Chapter 9: Two Towers

July 19, 1999                                                                          9:15 pm

Cassandra,

There is a place in Missouri that belongs to you and me.  It’s not in St. Louis where we spent our anniversary either.  It’s in Ft. Leonard Wood, by the south side of the barracks, behind Bldg. 1441.  At the base of the stairs, behind the door when it remains open, there is a seat. I’ve sat there by myself quite often.  You are probably wondering why it’s special? After all, 150 ft. in front of there is just another barracks.  But, if you look west over Bldg. 1439, there is one bright star in the sky.

I look northwest just a little to see the sun cast a red hue over a scattered lonely cloud, and I see you.  I watch the sun go down and the single star gets even brighter.  I always look for it, hoping to see you in the same place.

And in the sky, I see the star and I see your face and I wish upon the star, for you.  I wish for your continued success in law school and beyond.  I wish for your happiness.  And I long to see you again.  Finally, I thank God that I am a part of your life. You are the star in my life and because you are special, you make me feel special.

As I said, I see the sole star, I think of you, and I thank God.  And then a miracle happens.  The star comes to earth. When I see the first firefly light up, minutes before dark, it is as if the star came to me, for me.  I feel special.  There is a place in Ft. Leonard Wood that belongs to you, MY HEART!

It also occurs to me, just before I rise to go to my room that I love you more today than I did when we were married.  My love for you continues to grow.  It’s nice to recognize that fact.  Now, even Bldg. 1439 can be a reminder.

-Your Beloved Husband,

Mike

We survived boot camp.  We were in the process of surviving law school.  Well actually, Cassandra was doing the work in the classroom and working shifts at the hotel when she could, managing both successfully.  She even found some silver lining in the drudgery of work at the hotel.  She respected the 5-Star service, came to appreciate the employees’ ease in which they comfortably spoke to hotel guests, modelling her own interactions with hotel patrons after their example. Conversations with the mostly wealthy, Caucasian men, reinforced the value of the diplomacy she had learned from her grandfather.  For Cassandra, the Silver Lining was her determination to make 5-Star service and diplomacy underlying themes on her quest to become that “damn good lawyer” alluded on that first day at Loyola Law School.

I have a secret: many of my current colleagues and friends know that I am obsessive about sending thank you cards.  I did not pick up that habit at home. It was a Rose Parade Queen that taught me the etiquette of writing thank you cards.  A beautiful teenage girl was asked (well, kind of told) to write one of the many volunteers a thank you card.  She took out one of the gorgeous thank you cards she kept on her person for just such a moment, wrote it out, and then smiled kindly as she walked across the room to present it to the volunteer.  It was in the ballrooms of the Ritz Carlton, Huntington Hotel, that I learned most of my best “legal” skills.

The hotel also paid good money, good enough that Cassandra convinced me to leave the chip company and join her at the hotel.  So I did.  I was happy to leave the chip company.  My military responsibilities were also becoming manageable.  While Cassandra was at Loyola, I was attached as a Motor Transport Operator (a truck driver) to a Reserve Artillery Unit 30 minutes from the house.  I spent one weekend per month training with the Marines and loved every minute of it.  Once a month I would pack up my gear on a Thursday or Friday night, arrive at the unit and work with 50 other Marines late into Friday night getting the convoy ready.  Saturday morning, Zero-Dark Thirty, we pulled three or four M198 howitzers southward along Interstate 5 to Camp Pendleton where we would shoot fire missions in one position for a few hours, move to a second and sometimes a third position to work more missions.  Down time was spent playing Spades with the other Marines, while chorizo and egg tacos finished cooking on the mobile stove we never failed to bring.  Early Sunday morning we would return to the unit and bust our humps getting the gear cleaned so we could head home.  The pride of being a Marine like so many others in my family, the mission, the howitzers, the uniforms, the character of the Marines themselves, and most importantly, the camaraderie between the Marines was motivating. (It still is…Semper Fidelis!)

My military commitment was enough to soften the blow of my failed undergraduate transfer.  I finally let go of the emotional hold medical school had on me, though I was still insistent, or desperate (again), on finishing my undergraduate degree; hopeful that in so doing, I might find a permanent escape from the sweat and toil, from my discontent in the grocery industry.  Exactly how, when, or where I might get back to college remained a mystery.  But, I was content, comfortable in the knowledge that we were, indeed, surviving, and more importantly, we were surviving together, the four of us.  I was not quite ready to start hanging streamers for Cassandra’s Law School graduation party, but I could sense progress.

It was also becoming clear that the six-year-old girl that watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Inherit the Wind” with her father and dreamed of becoming the next Atticus Finch or Henry Drummond, had no idea what it takes to become a lawyer.  Neither movie includes scenes of the law school admissions process.  There are no dramatic portrayals of a law student, a Mexican mother with two children and a husband in the Marines, trying to study and work her way through a law program.  There are absolutely zero references in either movie to BAR admissions.  Finch and Drummond did little more than seed a dream. The fire lit by the racism of a High School Career Counselor that suggested cosmetologist over attorney likely had a more profound impact.

The reality is that dreaming of being a lawyer is not a complete recipe for being a lawyer.  The recipe for being a lawyer, just an “entry-level” lawyer at that, has a few more variables: a dream; good grades in high school; taking the SAT; graduating from undergraduate school with a good GPA; taking the LSAT and scoring high enough to be competitive; applying to and getting accepted by a law school; paying for the whole process; graduating from law school; and finally, taking and passing a 3-day, written state BAR exam covering every subject taught in three years of law school.  To make matters worse, sitting for the BAR exam did not guarantee success.  Passage rates in California were hovering around the 65th percentile, meaning that a significant number of law school graduates were not becoming licensed attorneys.  Passage often took several attempts. As it turns out, being a licensed lawyer is not the same as being a practicing lawyer. We would learn that lesson, too.

It was time to learn the truth; that going to law school does not make a person a lawyer.  It is merely a step in the process, a necessary evil that has a dual purpose: 1) teach students the law, and 2) prepare them for BAR passage, and that second one was a doozy!

Each level of the infernal process only provided the best vantage point for the next hurdle to overcome, like a new peak on a backpacking trip, just close enough, just reachable with a little more effort, but far enough away to dampen the spirit, to test the will to continue.  A person is left to trudge onward, upward to the next level, forcing them to come to grips with the fact that they have come too far to stop now.  A lesson is lived, learned, and then a new rule is adopted. “Failure is definitely not an option” is added to “your ten minutes are up”, “be above reproach”, and most importantly, “by any means necessary”.

I had no idea what I was doing in law school but I knew well enough to decide in the first week that I would not be at the top of my class. Law school in Los Angeles is a rat race.  There are at least 4 notable law schools within miles of each other. Competition was fierce for grades, internships, and job opportunities.  Professors outlined in detail what that would require, being at the top, and it was difficult to coexist with classmates obsessed with making it to the top.  I made the conscious decision that having dinner with my family, reading stories to Alexes and Mikey, and tucking them into bed each night, was way more important. 

There were three professors at Loyola (Williams, Vairo, and Manheim) that I would often visit to get direction.   Each, on some different occasion, would say to me, “you are going to be great out there”.  I didn’t understand their confidence when they said those things.  I assumed they were just being nice. Nonetheless, their words sustained me.  It never hurt that Mike constantly mentioned that failure was not an option.  Rather, it was the fast track to Cosmetology school.

We knew what was coming.  Well, as usual, we thought we knew what was coming.  In our immediate future we predicted the glory of law school graduation, the repetitive toil of the BAR, the inevitable passage, and then lawyering with all the promise of wealth and stability. We even contemplated a future where the sacrificial lamb in our story, our credit scores, might actually be rehabilitated.  (Actually, I’m lying even to myself.  At that time, we still did not fathom the idea of things like good credit.)

We rode our wave, the four of us.  My mom and dad embraced their supporting roles as doting grandparents.  We enjoyed each other’s company, lived, laughed, and loved as a family. Alexes and Mikey were excited to go to school every day.  And though we were broke as a joke, we also found ways to keep them active outside of school. Enter Super Nana: the kids went to Nana’s (Sandy’s) house on the weekends where they were spoiled with Mexican grandmother attention.  Thank goodness for her great food, buying latest Legos, and paying for the fees for their sports teams.  Sandy not only made them feel special, but also treated them like they were her own.

So many years before, maybe as far back as 1979, Shefferd, a childhood friend, had the audacity to wear an “AYSO” shirt to our neighborhood basketball game.  We asked what the letters meant, smirked when he explained it was a youth soccer organization, and giggled outright when he told us that as a function of his soccer game that afternoon at the Rose Bowl, he would not be playing b-ball that day.

I virtually grew up on that basketball court directly across the street from my parents’ house. My dad was on the committee that helped raise the money to convert the dirt pad that was there when we moved in, to the paved full-length court.  There were even overhead lights installed so we could play well after the sun had set.  Neighborhood kids of all ages battled in epic pick-up games on that court. We changed with the seasons: touch football in the fall, baseball or softball in the summer, but basketball year round.  There were even the occasional Frisbee football games (“Ultimate” in modern times).  Never once did we even consider playing soccer.  It was crazy talk for Shefferd to volunteer to play soccer over basketball!  Who does that?

Twenty years later I found myself on the massive grass fields in the shadow of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA.  Before me there were what seemed like 15 full-length fields, each with a game in progress, a soccer game.  I could only smirk to myself as I thought about the ribbing I handed a neighborhood pal at the ludicrous idea of choosing soccer over any other sport.  The game was beautiful, all the athleticism required to be good at basketball and football, all the skill of baseball, but without the height requirement necessary for basketball or the sexism or size requirements inherent in football. Alexes was hooked.  Mikey was hooked.  We, too, were hooked.
ali soccerWe came to soccer directly from the frustration of baseball.  Alexes barely survived that first and last season of coach pitch.  We were only slightly more bored than she was as she stood in right field waiting for something to happen.  Because we insisted that she complete the season, we found ourselves too late in the AYSO soccer registration process.

If, however, I was willing to volunteer to coach a collection of girls in a similar predicament, then perhaps accommodations could be made?  I literally pleaded with the Director of Coaching to find someone else.  I knew nothing about the game of soccer; let alone how to teach the game to a mob of young girls.  To “sweeten” the deal, I was offered the assistance of a fanatical soccer parent that had a daughter on a club team and AYSO at the same time.  I heard what the Director said, but I had no idea what he meant by “at the same time”.  I could not for the life of me understand why a parent would have an 8 or 9 year-old child on two different teams at once.  It simply made no sense.  Why not ask the other parent to be the Head Coach of this team. He clearly was the better choice.  The Director explained that the parent’s commitment to the club team was far too time-consuming to take on the extra commitment of coaching at AYSO.  I guess it made sense…I agreed to be the Head Coach though again, I had no idea what any of it actually meant.

I had coached cheerleaders before so I wasn’t as intimidated as Mike.  These soccer players were little girls, not emotional, hormonal teenage cheerleaders. How hard could it be?  I figured you get them excited about the sport, make it fun, get them tired, and hand them back to their parents.  I worked on our warm-up routine, which would include stretching and exercises to music.  I thought it would be easy, until I met some of the little girls who instantly pegged me as a former cheerleader and vowed never to listen to me, ever :/

There was a new energy in U.S.A. soccer, a sense of unbounded excitement rooted in the limitless opportunities for athletes that were willing to risk loving a sport that strayed from the American Big 3: football, baseball, or basketball.   Rumors also circulated that universities were expanding scholarship opportunities for female athletes in an effort to meet Title IX requirements and reduce the disparity created by the sheer number of scholarships offered to football players.  The girls on my team were eight and nine years old at the time and still, their parents mused about how they might benefit from the trend.

We were no different.

The girls could barely contain their excitement at those early practices.  Every girl on the team had her favorite player on the US Women’s National Team and each had a strong opinion about what position she wanted to play based on what position her favorite played. This made it virtually impossible to grant little girls’ requests when they all wanted to be a forward, or more precisely, a goal-scoring forward like Mia Hamm.

Alexes wanted to score goals, too.  But she gravitated to goalkeeper.  Something about the physicality of the position appealed to Alexes.  Brianna Scurry was rolling along the dirt in one play and diving through the air in the next.  The adventurous curly-haired baby that climbed out of her crib, the toddler that wrestled Big Bird into submission, the youthful gymnast that swung fearlessly from a rope before throwing herself into the Cheese Pit, the “Warrior” in the Warrior Princess, loved everything about the idea of playing in the goal.

In that first practice, when Alexes shared her wish to play keeper, our gut reaction was to encourage her to play on the field.  We wanted to shield her from the pressure of playing keeper.  We suppressed our early inclinations and agreed to play her in the goal mostly because I was the Head Coach, she was the coach’s daughter, and we did not want other parents to think we were selfish.  We stipulated that she would play half on the field and half as the keeper.

Most girls flat-out refused to play in the goal.  Others employed a different strategy; agree to play the position then intentionally play it so shitty, let so many goals into the net that they would never be chosen to play the position again.   They saw no glory in it and found it embarrassing to dig a ball out of the back of a net.

Alexes was different.  From the very beginning she played the position with the very basic belief that she could keep anyone from scoring on her, that the best way to avoid the embarrassment of digging a ball out of the back of the net was not to allow even one past you in the first place.  Between the goalposts, Alexes was fearless.  She would catch any ball in the air, come out against any attacker, dive for any ball, and this was in the beginning, even before she had any concept of how to actually play goalkeeper.

Alexes defined her best outings not only by the lack of goals scored against her, but also by the amount of dirt and debris on her uniform at the end of a game. My assistant coach/fanatical soccer fan-parent was the first to notice her affinity for goalkeeping.  He remarked passingly at the first practice, when Alexes first showed interest in the position, that we should support her decision 100%.  “Good goalkeepers are hard to find,” he argued.  “Most girls don’t want to have anything to do with it.  They all want to be goal-scorers.  Girls never choose goal keeping this young.  If Alexes shows some talent in the frame (goal), her athleticism could take her all the way (to college).” Everything about playing goalkeeper was different.  The uniform was different too, even from teammates, a symbolic break from the skillsets that defined field players. We were not quite ready to sell our soul to goalkeeping, but at least we were willing to see where the opportunity might take her.

Before the end of the first season, my assistant coach invited us to join his daughter at a training session for the club team.  In the middle of some random week, as late as 8 p.m. at night, we showed up at a park where there were no fewer than 20-30 girls, all about Alexes’ age, moving relentlessly back and forth between several orange cones placed seemingly haphazard about the field.  Each girl was absolutely focused on the soccer ball at her feet, executing the drill to various degrees of success, and continuously competing to out-perform other nearby players.  Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, the specific drill changed from time to time, but the level of effort to dribble the ball better with each gentle touch, to do the drill the fastest, to outperform the other girls, never changed.

It was exhausting to watch, as much for us as it was for Alexes.  The focus was intimidating. The level of skill was intimidating.  The sheer commitment of time was overwhelming.  These people were here once or twice a week, and that did not include regular practice (twice a week) or games on the weekends (sometimes more than one).  We committed ourselves to travelling to watch the club team play in a weekend game and watched in complete shock as a player scored a header goal.  Every player on the field seemed more athletic than the next. The girls’ knowledge of the game, the individual skill of each player, the level of competition between the two teams was impressive.

The whole club system was insane.  These girls played year-round.  They practiced for 90 minutes a clip, at least 3 times a week.  Games were often against teams 40-50 miles away, but somehow in the same leagues.  Our fanatical assistant coach explained that as skilled as his daughters’ team was, they were merely at the Silver level of the league.  “The Gold level, the highest level, must be ridiculous?”  I remember asking.  “Actually, the club system goes up to the Platinum level at this age”, he explained, “and each level travels more than the level below.  So, club soccer gets more and more expensive the higher a player goes”.

It was all too much, too much time commitment, too much soccer, and way too much money.  There were plenty of reasons to say no and we considered ourselves lucky to have an easy way out; Alexes was simply too young to try out for the club team. We assured him that we would reconsider next season, if Alexes was still motivated to play the game, certainly not a guarantee in light of the ballet dancing, gymnastics, or baseball options of days past.

It was odd to experience soccer as a parent of a daughter and a son in the same league.  There were MLS soccerfamilies where the daughters were treated like second-class citizens. AYSO struggled to find enough volunteers to coach the girls’ teams.  Why else would they choose Mike to do it?   Clearly, they were desperate. There was rarely a father at practice that knew any more about the game then we did.

It was an entirely different experience with Mikey’s team.  There were all kinds of dads falling over each other to help coach.  Boys never missed practice. It just seemed like the boys were expected to compete.  For their boys, this was a sport! For their girls, it was only recreational.  We met fathers’ who simply could not commit to bringing daughters to practice, but would change their work schedules to be the first ones on the field for their son’s practice. 

Many times I would see little girls who were old enough to play on a team, sitting on sidelines watching their younger brothers play. When I asked parents why they weren’t on a team, the family would unapologetically claim they couldn’t commit the time or money for her to play.

 Mike and I gravitated towards those parents that treated their children equally.  We were encouraged by our shared philosophies, all of which seemed to stem from the same Nike commercial we all saw a few years before.

The gender difference was tangible, but before long, on the main stage of the Rose Bowl, US soccer would change forever and our children would grow up in the fallout of the 1999 Women’s’ World Cup.

In the summer of 1999, before the start of our second AYSO season, the Pasadena Rose Bowl played host to the Women’s World Cup final game between China and the United States.  The stands were completely filled with parents and their soccer kids; faces painted, blue & red hair, USA jerseys. 90,185 fans shared the excitement of the US victory, the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s sporting event. Arguably, more than half of the girls on our team were in the stadium to witness first-hand the dramatic shoot-out victory over China. Perhaps I remember seeing some part of the contest, but I cannot be sure. Regardless, Alexes saw the entire game and it left a lasting impression on her.

She found Brandi Chastain’s infamous goal exciting, but the true hero of the game for Alexes was America’s Goal Keeper, Brianna Scurry.  In fact, it was Brianna Scurry that was awarded the Player of the Match, not Brandi Chastain.  Alexes claimed Brianna as her favorite player and was eager to follow in her footsteps.  She craved the “Number One” kit (the goalkeepers’ uniform), and was ready to enter a long-term relationship with the position. Who knows, maybe in that moment a dream was seeded, a dream to be the most important player on a field of greats and be the goalkeeper that makes all the difference?

Practices for both children during the week plus two games per weekend became the norm.  Even so, it was clear by the end of that first season that soccer was the game for us. It became a permanent member of the family, our weekend ritual, our church of sorts, and our chance to spend time together away from the toils of work and law school, that time and space where we found commonality with families we otherwise may never have encountered, families that shared our sense of the value of being with each other.

The second year I coached both Alexes’ and Mikey’s teams, though I knew little more about the game then I did in Year One.  Cassandra and I were thrilled to see other parents, members of the soccer community, equally enthusiastic about the trajectory of the game, particularly the parents of their daughters.  It was encouraging to see them invested in the athletic potential and the power of a sport to help mold their girls into empowered young women.  While this certainly was not the case with every girl’s parent on our team, it was definitely true with many of the parent-coaches from other teams.

These more established parent-coaches from other teams also came to recognize Alexes’ athleticism and affinity for goalkeeping.  Invitations first to practice with All-Star teams evolved into opportunities to compete in All-Star tournaments.   Alexes embraced the chance to play at higher levels, to challenge her self-subscribed notion that no one would score on her.  When they did score on her in one game, it strengthened her resolve.  If a ball passed her to either side, she would spend the next practice trying to move her feet faster to better defend her weak side.  When goals were scored over her head, she switched her focus at the next practice to address that weakness, and so on, and so on and eventually the Warrior in Alexes let loose, developed, and was embraced.  Her willingness to face her shortcomings directly, to work through them until they were transformed into strengths, and then to continue to work on them became the root of her self-confidence in the goal.  Her continued success in games reinforced her self-confidence and bolstered her faith in the idea that her success was (is) predicated on hard work, a notion that would become the foundation on her approach to everything she did and a piece of her personality.

Mikey was there the whole time; saw the process unravel. He absorbed everything, wanted to do everything his beloved older sister did, to work every bit as hard as she.  The last couple of years in law school were spent as much on the soccer pitch as they were spent at work or in law school.  Alexes and Mikey showed the same energy in their approach to school as they did to soccer, more so even, as if to emulate the example of their mother. All indications suggested that their time in elementary school was as challenging as any parent could want.  After all, Alexes taught herself cursive writing and to multiply.  She was reading the first Harry Potter book before she turned 7 years old.  Meanwhile, Mikey was dazzling his teacher with his cheerful disposition.  We, Cassandra and I, well mostly Cassandra, even proposed a plan to get me back to school to finish my undergrad.  We were toying with the idea of returning to Seattle after she finished law school, returning to our beloved University of Washington, where I could finish the 4-5 quarters of work that remained to get my degree, finally.

 

I woke up to a phone call from my sister-in-law on a normal Tuesday morning.  It was early, a strange time for a social call.  My sister-in-law urged me to turn on the TV.  I did, absolutely horrified to see the World Trade Center on fire.  Cassandra was getting the kids dressed for school and we had no foresight to shield them from the television, we just watched frozen with fear.  I woke up my mom and dad, and we all watched in utter disbelief as the announcers continued to question what was happening, pondering the nature of the event. And then we watched in shock as the second plane deliberately crashed into the second Tower.  By the end of the next hour, we watched the Two Towers, still ablaze, crumble to the ground.  The date, September 11, 2001, permanently changed life in America.

I was attached to a Marine Corps artillery unit at the time, a combat unit at that.  I watched, crushed by the horror of what we were witnessing and a single, salient thought came to mind: “Holy shit, I’m going to war.”  I anxiously waited for a call that I knew would come, in light of the single most egregious Act of War against the United States since Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. I never imagined the call would take as long as it did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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