Background: Idyllic Childhood

At the cusp of 13.  I'm the second from the left; my brother is to my right, holding the poker.  Avocado trees are in the background.

At the cusp of 13. I’m the second from the left; my brother is to my right, holding the poker. Avocado trees are in the background.

Since this blog is new as of about a week ago, and since my intent is to chronicle my pilgrimage as a priest–a twenty-five year plan, or thereabouts–it would probably be a good thing to provide some background now, before archives begin to form.  I’m forty-five after all.  This ain’t my first career.  So, what did I do before becoming a priest?  How did I come to the Episcopal Church?  Why San Antonio?

I think I’ll have to tackle this over several posts; one will be too lengthy.  Let me begin with my childhood then, and specifically with a stark contrast that blindsided me.  This contrast, as you will see, is something I needed to notice–though I didn’t want to.  And it has stuck with me through my life till now, profoundly shaping who I am today, affecting even how I view fatherhood and the priesthood.  Rather than tell you what it is outright, and how it has affected (and continues to affect) me, however, I will let you discover it as I have had to, over time and after reflecting.  So then:

It was an idyllic world for a boy, characterized by avocados and adventures: avocados because my family lived on a small orchard on the California coast; and adventures because of the vacations and getaways we enjoyed.

Dad was an engineer.  He worked for the Navy as a civilian in a one-of-a-kind research lab in Port Hueneme, researching and producing cool stuff that had something to do with the bottom of the ocean.  Business trips would take him to exotic places like Diego Garcia.  I wouldn’t see him for two or three weeks but I’d get some awesome souvenir upon his return, like a shark jaw, dried and preserved, or an elephant figurine carved out of wood.  In his spare time he enjoyed coaching my or my brother’s soccer team, volunteering as a cub scout or boy scout leader, maintaining our family’s property, or simply tinkering in the garage.  He never had down time; yet always seemed somehow to find time for me (and my brother).  As for the avocados, the annual crop was his way of setting some money aside for college funds for us boys.

Dad loved adventure.  This became particularly apparent after he got his driver’s license.  Southern California provides boys with minimal parental oversight and driver’s licenses ample adventurous scents to follow, from beaches with some of the best surfing waves in the world to high mountains with plentiful hiking trails and swimming holes; or, with his love for tinkering, manifest even as an adolescent, abundant motorcycle trails and car rallies.

He met Mom at twenty-one.  She was on the brink of eighteen, freshly graduated from high school, an original Valley Girl.  She was attracted to his adventuresome spirit like a fruit fly in May to communion wine, perhaps even drunk with it (as I suspect happens to fruit flies when palls are left off chalices).  He took her to motorcycle races.  He competed; she cheered him on; they fell in love.  They married in 1964–he was twenty-two, she nineteen–and bought a Porsche.  Model year 1959; model 356 B.  Their friends Dick and Carol did the same, only theirs was a Mini Cooper.  Both couples lived wild and free for a year maybe.  Then Mom got pregnant.  So did Carol.  Dad and Dick then rolled the Cooper in a rally–yeah, flipped it!–and it was more or less the end of those adventures.  For a time anyway.

The daily grind settled in for a long visit.  Dad got into his work and enjoyed it, saving enough money to buy the orchard property in 1971.  I was three when we moved in.  Incidentally, Dad has had the same phone number since.  But Mom began to get weary of her routine, which now consisted of toting kids around to preschool and tumbling and music classes.  She would find a sitter whenever possible, or break away as soon as Dad came home from work, to play tennis.  Obsessively.

I should have seen it coming.  But I was only five by now, when the signs began to show themselves.  I just thought it was normal parent behavior.

So–good strategy, now that I look back on it–Dad got us all into adventures, as a family.  We took fantastic vacations.  One time we drove our 1968 Dodge Sportsman (three-on-the-tree) van clear to Cabo San Lucas, back before it was commercialized, when it was still a bona fide fishing village, then took a ferry across the Sea of Cortez, landed at Puerto Vallarta (too just a fishing village then), and drove up the west coast of mainland Mexico back to our SoCal home.  I have shadowy memories of hammerhead sharks and flying fish, of hostile boys throwing rocks at me and chasing me until I escaped via an elevator with a providentially open door, of a giant crab painted on the bottom of a swimming pool, of sleeping in a hut with a thatched roof, of exciting and tingling smells rising from hot food unlike any I’d ever eaten, of walking out a hundred yards into the ocean in my pajamas and the water being only up to my knees.  It lasted five weeks.  What an adventure!

Another year we spent three weeks tooling around four of the Hawaiian islands, seeing the backside, if you will, of Hawaii.  Memories here include camping in a pop-top VW van on Maui, running across a beach covered with jet black sand on Kauai, and hiking some miles to a secluded beach where–to my seven year-old surprise–a group of women were sunbathing naked.  Mom and Dad looked at me then at each other, shrugged, and doffed their bathing suits too.  I followed suit, or, er, no suit as it were.  When in Hawaii, I figured.

Mom and Dad also got us brothers into snow skiing and backpacking at an early age, something like four for me and six for my brother.  Majestic parts of the Sierras were only a few hours’ drive, so why not?  By the time I was twenty I had experienced mama bears with cubs up close, hiking over snow-covered 13,000-foot passes in August, and enough blizzardy weather to make Abel Tasman proud.  I daydreamed my way through college with visions of summiting Kilimanjaro, Denali, and Aconcagua.  Dad had instilled adventure in me all right!

But it didn’t work.  Tennis wasn’t enough.  Maybe there weren’t enough adventures for her liking.  Maybe she was still harboring a grudge that Dad had sold the Porsche to our pediatrician.  Whatever the case, Mom announced to us guys one day that she had had enough of regular, routine, bland life.  I was on the cusp of thirteen.

By the way, Dick and Carol’s marriage had dissolved by then too.

To the point, earlier I used the word idyllic.  That’s how I saw my life as a boy.  Life was a well-oiled machine for me.  School came around every year in September.  I’d wake up every morning at 6:53am, shower, dress, breakfast, and catch the bus by 7:40.  School began at 8:15, recess bell rang at 10:00, lunch at 11:30, and the end of the school day came at 2:45pm.  Then I’d go home, grab a snack, practice the piano, do my homework, and complete any chores, working around the family dinner.  At certain times of the year we’d adapt to soccer, track, and boy scout schedules; but there was a stable, steady, clear routine.  This was day-to-day life.  Interspersed through the year, of course, were the adventures.  These messed up the day-to-day routine, sure; but, oh, were they fun!  Besides, the daily grind was waiting for us when we got home, sure as a Swiss watch.

But the divorce threw all this into upheaval.  The idyllic family life that I had come to associate with stability and security was suddenly gone.  Nothing seemed stable now.

This of course is the contrast that blindsided me: family stability vs. upheaval.  But, as I said already, I needed to see this contrast, to live it.  You will begin to see why next time.

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