I was fortunate early in life to have close Mexican-American friends and experience some of the richness of cross-cultural experiences. The strength of America has always been in the diversity of the people who have come here from all over the world with dreams of improving their lives. That they retain a bit of their ‘home-country’ is a strength, whether that home country is Ireland, or Mexico, or China, or Nigeria. The mixing of cultures has almost always been the dynamism that drives humanity’s great leaps leap forward, that leads us to question old ways, and helps us find new solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
My entry into the world of education also introduced me to a whole new set of friends. Up until that point in time, the kids I had hung out with had consisted of my brother and his buddies. We had roamed the country doing little boy things with me as a tag along. Mainly we got into mischief. I could look forward to a life of crime, or at least to becoming a world-class juvenile delinquent. I’m not sure that much changed during my first grade, but I started to make new friends. In the second grade, I became particularly close to Rudy (Raul) and Robert Rangel, a pair of Mexican-American brothers who lived in a small house in East Diamond Springs.
We hit it off immediately and on a Saturday toward the end of the school year, the boys and their parents had invited me up to their house to spend the night. It was my first official play date and my first ever sleep-over. I was nervous. My mother took me up and dropped me off to a royal greeting by the boys, their parents and their siblings.
“Quick, “the boys had urged,” We have to go stand by the railroad tracks.” We could hear the train’s whistle a mile or so out of town.
The tracks were part of a narrow-gauge railway used by Caldor Lumber Company to bring logs from its forest operation 30 miles up in the mountains to its lumber mill in Diamond Springs. The company had been established in the early 1900s and at first used mules for hauling the logs. It had then switched to oxen followed by a giant steam tractor. The tractor made so much noise that the company was required to use outriders a quarter of a mile in front and behind to warn people so their horses wouldn’t be spooked.
Understandably, the company soon switched to a narrow-gauge railway. The trains had recently been converted to diesel engines, a task my father had helped with as one of Caldor’s two electricians. Soon the railroad would lose out to logging trucks but, for the time being, little kids still had the joy of watching these massive engines and their long line of rail cars carrying large logs out of the forest. More to the point, the engineers on the train carried an ample supply of candies that they would distribute to the boys and girls standing along the track.
The train was near; we could now hear it chugging along. Rudy and Robert, their siblings and I sprinted the hundred or so yards over the tracks. I leaned over and put my ear to the track, a trick I had learned from the Lone Ranger and his side-kick, Tonto. You can actually hear the vibrations and supposedly judge how far away the train is. It was an important skill for early train robbers. I needn’t have bothered since the train came into view when my head was on the track. I’m sure the engineers saw me. I jumped back at the urging of my buddies and we started waving madly. One of the engineers dutifully leaned out of the cab and tossed us candy, lots of it. We scrambled around picking it up.
Since dinner was an hour or so off, I suggested that we head out to the woods behind Rudy and Robert’s house and ride trees. Who needed horses? My brother, Alan, Lee and I had learned that we could climb up to the top of young, skinny pines and make them sway back and forth by leaning way out. It offered a free carnival-like ride 10-15 feet up in the air. If the tree was skinny enough, we could actually make it bend all of the way down to the ground, where we would drop off and allow it to snap back up. I suspect the trees didn’t enjoy the experience nearly as much as we did.
“It’s dinner time!” came the call so we rushed back to the house and made use of an outside water faucet to semi-wash the pitch off our hands. It can be quite stubborn.
“You have to try this,” Rudy enthused, dashing into the house and coming out with a red pepper. I should have been suspicious when the rest of the family followed him outside. But what does a second grader know? I gamely bit into the pepper and was introduced to habanero-hot. The whole family roared as I made a mad sprint for the faucet and glued my mouth to it, becoming a major part of the evening’s entertainment. The Mexican food that followed more than made up for the joke, however. I’ve been a fan ever since. The hot pepper became a dim memory when it became time to go to bed.
All of the boys slept on the same one. The family didn’t have a lot of money and space was limited. Admittedly it was much bigger than my small single at home. And, as you may recall, I had a number of animal companions that slept with me outside to scare the ghosts away. But I had never slept in a bed with another person, much less 3 or 4, or maybe it was 10. That’s what it felt like. I was mortified, but I tried. I really did. Ten came and there I was, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, body frozen in place— and midnight, and two, and four. At 5:30, I gently nudged Robert.
“I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept all night,” I confessed. “I have to go home.”
“Ummm,” the half-awake Robert had moaned. I got up, dressed, and slipped out of the house, careful not to wake anyone else. It was close to dark, with only a dim light announcing the morning. Home wasn’t that far away, maybe a mile, but I still remember the journey as long and spooky. Halfway there, I passed Murphy’s grocery store. Sodas were stacked in wood boxes in front. I looked around furtively— nobody was around. I was totally alone. So, I helped myself to a Coke. I carefully hid it outside when I arrived home. It wouldn’t do to have overly inquisitive parents discover it and ask questions. I happily enjoyed it later in the day, feeling much less guilty about stealing the soda than I did about abandoning my friends.
MONDAY’S POST: The Grand Canyon trip begins. I help paddle the raft to keep it floating downriver. The headwinds were insisting that we go in the opposite direction.
WEDNESDAY’S POST: Part 1 of a new photo essay on driving the Alaska Highway.
FRIDAY’S POST: My cocker spaniel, Tickle, teaches me how to swim and other tales of the magical Pond.
35 thoughts on “Learning About Cross-Cultural Relations as a Second Grader… The MisAdventure Series”
Wonderful memory. Good timing too. This weekend is Canberra’s annual multicultural festival.
One of the benefits of our extensive travels, Peggy, is the depth of our experience in interacting with other cultures. I am pleased that my experiences started out so young. Hope Canberra’s multicultural festival is going well. –Curt
That hot pepper story… lol. Great share.
Thanks, MB. And now days, I love spicy food! The hotter, the better. –Curt
I bet the stolen Coke tasted very nice. There is nothing like enjoying the proceeds of theft like getting a desired drink or other morsel.
As a small child I remember stealing coins from a pre-school teacher and using it to buy ice-creams. I soon progressed into taking and exchanging buttons for coins out of the collection pouch that did the rounds through the rows of pews in the church. The pouch was suspended by a long pole and I tried to look as devout as possible.
Good story, Curt.
Oooh, stealing from your pre-school teacher and your church offering plate. That’s hard core, Gerard. 🙂 Church-wise, I did manage a few extra sips of Communion wine, but I figured that went with being an acolyte. Could be we are both going to burn in Heck. Thanks. –Curt
What I love about this, Curt, is that we so often get to read about the cultural differences of the immigrants who have immigrated here. I love reading their stories. But this is the other side of the story; the friends the memoirists describe when they recognize the people who made impressions in their lives. People like you! I love being able to read that side of the story, too!
Absolutely right! That is often undermined. Thanks for acknowledging that:)
It’s an important part of the story, Juliann. It’s a two way street. Yes, the immigrants have benefitted from moving here, but we have benefitted as much, or more. I feel that way about my Peace Corps experience. –Curt
Ah yes, the train tracks! We did that too. That’s how children learned to overcome fears😄
Such important lessons in one evening were learned: the richness of diversity!
Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to have close friends from a different culture, and how rich the experience was. Thanks. –Curt
Awesome! I wish more people could cross over the Walls we build in our minds.
It’s always easier to do when we are young, before society has imposed its prejudices on us, V. –Curt
We used to do the ear on the track thing but I never heard a train because all I could hear was my pounding pulse quickened by fear!
Laughing, Andrew. It didn’t take me long to remove my head when I saw the big engine! We’d use the trick when we were crossing the high trestle we liked to play on. It wouldn’t have been pleasant for a train to come along when we were out in the middle! –Curt
As younglings we would have tried all manner of adventures… that’s how we learn about life!
I’m still doing it as an oldling, Suan. Figure that there is much more about life I have to learn and the clock is ticking! 🙂
The details of this seem to have remained etched in your mind, Curt – thank goodness for breaks in routine, including culture-shocks, or else we probably wouldn’t remember anything! The first time I stayed away from home on my own is crystal clear when much around it has become pretty fogged …
Always the beauty of new experiences! Not only do they make an impression, we recall them over and over until they wear a groove deep in our memory banks. Of course, some of the bad ones slip in there as well. –Curt
My older brother played a similar trick on me with a red pepper when I was about 5. Amazing how you never forget something like that…
It’s such a shock to the system, Dave. And almost impossible not to play as a trick!
What a wonderful story! How nice of the guy on the train tossing candy. I love childhood memories. Sounds like you have great ones. 🙂
Others have commented on the engineers throwing out candy to kids who lived along the line. I’m pretty sure that my mind has blocked out any bad memories. 🙂 Thanks. BTW, just looked outside, the sun is shining and it is snowing! –Curt
The sun was shining here today too! It was so refreshing. I should write about the time a train lost some of it’s cargo when my mom was a child, and they got kitchen items. I still have two of them! 🙂
That would be a fun story, RG. 🙂
My cousin (about 6 years older than I was) still talks about the American troops giving out candy to the kids when we were displaced persons in Germany. My cultural shock memory that still sticks is when I was put out on the porch with a handful of lollipops to share with the neighborhood kids. I was five and newly arrived in the USA. Spoke no English. I just sat there, hugging the lollipops to myself. Fortunately I later got to be good friends with the two girls who were undoubtedly sent to meet me, despite hoarding the candy. 😀
Sun and sporadic hail, but no snow… 😦
Hard to imagine your refugee experience, Gunta. But I get the lollipops. “What, here I get more lollipops than I have ever even been able to imagine— and I am expected to give them away. Mine!” 🙂
You got that right! I was no dummy even at that age! 😀
An interesting post, Curt. Thanks for sharing. I’m beginning to think a childhood bereft of even one act of theft is an unimaginative one. Mind you, an adulthood in which such acts continue is also unimaginative!
Agreed, Cynthia. There is an element of innocence about stealing as a child, which we grow out of when we realize the damage it can cause to others. At least some of us do. On the other hand, if you steal millions in our society you are often regarded as a clever entrepreneur. Or you see yourself that way. An interesting dichotomy. Thanks for commenting. Appreciated. –Curt
Lots of similarties here, Curt: the ear on the train track, the minor theft, the experience of cultural diversity. When I think of my grandparents’ town, I remember her Croatian friends, the Italian grocer, the Welsh, Irish, and Swedish miners — there certainly were prejudices and some class envy, and such, but the town itself got along pretty well. Eventually (in the 1920s) the Klan showed up, but that was less about race than about Democratic party politics and anti-Catholicism. Heck, I ended up Methodist because of the Klan — and therein lies yet another family tale!
Anti-Catholicism was rampant for a while. Certainly as viral and vile as any of the other prejudices that America has faced over the years, except that directed at African Americans. I have an unpublished book by my Great Grandfather where he rants against all of the Italians coming into the country in the 20s. Sounds a bit like our friend who wants to build walls. Your story on how you became a Methodist sounds interesting…
Part of the fun of my blogging about childhood memories has been the memories it has evoked in others. –Curt