dranthonysblog

November 20, 2013

Leadership in a 1,000 Words

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Leadership is ever-present.  We experience it almost from the time we come into this world until the end.  When we are very young our parents, or guardians, guide, teach, and care for us.  They influence us to achieve common or at least desired goals.  Teachers and coaches do the same, though in a somewhat more detached and less informal way.  The same can be said of supervisors, religious leaders, and various professionals we solicit to assist us.  Friends and colleagues also display leadership as do civil servants, like police officers, firefighters, and military personnel.  Leadership is part of our lives and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to thrive, or at least survive long, without it.

Leadership can have positive, negative and insignificant influence on our lives, depending upon your perspective.   Similarly, some lessons learned from leaders stay with you for a lifetime, such as the way some address elders as sir or ma’am, while others fade quickly like wearing your clothes a certain way to be perceived as “cool”.

It has been talked and written about since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and very likely much earlier than that.   Some who study leadership will tell you that it is learned from observing and experiencing it.  Others believe that leadership is innate and that we are born with it.  Another group advocates that leadership is some combination of the two.  Formal theories have been devised that range from leadership being explained by a series of rewards and punishments, to personality traits both in-born as well as learned, to situational factors, which give weight to context as well as to individuals.  There are also theories that seek to explain it by relationships, with power being a key ingredient, as well as many hybrid approaches.

Most will agree that great leadership has the ability to inspire, motivate, and transform outcomes from group endeavors of all types.  Many civilizations, nations, corporations, groups, and individuals have benefited from leadership.  Similarly, much damage, destruction, and pain has also been wrought by people exercising leadership for conquest or oppression.  These days, if you desire, you can take classes in leadership and even earn an undergraduate or advanced degree in it.  Innumerable books have been written about leadership, especially in the last few years, and yet we still do not really know much more than we did when we first started wondering about it.

One of my early jobs was as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.  The supervisor was a man named Rick and he led a team of young people like me by being actively involved and often personally teaching us how to complete required tasks.  He did this usually with a smile and was always willing to lend a hand, whenever needed.  The employees, my peers, respected him and the work was also always well done and completed on time.

Many years later, I worked for a boss who knew little about the operation and cared nothing for the staff.  As far as we could tell he spent much of his time simply goofing off in his office.  The decisions that he made were done with little regard for facts and the results were not given any real scrutiny.  The end was predictable and he was soon out of work.

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A leader that I later worked for was very obviously tired and did not want the job.  However, because of the circumstances, he had little choice but to stay.  The staff respected his experience and he obviously worked very hard.  However, he was easily manipulated and many of the employees took advantage of this, which caused great problems for the organization.

Yet another individual I worked with was very successful at her job and made many improvements.  She listened to employees, analyzed issues thoroughly, and quite obviously cared about the organization and those who were employed by it.  She worked hard to enhance organizational performance and challenged everyone to do the same.  She was focused more on the work and less on what was in it for her and the organization prospered under her leadership.

These types of experiences, and many more, combined with my education and training have provided me with a unique vantage point from which to contemplate leadership.   These days, I really do not think any of the theories satisfactorily explain or account for all facets of leadership.  This is because human behavior is complex (any mom, little leaguer, or bartender knows this) and is very likely influenced by both inherited as well as learned factors.  The expression of inherited factors itself is complex and is probably affected by multiple environmental influences, in ways that we do not yet completely understand.

Additionally, the context of any situation contains a multitude of factors that can and likely do alter outcomes.  In this regard, followers themselves also influence leadership through formal and informal means, though this is seldom taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of leadership.  Similarly, individual definitions of leadership are diverse and not fixed.  So what defines good leadership to one person may be perceived as inadequate, ineffective, or just plain bad to another and both could be evaluated differently by the same person on a different day!  Follower and leader moods and attitudes are also not fixed and these too will affect perceptions and subsequent behavior (i.e., the world looks better when we are happy than when things are not going our way).

Where does this leave us?  At this point, with three thoughts:

  1. Leadership is important
  2. We do not yet really understand leadership
  3. That understanding leadership should be a priority for everyone

It is important to keep these in mind, because there are some who claim to fully understand it and will pass on their knowledge to anyone who will listen, or pay, for the privilege.  Until we fully understand it, which may take a while, keep this in mind and decide for yourself just what constitutes effective leadership!

May 5, 2013

Be Proud to Be an American

My middle schooler, Tony, wrote the following essay in class last week about why you should be proud to be an American:

Be Proud To Be An American

When people think of the United States of America, they think of many things such as eagles, Thanksgiving and our iconic red, white and blue flag full of 50 bright stars.  Yet, our most important traits as Americans is our freedom and rights that god gave us as human beings, also known as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  What if we had never came up with that concept?  People would be locked away in jail just for sharing their opinions.  Take some time and think about that!

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights protect us in a special way that most of us “youngsters” do not realize.  Take Amendment III for example; because of that Amendment we do not have our soldiers coming into our homes anytime they want taking all of our food and sleeping in our nice, warm, comfortable beds.  Also, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights allow us freedom of speech as well as let us have our own bias and opinions.  In other countries they would lock you in jail without a fair trial, even if you were framed.  In the United States, you get to prove your innocence and even if you do not have a penny to your name, you still get a lawyer – FREE.  Those are some examples out of the Bill of Rights.

In the United States, we have a lot of freedom that other countries do not have.  In some Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, they might cut your hand off.  In China the Communists try to make everything and everyone even (they also only allow you to have one child).  So, next time you speak the Pledge of Allegiance, make sure you mean it and BE PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!!!

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March 30, 2013

My time in San Quentin Prison

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I just completed spring quarter at the University of California in Santa Barbara and was looking forward to spending the summer at home with my parents.  My father had recently accepted a position as Associate Warden of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.  One of the perks, which could be debated, was that staff had the option to live on grounds at the prison.  The facility consists of an outer gate with full security that houses the prison inside as well as a community includes streets and living quarters for hundreds of employees and their families.  At that time, it also had a community gym as well and a small post office and gift shop located just outside the main gate.  The cost, I was told, was much more reasonable than rent or a mortgage payment was in Marin County, which is one of the more affluent areas in California.  The real estate that the prison and the expansive grounds it occupies, due to its location and proximity to the bay, are worth millions of dollars should the state of California ever decide to sell it!

It was very early in the morning when I left my small off-campus apartment in Isla Vista and my mind was filled with a predictable mix of thoughts about school and anticipation of a summer spent at home.  I moved out a couple of years before when my parents had lived in Sacramento and, though I had visited them since the move, I was unsure what to expect spending a few months living at San Quentin.  This was before I entered the Army and so I had no experience living in any type of secured community.

I arrived in the late morning and the gate guard asked me who I was there to visit.  I informed him that I was moving “home” for the summer and would be around for a few months.  After verifying my identification, and calling to confirm I was authorized, he lifted the gate and I drove in and down the road towards my parent’s house.  They lived on a hill in a beautiful home that appeared to be built around the turn of the last century, plus or minus a decade.  The yard was filled with flowers and the living room had huge windows that had a fantastic view of the San Francisco bay as well as the prison itself.  I remember thinking what a contrast the two aspects of the view were.  On exceptionally clear days, which were rare due to the near ever-present bay area fog, you could also see Alcatraz prison, then a state park, which added to the spectacle.

In addition to the living room, the house had a family room, sun room, back yard (also filled with flowers) and three bedrooms.  I remember thinking that aside from the proximity to the prison this was a nice place to live.   Interestingly, the grounds were all maintained by inmates supervised by guards.  I realized this early on when I saw that the landscape workers wore the same blue shirt and denim pants that the inmates had on.  I also noticed that they were very observant, especially if you were with a female.

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In the morning scores of inmates would gather in the main yard and would chant in unison while exercising.  I later learned that some of the groups also did this for religious reasons as well as for a show of unity.  To a curious outsider, hearing this mixed with the chilling and dense morning fog was both fascinating and somewhat unnerving at the same time!  In thinking about it now, it was not unlike some of the more solemn cadences that resonated during early morning physical training sessions that army units do when in garrison.

I visited the inside of the actual prison several times that summer and was fascinated not so much by the denizens, as I had been raised around that (i.e., my father spent the majority of his career in corrections), but by the stark surroundings and the aging architecture of the walls and buildings.  I later learned that it was constructed in 1852 with little renovation or change since.  In many ways it was similar to ancient forts of the type you would see in far-flung outposts still standing from Spain’s hegemony in places like Manila Bay.  During my visits, I also was the recipient of catcalls and much staring as I was 18 then, and even though I am a native Californian, it left an impression on me.  One positive outcome from this was that it helped me to more fully understand just how some employees feel when they are victims of harassment, which was useful when I started working in human resources a few years later.  I also viewed death row and saw the gas chamber, which was still operational at that time, though that summer it was not put to use.

Visiting day was on Sunday and I remember that because it was one of three times that the main gate was often crowded with people and cars.  The other two were during protests, which were also fairly common and usually concerned the death penalty, and during daily shift changes.  Visitors would line up and they included a fairly representative sampling of individuals from all walks of life, ethnicities, and income levels and included; girlfriends, family members of assorted ages, attorneys, and friends.  The expressions were as varied as the people though many sported looks of sadness tinged with frustration, no doubt in part due to the wait in line, and some tried to look cheerful, though it was clear they did not want to be there.  It was not too different from the group that I would see visiting juveniles when I worked as a counselor in a probation department later on.  During these experiences, I always wondered what these many were really thinking as they journeyed through the rote security process and queuing just to share a few moments with family, or associates, who were incarcerated.

The prison was located just a few miles down highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge, which was next to San Francisco.  During that summer I often rode my bicycle around the area and occasionally over the bridge never-failing to marvel at the scenery and the pace of life in and around the city.  It is impossible to live in Marin County and not visit the City for shopping, entertainment, or just for escape.  When you live on grounds at the prison this is especially true because there is a ferry terminal outside of the back gate that goes directly to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  The ride across the bay takes under an hour and is better than fighting traffic and searching for an overpriced place to park your car on the weekends.

The summer eventually passed and it was time for me to leave the prison by the bay and get back to college life.  As I left I told the somewhat bored looking gate guard that I was going back to college and he responded with an indifferent “I don’t care gaze” but, being the well-trained peace officer and public servant that he obviously was, he wished me well nonetheless.  Living on grounds at a prison and not being a convict or peace officer is an unusual experience and one that stays with you for life, especially when that prison is San Quentin.

February 14, 2013

The Helpfulness of Strangers

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I have recently been taking care of my wife after she had major surgery.  Her recovery has been slow, though steady, and the experience has caused me to reflect on helpfulness from strangers.  It is far too easy to forget the good that we can do when bombarded daily with images and stories about the bad, which annoyingly receives extensive coverage, regardless of where you look.

Helpfulness from strangers takes many forms and really happens often when you stop and think about it.  When I was a teenager, my father was driving my mother and I back home from a trip to San Francisco.  We were about half way across the Golden Gate bridge when a tire blew out in our car.  My father was able to keep control of the vehicle, but there was no place to pull over. Worse, as we slowed traffic started to go around us at unsafe speeds.  Just then, a highway patrol motorcycle officer noticed our plight and cut across several lanes of traffic to get to us.  He put his lights on and motioned for my father to continue to drive forward as best that he could, which was very slow because we were quickly down to driving on a rim in the blown out tire.  It was rush hour and even though the officer was behind us, cars were still flying past, and more than once they came incredibly close to hitting the officer.  It seemed like forever until we finally crossed the bridge and made it to the first exit.  We parked on the nearest wide shoulder and the officer radioed in for a tow truck.

Clearly, the officer was doing his job, but he did it with little regard for his own safety and he executed it quickly and instinctively.  My father was Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections at that time and was so grateful that he wrote a letter to Head of the California Highway Patrol commending the officer on the actions he took to assist us that day.

Years later, another less dramatic example of helping happened when I was a soldier returning home from overseas on emergency leave.  My flight had been delayed by a layover in London, so when the plane landed at JFK airport in New York it was very late.  I was not able to get a connecting flight to the West Coast until the morning.  I also had no means to get a hotel at that time and so I was forced to wait at the airport.  It was cold and damp, and I was tired and sitting in a chair with my bags when security asked me to leave.  I had no place to go when an elderly lady next to me apparently figured that out and motioned for me to follow her.  From all appearances she lived on the streets, so I was understandably a little hesitant to follow, but out of desperation I did.  She led me to another distant terminal that had flights departing all night and did not close.  I smiled, thanked her, and found a chair to make myself comfortable in until morning.  Unlike the CHP officer, she did not have to help, but she did and it made a difference.

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Another time happened years later when my wife and our then very young children were driving home from a Thanksgiving trip we had just taken.  We were in the Sierra Nevada mountains and it had just gotten dark and it started to snow.  The snow quickly turned to near blizzard conditions and so I stopped to put chains on the tires.  I installed them quickly and we were back on our way.  A short while later, and many miles away from any town or service station, one of the chains slipped off with a loud clang.  I stopped and realized that a part was now missing rendering the chains useless.  We also discovered that there was no cell coverage in the area and the snow showed no signs of letting up.

As my wife and I discussed our options, an old van pulled up behind us with a Hispanic family inside.  A man around my age stepped out, who spoke better English than I did Spanish, and told me that he could help.  He immediately took his shoe laces off and used them to tie the chains back into place.  He then said that he would follow me and, before he walked away, I pulled out some money and offered it to him with my sincere thanks.  He smiled and politely refused my offer and went back to his vehicle.

The storm worsened, but the unconventional repair actually held long enough to get us to the safety of a warm lodge.  A short time later we pulled into the parking lot and waved at the van as they drove passed us and traveled on down the highway in spite of the storm.

I thought about these, and similar helpful acts, when I took my wife to her first post operative medical appointment.  She required the use of a wheel chair due to the amount of walking involved.  While wheeling her around, strangers held doors open for us and politely offered assistance.  We also received help, and multiple offers of same, from numerous colleagues and coworkers.  I found myself humbled and extremely appreciative of all the help being offered.  I also wondered if this is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she said; “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”?

Few would dispute that nearly everyone benefits from helpful acts, in whatever shape or frequency they take, throughout our lives.  We would do well to remember that because, among other reasons, none of us know when we might suddenly find ourselves in need of help from a stranger!

December 26, 2012

The Wienermobile

Not long ago, I was driving down the highway with my kids when one told me that he just saw a really big hot dog on wheels.  By the time I looked, it was gone.  The claim was naturally questioned by the middle schooler in the back seat!  I interrupted the amusing exchange to tell them that he may actually have seen the Wienermobile.

The Wienermobile, I explained, was actually a large hot dog on wheels that traveled around north America, and beyond, essentially advertising Oscar Mayer while also performing charitable work.  The last time I had seen it was more than 3,000 miles away and over 3 decades earlier.  As I recall, it had come to my hometown in southern California and was passing out colorful whistles shaped like wieners, which I happily waited in line to receive.

We continued on our way and I forgot about it until that evening when I looked it up on the Oscar Mayer website.   It turned out, that he had indeed seen the Wienermobile and it was going to be in our area through the next day raising money for sick children.  My kids had to see this for themselves, so the next day we were off to take a look…

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It was in a supermarket parking lot, not unlike the one it was in when I had seen it last.

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The Wienermobile looked pretty much the same too.

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Everyone was busy inspecting it and the gullwing door was particularly fascinating to all present.

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As you can see, parallel parking and backing-up should probably be avoided when driving it as the result could easily be a damaged dog.

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This particular Wienermobile was not as big as you would think up close, but was every bit as cool as you would expect in person!

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The inside was bright with large comfortable looking seats.

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Surprisingly, it also sported a state-of-the-art sound system and flat screen monitors as well.

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The license plate was of course personalized and fully appropriate.

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There have been many models of Wienermobile since its inception in 1936, though the overall look has remained surprisingly consistent.

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The Wienermobile staff also still hand out small whistles, though these were not brightly colored, though they instead glow in the dark.

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As we were walking away my youngest thanked me and said that we always went on the coolest adventures, to which I had to agree.  If you ever see a large wiener on wheels, do yourself a favor and check it out!

November 17, 2012

Happy Trails Hostess

When I was growing up, smoking was still popular, as was cruising on weekends, and things like trans-fats and junk food were not yet being discussed.  During these times, which really was not that long ago, my mom would sometimes place Hostess snack cakes in my lunch pail (Hot Wheels, if I recall correctly), along with a sandwich, fruit, and milk money.

Though not always included, these delicious treats were much appreciated by the boyhood me whenever they were.  Also, for lunch trading purposes, Hostess treats could be bartered for nearly anything else that was in any lunch bag or pail at my elementary school!

My personal favorites, not in any particular order, were Cupcakes,

Zingers,

Fruit Pies (Apple actually),

and Suzy Q’s!

Years later, when I was in college and had abandoned my unhealthy, old pals, I must admit, I would occasionally still enjoy a SweetRoll, or two, when I did not have time for breakfast!

I never really cared  much for Twinkies, though I was surprised to learn they were 85 years old!

I was even more surprised to learn, like many in the U.S. recently, that Hostess was closing…

and not due to low sales either.  Indeed, when I went looking for Hostess products this morning, I was amazed to find that they had literally flown off the shelves from most local stores already!

Through tenacity I nonetheless managed to find a few packages at an out-of-the-way convenience store and brought them home to share with my kids.

Though it has been a while since I last tasted them, the memories came back as did the smiles!  In living to see the passing of Hostess, I am more than a little saddened to witness it, even though I understand why.  Thanks for the memories Hostess!

October 30, 2012

A Teddy Bear Tale

What you are about to read is believed by the party involved to have happened.  The person is completely credible and the story is unusual.  I have altered some of the details at the request of the person involved though, aside from that, what you are about to read is the story as I understand it.  It is up to you to decide how it happened…

Cindy lived with her two terrier mix dogs in a townhouse she rented in a trendy area of southern California.  She was 28 years old, college educated, and worked as an Office Manager for a mortgage company.  Her commute to work took nearly an hour each way, but she did not care because she enjoyed where she was living.

Her life to this point was fairly typical and according to Cindy she had no history of anything strange ever really happening to her.  Her parents were supportive and she was close to her brother and sister, though they lived in another part of the state.  She dated occasionally, though she had no one steady in her life at the time.

One day in October, she believes it was a Friday, she came home after a long commute and walked upstairs to her bedroom to get comfortable.  As she passed the spare room that she used as an office something seemed odd.  She continued on to her bedroom and as she put on her shorts and walking shoes, but she could not shake that feeling that something was not quite right.  Before she took the dogs out for a walk, she retraced her steps and stopped in her tracks when she looked into the spare room.

As she looked into the office she saw that the bed was still made and nothing was on the floor.  She also noticed that the closet door was closed just as she had left it that morning.  In the far corner, her desk chair was exactly where she parked it under the small table that served as her desk. So far so good she thought to herself.

However, when she looked on the desk, her heart pounded, her hairs stiffened, and goose bumps appeared instantly.  She froze and just stared at her desk for a long while.  What she saw, was really nothing much at first glance, but to Cindy it was surreal and not possible.  Her small brown teddy bear was standing on its head in front of the inbox, perfectly balanced.  The problems with this were several and they were exactly what had unnerved Cindy so much.  The first problem was that Cindy did not leave the bear that way and the second was that she knew it probably could not be done, at least not without glue, strings, and/or some other manner of support.  Lastly, all of this caused her to want to scream, though she held back.

Being a practical person, she spent a long while just studying the 12 inch, 8 ounce, toy with a bean filled body and stuffing filled head and appendages. She did this to confirm that there was no way that this pose was possible without support.  She looked for thread, wires, and glue and found absolutely nothing.  She then stopped and quickly checked the rest of her townhouse for signs of someone having been there.  Since she was a very neat person she would have spotted anything out-of-place in an instant, but she found everything in perfect order except for her bear.

She went back to the office, sat down, and finally grabbed the bear taking it from the unnatural position that it was in.  She then thoroughly checked it over for anything that could explain what had happened.  The bear was a little dusty, but otherwise in like new condition and, as far as she could tell, completely unaltered in every way.  She thought to herself that perhaps she was wrong and that an earthquake had made the bear fall and land on its head and that maybe just maybe it could somehow be posed in that way after all.  She spent the next half hour trying to repeat the pose but the bean bag torso and stuffing filled appendages would not allow it.  The bear simply could not be posed on its head perfectly balanced the way she found it, no matter what she did, even by leaning it against the wall for support!

Two people had access to her apartment, her landlord and her ex-boyfriend, who still had not returned his key.  The next day she explained the weird situation to both and was told flatly that neither had done it.  In fact, her ex-boyfriend was at work from the time she left that morning until well after she returned home that night, so he could not have done it.  Her landlord, who was also a neighbor, was honest and not one to break rules.  He told her that it is illegal for a landlord to enter without some compelling and urgent cause, like a fire, or without advanced notice being provided to the tenant, in non-urgent situations. He then reiterated to her that he did not do it, though he agreed the whole thing was very odd.

That day she felt uneasy, but she still loved the toy and did not want to get rid of it.  Her mother understood that her daughter loved antiques and had a fondness for bears.  So, when her mom spotted the vintage teddy bear in like new condition, at a local street fair, she bought it and gave it to her daughter for Christmas.  Cindy immediately loved the bear and put it on top of her inbox in the office.  The bear had been in the same spot for nearly a year, and only moved when Cindy picked it up to place unpaid bills underneath or pull them out to pay them.

After much thought, Cindy, who was raised Catholic, though she did not attend church, made a decision.  She grabbed some holy water that her grandmother had given her and sprinkled it on the bear.  She then said a brief prayer to herself.  After that she looked the bear in the eyes with a clarity of thought and absolute intent and said out load if he ever moved even millimeter or so much as gave her a creepy feeling again, she would immediately burn the bear to ashes and scatter what remained over a wide area.  When she was done with her statement to the bear, she left the room and went on with her life not thinking much about it again.

That was well over a decade ago, and according to Cindy, he still sits on top of her inbox, in her office. He has not ever given a repeat performance, though Cindy still occasionally wonders how, and why, it happened and she still says it is the oddest thing that she has ever experienced before or since.

October 28, 2012

Charcoal (my dog’s true tale)

During the summer that started with the end of third grade we moved to Morro Bay, a sleepy little fishing village located on California’s central coast.  It was quite a change for me as I had lived nearly all of my young life until that time in Rialto, a suburban community located in a large valley east of Los Angeles, that still had numerous orange groves.  We had also lived a couple of blocks from my paternal grandparents, who I frequently visited.  Our new home was several hundred miles north and far from family and childhood friends.

While lacking many things I had grown accustomed to, it made up for it in other ways.  Also, since we had vacationed in the area before, it was not completely foreign to me.  I recall spending most of that first summer riding my bike, playing on the beach, and exploring my new home.  When fall came that year it brought with it many cold and foggy days and, of course, the start of fourth grade.

Soon I found myself thinking about turning 10.  Like many pre-teens, I remember feeling that I would be very grown up since my age would now include two numbers.  My birthday fell on a Saturday that year and my mom and middle sister had left early that morning to go shopping.  They returned later on and asked me to help bring in the groceries.  I ran to the car and instantly noticed a shopping bag moving by itself!  I reached for that one first, as my mother and sister must have known that I would, because they were behind me.  I was happily surprised to see a small, dark and furry lump that popped up and greeted me with a lick!  He was no bigger than a Guinea Pig and had soft but wiry black fur, with a matching black nose, dark brown eyes, and a wiggly, long for his size, tail.  From the minute that I spotted him I knew that he was one of kind.  The first thing my mother asked me was “what are you going to name him?”  Without hesitation, I responded that since he was black as “charcoal” that would be his name.

Initially, I made Charcoal a nice bed, I thought, on the floor next to me, but he would have none of that and carried on until I picked him up.  After that, he slept at the foot of my bed.  We went for walks nearly every day and he grew quickly.  Being mostly Terrier, he was a smallish, medium-sized dog, who probably never exceeded 30 pounds in weight.  As he grew, he turned out to be not the cutest dog, but he had qualities that made him endearing nonetheless.

I taught him how to walk on a leash, though he really never cared for that much.  We would hike through fields and down rutted roads usually on route to the bay, piers, or the beach.  When he got bigger, I would ride my bike and he would run behind where often, because he was mostly a Terrier, he would bark at cars or people while trailing me.

I would sometimes find interesting trees to explore which, being a boy, I would do often.  One day while doing just that, Charcoal became tired of waiting for me on the ground and he started to climb the tree too!  After a few attempts doing this, he became pretty good at it, for a dog, and could usually make it half way up most trees.  Of course, I almost always had to help him get back down because I did not want him to get hurt, though loose sand covered most of the ground that we explored and the trees were not very tall.

Image

Charcoal loved to play tug-o-war and he would find a toy, or rag, or once in a while even a stray piece of clothing, and drop it near me whenever he wanted to have a game.  He also loved chasing other animals and at night he would sometimes go out for a bathroom break and refuse to come back in the house.  This worried me, but in the morning he would always be at the door and wagging his tail, as if to say thank-you for not making me stay in all night.  It was during these “adventures” where he must have met the locals, because when I rode my bike around town neighbors would often talk to him as if they knew him.  I figured that he must have because his response to them was a wag and never a bark, which he did to strangers he did not trust!

When Charcoal was a year old we moved about 5 miles across the bay to another town called Los Osos.  The house we lived in was brand new and surrounded by fields with Oak trees and bushes, containing all manner of wild life from possums to lizards, the former Charcoal loved to chase!  This was made easier for him to do because the property, like most in the then semi-rural area at that time, had no fence.

The elementary was also brand new, and located down a sandy dirt road, two blocks from home.  One day, Charcoal showed up after lunch, and was distracting students who were looking at him through the windows.  The teacher was about to call maintenance to have him removed when I recognized him and let her know that he was my dog and that I would take care of it.  I went outside and walked him to the road and told him to “go home.”  He looked at me with pleading eyes and then turned and went back towards home.  At some point after that initial showing he appeared again, though this time it was near the end of the day, and he did not go close to the windows, but waited until I came out.  By spring of that year, he regularly met me at the end of each day and walked me back home!

The next year I started Junior High, 7th grade, and also attended a new school, but it being well over a mile away, I had no visits from Charcoal.  One day, in the fall, I road my bike up to a local market to get some comic books (we did not own any video games).  Charcoal followed me and waited outside the store.  I was not inside for more than a couple of minutes when I heard the sound of dogs barking, with one of them being mine.  When I got outside he was in the jaws of a large Pit-bull and it was swinging him around.  I quickly located the owner inside and he freed Charcoal, who was bleeding from a large wound on his neck.  I went to the payphone (cell phones were not widely available yet) and called home and asked my brother to come and pick us up.  Charcoal did not whimper or fuss when the Veterinarian was fixing him up.  If I remember correctly, he required around a dozen, or so, stitches and the Vet told us he was lucky to be alive.  He soon healed up and was back to doing the things that he loved in a short time!

When taking him on walks, or bike rides, to the bay, I noticed that he did not want to go near the water.  I thought about this, and one time brought a favorite rubber toy with me and tossed it in the bay very close to the shore.  He went in and grabbed it quickly, shaking himself off and looked at me as if asking that I not do that again.  Of course, being the child that I was I ignored his request, and in a few days I had him regularly fetching sticks in the bay, which he did often after that.

Time passed and before I knew it, I was starting the 8th grade.  I had Charcoal for 3 and half years by then.  Unfortunately, he still liked to go out at night and many times continued to refuse to come back inside.  One morning after going out (I think it was in October) he did not show up and was nowhere to be found all day long.  I was really worried about him when late that afternoon a friend from school called.  I knew from the sound of the ring that I did not want to answer the phone, but I did, and my friend asked if I was missing my dog.  I said that I was and he told me that his brother accidentally hit one while driving home late the night before.  He asked me to come over and see if the dead dog was mine.  I hung up and was at his house in half the time it would have ordinarily have taken me to travel the 4 blocks.  I slowed down when I saw my friend in his driveway and the unmoving, small mound of black matted fur next to him.  He asked me if that was my dog, to which I just nodded, turned and quietly walked back home.

In his passing he taught the 13-year-old me a great deal about the essence of life and, in time, there were other terrific dogs, but none were quite like him.  I have not been back to that town in many years, but when I visit, I am instantly reminded about those halcyon childhood days and my loyal pal and fellow adventurer who was so much more than simply a pet…

April 17, 2012

Uncle Joe

Uncle Joe is the name of a common relation that a lot of us know and love.  My particular Uncle Joe is actually my father’s Uncle Joe and his birth name was Jose.  I did not know my Uncle Joe well at all, but he nonetheless had an impact on me and many others during his life, and after.

What I know about his background is that he was born in 1908 in the middle of Mexico, in a state called Zacatecas, in the capital by the same name, in a sleepy village called Jerez.  The region was well settled by the Spaniards less than 100 years after Columbus opened up the new world to the west.  Uncle Joe was the fourth born child and though he was the third born son, he was named after his father.  When Uncle Joe was little, his family owned a ranch in a country that would soon be in the midst of yet another revolution.   The house where he was born was made from adobe and looked to be ancient when I saw it some eight decades after he was born (my grandfather, his brother, was born in the same house).

Uncle Joe spent his early years helping out with the ranch and going to school.  When the revolution, which started in 1910 and lasted until 1920, began to intensify the family decided to move to the United States.  By the time Uncle Joe was 12 he was living in Chandler, Arizona and later in Colorado with his father and older brothers working in fields, mines, and as labor to support themselves and the family.  Eventually, they relocated to southern California and made it their new home.

As far as I can tell, during the 1930’s, when he was in his 20’s, uncle Joe worked in sales.  He was single and had no children.  However, he did have many brothers and sisters, in-laws, and nieces and nephews, some of whom he was close to like my father and grandparents.  In 1936 he applied to become a naturalized US citizen, which was eventually granted.  To me, the really interesting part of his story begins when he joined the Merchant Marines sometime during the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, when Uncle Joe was in his 30’s.

Before I go on, the United States Merchant Marines, for those who are unfamiliar, consists of a fleet of privately owned ocean vessels that are operated by the government or private sector.  The fleet transports goods and services in and out of U.S. waters.  During times of peace, they transport passengers as well as cargo, but in wartime they function as an auxiliary to the Navy.  In the latter capacity, they transport service members, supplies, and cargo directly for the military.  I knew little about this until Uncle Joe passed away, at which time I checked to see if he was eligible for any Veteran’s benefits, since he worked in the Merchant Marines during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.

When Uncle Joe was in the Merchant Marines he traveled all over the world (literally).  Based upon his letters, he loved seeing new places.  There are pictures of him in Egypt next to the pyramids, strolling down Canal Street in New Orleans, enjoying dinner in Paris, and exploring the Alamo in Texas.  He traveled to Europe and researched the family’s genealogy in Spain and visited the beaches in South Africa.  He enjoyed dancing in Tokyo and went down under to hike the outback in Australia.  He visited the Azores and Tahiti and even enjoyed the night life in Rio.  In short, this man who was born in rural Mexico shortly after the turn of the century found a career a little later in life than his contemporaries that enabled him to explore the world!

I know this mainly from his stories which were retold to me by my father and grandparents.  I know this also from the circulated coins, bills, and stamps that he brought back and gave to my father from all of his many ports of call.  When I was a child, I would look at the foreign bills and change with their exotic writing and pictures and imagine what these places were really like.  Uncle Joe wrote post cards to my father and grandparents, many of which survived multiple moves and clearly showed how much he enjoyed his life.

When I was little, Uncle Joe was to me an intense man who always seemed to be far away, even when he was in the same room.  He was pleasant but did not say much to the little boy that I was then.  My father and grandparents always loved to see him and they would talk for hours about times long past.   He was different from my grandfather in that he never did marry nor have any children.  The rumor in the family was that early investments in property enabled him to have a comfortable retirement, though I never saw any evidence of that.  After I came back from a tour overseas in the Army, I asked my father to have Uncle Joe write down any information that he had about the family, so I could share it with mine someday.  Uncle Joe did that, though he confused me with my brother, and I have since shared that letter with extended members of the family who found the contents to be priceless in filling in gaps of family history that appeared after his generation had passed.

I have been fortunate to travel to many faraway places in my life, but I have not yet seen a fraction of what Uncle Joe has seen.  Whenever, I visit a new area, I invariably wonder to myself if Uncle Joe has been there before me.  When my father and I were in Macau, we ducked in to a little piano bar to take a break from sight-seeing one day.  Near our table was a small plaque that indicated that this was the place where the Pan Am Clipper planes landed.  I asked my father if he thought Uncle Joe might have stopped there, to which he replied that knowing him he probably did!

Twenty years ago, Uncle Joe, who was then 84 years old, had a stroke and was hospitalized.  I took my grandparents to see him one afternoon.  He was in bed and could barely speak and was pale and drawn, but the minute he noticed my grandparents, he became more alert and even managed to smile, just a little.  They visited for a while with my grandparents doing the talking but aside from the obvious, Uncle Joe was different this time.  That distant look that he had always had whenever I saw him before was gone.  It was replaced with a tired, weak, but warm and satisfied expression of a man who realized his time was nearly up and who was somehow grateful nonetheless to be where he was at that moment.

Uncle Joe (Jose C. Campos) is gone now and since he has departed, I have thought a lot about him and the legacy that he left.  He did not, to my knowledge, leave a large estate, or a forlorn widow or fatherless children behind.  He did not write books, compose music, cure a disease, or discover a new planet.  His legacy was much simpler in that he lived his life the way he wanted to, in an era when many would not or could not do it.  In the process he showed those around him that they could do the same!

April 7, 2012

An afternoon at the Zoo

My parents took the family to many zoos when I was young, from San Diego to the one in Boise, Idaho.   After I was grown, I visited various zoos, including some in Europe and others in Asia, occasionally and usually only as part of the sightseeing that many of us do when visiting new places.  Since I became a parent, zoo visits have become more frequent as our children, like most kids, really enjoy them.  Recently, we visited Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and found it to be a terrific place to spend an afternoon.

It is not a particularly large zoo, nor is it very showy, but it is well-organized, very kid friendly, and not overly expensive, when compared to other area attractions.  One thing that struck me about the place, and you will see it in these pictures, is that many of the animals have a lot of personality!

Also, you can get amazingly close to many of them, which really enhances the experience!

The petting zoo in particular includes many common animals, and some not as much so, that seem to thrive on the human attention or at least do a good job of pretending for their human visitors!

These African Penguins looked like they were at a pool party, with the one in the middle one appearing to strike poses for me.

You are actually able to walk into the Wallaby area and view them with no screen, gate, or fence in between, though there is a member of the staff who keeps a watchful eye nearby.

The Koi were very large but you cannot tell from this picture because there is nothing to compare it to.  I liked this one because the color was so bright!

The Giraffes were very sweet and really enjoyed looking at us!

The Siamang Gibbons were interesting to see, though they were not as close as the other animals.

The Manatees were difficult to see clearly, and more so to photograph well, due to the thick glass and multiple tiny pieces of lettuce (their lunch apparently) that were floating in the water at the time.  Still, they are fascinating to watch and were a special treat for us to see since we have yet to view any in the wild.

This Bald Eagle was unexpected and reminded me why this noble bird of prey was selected to be the national animal as well as appear on the Great Seal of the United States.

This zoo, probably not unlike one located near you, is a wonderful place to visit that is easily forgotten about when thinking of reasonably priced things to do.  To me Zoos, regardless of where you are in life, are terrific places to reconnect with the natural world and forget about your personal challenges, at least for a few hours!

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