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!

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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