November 29, 2008
Are We There Yet?
November 29 2008
by Ramon Sender Barayon
(Written on the Day of Obama’s presidential victory and read aloud at a reading at Cover to Cover Booksellers,
Noe Valley, San Francisco, Nov 5, 2008
I may be a 74-year-old naïve optimist, but Obama’s election has me daring to hope, daring to believe again in the America I experienced as a 4-1/2-year old refugee coming from a Spain in bloody ruins via France to New York City, one month before Franco won the Spanish Civil War .
But first let me read what I wrote on the back cover of my current book, “A Planetary Sojourn”:
“The purpose/job/whatever-it-is I’m here to demonstrate is that you can do it all in one lifetime – survive war, bombs, mother’s murder, loss of family, abandonment, change of cultures, a weird but privileged childhood, go Bohemian, go Beat, go Zen, go radical Christian cult, screw up as a young adult, experience hand-to-mouth poverty, flounder around in relationships, go animist, go hippy, go shaman, go crazy, and still emerge from it all like a pooch staggering out of a tsunami, shake off all accrued karmic crud, and find a joy-filled life with a wonderful wife and three great sons, all of whom allow me the freedom to pursue solar consciousness, not on any particularly defined path but by dancing my own dance across the sunlit meadows of Mt. Meru. Amazing!”
For those of you who haven’t read my earlier family memoir, “A Death In Zamora,” I should add a little background: when I was 20 months old in 1936, my family was spending the summer away from over-heated Madrid in the Guadarrama mountains. Suddenly the Spanish Civil War descended like an iron-clawed nightmare into what had been for me, up until then, a more-or-less idyllic existence with my parents, a teenage nanny, and my five-month-old baby sister. First the radio reported news of the coupe against the government, then bands of armed right-wing militia began hunting through the village for leftists including my father, Ramón J. Sender, a well-known radical journalist. Before escaping on foot over the mountain to join the defense of Madrid, my father reassured my mother, saying, “No one here knows who you are, and if things get worse, you can always take the children home to your family in Zamora. Nothing ever happens in Zamora. And if worst comes to worst, it’s only a hour to Portugal, and there you can take a boat to Bayonne in France and join my brother’s wife, Marcelle.”
An hour after he left, rebel columns arrived from the north and, out of the same bucolic summer skies, bombs began to drop on the road outside our vacation villa. We were evacuated, first to spend the night in a garage next to where a field hospital was operating on the wounded – without benefit of anesthesia – and then to a house behind the lines that overlooked the town’s main plaza. Over the next few days, first one side and then the other took over the park, with the fascists lining up and shooting their prisoners. This nightmare of death and bombings continued throughout our travels back to my mother Amparo’s home town of Zamora.
“Nothing ever happens in Zamora?” These words of my father’s seemed ironic when my Amparo arrived home to find the town in the hands of the fascists, and both her brothers in prison. The family café had been shut down and family members were frantically burning anything that identified them as sympathizers of the duly elected Popular Front government. Amparo went to the military governor to apply for a passport, but was told that the frontier had closed indefinitely. A few weeks later, both her brothers’ bodies were found shot in a meadow. They had been in the process of quote “being transferred” and had quote “attempted to escape.” This so-called “law of escape” was a frequent method used by the Falange. Prisoners were told they were free to go, and then shot as they ran away. In this way, the guards could “legally” justify the execution of so many without having to hold a tribunal.
Here my mother’s story began to separate into various strands during interviews that my wife Judy and I conducted in the mid-1980s, some transformed into near-myths from telling and re-telling. But what is certain is that Amparo went to the military governor’s office. Either because she accused him of complicity in her brothers’ deaths or from her having been denounced as a Red by a brother-in-law, she herself was arrested. She was jailed with my baby sister in a prison cell designed to hold four but crammed with several dozen women and children under appalling conditions. Approximately 6 weeks later, she was taken out at midnight and shot in the cemetery before being buried in an unmarked shallow grave along with a shovelful or two of quicklime.
It took about two months for word of my mother’s death to reach my father at the front outside Madrid. He immediately left for the frontier to petition the French Red Cross to evacuate us. Finally, at the beginning of the new year, a French ambulance transported my sister and me to Bayonne where we were reunited with him. When he went on a fund-raising tour to the USA, he took us to a Spanish children’s refugee camp in Calais, where we remained for the winter of 1938. Finally, that spring, my father borrowed enough money to bring us to New York City on the USS Manhattan. He left us with American friends and departed for Mexico where there was money for Spanish exiles and where he hoped to create a home for us. These friends, with the kind help of the Spanish Refugee Agency, found an American married woman living outside the city who was willing to take us in for quote “Six weeks if you can find a nursemaid who speaks Spanish, because I don’t.” These six weeks widened to include the rest of our childhood, and this woman, Julia Davis, became our American mother to whom I remain forever indebted for the love and nurturance she poured into our war-torn lives. Like my father, she also was a writer, and a few years later wrote a novel about our coming to her that drew heavily on the details of our absorption into the American dream. It only departed from reality by describing my mother dying in a bombardment (my father refused to allow her to tell what actually occurred) and by her husband dying with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. She then falls in love with the man she describes half-seriously as ‘the father of my children.’ Actually she did fall in love with Papá in real life, from whence hangs a whole other tall tale that I did not piece together until my father died. That will have to wait for the feature film version – just kidding!
Julia came from old West Virginia stock on both sides, Presbyterian Scotch on her mother’s (who died at her birth) and Episcopal on her father’s. John W. Davis served as Solicitor General and then Ambassador to the U.K. under President Wilson. In 1924 he became what he referred to as ‘the sacrificial goat’ for the Democratic party when they elected him on the 103rd ballot to run against Coolidge. This was the year that La Follette’s Progressive party magnetized far-left Democrats. This, and a generally booming economy, resulted in Coolidge’s win over Davis by a 25% margin. Davis refusal to accept the KKK’s endorsement supposedly harmed his chances, although he did sweep the southern states, but I think his identification with Wall Street worked against him the most. “Uncle John,” as he was known to us and other children in the family, I remember as a twinkly-eyed white-haired gent who enjoyed playing backgammon with us. A States Rights Jeffersonian Democrat, he’ll be mostly remembered for his Supreme Court appearance opposite Thurgood Marshall on the losing side of Brown vs Board of Education. In the TV film “Separate But Equal,” Julia tells him (played sympathetically by Burt Lancaster in his final film role) not to take the case because he will lose. And lose he did – thank God!
So here we were, two children of an anarchist writer father dropped like cuckoo fledglings into the nest of the daughter of a kindly Wall Street attorney whose law firm represented the oil and arms barons who had assisted in the rape of Spain by the fascists. How? Well, when the Popular Front won the elections in Spain early in 1936, Churchill saw it as a Communist takeover and began to encourage a group of Spanish generals to plot a rebellion. Churchill also convinced Roosevelt that of communism and fascism, fascism was the lesser of two evils and that all oil and arms shipments to the Spanish Republic should be embargo’d. After all, the Catholic Church and Spanish monarchists also were aghast at the Popular Front’s victory, and enough violence had occurred to lend some weight to Churchill’s view. I don’t believe it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that the defeat of Spain’s lawful government in 1939 can be placed squarely at the feet of Churchill and Roosevelt’s refusal to allow arms and oil to enter loyalist Spanish ports. Instead they shipped oil to the rebel generals and averted their eyes from Mussolini’s troops and armor entering Spain, and Hitler’s Luftwaffe decimating civilian populations for the first time in history. I sometimes wonder, if the Popular Front had successfully defended themselves against the Falangists and Nazis, whether Hitler would have continued with his conquest of Europe later in 1939 and the subsequent deaths of an estimated 70 million people in the Second World War – mostly civilians, by the way.
Why am I telling you all this? Because for a 4-1/2-year-old traumatized child, coming to America was as if I had arrived in paradise. The airplanes in the sky were all ‘ours’ and did not drop bombs or strafe us. The wagon tracks in the meadows were not for artillery, nor were the rolling claps of summer thunder from cannon fire. The long summer days I spent standing in the brook with the fish and salamanders allowed the bubbling waters to wash away the final lingering memories of loss and abandonment. Gradually, under the loving care of our American mother, I emerged from the shell of fear that encased me. I no longer lingered in the corner at children’s birthday parties, afraid that my toys would be snatched. In fact a year or so later when we moved to Manhattan, I lowered all my toys on a rope out of my window for the street kids. Of course when they knocked me down later to take my roller skates, I learned something about not overextending generosity into idiocy.
“Look, Tia! I’m not afraid of the horse!” I told her when we walked in the pasture. And I finally kicked the tiger’s head in the library – the same tiger that in my dreams I ordered to ‘get up,’ and it would chase me until it found where I was hiding – gulp! – and ate me awake screaming! But over the months the nightmares dissipated. I made friends with all the children at school, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance proudly, my hand over my heart.
To my little boy’s understanding, Julia’s blue eyes and Nordic beauty symbolized America. I loved her wholeheartedly as my very own incarnation of Columbia, and identified her with the Statue of Liberty, with the countryside and the growing things she loved, with the freedoms that I realized Americans everywhere cherished. Americans did not kill each other over politics, although I understood later that once they had suffered through their own civil war – Julia’s ancestors were in the thick of it. In the seventh grade I became a Student World Federalist and in the eighth ran for class president. I lost by one vote, my very own, because I thought it wasn’t honest to vote for oneself. Julia and her father got a big laugh out of the fact that the new class president was named Coolidge – actually a relative of Calvin’s.
As a high school freshman I learned that, although we were a democracy on paper, some people in America were less equal than others. I became disillusioned with politics when I discovered that, because I was not native-born, I could not run for U.S. president like my Uncle John. This should be fixed, by the way, because I don’t think many people understand that it creates an underclass of immigrant children who do not fully share in the Great American Dream. A casual cynicism developed in me throughout my teens, but it wasn’t until after the political assassinations of the early 1960s that I lost hope and dropped out of Consensus Reality to explore alternative dimensions. Via a rural commune lifestyle, my hippie tribe practiced new ways of living that gradually filtered into the main stream over the ensuing decades, such as organic food, ecologically correct recycling, herbal and other alternative medicines, low carbon footprints, a green economy. One of my happiest summers was spent living in a dirt-floor shack, carrying my two gallons of drinking and cooking water home from the spring every other day or so, and taking my baths at the horse-manure-heated shower down by the community garden. “It’s easy to keep a dirt floor clean,” I would tell my straight friends. The cure that we discovered for ‘consumer-itis,’ or ‘Affluenza’ in the film of that name, I then called ‘Voluntary Primitivism’ and others now call ‘Voluntary Simplicity.’ Here’s a quote from the 1970 communal manifesto we put together to explain ourselves in a manner that we hoped would keep the county bulldozers from destroying our homes (it didn’t work):
“The more complex a society becomes, the more important it becomes to allow folks to return to ancestral ways whenever the stresses and strains of modern living begin to drive them sick or crazy… Conditioned by their fast, competitive culture to unnatural living rhythms, Americans find themselves falling sick in a dis-eased society. Voluntary Primitivism is the natural way to ease off. Our parents called it ‘getting away from it all.’ But they usually got back one month later to the serious business of breathing poisoned air, eating plastic food, and raising troubled children…
“Instead, why not explore our common ancestral heritage – a simple shelter, a garden, some goats or a cow, some chickens and plenty of fresh air and sunshine? You don’t need more than that to be happy, and if you have more, it’ll probably make you sick. Have you ever breathed into your lungs the early dawn air of a garden or grove? You can feel the oxygen tingle through every cell. Your pores breathe in energies so fine, so pure, that the penetrate to the very source of your being.”
I realize now that with Obama’s election, a boy’s pride at belonging to the Land of the Free, of being Julia’s foster son, the hope that died in me in the early Sixties has been rekindled. Perhaps I’m naively optimistic, but I think we can look forward to a new way of doing things not based on the mistaken notion of a “god-given innate territorial imperative” that excuses our grabbing as much as we can for ourselves. Obama has reminded us that we’re all part of something bigger, something better that will allow us to help ourselves by helping each other. Let’s do it together, or as the new Spanish word I heard the other day says, OBAMA-NOS!