I remembered that moment as if it had happened yesterday. It was a late Sunday evening in the first week of March 1966. The next day my brother and I were supposed to go back to school after the summer recess. But instead of the joy to return to a familiar place with my buddies since kindergarten, I was starting in a strange school. I was sad. Very.
In 1965 my mother and her two children left our centrally located apartment to settle momentarily in our grandmother’s spacious home in Colon to take some needed refuge. My father had been arbitrarily jailed by a judge for some unpaid personal loans; there was no bankruptcy legislation in Uruguay at the time, which exposed the debtors and their families to great financial strain and emotional suffering. Even though he was assigned to a detention center in the Police headquarters where he shared his short stay with educated and friendly inmates, it was still an imprisonment. Our dear mother Gladys had a nervous breakdown and Yolanda, her mother, offered to take care of us all.
Instead of slumping in an emotional void, we decided to take the challenge in earnest. Yolanda, all wrapped up in a woolen poncho, accompanied us early at dawn in those freezing mornings to wait for the bus 411 in a deserted stop. We boarded it for 45 minutes trip to the “Lycée Francais.” When the noon break came, we boarded the bus again to have lunch in Colon (as we could not afford the mess hall every day) and then go back to our school to be on time for the 2 PM bell. At 5 PM we left the school for our return trip home. We arrived at dusk to have a café-au-lait and do our homework load; around 8 PM we had dinner and went to bed promptly afterwards. No TV or radio.
In spite (or perhaps because) of this humongous sacrifice, I got a perfect score in my fifth grade of Primary School to rank first in my class and winning a much-needed full scholarship for sixth grade. Alas, our joy was short-lived. One day my father came back home and told us that the school director stripped me of my scholarship to give it to a politician’s son. We were so astounded and hurt that its memory still sears our minds.
My father quickly prepared a forceful letter to Mr. Chambord, the cultural attaché of the French Embassy at the time. He summoned my father to his office; he told him that they would give me the scholarship back, on the condition that he had to withdraw his letter of protest. “Absolutely not. Our dignity forbids it,” he rebuked him. Then my father filled the application to attend sixth grade in the “Escuela Jose Pedro Varela”, a public school just a short distance form the French school. When he told me I agreed in silence. My dislike of the French (not the French culture) and politicians started right there.
When my mother and brother were fast asleep, I jumped out of bed and went to the kitchen to chat with my father. He embraced me warmly and patted my head. “Don’t worry…You’re a tiger…You’ll do well, wherever you go,” he said with a forceful tone. We stayed together in silence in the darkness, forging a stronger father-child bond.
Mario Laplume Salguero was born on August 14, 1933 in Trinidad, Province of Flores, Uruguay and passed away on July 22, 2012 in Montevideo, Uruguay; he married Gladys Garbarino in 1953 and had two sons by that marriage: my brother Gustavo and myself. In 1967 he divorced her and married Isabel Mardaras with whom they had a son: Marcel. When he was a teenager he entered as a mail room clerk in the Swift meat processing plant located in “El Cerro”, across Montevideo bay. He was molded for life by the daily contact with those Post-World War II Americans that had a strong work ethic and a commitment to quality standards in the workplace. He could not go to High School due to his work schedule, but he attended English, French and German language classes after work. He started to read an collect a magnificent array of books that the has given aa a legacy to his three sons. One of my earliest memories of childhood is to watch him in awe as he meticulously took a book out of the shelf to pass a hand held-feather-duster on its cover and then open it parsimoniously to peruse a few pages. If he noticed me, he would ask me to sit down by. He taught me all the basics about World Literature, including all the classics in French and English.
He was a lifelong Socialist and union organizer in the bankers’ union (he worked in a private bank after the Swift company closed and pulled out of Uruguay); if he hadn’t had that financial mishap, he would have joined the armed insurrection against the military government. When I became a political militant, he understood my choice and, aware of the physical risks, he backed my decision. When the military government closed the Medical School and the police started to round up the die-hard militants, he convinced me to travel to Argentina to continue my studies in La Plata, sparing me a certain demise. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here writing this article today.
He always wanted to study Medicine as he considered that it was one of the noblest professions of humankind; he supported me emotionally and financially during my medical studies and he was very proud when I graduated from Medical School in 1981. He got one of his cherished dreams. He instilled in us the virtue of honesty and the value of a given promise to become a good man. Even though I questioned several of his progressive convictions as I grew older, he never lost his calm demeanor in discussing politics and economy; he never relinquished his core beliefs. From today’s perspective, I now fully agree that a life without a generous mission is not worth living.
Imbued by the strong work ethic of the Americans he had met in the Swift plant, he always admired the United States of America and he studied its politics and history in earnest; he became an expert in the Civil War, enjoying all the books, magazines and material I regularly brought him home. He enjoyed meticulously reading every section of the Sunday edition of “The New York Times.” He did not have to set a foot in this country to know how the system worked and did not too. He continually admonished us: “the USA is a land of chiaro-oscuri…But the brightness prevails. It will last 500 more years.”
As I am jotting down these lines on my laptop, my son Gian Luca, a born buff of everything cinematic, is watching a 1986 cult film called “My brother’s wedding” by Charles Burnett. Have you ever heard of it? I doubt it. Me neither. How does he know it exist? He inherited a gift… I still remember that in a small closet right next to the toilet in Montevideo, there was a tall pile of a French film magazine called “Les cahiers du cinema”; I always picked one to start reading it. Next to it there was another pile of the “Boxing” magazine, which hooked me to that “politically incorrect” sport for life.
When I told my father that Noel Marie, his first grandchild, was not pursuing a legal career, as we initially hoped, in order to become a video producer, he paused for a long second and then said: “Mmm…That little one will do whatever she wants in life.”
He was absolutely right. He is the family’s unique visionary that showed us the way.