Spoken in Silence by Frank Cavestani

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(I don’t publish posts from other writers here on my blog.  But this one made me break my rule. It’s written by Frank Cavestani – a friend, a collaborator, and one of the most talented guys I know in Hollywood. Frank started out as an actor and got his first big break in 1964 as a kid barely out of his teens who had the great fortune of replacing the lead, Robert Walker Jr, in a Broadway play starring Shelly Winters. Walker broke his leg and the rest is theater history – Frank took over the role and suddenly show business took notice. 

And then, Fate stepped in and said, “Not so fast, actor-boy.” 

Frank was drafted.

There was a war going on and instead of spending his days slapping on greasepaint and hanging out at Sardi’s, he spent them busting his hump trying to stay alive in the ‘Nam. 

Stardom is like catching a lightening bolt in a jar.  It doesn’t happen often, and it’s all about timing.  Frank’s big break never got a chance to bloom, after several years away from the boards.  He still gets gigs as an actor and he directs, but Broadway slipped away from him, as it often does for many others.

We’ve all seen those films about Vietnam, showing us what it was like over there.  But Frank writes about something we haven’t seen before: the first time a soldier steps back on U.S. soil and takes off his uniform.  It’s taken Frank a long time to write this.  It’s a powerful piece. 

A little bit like capturing a lightening bolt in a jar. 

I’m so glad he wrote it.)

(Please click the link below and it’ll take you to Frank’s story…)

Spoken in Silence by Frank Cavestani

Wake Me When This Is Over

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(Some people bake when they’re stressed. I write. I’m going to do that here, partly to vent, but also to connect with people.  Since we can’t step out from our homes to be with one another we can at least keep connecting on another level, by reaching out with words and shared experiences.  Please feel free to do that in this space.  I don’t have anywhere else to go, so I’m here and would love to hear from you and know how you’re doing.  I’ll start…)

An agoraphobic is a person who’s afraid to leave the house.

Nowadays, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.

But before it was fashionable to lock ourselves away like some Rapunsel in her tower, I struggled with agoraphobia for years.  It wasn’t a picnic, trust me.  It’s taken a long time for me to feel a little more comfortable in the world.

And now, this craziness called Coronavirus.

Such a cruel cosmic joke!

Except I’m not laughing and neither is anyone else.  Well, on certain days we do look for a way to laugh and manage to find something on Facebook: “Tomorrow I’m visiting Puerto Backyardia. Los Living Room is getting boring.”

It’s been 18 days?  No, 19?  Who can keep track of the calendar when there’s nothing on your calendar except “Stay Home!”

Everything in life has changed – seemingly over night.  

FLASHBACK to January 1st when I began to check flights to France. 

At  Christmastime our family sat around discussing my birthday (a big one)  in June. “We have to do something special to celebrate it, Mom,” our daughter said.  She suggested  a family trip to Paris and the Basque country, where my grandmother was born, and where our family still owns 23 acres and a crumbling 200-year-old stone house.  My children have never seen the little village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, where their great-grandmother was born and lived until she came to America at the age of 14.  The Basque country and her people are part of their lineage and I eagerly jump at the idea of introducing them to Euskal Herria.

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The House of Magnanea in St. Etienne de Baigorry

A trip to France for seven people is not going to be cheap and that concerns me.  Eager to have everyone come along and not wanting to break my kids’ bank accounts I decide to break my own. I check the flights (and the prices) and feel faint.  It’s going to be a lot of money.  But my portfolio has done well over the last two years, so I decide to take the risk and book seven seats on Air France to Paris at the end of June.

I let my kids know with phone calls.

“There’s a virus in China,” my son tells me.  

I’m not worried.

“That’s China, Josh and it’s a million miles away.  They’ll knock it out.”

“I don’t know, Mom.  It’s spreading fast and they’re starting to lock up areas.”

Lock up?  What’s that?  I’ve never heard of such a thing.  

I will learn about that later.

“Well, that’s China. I’m not worried,” I tell him.

I make hotel reservations. Paris.  Biarritz (pre-paid to save money). An Air B&B in the Basque country.  I look into train reservations.  I’m about to book two cars for rental. 

“That thing is spreading, Mom. It’s in Italy,”  my son tells me.

Italy?

“We’re not going to Italy,” I tell my son. Am I in denial, or what? No, I’m just an American who feels invincible because well, I’m an American.  We’re protected from all those nasty things happening outside our shores, aren’t we?  And, I’m privileged. Middle class. Not poor. Flush with credit cards. My life is good. I trust the world I live in.  I believe in governments and healthcare systems (because I’m covered by insurance) and I’m a believer that those in charge will protect me and my family.  I don’t live in Italy. I’m not going to Italy.  I’m a safe American and so is my family.

February comes and I’m starting to see more news about this virus.  I see Italians being shut away in their homes.  But I see them singing and it makes me feel safe.  How bad can it be if the Italians are singing?

Then, the numbers come out about people dying.

And the numbers are growing.

So too are the news stories about how this thing is spreading.

I start reading up on travel insurance.

I always buy travel insurance for our trips, but this time I put it off because frankly, it’s not cheap to cover seven people on a family trip.  Now, I seriously start figuring out the costs for some kind of travel insurance (cancel for any reason?), and yes, they’re high, but I’m contemplating buying some, just in case.

And then, this article comes out in the Wall Street Journal: travel insurance doesn’t cover this virus. You get it, you own it. The whole cost for the insurance is on you and it really doesn’t pay you anything back if the virus stops you from traveling. 

That gives me pause.

What happens if the virus hits France and one of us gets sick?  Will travel insurance pay for that?  To keep us in France until we’re better?  I start reading every article I can find about insurance – trying to get an answer as to whether I should insure this trip or not.

And while I am researching it hits.

That terror that seemed so far away hits us. Hits here in the U.S. Washington State first, and California soon after. NYC is getting hit hard and the virus is spreading rapidly.

The market starts to tank.  There goes the money for the trip that has no insurance. The news is on fire and in the middle of this crisis-in-the-making another hits our family:  My mother-in-law dies. 

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Gloria Levien (Nanny)

She was 94 and it was expected, but this pandemic was never expected, and it especially wasn’t expected to be growing so quickly.  Nanny has been living in a nursing home and she’s been on hospice for months.  The last few weeks she’s been bedridden and not really eating.  My husband’s been visiting her every day, and now on March 11th she passes away and the nursing home is locked up to visitors.  

And then, there’s the funeral: it’s scheduled in New York City.

 We’re Flying to NYC In The Middle Of A Pandemic?!

Nanny was a life-long New Yorker; the last thing she wanted to do was to move to a small town in California.  But a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and a son and daughter-in-law living three thousand miles from New York City, where she was living by herself at the time, made the move a necessity.  She fought it for about six months, and then, as the Alzheimer’s progressed, she settled into her new life.  The nursing home became her resort, and she enjoyed being pampered by the staff.  Meals were taken care of, activities were around every corner, friendly caregivers were there when she needed them, and there was a lovely dining room with a classy menu and a waitstaff dressed in uniforms. With such a devastating illness, my mother-in-law was lucky enough to live in a beautiful and loving environment.  She lived there for almost seven years and when she passed away her caregivers cried and said how much they loved her, that she always had a smile on her face, and she said “I love you!” to all the staff every time she saw them.

But now it was time for Nanny to return to NYC, to the city she loved so dearly. 

The funeral was all spelled out in her will:  funeral services were to take place at one of the most well-known mortuaries in the country, and burial would be in a family plot that dated back to the early 1900s, when Nanny’s family first arrived in the city watched over by Lady Liberty.  The plan was all set: We would have to fly to New York City.

And then, the virus hit the Big Apple.

While Nanny’s funeral is being planned, everything else in NYC is being cancelled.  

Music events. Live theater. Weddings. Bar Mitzvahs.  The numbers keep going up higher, the infection keeps spreading, gatherings of people in large groups are being re-scheduled, dropped from calendars, postponed.

But what about funerals?

Loved ones need to be mourned. Need to be buried. Family and friends need the comfort of each other, hugs and kisses, laughter and tears shared as we grieve together.  That human connection has always been imporatant when people say goodbye to a loved one. It’s part of our humanity.  But that humanity is at odds with fear today.  Our need to comfort and be comforted is in conflict with our need for self-preservation and survival.

Nanny picked a heck of a time to pass away.

And to be buried in New York. 

New York is a hotbed for coronavirus infections right now.  The number of dead are just starting to rise.  Hotels ands restaurants are still open, but over the last few days Broadway has shut down completely.  There’s not enough medical equipment – ventilators and masks – for the medical personnel and the hospitals are filling up too quickly.  There is fear everywhere you look, increasing by the hour.

The family talks about how to handle the funeral, but the plans have been made in advance, and no one seems to want to admit that this is not the best time to travel to New York City.  We try to find some levity to all of this – searching for something amusing to get our mind off the big question: whether to go to NYC or not.  We say that his is so appropriate for Nanny – many times whenever she travelled there were problems: a military coup in Panama, a typhoon in Southeast Asia while she sat in an airplane on the tarmac waiting to take off, traveling to China when the students were rioting in Tiannamen Square.  And now, a pandemic in her own hometown of NYC.  

We watch Cuomo on television, and tune into the news 24/7 to see if it’s safe to travel.  Flights are being shut down internationally, but domestic flights still are available.  Should we book?  Do we even have a choice?  What if they quarantine in NYC?  What if everything goes on lockdown?  Each day we seem to be creeping perilously closer to the edge of the cliff. And frankly, it’s terrifying.

I’m a recovering agoraphobic, so I don’t need a reason to stay home.  Staying home is my normal go-to position.  But this time I have family responsibilities – I’m a mom whose kids have just lost their grandmother.  I’m a wife whose husband has just lost his mother.  I don’t have room in this equation to call the shots or make decisions for everyone.  I have to suck it up and go with whatever choice everyone else is making.

Hell no, I don’t.

It takes one long sleepless night before the day I’m supposed to buy family plane tickets for me to finally speak up.  My agoraphobia (once tamed, I thought) now reappears.

“I can’t do this,” I tell my husband. “It doesn’t feel safe.”

We talk. My husband understands. I don’t want him to go, either. Or the kids to go.  It doesn’t feel safe, he says, but he’s not sure what we can do.  The plans are set.  We talk some more. Cookie, our friend talks with him.  There has to be another way. “What if you get stranded in New York, in quarantine, and you have to pay for all those hotel rooms for the family to stay  in NYC? That’s thousands and thousands of dollars.”

She’s right.

My husband calls the mortuary, calls his brother, the family talks, and the decision is made.

The funeral will be televised.

What seemed so new to us for Nanny’s funeral on March 20th has now become a way of life for all of us.  ZOOM enters our world and we seem to be stuck with it for the immediate future.

None of us know how to run the damn software, but Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home, one of New York City’s finest, handles the entire event seamlessly.  People from all over the country – family members and friends – are able to attend through the magic of one videographer and his camera, and a link that is emailed out to everyone.

The eulogies are spoken.  The Rabbi says the prayers.  Photos of Nanny and her life fill the screen.  It was a beautiful service. And yet, we the mourners watch from a distance.  Separated by this unseen stranger that cruelly keeps us hidden in our homes and away from each other. One moment in the day, however, serves to finally connect us – at the graveyard, as the Rabbi speaks the Prayer for the Dead in Hebrew, the celebrant says the names of each family member and drops a single rose into the grave with every name spoken.  Those who are connected to Nanny, now finally are connected together in this last gesture of love and honor.

And New York City now shelters-in-place.

Wake me when this is over.

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Paradise Lost

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The houses are still ringed by Christmas lights.

And we’re two weeks into January.

It’s past Christmas – beyond the promise of the new year or the first sweet bite of King’s Cake. But we can’t let go of wanting to feel good again. To feel joy. To feel hope. To feel safe. To be in control of our lives.

Each day we awaken and say to ourselves, “Today will be a better day.” The fear is behind us, we tell each other. Now, we can get on with our lives. We share stories, while we still wipe the grit from our eyes and cough. We sweep the driveways and water down the gardens.

Still wearing our masks.

And we pray for rain.

The fire isn’t out yet, but it’s moved further away. Only the ash is still here – threatening us in unseen ways.

We come down with colds and fill the ER with our flus and bronchitis.

We flip the switches and look to the Christmas lights to make ourselves feel better.

We try not to think of the fire that threatened us, that stopped our lives and put us in this post-apocalyptic daze.

Quickly, it had started – blown alive by some monster wind.

All we could do was watch from a distance as it devoured our neighbor’s lives – all the homes and businesses – scorching the earth south of us. We shook our heads at the disbelief of the quickness of the devastation. At how fast that fire hungrily took home after home while sparing others equally there in its path. We crossed ourselves and said our prayers that it hadn’t happened above us – in our own mountains that watch over our towns.

Carpinteria. Summerland. Montecito. Santa Barbara. Goleta.

We felt we had been spared.

Until the smoke came.

The wind had changed and blown harder, pushing that fire – dancing the flames across the land as it remembered us from the scorched history of our past.

Jesusita. Gap. Coyote. Zaca Mesa. Whittier. Painted Cave.

So many flames, some with names no longer remembered. Each one we battled and fled from in terror. This one threatened to be even bigger as it turned directions and now headed our way.

We watched it move closer – speeding towards us. We hunkered down with our masks, packed up our cars, and took flight while the wind and the flames swirled around us.

The firefighters, always the heroes, stayed in our place. Fought the good fight. And when the winds took pity on us and slowed, the heroes pushed the fire away from us, from the towns laying so vulnerable there in the path to the ocean that the fire so desired.

The battle was won.

We took a deep breath and returned. Spent from running away, with pets and belongings, exhausted from calming frightened children that were crowded into cars; with our lives in suitcases and boxes, we came back to our homes. We had stayed with relatives. Moved to hotels. Bunkered down with friends. We had slept in shelters. We had gotten out. And now, coming back, we tried to reach for normal again. We celebrated the holidays with our sore throats and air purifiers humming in the background.

And we kept those Christmas lights still burning on our homes.

While the fire burned too – higher above us now – in the forest beyond the crest.

We bowed our heads and prayed for rain.

“We need rain!” “Hope it rains before the next winds!” said the Facebook posts in all of our Timelines. “Please, God, let the rains finally come and end the fire!” We cursed the drought and the winds and we knew the answer to finding normal again would be in the winter rains.

Long overdue.

And when we heard they were coming it raised us up with hope.

For a moment.

Until we heard caution in voices that were meant to calm, warning us, telling us to beware.

Fear takes a toll on you when life is full of uncertainty. And your fate is tied to the fickleness of the wind. Quickly, hope can change, and you’re not ready for it.

Within a day there were knocks on our doors again, the cell phone texts awakened us in the thick of night: “Evacuate! Evacuate!”

None of it seemed real.

A mist had started to fall on us that day – so soft and fine – sweetening the air again. All day it had misted – merely a drizzle. Nothing to fear. We welcomed it.

But the messages blared from the tv and social media: “Get out!” “Make plans to get out!”

It didn’t ring true. It didn’t seem possible. With so much beauty returning to our world – the sun was out and the air was just starting to fill with the scent of normal again. We had taken off our masks, unpacked the cars, settled down the children and the pets, and started to live the routine of our lives again. We had our world back once more – a world filled with beauty, an enchanted forest that kept us there, privileged to walk and live within it.

It’s easy to overlook Paradise sometimes. To take it for granted. With bills and work and worries filling our heads and clouding our eyes. But the fire had reminded us. We had been threatened and humbled by the threat, but now it was gone, and the rain, so gently falling, would finally put an end to that threat. We would be free to live in Paradise once again, knowing just how lucky we all were to be there.

To have survived.

So when they warned us and told us to be ready, it didn’t make sense. Our heads were still filled with that post-apocalyptic daze. It was hard to chase it away – the malaise wrapped around us, slowed us down, took away the swiftness of our feet, silenced our questioning. Our lives had been unpacked and safely tucked away. How could they tell us now to get out?

The rain was not the fire.

We couldn’t fear it. We couldn’t see it like the flames in the distance, or sniff its destruction in the air. We couldn’t taste the smoke as it choked us. We couldn’t see the danger. There was only the soft touch of a drizzle. A rain so gentle it only comforted us. The rain was here and it would save us. And save our Paradise too.

We were too tired, too spent to listen, to pack up again, to run away.

And so we stayed.

Not knowing the apocalypse we thought we had survived was only yet to come.

And our reclaimed Paradise would soon be lost.

(Our family is safe, but others have paid the ultimate price simply for living where we live.  If you’d like to help victims of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudlside here is a list of organizations who you can contact:  Disaster Relief Organizations

 

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Darlene Craviotto Presents Californio at the Alhecama Theatre

Darlene Craviotto reads from Californio. Photo by Kevin McGarry.

On September 14, 2017 the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation was pleased to welcome screenwriter and Santa Barbara Presidio descendant Darlene Craviotto to present her new novel, Californio.  Ms. Craviotto presented an engaging illustrated historical introduction to her book, which traces one families journey north from northern Mexico to their new home in Alta California during the late-eighteenth century.  She then read a passage from the novel.

Darlene Craviotto signs copies of her book following the lecture. Photo by Kevin McGarry.

The captivated crowd enjoyed the presentation in the newly-restored Alhecama Theatre at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, and following the formal part of the program, joined the author in the courtyard of the theatre for a reception and book signing.

Californio is one of the few publications that fully imagines this human story of migration…

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Everyday People Doing Good Every Day

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(Every now and then someone sends me something special or tells me a story that helps me remember how much goodness there is around us. I’ll post these stories to share with everyone, hoping we’ll be inspired to do good things ourselves, in whatever ways we can to enrich our world.)

She was a little girl dressed in a Spiderman costume.

And he’ll never forget the day he met her.

His name is Jason. jason30

Born and bred in the U.S.A, he grew up in Rancho Cucamonga, a middle class All American boy-next-door, through and through. A topnotch athlete in any sport he ever played, and he played them all. One of those millennials all those articles tell us are privileged and self-absorbed, Jason would be the first to say that was right – well, the privileged part, at least. He grew up with two loving parents in a big beautiful home; there was plenty of food on the table every day, clean clothes on his back, and he didn’t have a worry in the world.

But that self-absorbed part?

Not a chance.

Jason was living in a bubble, that’s how he describes it. “I’m thankful my parents gave me everything I needed or wanted. But why me? There are so many other kids out there without equity.”

When he went to college, he soon saw that up close.

At UCSD, Jason met all types of people – from all different races, classes, cultures, and religions. “Going to college gave me a different perspective on the world, and it opened my eyes. It showed me all the work that had to be done.”

As an undergraduate, he worked at The Pruess School that was comprised of students living in poverty. The goal was to provide educational equity for those students, surrounding them with the best teachers and resources. The school became one of the top high schools in California. And Jason was there, opening his eyes and learning.

It was just a natural fit for him to graduate from UCSD with a major in History and a minor in Teacher Education. He didn’t waste any time at all before putting himself through Point Loma’s teaching credential program by tutoring students ages 5-18, subjects ranging from learning the alphabet to AP Calculus. And he landed his first teaching job right away at Mount Miguel High School where he motivated students, and turned the failing baseball program into a winning one.

Three years later, he was offered a job as Vice Principal.

That’s what brought him to El Cajon Valley High School. A school with a large transient student population, over 20% of its students are refugees from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries in Africa. Maybe because of its demographics, ECVHS was a perfect school to get involved with the “Bridge Baskets” program that took place this last December.

“One of our teachers – Ryan Trammell – sent out an email about a project started by Bridge – a community organization that was set up to help refugee families recently resettled in El Cajon. These were people in our community – mothers and dads with little children – who were struggling just to get by. And they really needed help.”

Everybody at ECVHS jumped on board.

From the administrative staff, to the faculty and students, the school became the drop off center where supplies for “Bridge Baskets” were gathered and sorted.

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Bridge is an initiative that provides services to Middle Eastern newcomers (specifically low income families) in the San Diego area. Many Syrian and Iraqi families have arrived in the United States with minimal resources and limited English. They’ve been traumatized by conflicts and wars that have forced them to flee for their lives and the lives of their children. Suffering from hardships and the difficulties of getting out from their countries, many have had to leave other family members and loved ones behind. These survivors are suffering and in great need. The organization helps by providing the necessities of day-to-day living to these families when they first arrive here in the U.S. “Bridge Baskets” contain simple everyday items: toothbrushes and toothpaste, bath soap, laundry detergent, a water filter for a faucet, and one bike per family for transportation. Items we probably take for granted, but they are items so important in everyday life.

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“The power of action was overwhelming in the amount of support that came from that one email that was sent out by Ryan,” Jason said, with more than a hint of pride for his school.

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“Everybody pitched in and took that next step, not really knowing what to do but putting it out there anyway and having the community work together.”

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For two days in December, items were dropped off at El Cajon Valley High School.

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The school community bonded together as collectively they found a way to help. Staff members worked side-by-side with student leaders to sort everything – clothes, toys, and everyday supplies.

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A collaborative effort between Bridge, Bright Nations, and ECVHS, with assistance from the Persian Cultural Center, the Bridge Baskets were packed up and loaded into pickup trucks, and the deliveries were made to the thirty families living at a small motel in El Cajon.

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“When we drove up to the motel I couldn’t believe that this run down looking place was where families were staying.” said Jason, knowing this was a big difference from the way he grew up in Rancho Cucamonga.

But some things were the same.

“A bunch of kids were playing in the parking lot, like they had no cares in the world. They were happy to see us, not even knowing who we were!”

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“We put room numbers on every bag. There was an equity when we handed everything out. It wasn’t a free-for-all; we brought the boxes to each motel room where a refugee family was living. Families of five, six, seven, and eight were living in one room with only one bed.”

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It was a mix of people – young children, not even in high school, with their mothers and fathers. All had recently fled from the war in Syria. The International Rescue Committee had placed the refugees there for 30 days as temporary housing.

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Jason was very affected by what he saw. “To go from war, straight off the plane, and to this inhumane environment now – the small crowded rooms, a little rundown motel, and without much to live on.”

But he soon found hope there in the faces of the refugees.

“In their eyes, they were so thankful. Their sheer appreciation for everything we were giving them was remarkable. In spite of the trauma they had seen, in spite of knowing their lives in the U.S. would be difficult, they were relieved that their kids were finally safe. The sacrifices they had made in the name of the love for their kids was powerful. And I couldn’t help but think that my parents would have done the same for my brother and me.”

And then, he saw the little girl in the Spiderman costume.

“The look in her eyes I will never forget. In spite of those conditions around her, and the trauma she had been through, there was such a look of joy and freedom on her face. She knew where she had come from but she just knew she would be okay now.”

Jason still is silenced and humbled by that moment.

“It will be ingrained in my core, forever,” he finally says. “I wish every human could experience that moment in time. Anyone who loves kids or who’s raised them,” he added. “Any concerns Americans might have, it would all make sense to them – to understand what it means to be a refugee.”

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“Although this little girl and I didn’t understand a word we were saying to each other, we realized we didn’t have to. Love knows no language. God bless America.”

(If you’d like to help a refugee family in need, you can learn more information or make a donation to Bridge of Hope – San Diego (Facebook page) or International Rescue Committee by clicking the organization’s name in blue. )

Want To See a Good Film…?

I watch a lot of new films at this time of the year because I’m a member of the WGA and I have to vote on best screenplay. Seldom do I recommend a movie, but last night I saw one that I urge everyone to see.

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“Hidden Figures” is based on the true story of three African-American women who played pivotal roles in the early days of NASA and America’s first space missions. Already nominated for two Screen Actors Guild awards, two Golden Globes, and having recently won awards from the Women Film Critics Circle  and the African American Film Critics Association, this is an important, smart film that is also fun to watch. And yes, you should take your kids. It’s the perfect family film.

“Hidden Figures” opens nationwide on January 5.

Mark your calendars.

Remembering A Soldier I Never Knew

On the 100th anniversary of the Great War, I’m reposting this to honor the men in my family who served and fought…

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(In honor of this year’s Veteran’s Day, I’m reposting this in memory of all those who fought and lost their lives in the Great War.  It was also called World War I, and it was fought with the hope that it would end all future wars.  Sadly, that was a dream never realized.) Mort du France

I first met him as a name carved into a marble memorial. That we were connected as family was lost to me at the time. I was only 24 and my vision was limited by my youth.  It was only years later when I visited his town again, and I stood once more in front of that monument that I began to wonder about the man beyond the name. Gratien Ocafrain. A name so foreign, yet so familiar.  He links me to this day we celebrate every year – Armistice Day it used to be called.  Veteran’s…

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Remembering A Soldier I Never Knew

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(In honor of this year’s Veteran’s Day, I’m reposting this in memory of all those who fought and lost their lives in the Great War.  It was also called World War I, and it was fought with the hope that it would end all future wars.  Sadly, that was a dream never realized.) Mort du France

I first met him as a name carved into a marble memorial. That we were connected as family was lost to me at the time. I was only 24 and my vision was limited by my youth.  It was only years later when I visited his town again, and I stood once more in front of that monument that I began to wonder about the man beyond the name. Gratien Ocafrain. A name so foreign, yet so familiar.  He links me to this day we celebrate every year – Armistice Day it used to be called.  Veteran’s Day we now call it in the U.S., and it’s known as Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth countries. The date is always the same – November 11th – a date that symbolizes hope and peace. The Great War ended on November 11, 1918– after 15 million soldiers lost their lives, and 20 million souls were forever wounded.  It was the war to end all wars and so it was called the “Great War.”  But we know the truth now – that it didn’t stop others from happening. We now call it World War I and it’s taken its place just as one more war in a list of too many others. We remember it only for its ending and for the holiday that comes with it.  Few of us know much about the Great War. What little I know, I’ve learned from Gratien. Most towns in France have Great War memorials inscribed with the names of the sons of that town who didn’t come back – “Mort pour La France.” Gratien’s name is one of fifteen engraved on a marble obelisk watched over by a brass mother of France sheltering her young child.   The first time I saw it – years ago – I took photos and moved on.  But two years ago when I returned to his village, Gratien’s name held me there in front of that memorial longer than I expected. I wanted to know more about him – about this uncle I never met. I searched the Internet, and found one single piece of paper, and nothing more.  Gratien was a common man with no accomplishments, no titles, no loving wife or children to leave behind.  But he attained greatness as a “Mort pour La France.” A single piece of paper remains forever as a testament that he lived, and that he fought for his country. Gratien OcafrainBIG And because of it his name is carved in marble. Gartien Ocafrain in marble Gratien was 20 when he was inducted into the French Army in 1907 at Bayonne, France – a city perched near the Atlantic Ocean, 45 minutes west and down slope from the Pyrenees mountains. It was the first time Gratien had ever been in a city, that day his train pulled into the Bayonne station.  He was a mountain boy.  His village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, with only a few hundred people in it, sat at the beginning of a valley called Baigorry, with its two roads leading out of town climbing higher and higher through the Pyrenees, and on to Spain a few kilometers away. Gratien was in the Infantry – the 49th Regiment.  He was already in the Army for seven years when France declared war against Germany in August, 1914.  The infantry soldiers were confident of a win, and they were called, in slang,  “poilus” for their swagger. But they soon lost that cockiness. French Infantry old uniforms Dressed in red trousers, and blue jacket – the colorful uniform of Napoleon’s army, they were a perfect target for the Germans’ machine guns and artillery. The French casualties were devastating in those early battles. The uniforms were changed in the winter of 1914 – the soldiers now dressed in sky-blue and steel helmets – the first soldiers ever to wear metal helmets. French Army New Uniforms I can only imagine Gratien, how he looked, and the way he stood. He might have had a moustache like the soldiers in this photo, like so many others I’ve seen.  I have no photographs, or letters to show me the man. I know he was 27 when the war began and I know where it ended for him.  But the rest of his story I have to fill in, with history books, and faded maps. From September to November in 1914, the fighting was fierce. And Gratien was probably in the middle of it all. He wasn’t new to the Army – he had seven years of training, and he knew how to be a soldier.  He was an infantryman – “cannon fodder” is what my father used to call it when talking of his own days in the infantry.  The list of battlefields for those early months of the war is long: Lorraine. Ardenne. Charleroi. I look at names of towns I can’t pronounce and wonder in which ones Gratien might have fought. In early December of 1914, I notice that the battles seem to slow down, and pause. And in their place, there is something different, something new – trench warfare – at a place called “The Western Front.” Long wooden trenches dug into the earth stretch almost 450 miles from the North Sea coast of Belgium all the way to the Swiss border.   What part of those 450 miles of trenches did Gratien hunker down in?  Amidst the sewage, and the rats, the stench of unwashed soldiers and death, where was Gratien? Or was he part of the First Battle of Champagne – the first significant Allied attack against the Germans since the trenches were built? It started December 20th and went all the way into the new year, until March,1915.  There were 90,000 French casualties, and Gratien might have been one of them.  His “Mort pour La France” paperwork lists a date – January 27, 1915. Gratien OcafrainBIG copy The handwriting is too small for me to read how Gratien died, or what wounds or sickness might have stopped his life. Only two-thirds of military deaths were from battle; the other came from sicknesses like the Spanish flu. I can’t even be sure that 1915 is the year of Gratien’s death. The memorial in his town says it is, but the military officer who filled out the form seems unsure. The “5” has been written over and looks almost like a “6.” Gratien OcafrainBIG copy 2 Thousands upon thousands of soldiers who died in “no man’s land” – between the barbed wire fences of the opposing trenches – remained there, unable to be moved in this static yet deadly warfare. The remains of hundreds of thousands of French, German, British and Commonwealth soldiers still lie undiscovered in the soil of the Western front. Dozens of bodies are found each year during ploughing and construction work. Perhaps this is what happened to Gratien. The signature at the bottom of his “Partie A Remplar Par Le Corps” – is signed by an official in Gratien’s hometown of Baigorry, and the date is marked February, 1916 – one year later than the one listed on the memorial as Gratien’s “Mort pour La France.” If Gratien was ever found, or lost forever in the sacred soil of a battlefield, is a question that may never be answered.  But the date, February 21, 1916, is significant: It was the day the Battle of Verdun began – the longest and one of the most devastating battles in the Great War and in the history of warfare. There were over 976,000 casualties. I’m glad that Gratien didn’t live to fight through it. And although I can’t be certain the year in which he died, I do know where he died – at Oulches, France.  The name Aisne has been written off to the side – whether the district or the River, I’m not sure.  But photos from the area tell me that fighting must have been intense. Oulches 1contentdm.unl.edu Oulches2contentdm.unl.edu Gratien’s story seems to stop here. But in a way, it doesn’t: It just pauses. It would be another year – 1917 – when the U.S. would enter the war to fight with France, and the rest of the Allies, against Germany.  Among those American doughboys was a 26-year-old blacksmith, Erasmo John (E.J.) Craviotto, a private in the 115th Engineers, E Company, 2nd Army. Kearny 1918

E.J. Craviotto, last man on the right. 

E.J. never knew Gratien Ocafrain, but unlike him, he would survive this Great War to go home when it was all over and to eventually meet and marry Gratien’s sister, an immigrant who had fled France with her three sisters, just a few months before war broke out. E.J.’s Great War story is one that I never knew either, until my research about Gratien led me to it. Bobbie's WWI diaryTucked away among some old papers, I found E.J.’s little address book from the Great War.  Never a man of many words, he simply listed all of the dates he was gone from his family.  Like Gratien, he had never been away from his hometown before. Diary Dates 2 E.J.’s small handwriting shows the path he took, from the moment he was signed in at the Presidio in San Francisco, then, crossing the country in a railroad car filled with troops, across land as foreign to him as the European landscape would soon be.  He traveled all the way to Camp Mills on Long Island and then on to embarkation at Hoboken, New Jersey where thousands of troops on his ship suffered through sweltering heat, and E.J. would note, “It was so hot there that some of the boys went down like chickens.” They were twelve long days on the ship, through the submarine zone where life jackets were worn 24 hours a day, until finally twelve English torpedo boats came out to greet them, and lead the way into Liverpool.  It would be four days later – days filled with much marching, and long rides on troop trains – when finally, E.J. would first set foot on France, at Cherbourg.  The date was August 23rd 1918 – It would be 79 long, difficult days until the fighting would stop. E.J. would chart his advancement by the name of the location and how close they were to the Front, “Traveled two and a half days in a boxcar – Reach woods in Alsace Lorraine about eight miles from the front.” “October 20th, working on road under shell fire about two miles from the front.”  He didn’t write any more dates after that one.  But on a page below that entry something has been scratched out, a furtive erasure almost clear through the page.  I can make out the words…”…under shell fire..credit on frontline trenches.” Crossed Out PHOTSHOPPED I don’t know what “credit” means or if maybe it’s something else; I can’t make out the words that come before it or what he meant to write, but whatever it was, he didn’t want anyone to ever read it. I don’t know what E.J. saw, or what he was called upon to do between October 20th and the next entry in his diary.  There were another eleven days until the end of October and eleven more after that until the armistice.  The next date E.J. wrote was November 11, 1918. Nov 11th Quit Firing “At 11o’clock sharp quit firing.” Whether that was the command or whether that’s what he witnessed isn’t clear.  Not all the boys were told to stop shooting – an oversight by General Pershing who thought the armistice was a German trick, and who allowed the fighting to continue a few more hours, at the loss of another 4,000 American lives.  This was the Great War, after all, and it had to be fought to the finish. When the guns went silent that November morning, E.J. was in the Forest du Puvenelle, 628 kilometers from where Gratien’s life had ended, and only 25 kilometers from where E.J.’s own son’s life, one day in the future, would miraculously be spared by fate: by a piece of shrapnel entering his face just a matter of inches away from his temple.  And that’s what saved E.J.’s son – my father – from an ending like Gratien’s.  26 years after his father had written, “At 11’oclock sharp quit firing,” my father first stepped on French soil – the country of his mother’s birth and the birth of his Uncle Gratien who had fought so valiantly for its protection, and lost his life doing it. The Big War did not accomplish what it had set out to do, what it had promised to be – the war to end all wars.  And my father’s generation would learn that the hard way. I never much thought about World War I when I was younger.  It was too long ago, and my grandfather’s silence I mistook as him not having much to say. I was wrong. Only Gratien – without personal artifacts, with no photos, or a loving wife and children to remember him, caught my attention.  Seeing his name engraved in gold with “Mort pour La France” above it, and discovering his birthdate, his date of death, and the location where he fell made me pause and want to know more: to find the dots and to connect them.  For some reason, these few little facts spoke to me, and the Great War, for the first time in my life, became something real and understandable. Gratien’s silence somehow reached me.