An Interview With...
What is your current occupation?
In December of 1999, I retired from a very rewarding career, in the shipping industry, from a company I had worked at for exactly thirty years. In the advent of my retirement I had thought of where I might want to enjoy my days of leisure. The obvious choice was Guatemala because I was born there, have much family there and I wanted to reacquaint myself with it.
What do you enjoy most about retirement?
Without the least doubt the very best thing about retirement is the feeling of great freedom one feels. What I enjoy most now that I am retired is to read. I now have time to read for pleasure which I lacked when I worked because when I had time, I always had professional reading to catch up with.
From the time we begin to do grownup things, like school, we are always controlled by one type of schedule or another and very little of our supposed own time is truly our own. At first it is very nice because we depend upon the ability of our seniors to guide us. As children we have not acquired a sense of order or continuity but later, as we get older and do acquire some sense of organization, we would like very much to have more time to do something that particularly interests us, like a hobby, or to just daydream and plan the fantasies of our future. But realistically, unless we become hermits, we can never be totally free, nor would we want to. I think that most of us like to have social contact with others of equal or even different interests. I am part of an American community in Antigua, Guatemala, and a member of the American Legion, a group of ex servicemen who served in the U.S. Armed Forces in times of war. We sponsor an orphanage; we run a library; and, sponsor a scholarship program for children too poor to attend even the public school system. Additionally we assist any tourist in distress.
As members of a civilized society we will always have obligations to that society which often dictates what, when and how we might behave. But that in itself can be a pleasure. Often friends determine when and where we might dine together or perhaps determine the subject of conversation. There are always some freedoms we forfeit as a price we pay to belong to our society.
Where did you grow up? What activities did you enjoy most as a child?
My father worked for the United Nations field service also as a radio operator. This required him to travel to parts of the world which were in conflict. After a period of training, he was posted to Jerusalem where the U.N. was functioning as a peace keeper between Palestine and the newly founded nation of Israel. That began what would be many years of travel around the world. In time, he was assigned to various countries around the world. My parents, two sisters and I lived in Jordan, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, and Kashmir to name some. I have been told that if there were such a thing as an official citizen of the world I may come close to qualifying. In 1960, we emigrated from Guatemala to California after my father decided to leave the U.N. Some of the assignments required prolonged separations of the family and did not fit the close family style my parents favored.
The adventure of being in so many countries and the exposure to their cultures was wonderful but still, as children will, I loved to play roles of fantasy inspired by books or films. I was at various times a dashing knight, a brave cowboy and a daring sailing captain. In Srinagar, Kashmir we lived in a houseboat on the river and I distinctively remember donning a cap, a sash, a walking cane with a sword concealed in it and flying away in my imagination to a river boat navigating perilous waters.
How did being a "global nomad", traveling so much and living in different countries, impact your friendships and sense of community when you were growing up?
Many of us experience some things to which we want to maintain some attachment like old neighbors, schoolmates, etc. I was never like that because we traveled so much that it was not an easy thing to do. Also, truly, knowing that our stay was always temporary, unconsciously, we tended to enter rather superficial relationships. For that reason, I had never thought to join the American Legion. It would associate me with strangers with whom I only had in common having served my adopted country.
When I did join the American Legion Post (Chapter) in Antigua it was only in response to a need expressed by an acquaintance to increase their membership. It turned out to be very rewarding. Although at first I agreed to fill in a void in their group as a Vice Commander of the post, I later declined the honor so as to assure myself of more of that freedom I spoke of earlier. However, I always make time for whatever I can do to help accomplish the goals of the Post. That can mean simply acquiring something the Orphanage needs, volunteer time to run a library which we opened in the old city of Antigua or translate for someone who does not speak either Spanish or English.
One of the noble programs the Post operates is a modest scholarship program. There are some very, very poor people in Guatemala. So poor that their primary concern is acquiring the very basic things needed to survive. They may live in makeshift housing of materials discarded by others: wood, metal or even cardboard. Their diet is that of absolute subsistence meaning that they may not have enough to satisfy their nutritional needs and barely their hunger. Often they are forced to make their children work to increase their income. Obviously then, they would have no money to send their children to school, not even the public schools which have the lowest demand for expenses. The state fails to provide some of the basic materials for the students so with the generosity of those who help us we sponsor as many children as we can to at least get a very fundamental education. Sadly, our funds are very limited but if we can affect one single life we have accomplished one tiny success.
Where were you born and what country are you a citizen of?
I was born in Guatemala and lived there until I was nine years old. I was a self proclaimed citizen of the world for many years and I adopted the U.S.A. as my country after I served eight years in the Air Force. Since I have returned to where I started from, I am now a dual citizen of Guatemala and the U.S.A.
To most who become citizens of a second country it is somewhat dramatic. For me it was a conscious and significant step but not as dramatic. Having lived in so many different countries, and having passed through the U.S.A. so many times the step was more symbolic than dramatic. I had always known and admired the American way of life but although Guatemala sounds (and actually is) an exotic place, there is much of our American way of life evident. For example, take the contrast of Antigua, the colonial city I live close to. It is quite a step back in time with its centuries old houses, ruins of old cathedrals, convents and monasteries. Yet you can walk over its cobblestone streets to your neighborhood Burger King or McDonald's or call Domino's Pizza for a guaranteed delivery within thirty minutes. On the way you will walk past indigenous people wearing the same costumes they have worn for centuries and might have even woven them themselves.
When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming? Did you follow that path or do something different?
During those thirty years in the shipping industry, I did many things all of which enriched my person to some degree. None of those things was what I once dreamt of doing. The only thing that ever fascinated me was flying an aircraft. For a period of time my father was a radio operator aboard airplanes. That was long before communications were as sophisticated as they are today. Many times he took me with him on trips around Guatemala and I was exposed to the miracle of flying. Then there was no question in my mind as to what I wanted to do the rest of my life. My dream was denied me when I fell ill and was not able to continue my studies in a military school which was leading toward it.
My last position was probably the most rewarding because it seemed to have fit my personality the best. As a Quality Administrator I was something of an internal consultant and was called upon to use my teaching, analytic and people skills. I taught principles and application of managing with quality, audited functions for compliance with those and mediated situations of conflicts. As a secondary function, I oversaw a program which called upon me to motivate employees to sell the services for the company while performing their daily tasks.
Did you ever think of following a different career path?
As I grew up, both chronologically and intellectually, I discovered many things I might have chosen to follow as a career. As I studied management I found that I was most interested in human behavior and found to have a natural instinct for the analysis of it. I find it extremely rewarding to be able to help people find themselves or answers to their problems. So yes, I may have chosen to become a counselor or psychologist.
What do you do on your ranch?
I live on a "granja". The literal translation is "grange" but more commonly it would be called a ranch. Even so, it is not accurate unless you think of it as a nonproductive ranch. It really is a small house in a very large lot, about one and one half acres in a wooded area. There are many fruit trees, some rather exotic and some plain trees like pines. It is situated in rather high land, about 4,500 feet above sea level. I enjoy it immensely as a refuge from the city life I have lived in for so many years. There are many birds and butterflies plus squirrels with which I share space. There are also some bats who have invited themselves to share the area beneath my roof. I see them leaving at dusk to search for insects to eat and early morning when I contemplate the wonders of dawn and their infinite shades of color, I see them returning to their home above my living space. I call my place "Vera Pax" which in Latin means, True Peace. That is what I enjoy the most about living there; I am in true peace and share it with nature around me. In the mornings I walk around the woods and feel very close to the earth. Once in a while I see some of the other animals I share life with.
What education and experience does a person need to follow your career path?
The jobs I have held in my life are those which most people can do and require no very specialized education. A general formal education would prepare anyone to perform what I did. When your mission is to attain the highest possible levels of quality in whatever you do, you need to accept that what you are actually doing is attempting perfection. Someone might say that perfection is impossible. I may not argue the point but I would counter that attempting it and acting as though it is possible is your goal.
What was your path to your most recent occupation?
Soon after we arrived in the United States, I joined the United States Air Force. Retrospectively, I reasoned that I wanted to be associated with airplanes. I was assigned to work as a passenger service specialist, just like a passenger service agent at a commercial airline. That was my first realization that I wanted to cultivate the people skills I spoke of earlier. I began studying human behavior then.
How long were you in the Air Force?
When I was nineteen years old, after having spent a couple of years living in Guatemala again, we emigrated to the U.S.A. Soon after my arrival in San Francisco, California my new home, I went to visit a recruiter to find out what interesting possibilities were available to me in the U.S.A.F. I found out that, different from today when you can pick a specialty before joining, I would have to enlist, receive basic training and then, based on aptitude tests, would be assigned a specialty. My dream was to fly an aircraft as I mentioned earlier so I joined. I had been misinformed. Once in Basic Training I found out that to fly one had to be an officer and to be an officer you had to be a citizen of the U.S.A. Contrary to what my recruiter had told me, my signed declaration of intention to become a citizen was not enough. Given the choice to continue as an enlisted man in the specialty I was assigned or be released I chose to stay to be trained as an Air Transportation Specialist. I signed a four-year contract.
My first assignment was to Tachikawa, Japan, a base, not too far from Tokyo, for two years. It was a fantastic experience in so many ways, too many to expound here. I was reassigned to Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts where my contract expired and having married decided to reenlist for four more years (for a total of eight). During that time I was assigned to Korea, Okinawa and Viet Nam.
Why did you leave the Air Force?
That brings me full circle to your first question regarding my retirement. When my second four years expired, I saw myself in the exact situation my father was in when he left the United Nations. Having married a wonderful person with whom we brought two little girls to the world, I could not continue to risk being separated from them so I quit the U.S.A.F. and sought to work in the air transportation field. I found my professional home in The Flying Tiger Line, a cargo airline later merged into Federal Express the company from which I retired. It was very satisfying to serve in the United States Air Force and the principles for which it stood. I always thought of it as a sort of payment in return for the privilege of living in the U.S.A.
What were your favorite subjects in school?
I enjoyed language. There were two significant things about it that I liked although I did not then recognize it. One, it gave me an avenue to vent my thoughts and second, and perhaps more revealing of my person, was that it was subjective. Aside from the strict adherence to grammatical rules, debating or writing was like a huge ball of clay one could shape to one's contentment and the product was one's own, unique.
What were your least favorite subjects?
If you accept my answer to what I liked, then it is easy to understand what I did not.
Mathematics and all its branches were too exact, too rigid. But I did accept the need to understand it because very little in life escapes some type of mathematics. Unfortunately, it is not until so much later in life that I understood that or I would have appreciated it and liked it that much more.
Which subjects or classroom activities had the biggest impact on your future career?
Again, those which were flexible enough to encourage exchange of ideas and were not so definitively white or black.
What was your first language? How many languages do you speak (and read or understand)?
I recollect with amusement the experience of being around different languages. I was aware of the fact that different people spoke different languages because we had servants when I was a boy, some of who were native Guatemalan Indians. My mother was raised in a family plantation and they leaned the language of the workers most of who were also Indian. I heard my mother speak to them in their own language and was fascinated by it.
Later in life, when I lived in different countries, I continued to be intrigued by them and always attempted to speak at least some of the local languages. The amusement I allude to is that when we arrived in Jerusalem, I went to an English school with Arab children. The official language was English, the local language was, of course, Arabic and as second language we were taught French. There came a point where I would say something and had to take inventory of what language I had used.
I found Arabic very easy to learn because it is much like Spanish, my native tongue. In fact, owing to Spain's history of being ruled by Arabs for many centuries, modern Spanish still has many words which are in fact, Arabic. French and Korean had the most different sounds so they were not as easy to learn.
What advantages are there in knowing more than one language?
It has served me well to have spoken various languages in my lifetime for various reasons. I was able to help people who did not speak a local language I did speak. It has often given me a clue to something which was not obvious to someone who did not speak the language. I often know where a person might be from either from their name, their accent or even their demeanor. Also, knowing another language identifies you with other peoples as a member of their culture even. Finally, but no less important, it gives me a better understanding of my own language being that there are words commonly used in our language which are in fact of another. With so many tourists from all over the world visiting Guatemala, I often regret not having retained my knowledge of the languages I once spoke, Arabic, French, Italian, Japanese and Korean.
What have you learned from traveling to, and living in, other countries?
One thing that I learned early, to my advantage, is that one must travel with an open mind. I had no preconceptions of what a city or a country would be other than what one reads about. I dread criticism of a city or country because it does not resemble the one an individual is from. Regardless of where one originates from, every place is unique and has its own charm and should not be compared. My home in Guatemala is close to a modern city and close to one which is hundreds of years old but maintains its colonial character. It was partially destroyed by natural disasters, a huge mudslide and earthquakes. One can almost feel the different ambiance upon entering the old city.
Do you have a favorite quote?
There are many things said by many wise persons. I enjoy and respect them but rather than isolating some words I would tell you that my predilection is toward those which say, know yourself, accept yourself, respect yourself and above all, love yourself.
- 31 May 2004
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15 November 2014
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