Surf Dad: My Father’s Journey from Paris to the U.S. Mexico Border

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Guatemala 1974. My little brother Nicky on the left and me on the right.

There was never a time when my father, who immigrated to America to escape the Nazi occupation of Europe, wasn’t loading up our Ford station wagon and taking us to the beach.

In 1939, at the age of six, my father traveled to the United States from France with my grandma Lotti and his brother Roland.

“In France as a little tyke, I played on a beach covered by pebbles and round pieces of wine bottles rounded by the surf,” my dad Michel Dedina recalled from his home near the Tijuana Estuary in Imperial Beach.

“I was scared when we came to America because my big brother Roland told me America had skyscrapers and one would collapse on me,” he said.

“In New York we visited the beach at Coney Island. It was crowded. Wall to wall people. But there was great corn on the cob.”

After the war my father moved back to Paris. Some of his family had been sent to concentration camps or killed by the Gestapo.

“Everyone was tired of the war and nobody wanted to talk about air raids, combat and concentration camps. There were no medals for those who suffered,” he said.

Later my father joined the American Air Force during the Korean War and met my mother in London while he was stationed in England. They married in New York City where my father published two novels. Mom and dad eventually made their way to California and settled in Los Angeles.

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My mother and father in the 1950s.

“Your mom and I had visited and liked California. Liked the beach, but found the water cold,” Dedina said.

My parents never camped in Europe but discovered the value of outings at California State Parks. On our first camping trip in the late 1960s we pitched a borrowed Korean War-era military surplus tent at Carlsbad State Beach.

Mom and dad were cold and miserable in their homemade sleeping bags stitched together from old blankets but my little brother and I were in heaven and never wanted the trip to end.

We lugged that tent up and down the coast of California, giving rides to hitchhiking hippies while enjoying coastal campgrounds from San Diego to Big Sur.

In 1971 we moved to Imperial Beach where life revolved around weekends at the beach and picnics in the Tijuana Estuary.

Meanwhile dad earned his Masters Degree in television and Film at SDSU where he studied with Desi Arnaz.

After grad school dad purchased a 1974 Ford Econoline van, loaded it up with camping gear and our clothes, and we drove south to El Salvador where he had a job with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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Lake Antigua, Guatemala, 1974. My little brother Nicky is in front, I am peeking out behind my dad.

“I should have been more scared than I was during our trip,” he recalled. We had to deal with crooked customs and immigration officers. I learned to pay the bribes. There were more honest officers than crooks.”

It was during our year in El Salvador that I first wanted to be surfer. The Californians I watched strolling down the beach to surf tropical waves looked incredibly cool. I wanted to be just like them.

That year we camped on white sand beaches and explored indigenous villages and jungle ruins in Guatemala, Chiapas, Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Belize.

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Somewhere in Mexico with my dad 1974-1975.

I started surfing after our return to Imperial Beach and convinced Dad to take me and my friends to Baja California in our rusty 1964 VW Van. In Baja we surfed perfect point waves while Dad cooked up pots of spaghetti with lobster sauce.

With my dad in central Baja in 1979.

With my dad in central Baja in 1979.

In the early 1990s, when my wife Emily and I lived in a 14-foot trailer in Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon to study gray whales, Dad drove down with my mother to visit.

Dad was in heaven when the local fishermen called him, “Don Miguel.”

“I’d been waiting my entire life to be called ‘Don Miguel,’” he said.

With my dad and my sons more recently.

With my dad and my sons more recently.

Later when Emily and I had our own two sons, Israel and Daniel, Dad foraged the streets for old surfboards and wetsuits and took our kids to the beach to surf.

“I stood Daniel on a wide, long surfboard on tiny waves,” said my father. “He surfed and remained standing.  A guy came over and asked, ‘Who is that kid?’ Nonchalantly I replied ‘My grandson.’ Guy asked, ‘How old is he?’

I replied, ‘Four.’ The guy said, ‘Wow. Four years old.’”

Despite a good life in America, dad never forgot what the Nazi’s and their French collaborators had stolen from his family. He applied for a settlement from the French Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation [because of] anti-Semitic Legislation in Force During the Occupation.

“I could not have lived with myself if I had not tried to fight for what we had lost. The first verdict was against us. So we appealed. I went to the appeals tribunal in Paris. There were five judges one of whom it turned out was against us when they deliberated some weeks later. I can only guess why or how we won.”

At the tribunal, dad’s cousin Lisette corroborated my father’s testimony. The Nazi’s murdered her parents. Her brother Bernard Fall fought in the Resistance and later worked at the Nuremberg Trials.

“Our award was small which was shared by Roland’s family. It wasn’t about the money.”

After more than fifty years of marriage, dad lost my mother to cancer a few years back. Today at the age of 80, he maneuvers his three-wheel electric bicycle around Imperial Beach and religiously attends the surf competitions, water polo games, and swim meets of his grandsons. He also enjoys long visits with my brother Nick and his family in San Francisco.

Dad occasionally speaks out at local City Council meetings about preserving local beaches and parks.

I owe my sense of adventure to my father along with my determination to never waiver in the pursuit of justice.

After all, that is what my father taught me being an American means.

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