Why he joined the army depends on who you ask. If you ask him, he’ll tell you it was because he wanted to give something back to this country that had done so much for him. My father had been forced to leave his homeland, Cuba, when he was 11 years old. He’d had everything taken from him, and in the United States he’d found a land of amazing opportunity. To this day, he swears that joining the army was his way of giving back.
My mother will tell you it was because he was looking to piss off my grandmother as much as possible, and the only thing more aggravating than marrying a gringa was to join the army and possibly get sent overseas to fight in Viet Nam.
He didn’t get sent to Viet Nam, and instead I spent the first 4 years of my life growing up on army bases around the south. Four years later, when my father’s term was up, the whole hippie thing had started to fade, and my parents had some serious catching up to do.
They bought a VW bus, which they immediately installed flowered curtains over every window in. They took off the VW symbol on the front of the bus, and replaced it with a hand-painted yellow sun. And they started smoking pot. I can still remember running into my parents’ bedroom, jumping on the bed, and nestling in with them, the bottle of Blue Nun wine (more of a jug, really), and the ashtray with the roach clip on a leather thong with wooden beads.
These moments were the pleasant balance to the times they fought, when I would have to stand between them and hold up 1 finger towards each of their mouths. My 5-year old sign that it was time to stop yelling at each other and calm down.
Early on, I thought our family was just like every other family. That we were the norm. I thought that every TV only got PBS (my parents hid the knob to change the channels, and told me that was the only channel we got) I thought every TV only got PBS until I attended a friend’s birthday party and spent the entire time glued to the screen, watching King Kong with slack-jawed awe.
I thought everybody’s dad talked to lots of other pretty women on campus whenever they went for bike rides through the local University without mom.
And I thought that everyone smoked pot. There was one time, in the Sears Roebucks, when we were looking for a specific tool my father needed. He was always working on that VW bus, it was the only way it would stay on the road. At my first show and tell in kindergarten I proudly announced that I’d spent the weekend helping my father drop the engine on our bus. He would call out the tool he needed from under the bus, and I’d dig through the tool box and hand it to him.
So there we were, in the Sears Roebucks: I was scouring the aisles, looking for the tool my father wanted when I came across a treasure trove of an entirely different kind. I’d found a bin, full of something I immediately recognized: “Hey, dad, check it out: Roach clips!” I shouted at full volume across the tools section.
He ran over and quieted me down, quickly acknowledging what I’d found, and informing me that I was never to call them that in public. “In public,” he said, “we call them alligator clips.”
And that was when I found out that our family was different. Our family had secrets. And I was tasked with keeping them.
When my mother threw the 5-gallon gas can at my father in the midst of their last fight, calling him all sorts of names and unaware that I was watching from in hiding behind our car – I knew that stayed with me.
When my mother started dating my father’s sister’s ex-husband after my father left us, I knew I couldn’t call him uncle Steve anymore. At least, not in public.
By the time uncle Steve moved us to a 120-acre plot of land in Mendocino County to start his own pot farm, I was an old hand. I knew the drill. (He’s dead now, and all of the ex-partners from that venture have moved on, so I can talk about it without fear of being hunted down)
And in my teenage years, when my mother would call me into her room to drunkenly lament how our father, or uncle Steve, or Cincinnati Jim, or whoever had let her down: I would hope that this was only my secret, and that my brother wouldn’t have to shoulder this burden once I went to college.
When I met my wife, we both agreed that we didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of our divorced parents. We committed to do all of the things right that they had so gloriously done wrong. We have an 8-year old son, and he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.
I view that as a sign of stellar parenting.