I was 12 years old and my brother was graduating from Navy basic training in San Diego, CA. I remember his going away party like it was yesterday. This party, though, was one for the books. We had a 3-floor split level home and one of my dad’s best friends brought a gas station sized American Flag to drape in front of our house. There were so many people, so many laughs, and so many tears. I don’t really remember the day he left, but I remember the sadness that overtook the party at the end when everyone wished him well.
Fast forward 8 weeks and my parents let me know we were going to be flying to California to watch him graduate and spend a week touring. California! This was the summer of 1990, people! Just after the movie, Pretty Woman was released. You could imagine my excitement to see Rodeo Drive! Of course, that was before I realized San Diego was not at all near Rodeo Drive. (My dad, being the awesome man he is, later got us to Beverly Hills and the Hollywood sign for a day anyway)
After his graduation and after I melted over the fact that I used the same bathroom in the USO building from the scene in Top Gun where Maverick followed Charlie, my dad wanted to visit Mexico. Wow! Mexico? Another country? This was quickly turning into the best vacation ever.
It wasn’t a long drive, I remember, and we ended up at what reminded me as the toll booths on our highways back in GA. We go in and Dad gets us to Tijuana, Mexico. Naturally, I had no way of knowing what to expect.
My dad wanted to go to the shops in the town to barter for items on which he knew he could get great deals. We ended up going down a small open tunnel that smelled of urine, rotting food, and God only knows what else. I was scared beyond any of my monsters under the bed imaginations I had up until now. I remember women and men off to the side-eyeing us. Luckily, my father stands 6’4″ so no one really talked to us. Except this little girl who couldn’t have been more than 4 years old and there she stood with her coffee can looking at us with these huge sad, brown eyes. My heart broke. This was the first time I saw real pain and real sorrow. She was hungry. She was poor. After much begging and pleading, I got my dad to give her some money.
The vacation ended up being very wonderful, but there are so many times in my life where I find myself looking back at that little girl in that tunnel, and for an instant, my problems seem so small.