Monday, June 28, 2004

“Who was your Father?” (Part III)

Aunt Mom
Y'know, I really don't mind talking about my rather unusual family history, but it does get a little complex. I mean, how many people do you know who's Mom dies and nine months later his Dad marries his departed wife's sister-in-law? I mean, wouldn't you think that sort of story would raise a few eyebrows?

And no fair answering if you live in Kentucky, Tennessee or Georgia. Oh wait...I do live in Tennessee...maybe it isn't quite so weird after all...

Just kidding.

Buy yes, it's true. By the time my Mom passed in 1968, my Dad and Aunt Maxine had already fallen in love, after eight years of supporting each other through the fear and confusion of losing their respective spouses to familial early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. My uncle, Maxine's husband, was about a year further along in the disease than my Mom, and died in 1967. Meanwhile Dad and Aunt Maxine had formed a connection that would remain for the next 31 years. They were married in 1969.

However there were plenty in my Mom’s/Uncle's family who thought the relationship just wasn't appropriate. One of my Aunts (whom Maxine had a bitter, running feud with anyway) asked me sarcastically, “So what are you gonna call her, ‘Aunt Mom?’”

This, as well as my Dad's desire to leave the painful memories of the last ten years behind made our next move clear. Maxine already had a house and three grown children of her own in Southern California, so off we went. It was without a doubt the biggest event of my lifetime.

"Made up my mind to make a new start —
goin’ to California with an achin’ in my heart..."

I think it's safe to say that my Dad's marriage to Aunt Maxine was one of convenience first and love second, but they certainly did love each other; of that I’m certain. Whether or not ‘Aunt Mom’ loved me and my two of my brothers who made the move with my Dad (my two eldest brothers were already grown and established, so they remained in Indiana), however, appeared highly debatable at the time.

Living in Maxine's domain was a dicey proposition to say the least. Take three active boys ranging in age from 16 to 9 years of age, who’ve grown up with no Mother and little direct discipline for the vast majority of their collective lives; place them in an environment controlled by a Great Depression-raised strict disciplinarian who controlled that environment with an iron fist, and what do you get? If your answer includes any variant of the words ‘combustible,’ ‘disaster,’ or ‘trouble,’ and I believe you smell what I’m cookin.’

It was such a horrible dichotomy: on the one hand I had been transported from Podunk, USA, where a trip to K-Mart and dinner at McDonald's was as big a thrill as one could hope for in daily life, to this world of wonder and sophistication that was Los Angeles in the late 60s–early 70s (and I say was because anyone who has lived in LA both before and after the 1980s will tell you, it may still be nice, but it's not the paradise that it was back then). However at the same time, I has also been transported from a world of innocence and freedom, into a veritable war zone of rules, regulation, accountability and corporal punishment.

Yes, Maxine was definitely into the Biblical addage of "Spare the rod and spoil the child," but I never got the impression that she was all that concerned about my being ‘spoiled’ so much as whether or not I did anything to piss her off — and she could become pissed off at the drop of a hat. She didn't spank — that would have taken too much time. Her hair-trigger temper required a much more immediate response: a swift slap across the face. It didn’t stop there generally, however; if one had the time to flinch and duck before receiving her hand, a pummeling of both hands about the head and shoulders was sure to follow. My older brother resisted, but I always stood there and took it, usually befuddled as to what in the world I had done wrong now.

Of course the beatings never took place when my Dad was around — but initially at least, he always heard about them when he got home — if, that is, we had a chance to speak to him alone.

I say ‘we’ but in fact it was usually my older brother Kenny who usually made it a point to detail our mistreatment at the hands of Maxine. I never denied it, but I feared retribution much more than believing that raising a ruckus would change Maxine’s behavior. But not Kenny. He went out his way to bring the actions of our abuser to light.

The subsequent arguments were roof raising. Kenny actually appeared to be attempting to break up the marriage at first. He was staunch in his hatred for our new Step-Mom’s tactics, not just for the fact that she hit us, but also for the restrictions that were being placed on his life. He was now a sophomore in high school and had grown so used to being his own man over the previous several years; there was no way he was going to bow to such treatment. He lasted through the end of that school year in 1969-70, but then convinced Dad to let him return to Indiana to stay with our two elder brothers — supposedly just for the Summer. But as he was leaving for the airport in the early hours of that June morning, I knew wasn't coming back.

Hey, wasn't this story supposed to be about my Dad?

Sorry, but I've taken this detour of focus because I think it’s necessary to point out just what was going on around my Dad during this tumultuous time. Now I’ll digress a little further to correlate a bit of international intrigue that would affect my Dad — and ultimately, my family — just as much.

An untimely (All)end(e)...
As I’ve indicated, my Pop was under tremendous pressure in those days. The debts that had piled up in the wake of my Mother's illness followed him to California. Adding to that, a previously-arranged job transfer with the company he worked for in Anderson never materialized — in fact, it vanished before we even left.

The company that my Dad worked for was a manufacturer of industrial copper wire and cable. Just a few weeks before we were to leave for California, word came down that the plant located in Orange, CA that he was supposedly transfering to, was closing in the wake of the company’s impending loss one of its primary sources of raw material.

In 1966, the Chilean government began in earnest, the process of nationalizing that South American country’s rich and lucrative copper mining industry.

Prior to 1955, multinational corporations built, owned, and controlled Chile’s chief natural resource. From 1955 through ’69, agreements were ratified with the Chilean government, that made it possible for both entities to profit from this important enterprise. In this process of negotiated nationalization, the foreign corporations would begin to gradually allow the Chilean government to ‘buy in’ to the mines, eventually taking full control and ownership while ‘reimbursing’ the foreign companies for the cost of developing the industry. The corporations, of course, wanted to protect the millions they had invested over the years and the host country naturally wished to finally be the beneficiary of what they quite understandably considered theirs.

My Dad's company, Anaconda Wire and Cable, was one of the companies whose copper mines was going through that process of nationalization in the late 60s, and in 1969 signed an accord with outgoing Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva.

According to the plan at the time, the Chilean government had just purcased a 51% interest in the Anaconda mines, and had until 1983 to purchase the remaining 49%. Everything was hunky dory until Montalva came up for re-election.

If you remeber your history of Third World socialist regimes in the mid-to-late 20th Century, one name you'll undoubtedly recall is that of Salvador Allende, the leftist who succeeded Montalva as Chilean President in the 1970 election. Even before he took office, Allende made outright nationalization of Chillean copper a vociferous election campaign topic.

Anaconda could see the handwriting on the wall, and in anticipation braced themselves for the blow by first cutting back operations in several of their U.S. plants — including the one in Orange, CA. — then later closed those facilities for good following Allende's victory and subsequent, swift implementation of his Día de la Dignidad Nacional (Day of National Dignity), pushing through the Chilean constitutional amendment that allowed him to nationalize outright all mines, and transfer all present and future copper fields to the state.

The news of the cutbacks placed my Dad in an especially tough position. Even though he was welcome to keep his old job in Anderson, he was already committed to the move to California. Our house was already sold; the cord was all but cut. We simply had to proceed onward and let the chips fall where they may.

Instead of having a well-paying job with all his seniority intact waiting for him in California, my Dad arrived in The Golden State without a clue as to how he would support his family. He was one lousy year shy qualifying for his pension and now would have nothing to show for 24 long years at Anaconda. And though he tried, he was unable to find similar work within the industry in SoCal at first.

As a stop-gap measure, he ended up taking a job with Forest Lawn Mortuary selling cemetery plots — no kidding. “Talk about your dead-end jobs,” he would joke. But the fact was, with the economy already in a downturn, we were in for some lean times in the early 70s.

I can't imagine what it must have been like to be my Father back then. His normal smile was in short supply. He was often distant. I didn't really have any concept of the financial realities that we faced, but I knew my Pop wasn't happy. I decided I wasn’t going to add to that unhappiness. So after my brother left to return to Indiana, I knew I was going to be the #1 target of Maxine's wrath. I decided that I wouldn't tell. I would simply deal with it and try to keep her happy. If she wasn't, and took it out on me, Dad would never know. And until years later, he never did.

The continued details of my relationship with Maxine will more than likely be the subject of another story entirely, so I'll end them right here. But make no mistake, although there is still inside me, a red-faced young boy shaking his fist at her when I think about those days, she was the only Mother I ever really knew. And for all the bad, there was still an awful lot of good in the things she taught me about responsibility, which I desperately needed and for which I'll always be grateful.

However my point in recounting this convoluted tale is this: seeing my Dad's courage — sticking it out through the hard times — and the committment of his marriage to Maxine; that was such a great object lesson for me; one I would draw upon later in my own life.

Several years ago, on Father's Day, I wrote him a note along with my card, telling him that he was my hero. I quoted the chorus of Wind Beneath my wings, but to me it wasn't cheesy — it was from the heart.

I marvel at his genuineness, his lack of hubris, the true kindness of his nature, and the emphasis he places each and every day on being the same, consistent person that he was the day before.

Even now, with my life more than past the half-way point I can still say, I wanna be like him, yeah, you know I’m gonna be like him.

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