How to Be Thankful and Do More
On the eve of Thanksgiving, a third-generation San Diegan proves you can always go home again.
The writer at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, age 9. This Cub Scout camp was destroyed by wildfire ten years later.
My family has always come to California to start over. My father’s father grew up on a North Carolina tobacco farm during the Depression; he dropped out of high school, joined the Army when everyone else did, married, and eventually retired to San Bernardino. Dad was spared the Vietnam draft in college, but he joined the Navy before the war ended.
Pensacola was good, for a while. Dad learned to fly there, married, and saved lives. When two boats full of Cuban refugees radioed for help, Dad held a steady hover thirty feet over rough surf and every soul onboard was lifted to safety. He later rescued another ship full of merchant seamen on the far side of the world, but back home his wife had found someone else. Heartbroken, he took the first opportunity to head west as well, reassigning to Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado.
My mother’s mother was a secretary at Rohr Aircraft in Chula Vista. She married a Coronado Navy man a month before Pearl Harbor; their marriage didn’t last long, but they had two daughters. Elsewhere, the man I’d call Grandpa grew up on a Central Valley olive orchard; he joined the Army when everyone else did, and during a brief interval between wars he fell ass-over-teakettle in love with a young divorcée while shark fishing in San Diego. They courted a long while until, when a romantic dinner at El Cortez Hotel failed to produce the proposal she’d been waiting for, Grandma stopped him in the lobby, grabbed his lapels, and demanded: “It’s now or never, Bob. If you don’t marry me, I’m out.” They were hitched the next day.
My mother grew up in an alley spitting distance from Mission Beach. The military moved them often—she spent her high school years on a base in Puerto Rico—but they always returned here.
The way he tells it, Dad was unpacking his Clapton vinyls when a sweet old lady knocked on his door, offering homemade bon bons to welcome him to the block, and by the way she also had a daughter who was single.
On their first date, Mom and Dad huddled against the wind, watching ships leave the bay, and he warned her: “You should know I just got out of a rough marriage. I’m not looking for anything serious.” I was born less than two years later.
The San Diego of my childhood was brown bag lunches under eucalyptus trees; it was heckling the Dodgers at the Murph and watching the same damn sea lion slapstick every year. It was face-planting into O.B. sand when I tried to kiss my first crush and she backed away in horror. It was staying inside when the air was too thick with ash, the sky blood-dark from wildfire.
People died; family subtracted. Heart disease. Heart disease. Cancer. I have no siblings and my cousins tend their own time zones. The table we sat down to for the first few Thanksgivings had extra leaves to expand for eight; by high school we no longer needed them.
Despite our military history, I took after our creative women: Grandma fired a kiln, Mom quilted, and I went to New York to learn to write. As long as I got good grades my parents were laissez-faire, future-career-wise. But my first night in the city, Dad helped me carry an air conditioner through the subway and, pausing to catch his breath on the front stoop, gave me one directive: “Take this town by storm, son.”
New York was good, for a while. I found some poet friends, a girlfriend, and a freelancing gig, and I wrote a novel. One agent liked it, but no publishers did.
People died; friends subtracted. Cancer. Cancer. Suicide. News flash: The city devours. We sent out our résumés just in time for Wall Street to implode.
I finally scored an interview at the publisher I’d been freelancing for—with someone whom the editors called Darth Vader. Long saga short, this padawan was unworthy. Burnt out from the freelancing grind and application feeding frenzy, I’d had enough. I was done with intellectual work. I planned to give it all up and join the Navy. Someone else could tell me exactly what to do every day, and I would fall into bed exhausted not because I’d rejected a hundred manuscripts that week but because I’d actually put my body to work, and in doing so could honor my family who’d done the same.
I sat on a friend’s fire escape and called my parents to tell them. My dad picked up, in his evening ritual smoking and listening to Clapton in the backyard. “Don’t do that,” he said. “You know you’re just a couple generations removed from poor Southern white trash. You’ve had more schooling than your granddad ever dreamed of. Don’t waste it by doing the same thing we did. Do more.”
His music filled the silence that followed. I don’t want to fade away.
Things got better, for a while. My girlfriend split, but I was hired at a smaller company and would finally get to publish my own book. During a holiday trip back home I took a kindhearted woman on a date to the San Diego Zoo, though I warned her that I’d just gotten out of a rough relationship and wasn’t looking for anything serious. But then—of course—my company went under. Everyone lost their jobs and my book was canceled.
Word got around, and Vader summoned me once more. The position I’d interviewed for years prior was open again, and she hinted that I had a much better shot this time.
All my poet friends had left town by then. I shared a two-bedroom Bushwick apartment with three humans, a hairless dog, and a mouse who lived in the stovetop. I called my parents, and they felt the despair in my voice more keenly than I’d allowed myself to. “Come home, son.”
I left the city the morning after a hurricane, passing fallen trees and rain-darkened bridge stones while Nina Simone tried her best to convince me it was a new dawn, a new day, and a new life.
Back home that night I joined Dad in the backyard for his nightly ritual. He lit a candle, but his pipe was nowhere to be seen. He’d learned about his lung cancer the same week I’d lost my job.
We talked for a long time. Ever since he got the news, he’d been wondering whether his career could’ve gone better. Whether he should’ve made it to a higher rank or gone on to fly for the airlines like many of his squadronmates.
“You saved dozens of lives, Dad. All those people, and who knows how many children or grandchildren by now, are still here because of you.”
He sighed and squeezed my hand. “I guess you’re right. But you never stop feeling like you could’ve done more.”
There was no way to know then that everything would turn out okay. That a year later he’d be cancer free and we’d be celebrating Thanksgiving with that kindhearted woman and my future in-laws, in a house that needed seven tables to accommodate everyone.
That night all I had was a candle, the scent of eucalyptus trees, and the roar of the 805 like an ocean in the distance. But I was home. Our family was together. And that was enough.