I remember simpler times when a face was just a face, another friend on the playground. Post World War II Santa Clara Valley was rapidly expanding and most of the faces moving into the new houses were various shades of Europe. We were all different to some degree and, beyond a little curiosity, it was quietly accepted or irrelevant within the serious business of childhood.
Most of our fathers fought in the war, mine in Tarawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The common paradigm for returning GI’s was to get married, have kids and live happily and peaceably ever after. The textbooks called it “Return to Normalcy,” a panacea for the scars of battle.
My parents had little money, but I had everything I needed and some things I didn’t, like freckled cheeks and a “cowlick” on the back of my head resembling the Alfalfa character on the “Little Rascals” television show. Another social challenge, surprisingly, came from re-runs of The Honeymooners on the CBS channel. In each episode, Bronx bus driver Ralph Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason, bullied and yelled at his sewer-worker neighbor named Ed Norton. For an entire year, I was known only as “N-A-W-W-T-O-N,” usually from voices at maximum volume. Aside from that, things were quite normal.
During the 1958-59 school year, in Ms. Joan Davis’ fifth grade class, I met two young boys who were as different as any two people could be. Although our friendships were short-lived and we have had no contact in sixty years, they both remain in my memory because their stories are still pertinent today.
Both Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez were immigrants, one seasonal and the other fleeing communism with his parents after the Soviet Union invaded his homeland. Neither of them had television sets and both called me by my first name. They focused on what they had, never on what they didn’t.
I asked, “Hey Edvins, where are you from again?”
“Latvia,” he answered.
“Latvia. I’ve never heard of it.”
“Oh, that’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”
He often spoke of his homeland but didn’t dwell on it. He told us that his father was an engineer in Latvia, but they had to leave and now he was managing an orchard across from the school until something better came along. We never discussed it, but I strangely became empathetic to his quiet struggle and understood that life was a little harder for him. Feeling empathy was a new experience for me.
Edvins was outgoing, verbose and smart. These factors offset his non-athletic, somewhat flabby body and the thick crew cut that fully covered his head like a completely grown “chia pet” gnome. He had no reservations in assuming the role as the smartest kid in class and his strong opinions convinced us that he hated the “commies” more than we did. His personal stories, many handed down from his father, reassured us all that Kruschev was the devil and the Soviet Union was indeed the “Evil Empire.”
Edvins was the first kid that I met who was an artist. He could draw anything and often spent his day sketching portraits of other classmates and not concentrating on the subject at hand. For the most part, we all saw his art as an asset, one that we relied on to make our class projects better.
One day, years later, in seventh grade homeroom, Edvins quietly passed me a dollar bill.
I whispered, “What’s this for?”
Gesturing with his finger, he said, “Look at it.”
Edvins had drawn a near perfect one dollar bill, both sides. At first glance, I easily mistook it for the real thing.
“I want to try it out at lunch,” he muttered.
I knew what he meant and still allowed my curiosity to make me complicit in his plan. We ate lunch together in the cafeteria, then set out for the room where students took turns selling ice cream to other students. The money raised went to the end of the year picnic.
Edvins said, “Two Fudgesicles,” holding up his fingers in the shape of a “V”.
The innocent student clerk took the phony bill, handed him the two bars and seventy cents change. Barely able to contain our emotions, we took the contraband and slithered out to a remote area to eat it. Edvins was beside himself, celebrating the fact that he had pulled off his little scheme.
On our way back to class, we stopped by the ice cream room as Edvins turned over a real dollar bill and asked for his forgery back. We all laughed, knowing it was typical Edvins, mischievous but honest, curbing his boredom in ways the rest of us could not imagine.
Florencio Lopez had dark skin. His slim but strong physique and the deep cheekbones in his face looked like an old, sepia photograph of a Native American warrior. His wardrobe consisted of jeans and a few different flannel shirts that he always wore with the top button fastened. His hard-soled shoes looked like they had survived generations.
Florencio was shy, quiet and stoic, remaining a mystery to most of us. He stood out as the sole Hispanic kid in class. Because English was not his first language, he was often slow to comprehend lessons, making this strong kid self-conscientious and vulnerable.
When Ms. Davis called on him, he often answered, “I don’t know.” She was very patient and set an all-inclusive tone in the classroom, yet he remained aloof and preferred to be by himself. There was still this mysterious aura that made us unsure and cautious about approaching him.
Florencio’s moment came not in the classroom, but on the playground. In those days, every fifteen minute recess and the half hour remaining after lunch was ample time for many of the boys to divide into teams for a day long progressive touch football game.
He started showing up on the sidelines and watching us play. One day, someone asked him if he wanted to join in. He nodded quickly, then as the football hurled toward him as an impromptu try-out, he raised his large hands up and stopped it in its tracks. After an instant of stunned silence, an argument ensued.
“Okay, we’ll take him.”
“No, no, we’re a man down, we’ll take him.”
With minutes of recess left, the dispute was quickly resolved and, before the bell rang, we all learned that Florencio Lopez could run like the wind. From that point, he was known to everyone as Flo and he embraced it. His athletic abilities became his wristband to inclusion.
He could outrun anyone else backwards in hard soled shoes and the team he was on typically called only one play, “Throw to Flo,” hoping that he would not out run the arm strength of the passer. For weeks afterward, Flo became the playground star and far less mysterious to us all.
On the first Saturday of December, there was a district-wide football jamboree where all the elementary schools would gather for one day of competition. Permission slips and a small lunch fee were required. We all expected Flo to be our secret weapon, but he quietly told us that he couldn’t go. We pressed the issue until it became uncomfortable for everyone. Things that most of us took for granted were beyond the reach of others.
The last time that I remember seeing Florencio Lopez was a chance meeting when I was visiting his neighbor, Edvins Augusts. Next to Edvins’ modest, green, 1940s ranch house was a large, old bungalow in disrepair and in need of paint. Florencio lived there with his parents and five younger siblings. Ironically, the only two dwellings in the large orchard were side by side and the homes of my two new friends. Outside of class, it was the first and last time the three of us hung out together. The afternoon did not include art or football, just the three of us talking about whatever ten-year- old boys talk about.
Florencio did not return for the sixth grade, but Edvins stayed for a few years. The orchard was being sold off and by 1961 became a neighborhood with its own expressway, no longer in need of a manager or a foreman.
Recent research revealed an Edvins Augusts of my age who married twice, once in California and once in Nevada to a woman with a Russian surname. The search results for Florencio Lopez ranged from a Professor of Finance at a major university to a notorious Mexican drug lord apprehended in the late nineties.
Their fates remain unknown, but for me, getting to know Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez in the late fifties widened my young perspective and began to cement the understanding that, with our differences, we are all, deep down, the same.