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Chapter 1: The Early Days (1976-1981)

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Joe Ely & Sandra Carrales
My Mom and Dad were married in the 1970's

Let me first say a few words about my self. I was born in Falfurrias, Texas on the Fifth of July the year of our Lord 1976. My father was a young twenty-one year old who had obtained a job with Exxon in the mid-1970's. He bought a small house that he would later build into a large home for a family of four. That would be our home as we grew up. Things started out bad when I was switched at the hospital. Due to a nursing mix-up, I was given to a family from Hebbronville, TX and a young girl was given to my parents. Luckily, my Grandmother, Estella, discovered the mistake and I was retrieved from the Brooks County Hospital.

Me as a young child in, yes, the 1970's
Me as a young child in, yes, the 1970's

Living the first few years of one's life in the 1970’s was not an easy ordeal. It’s funny that, looking back in the album of my life, I remember the 1970’s to be quite boring. We only had three television stations (ABC, NBC and CBS) and one Public Broadcasting Station that was only watched for Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I remember the people of the 1970’s to look completely normal in my memories, yet they look quite odd in old photographs. Big hair, wide lapels and strangely colored clothing (including plaid pants!) was the order of the day, what a bizzare world that was?

Me at my Grandma's house
Me at my Grandma's house

I grew up at home, and mostly at Grandma's House, where I was educated in the finer points of Mexican-American existence. We were raised on KZTV Channel 10 out of Corpus Christi. I remember the day began with the Price is Right and the Young and the Restless. My grandfather, Catarino Saenz would come back from work (Mr. Forest Witcher’s Texaco Station until 1984, the Premont School district as a janitor until his retirement) in time for Newswatch 10, the noon news with Walter Furley and Christy White. Later Phil Sokolov joined in for weather. Strangely, Walter would have many partners and he finally retired in 2002.

My mother often referred to KZTV Channel 10 as “The Clowns.” This was because of many “goof-ups” over they years (including one time where Walter Furley, thinking they were off the air, “flipped off” the camera). It wasn’t until later that I learned that KZTV had a reputation as a training station.

Of all the places I went as a child, I remember always wanting to go to the railroad tracks when we would drive 28 miles north, from Premont, Texas to Alice, Texas. Alice was the junction of two railroads (the Southern Pacific and the Texas Mexican) at that time and was, in my mind, the northern border of my early childhood world. I almost always found myself amused at the variety of rolling stock that often found its way onto the many sidetracks.

Unfortunately for me, my mother would refuse to take me there on account that it was 'too far out of our way' and the railroad was too dangerous for small children. Never the less, the few memories I have of the 'Hub City', are clear in my mind. Sometimes, if I have a few moments and I’m in Alice, Texas, I make it a point to drive among the rail yards and see all the “stuff” that is there.

The biggest event of my preschool years revolved around a tropical storm that nearly destroyed South Texas, Hurricane Allen.

Hurricanes are big affairs in South Texas; we track them as if it were the Super Bowl. Mr. Abraham “Chico” Flores told me, at a Knights of Columbus Bingo, a story that all the chameleons in the area were drowned in Hurricane Beulah in 1967. Any force that accomplishes such a feat is worthy of my respect.

Prior to Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, Allen had been the benchmark hurricane to which all other storms were compared. A somewhat early Cape Verde storm, Allen fed off the warm ocean waters of the Caribbean Sea and became a Category 5 nightmare. This storm had winds of 180 mph and a pressure of 899 mb, which at that time was the lowest pressure ever recorded in the western hemisphere. Thankfully, Allen stalled just off the South Texas coast and weakened substantially, but it was still a powerful Category 3 storm when it struck Brownsville, Texas on August 10th, 1980. Allen caused 1 billion dollars damage in Brownsville, one can only imagine what would have happened to Texas had Allen not weakened just before landfall.

That storm had cost our town allot. Before Hurricane Allen, Premont had been a different town. Huge trees that had stood for years were felled, miles of telegraph poles that lined the railroad between Premont and Falfurrias were destroyed and the town was ravaged. I lost an uncle, Mark Carrales, in the afterward of that storm. That would be an event that changed our family for years. You see, Mark had been a shining ray of sun light in everyone that would play a major role in my life. His death effected everyone, including my Father and Grandfather Ely Carrales. In June 1981, I was joined by my brother, Anthony Rey Carrales. It was at about that time that I entered kindergarten and began learning the required skills that all young boys need to learn in order to do well in the American school system.


First Day of School

Into Society I go
(August 10, 1981)

I remember my early school days quite vividly, although corrupted by the 5-year-old perspective of which I witnessed it. The First Day of school began in the usual way; I got up, got dressed and turned on the television. Cable Television entered our home in the early 1980's and I had (as most 1980's children would) become hooked on the somewhat new "Nickelodeon" children's network.

I remember that mourning I watched an episode of "Dusty's Tree house," an old 1960's/1970's puppet show for Children. I had not realized that I was about to begin what would be 12 years of school, a long sometimes-dark road whose end was to be found in the middle 1990's. As for me, I had no real conception of what school was suppose to be like, so I had no fear of it.

I was taken in the car, to a place that had only been visited once in a hurricane. You see, in small towns in South Texas it is common practice to weather storms in Public School Buildings. It is assumed that such buildings, with their heavy brick structures, can with stand the winds of a tropical storm. In fact, my most vivid preschool memory is of going to the Premont Elementary School to hide out Hurricane Allen.

The first day of school was not scary, but did leave room for much observation and commentary. It was that day that I would meet the people that I would go through school with. I got first impressions of people that would later turn out to be friends, enemies or nearly forgotten impressions that resonate in my mind.

I made many friends that day. One such person was my good friend Danny Munoz. Danny would grow up to be one of the toughest men I would ever know. If it is any justice to Danny, I will go one to say that his best friend, and future High School Class president, Max Navarro also became a valued friend. I, however, did not cry. That was not to say that I was not scared, but rather, to demonstrate a point. I had had very few people of my own age in my neighbor hood and had had few friends for that reason. In many ways, aside from my cousin Lisa Le Vier, never been exposed to other children. This was a chance to interact, to get to know these children. I could not afford to act in any way that might turn them off to me. With full knowledge of the potential loneliness that could follow, I signaled my mother to leave and joined the class.

Kinder is never easy for anyone. It’s new and it can be very dangerous. The social bonds one creates in those first early days mark the difference between whom will be cool, and who will come away with a nickname like "stinky." If you have a weakness, like a weak bladder, runny nose or a stutter; you become a target. They say that a group of children can be cruel, more cruel perhaps that any of Nazi Germany's humans of mass destruction. This is a truth that takes children to the very depths of kindergarten hell.

So what was it like? Well...

My earliest impressions of those days are clouded in an almost nostalgic haze; looking back it seems somehow unreal. The classrooms, with their high ceilings and pastel colors, are surreal in my mind. I look back on it as if I was watching an old Technicolor movie.

My teacher was one of the nicest people I have ever remembered; her name was Mrs. E. Garcia. She always had some fun activity for us to do. I remember first learning how to write letters, I could already identify letters because my mother would use building blocks with letters to build trains. The more letters I identified, the longer and more impressive the train became.

One day there was a horrible thunderstorm, my mother woke me up early and we crossed the street to my grandmother’s house. Our house was not considered sturdy and my mother would cross the street. The storm lasted a long time; I was hours late for school. This was the first time I had ever missed school. The feeling was strange, no classroom with people, no schoolwork and freedom to do what I pleased.

I never really liked to miss school, but that day I didn’t want to go. I hid behind a dresser in my Grandmother’s room, as if my mother would never find me. Needless to say, my Grandmother and mother caught me and on to school I went.

Getting to school late in the day, at what must have been about 9:30 am, felt strange. The class was in the middle of doing something involving cutting and pasting. I had, to my surprise, been missed.

It was then that I knew that skipping school would not be for me. I still get a strange feeling on days when I have to miss teaching my classes to go to a workshop. It is the feeling similar to that one back in Kindergarten. The world, it seems, goes on while we are in school. It’s like waking from a ten-year coma, a sense of seeing something on the outside for the first time.

Kindergarten is a time when you get to go to school in a pure learning atmosphere. Everything is new, you learn to read, write and count in an environment that is free from the pressures and grading cycles of later grades. There is fun activity designed to improve motor skills and think activities that teach you to think without fear of reprisals.

No one asked you to grow up, because it was understood that you were in Kindergarten. You could be a kid. The problem with modern children is that they no longer get to be children. They are introduced into the adult world instantly. They use adult language and watch adult programs.

It is no wonder that teenagers are becoming pregnant earlier and earlier these days, they are exposed to a wide assortment of trash and X rated filth. They are expected to behave like adults, but not be adults. They are aware of sex and other adult concepts long before they can possibly have an understanding of these issues. The result is that they pretend to be adults; this pretend world is reality.

It was in that purest of environments that I developed my love for learning. Through the use of building blocks, clay, a pretend kitchen and a Lite-Bright I was able to learn about finance, economy and science. We invented a form of money and built cities and houses out of blocks. It was too early for anyone to be “special ed,” no one came labeled.

PE, what some might call recess, was fun. We played on old playground equipment left over from some grant they probably got back in the 1950’s or 1960’s. I will try to describe the memory for the benefit of people from Premont who remember it.

Closest to the school building, nearest Agnes Street, were a clump of some type of evergreen tree. They were climbing trees. One that went up into the skies, the other was a hoop. It came out of the ground near the other tree and went back in the ground some distance away. The bridge that it made constituted the first physical challenge of a student. Before the year was out, everyone felt compelled to have climbed and crossed it at least once. I felt so accomplished one I had done it.

At the base of these arboreal wonders was where the boys played wit their toy cars, Hot-Wheels to be exact, in the dirt. This was, incidentally, the best place for finding throwing rocks!

Just east of that was an old metal jungle gym. This collection of pipes seemed massive in its day, but a recent visit found it to be just slightly higher than a typical ceiling (six feet maybe eight). This was the next challenge. To climb this you really had to be brave, I barely got halfway up before agoraphobia stopped me. I finally mounted it the last week of Kindergarten.

One fall from this apparatus was enough to break an arm or leg, or might bust all your teeth. Lawyers of the 1990’s would have loved it. Kids fell from it all the time and landed in the hard rocky ground or scattered to find a few lost teeth for a quick trip to the dentist.

East of that monstrosity were two merry-go-rounds, a large on and a smaller one. The large one was a menacing industrial looking one. It had wooden seats, planks, which gave many a splinter. Curiously, it had four bars that were in turn connected to a gear mechanism. You could bring the bar towards you and then push it way to give the merry-go-round speed. If you got three people at each of the bars, you could make that thing go at an incredible velocity. Later, in about the 2nd grade, two of the four bars were deactivated (had the long rod removed from connecting it to the center mechanism). This did not stop us from getting that merry-go-round to centrifuge speeds. Yes, people routinely flew off!

The other marry-go-round was a standard push type small one. It could go at high speeds as well, but took much more effort. It was claimed by the girls of the class as a place to play with dolls. Boys, in the days before football filled their heads, would sometimes get to it first. Then it would be a pirate ship or rocket.

North of that was the swing set, large pipes heading into the sky with chains dangling down from them. The seat was a rubber, or plastic, band. People would fight to use one of the “good swings.” The term good swing took on many different meanings as the years went on. In the early days it meant, the swings that were closest to the center. From these swings, children would try to get a running start for improved height. Munch later on, however, it referred to the final three that had not been broken.

The Physical Education class always began with some organized exercise, learning jumping jacks or some other calisthenics, and then we might learn football or baseball. There was no tee-ball in those days, but kick ball was the best!

Ah yes, kickball, the forgotten sport. Its like baseball but the pitcher rolls the ball and you kick it.

PE was the best part of school in Kindergarten. So was field day. At field days we would all get in a bus and go to Jimmy Livingston Memorial stadium and compete in sack races, the three legged race and individual events. This all worsened as time went on. During kinder, first and second grades; I did pretty well. I won ribbons and did well. But something happened in the third grade.

We went to field day, as we always did. And I actually lost at three-legged race coming in at a place that had no ribbon. This was due to a poor partner. In the sack race I also came in 5th or something like that due to cheating by an opponent. I felt sure I would get a ribbon in running. I even told myself that as a justification for loosing the other races.

Needless to say, the whatever-yard-dash began. I started in the lead, but something was wrong. I could not move my legs correctly. I felt awkward and my legs felt heavy. It was like a bad dream. Others, who would be more athletic in the future, actually passed me. I was crushed. I put all my energy into that last few minutes and won…nothing.

Maybe I should have doubled by efforts to be faster from that day forward, but I didn’t. When it came to running in 3rd Grade, I just couldn’t win. I gave it up. It was at that point, that I concede that I should have known I was not athletic material.

Playing in baseball, however, was the death knell of my early interest in sports. For some reason, I never felt like anyone ever sat me down and said, “Here is what baseball is!” My father was real good at it and played softball well into the 1990’s. My mother would drag me, and later my brother, to these games. There, every other child was allowed to run free and misbehave, but I wasn’t allowed to move. The games became boring. Not because they were, but because no one explained to me what was happening. As time went on I figured it out. But the die had been cast, baseball had been ruined for me.

What really made baseball a problem was that I felt forced to play. At practices I was always yelled at. If someone had come and said, “This is the concept of what were are trying to do…” or, “We want to win, there is what needs to happen…” I would have gained an understanding. What did happen were extensive drills on catching and hitting and reprisals for missing. I was not allowed to grow on my own and get a feel for what I was doing. I had to do everything by other people’s schedules.

Then I developed other interests, beyond baseball. When practice became more important than homework, I began to develop the contempt I have for individuals who work at schools and expect special privileges for SPORTS, BAND et al. Each time a child says, “I can't do my homework because we have a game tonight!” I fill with anguish. This anguish is the result from the dire contradiction of athletics and academics. You are in school to learn, first! Sports, Band, Speech and Debate are all secondary to learning.

THE BODY WITHERS, THE MIND GOES ON!

If you are the parent of one of my students, or a potential parent, remember that I stress learning the subject, FIRST! Sports and Band are great and essential, but your child, my student, WILL make an honest attempt to learn. Just because your child plays an instrument or is in a sport, that does not insure that they will pass. I will give that child the tools they need; it is up to you and your child to use those tools. If they don’t want to learn and want only the stupidities of life, then they are wasting everyone’s time.

In 5th grade, a man named Ernesto Cortez visited our music class. He asked us if we wanted to be in band and told us about the many instruments that a person could play. He talked about flutes, and horns and drums. We were to circle the name of three instruments that we might be interested in, and put a number by the circle that we liked best. I remember distinctly looking at the paper. Next to me was a boy named Mike Smith. He was excited about playing the trombone and quickly looked over at my paper to see what I had circled. I had circled my three; the trumpet, the saxophone and the flute. Mike was quick to point out that the flute was a "girls" instrument. He also told me that he had heard Mr. Cortez say that too many people had signed on for trumpet. I then told him that I had put flute because I felt sorry for it and that I was going to erase trumpet and put trombone.

What I didn't know was that the trombone was not a popular instrument. When they saw that I had put it down, they rejoiced. I was down for trombone. My mother was not pleased, she could not understand how I could play an instrument that seemed to be taller than I was. During the summer we, parents and students, were called to the Junior High Band Hall to look at the instruments. We went into the office and talked. They talked about horns and trumpets and such. My Father elected to by the cheapest horn because they though I might not "stick with it."

From there the summer passed. Had I known that school began two weeks earlier due to summer band, I might never have picked up an instrument. I soon became accustom to the idea and was a regular at summer band for the next six years. Contrary to a popular myth, it was on the trombone (not the violin), in bass clef (not treble), that I became a musician.


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