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A Nomad's JourneyLessons learned from an eclectic soul
By Alexander Amani
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Alexander Amani
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwelfth Street
My father was a US Naval Officer when he met my biological mother. A young cocky African-American naval officer, sporting a red 1970 Jaguar. Dating a white woman was an attention-getter in the sixties; even in California. Needless to say their marriage didn't last. I'm not sure if it had anything to do with the fact that when I was born in 1971, my dad was celebrating in a bar in Saigon (where coincidentally he met my stepmother). Or if it had to do with the fact that my mother wasn't physically or mentally ready to care for me. Either way, I believe in miracles and karma, which is why Twelfth Street is so prominent in my life. It was there that I grew up-Imperial Beach, California
James and Joann Arnold answered the door when that same cocky African-American Lieutenant came knocking. The way my grandma tells the story, my dad actually contacted a woman up the street who initially had started to baby-sit me. My father was going through the divorce with my biological mother and was attempting to balance naval commitments with raising a son. He was stationed in San Diego at the Oak Wood apartments. In any event, the woman, after watching me only once, told my father that she would no longer be able to do it.
She recommended a lady down the street named Mrs. Arnold. Anchors aweigh; I received my marching orders and away we went, as my dad negotiated a new arrangement. According to my grandma, the very first time he dropped me off he didn't return for a couple of days. Upon returning, an agreement was reached and Mrs. Arnold began formally watching me. It was a baby-sitting assignment that lasted from the time I was six months old until the time of her death, when I was fifteen.
I could easily write an entire book about my formative years with the Arnolds. For the purposes of this book, I will simply highlight some of the many, many remarkable memories of events that shaped some life lessons.
The best description I can use to describe my grandma, as she seemed to me, is: Cherokee Indian with the temper of a pit bull, the strength of a Lion and-most importantly-the soul of an angel. She was truly one in a million. I came to her physically and emotionally abused thanks to my biological mother's care. Promptly, my grandmother began God's work, caring for a little mulatto baby not her own. One of her favorite stories, she often told me, was that when she first started combing my hair she didn't know how or what to use. In a manner that was all her own, she grabbed the house vacuum and began to shape her grandson's hair.
Trust me when I say this story was told at every Tupperware party, wine get-together and any other event where my place in the Arnold clan was questioned by outsiders.
And it is this point that is one of the most meaningful for me. My grandma, grandpa, my sisters Phyllis, Alice and brothers Doug and Jim were 100% on board with me as one of their own. I make this point, because of the essential importance of self-identity in an individual's character; especially for young people. My first experiences with my biological mother could have shaped my personality in a way that scarred and embittered me. But my grandma made sure I couldn't use my early experiences as an excuse for failure.
She taught me three of the most important lessons in life. First, at all times to accord the proper respect compassion and decency to others regardless of: race, culture, sexual preference, and so on. It is their right as a member of the human race! Second, she drilled the ethic of hard work into my psyche. Both my grandparents set forth abundant examples.
My grandpa worked thirty-four years at Rohr Industries in Chula Vista, California as a supervisor. I can recall so vividly the sound of him getting up early in the morning. I listened as I stayed huddled under my warm blankets while he prepared for his long day. The last distinct sound I would always listen for was the unmistakable start of his little Toyota truck. I loved riding with him in that truck; although I didn't like many of his usual destinations.
My grandpa worked five days a week and then scheduled various side jobs. These side jobs consisted of just about anything. Once it involved building a custom bar for a customer and friend. Grandpa would take me to lay sod or build a chain link fence. Some of the longest days came underneath our very house, working on a plumbing joint or pipe. Whatever the job, my grandpa could do it all. And his customers knew it. Most customers were charged half price. For him, just like grandma, they were doing what they loved. They had found their passions!
The third lesson: education. My grandma's delivery method most certainly was not for the meek. And her learning strategies were not as fine-tuned and polite as Robert Marzano's Essential Nine elements for classroom instruction. She was, however, a pioneer in her time. She would encourage me to read by threatening that I'd grow up an illiterate. I trusted and hung on her every word. So for a while, I really thought that would be my fate. Fortunately, my step mother's lighter touch convinced and encouraged me to explore the world through books.
These three lessons, more than any other would become reoccurring themes as I grew up on Twelfth Street. I often watched as my brothers and sisters carried on with their daily lives, all the while including me in their activities. Sometimes, stories I shouldn't have overheard became exciting news I would inevitably surrender to my grandmother's all-knowing intuition and unyielding gaze.
A favorite story from my sister Phyllis, was how, as an elementary school student, I would come home bragging about something I did really well at school. Ironically however, on those days there would often be an unfortunate incident that would come through the door soon after I did. On these occasions, my grandma always sensed there would be a second, less uplifting sequel, to my fantastic news.
My elementary years were a foundation of corporal discipline and hard work. Mr. and Mrs. Arnold were very clear in their expectations of me to become a well-mannered, hard-working citizen. At the risk of writing an autobiography, rather than a short and straight memoir, I think it is important to lay an accurate foundation. In attempting to answer my friend Dave's earlier question about being competitive I have to acknowledge the furnace from which my personality was forged.
I remember one incident when my sister stayed out late one evening. She had been warned and yet did the unthinkable: she disobeyed grandma! Phyllis was in her early twenties and still lived at home. She worked at the Bank of America and was generally very responsible. However, on this particular occasion, she tested the old lion and got bit.
To make a long and very scary story a bit more entertaining, let's just say when my sister did finally arrive home it was well after midnight. My grandma had strategically positioned me by the door to alert her when my renegade sister had arrived. While I stood my post like a good soldier, I watched my grandma move in quick, furtive movements toward my sister's room, along the hallway just adjacent to the front door. She was, indeed a mix of a Navy Seabee and Vietcong guerrilla fighter.
I watched nervously as the family room's counter top became a temporary collection point for all my sister's clothes. Her beautiful room was gutted as my grandmother, AKA Charlie, made her way, expunging every piece of personal clothing and preparing to exile her own daughter. As I started to nod off at my post I heard the distinct sound of my sister's pearl-coated 280 ZX sports car pull up and park outside. I tried to convince myself that this was all just a bad dream.
I remember clearly the iron rod gate closing behind my sister as her heels clicked up the concrete path and she made her way toward the ambush. As her keys began to spring the trap, my grandma blew by me. I don't remember exactly what she said, just that she was annoyed at me for not alerting her of my sister's arrival on my own.
Her annoyance with me was a ripple on a pond compared to the tsunami that I witnessed. All I remember is my sister opening the door and starting to ask me what I was doing by the door. Then the wave hit. She was part Moses, part guerilla fighter, and part bob the builder, as she sprang at my sister. Phyllis tried to fend her off, but that wasn't going to happen.
After a lot of explaining, crying, pleading, crying and begging some more and, oh yes-several slaps, tugs and pulls-my sister was granted a probationary stay of execution. My misdeeds at school not withstanding I learned that night that if grandma said "be home," I was going to be home!
I remember years later, when I became a teenager, the phone rang at nine one night. My grandma was out somewhere with a group of mothers and one of the ladies asked about me. My grandma was always bragging about my good behavior when she was challenged. Irritated that the woman doubted the veracity of her statements about knowing exactly what I was doing and where I was, my grandma let her fingers do the walking. For you teenagers reading this, there were no pagers or cell phones then. Needless to say, the phone rang and it was my grandma. She had bet the lady that if she called not only would I pick up the phone but I would get it by the third ring. I picked it up by the third ring and received a loving affirmation. I could hear the pride in her voice. I wasn't privy of course to the conversation my grandma had with the woman, but I could only imagine ...
As I grew up, I watched my grandma instill positive core values, not only in me and her peers, but in the children she would watch. She ran her own day care as I grew older. I think it started with my brother's kids and branched out from there. My grandma had a spirit and charisma that was contagious. She sugar coated nothing. If you didn't want her perspective then you didn't ask to be around her.
She had the uncanny ability to break you down and build you up over a piece of her home-made pie, peanut butter cookies or glass of wine. People, both friends and family, would leave mad, but eventually return to embrace her opinionated, never wrong, yet loving attitude. She had this shirt that said: "I may have my faults but being wrong isn't one of them."
If you match her characteristics to a dog it would have to be the Italian Mastiff. Bred by the Romans to fight lions and bears, extremely protective of family and highly intelligent, my grandma was a breed unto herself.
As I entered middle and high school, my grandma passed the baton of my development to another. Knowing even a little about the woman I just described to you, you can imagine how hard that must have been for her. What characteristics and background must a person possess to earn a place at my grandma's table, mentoring me?
1. The start and finish are not always as important as what you learn along the way. 2. There is no substitute for hard work. 3. When a child has at least one person who truly believes in them there is no limit to what they can achieve. 4. No one owes us anything. We owe ourselves. 5. Family is more than blood ties.
Chapter TwoHigh School Memories ...
If my grandma was the furnace, then Coach Robinson was surely the hammer. Born and raised in La Jolla, California Dave Robinson was a great athlete at anything he attempted. An exceptional baseball player, he spent two seasons with the San Diego Padres as a center fielder. He was a switch-hitter who was extremely quick.
I first met him when he presented me with two medals for a local Olympics that was held at Mar Vista Junior High. I was in seventh grade and he was the P.E. coach for some of my friends. My coach was Mr. Wunderli, but already I could sense a connection with this other coach.
The next year I made it a point to introduce myself to him. I walked up to Coach Robinson one morning early, before school started. He was running 50 meter sprints and he was doing them really fast. I was a little out of shape and dressed in jeans, but thought I could give him a run for his money. I think I might have even reminded him of that by telling him he had presented me with two medals for both the 50 and 100-yard dashes.
Being ever the competitor, he asked if I wanted to do some sprints. I was a little shocked that he expected me to run in pants, but agreed anyway. Little did I understand then the competitive fires that burned within me; they were flames he would soon turn into an inferno.
After my pudgy little ass in tight jeans got dusted, he congratulated me on my effort. I thought to myself: "my effort, bullshit." Or as my grandma liked to say, "bucket of shit!" No, I wasn't going to let this man out run me. He asked if I wanted to come back tomorrow and do a longer run with him. I wasn't a distance runner, but to get a chance to work out with him I agreed.
The next day we met in the P.E. building before school. Coach informed me that we were going to do a three-mile run. I remember thinking, "so what; no big deal." As I sat quietly waiting for him to finish last minute details I looked around the office. Students weren't usually permitted into the office unless we were getting P.E. equipment or were in trouble. Pictures of athletic events and competitions could be seen everywhere on coach R's side of the room. The room itself had this unmistakable smell of polyurethane and rubber, mixed with a noticeable hint of sweat.
My daydreaming was broken as coach R appeared and motioned me to the door. As we exited I remember him shutting the door; the thin glass windows rattled from the force. We entered the cold, frigid air and began to stretch. The first of a lifetime of lessons from the coach was about to be delivered.
"It is very important, Alexander, to stretch before working out. Your body is a machine you have to look at it in those terms. So it is very important not to damage the machine. Preparation is the key; not just in working out or sports, but in life."
I listened to this man as I stretched muscles that had never been properly stretched in my thirteen years. Before long the lesson on preparation was over and so began a three-mile lesson in pain as we ran from Mar Vista Junior High to Edgar's Barn.
When we started off I felt great. I was even pushing the pace right next to him. That lasted for maybe a quarter-mile when reality hit me squarely in the face. The first casualty was my breathing. Quick, shallow breaths signaled I was in trouble, but I kept going. About half a mile in, a second casualty surfaced. Now my legs became tight. Remember, I was still that same pudgy little cocky kid from one day earlier. As my legs and lungs screamed for me to quit I watched as coach R pulled ahead like a powerful thoroughbred.
As I considered quitting at just over a mile, I remembered the day before and how embarrassed I had felt. It wasn't because I was out of shape or because he was faster than me. It was because deep down inside of me I expected to be great. I expected to win and compete at an extremely high level.
Now as this professional athlete pulled ever so far away I knew without a doubt that the only thing I could do is not give up! And so for the one and a half miles out and the one and a half miles back, I endured great pain. Pain that had me wanting to cry and quit. Once back at the P.E. office, coach R was stretching and smiling as I arrived.
He had stayed with me for the majority of the trip but, as I would later find out, working out called for an element of "getting evil." It was a term I would later apply to coach's training approach. As I finished, I wanted to collapse from exhaustion. He immediately encouraged me to walk around with my hands over my head to properly recover. He directed me to begin stretching again immediately so as to reduce the amount of lactic acid building up in my muscles.
Coach R and I discussed the morning training session. We both agreed that regardless of my current conditioning, distance running wasn't really my thing. I liked the sprints but I really enjoyed the life lessons and the camaraderie that was to follow. For the rest of my eighth grade year I would learn about exercise physiology, various sports, competition philosophy, human behavior, and most importantly, myself!
The following year I was a freshman at Mar Vista High School. I participated in Junior Varsity football, Varsity Wrestling and Varsity Track & Field. I quit varsity wrestling my freshman year, because I was unable to make a lot of the weekend tournaments. I continued living with my grandma during the week, but would travel to Pacific Beach and stay with my dad and step mom on the weekends. But Coach R was my mentor, role model, and father figure. I didn't have a healthy relationship with my father until my sons were born. I latched on to adults who I felt cared about me and were interested in the same things I was. If I felt they had something worthwhile within themselves to give, I would throw myself into their world, allowing them to teach me everything they could.
And so for the remainder of my freshman year and the beginning of my sophomore year I excelled at both academics and athletics. That was until one cold November day, when I arrived home.
Excerpted from A Nomad's Journey by Alexander Amani Copyright © 2010 by Alexander Amani. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: Twelfth Street....................1
Chapter Two: High School Memories....................9
Chapter Three: America's Finest ... for free!....................23
Chapter Four: True Calling....................47
Chapter Five: Doing Time....................55
Epilogue: The Journey Continues....................87