrooms (for men and women) and showers in a small building in the center of the camp. They had running water. That was good, too. In Mexicali we had an outhouse and only cold water for the shower.

I don’t remember picking up figs and eating them that day, but we probably did. We were really hungry. Besides, there were lots of them all over the ground. Once settled in our new home, our dad and a couple of us went to the store. It was next to the railroad track, on Bullard Avenue, the same road that ran next to the camp. I remember it well. It was a narrow and straight road with miles and miles of fig trees planted on both sides.

The owner of the small store already knew about us. He told us what kind of stuff we could buy. We picked up a sack of flour, a large bag of pinto beans, potatoes, lard, eggs, butter, some meat, milk, and a few other things. The car still had fuel left, but our dad decided to top it off, just in case we needed it. Once back at the camp, our mother cooked beans, potatoes and meat and made a huge pile of tortillas. I think she used a long, empty glass bottle to roll the dough. Several of us helped.

We had an unforgettable meal that day. The food tasted great. Cooking on a wood stove in an open kitchen, among fig trees, gives food a peculiar flavor. Our mother prepared the beans the same way she had done it before in Mexico, but those beans had a particular scent to them. They were really good. The tortillas were good, too. I ate a lot of them. We all felt tired and full after the feast.

The week went by fast. We had a chance to explore the orchard and other areas close by. We ate a lot of figs and met others that arrived at the camp after we did. They were all Mexican. One family was from Brawley, in Imperial Valley; another one was from Coachella, but was made up of only the father and his four sons. The rest of that family stayed back home they said. Both groups had been coming to Figarden to pick figs for several seasons. At night they would get together and talk and play songs on their radios. I learned a lot about America from them.

On the first day of picking figs, the wife of the contractor joined us, working right along with us. She gave us tips on how to do the work efficiently. She was very nice and spoke some Spanish. She was about thirty, had blond hair and blue eyes. I was surprised to see someone like her involved in such hard work. Although we used ladders to reach the fruit in the trees, we spent part of the day bent down picking up the figs that had fallen on the ground.

I really liked the contractor’s wife; there was a welcoming quality to her. I asked her where she was from; I was curious. She said she was an “Arkie.” I didn’t know what that meant.

“From Arkansas,” she explained in Spanish.

Once we learned the ropes, she left us and wished us good luck. She was very nice. I will never forget her. I wish I could remember her name.

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Commentary Stories

English Language Lessons at the Workplace

IMAGE: United Sheet Metal Company building near Charter Way in Stockton, California. Circa 1960s.

 

Once I got the basics at school, the best place for me to learn English was at the workplace. I had plenty language immersion there. I did it while picking almonds in Lodi, in northern California, and later at H.H. Robertson Company, in the Port of Stockton, in late summer of 1963. But I learned the most at United Sheet Metal Company, an industrial shop on Biegle Street, not far from Charter way in the south side of town.

It was total immersion, there’s no doubt. I was the only Mexican at the place. I really learned the language there. Didn’t have a choice, had to learn it to be able to talk to the other guys. They were playful, though, I remember well. They taught me a lot of words, like partridge, French hens, pear tree, and turtle dove. Didn’t know those were words in a song until much later. Funny guys. They were playful, all right.

I learned swear words too, mainly from a guy named Joe Sismanovich. He really liked to swear. He was born in Yugoslavia, but had been in California for a while. He lived in Stockton, not far from the sheet metal plant. Joe ran the machine that turned sheets of rolled metal into spiral pipes. Once he cut them into six-foot or longer pieces, I would load them onto a metal cart and take them to the yard. Before doing that, I had to place an empty cart next to the machine, take the load to the yard and hurry back. If I took too long, he would yell at me and swear.

I think he was still learning to run the machine and that’s why he had so many problems with it. I don’t think he was very patient either. He let thing get the best of him. When Joe wasn’t bothered by problems, he was a lot of fun. He taught me a few Slovenian words, but I no longer remember any of them. I think he also swore at me in that language, but if he did, it didn’t matter. Words don’t mean a thing if you don’t understand them.

Joe was a good guy; he was just temperamental. Maybe a lot of Yugoslavians are that way, you know, passionate, just like us Mexicans. When Joe wasn’t angry, he was a really nice. He laughed a lot. I remember his laugh well. He would open his mouth wide and his eyes would glitter and almost disappear. I would laugh too. I liked looking at him and seeing his huge grin and his baldhead.

It was good working there at the sheet metal plant. It was union work too and I made good money there, $3.25 an hour as a production worker. Journeymen made over five dollars an hour. That was a lot of money then. Every week, when I cashed my check at the Save-Mart grocery store on East Main in Stockton, near Okieville, someone there would always question whether the check was mine. They couldn’t believe that I made that much money.

The same thing happened when I filed my income taxes in early 1965. A lady at a Mexican pharmacy and tax service in Stockton’s skid row filed the return for me. She kept asking me: “Are you sure you made this much?” She thought the W-2 belonged to someone else. I had earned over six thousand dollars in 1964.

I was lucky; I made good money and learned English at the same time at United Sheet Metal. I also picked up a lot of words and phrases from the guys at the plant. Some good ones, some bad ones. One of the apprentices, Al Gard, was often yelling “Yabba dabba doo,” as he worked. That wasn’t a new phrase for me, since I had heard it many times before when I watched “The Flintstones” on TV. But it stuck with me forever and ever thanks to Al’s constant repetition of it.

I stayed with the company until I joined the Air Force in August of 1965. I had to volunteer in the armed forces. It was either the Air Force or get drafted by the Army to go fight in Vietnam.

I ran into Al Gard after I left the military, sometime in 1980. He owned an upscale hair salon in Stockton then. The first thing I said to him when I saw him was: “Yabba dabba doo.”

He laughed. I just had to say it. It was good seeing each other again.

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Commentary Stories

The Trek North: Part Three

PHOTO: Figs on a tree branch, similar to the ones we picked in Figarden, California. Getty Images.

 

It took about an hour to get to Delano after leaving Bakersfield. We were all hungry, but for some reason food no longer mattered much, especially for those of us that were older. We wanted to find work. The local farm employment office gave us the name and address of a Mexican labor contractor that needed grape pickers. It was the address of a house, we found out. He wasn’t there when we got to the place, but his wife was. She wasn’t very nice. She told our dad in Spanish that she didn’t know how to get hold of him and that our best bet would be to return later that day to try to find him.

We waited near a gas station, not far from the contractor’s place. We were there for a long time. We kept looking towards the house, hoping to see someone arrive, but no one did. Late in the day, our dad and I returned to the contractor’s place and were again met by his wife. She was still in a bad mood, I could tell. She also looked mean. She told us to return the following day, but our dad insisted on seeing him as soon as possible. He told her that we needed work. That didn’t seem to matter to her, but to get rid of us, gave us the address of the field where her husband had a crew picking grapes and told us to look for him there the following morning.

Our dad drove to the field. It was easy to find. He had looked up the address on a large map pasted on the inside wall of the gas station. We were all hungry. With the money we had, our parents bought a couple of cans of beans and bread at a grocery store next to the gas station. After parking by the grape field, our mom opened the cans of beans and spread the contents on slices of bread. Once we ate we went to sleep.

The contractor arrived early in the morning, before sunup. We were ready to go to work. I was with my father when he went to talk to the contractor. He told us that we needed to have scissors to be able to work. They were table grapes, he said, and required to be cut with scissors. He wasn’t nice either, just like his wife. Our dad tried to ask him if we could borrow them, but the man didn’t let him talk.

“No scissors, no work,” he said and turned around and left.

Our dad looked sad and dismayed. By the time we returned to the car, he looked pale. He got in the station wagon and told everyone about the scissors and that we would go north to Fresno to look for work. No one said anything. We had no food, no money, no work, and the car was running out of gas.

Before getting on highway ninety-nine towards Fresno, our dad stopped at a ranch. He knew ranches well; he had worked in many of them in Mexicali, in Imperial Valley and other parts of California. He pulled a couple of pipe wrenches that were lodged next to the spare tire, took them with him, and knocked on the front door of the house at the ranch. Soon thereafter a man came out. We couldn’t hear what our dad was saying, but after a while he handed the tools to the man at the door. He got back into the car and drove to a fuel pump next to a shed. The man walked there and filled the tank of our car with gas.

He then waved goodbye and said adiós (in Spanish) and smiled at us. He was tall and light skinned. It was quiet inside the car; no one said much. I felt good, though. It was a feeling of victory, exchanging the tools for fuel. I remember it clearly, as if it had just happened recently. I felt also a sense of relief. There was no doubt that we would soon find work. I think others in the car felt the same way.

We arrived at the Fresno farm employment office about two hours later. It was still early, way before noon. There were several postings on a board on one of the walls. People were needed for different types of work, but were for picking crops two or three weeks in the future. There was no current work listed. Once at one of the windows at the counter of the employment office, the clerk told us about a contractor that was looking for families to pick figs close to Herndon, but that the work wouldn’t start until a week later. He gave us a slip with the address of the camp and the name of the contractor. It was on Bullard Avenue, not far from Highway 99.

The contractor was waiting for us at the camp. He seemed happy to see us. There were a few sheds converted into houses there, six of them at the most, maybe eight. They had metal roofs, but were protected from the heat by the orchard. There were a lot of fig trees. No one was living there yet, but it didn’t look desolate; I don’t know why. We got out of the car and welcomed the shade and the breeze. There were figs on the ground that had fell from the trees. They looked good. We wondered whether we could pick them up and eat them. We were very hungry.

The contractor was slender and tall and had blue eyes. He was very nice to us all and talked to us in broken Spanish. Our father could speak English well and eventually they both conversed in that language. He told our dad that we could stay at the camp, but that work wouldn’t start until a week later.

Once our father told him that we were willing to wait, but that we had no money and hadn’t eaten much the last two days, the contractor told our dad that we could go to a small store in the center of Figarden and get some essential groceries and gas for the car to carry us over until we started working. He also mentioned that he would go by the store and set up credit for us.

We couldn’t believe it. A perfect stranger trusted us and made us feel welcome.