Mr. Chatterbox

By staff August 19, 2010

The hardest subject to write about is your parents, particularly after they have both recently died. It usually sounds like a speech from one of those "A Celebration of the Life of So and So" events, all about teaching values and the importance of families. Or even worse, if you hated them, then it's all about blame. Addiction. Dysfunction. Abuse. And even though it may all be true, it's always seemed to me to be a bit of a betrayal.

With my parents things are a little different. In listening to stories about other parents, I've never come across one quite like my own. My parents were adventurers. Oh, they looked and acted like country club Republicans, always perfectly groomed and impeccably dressed. But they had a mutual compulsion for the impossible challenge, for the secret mission behind enemy lines, and an insatiable wanderlust. So what if they had four children? They just dragged them along.

The way my parents met explains their entire marriage. It was in San Jose, Costa Rica, in 1944. My mother, a young war widow with an 18-month-old daughter, was working at the American Embassy. Why my mother would move from her home in Chicago to Costa Rica in the middle of World War II with a baby in tow is a mystery she has never been able to satisfactorily explain. But she did it, and there she was.

One day she heard at the Embassy that a new American spy was coming to town and that he was real cute. She got her friend, Vera, to set them up. The movie they saw on that blind date was Casablanca. Two months later they were married.

My father was a special agent with the FBI. Before the war he was the Bureau's entire Las Vegas office; then, the day after Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to round up Japanese to put them into camps. His next assignment was a happier one. He was given a cover and sent to Central America to make sure the Germans did not sabotage the Panama Canal. At this, you have to admit, he did a very good job.

When my parents married, they made a pact. They didn't want an ordinary life; they wanted an exciting life. My mother, who saw history as a panoramic romance with all sorts of fascinating characters she heavily identified with, even chose a motto for them: Fortune Favors the Brave. It was Hernando Cortez's motto, with which he conquered an empire of millions with just a handful of soldiers.

After the war my father's first job was with Braniff Airways, just about the coolest place to work in Dallas back in those days. His job was to negotiate Braniff's Latin American routes with the various governments involved. He was so good at this that word spread, and soon he was working for a law firm in New York. After that he joined a company with the wonderfully malevolent name of American and Foreign Power, and the adventures recommenced.

Our first revolution as a family was in Argentina in 1955, when Juan Peron was overthrown. As revolutions go it was ideal-no violence or bloodshed, just a lot of rumors swirling around and that wonderful morning when the school bus pulled up to the gate and the principal ran out and frantically told the driver to turn around and take everybody home. There were gunboats in the river.

But Argentina was only a prelude to the central drama of my family's life, the Cuban revolution. My father was at that time president of the Cuban Electric Company, the largest American-owned company in Cuba and the public utility, yet-not a good job to have when a country is turning Communist. We found ourselves in the middle of history.

One day my father told me about a letter he had just received from Che Guevara, then the Minister of Economics. He announced that he was slashing electricity rates and there was nothing my father could do about it. It was signed VIVA LA REVOLUCION! with the single word "Che" scrawled across the bottom.

My parents' attitude was that they weren't going to let a bunch of Communists push them around. (Although my mother did cut back on her entertaining; hams were impossible to find, and so many people were fleeing the country.) Then a ship blew up in Havana harbor and mobs started attacking Americans and we noticed that Leonardo, our chauffeur, was reading a book on Marx as he waited for us at the country club.

Then my best friend's father was shot to death by a firing squad for smuggling arms into the country on his yacht, and we realized that we should have left weeks ago. I was given the task of smuggling out 200 pounds of the family silver all by myself, and the two-hour wait at the Havana Airport watching people get arrested for doing exactly what I was doing was the only time I ever questioned my parents' judgment. I was all of 15 years old.

After Cuba we went back to Mexico, which we knew and loved, and my folks spent the next 20 years there. This time the country itself became their adventure. They traveled all over it, driving down dirt roads to some undeveloped beach they heard about or chartering a plane to get to an obscure ruin. My mother got her doctorate in anthropology from the National University and co-authored a book. My father gradually achieved an elder statesman status and was appointed president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latin America. They knew everybody in town. They built a spectacular house, a shocking house in many ways, too extremely modern for most people. If you ever thought there was anything ordinary about my parents, you certainly didn't after seeing their house.

When my father had a bout with cancer, they decided it was time to retire and moved to Sarasota. They enjoyed it here, but I always thought they seemed a bit adrift, like they were in some sort of exile. I remember one day during the Iran-Contra hearings when I happened to be at their house. As one witness after another came along in that weird parade of ultra-conservative Texas millionaires, failed soldiers of fortune and tainted ex-diplomats that made up that quagmire of intrigue, I noticed the strangest thing: My parents knew them all. "Oh, look, there's so and so!" "And what's-his-name!" This was their world, or had been until they had to retire and move to . . . Sarasota.

Fate gave them one last hurrah, thank God. Nearing their 80s, they had one more mission-to arrange compensation for an expropriated gold mine from the Sandinista government. For some reason the whole thing had to be kept top secret; so, for one more time my father arranged a cover and my mother packed carefully to look like an old lady tourist, which believe me, was something she never looked like. The trip-there were several, actually-was a big success. The gold mine's owners got more than they hoped for, and my father, for once, found his Communist adversaries sharp and rather charming.

When my father's cancer came back, they decided to return to Mexico and live out their days in my sister's big yellow house on the slope of Popocatepetl, the great volcano. My father died first, and only in the very last weeks, as dementia set in, did the ghosts from his adventures return. For an unhappy time he was living in a world of German agents and concentration camps and civil wars. My mother's death was easier. Her last conscious act was to blow a kiss to her youngest granddaughter on hearing that Becca was going to be married-finally.

My parents are buried in the small town in Texas where my father was born and raised. The headstone is simple, just their names and dates and the words "Fortune Favors the Brave." The man who carved the stone is quite proud of it. He told me he thinks it's the nicest one he's ever done.

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