My Love Affair With America Began As a Child

By Cecil Marvin Caldwell-Barr | December 15, 2011

America is the greatest country on earth, and the American nation is the greatest nation on earth. I have believed that all my life.

And the American nation is a composite of all the nations on earth.

In science and technology, America leads the world. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the surface of the Moon (I was camped out on a beach in South Africa, but listened to Armstrong’s historic words on a portable radio). America put him there and brought him safely back to Earth again. Altogether, America has put twelve astronauts on the Moon and brought them all safely back to Earth again. The rest of the world, collectively, has yet to put even one astronaut on the Moon.

Admittedly, I am biased toward America. That is because although I’m South African born and proud of it, I am by blood also an American. You see, my paternal family tree is rooted deep in American soil. My father was American born and so were his forebears going back hundreds of years. They were Louisiana Cajuns. My great-grandfather Desiré Como fought in the American Civil War.

My father was Cecil “Kid” Como, a professional fighter who at one time was a leading contender for the world featherweight crown. He met my mother when he came to South Africa on a boxing ticket.

Already past his prime, he was still good enough to stop world class Willie Smith in the eighth round of a scheduled fifteen round bout in the Durban City Hall in 1931, and defeat power-punching welterweight Ernie Eustace on points over fifteen rounds in Johannesburg in the same year.

CECIL 'KID' COMO 10

But, accepting that his fighting days were over, he took a job on the Luipardsvlei Goldmine . . . and plunged 600 feet to his death when a skip hawser snapped. I’m told Smith and Eustace were pallbearers at the funeral.

And that put paid to our pending move to his hometown Lake Charles in Louisiana. I was eighteen months old at the time.

Naturally, I hero-worshipped my father (wanting to be as much like him as possible, I even took up amateur boxing, having my first fight in the ring at age 10 and my last fight at age 21).

And I hero-worshipped his country.

During the Second World War, I followed avidly the exploits of American forces, thrilling at the heroism of American marines at Tarawa wading waist-deep hundreds of yards to the beach under murderous Japanese machine gun fire, fighting on and taking the island; and the Wake Island saga and other stories that made the news in those days.

And my proudest moment as a small boy came when our school took us to the Cape Town docks and we were allowed on board USS Tennessee, an American battleship that had put in after having fought off attacks by Japanese Kamikaze planes (I knew all about it, because at age nine I had no problem reading — devouring — the literature describing the Kamikaze incident which they gave each of us to take home). An added treat was the sight of a second American battleship, USS California, entering the harbor looking awesome and deadly from where I stood on the deck of the USS Tennessee.

To stand on the deck of that great American warship in the presence of real live American heroes — my childish perception, but true nonetheless — made me almost burst with pride. I cherish the memory of it to this day.

I bragged so much about it to friends, and the parents of friends, that one mother told me I was a typical “Yankee with a big fat mouth.” And I was proud of that too — the part about being called a Yankee (South Africans called all Americans Yankees or Yanks in those days).

Anyway, when I grew up and had children of my own, I tried to instill in them pride in their American heritage. I’m happy to say that all four immigrated to America early in their lives. And now I also have eight American grandchildren and one American great-grandchild.

Now, just to clear up some confusion about my surname. It’s quite simple. My stepfather insisted on me going by his surname, and I was too young to have any say in the matter.

So when my late wife and I wanted to be married in the Catholic Church in Broken Hill, in the then Northern Rhodesia, there was a problem. My birth certificate read Cecil Marvin Como, with my father’s name also shown as Cecil Marvin Como.

Something had to be done. The attorney I consulted said the easiest way to straighten things out was to legally change my surname to Caldwell-Barr by Deed of Poll. So that’s what I did.

THE LAKE AND AMERICAN FLAG

This is the view from the front deck of the home I shared with my daughter when we lived in Wisconsin, before moving to Washington. We left the view behind, but we brought the American flag with us to Washington.

Note:

This post has been updated to correct a mistake I made in an earlier version that first appeared in a blog I had when I was still living in South Africa, before moving permanently to the United States on October 18, 2012. In the original post, I inadvertently wrote “USS California” instead of “USS Tennessee.”