A Lucky Man
Copyright 2006 by Celest León
Photo courtesy of the author.
This is the story of a poor boy who had a dream—a preposterous dream that everyone agreed could never come true. He knew it was beyond reason, but he followed his heart and helped many people on his journey.
Ramon pulled away from the car lot in San Juan driving his newly purchased black Buick. The year was 1944, and at 19 years of age, Ramon had come into a fair amount of money, so that he purchased a luxury automobile when he barely knew how to drive. The eight cylinder engine purred as he drove towards his hometown of Maunabo on the southeast tip of Puerto Rico. His two childhood friends, Diego and Guillermo, accompanied Ramon to celebrate. The boys admired the beautiful car with the chocolate brown leather seats, which felt cool under their tanned bare legs.
To arrive in Maunabo, they had to navigate a narrow winding dirt road that traverses a mountain the locals named “La Pica.” At each hairpin turn in the road, which is littered with cavernous potholes and wild chickens running to and fro, there are magnificent views of the surf battering the long white sand beaches of the Caribbean. Although the vistas are the most exquisite on the island, they also include clapboard shacks with tin roofs.
The three friends decided to stop at one of the cliffs overlooking the sea to admire the sunset. Several moments after stepping out of the vehicle, Diego shouted to Ramon: “Look Ramon, the car is moving!”
As a novice driver, Ramon had left the car in neutral. He experienced a visceral shudder as he realized the finest thing he ever owned was about to fly over the precipice to the jagged rocks below. Ramon sped forward, just in time to jump into the car and engage the brake, thereby saving his prized possession from an untimely demise.
Perhaps this is the second luckiest day of my life, Ramon thought.
Ramon was the 15th child in his family. His mother, Doña Chepa, was 46 when he was born in 1925 and nearly died giving birth. In order to help support his family, Ramon started working for the local baker when he was just seven.
With his thin-soled sandals, Ramon plodded several miles to the nearest sugar cane plantation, supporting a large basket of pastries on his head to sell to the “macheteros,” men who wielded razor-sharp machetes in the fields. Ramon was a delicate boy whose knobby knees looked like tree twigs and who stood six inches shorter than other boys his age. He often rested under the shade of a large African palm, rubbing his neck and forearms, tired after clutching a heavy load atop his head. Another young boy accompanied Ramon with a large metal container of salted water with a ladle from which each man drank to replenish after sweating for hours under the fierce sun.
“At three cents apiece,” Ramon once told his mother, “those pastries went fast!”
Around this time, Ramon developed a horrific toothache, possibly from sampling too many pastries. Ramon’s family had neither the money nor the means to send him into San Juan to see a dentist, but his mother knew of a retired dentist who had a free clinic in his home outside of Maunabo. “Go see that American dentist outside of town,” Doña Chepa told her son, as she lovingly cradled his face between her calloused hands.
Rubbing his cheek to dull the incessant throb, Ramon trudged to the outskirts of his village. “Young man,” the dentist calmly explained, “I can help you. Just relax.” The elderly dentist squeezed Ramon’s shoulder and affectionately tousled his hair before turning to prepare a syringe of Novocain.
Shutting his eyes tight, Ramon clamped the sides of the chair like a vice. Several moments passed, and he felt nothing but relief after the dentist gently pried his tooth loose.
Someday I would like to heal people like that, to make their pain go away, Ramon thought.
Ramon ran home floating on air with his new found wish. He could not wait to share the news with his family: “I want to be a dentist!”
“Ramon, do you know how much a college education costs?” his mother gently asked him, for Ramon’s family had experienced a great tragedy. Ramon’s father had succumbed to a heart attack and died, leaving his wife and sons to support his large family. To do so, Doña Chepa became the proprietor of a small store which sold clothing and fabric. Doña Chepa was well known for her ability as a seamstress; she kept a Sears Roebuck catalog in her shop, and villagers frequently visited to select an item they liked, such as a shirt or dress, which Chepa made for them without a pattern. Her sons ran the store while she sewed in a small room in back. Ramon’s mother reminded him he was also responsible for helping manage the store. Ramon adored his mother, so he helped her as often as possible.
If I can’t become a dentist, I suppose I can stay here and help my mother and brothers run the store, Ramon thought.
When not working or at school, Ramon enjoyed many afternoons in the town plaza roller skating. He loved his silver strap-on roller skates. He had written to distant relative in New York City requesting that she send him a pair, as such items were unavailable in his small town. Maunabo was primarily dirt streets, and Ramon spent hours skating laps around the cement surface of the town plaza. He often stopped to chat with an elderly villager who was enjoying a sojourn on one of the park benches in the shade of a grand old African palm.
The town plaza was usually serene, but once a year in June, it swelled with visitors for “Saint’s Week.” The residents who lived outside of town in the barrios came into Maunabo for the celebration. These people were the poorest on the island, but they were always full of joy for Saint’s Week. They dressed in their finest, girls in ruffles and boys in any suits and ties they could find, and held dance competitions featuring Latin music and bongos. Ramon entered one of the competitions at age twelve and won a prize as his friends and family cheered him on.
“Bravo, Ramon,” his brother Yisidro shouted, as he and his siblings gave their little brother congratulatory slaps on the back. “I didn’t think you had it in you!” As the youngest son of the León household, Ramon was filled with pride that he impressed his brothers.
Years later, after completing high school in 1944, Ramon was working in his mother’s store. Ramon’s godfather, Hermann, strolled into the shop. Despite his huge girth, well earned from enjoying many fine meals that his epicurean wife, Rosario, was renowned for, Hermann moved with a lightness in his step, like a man half his age and size. As the owner of a sugar cane plantation and the wealthiest man in town, Hermann had many godsons but Ramon was his favorite.
“Hey Ramon, what a day we’re having, huh?” the older gentleman commented, as he embraced Ramon. “Good news, I just heard from my son. He’s in his last semester of dental school at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“Oh yeah, how’s he doing?” Ramon asked.
“Great, just great,” Hermann continued. “Not bad for a boy from Maunabo, hey?
He’ll be a dentist soon, imagine that! Isn’t that what you want to do, too? You’re a good boy, Ramon, you could do it!”
Ramon still dreamed of becoming a dentist, but he remembered his mother’s words from years before. He knew there was no money available for a college education. How could he finance his studies?
Ramon’s brothers had talked about the lottery since he was a young boy. Lottery salesmen drove between the villages, selling tickets from store to store. A small portion of a ticket cost 25 cents and a complete ticket cost $6, about as much as it cost to feed a family for a week, maybe two. However, a complete ticket improved the odds of winning a much larger prize. Ramon fantasized about winning the lottery and even envisioned a number: 14,000.
One morning in November, a lottery salesman happened to walk into the store when Ramon was working. “Caimito,” Ramon said, “I would like to buy a complete ticket, but it should be a number in the 14,000s.”
“Actually, I have one: 14,165,” Caimito replied. “Ramon, here it is!”
Ramon had saved $8 over several years as Doña Chepa occasionally gave him a few coins for working in the store. Buying a complete ticket was a financial sacrifice. With his hand shaking, Ramon bought the ticket.
Days later, Ramon decided to go to San Juan to buy merchandise for the store and to see the winning lottery number. In those days, villagers rode three different buses to reach the capital, 40 miles away. Ramon began his trip in an old white mud- encrusted school bus, which went to the neighboring village of Yabacoa. His friend Diego was one of the passengers.
“Hey Diego,” Ramon said as he stepped on the bus, “I’m on my way to San Juan, maybe with the winning lottery ticket.”
“Fat chance, Ramon,” Diego shouted across the din. “Wouldn’t we all love to win the lottery? You’re crazy!”
Maybe he’s right, Ramon thought as he pondered how long it would take him to earn the $6 he had spent on the ticket.
In San Juan, Ramon began his errands at the shirt factory. He asked the owner if he knew the winning lottery number.
“I think 14,000 something,” the man replied, shrugging his shoulders. Ramon gasped. With a sweaty palm, he reached into his pocket to ensure he still had his ticket.
Did the man actually say 14,000? Ramon thought. With butterflies in his stomach, he raced to a small shop where he knew the winning number was displayed in the window. A crowd hovered in front; Ramon stood on his tip-toes and stretched his neck to see over their heads. He found himself almost too afraid to look. After all, 14,000, it was so close!
There it was: 14,165.
He had won!
Despite his premonitions, Ramon could hardly believe his eyes. The hairs on his arms stood up straight. The blood pounded in his temples. In a flash, he sprinted across a wide, bustling avenue and excitedly told an elderly couple his news.
“Young man, bravo! Be careful who you talk to,” the older gentleman whispered. “Someone may knock you over to steal your ticket!”
His heart pounding, Ramon raced to another shop where he trusted the owner, Armando Gomez, to tell him the news. Armando gave Ramon a ride to the lottery office to collect the first prize: $18,000, tax free. Armando then called Banco Publico and asked them to stay open for Ramon’s large deposit. He then ushered Ramon through the large glass and metal doors and assisted him in opening his first account.
With all the excitement, Ramon lost track of time and missed the last bus to Maunabo. He sent his mother a telegram and spent his first night away from home in a hotel. Ramon could not sleep that night. Possibilities for his future swirled in his head as he lay in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking about this turn in his life.
When he arrived home the following day, Thanksgiving 1944, Ramon stepped from the bus into a dazzling reception. Dozens of townspeople waited in the plaza to congratulate him. His friends and family embraced him, throwing flower petals in the air to celebrate his good fortune. At the same plaza where he roller-skated as a child and celebrated Saint’s Week, there was now a party in his honor.
Ramon felt like a king.
The next day, Ramon worked at his mother’s store. People strolled in all day to meet the young man who had just obtained a great fortune.
Several evenings later, Hermann and Rosario joined Ramon and Doña Chepa for dinner. Chepa had cooked a large platter of Paella in Ramon’s honor. It was a luxury meal prepared for the special occasion.
“Now I have the money, what next?” Ramon asked, as the guests sat around the small round table in Chepa’s warm, fragrant kitchen.
“Ramon, my son will be home in a few weeks, talk to him,” said Hermann. “In the meantime, go see Antonio Navarro. He’s a smart boy, and he got his degree in the states.”
Ramon followed his godfather’s advice. The following day, he spoke to Antonio Navarro. With his perfectly manicured jet black hair and a highly polished shine in his shoes, Antonio was the true epitome of a casanova, a confident man whom Ramon admired.
“Ramon,” Antonio said, “You gotta go to Michigan State, I loved it and you will too!” Since Antonio had graduated from Michigan State University two years previously, he wrote to the college requesting an application and helped Ramon to complete it, as Ramon’s English was poor. Ramon enjoyed Antonio’s festive yet easy going manner, and the two became fond of one another. Ramon decided to follow in his friend’s footsteps.
Before he left the island for the first time in his life, Ramon helped his brothers and sister by giving each of them $300. He had just enough left over to finance his education.
The first six months of college overwhelmed Ramon. He barely spoke English. With his Spanish-English dictionary, he sat in the front row of each class, asking his professors to “Repeat, repeat, repeat.” Knowing he was a foreigner, several teachers remained after class to tutor Ramon in English. Finally, Ramon started to become accustomed to the sounds of his new language. Still, there were times when he was dismayed and wanted to return home, but realizing God had given him a gift, he was determined not to waste it.
Ramon persevered and earned his degree in dentistry in 1955.
He returned to Puerto Rico to work for the Public Health Department where he provided free dental services. Fondly remembering the dentist who inspired his dream years before, he wanted to return the favor.
Ramon decided to visit the elderly dentist, wondering if he was still alive. Diploma in hand, he took the same route of two decades earlier to share his news with his old friend. The small wood cottage was barely visible, enveloped by vines and thickets. Ramon was close to tears; the old healer was gone.
Ramon’s dental practice thrived for 32 years. He helped generations of families. When he retired, his patients cried.
He raised a family and sent his three daughters to college; none had to win the lottery to finance their education, and all three have successful careers.
As his youngest daughter, I have learned much from my father, who had the wisdom to take advantage of his good fortune, and the tenacity to see his dream through. Though small in stature, he accomplished the feats of a giant. He achieved more with the gifts God gave him than anyone I know. I am proud to share the story of Ramon León, DDS, retired.
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