Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe
A Memoir of Life on the Run
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About the author
Mike O’Connor covered the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for NPR, and the former Yugoslavia and Central America for The New York Times and NPR. He earned an Overseas Press Club award for his reporting from Haiti and other awards for his coverage of garment sweat shops in Los Angeles. He covered Latin America for CBS News and was a television reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. He now lives in Italy, where he is a full-time writer.
From the Hardcover edition.
Throughout his childhood, Mike O’Connor’s family pretended to be normal. But Mike and his two younger sisters knew that their parents were hiding something–a secret they didn’t dare talk about. The family appeared to be no different from any of their small-town Texas neighbors–that is, until suddenly, the O’Connor’s would flee, leaving with only a few hours’ notice, abandoning houses and pets and possessions and running across the border to Mexico.
For all of Mike’s adolescence, O’Connor family life alternated between relative comfort and abject poverty–sometimes within a matter of days. From living in a Texas ranch house to living in two rented rooms in an impoverished Mexican village, the O’Connors never knew what lay ahead–only that they must not draw attention to themselves. Though their parents steadfastly denied it, the children knew that something was chasing them–a past that hovered like an invisible enemy, always waiting to strike, always in pursuit.
But it was not until much later, after his parents’ deaths, that Mike O’Connor, now an investigative reporter, was able to uncover the truth about his family’s past. As the secrets were unlocked one by one and the long trail of deception unfurled, Mike faced the heart-wrenching ramifications of his parents’ actions–and made a discovery that shook his family loyalty to its core.
Full of incredible details of a life lived on both sides of the border, in near-poverty and near-wealth, Mike O’Connor’s account is a real-life suspense story of childhood mysteries and strange circumstances that will enthrall readers to its very end.
Random House Publishing Group
; March 2009
290 pages; ISBN 9780307555434
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Title: Crisis, Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe
Author: Mike O'Connor
The earliest date I can tie a memory to is June 25, 1950, the first day of the Korean War. I was four. My mother had burst into terrified sobbing.
Mom and Dad and I were in our car staring through the windshield at the bridge that connected the United States and Mexico. We were on the Mexican side looking toward Laredo, Texas. My sister Mary was next to me on the backseat, in her white bassinet. She'd been born in Houston six months before. I tugged her yellow baby blanket more tautly across the top of the bassinet to keep the sun out. I was wearing my short pants, the ones with the blue stripes and shoulder straps, sitting forward with my arms on the back of the front seat. We were looking at the United States from about two blocks away, and my parents were talking nervously in hushed voices. I wondered why we were so afraid.
We'd been on a trip from our home near Houston when Dad suggested that we drive across the bridge to Mexico: Let's just take a look for a bit. And Mom said, Yes, let's do. We crossed the bridge to look at the Mexican town for a little while. It was an ugly town, I thought, dirty, with people doing strange things. They were walking in the streets with cars driving around them, and selling fruit and bread from trays they carried on their heads. Then, on the radio, a man said something about a war that made Mom and Dad talk quickly to each other, and suddenly we were all very afraid. I could tell it was bad. But I didn't know why until Mom said something to Dad about us not ever being able to go back home.
I'd heard my parents talk about war before. I knew it was when people's houses were destroyed. As Mom kept crying, I thought, Maybe our house is gone. That must be why we're afraid. Then Dad said something to Mom about the border, that it would not be safe to cross-that there would be more immigration agents there because of the war. For some reason, we didn't want the agents to know about us. Dad said something about Mom's papers; it sounded as though she didn't have the right ones. I didn't know what papers were. Did I have the right ones? Did Mary? I thought we might all use Dad's papers and we could go home and be safe.
We can't just stay in Mexico forever, Mom said. We can't do that. We need papers to do that, too, and money. What about the children? She was choking on her tears, gagging but trying to control it all, her eyes widening in the effort. She said she had to stop because people would see. She put her head down on the seat next to Dad and almost disappeared. I'm sorry, darling, she said to him. This is so unfair. How could we know this would happen?
The people on the street went on doing what they'd been doing, which I thought was very strange. Why aren't they afraid, too? I wondered.
Dad said he didn't know what to do. That made it all worse, because I thought he always knew what to do. Then Dad told Mom it would be all right. He stroked her back, as she did mine when I was upset. I said, I don't want to stay in Mexico. It's not nice here. Then I cried along with Mom.
Finally they decided that we had to try cross the border before more agents came-if we didn't move fast, we'd have to stay in Mexico. I knew we were nearly trapped. I could taste my parents' panic.
Then Dad had an idea. He would walk up to the border to take a look. I didn't know what the border was, except that we'd crossed it back at the other end of the bridge, where men in uniforms were talking to people in cars. Now I saw that the people in each car stopped for a moment so the men could lean down, look inside, and say something. Then the car kept going up a small hill into the town and another car could come up. It had been easy crossing it when we came into Mexico. Why would it be hard to go back to the other side, where we belonged?
Dad got out and walked across the bridge. From the backseat, standing on the floor of the car, looking past Mom, I watched to be sure nothing happened to him. Then I saw him up there, and he looked okay. My father was a big man, and solid. He was bigger than the other men at the border, so I wondered why he was afraid.
Mom was still scared, but she told me that nothing was wrong. No, nothing at all, she said, except that she was not feeling well, and Dad had gone to get her some medicine. He'd be right back and we'd have a nice ride home. She said, Isn't it so very interesting here in Mexico? The colors are so bright. It's like when your father and I were in Italy. Let's tidy up the car, shall we? Because it's better to have everything tidy when you cross a border. She told me to fold Mary's diapers. She cleaned my face with the rough washcloth, but she rubbed too hard and I knew she was still afraid. Then we saw Dad coming back, and Mom said, It's a good thing we are all tidy now because it will be better. Policemen like a family with a tidy car. When Dad got in the car and kissed Mom, I knew we were going to be safe. He said everything was fine. There weren't any extra agents yet.
On the American side of the bridge, Dad told the immigration agent that we had an emergency because Mom had gotten sick from something she ate in Mexico and we needed to get her to an American doctor right away. The man understood. He said, You have to be careful with those Mexicans because you can't trust their food and you sure can't trust the doctors. The agent didn't ask to see anyone's papers. He smiled into our car like everything was fine. I smiled back because I knew we were safe again.
We had a nice ride home and didn't talk about what happened. We never talked about it again, ever. It happened. But it didn't happen.
From the time I was three and a half until I was eight, we lived on Muscatine Street in Jacinto City next to Houston, then beginning to boom. Jacinto City was a rickety town, a few thousand people living on flat rural lots with drainage ditches in front and vegetable gardens and chickens out back. Homes were tiny boxes on cement blocks, with doors and windows that didn't fit right and flat tar-and-gravel roofs. Everyone was poor. Even a kid could tell that, even if poor was all he'd ever seen.
But Dad didn't see it. He would say, It's a good thing that we're not poor. It's a good thing that we're just living here for a little while until we can live someplace nice. It won't be long now, not at all. Dad asked me one time, Did you see the clothesline next door? Those people have rags hanging from that line; everything they own has holes. My clothes have holes, too, I thought. But I learned not to notice, because it was just for a while.
No, we weren't poor, nothing like it. It was only that we had no money for the moment. And according to our parents, we were on a clear trajectory to the American dream. We're so lucky to be here, Mom would say. Your father and I brought you here because it is much nicer than in the North, in Boston, where we used to live. It's so cold there.
To hear them talk, Boston had been a quick, casual stop on the way from Germany, where Dad had been in the army and I was born, to Texas. In Houston, we'd been wise enough to arrive as the advance party for thousands of shivering Northerners who were on their way. We were among the very luckiest by coming in time for Dad to prosper by supplying what the others needed. His business, he told me, was helping people have nicer homes.
Dad was an intelligent, ambitious man with an easy charm, and he chose door-to-door sales of room additions and house repairs. There was no inventory to invest in and, in those days in Texas, no employment forms to fill out, no records of any kind that might find their way to the authorities. It was also a portable trade, dissolved in one town and remade in the next before anyone would realize he was gone. Houston was a good place to start because it was growing fast and had a big back door for escapes: Mexico, just three hundred miles down a straight, flat, blacktopped road. Strangers did not stand out in Houston. People came from somewhere else and preferred not to get into why. Texas was a frontier where a family was not hobbled by what they'd left behind. Houston was the raw, hustling edge of America, where only the future counted. We fit in smoothly.
I was five years old when a policeman with tall boots and a big white cowboy hat came knocking on our screen door one evening. The door made a loud noise because it was loose in the frame and I'd forgotten to hook it to keep out mosquitoes and that green snake that kept popping up under the sink. The policeman smiled, but when Mom saw him she went stiff.
My father was smiling broadly, arm out in welcome, ushering the policeman in. The policeman didn't take off his hat as Mom always told me I should do when I came inside, which made me wonder about him. I also wondered why Mom and Dad were acting so pleased when I could tell there was something bad happening. The policeman said he'd heard there'd been a family from out of town living in our house for a while now and he wanted to say hello for the chief. He'd heard the woman was a foreigner but not a Mexican, so he was wondering what kind of foreigner she was, anyway. He said, Sorry, ma'am, I never meant to scare you.
We're not scared, Mom said quickly. It was the door that made me jump.
Dad laughed and said, She's not scared, of course not. After the war, with all the bombs the Germans dropped on England, my goodness, anyone would be a little jumpy. But here everything is wonderful. It was great the way England and America were such close friends, Dad went on, because no place was better than America, and especially Texas. He told the policeman that our relatives were from Texas, too, from the coast up by Port O'Connor. There must have been a hundred of his cousins named O'Connor over there, and it was a shame that his grandpa moved away years ago and his daddy had to grow up in New York. But now we were moving back home, to Texas.
The policeman said if he'd had more time he would have let me ride in his police car, which looked impressive. He showed me the big pistol on his belt but said I was still a little young to hold it. He gave me a picture of a badge, a star with six points, each point standing for something good, like telling the truth, being brave. He wanted me to join the Junior Police Club and maybe one day become a policeman. And wouldn't I feel more like a real Texan if someday Mom and Dad got me some cowboy boots like they had in the movies?
The visit couldn't have lasted more than a few minutes. It was all routine for the policeman but frightening to their marrow for my parents, and bewildering for me. Eventually, the policeman said he had to leave because there'd been trouble recently along Navigation Boulevard. "I just might have to go up there and shoot me some niggers," he told us.
Dad said he understood and it was so nice for the policeman to come by. Maybe the next time we'd have coffee and some of Mom's apple cake. As the policeman left, I tried to figure out what Dad was talking about. Mom never made apple cake.
The policeman was the first stranger I can remember in our home. Something bigger than I could understand had come into our living room. I was scared the way I'd been on the border across from Laredo. We were in danger from something. What was it? My parents had kept their faces bright and their words calm. It made me think that if there were other problems, my parents might not warn me about them either. The policeman was a stranger, so I didn't trust him, but I thought I was supposed to be able to trust my parents.
Later, I asked Mom what niggers were and why the man was going to shoot some. It sounded terrible. Mom, too, was very upset. But the only thing she said was We don't use that word, it's better to say colored people. They are people with dark skin, like Sam the postman.
I thought Sam was like everybody else, except he didn't wear his hat when the sun got hot, as Mom said you had to. I liked Sam. He played with me and our squirming little taffy-colored dog, Margaret.
Dad said, Darling, in Texas people don't say postman, they say mailman. It's best to say that.
I asked them why Dad had told the man we had kinfolks in Texas, since I didn't know any. Dad explained that the policeman and other people would feel better about us if we had relatives in Texas. That turned it from a lie into one of those things that adults do for the good of others. Mom said I shouldn't talk to people about our time in Boston. It was our special secret, just as the pixies were the only ones who knew what made pixies fly.
We got me those cowboy boots, red leather with white curlicues on the sides. They impressed everybody in the kindergarten at Whittier Elementary School, especially me.
We knew our neighbors. We talked to them in our yard or theirs. Dad was naturally friendly, and Mom was, too, once she overcame her shyness. Next door were the Livingstons. Marilyn was my age, and Bubba was a bit older. His real name was Lloyd, but that didn't count. I played with them, in their yard or their house. Their mother waved at Mom and had glancing chats with her. But I could feel there was a wall around us. Our neighbors visited with one another but virtually never came inside our house. We were different from everyone else-not bad people, just different.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
Journalist O’Connor’s riveting debut traces a childhood shaped by his mother’s and father’s lies and his adult quest to uncover the truths they hid.
The author grew up knowing virtually nothing of his parents’ pasts or extended families, though his mother’s accent did reveal that she was English. The absence of cousins and grandparents was just one oddity. The O’Connors were also constantly moving, establishing tentative, tenuous households and then fleeing town in the middle of the night. They had a particular fear of government officials, and any encounter with cops left Mrs. O’Connor shaken for days. Given all this moving, the O’Connors were unable to make much money, and they slipped from a precarious perch in the middle class to shocking poverty. In late adolescence, the author finally recognized that life at home was poisonous, his parents unstable and deceptive. He moved out and had only sporadic contact with them in the ensuing decades, when he worked as a reporter for CBS News, the New York Times and NPR. Only after both his parents died did O’Connor’s two younger sisters beg him to tackle the mystery of their lives as though it were a political scandal he was assigned to expose. He began to dig, grudgingly at first but then increasingly determined to discover the secrets that had shaped his childhood. His research took him to Boston, where he connected with his father’s large family; to Burnley, England, where an elderly union organizer told him stories about his mother and uncle; and into the offices of the CIA, FBI and INS, following a sketchy paper trail that shed light on the government’s interest in his parents. O’Connor is a sympathetic narrator, never bitter, who reveals the complexities of every last character. By the end of this suspenseful memoir, readers will be just as eager as the author to discover what kept his family on the run.
"This is a lot more than just a memoir. Mike O'Connor brings the pacing of a thriller, the eye of a great reporter and the intrigue of a life on the run to create a fascinating portrait of his own Boston Irish family and the secrets it held in McCarthy-era America. It is a page turner that takes you on a journey out of the confines of the Irish enclaves of New England through the big sky country of Texas and south of the border to Mexico. All along the way, O'Connor writes with a unique voice that manages to both enlighten the past and inform the present. This is a finely crafted work of non-fiction and one hell of a good read." -- Charles M. Sennott, author and staff writer for The Boston Globe
"This book is a mystery and a memoir. But more than anything it is an unforgettable romance about two people who willingly sacrifice everything - their finances, their future, and their families - to stay together. Mike O’Connor is an extraordinary writer and in retracing his parents’ footsteps he asks big questions. What is a family? Does the truth matter? And most importantly, what is love?" -- Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief, Gourmet
"Mike O'Connor, the young son of a Boston Irish father and a British mother, spent his childhood on the lam in Texas, Mexico and California, never knowing what his parents were up to. Years later, after distinguished work as a foreign correspondent in war zones from El Salvador to the Middle East, O'Connor probes his bizarre past and gets to the bottom of what his parents feared most, what they were running from. The O'Connor family story is a story of post-war America. It is riveting, and it is unforgettable." --David Gelber, Producer, CBS News
"O'Connor's book is a gripping yarn of inscrutable dangers, broken dreams and the power of grit. It is also a searing story of his efforts--first as a boy and later as a savvy journalist--to understand and unravel the mystery of why his family has to keep moving from Massachusetts to Texas to Mexico, back to Texas, back to Mexico, then to California and back to Mexico. The scenes of border crossings are so haunting you feel as if you are there. In a voice that is at times youthful and at times world weary, he masterfully tells a tale that evolves from McCarthy era paranoia but goes well beyond that troubled time in our history." --Henry Weinstein, Legal Affairs Writer, Los Angeles Times
"Mike O'Connor is a masterful writer. A brave and relentless war correspondent, he now turns his investigative skills to his own mysterious family and the secrets behind a childhood filled with danger and constantly on the run. It's a poignant American saga that has its roots in a time when the country was intoxicated by fear, obsessed with enemies within as well as without. Powerful, elegant, compelling." --Sylvia Poggioli, Senior European Correspondent, National Public Radio