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  • Writer's pictureAngel Gracia

Smoking, Stealing, and My First Glimpse of the Sea

I come from a family of railway workers and trains hold a special place in my memory. My father was promoted to the position of administrator at a station in Luceni, a village in the province of Zaragoza. This was extremely exciting to my brother and me because we had the privilege of living on the second story of the station. Somehow one can become accustomed to anything, I suppose - even the noise of the trains. My father worked very hard and was paid very little, so I learned how to steal.

It was an important station because we dispatched trains to every other village in the province. My father would decide on the route that the cargo trains would take. At the time, I was six years old and my brother was eight. What I cared about most was the rabbits and chickens we had at the station. When they would send us out to find rabbit food, we took advantage of the situation and stole peaches, grapes, and olives from the neighbors. My brother was my partner in crime.

This was an era that was even devoid of electricity. So there was a guy that risked his life every day and lit a series of lanterns on the train tracks so that they wouldn't crash at night. In the morning, he had to go from lantern to lantern and extinguish them all. You must remember, of course, that the war had left absolutely nothing behind.

In addition to this, the same guy had to manually move the train tracks so that one train might go this way and the other train might go that way. We didn't even have a telephone. That is, we did, but it could only call the neighboring station. If one wanted to communicate with a station that stood farther away, the message had to be delivered from station to station until reaching the correct one. Not every station could deliver morse code, but Luceni could, making us quite important.

It was around this time that I learned how to read and write at the school with Mr. Bernandino. It was a one-room school for all the primary grades. They called these schools "parbulos". I knew immediately that I loved to draw and paint and that I despised mathematics. We weren't taught science until secondary school. My favorite color was yellow.

At seven, I learned how to smoke. We stole some tobacco and wrapped it up in cigarette paper. I'm not sure how many times we did it, but I do know that I threw up more than once. This did not last, as the smell of tobacco is difficult to hide and I was immediately reprimanded at home.

During wartime, everything was rare. My friends and I would often gather around the window of a bakery and gaze upon the delicacies, all of them so near and yet so very far. They were terribly expensive. Writing instruments were equally expensive, but at the station they would give the boss a set of writing quills. My brother and I, of course, had a grand idea: we would steal the boss' fancy quills, sell them to the other kids, and use the money to buy some of the pastries at the bakery. It worked marvelously.

The concept of bullying is nothing new. I remember that we always had small gangs growing up and my brother and I were constantly fighting someone. We would throw balls of dry mud at our attackers (and occasionally a rock or two would end up in the mix). We were extremely united. Perhaps this was because we were surrounded by conflict, even at home. Our parents had enormous fights regularly and would sometimes hit us (though this was really nothing out of the ordinary in our world). In every household there was a leather belt hung on a horseshoe. The horseshoe was for good luck, and the belt was for a good smacking.

After the war, when I was seven years old, they sent my father to a station in Alcossebre. It sat upon a mountain and was quite a bit smaller than the Luceni station. In fact, it was so small that they only had one rail for trains to travel both up and down the mountain. I had to walk 5 kilometres down the mountain to go to school. On this mountain there had been a great battle and there were still unexploded bombs and grenades scattered about (as well as human and animal remains).

This school was, incidentally, right beside the sea, and it was the first time I ever saw the ocean. I remember seeing people floating on the water and wondering how on earth it could be possible.

Surprisingly, our parents allowed us out on our own. We would grab bullets, set them on the ground, and throw rocks at them until they exploded. This was great fun. The only thing that frightened us were the skeletons, especially at night. It was truly terrible.

We only had oil lamps and no electricity. The worst thing in the world was to be sent out in the middle of the night to fetch something and trip over a skeleton in the dark. Another thing I was dreadfully afraid of was thunderstorms. Perhaps this stemmed from an enormous thunderstorm I survived beneath a tree at a young age.

At the time, I was only concerned with detonating old bullets and evading skeletons in the dark, but the following years would prove to be vital to creating the person I am to this day. We will continue in our next post.

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