(Photo: probably taken by my dad eons ago of me and my brother at the beach in Naguabo, Puerto Rico, 1954)

Yesterday afternoon I had one of those ‘geez, how things have changed’ moments.

Not sure what brought it up, any longer, these things happen the moment I pass 55th street and go into the rolling hills section of 23rd avenue. But, as it usually goes, one thing led to another and I went into a long (relatively…) revelry of a time of my childhood I always remember with happiness and pleasure. And I found myself asking “where are they…”

When I entered first grade decades ago, we lived in a small town in north Puerto Rico, Canovanas. The town’s name was the name of a female cacique that had ruled that area by the time the Spaniards first arrived there to decimate them.

We lived on the north side of town, right against the town limit. There was a road, the town’s main street, that entered the town from one end out of Route 2, ‘la militar’, and ran all along the north side of town to exit out the other end and back into Route 2. Busy street and, I insist, more a ‘road’ than a simple ‘main street’. Our street, like all other streets parallel to ours, was a cul de sac that came out of the main street, ran north from there, and died together with the town’s limit. And it was also the last street to one extreme of that main street, right before it fixed to exit the town. As such, our yard, as all other yards on our side of the cul de sac, ended on a cow pasture on the far side of which you could see a sugar cane plantation. You could sometimes see the sugar cane train crossing that far away field during ‘la zafra’, the sugar cane harvest. This was the mid-fifties.

The first day of my first grade mom packed me up with a ‘loncherita’ and a little ‘bultito’ packed with whatever it is you put in a kid’s ‘bultito’ the first day of first grade, and off we were. Walked the full length of main street, from one end of town to the other, as the school was on the far end of town, several blocks, lots of traffic trucks and cars, and we stopped at the corner where the school was situated, across the street from the movie theatre. That is, as if to make things more interesting, on the other side of the road from where we had travelled

Now, I had never been on that side of town. For me it was foreign territory. One thing I do remember was me marveling at the size of the school building (which probably was not that big, really, but for my almost 6 years old standards…) and at the movie theatre, had never seen it. It was a mystery to me, had never seen a movie, never gone inside. The way I remember, the front was painted black, which is of course my memory painting it such.

Mom explained to me that I had to wait for the green light, look both ways, and then cross. Crossing guards did not even dream of existing back then. We did, then walked up the school’s gate by the huge oak tree where Juan would later swear a little mouse that came in a plane left him all kinds of things, and up to my classroom.

The way I remember it, next day they packed me up, put me out on the street and told me to be careful. And off I went. Up my street, made a right, walk all the way to the other end of town (not that it was all that far…) and stood on the corner waiting for the green light, my back to the menacing movie theatre behind me. That never stopped making me uncomfortable. Very. And then cross.

Now, you may think from your American 2024 point of view that was unconscionable, but that was the world I lived in a small Puertorican town 61 years ago. Mom knew that there was an army of eyes watching for this cute kid walking to school (well, I was, don’t know what happened afterward…). And no one would hesitate to jump in to help me cross the road if necessary. That was the way it was. It also helped that my dad was the town’s chief of police, but even then…

And the following year my bother Juan entered first grade and I was responsible to walk him to school. Then it got really fun. Sneaking tamarind and pear juice in our lunch boxes behind my mom’s back (I’ll tellyou about that one later!), receiving little gifts from my entrepreneurial bother’s little mouse friend by the school’s oak tree (wait ‘till you hear that one!), crossing the town square coming back from school (with the big high school boys flirting with the pretty girls after school) to pick up my little sister from kindergarten, where she had just started. And then the three of us would walk home like some miniaturized version of Oz.

When I was young, I used to wonder how it must have felt for my dad, born at the turn of the century when ‘planes’ were virtual kites lined with fabric, lived through the tumultuous 20th century, two murderous world wars, one crushing recession, go from steamers to jetliners to travel to New York and go all the way from motorized kites to see mankind break free from earth and blast into space to actually stand on the moon. What a marvelous, breath taking trip that must have been, I thought. I get you now, dad.

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