Rambling Snapshots: San Marcos
Next month: Salton Sea
San Marcos, California
What do you say to your younger cousins whom you haven’t seen since you were 14 years old?
I demanded reparations.
I was owed. After all, Cousin Susan broke my Johnny Reb Cannon on Christmas Day only an hour after I opened it. The disappointing extent of the destruction I was able to wreak was one measly Christmas tree ornament. My Johnny Reb Cannon. About two feet long and a foot high. The Authentic Civil War Cannon by Remco. You select one of the five plastic cannonballs and ram it down with the plastic ramrod till it catches. Remove ramrod. Take position. Aim. Pull lanyard. The spring releases. Cannonball rockets out to kill and maim. Sheer fun! I was imagining the devastation I could inflict with such an ultimate weapon upon rows and rows of my Civil War figurines. I also was trying to construe what other creative and nefarious uses my Johnny Reb cannon could be put to in my ongoing battle with my brothers.
That was until little Susan jammed some foreign girly object down its barrel with the red foam ramrod and broke the spring inside. Little girl cousins can be far worse and far more vexing than little sisters. You can punch your sisters but you have to be nice to your cousins.
That was a Christmas for the record book. In a glut of good-will and a frenzy of consumption, presents flooded out from the decorated Christmas tree in the corner, swamping well beyond the center pole supporting our porch roof. We finally finished unwrapping presents by late afternoon. All the families were celebrating the day together with all the joys that arise when family comes together to honor the birth of our Lord and Savior; in other words, competition for attention, crying jags, injury to both ego and skin, neglect, snide remarks, strained nerves, tested patience, sulking, temper tantrums. And so far I’m just talking about the adults. Family is society’s version of the Babinski Reflex – stroke the bottom of the foot to determine brain injury.
Count us up: one dad, one mom, two grandmas, one marshmallow Jell-O making aunt, one uncle (dad and Ruth’s brother), five children, four more cousin squirts, and Susie too.
I now appreciate why mom started the tradition of our formal meal on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day. She could think of better ways to spend her holiday than serving a three course meal to the entire gluttonous tribe. Christmas Day, instead, became a day to graze. It has been ever since. Given my schedule as a pastor, we nowadays don’t even have time for a formal meal on Christmas Eve. Elaine crock-pots up meatballs for sandwiches.
My parents honed the art of Nativity cruelty to a scalpel’s edge. Waterboarding? Ain’t nothing compared to our Christmas mornings. Come Christmas morning we children were allowed to huddle at the top of the steps that led downstairs to the living room and kitchen. We could only huddle. At this point we were still permitted the luxury of remaining in our jamies (mine had space rockets on them). When given permission we could race down and marvel at what delights arrived in the night – IN OUR STOCKINGS ONLY, which had been thumb-tacked ritualistically the night before on the fireplace mantel. You must use the same puncture hole you have used all previous years lest Santa mistake your stocking for your sister’s, then she’d get the dart gun and you’d end up with hair ribbons. After this stockings sorbet, we had to sit down at the kitchen table, pray, and eat breakfast. Then, back upstairs we were force-marched. We had to change into our civvies, make our beds, and brush our teeth. Dad was inspired by Bataan. The more I reminisce, the more I realize what sick control freaks were mom and dad. Could we now please raid the presents? No. If cousins were arriving we had to wait. If no cousins, we still had to wait until mom and dad were ready, mom’s hair brushed and dad’s hair Brylcreamed. Only then could we line up by age at the closed door to the porch – youngest first – and enter the world of presents, some gloriously unwrapped, most wrapped.
Our Christmas tree never was set up in the living room. We never ever lived in our living room. Over the years our back porch evolved to wrap around two sides of our house. Dutch doors led to the enclosed porch which you accessed by four steps up. My mother’s father built our house when mom, dad, and three month old Larry moved to Jersey to go to work in grandpa’s Paint and Varnish Factory. For some reason, grandpa Young disdained basements, so when you would enter our house from the front door you walked down a fight of stairs into the first floor. Our living room windows looked out grass level, which meant, then, that the porch, built on ground level, was above the living room and kitchen. Grandpa borrowed his architectural designs from M.C. Escher. The windows above the kitchen sink became removed and widened into a large open space where you could hand up the casserole dishes or, on occasion, scramble down over the sink to get to the bathroom before your sister could.
Come Christmas morning the Dutch doors were ceremonially opened. But no stampede was tolerated. Youngest first. We first had to wait for Evie to toddle up the steps. Many a Christmas morning, we wanted to trample her. Eventually, she sensed her authority, and, exercising her power, she would deliberately climb up those porch steps slower and slower, as if ascending Mount Everest. Susie, quivering and tail wagging from the atmosphere of excitement, ignored the rules and raced into the room before us all.
We were forced to be nice to our cousins, whichever the holiday. Mom and dad made us, especially after all four of them invaded our world from New England. Mom and dad first played the pity card. “Remember now,” they reminded us, “it has been hard on them.” It had been. They were strangers to New Jersey and our crude Jersey ways. They were New Englanders, but life in New England had turned sour on them.
We had to be reprimanded often to be nice to our cousins. Scotty was okay. Scotty, actually, was a boon for me. He was two years younger. Now I wasn’t the littlest boy, almost. Now I had a little brother to pick on and plot evil schemes. Susan, however, should go play with my sisters. Bonnie and Joannie? They were too young to bother noticing, mere grubs in frocks.
On the Sunday before I was to leave San Marcos and re-commence my road trip, Scotty brought over several tattered photo albums to show me with undivided attention. Unk left us alone. Hank, after first making sure we had sufficient snacks and beverages, busied himself by playing computer poker. Scotty’s Kodak pictures with their perforated edges transported us to our grandparent’s summer house on Cuba Lake, New York. We looked back on parents who were younger then than we both are now. We now are closer to the age of our grandmother in those photographs. It was strange for Scotty to remind me that my grandparents were also his. They loved him as much as they loved me. Amazing. Turning the page, he showed me pictures of his father. These pictures remain his best touchstone to his father, Fred McFarland. When Scotty and Susan were little guys, and shortly after sister Bonnie was born, Fred was killed along with several other men on a business trip. His single engine plane crashed in the deep forests of New Hampshire. The crushed fuselage remains to this day a destination point for serious (voyeuristic) hikers. Scotty next showed me a world I never imagined existed. Just as I had my New Jersey grandparents, he had a second set of grandparents along with a second summer house he would visit, this one situated alone the waterfront of the Penobscot River. A flintlock musket which some heroic McFarland ancestor fired and fought with during the Revolutionary War sits in a closet in Scotty’s California home (he too, a potential SAR).
Fred’s death, followed by Aunt Ruth’s hasty and ill-advised marriage, eventually led them – including little Joannie, newly plopped out into the family -- to relocate from New England to live with Aunt Ruth’s brother in Westfield, New Jersey. For a song, Unk had bought the house in the early sixties, viewing it as an investment property. The house sat around the corner from the house Charles Addams used as the model for his Addam’s Family cartoons. How apt. The investment property quickly turned into a full family home. Thus arrived refugee cousins into my world.
Susan and Scotty co-manage their own nursery in San Marcos, California. They were drawn into the business following Aunt Ruth’s third marriage to Herb, a Dutchman employed in the flower industry. She met him in New Jersey. Susan recently was elected President of Nurserymen’s Association.
If my father, brother, and sisters are experiencing tough times at our family paint business with homeowners postponing hiring painting contractors, here in California my cousins are really struggling. My parents are at the finger-cramping age when they’ve had my sister Peggy replace the child proof caps on their medicine bottles. 11 bottles sit in the basket on the kitchen table, including their Lipitor, Digoxin, Folic Acid, Colchirine, Furosemide, Plavix, Allopurinal. They are puzzled by the disappearance (the looting?) of their affluence. Strident voices on TV assigning blame have become magnets to the needles of their apprehension and unspoken anger. What went wrong with the economy? Why did their investments evaporate only to rain into someone else’s pocket? The ready cash in the wallet isn’t there the way it used to be. They should be at the pinnacle, basking in the sunny rewards of decades of hard work, admiring around themselves the spectacular landscape of satisfying success. Instead, they sadly signify the shrinking of America’s middle class. If this cross-country trip has made me anything, it is profoundly depressed. Given what I’ve seen out on the road, my small town back in Danville -- whose economy is dependent upon our major hospital -- has it very good. For a small town, we are very fortunate. We are the exception. Dad won’t admit it, but he is worried over whether they can float the business through winter. It isn’t fair.
My cousins sell plants wholesale, but due to the tight economy plants aren’t selling. Scotty struggles with bad knees and is weakened by bouts of his fibromyalgia. Their best employee recently was pulled over by the police and found to be undocumented. He was deported, which means banned for 10 years before able to return and earn the chance to become a citizen. Next arrived the next economic back-breaker. California, parched and suffering from a scarcity of water, declared a mandatory 13% reduction in the Nursery’s water allotment. That’s like telling an athlete that 13% of his lung capacity is going to be carved out with a rusty knife.
Aunt Ruth, meanwhile, is working on her fourth husband (paramour), which the jealous ladies in the trailer park heartily disapprove given the shortage of functioning males at their age. They warned Al that Aunt Ruth already has buried three husbands. Beside, they whisper, she’s exceeded her quota. My Aunt Ruth beams as she tells her friends that Al prefers her and she him, and besides, she’s “never had an Italian.” Their first date was spent visiting the cemetery shelves that housed their respective former spouses. That fourth husband enjoyed accompanying Aunt Ruth in her visits to entertain nursing home residents. Aunt Ruth decked herself out in her Busby Berkeley tap dance costume, complete with Top Hat, tap shoes, and sequins, while he arrived wearing his Energizer Bunny costume.
Sunday afternoon, when the family gathered at Unk’s trailer in the trailer park for a light buffet prepared by Hank, Aunt Ruth gasped when she found out I had attended worship at her church outside of town, Grace Episcopal Church. Attending other church worship services often can be a tough chore for pastors. Your spirit wants to worship but your frontal lobe keep critiquing the sermon, studying the bulletins for errors, and otherwise ignoring the whole God-thing for comparing shops. After returning from church, Unk, curious about things religious, quizzed me. I reported to Unk how it was. His raised one eyebrow. For a retired hipster, Unk prefers his religion antique, precise, and patriarchical. The modern trend of churches today -- busy being inclusive, marketable, and as interesting as TV commercials -- supplies him sufficient excuse to stay home on Sundays. If they ever go back reciting from the King James Version, he might reconsider. Last, I reported to him that I had hoped Aunt Ruth would be there but she wasn’t. I had sat alone. Unk couldn’t wait tell her. Since she skipped church that morning, she missed her chance to show me off to her friends.
Aunt Ruth would be very angry with me for describing her neighborhood as a trailer park and would chide me for saying so. Unk describes it that way, mostly to tease his little sister. They live blocks away from each other in the same retirement village. Aunt Ruth, living near the Community Center, lives in a very upscale prefabricated home. Unk, who lives near the entrance, lives in a trailer in what he refers to as the “Jerry Springer section.” He keeps a second fridge filled with beer to welcome all visitors.
Visitors visit. While sipping a beer Sunday morning after church out on the patio area set up on the driveway, one of Unk’s friends was waved over from the street. Hank, Unk’s cook and household helper, introduced me to Q. Q’s wife helps manage the trailer park while Q does odd jobs around the place. Conversation around the patio table swirled toward the lottery and playing computer poker. Q started telling how he pulled a prank on his brother-in-law when he and three other fellows went fishing up-state. Q had purchased at a joke shop a fake $10,000 winning lottery ticket. Before they headed out for the drive to the lake, Q, in a gesture of goodwill and friendship, handed out lottery tickets that he had bought as a gift for the four fellows. Q and three of the guys scratched off theirs. No hits. His brother-in-law, slipped the fake lottery ticket, scratched off his. He looked at it. He stared at it. He grinned. He leaned back. He said, “Well, boys – looks like we each won $2,000.” It wasn’t the reaction Q was expecting.
I’m unsure which number of homes this trailer is for my bachelor Unk. In a side room of the trailer, near the beer fridge, there hangs his wall of memories. On one side are mounted pictures of family, on the other side are paintings and photographs of his various homes. Olean. Geneva. Buffalo. Manhattan (where, to get evicted, they would stage raucous rent parties that lasted days). He owned a brownstone at 73rd and Riverside Drive. In the late 1950’s he lived in a 72 foot sloop moored in Havana harbor, crewing for a friend (and where I remain convinced he was running guns to Castro). Their boat was two slips away from Ernest Hemingway. Ernie promised several times to join them for drinks but never made it over. Unk figures Hemingway was too drunk to climb up the ladder. Where else has Unk called home? Miami. Boston. Westfield. San Francisco. Unk bought and sold at least five different houses in my hometown of Fanwood. Unk was excited to hear that my daughter now lives around the corner from the Castro District, near where he used to live. He’s in no rush to return for a visit however. It has become, he said with a sigh, too much the cliché as well as too tawdry. It is enough to make a splash when you have had the chance to swim in the pond.
Susan, accompanied by her kennel of rambunctious dogs, now lives in the hacienda Unk built when he first moved to San Marcos to assist his nieces and nephew succeed in the nursery business.
The past can be intoxicating, heady brew. Well, since his illness disallows drinking any other kind of intoxicant, he may as well gulp deeply. No, Unk, I didn’t know about grandpa Andrews casting the deciding vote on the school board during the war years over whether they should suspend football. Some argued it was unseemly. Others argued this is what the boys are fighting for. Grandpa voted in favor of football – the town needed positives. No, Unk, I didn’t realize how you, dad, and grandpa gathered up buckets of sea shells, spread them out along the lakefront of our family cottage, and chortled with delight when my brothers and I awoke to find with amazed eyes these treasures along the water’s edge. Unk’s eyes twinkled when he recounted how a family friend – the town’s police sergeant – was invited by Unk to tour the garden at Unk’s last house in Fanwood. It was located across the street from our family church. The sergeant, Unk remembered with a devious raise of his other eyebrow, never noticed the plot of marijuana plants in bloom near the flagstones.
It was time for spilling the beans. Yes, grandma had a brother whose son, following the reading of grandma’s father’s will, decided his grandpa Estey was unfair to his side of the family and broke all ties. His father, grandma’s brother, had died two years before. Apparently, grandpa Estey hated his wife with a passion.
No, Unk couldn’t imagine his friend Ray conning us – it must have been someone else. Ray, working in the entertainment business then, had made a special point of giving us boys a multiple-page, glossy booklet promoting the Beatles’ first United States tour. This was a rare and precious souvenir, even rarer and more precious because all four Beatles had signed the same page, their signatures scrawled over photographs of their faces. This had become our family’s cherished treasure, hidden away for safekeeping. Only on august occasions would my sister, dubbed the acolyte of the autographs, usher it out for public admiration and veneration. But what to do when you have five children in the family? Who would inherit the booklet? Secretly, most of us expected Evie to glom it.
When grandma Andrews was preparing to die, she invited her children to tell her who wanted which items from the homestead in Olean, New York. We had recently moved to Danville and now lived within a day’s drive to Olean. Shortly after we settled into Danville, my daughter Margaret and I made a point of visiting her great-grandma Margaret. Just about every piece of furniture in the house had been tagged by Aunt Ruth, little pieces of paper bearing her name. They were tied on so they couldn’t be switched. Which was fine with everyone. Dad didn’t want anything. Unk didn’t need anything. Ruth was meant for it all. You got to love family.
Grandma fooled everybody. She lived till she was 106 years old. Few could boast what she could: she lived in three different centuries. She really didn’t want to live that long, but she did. She also lived longer a widow than a wife. When she did finally die, it wasn’t as if she had given up, she was just fed up.
When it comes to money, wills, and inheritances, even the finest, most loving and supportive families can turn as rabid as snarling wolves, as nasty as baboons in a zoo competing over one tire, as vicious as crows ripping at road kill. I harbor no illusions. With our Beatles autographs, the original game plan agreed upon by all was for us to wait till all of the Beatles dropped dead. Let’s ratchet up the value, thank you very much. We already have two Beatles down, two to go. Please, no gasps of feigned offense. There’s nothing ghoulish about this. It’s business. Well, it was business. While I was on this cross-country road trip, out of touch with Jersey, Unk told me how dad had trucked out the Beatles’ autographs for an appraisal. Given today’s economic woes, a little cash flow could buoy the family paint store. The appraisal? Bogus. Forged. Another illusion shattered.
More than once I was shuffled off by mom and dad to spend a weekend with Unk for tales and adventures. Go ahead, mom and dad, get rid of your middle child again. Okay by me. I’m use to it. Pity poor Bobby. In Unk’s apartment near LaGrande Playground, he let me stay up late and watch an episode of forbidden Twilight Zone. That episode now rates as one of classics, as Agnes Morehead defends herself against tiny, threatening aliens. The climax comes with her smashing the flying saucer with her hatchet. The Twilight Zone twist? We Earthlings are the invading aliens!
On our trip throughout the Mideast and the Mediterranean -- while grandma had her own room, and Ricky and Larry shared a hotel room -- Unk and I remained roomies. I normally was fast asleep when he’d return to the room, usually in the wee hours. My education began on the airplane flight from the John F. Kennedy International Airport (named for JFK three years before) to Orly Airport, Paris, Unk flirted with the French Stewardess from Nice, and she him, across the entire ocean.
What else did I learn from Unk? I learnt once again I remain woefully non-mechanical, as I couldn’t even learn how to mix a milkshake. On a whim, and maybe to help out a friend who needed work, Unk bought a café in downtown Scotch Plains. He invited us nieces and nephews to bus, wait tables, wash dishes, even prepare a few meals. Every attempt of mine to insert the stainless steel milkshake cup into the mixer ended up with the milkshake drenching both counter and customer.
I did learn how to steam off eighteen layers of wallpaper. Paint and wallpaper I can do. It’s in the blood. Quite literally. Grandpa use to taste test the paint. He also died of a brain tumor. Unk had bought a small apartment building across the street from Park Junior High as another investment property. One August I spent a hot, humid week going from room to room using the wall paper steamer and scraping off layers of gaudy, striped wallpaper, which worried me because I was convinced the stiff layers of wallpaper were the only thing holding up the walls.
I learned how to clean out basements. Every time Unk bought a new house, I got recruited to cart out the junk. On my desk in my church office sits one treasure from one such work detail. It is a bronze colored tin box. The lid resembles the design of a tile floor. In the center you see an Alphonse Mucha illustration of a long haired blonde lady wearing an ornamental tiara. The lid bears one name: Whitman. It once held candies. I use this Whitman’s Salmagundi Candy Tin Box to store my pipe tobacco and pipe cleaners. After all, I am an Alphonse Mucha art nouveau kind of guy.
I had to work for Unk to make money. Scotty, I found out, profited off Unk in a wiser manner, certainly requiring less sweat. Scotty crept upstairs to Unk’s private floor of the house on Prospect Avenue, Westfield. With stealth and greedy cunning, he’d remove the centerfolds from Unk’s collection of Playboys and sell them at school. Me? When stumbling across Unk’s collection, I really did read the articles. Jean Shepherd’s short stories often ran in Playboy. Really.
Former banker, former Merrill Lynch financial advisor, former New York State Auditor, Unk also taught me the only proper way to return cash to a customer at the paint store. Never plop the change in their hands. You count it up. The paintbrush costs $3.95? The costumer gives you a ten dollar bill? You put the bill on the cash register tray (never, never do you automatically put it away because sometimes a customer will lie and tell you they gave you a $20). You put the $10 in front of both of you. You pick up from the tray a nickel, put it in their palm, and say, $4.” You place the $1 bill in their palm and say, “$5.” You finish by giving the $5 and announcing, “$10.” Unk also insisted that when you count out currency, you make sure all the bills face the same way. Portrait side up. Unk, I daresay, can be very fussy at times (Hank agrees), which is partly why he confessed he’s remained a bachelor. “Nobody could put up with me,” he said frankly. Unk reminisced about a few chances for marriage in his life. There was Mary Boyle, back in his hometown, for instance. When Mary’s mother started sizing her up for her wedding dress, Unk decided it was time to move on. Quickly.
The other time he decided it was time to move on was when he voiced a business suggestion about how to better run Young Paint and Varnish. My brother replied, “I am Young Paint and Varnish.” This may explain why both Ricky and I intuitively migrated away from staying and working in the family business.
We Andrews’ are an opinionated bunch.
Yes, there is a slight stubborn streak encoded in the genes. One of Unk’s favorite expressions speaks to this, as he is prone to announce, “An Andrews is never wrong – we may on occasion be mistaken – but we are never wrong.”
Reviewing his past, he did admit to me to a possible mistake. Following his crewing onboard the sloop, he set up an employment agency, specializing in those refugees arriving in that exodus from Cuba following Castro driving out Batista and taking over. Funds from a Rockefeller Endowment were routed to assist the relocation and re-employment of these mostly middle and upper class Cuban refugees. A fellow came knocking on Unk’s office door one morning. He was head of the Florida Industrial Commission (a political appointment) which regulates these agencies. Civil unrest always is a good time to profit off the desperate and vulnerable. He suggested that things would go more smoothly if Unk paid off his home mortgage. Simple. A little every day back-scratching. Flushed with a rare moment of moral indignation, Unk refused. Actually, I’m betting it was more because he resented being told what to do. From that point on, things at the employment agency stopped going smoothly. Unk, reflecting upon this, commented how if it were today, he’d probably pay off the mortgage.
The southwest and Unk have been amiable companions. San Diego for him was a launching pad for his frequent sojourns throughout Mexico. Tijuana meant a chance to share some coins and dance an evening away with the Taxi-dancers. Vera Cruz, Puerto Viarta -- he made amigos everywhere. But Unk no longer wants to visit south of the Border. It is no longer the same. He, now needing his aluminum walker, may have lost spring in his step, but his beloved Mexico has lost something worse: its charm, its innocence.
The day I arrived at the South Rancho Sante Fe trailer park two things became immediately obvious: I instantly again became referred to as ‘Bobby;’ and second, Arizona’s newly enacted Immigration Law dominated the news. The pundits opined. CNN interviewed the ‘Trail of Dreams’ hikers who marched from Florida to Washington DC demanding a meeting with President Obama. Several of them feared deportation. The news was filled with the clucking of Chicken Littles on one side busily shrieking and pointing upward in alarm: “the sky is falling – we must keep them out!” The Chicken Littles on the other side were shrieking just as brashly and thrusting fingers in chests: “the sky is falling – this is blatant profiling!” Fox and MSNBC gave voice to the bluster of dozens of Foghorn Leghorns. But this is no joke, son.
Whenever has the law saved us? But where would we be without the law as a higher authority? It’s rarely simple. What is simple?
I don’t know. I just don’t know. A long time ago, I gave up trying to be right all the time. All I know is that when I mentioned to Susan that I’m surprised at all the tension, she replied that that’s because I really don’t have to live with it. Susan was right. Mine is the comfortable judgmentalism of the sidelines. One thing about being judgmental – if you get to judge others, fair is when others get to watch you and say things about you.
My cousins feel as if they are bunkered down on the front lines of an escalating war. They are too. They live on the border. Life for many has become unbearable. The competition for jobs. The competition for resources. The fear of drug gangs. The missing or killed youths – bodies of young adults discovered -- the body count numbering almost one a week either from abduction, rape, or the lure of easy drugs. The desperation of the Mexican peasant. Many want out of where they are. Life there is even more unbearable. My yearly trips to Honduras have taught me how toilsome, back-breaking, and prohibitively expensive it is to obtain visas. Only the privileged manage. How can an impoverished, illiterate campesino navigate his way through the consulate paperwork? How can he even afford to travel by bus to the capital, Tegucigalpa, from his tiny village which is itself a two hour horseback ride from Choluteca? Yet the crushing, Mobius Strip realization remains for him an inescapable conclusion: picking coffee beans or harvesting bananas or sewing T-shirts for China will never earn him enough for him to feed his family or build for his family a safe home. Opportunity is all he wants, even if that chance means crossing borders illegally. He never will get the chance to cross them legally.
It all boils down to the harsh reality that has defined the history of our world from our world’s first fist-fight: the competition for limited resources, especially as resources become scarcer and scarcer. If you doubt me, check out mommies shopping at Christmastime for the toy of the season at Wal-Mart. Grandmas can be feline ferocious when someone else has what they want. Consumers have claws.
What my cousins face is a tax base that simply cannot support being generous. They’re struggling to make it, fighting tooth and nail to keep their business afloat. Liberalism is easy when liberalism is affordable. The increasing demand on social services is sucking dry the tax base, stretching nerves, emptying pockets. Theirs is the frustration of escalating taxes, increasing violence, diminishing water supplies, fewer jobs, less money banked to send their children to college. Scotty wants to send his daughter Brianna and his son Bobby to college, but he and his wife are unsure how they will be able to pay tuition.
Some mistakenly assume that you first have to get to know someone before you can love them. The opposite is true. Only when you love them do you get to know them.
A long time ago, while busily engaged in all the right causes and crusades as befits a liberal arts college student, I met one of my wife’s South Africa relations. Mr. Beal-Preston, taking time to spend the night at my wife’s home for family visit, was on his yearly excursion to Canada to stock bulls for his ranch. His ranch was the size of Rhode Island. This was before Mandela, before the collapse of apartheid. I enjoy a certain devious delight in telling people how my wife’s family comes from Africa. It confuses them. My wife’s grandmother was indeed South African, on the English colonist side. Her ancestors, the Kemsley’s, settled Capetown, founding the Capetown Times. They were residents there long before the Zulu’s began invading from the north. The only rightful inhabitants to South Africa were the Xhosa, but they got killed by everyone -- English, Boer, and Zulu. Truth usually prowls around the corner of perception.
I expected to confront a monster. Instead, I shared a drink with an interesting man who patiently explained the complexities of his land and culture. Is anything really black and white? As with most of the English South Africans he found apartheid distasteful, but he also feared what could happen with the collapse of the rule of law – as eventually did happen very bloodily and violently in Rhodesia. I found him a gentle man, who, in his own way, cared about the black Africans who worked for him. He wanted to protect them, give them opportunity.
It is so very easy to be doctrinaire when you don’t have to deal with people.
Monday, Hank force fed me French Toast and sausage. Unk persisted in asking me where I intended to go. He insisted on details. “Someplace by the Salton Sea,” I kept replying. “Over there,” I would wave. “That’a way.” Unk shook his head, but his face also betrayed a smile of a familiar remembrance, appreciating my lack of a specific itinerary. Before we hugged our goodbye, Unk slipped me an envelope containing a hundred dollars in cash. “For gas,” he said with a wink.