Thursday, January 14, 2010


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that forced the United States into WWII occurred in December 1941 while my brother and I accompanied our parents on a music tour to several Mexican State Capitals. Puebla’s State Conservatory of Music, where my parents taught, sponsored the tour. My father had been my mother’s piano teacher. They had fallen in love and eloped to New York, hoping to conquer the city with their piano playing. Playing piano accompaniment for silent films and as dinner entertainment in New York restaurants didn’t pay enough to raise a family on, so they had to return to Mexico when I was six months old. My parents continued struggling to make a musical living in Puebla and I developed a nearly fatal intestinal infection. My maternal grandparents helped out by taking me into their household where I was nursed back to health. Every time I lived with my father and mother, I would get sick and had to be taken to my grandparents to recuperate. When they moved to Daytona Beach, Florida the family consensus was that I would die for sure if I stayed with my parents, so they took me with them. This was the beginning of a life long habit of commuting between the U. S. and Mexico every two or three years. It was during one of these visits, two months after my nineteenth birthday while the Conservatory tour was in Guadalajara, state of Jalisco, that WWII began and the world changed forever.

I could have stayed in Mexico during the war, but I didn’t. Mind you, I didn’t volunteer to fight, but after turning nineteen and the bombing of Pearl Harbor I came up and turned myself in, so to speak. I decided to come back to the States mainly because I didn’t want my school mates in Florida to think I had chickened out. Long distance peer pressure put me in the Army. I registered for the draft and chose the uncomfortable Army over the relatively comfortable Navy simply because they offered a three week hiatus before reporting for duty. The Navy only offered one week before you had to present yourself. I figured every day of freedom was worth a fortune and my upbringing as a spoiled grandma’s boy blinded me from considering anything else. To me, three weeks in the hand were worth more than a Navy career in the bush. I really enjoyed those last three weeks of beach and sand and surf before surrendering my tender soul and young body to the Army.

I use my family history to illustrate the “degeneration of the generations,” as I call it. Methodist missionaries discovered my father’s father in the silver mining town of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in the late eighteen hundreds. They considered him a diamond in the rough and educated him and developed his talents. Don Pedro Valderrama repaid his benefactors by founding a first class Methodist school in Puebla. It still teaches from kindergarten to twelfth grade. He became a Methodist preacher and a 33rd degree Mason; all in all a prominent citizen. His wife was the daughter of an English mining engineer from Pachuca. They had four sons and three daughters. These uncles and aunts of mine all did fairly well except for my father, who was the musician of the batch. He and my mother were both wonderful pianists, but music is a tough racket and Mexico wasn’t the ideal place for classical pianists to make a living, which explains their futile attempt at conquering New York. By 1944 the Methodist school had gone through several Directors and had degenerated into a shell of its original self. My father was offered the directorship and our family was installed in the principal’s house. My father was no exception to the rule that musicians are notoriously bad administrators. He barely managed to keep the school going till his death at sixty from a stroke, only a year after my mother died of cancer at forty two. Compared to his father’s brilliant performance in founding a flourishing school, his achievements seemed, and were, quite lackluster. The last of our line to make his mark at the school was my brother. He cut up, caroused and disrupted so much that a later director expelled him from the school our grandfather founded! It went from founder to being kicked out in three short generations. Makes me sad, but it illustrates how a family can quickly slide into mediocrity in a couple of generations.

The first day at Camp Blanding, Florida was a little like a recurring dream I had as a boy. I would stride down the street in Daytona Beach. Suddenly, I would fall through the side walk to a lower level where there was a new and different world to explore. I fell from my comfortable "Grandma’s boy" world into a completely different mad and topsy-turvy under world ruled by people in tan uniforms with little chevrons on their sleeves, yelling orders that HAD to be obeyed; promptly and smartly, or else... My first day in the Army, I was awakened before four AM to go on KP (Kitchen police) duty. When I finally got to go to bed again a good 19 hours had passed and I had to get up early again next day. I have not, to this day, been able to find my way back to the normal and orderly world I used to know. Things just went from bad to worse. We had to crawl in the sand under machinegun fire. That wasn't too bad except for the story about a pair of recruits, who happened to come face to face with a rattler while crawling in the sand. They allegedly jumped up from the fright. Too bad, so sad; the machinegun was just then sweeping over them and practically cut them in two, or so goes the camp legend. A Captain was demonstrating the use of explosives. Watching him embarrass himself in front of the class by accidentally blowing himself up didn't help restore my sense of reality. Digging holes to lie in while tanks pass over you might be all right in some places, but our little nests in the Florida sand did NOT feel unsquashable. That slide into the surreal continues unabated, as you can verify by the daily news. “Don’t think. React!” was the memorable phrase our second lieutenant tried to drill into our brains. Although his reasoning was impeccably correct when it came to diving for cover versus conducting a mental debate in the presence of incoming artillery shells, the lieutenant’s little phrase opened my mind forever to questioning authority and its pronouncements.
Trying to spear wild pigs by throwing a bayonet equipped rifle at them while on "pig guard" provided more work cleaning rifles than it did entertainment. Those damn pigs would stick their snouts into the tents and rip open our duffle bags so they could eat the soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, candy and anything else they could find. They would even dig the trash out of ten foot burials. My compensation came one night as we camped and slept in tents among the trees. I felt an “expansion” while looking out of the tent over my feet at the sky one night. I felt my being expand into the heavens till the very stars became atoms of my body! Ever since I occasionally dream I am in a space ship on a never ending trip through infinity.

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