Thursday, November 16, 2017

Time Machines of Our Lives

    Daniel Cano                   
    I see the picture of my father. He is on the viewer's left, next to my grandfather, and my uncle David is to our right. Photos are like time machines, so are stories. They can sweep us away in an instant, into the past, back to the present, into the future, and back again. Or maybe those are just the catalysts, the engines, and our lives are the time machines.
    Here, my father strikes a friendly enough pose. I know he was already fighting the bottle, so was his brother. He told me they started young. But who wouldn't drink, carrying sixty pounds of cement on your shoulder, up narrow scaffolds, eight-hours a day, five days a week? Twenty-five years later, at the UCLA Medical Center, my uncle lost his fight. Forty years later, my dad won his fight, but not without many ugly battles.
    My grandfather places both hands on his sons' shoulders, a message for posterity, maybe for comfort, or perhaps to show he loves both sons equally, or at the very least that he acknowledges them. My dad once told me that the Chicanos of his generation, the WWII generation, hardly knew their parents. Not only did my grandfather's generation work all the time, sometimes leaving home for weeks, but they were also Mexican while my dad's generation was American.
    When I asked my father about his early days growing up in Los Angeles' west-side, he hesitated, at first, probably fearing he might reveal one family secret too many. Sitting and talking with my father was like entering a time machine. Maybe H.G. Wells' tale about time travel wasn't really about an external machine at all. Maybe, we are the real time machines. The stories that we tell move us quickly through time and space.
    I took a tape recorder and listened to my father's stories as I drove him through town, past his old elementary, junior, and high schools, passing houses marked for demolition. He could tell me the names of the families that once lived there, always followed by an engaging story, taking us both from the present to the past and back again.

    He astounded me with how much information, how many stories he retained, even into his 80s. He died at 89 years of age, on September 11th, my youngest daughter's birthday, and, well, you know the significance of that date.
    My car was our time machine. Yet, after awhile, the car mattered little, what came alive were the memories, the stories, too many to tell here. I remember asking him about the saddest incident he could remember. Not counting all of his friends who died in the war, he told me about the Melendez boys, Daniel and Ralph, brothers, whose mother sent them on an errand. "It was 1935. They lived on Pontius Avenue, right here in West L.A." he said, "behind Sanchez Market, a mom and pop store. Their mom wanted them go to the Green Spray market, on Pico, near Westwood boulevard. Groceries were cheaper there and the vegetables fresher."
     He went on to tell me that on the way home, the brothers, in their teens, along with their cousin, stopped at one of the swimming holes where the neighborhood kids used to hang out. "Their mom didn't let them out too much," my dad said. "She was protective. They were good kids. I guess, we were too rough. We all learned how to swim in those ponds. Well, not really ponds, just big holes that filled with water from the drainage pipes."
    There was no one at the swimming hole that day. Daniel decided to jump onto a raft the other kids had made for their pretend pirate battles. When Daniel reached the middle of the pond, the raft began breaking apart. Daniel leaped from the raft into the water and immediately began sinking. His brother Ralph jumped in after him. He had to have known he was sacrificing his life. Maybe, even as a young teenager, he felt it was better to drown than to stand by and do nothing. Or maybe, he didn't even think. He just acted out of love for his brother.
    He probably didn't even reach his brother. As both boys flailed about in the murky water drowning, their cousin panicked. He ran all the way home to call the boys' father. A man at a gas station, not far from the swimming hole, heard the commotion. He ran to the water's edge. Seeing the boys, he dove in a pulled them out, "But it was too late. Their father arrived, and the boys had already drowned. Maybe if their cousin had run to the gas station for help instead of going home, it might have saved time. Or if we had been there, they wouldn't have drowned."
    It hit the town hard. "We all went to school together. We knew each other. Their mother took it bad, really bad. Their dad, don Rafael, also had a hard time. The boys had three sisters. It was sad."
    Recently, a family friend, Velia Herrera, told me she still talks to the brothers' sister, Juanita, who is in her 90s. Juanita told Velia that her mother wore black for the rest of her life. Her father would go to the back of the garage to be alone and cry, probably where no one could see him.
     My dad and I rode for a while. He was silent, but grew spritely, as if happy to be leaving 1935 behind.
     I drove alongside Daniel Webster Middle School. "See that corner," my dad said, pointing to a McDonald's restaurant, at the corner of National and Sawtelle. "In 1939," our time machine had jumped four years forward, "me and the guys sat right there watching them make the Grapes of Wrath. The roads were all dirt back then. There were no buildings out here, nothing but empty fields. It was supposed to be Oklahoma, the spot where Tom Joad caught a truck after he got out of prison, the beginning of the movie."
     We passed by the park, Stoner Park, what he called the "playground", where in 1936 he and his friends would climb the fence and jump into the pool on warm summer nights, before the cops came to run them off. The old park is gone, but a new one has popped up in its place.

    Right about there, I started running out of tape. No matter, we spent many days in our time machine, he, bringing the past to life. I listened to the tapes again, as I prepared to write this short piece for La Bloga, and my dad's voice was young, strong, and clear, as if he was right there talking to me again.



Andrea Mauk said...

Which park? Stoner? My first date with my ex (may he RIP) began at that McDonald's.

Daniel Cano said...

Yes, Stoner. A lot of memories. Thanks for your response.