Autumns follow summers as summers follow springs and springs follow winters, cascading through rainbows and shadows amidst the echoes of a seemingly perpetual rite of passage.
I was born on an early Monday morning in July, the year after the end of the second war to end all wars (as unsuccessful as the first). It was the Chinese year of the Dog (although I’d hoped for the Dragon, or at least the Lion). The setting, a beautiful city in the central range of the Colombian Andes, … Manizales. Manizales del Alma.
Superficially, the world seemed hopeful, if just for an instant. Kind of like it did much later in 1991 (when the first Cold War supposedly ended), but in 1946, in Colombia, discontent, disharmony and polarization were seething below the surface and would violently erupt about twenty-one months later when the newly organized United States Central Intelligence Agency (following in the footsteps of its predecessors) arranged for the assassination of Colombia’s most beloved leftist leader, populist presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala. That day, April 9, 1948, the day after the birth of my sister Marina, all hell broke loose. Perhaps, after seventy-four years Colombia is finally back on the path Gaitán tried to blaze.
Because of the ensuing fratricidal violence and the dysfunctional nature of my parents’ relationship, my initial Colombian sojourn was brief. My parents had married in secret while my father was underage (my mother was three years older) and had me almost two years later, two years after his family had disowned them and they’d been taken under the protective wings of my maternal grandmother, Juanita, a prototypical, self-made matriarch. But she’d not exactly approved of the marriage, she’d merely accepted its reality for the time being, and at an inopportune moment, she swept in and swooped us all out, perhaps having interpreted grievances by my mother in an exaggerated fashion, complaints my mother regretted having made ever after, although she’d not been wrong.
My mother, then an aspiring actress, quickly realized that dream shared by so many Latin Americans, that strange diasporic quest, and found herself in Miami after having abandoned a flight to Chicago as a result of an in-flight fight with her friend, Mercedes (with whom she was supposed to have moved in). Somehow or other, knowing no one but full of courage and hope, she survived in that city; in that country which has always been overtly xenophobic. My sister and I’d remained in Colombia where, presaging future misadventures, we were moved from place to place, sometimes together, at other times apart, possibly to assure that my father would not find us. Or at least that’s what he long claimed. His veracity, however, did not stand the test of time. He planted a series of different families with different women, moving on when, according to him, his altruistic intentions towards other women in need were misinterpreted by his in-laws. Consequently, I have many half-siblings whom I barely know but with whom I’ve managed to establish and maintain loving relationships. We all wonder if, in the future, more of us will pop up. My father’s life, which ended on November 1, 2021, seemed a harbinger of how our world was changing with dysfunctionality becoming the norm. I guess we were trendsetters.
In the early fall of 1952 my mother remarried and asked my grandmother to have my sister and me rejoin her in Miami Beach, a city with which she’d fallen in love. I’d just turned six at the time and was educationally pretty advanced. I’d learned to read, write, and even to play chess by the time I was four. But, except for the chess, that was in Spanish. My sister and I arrived in Miami on what was then Columbus Day (it is now a much different sort of holiday). I had very strange expectations concerning something called television, and the size of my stepfather’s hands (I’d confused length and width with thickness), and the difference in the nature of meals. In Colombia, lunch and dinner involved various courses, one involving soup and the other vegetables, salad, starches and a protein. My first United States meal was a good cream of chicken soup. Campbell’s of course. And then, … nothing. I was a bit surprised.
Still, those initial confusions were superficial. Real confusion hit the next day when I was enrolled in first grade at an elementary school in Miami Beach whose name I don’t recall (but it may have been Riverside) and where my name was abruptly changed from Guillermo to Billy. I didn’t understand a word of English and, to top it off, we moved midyear and I was sent to another school. Utter and complete confusion were the rule, chaos reigned, and it was no surprise that I did not earn promotion to second grade. At least not then.
That summer my stepfather did his best to teach me English, although his methodology would probably be frowned upon today. Errors were punished by a mild slap and correct answers rewarded with smiles and praise. Television helped as well. Only three channels back then and, as I recall, programming was only televised for about eighteen hours, but the patterns when programming was off the air were interesting, or at least, better than nothing. Well, actually, pretty boring. I recall sign-off in the evening involved playing the United States’ national anthem. Not as pretty as Colombia’s.
By the start of my second attempt at first grade my English was much improved. Notwithstanding his somewhat “tough-love” teaching methods, I quickly grew very fond of my stepfather, a fairly simple man who led a complex but short life. He passed away when he was about to turn 58 and I was 26 years old. He was a short order cook and a sometime partner in the “diners” or restaurants at which he worked, but his principle avocation seemed to involve gambling (at which he was not very good). Damned Greek social clubs! Still, somehow or other, he seemed to manage to make ends meet. At least usually. Sometimes with help from my grandmother Juanita (as I’ve noted, the family matriarch).
Perhaps thanks to his crude but effective teaching methods, I only spent part of one day repeating first grade. At the start of the first class that year we were asked to draw something and I had a bit of inherited artistic talent (my paternal grandfather, Rafael Maria Calvo, who I was never to meet, was an accomplished sculptor and artist). I drew a cow in a field of grass and flowers which amazed my teacher. I can’t recall her name as our interaction was very brief, but I’ve always been very grateful for her role during that one half day. She immediately took me to the principal’s office (not all visits to the principal are negative) and I was advanced to second grade on the spot. I wonder what ever became of that drawing.
That year I was, at first, not a very good student. I’d not grasped reading and writing in English, frustrating given my related abilities in Spanish, but over a one week period during the second month, things just clicked and I advanced from the poorest student in the poorest reading group to the best student in the best group. Thank you Mrs. Mary Dunn, a teacher I’ll never forget: patient, kind, talented and loving. Second grade proved a delight. I remember my first crush (in the United States, … seemingly, I’d always had a crush on someone), a little girl whose name I still remember, Marianne Bass (or maybe Mary Anne). She’d been left back too, albeit for a full year, I don’t know why, but that gave us something in common (although I never really got to know her). She must have been older than I was, but that didn’t matter.
Then it was move again and another change in schools. This time to Central Beach Elementary (subsequently renamed in honor of someone named Leroy D. Fienberg, not exactly anyone well known, then … or now). The change in name saddens me. I only attended third grade there, but I fell in love with my teacher, Ms. Zigman, albeit unrequited love as that year she became Mrs. Something-or-other. I’d hoped she’d wait for me to grow up. Anyway, a beautiful fellow student, Hellen Mansfield assuaged that experience, although, as in the case of Marianne, I never really got to know her either. I was interested in girls, but a bit shy, they seemed a bit too mysterious to deal with. That was also the year of my great goldfish disaster as, during Christmas vacation, Chanukah to Ms. Zigman and to Hellen as well, I was entrusted with the care of one of our class pets, I don’t recall its name (never was sure if it was a he or a she) and apparently overfed it to death. I was traumatized and deeply embarrassed as I returned the body to Ms. Zigman, who proved more than just understanding. It was only one year, but I loved it.
As happened at least once a year back then, we moved over the summer and I started fourth grade at Biscayne Elementary School, also in Miami Beach. I liked it as well. Mrs. Johnson (definitely a Mrs., a sort of strict but kindly more mature teacher) was my teacher and I enjoyed her class where, as I recall, she read to us from Gulliver’s Travels, or perhaps, had us each read excerpts. We moved during the year though (what a surprise) and I finished fourth and, amazingly, fifth grade at Wesley Heights Elementary in Charlotte, North Carolina. That was among the best periods of my childhood as we lived in an actual house and I had my own room. Previously, at least since I came to live in the United States, we’d always lived in apartments and I’d slept on either a sleeper couch in the living room or else had shared a room with my sister Marina. I also started but didn’t really finish the sixth grade at Wesley Heights. That was because, first, my sister and I were kept out of school because of that era’s pandemic, the Asian Flu (strange how pandemics seem to start in Asia), but then, there was some sort of a crisis where we lost everything and returned to Miami Beach (or maybe Miami). My stepfather, however, for some reason remained behind in Charlotte to close things down. He did not return for quite a while as he was apparently injured in a car accident on the way back, or at least that’s what my sister and I, and our little brother Teddy were told. Since then I’ve grown a bit suspicious.
I think I returned to Biscayne Elementary then because my sister complained that her teacher there was always talking to her about when I’d been her student, something Marina disliked. It was a bit traumatic without our stepfather. His well-to-do sister, my aunt Mary, used to bring us groceries I remember. My mother cried a lot of the time and I had to assume a bit more responsibility at home than I’d been used to, especially worrying about what to do at Christmas for my younger siblings, but, much to my delight and relief, my stepfather surprised us on Christmas Eve, like a real live Santa. Although we had very little in the way of presents, it was the best Christmas ever as far as I’m concerned (although later Christmases, when my sons were little, were awesome as well). Shortly thereafter, my mother, sister, baby brother and I were shipped back to Colombia where I’d been born. Evidently my mother needed to recuperate from that year’s trauma and my grandmother Juanita, who owned a hotel and beautiful country home there, was, as she always had been, more than happy to help out.
I attended school in Manizales that year, at least for a while, my third school of the year. The school, “Nuestra Señora”, still exists. It was a great period as two of my classmates there had been early childhood friends, twins, Carlos Alberto and Luis Enrique Garcia, from a family that was as close to mine as it was possible to be without being related. Then, 1958. Another paradigm shift, New York City, but in Queens, in Ozone Park, in an apartment over the Circle Restaurant where my father worked. My mother and little brother returned first, then I returned. My sister, however, remained in Colombia for another six months, I never really understood why.
In New York, my stepfather’s whole family (the Kokkins clan) lived nearby. I recall my step father’s Uncle Sam and Aunt Hellen, and of course, his parents, Demitra and Theodore, and his brother John and John’s three daughters. I especially remember Athena on whom I developed an early crush; the other two sort of cousins were Deedee (who I think had been named Demitra after her grandmother), and Lynn. Their mother’s name was Frances.
So, … in New York I first attended PS 124 for seventh grade near what was then Idlewild Airport. I remember that we saw the first passenger jet flight take off from there. It was a Boing 707. It was a strange year given that I’d never really gotten to complete sixth grade but I muddled through. I think my teacher’s name was Mrs. Steinberg or it may have been Setterberg. Then, as had become traditional, we moved again, this time to Hollis, also in Queens, and eighth grade was at St. Gerard de Magella, a Catholic School which I loved despite the fact that the nuns kept emphasizing to my female classmates that they could only marry someone who was Catholic (I’d been baptized both Catholic and Greek Orthodox, my stepfather’s religion). In Miami Beach, it had been Jewish men little girls were told they should marry. Seemingly I was viewed as a multicultural threat.
Upon graduation from St. Gerard’s (in those days elementary school ended at the eighth grade) I started high school at Jamaica High School although I’d earned admission to Bishop McClancy High, one of the most prestigious Catholic high schools in New York City at the time. My mother had been involved in an accident and had not been able to submit my acceptance notice on time. I didn’t care, I loved Jamaica High where some of my classmates from St. Gerard’s also attended, and girls there did not have to marry Catholic or Jewish boys. But, of course, we moved and midyear I was transferred to Martin Van Buren High School, at which I finally rebelled, although discretely, or so I thought. I first kept going to Jamaica High but when I was no longer admitted there, I rode the subways all day. I was waiting for a response from DC Comics to an employment application I’d submitted, along with a proposal for a new comic book hero, Ultraman or something. Weeks later I received a rejection letter, my first, advising that they had their own in-house artists, thank you, and wishing me luck. Shortly thereafter my rebellion was cut short. I’d been found out.
Damned truant officers!
I had to start attending Van Buren High where I did terribly and had to attend counseling sessions with a psychologist. There and then, I was finally able to express my exasperation at having to constantly move and to lose friends. Losing friends and having to make new ones is a common experience for the children of military personnel, but even they tend to stay in the same place for several years. In my case, I had no military support group to help me adjust, or cadre of other children with shared experiences. It was just my sister Marina, my brother Teddy and I. Still, in hindsight, I’d perhaps planted memories in a great many fellow children scattered over the East Coast. I remember many of them fondly, and sometimes wonder whether any remember me as well. It would be awesome to somehow find some of them again, perhaps through Facebook. I especially remember one named Bobby who lived across Hillside Avenue in Queens from us, between 214th and 215th streets, when I was doing my time at Van Buren High. He was a great friend with a wonderful family, Italians. They even convinced me to eat roasted bovine testicles, … Once. Yuck!
Ninth grade was the end of my wandering, at least until I became an independent adult. It also, sadly, marked the end of my home life. It was boarding school for me after that, and usually summers with friends. My mother and stepfather had separated. I didn’t focus on it that much then, but as I grew older, I came to wonder how my mother almost miraculously managed to pay for all the expenses associated with my subsequent education. After her separation she’d borne our entire financial burden alone, as is the case with so many single mothers everywhere. Anticipating that her marriage to my stepfather was failing, she’d attended cosmetology school and after a brief stint working for my stepfather’s parents at a large beauty salon on Northern Boulevard (in Flushing), she opened her own one woman shop, innovative in that smoking was not permitted. It was somewhere in Flushing. We lived nearby in a large apartment building, it may have been called Abbot Arms. It seemed somehow mysterious, a gothic sort of building. But I was seldom there.
So, anyway, … at fifteen I was enrolled as a boarding student at the Eastern Military Academy in Cold Spring Hills in Long Island (in the township of Huntington). It became my home and more than a home. My sister Marina was also enrolled in a boarding school (Sag Harbor I think it was called), as was my little brother Teddy, in St. Basil’s Greek Orthodox school, a bit upstate in New York. Amazingly, I finished high school at Eastern, very successfully, so much so that after I graduated from the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina in Charleston (the Holy City as we thought of it, and still do), I was invited back to teach, which I did for nine years while concurrently earning a law degree and then an LL.M in international legal studies (from the graduate division of the New York University School of Law). Unfortunately, my brother and sister did not experience as much success, perhaps because my mother elected to subsidize my education at the cost of theirs. Something which was never expressed but which I now suspect, and which saddens me.
Anyway, my gypsy days had, at least for a while, subsided. Subsided but not ended as after my sojourn as a member of Eastern’s faculty, I’ve since lived in four different places in New York; in three places in Fort Lauderdale; in Hendersonville, North Carolina; in Belleview and Ocala, Florida, and finally, full circle, back in Manizales, the city of my birth. Here, apparently, my wandering has ceased, at least for the present, I’ve lived here for the past decade and a half. Still, had I the money, I’d love to spend a part of each year again in New York, and in Charleston. Both cities I love.
My professional life? Well it followed a somewhat similar pattern, a motley of surprising successes amidst incomprehensible polemics, but I always remained true, I think, to my beliefs, at least usually. I’d not characterize my professional life as one but rather several, following three main tracts, academia, then law and finance, and finally civic and cultural endevors. But that’s another story.
Complicated? Yes. But not all bad. Perhaps not even mainly bad. I’ve learned a great deal. Less from my successes than from my failures. Our own errors are the best of teachers. And they’ve made me an integral human being, burning off my naiveté and replacing it with a profound sense of empathy. It’s a process though, not a series of isolated events, and one that continues. Thanks to Facebook (which I otherwise despise for its use as a tool to control us), I’ve kept in touch with many of my classmates, former students and colleagues from Eastern (which we refer to as EMA) despite the fact that the school has been inoperative since 1978, and with my Citadel classmates and other Citadel graduates, the best people I’ve ever met.
I lost my mom in 1990. I lost her just before the birth of my third son, Edward. I’d married in 1981 and had three children: in addition to Edward, my first son Billy and my second son Alex. They all live with or near their mother, now my ex, in Marion County, Florida. Not a terribly successful experience. I’m now remarried to a wonderful woman who has two daughters of her own. They live nearby with their father, preferring the rural life on a small farm, to life in a city. I’m now semiretired but remain active in academic, civic and cultural affairs, sharing my perspectives by consistently writing and publishing articles in media spanning the length and breadth of the Americas. Until I recently fractured my wrist, I’ve remained very active in sports as well. Mainly tennis but at times, football (as a coach) and softball as well.
It’s not been a bad life, not a bad life at all, and while unusual, it’s always been interesting, although, admittedly, at times all too interesting (in the sense of the Chinese curse). It’s been strange but very full. Very full of diverse experiences, experiences through which I’ve interacted with all kinds of people, from presidents to the most humble people, the latter being those I most admire as they remind me of my mother in their struggles to provide for and educate their families. My constant moves were difficult but have given me broad perspectives which I think gifted me with the empathy I referred to previously, a quality all too rare in our polarized world. Indeed, in a sense, I guess I’m a sort of perpetual student, with an open mind being my greatest asset. At least I aspire to keep it open.
I’ve met many, many people, albeit perhaps, most, all too briefly. I’ve loved a few and appreciated many more, some of whom have become friends. I very much hope that the good I’ve managed to do outweighs my errors. There are many places where I’ve left pieces of my heart and of my soul, and, while too many friendships were cut short too soon, few have been forgotten.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2022; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo (“Bill”) Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia (although he has primarily lived in the United States of America of which he is also a citizen). Until 2017 he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at email@example.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at https://guillermocalvo.com/.