The Far Side of a Deadbeat Dad
I came into this world on a summer day in 1946 in Richmond, CA. My family and I lived in apartments on the south side of Richmond until I was five.
My mother was born in Manitoba, Canada in 1922. The only girl of five children, she and her brothers were put into an orphanage after her parents, having moved the family from Canada to the United States, were killed in an automobile accident.
My mother was adopted by a lady who lived in Columbus Junction, Iowa. As a young girl, my mother fell off a horse and injured her back, which plagued her for the rest of her life.
My mother worked for Macy’s department store in San Francisco, CA as a buyer for chinaware. She met my dad through his brother. My parents had three children together, two girls and me. All three children were born through a cesarean section. The doctors told my mother that she wouldn’t be able to have any more children due to the risk of her dying. Later in life, my father told me that he had told the doctor who delivered me that it had better be a boy he was bringing out or he shouldn’t bother coming out of the operating room.
As a child, I watched my mother go through several major back operations. I can recall at least four different occasions when my sisters and I were running through hospitals and going up and down elevators while my dad visited my mother.
Through all the back operations she endured (which cost our family approximately $20,000 each), my mother became a walking pharmacy. This had a major impact on my high school years and the rest of my life. Three different doctors were prescribing pain medica- tion for my mother. When my mother ran out of the pain medication, she turned to drinking wine, finishing a half-gallon in one night. I never could imagine the pain my mother had to endure.
One day when I returned home from high school, I found my mother at home with her wrist slit from a razor blade. I called for an ambulance, and the paramedics rushed her to the hospital. From there, she was transferred to Agnew State Hospital in Milpitas, CA for evaluation. When we picked her up from the State Hospital after a week, her remark to me while walking to our car was, “You put me here.” A statement that I would never forget.
My father was born in Needles, CA in 1918. He was the oldest of five children. His father came from Spain, and my dad had a very proud Spanish heritage. I never could meet my grandfather, since he died in a car accident before I was born. I wish I could have known him, because his children idolized him.
My father’s youngest brother, Georgie, also died tragically. While being stationed in Alaska with the US Army, he was killed when a building in which he had been assigned to stay in, exploded. Later, I learned that my Uncle Georgie always called me “Butch.”
When my dad was around five years of age, his grandmother, who lived in New Mexico, asked my grandfather if my dad could come and live with her, since her husband had just passed away. My grandfather agreed, so my dad lived with his grandmother in Albuquerque until the age of twelve. Then my dad was reunited with his family, which, per my aunt, was quite an adjustment.
My dad was a very good-looking man who had had a chance to go to Hollywood and become an actor, but my grandfather disapproved.
My dad honored my grandfather’s wishes and stayed in Richmond, getting a job at the shipyards in Martinez, CA. After a brief stint at the shipyard, my dad applied to become a police officer. After four years with the police force, my dad started out in the jewelry business through the advice of my aunts husband his brother-in-law.
Being raised in Richmond and living upstairs in an apartment until the age of five was a good experience, because, as a Caucasian growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood, I learned to live with and accept other cultures at an early age. However, my dad didn’t approve.
My father was very prejudiced. One time I wanted to go and play baseball with a group of guys I had met, but my dad said I couldn’t play with them. I went to play anyway. I was the catcher, and I was standing too close to a batter when he missed the pitch and hit my nose instead. I had a broken nose, and it is still noticeable to this day. I was too scared to tell my parents though, for fear of getting a beaten for disobeying my father, so my sisters and I kept it from them.
I can recall some other fond memories living in Richmond, CA; helping my dad wash his black Oldsmobile, going on fishing trips, and buying a hamburger for a quarter at the local hamburger place.
Then my family moved from Richmond to a little town called El Sobrante, an unincorporated area within Contra Costa County, CA. The Spanish name “El Sobrante” means “remainder” or “surplus land” in English. My dad had leased space for his jewelry store inside the only grocery market in El Sobrante at that time.
My parents bought a newly built home in a development called Sherwood Forest. When we first moved to El Sobrante, we had to travel over an unpaved dirt road with lots of bumps and potholes, appropriately called the “San Pablo Dam Road.” Our home was sur- rounded by eucalyptus trees, a creek, poison oak, and lots of hills and open land where our dog, Prince, would run and stay away for days in the hills surrounding our development.
Sometimes, Prince would come home poisoned, because farmers would put out poison bait for coyotes and mountain lions. My dad would give him milk and raw eggs, which made him vomit out the poison. Prince was half collie and half Irish Setter. He could jump a six-foot fence with ease. Prince would jump the fence to go exploring the neighborhood and get some female dogs pregnant. This caused my dad to put another two feet of Plexiglas on top of our six-foot fence, which brought Prince’s days of wandering to an end.
Prince was very protective. If he was lying in the front yard and a stranger approached or stepped onto our property, Prince would run up to the stranger and bark. Once the stranger backed away, Prince would sit at the edge of our property and keep an eye on the individual.
Prince lived to be eighteen years old. The vet who put him down said the dog still had a strong heart, but he had lost his sense of smell and wouldn’t eat. I was glad I was in the Army overseas at that time. I don’t believe I could have handled that experience.
Living in El Sobrante as a kid was a great experience. We had a creek nearby where we fished for carp and crawdads. Sometimes when we caught a carp, we would fill it with sand. It was amazing how much sand went into those fish. The sand would just keep dissolving. Sometimes, we gave the carp we caught to a black man with whom we had become friends with. He always came down to the creek to fish.
One time, my younger sister (the middle child) and I were down at the creek with some friends when someone shoved me into the water. I didn’t know how to swim, and the only thing I could see was my sister and her friends standing around panicking. Fortunately, I could grab onto some roots. When I was about halfway out of the water, my sister ran over to me and helped me out the rest of the way, saying,“I saved you.”
Another time, both of my sisters decided to throw a party in our house when our parents weren’t home, but they didn’t invite me. When I tried coming into the house through the garage door, my older sister grabbed the garage door from inside and slammed it down on my toe, causing me to lose my big toenail. We were too scared to
tell our dad what had happened, because we would get a beating, so we made up a story. Nevertheless, I had to go to the hospital and have my big toenail removed.
With all the poison oak that was around El Sobrante, we had poison oak outbreaks all the time. Eventually, our dad forbid us from going down to the creek, where it was prevalent. When neighbors began to burn the poison oak, it caused even more outbreaks just from breathing it in. Finally, our dad decided it was a lost cause, so he allowed us to return to the creek. Looking back, I believe that getting poison oak as much as I did was a good thing. As an adult, I am exposed to poison oak constantly due to where I live, but I believe I am immune to it.
The house in which we lived in had an attic that connected my room to my sisters’ room. We each had a door through which we could enter the attic. My sisters would sometimes throw me into the attic and then, with one of them at each end, they would call me. But when I arrived at the door, they would slam it shut and hold it closed. Then the other one would open the opposite door and call me to come to that end. I ran to get out, only to have that door slammed shut. They thought this was a great game, but I was scared to be alone in that dark attic.
I was a small, skinny kid. One of my dad’s friends who bet on horses always said I could become a jockey. I recall being in my room looking at advertisements in magazines showing some big guy at a beach kicking sand at a smaller frail person. I started doing push-ups, hoping to become bigger and build up my muscles.
While still in Richmond, my two older sisters and I attended Woodrow Wilson public school for a couple of years. I got out earlier than my sisters (who I was supposed to wait for so we could walk home together). That’s when I learned that locks are to keep honest people honest. If someone wants to steal something, he or she will find a way to steal or break in.
My friend and I went to the bike rack, picked combination locks, and then rode bikes for an hour until school let out. Then we put the bikes back where we found them and relocked them. On other days, we put sand on the ramps, which the two-story school had in place of stairs. When school let out, my friend and I laughed as several stu- dents slipped and slid down the ramps.
One time, my younger sister and I were washing dishes when we decided to put some dishwater soap into an empty 7-Up bottle we just had finished drinking. We put the bottle in the refrigerator, and when our older sister came in, we suggested she have some 7-Up, because it was a hot day. She took the bottle out of the refrigerator and started to drink it. Suddenly, she spat it out on the floor and started scream- ing. Our mother came running in to see what had happened. My sister and I got into trouble, after our mother came rushing in due to the scream, but it was worth it.
My parents decided to enroll us in a Catholic school in Richmond called Saint Cornelius. Being in a Catholic school was quite an eye- opener for me. I was in trouble once when another kid and I were caught looking at a magazine with pictures of women. The teacher, a nun, thought the magazine was inappropriate. That’s when a ruler hit the back of my hand. Catholic school is also where I learned about the Holocaust that had occurred in Germany during World War II. My heart went out to the Jewish people at a very young age.
One of the reasons for our move to El Sobrante was that my father was also a professional gambler. He had contact with the Governor of California, Pat Brown, and with some mafia type individuals who threatened our family, because my dad wanted a bigger cut of the profits he was winning.
One time, we were on vacation in Las Vegas, and my dad was gam- bling, playing poker. My mother came out to the car where my sisters and I were waiting. She was very excited and took us to a window to look inside the casino, because our dad had over $300,000 in front of him. The owner of the casino came down and asked our dad if he
wanted to go double or nothing on the next hand. My dad decided that he had started with nothing, so he agreed, and he lost.
Despite this incident, my dad was a good gambler, because he could pay for all the operations my mother had to endure. When I was seventeen, I sat down with my best friend Tom, who also loved to gamble, and my dad to play poker. I learned a very valuable lesson that day: not to gamble, because my dad told us each card we had in our hands.
My dad became involved in some burglary at the market where he had his jewelry store in El Sobrante. To this day, I don’t know exactly what happened. All my mother said was, “Your father became involved in some burglary,” and we had to move. No charges were ever filed against my dad, at least not that I was ever aware of.
We moved to Sunnyvale, CA in 1958 when it was nothing but orchards everywhere one looked. I attended Collins Junior High School in Cupertino, CA for two years. My favorite teacher ever was Mrs. Horn, who taught history. She took the time to help her pupils understand our nation’s great history. While attending Collins Junior High, I rented my sweater and ring to different girls for fifty cents for two class periods. That ended abruptly when the principal found out and called my parents.
After that, I attended Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, CA. I can recall when John F. Kennedy was running for the Presidency. I wanted Kennedy to win, because he would be the first president who was a Catholic, as I was.
On November 22, 1963, I ripped my pants at school and received permission to walk to my home, which was approximately three- and-a-half miles away, to change clothes. I had to walk through the orchards to get to the small subdivision in which we lived.
When I arrived home, my mother was crying. I asked her why she was crying, and she said the President had been shot. She asked what I was doing home, and I showed her the rip in my pants. I stayed home for the next two hours trying to find out what had happened.
When I finally went back to school, there was a sober feeling through- out the entire school. Everyone was in shock, asking, “How could this happen?”
My dad became a traveling jewelry salesman, and we began to see less and less of him, because when he wasn’t traveling, he was out gambling. When he was gambling, he wouldn’t return home until the early hours of the morning. My dad made a good supplemental income from his gambling though, because we were buying a home, and our family was never deprived of shelter, food, clothing, schooling, or other essentials. My dad would travel from California to Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Arizona.
One time, my dad arrived home to find my older sister with a busted lip due to her running with a rope. I had been chasing her to get the rope, and I stepped on the end of it, causing her to fall and cut her lip.
I was stacking firewood in our backyard when my dad showed up unexpectedly and asked me why my sister had a busted lip. I tried to explain my perspective on the situation, but he picked up one of the pieces of wood I was stacking and started hitting me with it, telling me never to do that again.
Growing up in Sunnyvale surrounded by orchards was a great experience. We played football in the streets, went running through the orchards, and climbed trees picking and eating fruit. In the summer, we had jobs picking cherries and apricots and cutting apri- cots. When we weren’t working, we snuck into the orchards and picked bags of Bing Cherries and Apricots. Sometimes, the farmers chased us with shotguns, firing rock salt at us.
During this period, I also learned to ride unicycles that were three, six, and nine feet high. Sometimes, we would even ride them in parades.
When my dad was home, he started brewing his own beer. Sometimes, he would wake us up at twelve-thirty in the morning, because the beer had to be bottled and capped. My dad stored the beer in our garage, and there were times in the summer when the beer exploded, due to the yeast buildup in the bottles, which made our dog, Prince run to seek refuge in our backyard.
In the summer, I worked for a man named Tony B., who owned about ninety percent of the orchards in Sunnyvale. He had a daughter, Sue, who was four years younger than me. I saw her all the time with her father in the orchards. I had no idea the pivotal role she would play in my life later.
One night when I was a sophomore in high school, Tony and his wife became involved in an argument. Tony proceeded to a local bar, where he began to drink. Tony became intoxicated and announced that he would sell all his land for $5,000. His neighbor, who was in the bar at the time, asked him if he would sign a promissory note on a napkin. Then the neighbor would take Tony to his bank in the morning and give Tony $5,000 for his property, which was worth millions.
The next day, both men proceeded to the bank and closed the transaction. I don’t know if a hangover influenced Tony or if he was still upset over the argument he had had with his wife, but he kept his word and sold the land for a mere $5,000.
This incident caused a divorce, and Tony B, who had owned a lot of property and could have been a potential multi-millionaire, settled down to life as truck driver, leaving his bitter ex-wife to raise their two younger daughters on her own. Sue had two older siblings, a brother and a sister, who were already out on their own. They disowned their father and never spoke to him again.
When I was in my senior year, Sue was a freshman. I asked her to go out to a function, but she said she was going with some guy named Jim. Jim was twenty-one. Sue met him one day when she ran away from home. Jim happened to pick her up hitchhiking and returned her to her home. Sue’s mother thought Jim was the best thing that ever happened to Sue. Sue kept seeing Jim for several years.
Shortly after Tony B. sold his land, orchards started being sold, trees were being cut down for housing developments, and freeways were being built. As a teenager, I watched orchards become concrete jungles. A lot of good memories disappeared when housing devel- opments and freeways took the place of those orchards, like sitting up in cherry trees and eating cherries until we were chased off by farmers firing rock salt at us and driving beat-up old cars through the orchards, banging off trees, and then running away from the farmers.
While I was in high school during the sixties, the sexual revolu- tion was just getting started. I had a couple of friends, Mickey M. and Gerry G. We knew a girl named Audrey C. whose father was a drywall contractor. Her home was a couple of blocks from where I lived. They had the only swimming pool in our housing development.
One night when her parents weren’t home, the four of us were sitting around the pool talking about sex and how great it would be to expe- rience it. None of us knew anything about sex; we were just talking about what we heard.
A few months later, Mickey and Audrey started going study. A few months after that, she learned she was pregnant. Mickey didn’t want anything to do with Audrey after he learned she was pregnant. I was still friends with her though, and we started seeing each other. When she started showing signs that she was pregnant, her parents took her out of Fremont High and transferred her to Campbell High School, about ten miles away as a bird flies.
I was with her throughout her pregnancy. I felt responsible, because I was there that night at her pool saying how cool it would be to have sex. A lot of students and faculty at Fremont High knew that Audrey was pregnant, and they thought she was carrying my child. They asked if I was the father, and I would say I didn’t know what they were talking about. I let them think whatever they wanted. After nine months, she delivered a healthy baby girl, and her parents had the baby adopted out. Audrey and I kept seeing each other through- out our high school years.
When graduation came around, we were sitting in a parking lot in my car across from Fremont High School. She asked me to marry her, because her parents were putting a lot of pressure on her. They wanted her to marry a guy who was in the Navy. They had met him recently at a party. She didn’t want to marry him though. A short while earlier, her father had offered me a job and told me that he would set me up in the drywall business if I married his daughter. I told Audrey that if she waited until I was in my twenties, I would marry her. At that time in my life, I felt I was too young and immature to get married. She said that she couldn’t wait, because her parents were putting a lot of pressure on her due to the pregnancy and the adoption. I told her that she had to live her life, that she couldn’t live her life through her parents. Unfortunately, she followed her parents’ advice, and I was left distraught.
After graduation, on the day I turned eighteen, I moved out of my parents’ house. I had a disagreement with my mom, and my father was coming towards me to hit me, but I told him that he would never hit me anymore. As I was walking away from him, he said I was no longer his son.
After that, whenever I visited my mom, my dad would stay in his room. I would say hi to him, but he never responded. That lasted until I went into the Army.
My best friend Tom and I applied for a job at the Pittsburgh Steel factory in Santa Clara, CA. Tom’s mother was dating one of the managers there, and he could get Tom and I jobs. We started working on these steel girders that helped form the Sacramento, CA freeway system. Tom and I were steel grinders; responsible for grinding the welds flush with the steel beds. It was a dirty job. Each day, we were covered in welding fragments and black dust. When I arrived home, and took a shower, the water was black as it went down the drain.
Tom and I decided to get an apartment together. We had some wild parties on the weekends, drinking beer and listening to Johnny Rivers albums. We had beer cans stacked from floor to ceiling in a pyramid shape. Several times, they all came crashing to the floor due to someone running into them. We had numerous complaints from the lady who lived below us because of the noise we caused. She had her mother living with her, who was sick. One night during one of our parties when the beer cans fell over, an ambulance came to take her mother to the hospital.
Tom and I worked at the steel factory for about three months before I decided it was time to change professions. Tom thought the same thing, so he became a butcher. His father could get Tom a job as an apprentice at a slaughterhouse. Eventually, Tom was hired as a butcher in a large grocery store chain.
One time, I was visiting Tom at night (he was closing the meat department) when an older lady came in complaining about the hamburger. She told Tom to regrind it, so Tom took it in the back, reground the hamburger, and then added a booger with it. That taught me to never argue with a butcher.
I put in an application at a grocery store called CO-OP in Sunnyvale, but they told me I had to apply at the corporate office in Palo Alto, which was approximately fifteen miles from Sunnyvale. I kept calling once a week for about a month to see if I could get a job at the market.
Then one day I received a call for an interview. Judd Reeves, the store manager at the Palo Alto store, interviewed me and hired me on the spot. I was glad for the job, although I was hoping to get hired at the Sunnyvale store, because it was right around the corner from where I was living.
I had to go through an apprenticeship program and a six-month probation period. After working there for a time, I was late one day. Judd took me aside and said the following words, which I will never forget: “You can do a thousand things right, but the one thing that you do wrong will always be remembered over all the right things that you have done.” He also said,“Do you know why I hired you? Because you were so persistent in calling every week that I thought I would give you a try.” Persistence. I never forgot that either.