Remembering my Dad on Father's Day
Since today is Father's Day, I would like to take a week's hiatus from the Justifiable Evil postings to remember my father.
My dad was one of the first television stars in Puerto Rico. The type that got followed by hundreds of screaming females. (Once he had to climb a lamp post, and wait for the police to rescue him.) He never planned it that way. Because of his good looks, he was drafted into the soap operas ("telenovelas") and mini dramas early on in his career. However, he always saw himself, first and foremost, as a director, and not an actor.
He was born in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, the second of eight children. His father (the first Mario), ran a sugar cane plantation for an American corporation, after serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. The plantation was so large, my father would recall, that a man on a horse could not ride in one day from one end of the estate to the other.
It was wonderful place to live, or I least I thought so when I heard my dad's stories. The children lived too far away from school, so a tutor came to their house. (That, in itself, made it for me a magical place to live.) My father owned a beautiful gray horse that he named "Principe" (Prince), on which he would roam at will through the jungle that surrounded him. He would swim naked in a nearby river, jumping from tall rocks into a natural pool, and learned patois from the Haitian workers, as well as witnessed the voodoo ceremonies that some of them practiced, and listened to zombie stories before zombies became fashionable.
As the "hacendado" (or boss), my grandfather lived in a large house in the middle of the sugar cane plantation, attended by a large staff of servants, where – if my father's stories were true, and I had no doubt whatsoever that they were true – the ghost of the prior owner – shot in the back as he tried to call the police – made regular appearances. (The blood of the murdered man had become impregnated in the wooden floor of the telephone room, and would not come out.)
That phase of my father's life came to an abrupt end when he was a teenager. At the time, the Dominican Republic was run by Rafael Trujillo, a bloody dictator who called himself the "Generalísimo" (literally, the "Greatest of all Generals"), and who thought of himself as a modern day Napoleon. One day, one of the Generalísimo's sons showed up in my grandfather's property, and decided to "buy," for a fraction of their true value, several horses that my grandfather bred. After seeing his horses being led away, my grandfather, an intensely proud man, decided to move back with his family to San Juan.
In Puerto Rico, the family moved into modest quarters, and my grandfather invested most of his meager resources in a soda fountain, a business about which he knew nothing. My father went to the Baldorioty de Castro public school, and worked in the shop during the afternoons and evenings.
It was during that time that my dad's life, while he was playing one of the lead roles in a school play, changed forever. It had nothing to do with his acting career. But in that play, he met a wisp of a woman (barely five feet in height) with beautiful green eyes and an impish smile. Her name was Nelly, and she hailed from the opposite end of the social spectrum. Her father, Jaime Catala, owned one of the principal jewelry stores in San Juan, and she attended a private Catholic school. Naturally, Nelly and my father fell in love.
Times were hard in post-World War II Puerto Rico. The soda fountain business failed, and like thousands of other Puerto Ricans at that time, my grandfather decided to seek a new start in the United States, migrating to New York.
As soon as my father stepped off the plane in the La Guardia Airport, he realized that he had made a terrible a mistake. He loved Nelly, and wanted to return to Puerto Rico. However, he had no money to buy an airplane ticket. Most of the modest salary that he managed to earn went to the common family pot. So he decided to participate in a talent show that was going to be held in a theater in the Bronx called, appropriately enough, the "Teatro Puerto Rico." First prize was $250, more than enough to buy a ticket to the island and spare cash for food and lodging, at least for a couple of weeks.
He entered the contest as a singer, and sang a Western song titled Ghost Riders in the Sky (Tom Jones sang it decades later in his television show: Yipee eye aye! Yipee eye yo-o, ghost riders in the sky-eye!). My father took second place, and the prize was a ticket to Puerto Rico.
And so my dad returned to San Juan and Nelly. He had a little extra cash that allowed him to buy food, but not enough to pay for lodging, so during the first three nights after his arrival, he slept on a bench on the Luis Muñoz Rivera Park. Then, my maternal grandfather found out about my father's desperate situation and picked him up in his Cadillac. (Ever since I had a memory, my maternal grandfather owned a Cadillac that he changed every three or four years, and that he hardly ever used, keeping it parked most of the time in front of the jewelry store.)
Don Jaime, as everybody called my grandfather, rented a room for my father on top of the Puerto Rico Drug Store, across the Plaza de Armas from the jewelry store. He also got my father a job in the Junta de Planificación, as a draftman's assistant. Most importantly, my dad began to supplement his income by appearing in radio shows, doing such voices as Tarzan and the Cisco Kid. (Jose Miguel Agrelot, who was later to become one of Puerto Rico's greatest comedians, played Cisco's sidekick, "Pancho".)
In June of 1950, the exile from San Pedro de Macoris married the socialite from San Juan. I arrived in April of the next year, and my sister Margie a year later, almost to the day. (My youngest sister Marian, who carries my father's acting tradition, was born seven years later.)
Ironically, the entire family moved back to New York in 1952, when my dad decided to pursue a degree as a director in the then-young science of television. While in school, he moonlighted in radio shows for the Voice of America. He graduated with top honors, and was immediately offered a teaching position in the same school from which he had graduated.
We would probably still be living in New York, had not a multimillionaire named Angel Ramos decided to establish the first television station in Puerto Rico – Telemundo. Mr. Ramos traveled personally to New York, and asked my father to join him as one of the station's staff directors. It was an offer – to make history and work at what he most loved – that my father could not refuse.
Thus, in 1954, my family moved back to Puerto Rico. And in no time at all, my dad became a household name in the island. When I was young, I used to wonder what it was that made people react to him the way they did when they saw him. Invariably, they would call him "Mario," (never Mr. Pabon) even though they had never met him, as if they were greeting a long lost friend or a member of their family. As I grew older, I understood their reactions better. Through the television screen, my father visited his fans' homes every evening, exposing his viewers to a varied range of emotions and situations that made them feel as if they had known him all of their lives.
But that was only part of the explanation. There were other actors (heartthrobs and villains alike) who competed with my father for the public's attention, but who were never received with the same warmth and familiarity. I came to realize even later in life the reason for it. My father relished the attention the public lavished on him. I never saw him refuse an autograph, or fail to greet anyone with a smile, no matter how tired or stressed he felt. He truly appreciated his fans, and they sensed it, and loved him for it.
Not that he lacked a temper. As a director, he was a perfectionist. He worked in a business filled with large-sized egos, who sometimes would try to force their views as to "how things should be done," or fail to follow his instructions. "How things should be done," however, was my father's job, and whenever somebody took things into his or her own hands, they would be exposed to the full intensity of his wrath. Most of the time, however, he led by example, with humor, patience, and talent. And at the end of the day, most of those who had experienced his "dark side" would grudgingly admit that he had been right.
Be they dramas, comedies or musical reviews, his shows consistently topped the ratings. He directed some of the most famous names in the United States and Latin America at that time, including such greats as Pedro Vargas, Sarita Montiel, Rafael, Tom Jones and even Muhammed Ali. Many of the then-rising Puerto Rican stars, such as Chucho Avellanet, Danny Rivera and Lucesita Benitez developed into full-fledged professionals under his careful eye. Sammy Davis Jr. called him one of the best directors with whom he had ever worked.
Except for my sister Marian, who was too talented to be kept out of the entertainment business, my dad rarely mixed his work with his family life. He worked very hard, usually arriving at home on weeknights not earlier than eight, sometimes later. At that time he would eat his only regular meal of the day, and he would sit with the rest of the family, listening intently to our stories of the day, interrupting us for additional details, or becoming upset with some perceived injustice.
They say that the Lord moves in mysterious ways. My father didn't. Whenever anything seemed to threaten his family, he immediately moved to protect it. Even when I grew up and practiced law, he would make certain that no harm came to me.
Once, for example, while I was playing catch with my three-year-old son in my backyard, the ball we were playing with disappeared into what turned out to be a large sinkhole covered by a thin layer of grass. The sinkhole had been caused by a broken pipe belonging to the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority. As with most government agencies, my pleas to repair the growing void fell into deaf ears. Then one day, the head of the Authority called me to apologize and to let me know that a work brigade was on its way to fix the problem. A couple of hours later, the governor of Puerto Rico called me! "Did the Director send a crew to your house to repair the sinkhole?" he inquired. I answered in the affirmative. "Good!" the governor exclaimed with a chuckle. "Now I can get your father off my back!"
Although he dedicated most of the regular weekdays to his work, his weekends were almost always exclusively ours. Sometimes, he would take us to the beach, with large butterfly nets, to snorkel and capture multicolored fish that we would then transfer to one of his three 100-gallon salt-water tanks. Other times, we would drive in his aircraft carrier-sized Oldsmobile through the wet, ribbon-like roads of the El Yunque rainforest, and we would picnic next to a stream, stumbling over its rocks to catch fresh water shrimp. And every summer we would travel for several weeks to some part of the world, because he believed that the greatest education he could give us was to show us how other people lived.
He was a great storyteller. My sisters and I would listen with horrified fascination to his ghost tales, as he lowered his voice into a conspiratorial whisper and acted out macabre scenes before our frightened eyes. When he finished, we would insist that he tell us more, even though we knew that later sleep would elude us.
On other occasions, he would make us laugh hysterically, telling us about events that happened at work. Like the time when an actor portraying Nero during a live telecast was supposed to play his harp in front of a small cardboard town, meant to be Rome burning in the distance. Prior to the show, the actor doused "Rome" with so much kerosene that it went off in a huge flame, similar to an atomic explosion. With the back of his hair singed and smoking, "Nero" bravely had continued to play his harp.
We would never tire from listening to his stories, even though we came to know most of them by memory, and would sometimes correct him when he deviated from the story line.
There is something very reassuring in knowing that there is someone, out there, that is always quietly looking out over you. My father was that person: from my first conscious memories of him, when he carried me half asleep on his shoulder, to those seemingly endless weekend outings and summer trips and nights of magical stories and happy conversations. Even when I was older, and had my own family and work obligations to deal with, it still felt like a safer, more reassuring world knowing that he was there, looking out for me.
That same feeling of reassurance, however, also turned sometimes into a feeling of dread. It began to happen to me as I grew in years, and realized that nothing is permanent, and that there would come an unimaginable moment when my father's inexhaustible strength would wane, and he would have to rely on others to go on. That uneasy dread assailed me at the most improbable of times, usually during those occasions when I felt the happiest. I would banish it into the furthest recesses of my mind, only to have it crop up unbidden, sometimes months or years later.
The moment I dreaded happened in 1994. I got a call at work from my mother. My father had awakened and could not see, she said, stifling a sob. Could I take them to a hospital? I don't remember how I got to my parents' home. I found them sitting on my father's favorite bench, my mother looking very small, holding on to his hand. As I drove him to the hospital, my dad kept apologizing for getting me out of work, and assuring me that he was already feeling better. By the time we got to the emergency ward's entrance, his legs could not hold him, and he had to sit on the sidewalk's curb. I could feel his humiliation as I returned with a wheelchair, and together with Tony, my brother-in-law (by this time the entire family had arrived at the hospital) we lifted him into the chair. He should not be concerned, we kept assuring him, not really believing it. It was probably a virus.
It turned out to be a stroke. It temporarily blinded him, and made him lose part of the vocabulary. It did not make him slur the words, mind you. He just would not be able to find some of the words that were needed to express his thoughts, and would try to substitute them with others. It would frustrate him to no end.
It terrified me. The stroke seemed to extinguish the spark in his eyes. His thoughts were slow, simplistic at times. Sometimes, as I sat next to him on his bed, I used to wonder where his soul had hidden. And if it would ever return.
Worse news followed. A study of his heart showed that only a third of it was functioning properly. My father, his doctors told us, only had a few months to live.
As if to prove them wrong, he began to recover from the stroke. His sight gradually returned. He began to express more complex thoughts, and grope less and less for words. His soul broke through the thick crust that had temporarily encased it, and with its freedom – less than two weeks after he had suffered the stroke – his smile returned.
But his heart never recovered. It became a vicious cycle. His lungs would get full of water as his heart failed to pump it out of them. He would spend a few days at the hospital recovering, and then he would be discharged, only to return a couple of months later. He lost his lightning fast reflexes, and with it his ability to direct.
When he was hospitalized, I would head to the hospital straight out of work, and spend a few of hours with him, until visitors were asked to leave. He never complained. Once, while his nose and mouth were covered by an oxygen mask, he grabbed my hand and beckoned me to get closer. "I know that...I'm going to die..." he flatly stated, closing his eyes and shaking gently when I began to protest. "No...I know it...I'm not scared..." he paused, recovering his breath. "You know what really scares me?" I shook my head. "I fear that when I die...some asshole politician will die that same day... and steal my thunder," he said with a wicked grin. I could not help but laugh.
Around that time, someone in the family – to this day I'm not sure who – floated the idea that we should make a public tribute for my father. To my surprise, everybody went along with it. I didn't. I was afraid that it would fail, and break my father's heart. However, in light of my family's great enthusiasm, I reluctantly joined the others.
My two sisters and my aunt Annie immediately dove into the project, contacting some of my father's friends and old colleagues. As word spread around, more people began to call, asking to be included in the event. Suddenly, we found ourselves dealing with a multitude of volunteers where, limiting each person to three minutes, the show would have run for a total of five hours. We began to combine appearances, and finally managed to shorten the tribute to a manageable three hours.
Three weeks before the show, I was assigned the task of preparing a short documentary about my father's life and career. Knowing absolutely nothing about documentary-making, I agreed to do it. Ignorance is bliss. I devoted myself to the project, going through my mother's albums, which contained thousands of photographs and newspaper clippings from the time that my father had moved to Puerto Rico, to his radio and early live television shows, to his latest artistic exploits.
It was a moving experience that would forever change my perception of him. Not that I learned anything really new about him – I was aware of most of his career's milestones and achievements – but I got to see my father as he had walked through life: the young immigrant who had risked everything to marry my mother; the young artist struggling to earn a living; the uncompromising perfectionist who brought the best in his actors; the beloved father who raised and protected me. I stared directly into his soul, and embraced him through the fabric of time.
On the day of the tribute, the public began to gather some three hours before showtime, and quickly became a three-block line. Half an hour before showtime, I began to worry that my father – due to arrive early – had not shown up. Nervously, I started to move down the line of people who had begun to trickle into the cavernous ballroom where the tribute would take place, and about midway down, saw some friends gesturing urgently in my direction to approach them. There, I found my father engaged in a conversation with some of his fans, my mother hanging on to one of his arms.
Gently, I led him into the ballroom. He could not believe the number of people, he told me, that had come to see him. As he walked past the line of persons moving in, he kept greeting and thanking them, and they responded in kind, shaking his hand, embracing him, sometimes kissing him.
The show started at 3:45 p.m. – forty-five minutes late – and ended at 10. It lasted a total of six hours and 15 minutes during which nobody wanted to leave. It was a massive spectacle where veteran leading men, former leading ladies – many of them still beautiful – masters of ceremonies, comedians, retired and up and coming singers, two astrologers, scores of politicians –including the mayor of San Juan, who gave him the key to the city of San Juan, and the Governor of Puerto Rico, who gave him a plaque – and even the Cardinal of Puerto Rico came to show him how much they loved him.
We were afraid that the length of the show would exhaust my father, but he seemed to become invigorated from it, moving about the crowd after the tribute had ended, signing autographs, embracing old acquaintances. As the crowd finally began to thin out, he moved towards me and my friend Dennis Martinez – another lawyer – who had helped me prepare the documentary. "I've been told that you two created the film that opened the show," he said. We nodded, cringing under his gaze, waiting for the verdict from the old master. "You should quit law and do it full time," he said with a smile. It was the greatest compliment he could have given us.
That night around midnight, more than 20 in the family gathered at a long table at Denny's, and celebrated into the wee hours of the morning. We celebrated the success of the show, but even more we celebrated our all being together, knowing how difficult it would be to do it again.
My father died one month and three weeks after that night, on the eve of Thanksgiving. He had spent a great day, editing in a friend's studio his six-hour tribute to the more manageable three-hour show we had originally planned. He had returned home and fed his fishes, and called my mother at the jewelry store – which she now ran with her two sisters – to ask her when she would be home. As he was about to hang up, he told her that he loved her, and then sat down to watch TV. He fell asleep and never woke up.
Hundreds of people, many who had never met him, came to pay their last respects from every corner of the island. No asshole politician died during that time and stole his thunder. As I spoke at his funeral, I told the huge crowd that attended how it had been his last wish to place a plaque next to his coffin that read, in large bold letters, the word "APPLAUSE." It was an applause that he had wanted to dedicate to his beloved fans. However, I said, the last applause should go to him. The crowd stood up spontaneously, and burst into a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. I know that my father watched it, and infinitely enjoyed it.
I never had a chance to say goodbye to my father before he passed away. Never managed to tell him how much I loved him, and thank him for the wonderful life he had given me. I have spoken with him hundreds of times since then, however, and I know that he listens.
But Dad, I really do miss you, and I wish you were still here with me. Because then, everything would be all right.