dranthonysblog

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!

July 16, 2011

Our last family vacation!

“We are going to take a vacation to Mexico” my mother told the five of us kids as we listened, most only half interested.  She said that it was going to be our last family trip together because my sister was starting college in the fall.  I do not recall the rest of that conversation as I was very young, but the outcome is permanently imprinted in my mind.

The next thing I do remember is all 7 of us piling into our brand new Chevy Impala and driving from our home in southern California towards the Mexican border, which was a couple of hours away (this was before the current problems made trips like this less desirable to take).  We crossed the border and drove to Guaymas de Zaragoza, a port city on the eastern side of the Gulf of California notable to tourists for its warm weather and many undeveloped beaches.  From there, we boarded a ferry, the Benito Juarez (I am not sure why I remember the name, but I do), headed across the gulf to Mulaje in Baja, Mexico.  However, after a few of days of fun, somehow, we missed the return ferry to Guaymas, but learned that we could take the newly completed Baja highway and be back home in a day.  This is where the trip took a really memorable turn!

We followed the directions and drove a couple of hours to the place where we were to connect with the highway. When we arrived all we could see was more dirt road.  My father checked with some locals and found out that the highway was not yet completed, but that the asphalt was only around 30 miles away.  My father had to be back to work soon and so we decided to go for it!

Unfortunately, that information turned out to also be incorrect – this was long before the days of cellphones and the Web, and no maps were available that showed the progress of the road construction in Mexico.  We continued on and, at one point midway in our journey, we ran over a large cactus that was half buried in the sand and had transmission problems.  Some ranchers were nearby and helped my father make the car drivable again (I never heard exactly how they did that with few tools and no parts).  Another time my mother was answering nature’s call when a bull started heading in her direction.  When have super-8 film of her running back towards us with the animal clearly visible in the distance!

At times we had to move large rocks to enable the car to pass the very rough dirt road.  At night, my father and brother slept on the hood of the car, while my sisters, mom, and I slept inside as we had no camping gear.  Along the way we passed a small village where my father was able to get enough gas and food to keep us going.  We also met some Americans in a dune buggy going the opposite direction who updated us on how far we were from pavement (still over 100 miles) and gave us some foul-tasting water to drink.  I am sure they thought my parents were crazy and, being a parent today around their age then, I can totally understand why!

By noon on the third day we finally connected again with the asphalt.  My mother literally kissed the pavement, which was not very clean but mom did not care (we have that on film as well)!  We ended up driving well over 200 miles on unpaved roads in the Baja desert, during the middle of summer, with 5 children, and few supplies.  Later, we learned that there were 7 species of venomous snakes in the region and the car forever after had a layer of red clay that permeated the interior no matter how well it was detailed.  This was no doubt deposited during the numerous times my brother was slow to roll up the window when wind gusts or passing dune buggies kicked up dirt and dust!

Mom and dad are gone now and that trip is just a memory from many summers past.  As mom predicted it turned out to be our last trip together as a family and it was very memorable, though not for the reasons that she had hoped.  Still, we persevered, worked together despite the occasional bickering, learned some important lessons, and have great stories to tell about it that never fail to entertain!

June 5, 2011

A summer trip to New York City…

We had an informal tradition in my family, or at least that is how I understood it, that when you were around 16, you would get to go on a trip.  The trip was usually taken alone and to someplace far away with the duration being at least two weeks.  One of my older sisters visited Mexico where she stayed with relatives one summer and perfected her Spanish that she had studied in school for years.  Two other sisters went to Hawaii for a couple of weeks where they soaked up the sunshine and my brother went to Washington, D.C. where he visited the historic sites of our nation.

Being the youngest, when I turned 16, I naturally reminded my parents about these journeys that the others took and asked where I could go.  My parents were in a situation at that time where their resources were temporarily stretched, so they tried to dissuade me from any thoughts of a trip by saying that I could go next year or perhaps the year after.  However, I was ready to go somewhere and, as my father had observed long ago, when I get something in my head I usually find a way to make it happen!  A trait that has (mostly) served me well in life and this time was no different.

The “where” was a bit more challenging to figure out as I received the message clearly that it had to be relatively inexpensive and so Hawaii was definitely out of the question.  I spent a few days thinking about it when I remembered that my brother-in-law of 5 years was attending the University of Southern California’s film school and was a graduate intern working for Paramount Pictures in New York City.  I had only seen the western United States and Mexico up to that time and had never been on an airplane, so the thought of spending a few weeks in Manhattan was interesting to say the least.  My parents probably did not think I could come up with an acceptable trip, but when I did and discussed it with them they reluctantly had to agree.

It was the early summer of 1981 and soon I was going on a plane and bound for the Big Apple!  My sister drove me to the airport, LAX, and made it a point to remind me to be nice to my brother-in-law, her husband!  Another message received.  She helped me to check in to my flight and before long I was listening to my Walkman, playing “California Dreamin'” among other tracks that I remember, while flying east alone in what turned out to be the first of many such trips in my life, though I had no clue about that yet.

Three months earlier, I was sitting in 10th grade waiting for English class to start when I looked down and found a piece of paper that set me on another related, but much larger, journey.  That paper described a test that I could take and if I passed would enable me to drop out of high school and go directly to college.  My father’s promotions had come at the cost of the family being moved several times during my childhood and most recently to California’s capital where I attended high school.  The school I attended, Del Campo High, was the same one where Candy Lightner’s daughters went the year before and one was tragically struck and killed by a drunk driver causing the grieving mother to found Mothers’ Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  It was also the same school that former baseball major leaguer and current Cincinnati Red’s Manager Dusty Baker graduated from years earlier.  To me it was a nondescript suburban holding facility for teens where I knew few people, due to the moves, and was not at all challenged by the curriculum.  So when I found the paper under my desk, I read it and happily realized I had stumbled upon, by chance, a solution to my problem.  A literal treasure map for me!  My parents saw things differently and it took some work (well, a lot to be honest!) to convince them but they came around (I probably should have gone into sales!).  I took and easily passed the test a few weeks later.  Sitting on the plane, I had time to contemplate the fact that in the fall I would be in college, at a time that should have been my junior year of high school.

In a few hours the plane landed and I was off to retrieve my suitcase.  I then called my brother-in-law who was not able to pick me up because of work, but told me how to find the train to the plane and where to catch the subway and that he would meet me at one of the stations.  I navigated the crowds and remember feeling very grown-up as I followed his instructions and eventually got off at the correct stop.  My brother-in-law was, at that time, a big burly fellow who greeted me warmly, though in looking back, I am sure that he had to be convinced to put up with me for several weeks.  We quickly hopped into a taxi for a short trip to a large brownstone building on West 67th Street, located next to a restaurant that I am sure is long gone now called “The Three Monks” or something like that.

The apartment was a studio layout that my brother-in-law was leasing from a doctor who decided to give up his practice in favor of pursuing a career in acting (I am curious to learn how that turned out!).  Not being used to apartment life at all, I remember being struck by its small size as well as the fact that it only had one bed and a small sofa, where I was to sleep.

That evening we went out to eat and walked around.  I remember thinking how alive the city was and how things were very lit up and noisy.  Everyone appeared to be in a hurry and I recall being especially struck by the sheer number of people everywhere!  Being from southern California where you drive to go places, it also surprised me that the only car I needed was a taxi and that only rarely.  This felt far more foreign to me than being in Mexico, where I spent many earlier summer days enjoying the beaches with my family.

The next morning my brother-in-law went to work and told me to enjoy the city and left. Being a teenager, I went back to sleep but soon got up and ventured out into Manhattan.  I walked around the streets and saw girls younger than me selling themselves, other people in suits or dresses headed to meetings, students rushing to classes, and tourists like me taking it all in.  Once I walked by and twice passed Flip Wilson with a fancy invitation in his hand, apparently trying to find an address.  I saw street hustlers at work and was told by a stern-faced man that I was not “dark enough” to continue farther on from where I was, so I took the advice and turned around.  I spent a lovely morning in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, with a pleasant girlfriend of my oldest sister’s, who told me that I looked at least 18, which I know was said to make me feel grown-up and it did!  I explored central park daily and took a ride to the observation deck of the World Trade Towers, which I will never forget!

Most of the time, I had lunch on the street at one of the many vendors and never tired of people watching, foreshadowing what I would do on many future trips to faraway places.  At the end of the day I would meet my brother-in-law at the building where he worked, which was the headquarters for Paramount Pictures.  I got to know the elevator attendant fairly well and enjoyed seeing the well-appointed suites, where the executives worked.  Once, I was standing next to Warren Beatty when he was talking to an executive while I waited patiently for my brother-in-law and I remember thinking how many people would love to be standing in my place!  I, of course, just wanted them to finish up so we could have dinner and explore the city some more.

At night, we would eat in different restaurants and soak up the city.  We explored the village, listened to music at various clubs, and took in the movie, “New York, New York” one evening.  I remember the movie because I thought it was very cool to be seeing that while sitting in a New York City theater!  We went to Broadway, and saw “A day in Hollywood, a night in the Ukraine” and another time caught a pre-release viewing of “Gallipoli” in an executive screening room at Paramount.

On the weekends, when my brother-in-law was not working, we watched Shakespeare in the Park, Henry the VIII, if memory serves.  We also took a train trip to Connecticut for a few days and visited a good friend of my brother-in-law, who had recently written a script that was made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds.  I remember the writer had a girlfriend that was not a lot older than me who asked if I was going to miss attending 11th and 12th grades, to which I responded, without hesitation, that I would not and meant it.  Still, that served to remind me that things were changing for me and they would never be the same again.

Several weeks passed and it was time to head back home.  As I said good-bye to my brother-in-law, I sensed that he would actually miss having me around even though I am sure I was a burden that he had not wanted.  I thanked him and hopped into a taxi and went to the subway station, caught the train to the plane, and checked myself in for the trip back to Los Angeles.  On the flight home, I spoke to a much older lady who was an executive for a perfume company and she gave me her business card.  I also listened to my Walkman again, which at one point was playing “Arthur’s Theme” that includes the refrain “When you are caught between the moon and New York City” and I smiled to myself as I realized that it had been a good trip for me.

As for my brother-in-law, John Wells, he completed his master’s degree at USC, under the tutelage of instructors like Spielberg and Lucas, and eventually became one of the producers of China Beach, ER, West Wing and others. He was also elected President of the Writers Guild of America West, started his own successful production company, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He and my sister eventually parted ways…

April 24, 2011

A life…

The boy was visiting his mother in a sanatorium in southern California when a family friend asked if he could deliver a message for him.  The friend was a young army officer from Peru who like the boy’s mother was also being treated for tuberculosis.  The boy agreed and soon hopped on the blue line headed for the Chilean consulate in Los Angeles.  After a brief ride, he entered the imposing building and was asked to sit and wait.  In a few moments a distinguished looking lady emerged and he gave her the note. The lady thanked the boy and offered him some cookies and cocoa.  While he enjoyed the snack she talked to him for a few minutes.  When he was finished, she walked the boy to the door, and told him to “always work hard, keep up your studies, and take care of your family.”

It was the early 1940’s and the world was in the midst of a second great war.  The lady was Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, also known as Gabriela Mistral.  She was a diplomat, educator, feminist and writer who later was the first Hispanic to receive a Nobel Prize in literature.  The boy later said that he never forgot the conversation nor the simple advice he received during that brief meeting early on in his life.

The boy’s mother recovered thanks to cutting edge treatment that she received paid for by the boy and his father working long hours at multiple jobs during her treatment.  His mother and father were immigrants to the country and, though you would never know it from listening to him speak, his first language was not English. His parents believed in education and hard work, and they provided their son with music lessons from an early age.  He quickly excelled and was able to literally play the piano by ear.  He had his own band by the time he was in junior high and played throughout southern California.  He later said that music saved him from getting more involved in gangs that were prevalent in southern California, even in those days.

In college, he worked for the school paper and met and wrote about many people, including American jazz performer and composer, Gene Krupa.  One of his early teachers was a visiting anthropology professor named Margaret Mead.  He was the first in his family to complete both high school and college, graduating with an associate’s degree in science.

The young man enlisted in the Air Force after completing his studies with the hope of becoming a pilot.  He finished his training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and was assigned to work at Eglin Air Force Base, in Pensacola, Florida.  His boss, then Colonel, and later General, Paul Tibbets, was the base commander.  Several years earlier, Tibbets was commissioned by President Roosevelt to fly the plane that dropped the bomb that helped to end the Second World War.  He was then the supervisor who allowed the young airman to moonlight after hours, where he played jazz from Fort Walton Beach to New Orleans.

It was in Florida where the young man met the love of his life, a 20-year-old, former cheerleader from Boise, Idaho. She, unlike many young women in those days, joined the service to see the world.  They married in 1955 and shortly afterwards both were honorably discharged from the military.  The young man later said that this period in his life was among the best years, no doubt due in part at least to the sunny beaches, youthful diversions, and many lasting friendships that he made there.

The man and his wife moved to southern California where they established a restaurant in Anaheim.  Soon after, an amusement park opened across the street from their business.  The restaurant unfortunately did not last long, but the amusement park is still entertaining millions of visitors each year, many sporting now iconic mouse ears.

The man went back to college and in a couple of years he completed a bachelor’s degree in Political Science.  He soon landed a position working for the state as a parole agent.  Promotions came quickly and less than 10 years later he was selected to head a first of its kind task force made up of FBI, local police agencies, and federal border officials who worked closely with the Mexican government to crack down on crime across the border.  Later he wrote, produced, and gave a highly acclaimed film, Basta, to the state of California.  The work provided much-needed training about prison gangs, a topic that up to that time was not given serious consideration.  He was eventually appointed as California’s first Latino, Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections, by the then governor, Jerry Brown, who interestingly holds the same position again today.

Before retiring, the man now a grandfather was credited with helping to thwart a prison break at San Quentin State Prison that was being planned by Charles Manson.  At San Quentin, he also met Carlos Santana, who he later “jammed” with.  He was also interviewed on the popular news television show 60 Minutes about his career and expertise with prison gangs which in part due to his ground breaking work was now recognized as an important problem that plagues prisons across the U.S.

After retiring the grandfather moved to the desert and worked for Sonny Bono’s city administration in Palm Springs.  He was hired as the youth court coordinator through an innovative program that employed peers to hear and sentence youth offenders.  During this time, he also consulted for Paramount Studios on the making of “American Me” which was a movie produced by Edward James Olmos.  He later obtained his private investigator’s license and founded a consulting firm that specialized in working on cases that involved the death penalty.

During his life he traveled from Europe to Asia, helped to raise 5 children, had 7 grandchildren, and was married over 50 years.  He also published articles, taught, mentored many, and had more friends, famous, infamous, and regular, than most of us will ever know.  He worked almost up to the end of his life writing and consulting before finally passing on.

Shortly before he died, I asked him if he had any regrets.  He looked at me with tired but alert eyes and said quite simply that he really had none and that he felt he was blessed with a wonderful life to which I responded, “Yes Dad you were!”

My father, Anthony Casas, Sr. (1929 – 2006), has been gone 5 years yesterday, and I feel fortunate to have known him and now you know a little about his life as well.  As dad often said, because he was a musician at heart, “be cool!”

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