Serving  North San Diego County
north countyWhite Star
orange county
The Paper - Escondido San Marcos North County
  Cover Story December 2nd, 2010     
Cover Story

Flag on a Casket

by Claudia Aragon

A box came to my home today.

I felt as though I had been blindsided as I looked at the contents. There was an American flag which had been folded and carefully placed inside a plastic bag, an envelope from the Veteran’s Administration, containing a copy of a eulogy, which had also been carefully folded and placed inside the box. There was a spattering of awards for rescues, community service and volunteerism. There were photos of my dad, and his long time fellow veteran and friend Wes Nell, two men teetering on the edge between seventy and eighty years old.

I had searched most of my life for my Dad, seeking out any trace of information. To give me a glimmer hope, as I tried to find out if he were dead or alive.

My search began as a ten year old girl. The last day I saw my dad, he was moving to Missouri. He promised he would write and send me his address, but we moved shortly thereafter, relocating to Elkhart, Indiana, and I never heard from him or saw him again.

None of my relatives on my mom’s side had phones in those days so there really was no way to trace anyone, unless you had the address of someone who might know them. Ideally, it should be easier to find a man because they don’t usually change their last name, unlike when women get remarried. When we returned to California, my mother had just married my step father and we moved to Yuba City, a town 30 miles north of Sacramento.

I was twelve at the time and sent letters to my dad’s brothers who lived in Oregon. They had no idea where to forward the letters to him and had kept them in a shoebox. When I was on a visit to Oregon at the age of 19, my Uncle Ernest gave me all my letters back. It was very heartbreaking to see all those letters again, especially since they had remained unopened. The letters told of how well we were doing, in spite of the hardship my mother had faced as a single parent. That we were all good girls, never arrested, didn’t do drugs, didn’t smoke, did good in school, and never got pregnant. I wanted him to know we were good, strong, hardworking people. I wanted him to be proud of us.

My mother used to joke with us about how we didn’t come with an owner’s manual when we were born. She stated all she could do was give us the benefit of her knowledge, her mistakes and accomplishments, then stand back and pray to God, we turned out to be halfway decent members of society.

Well, we did you proud Mom, as you well knew before your passing.

My dad had served in the Navy during the BIG ONE, World War II and the Korean War. He was a young man and was proud to go fight the war and do his duty. While in Germany he rescued prisoners of war from concentration camps, helped to save valuable artwork from the Germans, rescuing and saving his fellow sailors and soldiers. He received quite a few medals and accommodations for heroism and bravery.

He went back to Germany after his discharge and married a German girl he had met during the war. They had three daughters. All seemed right in Dad’s world until the fateful day of the accident. His wife and three daughters were killed, when their car was hit by a drunk driver. Dad felt as though his life was over. He returned to the states, met and married my mother. My mother was eighteen and Dad was twenty-eight. Within the next six years the three of us were born.

Once again Dad had a wife and three daughters. All was right in his world once more. I can only speculate as to what he may have been feeling, but I can’t help but wonder if having us seemed to ease the pain of loss he felt. His marriage to my mother was fraught with hardships, not unlike what people are facing today within San Diego County and our country.

Dad lost his job and was unable to find work, which eventually led to the foreclosure of their dream home in Oregon. Homeless, we became migrant workers as we relocated to California. That was when I was only four. Over the next several years, Dad was still plagued by the loss of work, which eventually took its toll on the marriage and they separated when I was seven.

Now picture a family, with three innocent little girls, torn totally apart as they are caught in the middle of a divorce. Used as pawns in a game of emotional manipulation. Parents using children to hurt each other, in the ultimate lose/lose situation.

When I was seven, that's exactly what happened to my family. My Mom and Dad divorced, well, separated and my mom was the appointed guardian of the children. Dad of course would take us on the weekends taking us to the local coffee shop for breakfast every Saturday morning. This became a tradition of sorts.

For Halloween he took us trick-or-treating, walking with us, holding the flashlight, while we tried to walk and breathe in those silly one piece plastic masks. I remember him checking all the candy to make sure it wasn't tampered with, before we were allowed to devour it ravenously.

Dad also came over for Thanksgiving dinner, sitting at the head of the table, carving the turkey. My 8th birthday came and before we knew it, Christmas was upon us, with all its hope and promise.

My sisters and I had made Christmas presents for everyone at Sunday school and couldn't wait to give them. On Christmas Eve, Dad came and picked us up. I remember the joy we felt anticipating Christmas morning, thinking about the savagery we would exhibit as we opened our gifts.

Unbeknownst to us, Dad had the car packed with everything he and we owned. When we arrived at his house, he said we were going to drive around and look at the Christmas lights. In our childish innocence, we believed him. He had hot chocolate and cookies for all of us to have while we drove. The chocolate was so thick and sweet, warming our throats and tummies as we drank, then falling asleep in the car, as chocolate mustaches decorated our smiling faces. Unaware of what was truly happening.

I now wonder if Dad took us out of fear, because he was afraid of losing his family again. Only this time it was within the confines of a situation he felt he could control, by taking us away to somehow save us.

He left California and drove to Oregon. Mom never knew where we went, or what if anything had happened to us. Wallowing in despair, Mom began to drink to excess and poured herself into her work. The not knowing if we were dead or alive, eating away at her like a cancer. Eroding all hope.

Dad wouldn't let us call or write to Mom. I wrote her letters anyway, as I hid the sins of my disobedience under my mattress. Hoping that one day I would be able to deliver the forbidden letters. My anguish and longing put on paper, within the limits of my eight year old ability. Finally our prayers were answered, Dad called her. We were then allowed to send a letter, but only after Dad read and approved them.

Mom drove to Eugene. She drove non-stop. No sleep, almost killing herself, just to get to us. She wanted nothing more than to hold us, to cherish us, to love us. They tried to get back together, tried to make it work, for the sake of us kids. Of course, they failed miserably.

So they decided to give us a choice. Can you imagine the anguish and terror when asked to choose between two people you love? How do you decide? Whose heart do you break?

"You can stay in Oregon with Dad, or go back to California with your Mom."

My two sisters spoke up immediately, "We want mommy!"

I missed having my mother, and that's where my heart wanted to go. My love and loyalty said, I'd stay with Dad. So that's what I did. I can still remember the taste of salt, as the tears rolled down my face, while the five of us hugged and cried.

Dad and I lived in Oregon, and then moved to Seattle. I was feeling disconnected, uprooted and lonely for my mother and sisters. I couldn't remember what they looked like and Dad wouldn't let me have any pictures of them.

When I was nine and starting to develop, Dad didn't think he could handle puberty with everything it entailed, so back to California I went. He knew mom's address and took me there. She never knew we were coming. Dad had me walk up and knock on the door.

The night sky was so oppressing. I could feel it pushing on me, making every step I took, harder and harder. I remember the smells of frying chicken, coming out to greet me as I stepped onto the porch. Remembering how my hand shook as I reached for the door and knocked. It had been so long since I had seen her, that when she answered the door, I looked at her through tear glistened eyes, and asked in a whispered question, "Momma?"

She screamed and started to cry, as she grabbed and pulled me close. "Oh, my God, Sweetheart, is it really you?"

We cried and hugged and then my sisters ran over to join us, crying as they came. Once more, the five of us were hugging and crying. Dad promised through tear moistened eyes that he would stay in California, we would still be a family.

For a while it was true, he did stay nearby. Mom introduced Dad to her friend Mary, and a short time later they were a couple.

We would spend weekends at Dad's new home or just go over for family dinners. I remember Mary’s son Billy teaching me the harmonica, and how to ride a skateboard. I'll never forget my first attempt. Billy showed me how to go really fast, but he didn't get around to telling me the finer details of how to turn or, more importantly, how to stop.

He took me to the top of Nicholas Street, and sent me flying down the hill. I went so fast it was amazing. It was exciting to have the wind in my face. I was exhilarated, then panic settled in, as I realized I was quickly approaching an intersection.

Panic became terror as I realized I didn't know how to stop. I jumped off the board at the last second, rolling onto the grass of a neighboring yard, watching in horror as the board went into the street and was shattered into a million pieces by a passing truck.

We were happy and everything seemed perfect. Momentarily at best, for our happiness only lasted about a year. Dad came to visit one Saturday morning. Instead of going out for our traditional family breakfast, he simply kissed us good-bye and left, saying he was moving to Missouri. I was ten and I never saw or heard from him again.

I hadn’t seen or heard from my Dad in over 42 years. For years I was on an emotional roller coaster. I felt anger, fear, abandonment, and finally emptiness, a void so large, because I felt as though I meant nothing to him. I felt as though I was an afterthought at best.

Now there’s a bittersweet irony to this sad tale. I found my dad in October of 2007. Unfortunately, he had just passed away at the age of 82 on June 12th.

There had been a newscast in Sacramento about Wes Nell fighting to claim the cremated remains of his longtime friend, from a room of unclaimed veterans in Sacramento. When they spanned the room which resembled a storage unit for apothecary jars, I felt such sadness for all the unclaimed veterans. All the unhonored and forgotten heroes who would never be given the funeral and respect they deserve from a free and grateful country.

I had told the story of my parent’s divorce, Dad leaving and my search for him, in one of my Palomar writing classes and my classmate is actually the one who found my dad. For ten of the years I had searched for him, he had been living in Sacramento, just thirty miles from me and I never knew.

I contacted Dad’s longtime friend, Wes Nell, and he put me in touch with the coroner and the Veteran Administration. I needed to prove I was his daughter and I had to give information only I would know, I then received an envelope with the contents of his wallet and his military papers.

Just like today when I opened the box with items from Dad’s funeral, this was such an emotional moment for me, as I opened the envelope to see what had been in his wallet. I no longer had to worry if I was an afterthought. The wallet had contained a photo of me when I was a baby and another when I lived with him in Oregon, just before he returned me to my mother. There were also photos of my two sisters. The photographs were old and tattered at the edges, but I could tell he had loved us through those photos for most of my life.

Unfortunately, he had just passed away at the age of 82 before I could find him, so I never was able to have my questions answered, but at least I now have closure. I finally found my dad again.

Claudia TodayAbout the Author: This is the third cover story Claudia Aragaon has done for us. Her first, Shantytown USA, followed just recently by her Christmas in August,

She has studied writing at Palomar College for three and a half years and, in addition to her cover stories for us, is currently writing a biography on a prominent North County resident.

She is married, has one 19 year old daughter, and lives in Escondido.

  New Page 4