Looking back on my childhood, and my young and adult life, it is now apparent that I was destined to be a caregiver.  Little did I know, that someday, I would be caring for the most important person in my life. My wife, Annie.

In the beginning, or as I like to say the creation of a caregiver, I think the most important ingredient needed to represent the true spirit of being a caregiver, is simply caring for others and their plights, which would be better known as empathy laced with compassion.  This story will bring caring into prospective through the innocent eyes of a child, that eventually grew up and kept on caring.

I put this little story together in random order, with the exception  of when I, or the family, moved on.

This Is My Story

When I was 5 years old, back in 1953, Mom and Dad packed up the car and we moved from Paris, Arkansas, where I was born, to the little migrant farming town of Eloy, Arizona, population of 3,500 to 5,000 folks.  Being a farming community, the farmers grew a variety of crops, which when in season made the little town double in size from the influx of migrants. Cotton was by far the biggest crop.

Apparently, Uncle Ed had gone on ahead of us and had a job as a mechanic waiting for my dad when we got there.  Our southern family was very close knit, and in the end, many other family members ended up in Eloy, too.  From the memories of our packed car, I guess we sort of looked like the Beverly Hillbillies, well not quite, simply migrating West.

As a young boy Eloy presented many challenges to me, of which, many I didn’t really understand until later in life. The biggest hurdle I faced was segregation. I simply didn’t understand it.  The black folks lived on the South side of the tracks, and most of the white folks and Mexicans lived on the North side.

The landowners with the big cotton fields and cotton gins usually lived on the farm and were relatively wealthy. Not sure there was an upper class in this town, but there were a few homes that expressed wealth. Then of course, there was the upper and lower middle class. Those of us that lived near the tracks were usually lower middle class, and those that lived in nicer more established areas were the upper middle class. The Mexicans and Black people were, for the most part the lower class.  However, I’m sure there was a few successful Mexicans, perhaps some Black people too.  Even in poverty there is a pecking order, i.e, the doctor of the neighborhood would have some prominence and probably some money.

Things back then were not like they are today.  If a neighbor lady caught you doing something bad or she perceived it that way she could physically spank you. And when you went home crying to mom and dad, the first words out of their mouth would be, “well you must have done something to deserve it.”  End of conversation.

At some point we started attending the First Baptist Church. It was like a neighborhood thing, as mom and dad would take me and my sisters in tow and off to church we’d go. Some of our neighbors would be walking to church too. I don’t believe we missed too many Sunday’s.  I know that because my Sunday school teacher owned a big farm, and every Sunday when he took attendance, if you were there he’d put a little sticky star near your name. At the end of the year, if you made it every Sunday you got a crisp five dollar bill.  That was big bucks in those days.  I know I got the money at least once.

bobby1953When I was six or seven years old I got my first job.  The owner of the A&W Root beer stand, Mr. Lawrence, had me come over six mornings a week between 6:30 and 7:00 A.M. to pick up the papers in the parking lot from the previous days business. I had to come early because of school. There was always plenty of paper laying around, as that was the era of the car hop.  My pay was a large frosted A&W root beer every day.  Sometimes I’d get lucky and they’d give me a burger basket and a root beer float as a treat.

Mr. Lawrence was kind, and during the college basketball season he’d put me in the back of his new 1954 or 55 big red Cadillac Convertible, top down, and take me on a 50 plus mile drive to Arizona State University to watch the Sun Devils play.

The area I lived in was predominately poor, hence we lived in an adobe house. But we had fun, and dad’s job in Casa Grande as a mechanic, put food on out table and allowed the family to do a few things together each year.

My young life was a bit like you see in some of the old 50’s movies.  Every morning except Sunday, all summer long, one kid, usually Larry, would start trekking the dirt streets (there was no pavement in our area) with a baseball bat, ball, and a glove and walk from neighborhood to neighborhood gathering the boys to go play ball in the large dirt Catholic church parking lot.  Sometimes after we played for a few hours and were hot and bothered, some of the moms would take a few of us to the irrigation canals that literally surrounded the county, and were only about two feet deep.  We would slide down into the crystal clear cool water and go as far as we wanted to.  Life was very good for awhile, until I started losing my innocence.

The Young Caregiver

One day, with my mom’s permission, I decided to spread my wings a bit. About a block from my house there was an older kid living there with his family, safe in his own environment.  I went down to see if he wanted to play.  I walked by his home often, and could see him playing, almost always on his own, in the safety of his fenced in back yard. For the most part, the white kids stuck together, and considering the times, that’s just how it was.

My new friends name was Cisco, and he didn’t speak a word of English, nor did any of his family.  Over time I started learning to speak his language, and he learned to speak mine.  Within a year we could have a short but understandable conversation.  What bothered me, was that he was never allowed to leave his yard.  His mom wasn’t having it. She was a short stocky Mexican lady that didn’t have to say a word to cause action. She grew rows of chili peppers in the back yard, and I swear, if we nicked even one, she somehow knew.  Her look would speak a thousand words, and the pretend daggers were flying everywhere.

Actually, I felt like she was kind of mean for not letting Cisco out of the yard.  But she knew things I was incapable of understanding at the time.  Some folks just didn’t like the Mexicans, and even if they did, most were treated as third class citizens.  And the most often used word of the day to describe them was “wetbacks.”  It’s a derogatory term meaning when they swam across the Rio Grande River to get into this country illegally, they got their backs wet.  I’m not implying they were illegal, just stating the term that was used and what it meant. By the way, that was an adult word.

Cisco was about five years older than me, but you wouldn’t know it, as they used to say back in the day, he was “a bit slow in the head.”  But he was my friend and I didn’t care.

One day, after his mom started letting him stray, he showed up at my house with a wagon he built by hand. He had attached four old small wagon wheels to wood framed metal rods that were used for the axels, and had a large board with a backboard connecting the front with the back that I sat on while he pulled me around the neighborhood with a rope hooked to the front. We really had a blast. Sometimes at the end of our ride around, we’d stop by his moms house and have homemade hot and sweet tamales.  The sweet ones were particularly delicious.

During the cotton season, on some early mornings before day light, a large truck with a canvas boxed back, would stop in front of my family’s house. My mom would walk me out to the back of the truck, and with my arms extended up, a Mexican would reach down and lift me into the truck. The truck would be full of Mexicans, and other than the driver of the truck and me, there was a bit of broken English and that was about it.

From my house, the next stop was Cisco’s house. I don’t ever remember Cisco getting on the tuck, but I will never forget his dad. He had a gold looking tooth in the front of his mouth. He would always sit near me on the back of the truck, and sometimes when I looked at him, all I saw was a glimpse of a smile with a gentle sparkle in the dark, bouncing off some object or perhaps someone lighting a cigarette.

We’d travel out to the cotton fields, and I’d spend the day with them picking cotton. At lunch time we’d take a very short break, and I’d sit around with them eating a bologna sandwich from my little brown paper bag, that was heavily stained from the greasy sandwich.

The workers treated me very well, and I was never in any danger. Perhaps I was like a mascot, or something, as they were very protective in caring for me.

When I’d take my gunny sack of cotton up to the scales to be weighed, you could hear the laughter from the men standing around. I didn’t pick much, but when I left for home at the end of the day, I was always tired and had a few dimes in my pocket. Didn’t have much, but for that moment in time, I felt rich, and satisfied with myself.

Remember the old song: Summer time and the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high, Oh your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’, so hush little baby, and don’t you cry. Those were the days.

What I’m going to tell you next is kind of sickening, and it’s one of those memories, along with many more I made in Eloy, that will be forever etched in my memory bank. This would be the day I lost my innocence.

Cisco didn’t go to school, but on some occasions as I walked to school he’d join me, and then come back after school and wait for me to get out.  On our way home one afternoon, this car with  several older boys inside pulled up beside us and started taunting us. Finally it stopped, two or more of them got out, and one of them hit Cisco so hard, to this day, I can still hear the sound of his back crashing onto the hard earth. Then they kicked him a few times. After that it was my turn.  One of them pushed me to the ground and held me down while the other one started pinching me all over the back of my legs leaving big red welts.  I was being punished for playing with my Mexican friend. We were both crying when we got to my house and to safety.

After I explained to my mom what happened, she got Cisco cleaned up so when he got home his mom wouldn’t see or understand the depth of the incident.  His mom could not have done anything about it anyway, the cops wouldn’t care, they were simply looked at as migrant farm laborers, even though they were most likely citizens or permanent residents.

On the other hand, I was white, and my mom was madder than hell with the opportunity for recourse. She asked me if I knew who the two boys were, and I told her they were Mrs. Brown’s (fictional name) boys.  She grabbed me with one hand and Cisco with the other, then walked him to his house where he was safe. (The language barrier kept my mom from telling her anything about the incident.)

From there we went on what seemed like a long walk to Mrs. Brown’s house. When we got there, mom banged on the door, Mrs. Brown answered, and mom told her what her boys did to Cisco, then jerked my pants down (embarrassing me at the time) showing her the many welts on my legs.

What she did next, kind of shocked me, but it was adult stuff.  I now had my very own little war story to tell.  Mom proceeded to slap the holy crap out of Mrs. Brown, and I believe really did ring her bell, while saying, your boys better hope little Bobby’s daddy don’t show up down here. They never bothered us again.

bob and ciscoCisco and I remained friends, but we were both now aware of the dangers outside his yard.  The same dangers I’m sure his mom was already aware of.  So he basically quit venturing out very often, but, I would go down once in awhile and check on him and we’d spend time playing together.  I was his only friend, and cared about him.

As a family we didn’t have a lot, but we had a lot of fun times, a decent adobe house, car, and always food on the table.  Mom and dad usually made the trip to the state fair with us kids once a year, and we’d go back to Arkansas to see our kin folks, for our vacation.

Family gatherings in Arkansas were always great. The days of the “Honky Tonk.” When the adults went to the “Honky Tonk,” the kids ran wild.

And when in Eloy, if I got bored on a Saturday afternoon, I’d walk to our little town, lay one the wooden sidewalk, stare in under the swinging bar doors and watch the folks dance. Invariably someone would see me and bring over a bag of peanuts, drop them in front of me while handing me a Coke.

Of course the dancing was 50’s rock and roll, with my favorite being the Bop.

I guess I got carried away there. The point I was trying to make was that, although we didn’t have much, we had privilege.  From experience, not from some book I’ve read, if you lived in segregation and were White, you were most likely privileged.

Racism

I don’t like racism, or the word racist. In my opinion, I believe the word is thrown around in this country today, way too much, creating situations that sometimes have nothing to do with race. A voice can be silenced by one powerful word. Racist! When in fact, the conversation had nothing to do with racism. And I’m just being honest.

If you saw what I saw in the 1950’s, and you happened to be a Mexican or especially a Black person you’d have a much better understanding of racism and perhaps the word would not fly around so much in the language we use today.  It was really bad, and for those people feeling the sharp tongue or fist of racism, there was no place to hide. Imagine being a young Black teenager, getting to cross the tracks for the movies, then hustling your way home after the movie, because, perhaps that was the safe thing to do. That was a hard one for me to understand.

One day after the movies let out, a Black man was walking two children back across the tracks.  When he got to the tracks a train was coming, and in those days if the train was not stopping in town, it was flying down the tracks. He stopped with the children at the tracks. Apparently one of the kids crossed the tracks, and turned to come back for some reason. The adult stepped out onto the tracks, probably stopping the kid, and got hit by the train. What a nightmare for those children.

After the train passed and eventually stopped, we all went running over there. There wasn’t much there, and what was there, I won’t talk about. Other than the heartbroken children, and other children, afraid and crying. I’ll never forget that chaotic scene, what I saw, or the sad sounds of the children.  It doesn’t ever leave you.

Living on the North side of the railroad tracks and facing them, we lived about one-hundred yards or maybe a little more from them.  In between my house and the tracks was Interstate 10, which ran East/West and was two lanes in those days.  On the South side of the tracks and to the left of my view from our living room window was shanty town, which was where most, if not all of the black people lived.

Being a young baseball player, I loved the sport.  I used to hang over the back of our couch in front of our living room window and sometimes get to watch the Black kids play baseball across the tracks, always longing to go over and play ball with them.

One day I plucked up the courage and asked my mom if I could go across the tracks and see if they’d let me play ball with them. She said she didn’t think it was a good idea, reminding me of what happened when I made friends with Cisco.  I was persistent, and eventually got my way. But for whatever reason, at that time I never went over.

There was never a written rule that said I couldn’t go play with the Black kids, but sometimes as I found out, the unwritten rules can be sharper than the written rules. Those rules don’t come from any law, they come from the adult tongues.

The day I met Tommy Lee and Herman was quite the experience.  I didn’t know, and to my recollection hadn’t ever met any black kids. That day, I was leaning over the couch looking at these two black boys with a bicycle, playing near, but on their side of the tracks. I got permission from mom to go over and meet them. After a half hour lecture about getting squished like a bug on the interstate and railroad tracks, I took off. When I got over there, I have no idea what was said, but we basically just started playing near the tracks.  I had a few pennies, and we decided to put a couple of them on the tracks for the train to run over. Wow!  We were amazed.  It did in fact squish them like a bug.  That was a cool moment for us. A big deal, sort of.

I never played ball with them at the time, but the three of us built a good friendship, and spent some time together. Some days we would all three get on that old rickety bicycle and ride in the desert.  I was always on the handlebars, Tommy Lee was at the wheel so to speak, and Herman was on the back fender.

Mom would allow the boys to come over to my house and play, but it had to be sneaky, and we had to play indoors.  Mom would let us play, wrestle against each other, on her and dads bed.  We had so much fun, even though we were confined to the house.

One day while in Sunday school I was telling my Sunday school teacher, the land owner, about these two Black boys that were very good at baseball and would be good players for our church team. That’s when I learned about the unwritten rule, the sharp tongue. He sharply said I had no business playing with those little colored boys and he didn’t want to hear any more about it. Oh, I remember that day well.  It really upset me, as I didn’t understand… They were my friends, and he was like a mentor and I looked up to him. Why would he say that?

Often, If the Black man or Woman was of prominence, they would be addressed as Mr. or Mrs., followed by their last name.

When I told my mom what he said, as I recall she wasn’t surprised.  It was the Cisco effect, only non violent. She sat me down and talked to me about it, but never really had an answer. She and my dad didn’t have a problem with Black people, hence, I didn’t know hate.  The one thing she said to me was, the next time you’re in Sunday school ask your Sunday school teacher what Jesus would think about you playing with those little Black boys.  And, that God said we were all created in his own image, so why are they treated differently.  That was some heavy stuff for a seven or eight year old to say to a person of authority.  It took awhile for me to pluck up the courage to speak to my teacher, but when I did, he didn’t have an answer and seemed to be very angry with me. Eventually his heart softened, I guess,  and he came to me at Sunday school and told me to have the “boys” at our next practice.

Getting to practice wasn’t that easy. It was the three of us on Tommy Lee’s bicycle, riding like the wind through some scary, to them, and different territory. Well that’s what we did, and I don’t remember any problems, so there must not have been any.

Herman was the real ball player, he was a star.  He was really dark black, had big round smiling eyes, and the whites of his eyes were huge.  It wasn’t long before he got a nickname from the boys,  “Herman the spook.”  I know it sounds awful, but that’s just the way it was and it wasn’t meant to be derogatory.  They were my friends, and became my friends, friends too.  “We were young.”

You see, during the Cisco, Herman and Tommy Lee era, I still managed to keep my white friends, and quite frankly they didn’t have a problem with Cisco, Herman and Tommy Lee.  It was, and forever will be the responsibility of parents to teach their children well. I was taught to care for others, and to stand up for the underprivileged when I could.  No, I wasn’t taught literally, I learned by the example set for me by my caring parents. My mom would tell me stories about her daddy, my Grandpa, who migrated to the USA from Belgium, had a bit of money, and when she was born they had a Black maid who helped raise her and her sisters.  I forgot her name, but my mom spoke very highly of her, and I believe she left an everlasting impression on mom, which she was passing on to us kids through her stories and actions.

At some point, grandpa got prostate cancer, and after a long battle with the disease not only lost his life, but all the money he had put away too. And mom and her sisters lost a good caregiver, and friend. The family could no longer afford her services. (As I write this article, I am battling Prostate Cancer–Perhaps, thanks to my grandpa, a man I never had the privilege to meet.)

Here’s the last point on my Arizona childhood I’d like to make.  In 1955 or 1956, I had agreed to meet Tommy Lee and Herman at the movies. I was 7 or 8 years old by then. They said they would be sitting upstairs.  I didn’t realize that all black people had to sit upstairs, while white people and Mexicans sat downstairs.  When I got to the movies, and paid my dime to get in, I ran over to the stairs and started to go up and find my friends. Some man grabbed me from behind, shouted at me and told me I wasn’t allowed to sit up there. I’m sure he said some choice words, but it was very noisy, so all I remember is him grabbing me by the back of my shirt at the collar and jerking me back. I was just an excited young kid, probably moving very fast. At the time, although desegregation was starting, segregation was all around.

This fact amazes me. I was remembering the movie I saw that night, and this is the only movie I ever remember seeing at that theater. Probably because it scared the heck out of me. It was called, “The Day The World Ended.”  I just checked google to see if I was right, and yes, it was released in 1955.  So my memories of the events are pretty accurate.

bob and phyllisDespite losing my innocent view of the world as a child, I loved where I lived, as it was all I knew. In late 1958 early 1959 we once again packed up our station wagon, U-Hall trailer and without much of a goodbye to my friends, pulled out of town following Uncle Ed to Northern California.  For me, there was no excitement, just sadness. My biggest heart break was leaving all my friends and my little girlfriend Phyllis behind. She was a cutie.

We settled in the small town of Crescent City, California, located in the far Northwest corner of the state.  The town was sustained by a healthy lumber and fishing industry, as well as a strong seasonable tourist trade.  North, South, and East of the town was the beautiful Redwood forest known for some of the most majestic trees in the world.  North and South of the town nestled among the Redwoods was the Smith and Klamath Rivers, both known for their legendary seasonal salmon and steelhead runs.  To the West of the town was, you guessed it, the Pacific Ocean.  Home to our thriving fishing industry at the time. It was a wonderful place to live as a child, but in the early days after arrival, I could care less.  I missed my friends.

Loneliness

Salmon1When I arrived in Crescent City I was half way through the seventh grade, didn’t know a soul, and felt like no one wanted to know me. We moved into a house on Lauff Avenue, not far from the beach. I know what you are thinking, wow, how wonderful.  No, not so.  This was still the 1950’s, and life was extremely kind to some and hard for others.  My saving grace was a couple tons of rocks piled up near our house and a huge empty field across the street. I had dad shave off one of my baseball bats down near the end so I had a flat surface to hit rocks. And when I was hitting rocks, I was always locked in a pretend world where everything was good and for that moment in time, I was Mickey Mantle making home runs, one after the other.

Just when I thought I was losing my identity, a neighborhood kid, the late Don Hemmingsen, showed up on his bicycle at the rock pile. He was my age, a very happy go lucky kid, and on that day my life changed for the better. He and I started riding our bicycles to the beach, and eventually, weaving in and out of traffic going to the dock for a bit of fishing.  It was great fun, and I started learning rather quickly, I was living in a hidden paradise.

When I entered the 8th Grade, Don and I were in the same class. He introduced me to many new friends, and life slowly came back into balance.

Using my empathy and experience as a guide, in the 8th grade when a new kid arrived at the school, and stood anchored in the same lonely spot as I, the previous year, I made friends with him and introduced him to other kids. As it is today, schools always have a few cliques. By introducing new kids to other kids, they eventually found their own way and made their own friends.

Through my high school years, I sort of lived a dream. Swimming the summers away in the crystal clear waters of
the Smith River, catching large salmon, racing motorcycles, playing in the ocean, simply living life. Looking back, the little town of Crescent City, Ca, had to have been one of the world’s best kept secrets. It was refreshing, after living in a town filled with so much hate, and moving to a town where all kids could be kids. Truly the American dream.

BobbyfishDuring my senior year of high school, a young girl had a nervous breakdown. When I found out, me and a couple of friends went up to see her. To our surprise she had not seen anyone from school. And she was a popular young lady. Problem was, if someone had a nervous breakdown, they were labeled as crazy. So kids stayed away. I personally visited her a few times, which she appreciated, but in the high school it was as if it never happened. Taboo subject. Not sure why I really cared, as I was so carefree at the time. I suppose it was part of my creation.

After high school and one year of college, I had a strong urge to serve my country and decided to join the USAF in March of 1968.  After basic training and technical school,  I was shipped off to England for 42 months, where I eventually met Annie.

And although I didn’t know it at the time, I became a caregiver for a nation. Which happens to be close to title of the new blog I’m writing. It will be different and offer up a uniquely different perspective on care giving.

Over the past 16 months I’ve published 56 blogs on the Caregiver Space to do with care giving and the wretched side effects, including the loss of a loved one, loneliness and anticipatory grief.

According to some articles, empathy and compassion is something that can be taught. In other articles it’s stated that, they can’t be taught or forced. In my opinion, either we’re empathetic and compassionate or we’re not. I also believe that I was born empathetic, and although it was instrumental in my care for Annie, it is, and was a very heavy burden for me to carry, especially during my childhood.  So, perhaps it was my destiny and my pain to be Annie’s caregiver.

It follows that caring for Annie was very traumatic as her suffering became my suffering, her pain and tears, my pain and tears. It was very tough, challenging, but I never once considered throwing in the towel. I pushed forward every day, living on hope that I could spend another day with her. In the end, together we turned a 3 week prognosis into 30 months, making some of the best memories of my life. And yes, there was a lot of heartache, but I no longer dwell on that. I chose life over death and we cheated death many times, hanging on as long as we could. Now I choose good memories over the bad ones.

“Life Happens.”

Annie’s Beautiful online memorial

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