It began with a computer game. Nothing like what we’re used to today. This was old school, PC stuff—a monochromatic, Peanuts-themed teaching program for kindergarten-aged children. My beloved War Department and I had yet to have kids of our own. But our Guatemalan housekeeper Blanca had a pair of young ones–a sweet girl of eleven named Lynda and an adorable five-year-old boy named Davis. On days he wasn’t in school, Blanca would sometimes bring him to work. I’d let him hang out in my office. He’d quietly draw or play on his Gameboy. Polite to a fault.
Worried that the boy was bored, the War Department bought the computer game and set him up at her keyboard. I don’t recall exactly what the program was teaching, but each lesson was interlaced with animated vignettes of Charlie Brown attempting to catch that dreaded baseball. The ball would always spill out of the cartoon character’s glove.
“Bummer,” I said.
“Bummer,” whispered back the boy.
I eventually asked Davis if he played baseball. At school? With his friends? He said no and quietly shook his head.
This is when I kicked myself. Of course the boy didn’t play baseball. He was attending a public school that was practically in the ghetto. They were lucky to have an inflated soccer ball at recess. That and his father was a deadbeat who’d been AWOL since his son’s birth. And for most kids, if you couldn’t have a catch with your old man, having a chance to play baseball would be unlikely.
“Let’s go,” I told him.
“Where?” he said, his soft little voice, unsure.
The sporting goods store, of course. We drove to a nearby Big 5. There I purchased him a glove, a bat, a Dodgers cap, his first baseball, and some ice cream at the Baskin Robbins across the street. That afternoon, I showed him how to catch and throw and swing the bat. Then it was time to wrap it up.
That’s when it happened.
Without me asking, the boy ran into my arms and gave me my first monkey hug. His arms and legs were wrapped around me as if he was hanging on for dear life. What in the world had I done?
In my impulse to gear up the boy with a little baseball fun, I’d created an expectation. If not me to teach the boy the game, who else? In a matter of days I’d signed him up to a local park league T-Ball team and volunteered to assistant coach.
And so the adventure began.
For the next thirteen years I did what I could to be the man in young Davis’ life. When Davis decided he wasn’t cut out to be a baseball player, we found other activities to share. Movies, sushi, hanging out in coffee bars, and more movies. When he showed an interest in the Western genre, we took to the couch with a weekly film festival, beginning with John Ford’s Stage Coach and ending with the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood trifecta of Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We finished with my favorite, Once Upon a Time in the West. Every screening would be followed by sushi and a marathon discussion.
Because Davis had few opportunities to travel, I took him on trips with me, trying to show him the world beyond his mid-Valley zip code. San Francisco. San Diego. My mom and dad’s hacienda in the mountains south of Placerville. My best friend Robert had a son around the same age so, once a year, we’d pile the boys into a car and road trip to Las Vegas. We’d see Blue Man Group, Penn and Teller, or a Cirque show, hang by the pool, eat and watch sports in the ESPN Zone, and play poker in the hotel room using unshelled peanuts as chips. The laughs were epic.
Speaking of laughs, one of our greatest came from an up-to-the-elbows discussion-slash-argument which went into the wee hours of a summer night. We were parked on the street outside his mother’s apartment, deeply engaged in trading philosophical rhetoric when, from behind us, we found ourselves blasted by the spotlight from an LAPD cruiser. My car was lit up like the set of Close Encounters. Police officers approached from both sides. I rolled down my window.
“Something I can do for you, officer?” I squinted into his flashlight.
“Just you and the young man?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I answered. “His mom lives just inside the building there.”
“What’re you doing?” asked the officer.
“In fact,” I said, “We’re having a very deep philosophical discussion.”
“Sure you are,” replied the cop.
“Seriously,” I said.
“So what’s your discussion about?” he asked, hoping to trip me up.
For the sake of this post, I wish I could recall. Davis had recently taken to reading philosophy books by the pallet. He was sixteen, intellectually rapacious, and already better read than I. And crossing swords over everything from religion to government to the auteur theory was fair game and often led to late nights such as that.
“Okay kid,” said the cop to Davis. “What’s really going on?”
“That’s exactly what’s going on, officer,” smiled Davis. “I was just going back inside.”
The flashlights were sweeping the car, looking for probable cause.
“I see what it looks like,” I said. “Two a.m. White dude in a new black Beemer parked in a sketchy neighborhood. Looks like I’m buying drugs or sex, yeah?”
“Sex,” snickered Davis. “Right.”
I explained that I was the boy’s Dutch Uncle of sorts. I’m still not certain they believed me because after they returned to their vehicle they didn’t switch off the spotlight until Davis had returned safely and unmolested to his apartment.
We had more late nights and even more arguments. Many of them about God and whether he did or didn’t exist. I was a believer. He wasn’t. At least not yet. He seemed to take delight in disagreeing. I figured since he didn’t have a father of his own to rebel against, he might as well find little ways to prick me to see how much I’d bleed.
Halfway through his senior year, Davis accepted a full scholarship to Cal State University at Chico. As moving day approached, I sensed in him a significant measure of ambivalence. So I tongue-lashed him hard over the opportunity he was about to flush and we eventually made the trip to Northern California and moved him into his assigned dorm. But college didn’t stick. And it’s around here that we began to lose touch. I took his absences in my life as a result of his seeking independence. He’d also expressed he was wrestling with his jealousy of me raising two kids of my own.
I did my best to understand. Not judging. Just listening. Davis always made his complaints more introspective and self-analytical.
Davis eventually followed a girl to Oakland. And though the romance didn’t last, he used his broken heart to find a life for himself there. A life as an artist, no less, with a coterie of equally impressive friends and aesthetically inclined cohorts. Davis practiced his art as a photographer, cinematographer, writer, and from what I gathered from his Facebook posts, quite the chef.
And when Father’s Day came around, he’d still send me a card or affectionate note.
Sadly, this last Saturday, twenty-seven-year-old Davis Letona’s life abruptly ended when he was trapped in a three-alarm apartment fire. He and his roommate were both killed. Heartsick upon hearing the horrible news, I crawled from bed and began writing this blog.
It’s been hard. As it is with loss, my mind has been flooded with recollection. My memory keeps landing on the last time I saw him. We’d gone out for a sushi dinner, during which he had queried me over how to square his feelings about being indebted for the years of care I’d shown him. I assured him nothing at all was owed. I gave of myself freely and his growing into a fine young man was all that mattered. Then I reminded him of a movie we’d once seen together. It was a little gem by the Brothers Weitz called About a Boy. It starred Nicholas Hoult who played a fatherless young man who hornswoggles avowed bachelor Hugh Grant into becoming the responsible father figure in his life. After seeing the film, we drove home in near silence, both of us understanding that what we’d seen was spot on close to our own made-up relationship.
“Maybe one day you’ll meet some kid who decides you’re gonna be his or her daddy figure,” I suggested to him. “I pray you’d be open to that. Because it’s truly worth the ride.”
I love you, Davis. Godspeed your precious soul.
Davis’ friends are raising money to bring his Guatemalan family to his memorial service. http://www.gofundme.com/pjk2p0