Saturday, December 16, 2006

Andrew and Anita De La O

A Tribute To My Father

On this day, in Alburquerque, New Mexico, December 16th, 1923 my father Andrew Salazar De La O was born, to Santiago and Gumesinda De La O. Today would have been his 83rd birthday. He had nine siblings; five brothers and four sisters; Larry, Tony, Jimmy, Gilbert, Henry, Delia, Angie, Lydia and Annie, he was the seventh child. He was raised primarily in Las Cruces, where the family is from but he also lived for a short time in Silver City, New Mexico. My grandparents divorced when he was a young boy. My grandmother made a decision early on, that would both devastate him and teach him how to stand on his own two feet. She was unable to raise the remaining children alone and was forced to choose one child to give up, that child was my father. I know that he lived with an aunt for a while, and that he would travel with farm workers throughout New Mexico and Colorado picking various crops. Due to New Mexico‘s (at that time) geographic isolation, the Hispanic citizens, although American, spoke almost exclusively in Spanish. At the age of nine my father, speaking only Spanish, enrolled himself in school and began learning English .

Sometime in the 1930’s he migrated to California to be with his father and some of the older siblings that had already came to California. He reentered school and graduated from Belvedere Junior High School, completing ninth grade. He lived in East Los Angeles, specifically “Maravilla“, living at different times on both Arizona St and Mednik. He was a Zootsuiter, otherwise known as a Pachuco. He was a hard worker all his life and was proud of the fact that he was the only one in his crowd to own a car. I think his first car was a Model A. He often told us that he learned to drive early on, picking up my grandfather from the saloons, and driving him home in my grandfathers truck. My grandfather was an alcoholic. My father often said that, “When my father was drunk, he was the meanest man in the world, but when he was sober he was the nicest guy, with a heart of gold”. I know that my father loved my grandfather dearly and would get tears in his eyes whenever he spoke of him. When I was a kid, I always tried to understand what that must have been like, to lose your father, or either parent for that matter. It was a mystery to me. Now years later, I’m the one that tears up whenever I speak about him. Now I understand.

My dad joined the U.S. Army sometime in the early forties, and never really spoke much about his service. I know that he was a boxer in the Army. Prior to his military service my father joined the Civilian Conservation Corp. At sometime in the forties my father served time for killing a man. He was leaving the house of a women friend, when a man, apparently an angry ex boyfriend, jumped in front of his car and started firing several rounds into the car. My father ran him down and killed him in self defense. He was exonerated of the killing, but served time in a honor ranch for leaving the scene of the crime, and hit and run.

My father loved to play the guitar, sing and dance. He was a regular at the Avadon Ball room in Downtown Los Angeles, as well as all the other popular clubs at that time. The Avadon, hosted the big names of that era; Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman and many others. My father sang there from time to time. The dancing customers ranged from Hollywood stars to the average guy. We have a picture of my mother and father at the Avadon Ballroom, on their first date, in 1947. It’s my favorite picture of them.

My father and uncles Jimmy, Gilbert and Henry all became upholsterers. In fact they were famous in that industry. For years after my dad died I would run into older upholsterers, who after learning my last name asked if I was related to Andy, or any of the uncles. They would talk highly of my father. Their skill was above the norm and they were all proud of it. I had the opportunity to work with my dad, on and off during the early seventies, at both Sherman and Bertram, and Landmark Furniture, where my father was not only an upholsterer but the Union Steward. He rose to become the president of the Upholsterers International Union. I went to several union meetings while he was president, and I was always so proud of him, the way he conducted himself, and the respect that was given to him by his peers. When you think about where he came from; starting off in this country not speaking English, on his own as a young child, no high school diploma, a good speaker, a leader, a hard working man, a great provider, a home owner, a great father, a great husband, a role model and mentor to his kids, he has to be considered a great American success story. I live each day striving to be just half the man my father was, and I can say with absolute certainty that my brother Dennis feels the same way. We burst with pride when we speak of him to this date.

Although he saw my mother around town, my father didn’t actually meet my mother, Anita Osuna, until 1946. They met when my mother was baby sitting her young cousin, Irene, at her aunt Peewee’s house. My father knocked at the door and my mother answered. For my father, it was love at first sight, for my mother it came a little slower. He would tell us years later how beautiful he thought she was and how much she looked like the actress Ann Blythe. It was not an easy relationship. My father at one point kidnapped my mother. My mother sought the help of her mother, my grandma Mary. She tried to buy my dad off, my mothers uncles tried to persuade him, but they were no match for my father. Eventually my grandmother told my mother ”There’s nothing I can do for you, that man is going to marry you!” My mother wept, fought and resisted and on October 25th, 1947, they were married in a civil ceremony in downtown Los Angeles. They moved into their first home, a house on Arizona Street, in East Los Angeles, owned by my father’s older brother, my uncle Jimmy. They lived there until buying their own home at 11313 Charlesworth Ave, in Santa Fe Springs, and later at 6233 Lindsey Ave, in Pico Rivera. Dad took care of my mother until his death in 1981. He loved her dearly, she was the love of his life, and he was a good husband to her and father to us to the end.. My grandma Mary sincerely loved him and along with my auntie Margaret, and my wife Jeri, helped my mother take care of him when he was dying of cancer. My mother loved my father and has no regrets. He gave her the life he promised her. My mom and dad became parents on September 12th, 1949 with the birth of my sister Evelyn. I was born on May 8th, 1954, my brother Dennis on December 26th, 1964.

It hurts when I think of all my father has missed. I know that he is not unique in that, everyone dies, everyone misses something. But I can’t help but feel my father was cheated out of the best years of his life. He retired at the age of fifty-six and was dead at fifty-seven, after a lifetime of hard work, he was never really able to enjoy his retirement, or his grandchildren. He saw two of his grandchildren die of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), Fernando Jr. and Sandra Lisa, the children of my sister Evelyn and her husband Fernando Loya. He lived to see and love his granddaughter Meranda, my daughter, but not my son Andrew, whom I named after him, or my youngest daughter Savannah. He never saw Andrew join the Coast Guard and volunteer to go to Iraq. He never knew that his grandson grew up to be a musician just like him. He was never able to cheer for Savannah at her softball games. He would have been proud. Nor did he see his granddaughter Sunshine, my niece, my sister Evelyn’s daughter. He never knew that my sister had one more son, Sky, that also died, from her marriage to her second husband Rueben Montes. He will
never see Samantha, his granddaughter, the daughter of my brother Dennis and his wife Teri. He will never know how much she looks like him. He will never know that he has three wonderful great grandchildren. Mariah, Nathan and Maddie, my grandchildren, Meranda’s children through her marriage to Robert Guardian. Perhaps he knows that my wife Jeri and I also lost a grandson to SIDS, perhaps him and Nathan have met, up there. He will never see how my step daughters, Deedee and Lori, grew up to become wives and mothers themselves. I do my best to keep his memory alive in all of them. He never got to grow old with my mother. They were both cheated out of their golden years.

I try to apply those lessons that I learned from my father in my own life. My father was a flawed man, and so am I, and I have learned to accept that, I’m okay with that. I learned from him just to do the best that I can. Years ago when I was going to management school at McDonnell Douglas, I had to speak in front of a large crowd on three different occasions. Not speaking meant I would not become a manager. I was so afraid to speak in front of a crowd, I almost quit, but my fathers words kept coming to me *Say what you know, and know what you say”, I held to that thought and by the time I graduated I was as good as anyone. I thought back to when my father used to speak when he was the president of his Union. I still get nervous whenever I speak, but because of those simple words that he shared with me, I know I can do it. I consider myself a success as a husband, a father, and as a grandfather, because I had a great teacher., and I owe that to my father, and my mother as well. He taught me how to become a man, to stand up for myself, defend myself, both verbally and physically. He taught me the value of a dollar, and to be proud of a job well done, and to be proud of your job, whatever it may be. If you are working, you can hold your head up high! .He taught me to keep my word, and that real respect is earned. I didn’t learn everything all at once, but in time it sank in. Because of both my parents, I have raised great kids. I have passed down those values that my father and mother instilled in their kids

At his core my father was a simple, hard working family man. I don’t mean simple minded, he was anything but, I mean simple in his wants, simple in his needs, simple in the way he approached life. No man worked harder to support his family. I’m sure my father had his dreams, but whatever they were he let them go to raise his family. I never heard him complain or gripe about the things he didn’t have, nor did I ever hear him complain about having to work so hard, it was his job and he just did it. He didn’t just support his family, he defended it. You could not insult, or tease any of us, in front of him. He took it to heart and would bare his fangs if he had to. We knew he was our protector. He told us often that he loved us. Maybe it was because he remembered his own past.

I think about my father during baseball season, he was a die hard Dodger fan, and a stats man. I can’t hear Vin Scully without turning to see if my dad is listening to him. He took me to many a Dodger game when I was young, and we were there on opening day at the Angels Stadium, in 1965, where he caught a foul ball, and gave it to me. I miss seeing him kicking back on the couch, watching the Dodgers on television,
listening to the Angels on the radio, and reading all about yesterday‘s game in The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, enjoying a cold beer, driving all of us nuts. He saw the emergence of Fernando Valenzuela, but never lived to see what a fantastic career he had. He would have loved it. He was also a golfer and played many tournaments, when he was younger. He was a gymnast when he was in his teens. My brother Dennis followed in his footsteps and was a gymnast himself. He was a camper too, and took us every summer to Shady Oaks and Soledad Canyon, During the fifties and sixties , he would go to the desert, along with my uncle Gilbert and hunt for rattlesnakes, for the rattles and the skins. He would eat the meat. I think of him whenever I’m in the outdoors. We were both big boxing fans. And of course we loved all the same fighters, and almost all of them Mexican, or Mexican American. He’s been right there besides me all these years whenever I’ve watched a fight, and I‘ve seen many. The last fight he saw at my house was Duran vs. Leonard II, when Duran quit in the eighth round against Leonard. He was in shock, we both were. I made him his favorite meal that day, Chile Verde, and in spite of his sickness, he ate everything on his plate. Speaking of Chile Verde, I learned how to make it from him, and I keep the tradition going.

December is particularly hard for me. My father loved the holidays, and enjoyed lots of company. My wife Jeri still remembers him as the best host she ever met. He was too. If you were a guest in his home, he always made you feel welcome. He would whistle or sing, a little more than usual during the holidays. So many Christmas songs remind me of him, but none more than , “White Christmas “ by Bing Crosby, which brings tears to my eyes immediately. Another is “I’ll be home for Christmas”. It reminds me of the Christmas of 1963, when my father was in the hospital with pneumonia , and didn’t get home until after Christmas. We waited for him to get home before we opened our presents.

My father died on May 7th, 1981, of prostate cancer, the day before my 27th birthday, at Whittier Hospital, in Whittier, California, he was 57 years old. He had a big funeral. Not big as in fancy and showy, but big as in numbers. There were so many people that knew my father through the years that came to pay homage to him. It was humbling, and wonderful to know that so many people cared so deeply for him, it was a testimony to a life well lived. Shortly before my father passed away, my cousin Gilbert De La O, who is now a pastor for the Calvary Chapel, in Red Bluff, California, ministered to my father, and he accepted Christ as his lord and savior. That was twenty five years ago, a quarter of a century ago, a lifetime ago. To this day I love and miss my father, as do my brother, sister and mother. We are all grateful for having had him in our lives as long as we did and I’m proud to be his son. I’m also grateful that he didn’t let my mother get away. He proved to my mother, my grandmother, my mother’s uncles and to anyone else that might have doubted him, that he was, indeed, the right man for my mother.