David Soto Writes

I think I figured out what I want to be when I grow up.

Category: Memoir

My Kwajalein Story

“Kwajalein?” my father said. “I’ve been there.” This was the birth of the Kwajalein story.

Sometime before Reagan took office, my father got tasked to go on a trip to a military installation on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. He wasn’t in the military himself. He was a computer technician for the now long gone computer company, Data General. The U.S. government used a Data General computer for radar displays and they seemed to have a problem with the system that no one on the island could fix.

“Who wants to go to Kwajalein?” my dad’s boss must have asked. I don’t know if he was the first to raise his hand or the only one, but I think the reason he did was that my dad had never been anywhere. Unlike myself and his father, my dad didn’t serve in the military and, at this point in his life, I think he had only traveled out of the country with his grandmother to Mexico City as a child. On this day, he jumped at the opportunity to go to some far away place he had never heard of.

He made his way to Kwajalein via Hawaii. The man who picked him up asked him if he wanted a tour of the island before getting to work. “Sure,” my dad said. Twenty minutes later, they were back where they started. It was a small island. This is one of the highlights of the story when my dad tells it.

The computer was an easy fix, and my father caught a flight back to Hawaii the very next day. While in Hawaii, my dad called his boss notifying him of the status. The boss, impressed that my father was able to fix the computer without any problems, offered to cover expenses for a couple of days in Hawaii as a reward.

The next phone call my Dad made was to Mona, my mother.

“The boss is offering to let me stay for a couple of days on the company,” he said to Mona with enthusiasm. I am making an assumption here about his enthusiasm but think about it. This young man, practically still a boy, started with the company in the warehouse fresh out of high school and worked his way up to the position of a computer technician. And now, after being sent to a remote government installation and saving the day, was being rewarded with a couple of nights stay in Hawaii. I would have said it with enthusiasm.

“Get your ass home,” was Mona’s response. He was on the next plane back to LA. This is the other highlight of the story when he tells it, though he leaves it out now when I’m around. I had long ago requested that the slandering of my mother not be a part of our family gatherings.

The first time I ever heard my father tell the Kwajalein story was when I got back from Iraq in the fall of 2005. We stood in the driveway of his Missouri home and chatted. So what now, he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “I heard they need HVAC guys some place called Kwajalein.” That’s when my dad said, “Kwajalein? I’ve been there.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this damn story now. It’s to the point that I interrupt him and say something like, Yes, we’ve heard this story a thousand times. He’d get defensive and say, “(So and so) hasn’t heard it?” So and so was usually someone my brothers or I were currently dating at the time. To which So and so would look at my father and then, as gently as possible, nod her head and say, yes I have.

“The hell with you then,” he’d say to no one in particular but probably to me.

“No,” my younger half-brother would say. “Go ahead and tell it.” And of course, he told it. “You forgot the best part,” my little brother said, putting a fist to his ear as if he was holding a phone. “The part about Mona telling you to ‘get your ass home.’”

I don’t remember my dad ever relaying any stories about his past before that first telling of the Kwajalein story in his driveway. I feel like that story opened him up to tell others. Of course, he had to be well lubricated in order to tell them. The storytelling usually takes place during family events when his adult children are home. We all sit around the kitchen counter getting shit-faced and before too long the stories come.

I’m tired of hearing those other stories too but I’m not ungrateful for them. There’s the Mexico City story, where his grandmother bribed soldiers at checkpoints. The time he and his friend got their bikes stolen and my grandfather took them out looking for said bicycles. They found them too. “Get on your bikes and get the hell out of here,” My grandfather told my dad and his friend. The thieves chased them all the way home but turned around when they got stared down by my Nina, my dad’s older brother’s wife. She stood on the porch with her fist on her hips as if to say, Do we have a problem here?

I guess the best part of the Kwajalein story is the connection to my grandfather who died when I was very young.

I get conflicting stories about how he was injured during the war. I heard it was from a German grenade and later, I heard it was German artillery. Either way, tucked away somewhere in my Tio’s Mesa, Arizona home is the Purple Heart they awarded him for his injuries in the Pacific. After his initial aid, my grandfather was evacuated to Kwajalein where they wired his jaw together and kept him until he was stable enough to make the journey to Hawaii where he stayed for the duration of his recovery.

I’m not exactly sure how it went down so many decades ago, but I have to imagine my grandfather must have asked his son what he had been up to. “I just got back from Kwajalein,” my father must have said as he looked into his dad’s eyes just as I had been looking at him on the fall day in Missouri, clueless as to what our fathers’ lives were like as young men.

“Kwajalein?” my grandfather said. “I’ve been there.”

Young Man…

I wrote this cool little story about an experience at the YMCA for my upcoming memoir but realized that I was in second grade when this happened. That meant we did not live at 1255 W 102nd street yet. So, I’m posting it here. Enjoy.

Before I was trusted to fend for myself on the playground after school, I was a member the Y’s after-school program. At first, kids were picked up in a van. We had different drivers, “counselors” is what they called them. My favorite was a fat black man by the name of Dennis. He wore tracksuit jackets, tinted eyeglasses, and an English cap. For some reason, I recall an unlit cigar in his mouth. Dennis was kind. Funny, the impression that man left on me simply because he was nice. Other counselors left lifetime impressions, but for different reasons. It was in this van where I learned that Reagan had been shot.

The hours spent after school at the Y were always eventful. I learned to play chess there. (Thirty-something years later, I play at the same level I did then. I was in 2nd grade.) I had a girl forge Mona’s signature there, on assignment I failed. I got caught and probably got a beating for that one. I had my first fight there, too. I think his name was Demond.

When attendance at the Y’s after-school program grew, the van got upgraded to a bus. Now, a bus requires a special drivers license, or at least the ability to drive a manual transmission. This restricted who picked us up. Dennis didn’t know how to drive a bus, I guess. He never did pick me up from school after that. There were several different drivers, but I specifically remember a man who didn’t seem to fit in as a Y counselor. Most of them were college-age kids. Some of them, like Dennis, were kind. This guy wasn’t. I don’t remember his name. To me now, he seems like someone I would hire for my company’s painting crew and then fire for lying on his time sheet or smoking in the apartments.

My fight with Demond that took place at the Y started on the bus. Either he had my rubber spider, and I had his green Trapper Keeper or vice-versa. It doesn’t matter the whole deal was pretty silly. For every leg Demond pulled off my spider, I scored a permanent line in the clear vinyl covering of his Trapper Keeper with a pen or something. Eventually, there were eight etched lines on the front cover of the stupid folder, and the spider reduced to a rubber ball. Things were about to escalate. Voices raised and kids started standing up. That’s when the bus driver spoke up. Everyone settled down and took their seats but not before Demond let me know he was going to get me when we got to the Y.

Now, I always stood up to bullies. Sometimes it took me a while, like the time I was in junior high and Mona told me to Go out there and kick his ass! (This story happened when we didn’t live at 1255, so you’ll have to wait for it another time.) Even when they were older and bigger, I didn’t let anyone treat me like an asshole. I’d like to think I didn’t let anyone else get bullied either. All that being said, I told on Demond. He may not have been bigger but he was older — he was at least two grades above me, stronger, and for sure more athletic. For my entire life, everyone has always been more athletic than me, but there were the kids who were super athletes. They were good at every sport — ended up star athletes in high school. Demond was one of these future athletes, and I assume he would be good at fighting too.

I was done standing up for myself. That’s what the whole spider – Trapper Keeper thing was about. I was not letting Demond bully me. Now, I was just scared and needed help. I told the bus driver, and his only response was to look in the rearview mirror, not at me mind you, and say, “I don’t care what y’all do, ’slong as it ain’t on my bus.” Thanks a lot, dick! Pack your shit. You’re fired!

There was no way out of it. I was afraid the rest of the bus ride to the Y. While getting off the bus, I looked to the bus driver in one plea for help. He didn’t even look at me. I walked down the steps of the bus and into the Y where I knew Demond was waiting for me.

In the dark hallway that ran along the short side of the gym in between glossy painted cinderblock walls, among several onlookers — grades two through sixth, I held my ground with Demond. Neither one of us knew that you were supposed to throw punches when you fight, so it was more of a wrestling match. Something where my size made up for my lack of fighting skills or athleticism. The skirmish ended when one of us got thrown into the girl’s restroom. I’d like to think it was Demond, but it was probably me.

***

Before the movie Dodgeball, dodgeball was called Bombardment. It’s the same game. If the gym was available, the counselors would pick two captains, usually the two oldest boys, and a pickup game of bombardment would ensue. Of course, I got picked last. The only time people picked me first was when they hadn’t ever seen me play, like on the first day of school or something. I usually had fun playing bombardment, regardless. As long as I didn’t take a red rubber ball to the face, I was cool. The older, bigger boys ran the show. This was their game, and it was nothing for them to easily eliminate younger kids like me.

One day, by complete surprise, I found myself the last man standing on our bombardment team. I remember my team captain, the older Asian boy who taught me how to play chess, being pissed. He had just been eliminated, and the fate of his team was up to the only boy he didn’t pick. I was the last kid in the pool players when it was his turn, by default I went to his team. He despised this. My whole childhood, people were often disgusted when I ended up on their team. They’d smack their lips and roll their eyes because they ended up with me.

To be honest, who could blame him. Like I said the older boys ran the game. They were the last ones to get eliminated. The end of the match was usually a battle between the biggest, strongest, and most athletic boys. I was not one of them. The last player on the other team was. I was about to be eliminated. Everybody knew it. I knew it. One super fast toss from that other kid and this fat boy was out—game over!

My opponent paced back and forth dribbling the ball as he sized me up. Eventually, he wound up and hurled the red rubber ball across the line straight towards me. The ball came at me like a rocket, and it was accurate—headed right for my fat belly. I was too slow to get out of the way, so I did the only thing I thought I could. I squatted down, curled my arms, and caught it.

The whole gym exploded with cheer—both teams! In case you didn’t know, in Bombardment, when you catch the throwers ball, the thrower is eliminated. Since there was only one guy left on the other team, we won. Everyone congratulated me, even my dickhead Asian team captain. I was basking in the glory of my win. All the guys had gathered around me. The guy I eliminated was sitting next to me. “Nice catch. How’s your chest, man?” He said as he rubbed his hand back and forth across my shirt. “I threw that one pretty hard.” It was Demond.

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