Sunday, June 19, 2011

My first beer with my father . . .It should have been a Lone Star

This Father's Day, I sipped a beer with my father.

It was the first time I had done that. It was a rite of passage which I had missed and, on this Father's Day, I felt the need to make it reality.

My father died July 12, 1958, just 17 days prior to my 10th birthday. It was a horrible blow. The accident was horrible. My mom was injured in the accident as well. I survived without a single scratch.

Life went on, as it tends to do, but I often wondered what my father would think of me as I was growing up. Would he be proud of me? Would he have agreed with me fighting for civil rights during the Chicano Movement? Would he think that my life as a journalist was worthy? And, now, with the many mistakes I've made in life, would he still applaud me and be willing to sit down and talk things over with me over a beer or two? Would he even approve of that?

I may never be able to answer those questions. It has been 53 years since his death. I remember it as if it was yesterday. He didn't see me grow up and I didn't see him grow old. I never drank a beer with him. I'm sure, once I was of age, he would have been a part of that rite of passage for Mexican, Tejano young men.

I do remember odds and ends about our relationship. Some of the memories are sad and others joyful, of course.

One sad memory revolves around him being a truck driver. His job would often take him to places like El Campo and other parts near Houston. The drive back was dangerous and usually at night. That was at the time when Mexicans and Tejanos were not welcomed at many restaurants. He got home late one night, about 11 p.m. and was fuming. He hadn't been allowed to eat at several restaurants on his way back home. As a World War II veteran, this hurt him deeply. He was hungry and I remember he yelled at my mother to make him something to eat, pronto. My mom and he cried that night. I stood by and wondered, "why?" Today, I understand. I'm glad I got to share that sad moment with him and my mom.

Other memories are joyful. He had but a third-grade education, but I remember him clearly showing me his A-B Certificate and Perfect Attendance Certificate from his last school days before he dropped out and went to work. He was telling me, this is what is expected of you, too.

I was in the second grade at the time. And, he was always trying to get me to understand things. For example, we were driving to Laredo one day in our 1955 Chevy Bel Air. It had no air-conditioning, of course. The hot wind from the semi-desert terrain approaching Laredo would blow through the windows like a gas-oven flaring in the middle of the afternoon. I remembered he asked me, "Manuelito, how far is Laredo from Hebbronville?" I answered, "You said it was 55 miles when we left, apa (dad)." He would say, "Good, bueno, good." Then, he would ask me to look at the speedometer and ask in Spanish, "How fast are we going in this car?" I looked and said the double 5s. I answered "55." He replied, "Good, bueno, good."
I knew some sort of a test was coming. Then, he asked, "So, if we're going 55 miles per hour and Laredo is 55 miles away, how long will it take us to get to Laredo?" I said, "Pos (well), apa, we're going to get there in an hour."
I still remember his smile. He was so proud of me. He had made his point. I too was smart like him. Ha.

Time passed and before you knew it, he was gone. Our car got hit from behind in the middle of Oilton, Texas. The car spun around three, four or five times. There were no seat belts at the time, so people were flying inside the car, except me. I just stayed in the middle, protected I think by centrifugal forces. I saw my mom about to be thrown from the car. Just then my dad reached for her. He flew across the front seat and grabbed her arm, pushing her back inside the cab. He flew out! He flew out! I heard a scream and then there was silence except for the moans of my mother, who had a broken leg, and the sobs of my cousins who suffered some scrapes. I had nothing wrong. I ran out of the car yelling at the top of my lungs, "Apa, Apa, Apa.

I saw him. His legs were up in the air and I thought his body was inside the cab of the car. But the roof was flattened and he had been crushed from the waist up. I knew he was dead. I touched his legs, they fell to the floor with a numbing, staccato thud and I saw his torso was crushed. I stood there for about 5 seconds. I could hear my mom's moans. She was yelling for her husband, "Manuel, Manuel . . ."

The other little girls had crawled toward her. When I got there, I took care of them first, taking them to a shady area. My mom could not move, so I just hugged her and told her dad was on the other side of the car. I think she knew. Then, I don't remember. Within minutes an ambulance approached and took my mom. At about the same time my Grandfather Chapita arrived and said for me to go with him in his car. We raced to Laredo's Mercy Hospital's emergency room. Mom needed medical attention. My grandfather asked me all sorts of questions and told me he had made arrangements to stay in Laredo with reltives. I never saw my dadi again.

The rest is a blur and another story for another day.

Time passed. I grew up. I never got a chance to have that rite of passage of drinking a beer with my father. This Father's Day, for some strange reason, I felt it was time.

I visited his grave site in Hebbronville's Catholic Cemetery. The cemetery was clean, for a change. His grave was well kept. It was hot, very hot, about 103 and the Gulf breeze from the southeast was humid and very, very warm. I spruced up his grave site, raked, cut a few weeds, and dug in the flower arrangement I had bought at HEB in Kingsville.

Then, I sat down on top of the ice chest under the anacua tree that has grown to the south of his grave. I said a couple of prayers, made the sign of the cross and then asked him, "Papa, would you like to have a beer with me?" In my mind, he said, "yes."

I took a 16-ounce Miller Lite can (I thought, I should have brought a Lone Star, what he used to drink), and popped it open. I made the sign of the cross again and said, "Papa, this is for us."

The beer was cold and refreshing. It had been in the ice chest for nearly two hours. It hit the spot, really.

I read his tombstone. It honors his service to our country. A small, brand, spanking new red-white-and-blue American flag was to my right just by his headstone, waving furiously in the wind, which was gusting at over 25 mph. I laughed at that thought. "It would take us, oh, 2 1/2 hours to get to Laredo, right dad?" I asked him.

I looked up and saw a sea of U.S. flags waving in the wind. Each veteran had been given a brand new flag for Father's Day. Literally, there were over a 100 that I could see. I smiled and remembered how this once proud veteran had been denied a hot meal after fighting for our country in World War II. "Things are better now dadi," I said to him. "You fought a good fight," I told him.

I took a sip of my beer, and then another and another. I drank slow 'cause I wanted to cherish this moment. About 15 minutes later, about 1/5 of the beer was left. I asked, "Dad, take a sip with me?" and poured it over the edge of the tombstone.

Just then, a gust of wind knocked down the hoe and rake behind me which I had leaned on the anacua tree. One hit me on the head. Was he talking to me? Was he getting after me? Or was he just joshing and saying, "It's about time?" I prefer the last thought. It was about time.

I smiled, looked up and saw the flags waving furiously in the Gulf breeze and saw other people just like me coming to honor their fathers that day. I thought, that was good. I said to myself, "I'm glad I had this beer with you dad."

It was time to go. I had finally had a beer with my dad. I took the empty can and put it gently in front of his grave marker, making sure it was anchored between the new flower arrangement and the old and hoping it would make it through the night with this stiff wind.

I got up, made the sign of the cross, kissed the two fingers on my right hand and gently knelt down in front of the grave and touched the headstone.

I said aloud, "Thanks dad. I'll be back. This was nice. We'll do it again some day soon."

As I walked away, a strange thought crossed my mind, as if someone was telling me, "Bring Lone Star next time. . . "
I will.

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