Let the Good Times Roll
Powerful jet engines roared to life. In a sudden burst of power, we reached speeds in excess of one hundred sixty miles per hour in less than a minute. The captain pulled back on the yoke thrusting us skyward on a gradual ascent in an easterly direction. The plane teetered back and forth ever so slightly as the sound of landing gear retracting could be heard under the constant engine roar.
The bright lights dotting the New York and New Jersey shoreline quickly disappeared from view. Ten minutes later, it was pitch black over the Atlantic Ocean, as we continued our climb to a cruising altitude of thirty- two thousand feet.
My head was on a swivel---one moment staring at the beacon lights flashing from the plane’s wing tips silhouetted against the dark sky; the next, watching flight attendants scurry about in a controlled frenzy serving our evening meal. Anyone who bothered to notice knew this was my first time on a plane.
My twenty-three-year-old mother, with a five-year-old and a three-year-old in tow, were headed for a land she’d only experienced in books. That realization terrified Mom. Her only comfort, the man she loved would be waiting at the other end of this journey.
Even at age five, I delighted in my ability to read Mom’s facial expressions. So I did what I did best at that age---talked to damn much. The more she screamed at me to shut up, the more she relaxed.
After a few hours, a deep sleep ensued onboard, many snoring loud enough to violate the surrounding quiet, irritating other passengers. Mom and my sister Karen were fast asleep. I stayed awake for an hour after the lights were dimmed, looking out into the abyss for stars. Eventually, I too dosed off, only to be greeted by sunshine splashing through my window after a few hours. Madrid was six hours later, making it mid-morning when we arrived after a seven-hour trip.
Our Pan Am flight carried a combination of U.S. military personnel and their families, American civilians, and Spaniards. Guessing by our collective reactions, most of us had never set foot in Spain. My eyes remained fixated on the ground, as earth grew closer by the second. Passengers grew restless when the fasten seat belt sign illuminated announcing our final descent.
My ears popped, followed by intense pressure and muffled sounds. Mom told me to pretend to swallow hard. It did little to alleviate the ear pain. I forced a yawn and pretended to chew to clear the dulling sensation in my ears, nothing worked. The sensation of hearing loss persisted; it proved somewhat disorienting.
The plane hit the ground with a thud, slamming my head into the seatback. The wind fought violently with the aircraft wings before the pilot applied the breaks.
Next thing I know, all of us were standing in line at Spanish customs and immigration. With my ears still in recovery, I heard murmurs of a new language, one that seemed to elicit excitement and passion.
I spotted Dad standing just on the other side of a glass partition. It had been nearly a year since I last laid eyes on him. He looked great, even out of uniform, just like I remembered in pictures.
Dad arrived in Spain a month earlier, having gone straight from Morocco, his previous duty assignment in 1962, to Torrejon Air Base, just outside Madrid.
We embraced for what seemed like an eternity among the throngs of people standing just outside baggage claim. We were exhausted, but that didn’t seem to matter at the moment. Minutes later, we were whisked away on a bus headed to Torrejon, home for the next few weeks until our apartamento (Spanish for apartment) in Madrid was ready.
The breeze blowing through the bus windows provided a welcome relief from the stifling mid-August afternoon heat, well over 90 degrees. Dad went into tour guide mode, providing running commentary on what appeared outside our windows. We stopped at the hospital where he worked as an administrator. I would have my tonsils removed in that very hospital the following year.
The next morning, Dad hired a driver who took us to view famous Madrid landmarks---The Alcala Gates (La Puerta Alcala), The Royal Palace (Palacio Real) and the Plaza Mayor. I was mesmerized by the architecture and beauty of the city, even though I didn’t truly understand the significance of what lay before my eyes.
We made a quick stop at what would become our new home, located in a ten-story rectangular high rise across the street from a park.
A rather jovial rotund man, who spoke beautiful English, albeit with a Spanish accent, greeted us in the lobby. He is what Dad call portero---Spanish for door- man. He was also the building superintendent. Dad made me practice the portero’s name ensuring I used proper Spanish pronunciation. Dad instructed me to always address him as Señor followed by his last name, a name I no longer remember. Dad spoke fluent Spanish and a few other languages furthering my acclimation to Spanish culture.
The portero escorted us to a spacious second-floor, two-bedroom unit with maid quarters. Expats, military families, and Madrileños all called this building home.
Karen and I started running around like we owned the place. Our playfulness earned us a stern warning from Dad to behave in a voice only he could deliver.
Dad was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1939, to a teenaged mother. From the very beginning, his life took a series of twists and turns so completely unfair to any newborn; it’s amazing he became such a warm and loving person. Dad’s birth name was Richard Lee. On his birth certificate under “Fathers Name” it simply says “Baby Lee.”
Dad’s birth was an embarrassment to many in his family, and their treatment of him, except his grandfather and at times his mother, was harsh. The Lee family carried many secrets. One of those secrets would be the identity of Dad’s biological father.
Dad passed away in 2012 of pancreatic cancer never knowing who fathered him. This glaring omission haunted him for life. He continually pressed his mother and other family members for the information, only to watch them stiffen in their resolve, often becoming downright hostile. It became even more difficult for Dad to accept the hole left in his genealogy, when his mother married, and had two more sons.
Not knowing his father was insult enough, but race reared its ugly head early, and often, in Richard Lee’s young life. It wasn’t because his skin color was too dark. Dad is what many in the black community call “high yellow,” a pejorative meant to reflect a lack of dark pigmentation.
Dad endured years of verbal abuse, some opinions downright vicious, for having light features. Many blacks thought he was Caucasian. This ignorance transcended generations as my sisters’ and me faced a series of contentious incidents from blacks and whites, all over the shade of a man’s skin. Some whites couldn’t understand how he married a black woman.
Only recently, years after Dad’s passing, have I discovered his biological father was likely European, as my own DNA test results revealed I’m forty-two percent European.
Dad was eventually shipped off to Philadelphia to live with Aunt Sue, who adopted him, and changed his last name to Bennett. While his life improved temporarily, Dad led a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, going from one relative to the next, before landing back at Aunt Sue’s. In addition to the mental abuse, Dad suffered beatings meant to enforce discipline with a strap used to sharpen razor blades.
Dad attended Catholic schools, where, as he put it, punishment was swift for the slightest of infractions. The beatings he described to me at the hands of the nuns would be deemed child abuse today.
Dad and Aunt Sue eventually made their way to the Atlantic City area, where he graduated from a Catholic high school in 1957, met and married into the only truly loving family he had ever known. The Hicks family loved Dad, and he loved them with every once of his being, even after my parents’ divorced.
Dad was not one to suffer insolence or insubordination; quick to punish us kids for any acts he deemed inappropriate; which included spankings. As part of my punishment, I often went to bed without dinner, only to have Mom sneak into my room after he’d fallen asleep to provide nourishment.
When Dad joined the Air Force, it provided the structure he so sorely lacked during his youth. Dad loved the military, yet the demons of childhood persisted and manifested themselves in how he treated his family at times.
He loved us all, no doubt, and constantly tried to do the right thing. Dad just lacked a complete set of tools in his toolbox. He had no mentor or male role model, forcing him to fly by the seat of his pants when it came to rearing children.
So when Dad said stop, I froze in my tracks, for justice Richard Bennett style was equally as swift and harsh as his upbringing, and in some cases came without explanation or cause.
The apartamento had an outdoor central courtyard. It was just wide enough to run clotheslines between buildings on a pulley system connected to a pole anchored in the center. I stuck my head out the window and looked up. Everyone had clothes hung out to dry, not something I’d seen in America.
Our apartamento was just off a busy thoroughfare dotted with tapas bars, mercados (markets), restaurants, and other small businesses. Street parking in our neighborhood proved especially chaotic at night when all the bars and restaurants were open.
Consuelo joined our family as a live-in maid a week after our arrival. When we went on picnics or other family outings, she was there. On the mornings Mom couldn’t walk me to the bus stop for school, Consuelo provided escort. If we needed things from the mercados, Consuelo usually took me along for the journey and taught me Spanish.
I’m uncertain how old Consuelo was the day Dad introduced her to the family. If I had to venture a guess, I would say in her early twenties. She had a youthful look about her and very energetic. She needed all that energy to chase two toddlers around. Consuelo also provided discipline when needed, but like Mom, punishment was balanced with love and affection.
We settled quickly. I began kindergarten at Royal Oaks Elementary School two weeks after our arrival in Madrid. I don’t remember much about the place, but it was the first time I’d been away from Mom for more than a few hours. The Royal Oaks area is where all the Americans attended school, K-12.
Life rolled along until November 22, 1963. That was the day the earth just stopped rotating on its axis. When news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination reached us, Spaniards, known for late night meals and robust nightlife, were glued to small black and white television sets, and tiny transistor radios for any information coming from the United States. The streets were eerily quiet that night, a quiet that lasted for days.
Our portero hugged every American exiting the building in a display of love and affection I’d never witnessed in a stranger. His swollen red eyes and moist shirt revealed the depth of pain and compassion he felt for all of us, me included.
The typically noisy morning traffic of Madrid, even on a Saturday was replaced with stone cold silence. A cool breeze blew through the park across the street whipping up dirt and dust clouds, only to settle and start all over again. I sat, staring into the distance, unsure what the death of President Kennedy meant to me, or my family.
Consuelo and I walked to the mercados to buy food and supplies. Somber faces greeted us, followed by offers of free candy and soda from the proprietors. The merchants tried everything they could think of to cushion the devastating loss of our president, but at age five, I was simply too young to grasp the impact and importance. It was a sad time in our little piece of paradise, brightened by a group of people whose compassion was truly genuine, and much appreciated by all Americans.
Dad returned from work long after I had gone to bed on the day we lost President Kennedy. I heard my bedroom door open ever so slightly. He peeked inside as I feigned sleep. Just as softly as the door opened, it closed again, submerging the room in total darkness. He and Mom chatted briefly, then as suddenly as he appeared, Dad left, not to be seen again for several days. Only later did I learn the military had been put on high alert.
Life at Royal Oaks was anything but normal for weeks. Teachers seemed nervous and scared. Even as a kindergarten student I took notice. Teachers tried their best to bring a semblance of stability to our young lives. It worked for those less observant than me. The upcoming Christmas/New Years recess couldn’t come soon enough...