Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I Remember Fred Warren by Peter Reum

As some of the steady readers of this blog have known, there are a group of friends who have passed away that I have tried to honor through writing a tribute in this space. This is my way of trying to help keep the memory of these people alive and to prevent them from fading into obscurity and being forgotten.

When I was 13, my parents noticed that I was sliding toward being a "junior hood" in the Espanola Valley Schools where our family lived. I wasn't doing anything terribly illegal, but it was apparent to people who knew me that I had lost my drive and focus. My father and mother elected to transfer me to the Los Alamos School System, hoping I would regain my scholastic performance. I attended the summer school in Los Alamos after my seventh grade year finished in Espanola, and rode with my dad up the mountain to Los Alamos to a school called Pueblo Junior High School, where a funny and exotic grey haired teacher named Mr. Hochenwalter was earning a few extra bucks by teaching remedial math to people, including me. That summer passed quickly, and I enrolled in Pueblo Junior High School that fall term in 1967.

I showed up for the first day at Pueblo, and was shocked to see that the Caucasian "gringos" were the predominant group there. Gringos were vastly outnumbered at my old school, with Hispanics and Indigenous people making up roughly 90% of the student body. I had learned to speak Spanish thanks to the visionary attitude of my dad, and Spanish spoken by a Gringo was about as unlikely as could be possible in Espanola. The fact that I was able to speak Spanish probably prevented me from getting into several fights those seven years of school in the Valley, as Espanola was called. The revelation that shocked me was that in Los Alamos Schools, the proportion of Caucasians to Hispanic people and Indigenous tribal kids was completely reversed. 90% of the student body at Pueblo Junior High were Caucasian of one variety or another, and there was no need for my Spanish speaking ability there.

The first group of students I ran into included several guys who I was blessed to become friends with. Some were tall, like myself, some were short. One of the shorter guys was a guy whose adolescence had probably begun when he was 9. He was about two years older than the rest of us. His name was Fred Warren, and he had a full heavy beard whereas the rest of us sported peachfuzz. All of the Pueblo Junior High bad boys were afraid of him, because he reputedly had a brown belt in karate.

Fred fancied himself as Pueblo's official greeter of new meat. Being a slab of bologna, he found me and did his best orient me to the dos and don'ts-social routines at my new school. I committed my first faux pas by asking a guy named Scheinberg if he was Catholic. I heard about that until I graduated from Los Alamos High School. Fred explained to me that there was a large Jewish community in Los Alamos, and if I wanted to get off on a good foot with them. I probably shouldn't ask them if they were Catholic.

Fred then took it upon himself to cover the unspoken dress code at Pueblo Junior High. He explained to me that jeans were verboten. He helped me to buy a few pairs of pants that were sort of like today's khakis. Of course my mom wanted to know why I was wearing khakis that she hadn't bought. White athletic socks were out. colored socks were in. I had to walk about a mile from where my dad dropped me off so he could navigate rush hour traffic in this community of 12,000 people.

I had been given one of my dad's old briefcases to stash my textbooks into so I didn't have to carry those books for two miles a day. Fred looked at me about two weeks into my first semester at Pueblo with the briefcase. "Peter...lose the briefcase!"  said Fred. So, I marched that two mile walk carrying five or six huge textbooks at my side for my next two years at Pueblo. Fred had told me that carrying them the way girls do was completely unacceptable.

At Pueblo, the in crowd among Boys was those who went out for football. I had dominated other kids in Espanola playing football. The Hispanic kids were shorter and lighter than myself. At Pueblo, a huge proportion of guys were taller and heavier than average. Our coach in 8th grade football put me at center on the line. For two years I believed my coaches hated me. Centers get bashed every play of every game. Fred played free safety and showed me  a few judo moves to help me stay alive until high school. Punts were especially painful. I was double teamed to hopefully intimidate me to mess up the long snap to the punter. Most of the time it was academic anyway because the punter kicked the ball straight up and straight down half the time. Fred kept showing me those judo moves and I survived playing center, although it was hard to snap the ball from the  judo crane position.

Fred's family had known my parents from the early days of Los Alamos, around 1944. Fred's and father and mother had adopted Fred and his younger brother in the early to middle Fifties, as both of them were orphans born in what was then the British Colony of Malta. The two boys had been in an orphanage until Fred was three and his brother was one. Although they were brothers by adoption. they did not come from the same birth family in Malta. Sadly, Fred and his brother by adoption lost their mother to breast cancer one year after they came to live in Los Alamos.

The bereaved family carried on for a few years, but Fred's dad never recovered emotionally from his first wife's death. His father remarried less than a year later to his second wife, Fred's stepmother. Fred's new stepmother had a daughter, whose age was precisely between Fred and his younger brother. She was the closest person to Fred emotionally, and their bond was unbreakable. Sadly, his younger brother never got over his mom's death. He began practicing his Cubs Scouts campfire building skills in the family's living room.

What Fred and I had in common was that we were both adopted. That bond was cemented in those Pueblo Junior High years. We shared our thoughts about being adopted unflinchingly.  What was good about our adoptions was being a part of a loving family instead of an orphanage. What was the most painful was trying to figure out why were not good enough to be kept by our birth families. The ambiguity of our birth family's history, our history, remained unresolved. I remember those long discussions clearly and fondly. We were a pair of guys who shared our common pain and gratefulness.

As high-school approached rapidly, I spent more and more time at the Warren home, often being picked up by my dad there. The draw of sports was losing its novelty. I remember hanging out with Fred, discussing how high school would be. We moved to The Hill, as Los Alamos was known, and there were no more rides from Espanola to Los Alamos. The last semester of my 9th grade year, I invited my two best friends, Charles from the Valley, and Fred from The Hill to a sleepover at our small farm in Espanola. We had a grand time. Little did I know that Charles would die later that year, and Fred would die in his twenties from alcohol dependence.

Beginning in 10th grade, I made up my mind that I wanted to find more constructive extracurricular activities than snapping footballs from the judo crane position. I talked with Fred, and we both decided to try to join Key Club, which was at that time an organization for boys. Today, I am thrilled to know that my old Key Club is composed of young men and women. Fred and I enjoyed working with the older guys in Key Club performing service projects around Los Alamos and the Espanola Valley. I got elected sophomore representative on the Key Club Board of Directors. I basked in the warmth of accomplishing  something unrelated to sports. Fred became my most trusted Key Club protégé. Being Sophomore Representative on the Board meant running the huge fund raiser for Key Club--selling fruitcakes.

I roped Fred into selling these beauties with me. Together we canvassed two large areas of our town, Western and Eastern communities. We ended up selling over $2500 worth of these gut bombs between us. My family's living room was inundated with fruitcakes for a few weeks all three years of high school.  Fred and I were the Fruitcake Brothers....sorta like the Blues Brothers, only without the blues music and on bicycles instead of  in cars. The Fruitcake company was delighted,  our customers were content to support Key Club,  and as nice as they were to order, no doubt they regifted those fruitcakes. Fred and I continued to hang out at each other's homes.  One winter night, after Fruitcake delivering, we were frozen to the bone.  We ended up at Fred's house, and his parents weren't home. Fred's parents had an amply stocked liquor cabinet, and Fred asked me if I wanted a drink.

My family were social drinkers, so it wasn't as if I was an alcohol virgin. I told myself "one won't hurt." We began with Captain Morgan spiced rum. After several of those , Fred suggested peppermint schnapps.  I loved the taste.  After a few hours my mind was still willing, but my stomach said f*ck you. I was the new decorator of the Warren's living room. Fred, much less plowed, graciously cleaned up the floor while I described how the room was spinning in great detail.

That was the first of many occasions when Fred provided booze. On a number occasions, intoxication followed fruitcake and other activities. My parents were saints, and let me learn about excessive alcohol  consumption the hard way. The novelty wore off, but not completely until I had a family of my own. I had no clue that Fred already had a high tolerance, even in high school. Fred scoped out the social stratification of Los Alamos High School faster than I did. There were the jocks, the straights, the motorheads, the brains, the horse jocks,  the Chem Lab Weirdos, and the druggies. There were also some folks that floated between groups. Fred and I called them the chameleons.

That sophomore year I became aware of the Other Gender. Fred never took that awareness as seriously as I did. We went over the potential for finding a girlfriend, and decided if she were to emerge,  we would welcome it. If not, there was always Key Club. My parents were happy that I wasn't a horn dog,  and quietly let me be socially inept with girls without comment. My older half-sister had a shotgun wedding after her freshman year of college, and they did not want that scenario repeated. As for Fred....he was cool with girls. He would chat them up, mostly letting them talk about themselves. This apparently worked quite well for him. We went to a few dances sophomore year on a stag basis. Fred had a unique way of dancing that worked for him. It was sort of a mix of the Watusi and freestyle diving. He'd Watusi around for awhile and then do a stationary somersault. His frug with a one and a half twist was his signature dance. As for me, if someone asked me, I'd sort of stand in one place with my right leg forward sort of moving like crushing a cigarette with my big toe, and my left leg stationary. Meanwhile, I'd flap my arms like a bird. I was on the beat every 8 measures. Quite a pair, Fred and I.

When winter turned to spring, Fred and I planned my political campaigns for Key Club Secretary and also for Southwest District Secretary. Fred was taking printing class and produced my campaign literature for District Secretary.  At the Key Club Convention in Albuquerque that year, I lost to a guy named Frank Ng (pronounced Ing). To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. Well, Frank turned out to be an excellent District Secretary, and The District Governor appointed me District Editor. Fred had been my campaign manager in the District Secretary race. I didn't blame him for the loss. He, as usual, excelled at whatever task I roped him into. He helped me with the Key Club District newsletter, and was amazing.

As Club Secretary, I helped with board matters and was the Project Chair for our Key Club's main service project, helping an old priest begin what he called Santa Maria El Mirador. The location he chose was a 17th century hacienda called El Mirador. This guy, who was trying to get a home for people with developmental disabilities was eccentric, to put it politely. He was from Austria and was tall and wiry with green teeth and a wild shock of grey hair that wouldn't stay in place. He had a brilliant friend who I only knew as Gary, who had a Ph.D from an Ivy league school.

El Mirador had been a Spanish Colonial hacienda, which had been named to the National Register for Historic Places. It was located in a small village called Alcalde. After falling into disrepair,  it was bought in the mid 1930s by an heiress from Chicago who rebuilt it as best she could. The hacienda once again flourished. When the heiress died, it was occupied by the State of New Mexico for a nursing home. After closing, El Mirador again fell into disrepair until Father Dom Cyrillos came. He saw several strapping young Key Club men, and put us to work clearing the five acre grounds, which were a huge mess. On Saturdays,  we Key Clubbers would drive to Alcalde along the Rio Grande. We cleared irrigation ditches, cleared stumps, cleared fields, and fabricated head gates.

Father Cyrillos made lunch for us every time we went down and worked. His cooking was simple but hearty. He said that he was a member of an ancient monk order called the Knights Templar. He would attempt to recruit Fred and I into this monastic group of men. When we asked him what monks in his order did, he confided in us, saying they were monks who fought for Christ. Being young and naive, we swallowed his story without any doubt. It wasn't until years later while researching a term paper that I found out that the Knights Templar Order had been abolished and members executed in the 14th Century by some pope I had never heard of.

Father Cyrillos was eccentric. He showed us a sword that he said he was given when he joined the order of monks. He had a coffin in his room with a small pillow, and when I got bug eyed and asked him why the coffin was in his room, he told me that Knights Templar members rules required it. Visions of vampires made me shiver, but the fact that he did not have teeth to speak of made me feel safe. Vampires can't bite you without teeth.

As time rolled on, we began using bigger tools to remove cottonwood stumps. Fred advocated for dynamite, but Father Cyrillos's friend vetoed that idea. We were very sad about that. I told Gary that I had been using M-80s to blow up those big rural mailboxes since I was 10 years old. Gary seemed to believe that Fred and I, being underage, were too young to blow up stumps. We helped assemble a green house, and Fred spearheaded that task. We renovated several rooms of the hacienda, and through hard work by the board of directors, of which I was a member, also finished the first eight bed wing for the future residents. All of us worked hard to bring that area up to code.  Some of the members of the plumbers local in Los Alamos did the plumbing at no charge. Fred was the guy who sold the project to them.

Fred and I decided, with Steve, another close friend, that we would volunteer for a production that the high school drama club was putting on. We were on the massive front curtain that needed to go up and down. Fred handled problems with lights and climbed high above the stage with absolutely no fear at all. As things turn out, I was invited to go to a girls invite guys type dance that was happening shortly after our play wrapped up. Fred, who never took these things seriously, took a mutual friend to the dance. I was asked to go by a girl who was lovely, but that I didn't know. To say I was panicking would be a gross understatement. I didn't know how to dance, so Fred and his kind and patient stepsister spent fifteen hours teaching me at their home how to dance.

This was my first real date, and I was beyond nervous. The girl was soft spoken but nice. I rang the doorbell in terror. Meeting her parents was a blur. She presented me with a flower for my lapel, and I tried to pin it on her. Her mother, kindly told me that it was for me to wear. The entire evening was a blur, and I could tell that my Cro-Magnon  Social skills and Frankensteinish dancing really made her sorry she asked me to the dance. I did my best right leg shaking toe planted dance style and was mortified.  Meanwhile, Fred and his date, a good friend of both of ours, danced stylishly, with great ease and panache. Fred took one look at me dancing, and with mock seriousness asked me if I remembered anything he and his sister had taught me. I replied that this evening was the longest night of my life.

Fred once again became my campaign manager in my effort to be elected Key Club President and Southwest District Key Club Governor. His work was flawless, and I successfully was elected for both  offices. Our work together continued in the summer before our senior year. We had a solid local Key Club Board, and an excellent District Board. Fred seemed to feel conflicted about his  last year of high school.  He handled many of the duties I had done during our junior year. When I was on the road as Governor, the guys who I trusted ran the various service projects on that year's plan.

Fred easily handled every task I asked him to run.With a few  other guys, he took over El Mirador, which was very close to opening. Fred and I got together  a few times weekly. Fred and I spoke about life after graduation. He had decided to enlist in the armed forces, and the Navy had caught Fred's attention. We wrapped up Key Club duties shortly before graduation.

After graduation, Fred and I played golf together with him going off to Naval basic training. We would see each other when he was home from the Navy.  Our goals and directions split, and Naval travel took Fred to places I dreamed of visiting. I got married, and studied knowing only what my parents told me about Fred after we went our  separate ways.  Eventually,  reports came to me that Fred was drinking to passing out almost nightly. I invited him to my wedding  in Colorado,  but did not hear from him.

My dad told me he came back to Los Alamos and bought a house when he left the Navy. When my dad died, my thread to Fred snapped. He became a legendary drinker, and he did not make himself available for us to reunify our friendship. When I went to the 25th Reunion of our high  school class, my friend Evelyn Vigil told me Fred had died, with his cause of death being liver failure and advanced brain related deterioration.  But I choose to remember him as the fellow misfit I loved like a brother, adopted boys trying to figure out the big wide world.

Copyright 2016 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Step Parenting: Cumulative Little Victories by Peter Reum

My third stepdaughter Jenna, graduated from high school last night. For my wife, it was a day of joy and insight. She had raised three daughters and been a single mom going to college before I met her. In 2001, she came to Billings to attend college, and to raise the girls alone. Their dad was a man who married quite young, and had not gotten through the period nearly all males experience, which is the fear of becoming a responsible husband and father. I say this without criticism, because I had the same feelings in my late teens to my mid twenties too.

My own tumult seemed to explode out of the confinement of marriage, which I had wanted so badly before getting married. My then wife had her B.A. in Education to finish, followed by an M.A. in Library Sciences in order to get a job teaching in the Greeley, Colorado School District. I spent two years completing my alternative service in lieu of serving in the U.S. Armed Forces due to conscientious objection. At the end of those two years, I was somewhat relieved to finish, but the experience had been  good one, as I felt I had contributed to the healing of many people while serving. When my then wife got the job in Greeley Schools, I was not yet mature enough to have children, nor was I in any rush to do so. When things began to level out in our lives, we allowed ourselves the luxury of  a three bedroom apartment.

I was somewhat jealous of my then wife's clarity in deciding her career path, and I was occasionally a jerk, making fun of educators and the institution of education. At 27, I realized that I could not be thirty years old promoting the sales of the new Leif Garrett album and respect myself. I timidly applied to the University of Northern Colorado Graduate School. My self worth was in the toilet, and I honestly was unsure about whether I would be accepted or not. The two years in the Rehabilitation Department at UNC restored my sense of purpose, and the friends I made while in that program are some of my closest friends today, 36 years later. My then wife supported my graduate education as I had supported hers. I will always be grateful to her for that.

My current wife, Christina, had a much rockier experience. By the age of 23 she had brought three lovely daughters into the world. Her then husband, who now is a fine man, had the same experience I did in his early twenties, but he had three kids, whereas I didn't have my two beautiful daughters until I finished Graduate School in my early thirties. Christina, my wife now, rode a wild ride through her first years raising her three daughters, Sabrina, Adriana, and Jenna. In 2001, after many years of trying to make the marriage work, the three girls' parents divorced.  For the next six years, my future wife raised the three girls, attended college full-time, and completed her class papers and presentations. To say that this was difficult would be patronizing. Christina is very well organized, and carried off her parenting and school/work study duties admirably. Unfortunately, due to several factors, the girls' father fell behind in child support, and that money could not be counted on as reliable. This experience is common here in this country due to the structure of how different states enforce child support arrears.

The three girls enjoyed their time in school and were active in the churches my current wife attended. Their resilience was strengthened by the three of them supporting each other. This is a wonderful coping strategy many siblings from single parent homes utilize. They lived in low income housing, which in Montana is not as dire as in more populated states. I met the three girls in 2005 (!) when Sabrina was 11, Ana was 9, and Jenna was 8. They were kind but wary of my entrance into their mother's life.  For the next twenty months, I got to know them as people and children, and was hooked on them and their senses of humor and the support they gave each other and Christina.

After my marriage to Christina in 2007, I spent my time sorting out my job, marriage, and my children. I consider all three girls to be my own, as much as the two older daughters I had with my first wife and the daughter and son Christina and I had together. The complexity of the unified households was a challenge, but no one was folded, spun, or mutilated by the experience. There were the usual bumps and grinds all blended families have, but in my heart, these three girls were as much mine as my other kids. We somehow managed financially to support all of the family, but money was tight. Each of the three girls distinguished herself in her own way. They are all very musically gifted. Sabrina has a wonderful ability to express herself in her writing, and is very outgoing. That she is the alpha of the three girls is clear. That said, she has gone her own way, learning about life through the triumphs and disappointments she has experienced. She was married last year, and the couple are the proud parents of our grandchild JJ. He is a delightfully happy baby who is very clear at expressing his needs to James, his father, and Sabrina.

Adriana, being a middle child, is the diplomat of the three girls. She is insightful, tactful, and supportive of her siblings and friends. She is a loyal person, with people skills that are strong and natural. Her voice is marvelous, and her singing was always an uplifting feeling in the house. She and Jenna moved to Florida to spend their last two years of school with their father. It was hard for Christina to not blame herself for the move. Their move was to try to get to know their father before they moved into being adults. I had the pleasure of attending Ana's graduation from high school in Florida last summer (2015). She has gone on to get a job, complete her first year in junior college, and buy her first car. She continues to be the mediator, negotiator, and unifying influence she excels in doing.

Jenna, my third stepdaughter, just graduated from high school this year. Although we could not all go, as we did the previous year, we were able to have Christina attend. Jenna is perhaps the most artistically talented of the three girls. She has exceptional visual arts talent, and also, like her other two sisters, has a singing voice that is beautiful. Jenna goes after what she wants enthusiastically, having a personal drive that is exceptional. As my wife has stated many times, Jenna always wanted to keep up with whatever her sisters were doing, and took pains to ensure that she was included. Jenna has an incredible eye for interior design and decorating, and hopes to enter that profession eventually. Her willingness to challenge phoniness in people and in organizations is a blessing and possibly a curse. She states her mind succinctly and clearly, and her assertiveness is a real asset for her.

Rights of passage in society are usually a welcome experience. They at once recognize the efforts of an individual and their family and bring change that alters the dynamics of everyone involved.  Birth, Baptism (for Christians), entering school, school graduation, entering adult life, getting jobs, and marriage are powerful agents of change,  both in childhood and early adulthood. While often discounted, they provide a special occasion for families to congratulate themselves and their children for the milestone at which they all have arrived. The one lesson I have taken away from these occasions is that they are special. So, to my three stepchildren, now adults, I say...you have been challenging and exceptionally rewarding in my life. I am a better man for being with all of you. I love you and wish you every happiness in adulthood.