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!

May 7, 2011

My Mom…

I could not write about my father without also writing about my mother, Dorothy Jean Smith.  Her experiences are less expansive than my father’s, but that does not mean that her journey is no less unique or important than his.  Also, with Mother’s day coming up, and the world still digesting the recent news about what bin Laden’s demise means, a story about a mother is just what this doctor decided is needed.

My mother was the third born child of Ivan “Jim” Smith and Adelie “Addie” Kent.  She was born in the middle of the depression in Boise, Idaho.  Her father was earlier in life a farmer and park ranger but, by the time she was born, he was a beer distributor and her mother took care of the 5 children (4 girls and 1 boy).  Addie could trace her family tree back to the Mayflower, while Jim’s included a Dutch grandfather born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and also likely a confederate soldier from Louisiana.  Addie was raised on a horse farm and though short (a couple of inches shy of 5 feet tall), she was said to be a great rider.  At nearly 6 feet, Jim was tall for a man of his day (he was born in 1899), and had traveled the rails for a time when he was young.  When Dorothy was a girl, her father told her stories of a place where they eat flat, round bread with vegetables so hot they would burn your mouth.  She would later retell this story acknowledging the irony of her later life with my father and that fact that she was a great cook, especially of Mexican food dishes!

Dorothy, according to my grandmother, was a headstrong little girl, who when she was 3 would make neighborhood kids walk around, not on, her father’s sidewalk.  She loved to play with her younger sisters and sometimes had crushes on her older brother’s friends.  At 15, she took a job as a soda jerk (mom’s term for it) at a local ice cream shop, where she earned money to buy clothes and have fun, like most young girls in those early post war times.  While in high school, she was a cheerleader and among her classmates at Boise High, was a young man with the last name Albertson, whose father owned a local grocery store.

After graduating high school, a first in her family, she wanted to see the world. She found her ticket when a girlfriend suggested that they join the newly created United States Air Force (prior to 1947 it was part of the Army) together. Unfortunately, her father would not allow it and refused to sign off on her enlistment paperwork, a requirement in those days.  She eventually convinced him to sign and a few weeks later she found herself in San Antonio, Texas attending basic training, which is something that few young women did in 1951.  Her friend, unfortunately, was not found to be fit for service and so Dorothy entered the Air Force alone.

Immediately after completing basic training she attended a service school where Dorothy learned administrative skills.  Upon completion of the program she was stationed at Eglin, Air Force Base, in Pensacola, Florida.  Dorothy would later say, as her husband did as well, that this was one of the happiest times of her life!  The base was staffed with thousands of airmen, including pilots and support staff of all types, however, only a couple of hundred were women.  Mom said finding a date to catch a movie or go to a dance was never a problem.  Playing on the then undeveloped beaches, snorkeling and enjoying a game of ping-pong were the favorite pastimes that mom said she enjoyed while stationed in Florida.  One evening she met a Latino airman from California, who played piano in local clubs after hours.  The pair were soon dating and eventually became a couple, not unlike the popular one portrayed by Lucille and Desi on prime time television at the time. They soon married and spent most of their last year in the service living off base in a small house, where mom said that they constantly entertained their friends who liked escaping barracks life as often as they could.

After both were honorably discharged, the couple moved to southern California where they decided to settle down.  Over the next 10 years they had 5 children, 3 girls and 2 boys.  Early on they opened a restaurant which did not last, and my father worked a number of jobs, while mom stayed home and taught the children how to make beds so tight you could bounce a quarter off of them, and at bedtime lined them up and marched off to bed.  These practices were amusing remnants of the fact that Dorothy really wore combat boots and had all the training that came with them!

Mom was always there to make sure we were up in the morning, did chores after school, cleaned our rooms on weekends, had fun, and along the way taught us those skills that would be needed as adults.  Like most mothers during those days, her job was to manage the household.  She did this very well and cooked, cleaned, and coordinated all the daily details for her family while still making the time to befriend many and enjoy life.

She had a great sense of humor, even if it was at her own expense such as the time one of my sisters, who was 3, locked her out of the house when she really needed to use the restroom.  The result was predictable and mom loved to retell the story anyway never failing to mention the devilish grin her daughter had as she repeatedly refused to let her in the house.  There was also the time when mom needed to dry her hair while simultaneously trying out her eldest son’s mini-bike in the backyard.  She drove round and round until her hair was dry and had fun while entertaining us.  During our last trip together as a family, we drove 200 miles through the Sonoran desert (that is a tale for another time) and have super 8 film of her being chased by a bull while answering natures call and of her literally kissing the pavement when we eventually reached it!  The road did not look that clean either, but mom did not mind as she was just happy to be on pavement again!

When the children were a little older, she worked as a waitress part-time at a restaurant to earn to extra money and told us kids to help ourselves to her tips, which we (the bigger ones anyway) apparently did perhaps a bit too often.  Later on, she worked part-time as a hotel maid, but did not share those tips with us!  After her kids moved out, she worked full-time for a state social services agency helping field client calls and completing paperwork.

She supported my father’s career fully and even helped to found a halfway house and assist with professional association membership drives. She made sure our holidays were filled with cheer and laughter and that we took vacations back to Idaho, down to Mexico, up the coast, to the desert, or in the mountains whenever possible.  In later years she even made sure that Dad and her visited Alaska, Hawaii, Central America, the Deep South, the East coast, and Europe.

She loved to shop and enjoyed buying her friends and family presents, which she did often.  Dorothy believed in helping people and many times while growing up we had family or friends staying with us to assist them in getting through some transition in their lives.  She told me that it was important to always celebrate marriages, births, graduations, and other significant life events and to remember those who are no longer with us.

At the age of 60, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and I was present when the doctor gave her 4 months to live. This was one of the very few times that I saw the twinkle leave my mother’s eyes. She quickly rebounded, obtained another medical opinion, and fought with everything she had to live.  Five years later she was cancer free and went on to live another 10 years after that! Mom was quite the fighter!

She saw the birth of 7 grandchildren, 4 girls and 3 boys, and made it a point to be present when both of my sons were born.  She told us children that she loved us very much, but that grandchildren were very special in a different way in terms of the joy that they bring during that stage of a person’s life.  She and my father were together over 50 years and, though they were quite different, they loved and supported each other as much as any couple I have thus far known.

Summarizing a life in a few hundred words provides an incomplete glimpse at best, regardless of who they were or what they have done.  Still, hopefully enough was written so that you have an idea of the kind of person my mother was and what she meant to her many friends and family members.  As this mother’s day approaches, the third since she has left us, I am very much reminded of her wise words about celebrating life and about how fleeting it really is.  If yours is still with you, spend time with her, and listen to her unique stories, even if you have heard them many times before…

March 30, 2011

Waking up…

I was sleeping soundly like many of us do during the work week.  I was young and living far from home when I awoke to the sounds of a siren and a voice from a loudspeaker.  As my consciousness returned, I quickly recalled that I was not in southern California living in the college dorms at UCSB anymore.  No, I slowly remembered that I had taken a break from college to learn more about the real world and travel.  I had joined the Army, attended training in Texas and Indiana, and was now living in Germany.

The voice and sirens that I heard were coming from a military police vehicle and I was being told to report to work.  The voice also said that it was not known if this was a training exercise or a real world alert.  That is how I found out that the United States had retaliated on Libya in 1986 for, among other things, the bombing of a disco in Berlin that was a favorite hang out for soldiers like me.

This time around, my military service days are memories, which have been replaced by parenthood, teaching, and working on the east coast.  Though I found out about our latest engagement with Libya in a more mundane way, via the Internet, it reminded me of the very real threats that exist outside of our work-a-day lives.  Threats that many of us, even in a post 9/11 world, still appear to take for granted.

How this is going to end is anyone’s guess, though many, as always, are making predictions, but the truth is they do not know.  Meanwhile, most of us wake up to alarm clocks and start our days and only think about these things when we hear about them on the news or when someone brings it up in conversation.

As for me, well I am at a point in life when I am just content to be waking up to a new day, though with far less a sense of certainty about what the future will bring than I had 25 years ago…

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