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Goodbye to the Clown

The title of this blog may sound demeaning when you consider that this is a reflection on the life of an amazing person.  I chose to call it that because for many people that went to school with him, Ralph Alvarez was the class clown – the one mimicking Mr. Heil, the semi-permanent substitute we had for a while our junior year, the one who ran through a pep rally in full Jerry Lewis style, or the one drawing a mildly inappropriate cartoon that made a comment on the conditions at school.

I was quite shocked when I heard of his passing.   When I shared this news with friends, they also were quite taken aback.  We always wondered what had happened to Ralph, and now we find out he has passed and we  have no way to reach out to him to tell him how he touched our lives.

We all have our wonderful memories of Ralph.  When I asked for people to share their recollections, most people recalled what a great talent he was.  He went to state finals with his rendition of “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot.   Anyone that ever saw him perform pantomime in Speech competitions were enthralled with his precise and very effective movements.  I can still recall his interpretation of a Charlie Chaplin piece, “The Great Dictator” which just gave you the chills.  Even if you were not familiar with the movie, his pantomime told the story in an incredible way.

Many of us saw his wonderful cartoons and caricatures.  He did a parody of “The Exorcist” which he called “The Abortionist” which was drop dead hilarious.  My one regret is that I did not get to hold on to a sketch book that I had of his with pages and pages of his drawings.    He came by my office one day, about 10-12 years after graduation, and asked if he could have it back to use as a portfolio of his work.  Of course I gave it to him, but I honestly wish I had made a copy.

He had a unique way of punching through things that were too serious.  We once had to perform a record pantomime in class as part of a project.   He and I had done “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” by Cheech and Chong which he nailed.  Most of his record pantomimes were so funny you didn’t realize how well he was mastering the recording. Our speech teacher, Miss Griffing, told us all we had to do a serious song lip sync, and she made sure that Ralph got the message that this was strictly serious, no kidding around.

We did not know what to expect.   Curtains opened, and he sat there in a chair, with a smoking jacket, holding a pipe, looking all sophisticated.  The song was “This Guys in Love with You” by Herb Alpert.  Word for word, line by line, he lip synced that song and he had us in awe!  He was doing it!  Playing it straight.  Expressing every emotion that is in that song.   Until . . . it came to the part of the song where there is a short trumpet solo.  Without breaking character, he held the pipe to his mouth, and pretended he was playing the solo on his pipe.   We lost it.  We were rolling on the ground  in laughter.  When the solo was over, he went back to playing it straight and really showed us how to do it.  We expected Miss Griffing to be quite upset.  She just shook her head, smiled, gave him an A, and went on the next student.

I think Miss Griffing had it in mind that she was going to make Ralph be serious at some point in his life.  It was no secret that Ralph did not want to wear our bright orange graduation robes for our various Senior activities.  If I am not mistaken, she either bought his robe for him or had it made available to him, which she forced him to wear at our Senior assembly.    Ralph had a serious part to read as part of the ceremony.  He was given  his lines, and told to say those lines and nothing else.

The day of the event came, we all did our part, and it came time for Ralph to do his speech.    He came to the podium, stood there silently for a few moments, and then said, to the entire crowd assembled there, “I feel like a spokesman for Sunkist oranges.”   Of course we all lost it, and I will never forget the look on Miss Griffing’s face – a combination of anger, laughter, and resignation.   He then went on and did his portion of the program perfectly.

One of his dearest friends, Pat Grissom, mentioned that Ralph had a photographic memory.  I never realized that, but now I understand how he learned his lines (and everyone’s lines) so quickly.   He was also quite smart.    Pat mentioned in his recollection that he and Ralph were a debate team at El Paso Community College, and in one tournament they beat the #1 ranked team in the nation from USC.  Apparently Ralph did his argument on school reform in his Vincent Price voice.

We all expected at some point that Ralph would have been a successful artist or performer.  For whatever reason that never happened.   But to consider his life a failure would be to shortchange him as a person.  Ralph was a kind dear friend.    He was always so positive, even when things around him weren’t always good.

When he came to pick up his sketchbook, he found out that I had just gone through a divorce.  His words of encouragement and understanding meant the world to me at a time I was having a difficult time.

A story about him was shared with me by my friend and primo Joe Alanis.  Joey and Ralph were neighbors and grew up together.  He mentioned that he could never get Ralph to give up his street shoes to play ball, but he knew every word on every George Carlin album.   (My first instance of hearing about Al Sleet the Hippy Dippy Weatherman was from Ralph, not the record)  Anyway, Joey mentioned that the only one of his classmates that gave him  a graduation present was Ralph.  It was a copy of Winnie the Pooh that belonged to Ralph, and he presented it to Joey with a personal inscription which is too personal to share.    That is the Ralph I knew.   That is the Ralph that those of us who had the pleasure of being around him will remember.  I am embarrassed that I lost touch with him, and that I never said these few short words I’ve written here face to face.

This story is also called Goodbye to the Clown because that is the name of a play that most of us that were in Speech and  Drama are familiar with.  The imaginary clown in the play helps the young girl get through the trauma of the loss of her father.    Ralph was that way in a lot of ways.  His humor, his kindness and his caring helped carry us through school and those difficult emotional times that we call high school.  He never let us get down and he certainly never let us take ourselves too seriously.

Thank you Ralph.  May you rest in peace, and may you make the angels laugh.

Capture

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Happy “Dad’s” Day

Today would have been my dad’s 84th birthday.  He taught me hard work, mechanics, carpentry, frugality, and even a few new cuss words I had never heard.  When other kids were playing, he had my brother and I working on cars, busting down swimming pools, helping around the house, and any other chores he could come up with.

He was far from perfect, as most of us are.   He had an inherent mistrust of people, a bit paranoid at times, and quite insecure as well.    You see, he grew  up being largely unwanted by his family, and it took a lot of time for us to break through that wall.

He spoke a lot about his boys, my brother Art and me.  When I went to claim my dad’s remains and make funeral arrangements in the little town of DeBerry, Texas, his neighbors, friends, and fellow church members knew all about Art and me, even though we had never met them.    My dad spent a lot of time talking about us.

I call this post Happy “Dad’s” Day because this man was my dad, even though he was not my biological father.   From day one of his marriage to my mom we never used the word step-father or step-sons.   When we asked him what we should call him after he married my mom, he said “call me Don.”    We asked if we could call him dad (my brother and I were 10 and 8), he said that would be ok.   We never called him anything else.

On Father’s day this is the man I think of, not the biological father who chose to leave us when I was two years old, never to be seen again.  Thank you Dad, for loving us, protecting us, and showing us what a Dad should be.   I hope I make you proud.

Miss you.

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The death of part of my childhood – RIP Dennis

I grew up in a much simpler time when kids could play outside for hours at a time without parents having to worry. We knew that we would be at each other’s parents house and no one worried. When it was time to come home, our parents would yell out the door for us to come home. Sometimes it took calling us by our full name, middle name included, to get us home, but we went home, and we were safe.

In fifth grade we moved from the Sunset Heights area in El Paso to the Lakeside area, all the way across town. Normally that kind of move would be tough, but for me, and for my brother Art, it meant the start of a great set of friendships. The first day of school I went to my class with Mr. Rhymes, and sat in front of someone who would be my best friend for the next 49 years, Hugo Echavarri. Across the street and down about three houses lived the Romero family, with a young boy my brothers age, named Dennis. The four of us would spend the better part of several years playing street football, Monopoly, Stratomatic football, cards and a number of other games. Sometimes we would start early morning and play till it was time to go to bed.

We invented a game called Calvin Hill, where we would throw a football up in the air and whoever caught it had to get to one side of the end zone (our lawn) with the other three tackling them. We did this during the heat of summer, on rainy days, and even a couple of times when it snowed. We would be banged up, scratched and bleeding at times, but we kept on going.
Our street football games would go on forever, and sometimes included Dennis’ sister Donna. We hated it when she got all girlie on us and quit playing because she would break a nail. Sometimes a kid from down the street named Louie would join us as well. When Dennis and I were playing on the same team we made up an audible system to call plays depending on where Hugo and Art lined up. Did we use numbers? Nope, we used cartoon characters.

We played a lot of tennis, we “experimented” with blowing things up with a balloon full of acetylene gas and oxygen from my dad’s welding torch. We even came up with a way to use a battery and steel wool to set off the balloons. One time Art and Dennis blew a big hole in the back yard with their little experiment.

These were fun times, and innocent times. But as happens, as we got older, we kind of lost touch. Hugo and I remain best friends, and of course I keep in touch with my brother, but Dennis and I lost touch. We managed to find each other on Facebook a few years back, and spoke maybe three or four times since that time.

About ten days ago I was driving to Round Rock to take my granddaughter to a Daddy-Daughter dance. My phone went off, and it was a message from Donna, Dennis’ sister, advising me that Dennis had passed away that morning, peacefully, in his sleep.
Certainly I am sorry that we had not kept in contact more often, but I choose not to linger on that. We had a lot of good times together, and those memories will always remain. But I can’t help but think that a little part of my childhood died when I learned of his death. I will miss you my friend, but our good times will always be in my heart.

dennis

If you ever had a father figure in your life, you are blessed. If that person isn’t your blood, but treats you as such, you are even more blessed.

If you ever had a father figure in your life, you are blessed. If that person isn’t your blood, but treats you as such, you are even more blessed.

Those words really pierced my heart, because they were posted by my son Sam Gorena on my birthday a couple of months ago. They touched me because it confirmed to me that I had done a good job in helping raise this young man, a young man that I became aware of when his mom was 6 months pregnant with him and I attended her baby shower. Little did I know that I would be a part of his life for so many years after his father passed away.,

They also touched me because it made me realize how I had learned to love Sam as my own. I learned it from my Dad. He came into our lives in 1965, when my little brother Art and I were 9 and 7 respectively. My “father” had walked out on my mom many years before that and we were raised by my mom, with some help from my grandmother and my wonderful grandfather. We did not have a father figure in our lives until my Dad came into our lives and swept us off our feet.

From day one, after he married my Mom, we were “his” boys. He was not “Don” to us, he was just Dad. He was hard on us at times, and we did not really understand why he worked us so damn much.   I would have rather been roaming the streets with my friends than back at home rebuilding cars, going to salvage sales, or recycling aluminum and tin to make a few extra bucks for the household.   But when I am able to rebuild my brakes, change out a clutch, or build a raised garden bed from discarded decking material, I have my dad to thank.

I was a total butt to my dad as a teenager at times. I challenged everything he said, I was sarcastic, and I even at times ridiculed his ideas.   But at the end of each night, when it came time to go to bed, he always said “I love you son.”   I guess that is why I never uttered those words that many stepdads end up hearing – “You aren’t my real dad.”

After my mom passed, my dad’s relationship with me changed.   He now relied on me to help him with important decisions, make medical and financial decisions, and work out some pretty intense feelings of anger, loneliness and resentment that he had built up over his life.   We talked often, even when he left El Paso and moved all the way across the state to DeBerry, Texas.   (Yeah, I didn’t know where that was either.)

I told him it worried me that he was 6 hours away and that I was afraid something would happen to him and I would not be able to be there right away to help him.   My worst fears were confirmed when I got a call one late December evening telling me that my dad had suffered a heart attack and was found laying out on the back porch.   We had talked just two evenings before, shared a few laughs, made plans for me to go with him all the way back to El Paso to see his cardiologist, and talked about some ideas he had to remodel some stuff in his house.     His last words to me?   “I love you son.”

Sitting with my brother one day several months after my Dad’s passing, my brother said something that still sticks to me to this day.   He said our dad taught us a lot – how to work, how to survive, and more importantly, how to love.  Sam’s words to me were directly the result of what my dad gave me; it was his legacy to me.

I would give anything to hear those words again – I love you son.   I miss you Dad. Happy Fathers Day.

It should have never worked – a reflection on two very important lives.

It should have never worked.   She was a naturalized American citizen born in Campo Madera #2, Chihuahua, Mexico, with two little boys.  He was a former moonshiner from Cedartown, Georgia.

She came to the United States at an early age to work as a maid, married a soldier who left her alone while the boys were young, and worked a lot of hours at a hospital in El Paso to support her sons.

He ended up in El Paso after working several different jobs and a couple of marriages that had gone bad.

They met when he came over to her house to share Thanksgiving dinner with the family.  Apparently they had a mutual friend that got the two of them together.  Talk about a blind date.  Since she did not have a phone, he just showed up for dinner that night.    What could have been a rather awkward meal actually turned out rather well.   He came over the next night to take her out for dinner and made big brownie points with her sons when he brought over two model car kits for them to work on.  When they complained they did not know much about cars, he offered to take them to car dealerships on Saturday so they could see what the cars looked like.   That’s right; he dated her sons as well.   Took them to see cars and bought them cheeseburgers. Still, it came as a big surprise when they got married 3 ½ weeks after they met.

The marriage lasted 36 years, ending only when she passed away from a long struggle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  In those 36 years there were a lot of ups and downs.  They started off poor, as many young couples do, but worked their way up slowly to a rather comfortable position in life.  He retired from the railroad, she retired as a respiratory therapist.  They raised her kids together, and never once did he call them his stepsons.  They were always “his” boys.    To them he was always their dad, and they called him dad from the day they got married.

It wasn’t easy.  There was a rather wide difference in culture, upbringing, and religious backgrounds.  He was raised in a very dysfunctional family and trust was an issue for him.   That caused a lot of strife in the relationship, but they worked through it. Together they achieved a lot of their personal goals.   But then she got sick.

After several years of struggling with her disease, she passed away 12 years ago  on January 28th.  He clearly missed her after her passing.  His four years as a widower found him sad and confused.   He moved 700 miles from one side of Texas to the other side of the state to avoid seeing daily the things that reminded him of their life together.    Unfortunately it also left him far away from his sons.

He died alone on the back porch of his house; he was found 24 hours after he passed. I still remember the call that I got telling me that they had found my dad.  That happened eight years ago and I still miss him to this day.    My dad made a big impact on my life, and I miss sharing the details of my life with him.  He taught me a lot – mechanics and home repair, being a hard worker, and how to love your kids.   We did not always agree.  In fact, we argued a lot.   But we both knew we loved each other, and I am glad that the last words I said to him were “I love you Dad.”   Those words apparently came the night before he passed.

My mom was a huge influence in my life.  She taught me about love, about sacrifice, about love of country, and the need to get an education.   There is so much that I would love to share with her – my highs and my lows, my problems and my blessings.   I wish she were here to share the experiences in her life that always made a difference in how I looked at things.

It’s funny, most people thought that the relationship would never last.  They seemed such an odd couple.  But they had love for each other and shared that love with their boys. My brother and I will always be grateful.  I miss them both dearly.

We should be dead

Anyone with a brother, especially a little brother, knows the kind of trouble you can get into as kids. I lived in a much simpler time when my brother and I could be out all morning roaming the neighborhood, come home to eat lunch, be gone the rest of the afternoon, eat dinner, and then stay out late until our mom called us to come in. Usually we waited until she called us by our full names, then we knew she was serious.

So while we were safe from the kind of creepy predators that seem to be everywhere today, we were not safe with the kind of stuff we did together. I can count a number of times that “but for the grace of God” my brother and I were not seriously hurt or killed. To say we were adventurous does not begin to cover it. The following just barely covers a small fraction of what we did.

My brother and I were extremely excited when a weather balloon landed at Munday Park, which was just down the street where we lived. When they came to pick it up, the workers gave us the big paper parachute that came with it. We used it like drag racers to slow down our bikes as we whipped down the street at what we thought were incredible speeds. After a while we thought it was boring, so we had to come up with something more exciting. A few blocks away, close to our friend’s house, was what we thought was a really big water reservoir. It was a couple of stories high so we climbed to the top with the intention of jumping off with the parachute, expecting it to help us glide down smoothly, just like we saw on TV. I strapped myself to the parachute, approached the edge, and got ready to jump. My wonderful little brother Art, in a sudden burst of inspiration, suggested that we try a dry run with a rock to see how well it would work. That suggestion met with an argument from me, because after all, we used to make our own little parachutes with plastic bags and attached them to our little army men. After tossing them high in the air they floated down very slowly and made cool landings. Surely the same thing would happen with me, wouldn’t it?

He finally talked me into it, and we attached a rock to the parachute and dropped it off the edge. The rock, which could not have weighed more than 8 or 9 pounds, went crashing down and broke into numerous pieces. It took me a long time to catch my breath after that.

Another time my brother and I fancied ourselves to be little pyrotechnicians. We discovered the wonder of dry ice and the great amount of gas it threw off when we put it in water. We had to find a way to make things explode. We looked and looked and finally found an old bottle of Ban roll-on deodorant. We took off the cap, filled the little bottle with dry ice, put water in it, put the cap back on, and ran away waiting for it to explode. It didn’t. We waited and waited, and still nothing. So what did the smart older brother do? I walked over to the bottle, put my face right over the top of the bottle to see what was happening, and turned to tell my brother that nothing was happening. As I turned my head to talk to him, I felt the ball from the deodorant bottle go whizzing by my ear and, as far as I could tell, into outer space. We never did find the ball, but at least it did not create a nice little hole in my head.

We grew up in the Sunset Heights area of El Paso, a very short distance from what is now UT El Paso. During the construction of I-10 in the area, a large number of drainage tunnels were built near the freeway. Of course my brother and I and our friends thought it would be a good idea to start at one end of those tunnels and crawl to the other end. In and of itself it would not be dangerous, but we did it while huge thunderclouds were gathering just before a driving rainstorm. We got out just before the downpour started, which filled the tunnels in less than a minute, washing everything out into a drainage area. We got beat for that one, and not by our mom. She called in our grandfather to punish us. Not good.

When we moved to the Lakeside area, our back yard bordered some irrigation canals that used to service the area when it was farmland. We discovered that by digging into the side of the canal and again down from the top, we could make a cool little furnace to burn things. We lit fires and threw all sorts of stuff in there to watch it burn. What kind of things did we throw in there? How about half full spray paint cans? We would poke it with sticks and sharp objects to make the paint leak out and catch fire because it made a cool looking little torch. Of course we stuck our face right up in there to take a close look. Why didn’t it blow up and shoot shrapnel all over the place? God only knows.

One more example, I will write about others at a later time. We found out that we could break into my dad’s shop and access his acetylene torch. What did we need a torch for? No, we didn’t weld anything or cut metal. When you mix a little acetylene and oxygen in a balloon and ignited it, we got a nice little bang out of it. We experimented with a lot of different ways of igniting it, and found that a little bit of steel wool attached to a 9 volt battery would set off the balloon. My dad went nuts thinking that his torch set was leaking, and took back a couple of tanks and at least two sets of gauges complaining that he was losing gas. It wasn’t until years later, when we were grown that we told my dad what had happened.

So why was this dangerous? Well of course anytime you use the words kids and explosions in the same sentence it is a recipe for trouble. Our trouble began when my brother and his friend Dennis bought an extra-large balloon. Not sure if it cost us a nickel or a dime, but it was much larger than the others we used. When fully inflated it probably was the size of a large pillow. Anyway, it would take a lot of acetylene and oxygen to fill it, and I knew (for a change) that it was not a good idea to blow this one up in our yard. The option? Have Art and Dennis take the balloon to Dennis’ backyard to blow it up.

For whatever reason I decided that I was not going to go along with this one. They took it to his backyard, which was across the street and three doors down. They dug a nice deep hole, wired up the little steel wool fuse, buried it, and put little green army men on top of it. I was at home when I heard the thunderous boom and I felt the windows rattle. Oh Crap! They have got to be dead. When I got there, Dennis and Art just sat their stunned. Dennis’ dog Pancho was cowering in a corner. In between bouts of spitting dirt out of his mouth, Dennis kept mumbling “My dad is going to kill me. My dad is going to kill me.” I could see why. Instead of a little hole that existed when they buried the balloon, a much larger, wider hole now existed.

Every one of these accounts is true. The ironic part is that my mom told us if we hurt ourselves she was going to kill us. My friend John Orchard likes to say that God protects children and fools. We were both.

How did he grow up so fast?

I actually became aware of him before he was even born. His mom worked at the same law office that I did, and our office was throwing a baby shower for her. Molly was probably 6-7 months pregnant with Sam. Fast forward a few years – Molly’s husband had passed away and Molly came back to work at the same office. It was at this point we became friends. I would go by her house and Sam, who was probably 4 or 5 at the time, would run to the door and jump up in my arms.

I had no idea at the time that this would be the beginning of a journey of several years. Eventually Molly and I progressed from friends to husband and wife, giving me the opportunity to be a dad to a young boy. Since I only had two daughters up to that point I had not had the opportunity to do “guy” things with a little boy. I got to do the cool things that dads can do, like play “pull my finger”, burp the alphabet, and watching countless soccer games. It was because of Sam that I got involved in Scouts, which I continue to do even now that same is a senior in college.

Along the way I had a lot of great memories. Taking him to the store where he informed me that he “needed” that bag of sunflower seeds. Camping out with him at the Cub and One and watching him at the archery range. Checking out at the grocery store and having the clerk tell me how much my son looked like me.

I can’t say it was always easy. As with most kids he had his dark moments and more than one instance that reminds you of why some animals eat their young. But he has been a great kid.

There was not a prouder dad anywhere the day he received his Eagle Scout award. He flirted with the idea of attending Texas A&M, but when he accepted his invitation to go to the University of Texas he made this Texas Ex very proud. Now I sit here knowing that in less than two months he will graduate from college and go out into the world. It seems that he was just a little boy last week, and now he lives on his own in Austin, and I anticipate he will be moving far away soon. I already miss having him around the house, the thought of him possibly moving hundreds of miles away is a bit disconcerting.

Tomorrow I get to go see a play he wrote and directed, a second play that he is acting in, and a musical that he directed for a friend. He is an amazingly talented young man, and I love him a lot. It is also his birthday today. Happy birthday son.