I got to see another side of him when I told him of a childhood experience. I mentioned that, whenever my brother and I saw a plane in the sky, we would do a sketch in our exercise books. We both dreamed of being a pilot, which seemed to us to be the most romantic job. I told him that I even thought of taking flying lessons much later, but it fizzled out when smaller airports were closed in our area after 9/11.
Carlos listened intently and narrated a chapter from his own life. When young, he was keenly interested in flying; he took flying lessons for a long time and passed all the tests with distinction. He applied to the air force, intending to complete his college later on military scholarship. His father just wouldn’t hear of it. He said he was quite capable of paying for his son’s college and would not need public funds. He added that he expected his son to complete college before he started on a career.
He tried again when he finished college, but his father was adamant that he should go to a university and complete graduate studies. Carlos met that bar too and he was still under the maximum age for enlistment, 27. But when he went to the enlistment center, he found he was two pounds over the maximum weight for his height. The air force required him to five pounds below the maximum. Seven pounds was not a large margin, the recruitment officer advised him, and he could come back in a few months having reduced his weight by a combination of diet and exercises. But, once again, his father, when he got to know about it, pronounced a verdict against it. He wanted his son his son to look for other jobs.
I guessed that his father’s persistent opposition had to do with the fact that the Korean war was going on and the US Government was actively recruiting for war missions. But Carlos could only remember resentfully his father’s rock-like opposition to his long-held dream. He could never be a pilot and he blamed his father for it. I realized all his stories of bravado and glory came from an unfulfilled dream of what he imagined to be a life of unremitting adventure and heroism. There was something touching in his endless longing for a dashing life he felt he had been unfairly denied.
An interesting parallel to his stories of derring-do was his claim that he was a great cook. He knew of my utter ineptitude in the kitchen and would ridicule me, justifiably I thought, for my unquestioning dependence on my cook. He would tell me, especially after a weekend, about the delicacies he had prepared and served himself and his guests. The tales of his culinary triumphs took on more color when we had female visitors. I had noticed that Carlos always mentioned Chicken Tetrazzini as a special entrée he prepared for female guests and said he used a special recipe he had acquired from a famous chef. I was mildly perplexed because whenever we dined together he suggested a restaurant and the one or two occasions I had shared a meal at his home the fare seemed pedestrian.
When Kathleen, an extremely attractive colleague from our Milwaukee office, visited us, I took her out for dinner one evening, and over coffee in the office the next day she referred to it as a great treat. Carlos promptly invited Kathleen for dinner the following night and graciously included me among the invited. He promised Kathleen that she would have the greatest Chicken Tetrazzini she had ever had in her life.
Early the next night I had a call from Carlos.
“How is the Chicken Tetrazzini coming along?” I asked.
Carlos sounded unusually subdued and said there was a problem. He asked me if I could keep a secret. I promised to be discreet.
Carlos said that he never cooked Chicken Tetrazzini; he did not know how. He always got it from a boutique restaurant near his home when he had special guests. He had just found out the restaurant was closed because its workers, led by Carlos’s favored chef, was on a strike. What should he do? I offered that there were at least three other Italian restaurants in our area that had Chicken Tetrazzini on their menu and there was still time for him to order some for his guests. I advised that he should remove the restaurant packaging well before the guests arrived.
That evening, as Kathleen, looking glitzy in a red sequined dress, turned to Carlos and thanked him for a delicious dinner, I completed my collegial duty and commented loudly that nobody, absolutely nobody, made a Chicken Tetrazzini as well as Carlos did.