As we wait and head into the holiday season, here's a snapshot of my childhood.
I was born in Venezuela and grew up in oil camps. The one that I remember best was Campo Verde, in Tia Juana, the state of Zulia. My house is the one with the red "X" on it. There was an empty lot behind it, where a pumping unit was. You could walk right up to it. There was a little sheltered structure like a bus stop next to the pumping unit. This was where kids used to play doctor. I don't know why that was the choice site, since it was out in the open. Tradition, maybe. I could name a few of the girls, but a gentleman never tells.
My brothers and I used to walk on the top of the dyke all the way past the horizon on the right. Once we came across some Venezuelan fishermen sitting on the rocks. They took us on their boat and cooked us spaghetti in tomato sauce for lunch. They were very nice men, and the spaghetti was delicious. We were the first Americans they'd met. Since I grew up speaking Spanish, we had no problem communicating. I was blonde, which fascinated them because most were black. In Venezuela, blacks were treated as fourth-class citizens. Having been raised by our parents to not perceive race, we didn't know that. They were just nice men who gave us spaghetti.
One of our favorite people was a black guy who worked at a supermarket. He told us our haircuts made us look like the Beatles. Being a Venezuelan, he pronounced it "BEET-less." We didn't know who the BEET-less were, so we thought he said "BEE-kleh." We dubbed him Beekleh, which he liked. An extremely muscular man, Beekleh once opened the car passenger door to our station wagon to load the groceries, not realizing that my mother had engaged this little exterior lock that kept the door shut in case some dumb kid tried to get out while the car was moving. The device was just a little metal tab that you swung down over the edge of the window frame. Beekleh pulled open the door, producing an ear-splitting crack as he popped off the lock. It flew across the parking lot and landed with a tinkle. His wide-eyed grimace of horror faded only when my mother nearly collapsed on the sidewalk because she was laughing so hard.
Mom has a history of laughing at things other people wouldn't find funny. When her own mother died unexpectedly, Mom had to go pick out a coffin from the funeral home. They were playing such ridiculously sombre organ music, and the parlor attendant was so grave and theatrical, and the coffins were so ornate and ugly that Mom got the giggles. She started thinking of the TV show The Addams Family,
with the sinister theme song and macabre house and Lurch rumbling, "You rang?" As she explained that she was there to buy a coffin for her mother, who had just died, she burst out laughing the way she did when Beekleh broke our car. She couldn't stop. The funeral-parlor attendant thought she was psychotic and dangerous.
Back to the photo of Campo Verde. The structure in the front of the image is the Club, which served the best hamburgers, french fries, and tequeños
(deep-fried cheese fingers) I've ever eaten. That was where I learned to put mayonnaise on french fries. All the waiters wore white long-sleeved shirts, black pants, and black bow ties; once I played hooky and went to the Club with a friend. He ordered a hamburger and then didn't eat it. Instead, he sprayed an entire squeeze bottle of ketchup on it and covered it with the paper plate his fries came on. When we left, I looked back and saw the Club's head waiter, Alfonso, lifting the plate to look at the burger. He had a sad, disgusted, resigned expression that I didn't understand at the time. Now, I realize he was thinking about all the Venezuelans going hungry while these American kids turned valuable food into garbage just for fun.
The round space in the Club is where we sat on lawn chairs at night to watch movies, projected on the large square screen with the overhang on the right. That was where I saw The Battle of Britain,
a film that made me so hysterical that my father had to take me home. The scene that did it was when the gunner in the nose of the German bomber has his eyes shot out in a huge splatter of blood. Dad was furious because I'd embarrassed him and made him miss the rest of the movie. I had nightmares for months.
In the photo of the Club, the big rectangle at the lower right is an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Our next-door neighbor, a U.S. Marine, would give us rides in the pool when he was home on leave from Vietnam. I still remember the feeling of his gigantic muscles flexing beneath me as I sat on his back and held his shoulders. The water was so deep and blue it looked like we were in middle of the ocean. It was like riding a friendly sea monster.
I grew up listening to gaita, folk music from the state of Zulia. It has a characteristic beat and uses instruments imported from Africa. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjwZMe5YvqM
This is probably the reason I've always been interested in complicated music. It's hard to follow the rhythms in gaita. I never learned to play it, so maybe I'll have a contest on my Web site: "Play a gaita for Tom!"
Venezuela also gave me my lifelong terror of flying. We had to travel in tiny propellor-driven jungle hoppers or DC-9s that crashed with alarming regularity, since Viasa insisted on fueling their planes to full capacity before leaving for the States. Aviation fuel was dirt cheap in Venezuela at the time, so they'd load up the plane with as many passengers and as much luggage as possible, fill the tanks to overflowing, put some poor novices in the cockpit, and then try and take off from the too-short runway at Maracaibo. They'd hit power lines and explode in neighborhoods or just not get off the ground in time. One airliner that went down was 5000 pounds overweight. We knew lots of people who were killed in plane crashes.
The last time I flew was in 1992, and I thought I'd die of fright. When I visit Scott Thunes early next year, the only viable way for me to get to the Bay Area from L.A. is to fly. My fate will be my fate, but just thinking about it gives me butterflies the size of overloaded Viasa DC-9s in my stomach.
Could someone please invent a teleporter between now and February? In exchange I'll give you a free copy of Ghosts
and Scott's memoirs. Thanks very much.
And yes, my mother is hot. It's okay to mention that. It'll make her laugh.