The raffle was over, the drinks were flowing and the gray-haired crowd at VFW Post 9399 was in a mood to party when David Serby approached the stage.
A lanky South Pasadena singer-songwriter, Serby had been asked to sit in with the aging house band and play a few of his own honky-tonk numbers.
In the last few years, the 43-year-old troubadour had gone from playing open mike nights at local coffeehouses to kicking off a country music festival in the Coachella Valley last spring featuring such stars as Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. So it wasn't the venue that drew him to this dingy hall 40 miles outside of Phoenix.
It was the man with the bad back, weak heart and bass guitar in his hands, who Serby had recently learned was his biological father. In the audience sat his biological mother, as well as an aunt, an uncle and a few other relatives that for more than 40 years Serby never knew existed.
As he strapped on his Gibson guitar, the surreal scene enveloped him. His quest to learn more about himself and his passion for music was turning into an emotional journey with consequences beyond his control. This heartwarming get-together, he knew, was more complicated than it seemed.
In 1962, Evie Hagle and Pete Canton were two Midwestern teenagers trying to make it on their own in California. Evie, a slender 5-foot, 5-inch blue-eyed girl, worked at a clothing store and lived with a couple of girlfriends in a North Hollywood apartment. Pete, a 6-footer with a cleft chin and blond hair, played guitar in a country-western band.
Though he was engaged to a woman in North Dakota, Pete was drawn to Evie. She, likewise, adored Pete's adventurous and rebellious attitude toward life. They were young, carefree -- and ultimately careless.
Evie learned she was pregnant shortly after Pete decided to move back home to marry his fiancee. When Evie wrote him with the news, Pete panicked. He called off his engagement, but also withdrew from Evie, thinking he didn't want to be a husband or a father.
Evie debated raising the child on her own, but at the urging of her mother and social workers, she gave the baby boy up for adoption.
Weeks after the child's birth, Pete moved back to California and reunited with Evie. Two months later, Evie was pregnant again.
This time, Pete stayed by her side. But the outcome would be the same. They agreed they were too young and immature to be married, let alone be parents.
As Evie signed the forms giving their second son up for adoption, she wept.
Where Pete and Evie were a bit free-wheeling or even reckless, Arvene and Verna Serby were stable and responsible. After 14 years of marriage, they were ready to adopt, having been unable to have a child on their own. According to adoption records, they were overjoyed to find a son who came from the same Norwegian stock as Arvene.
"That cinched it," he jokingly said to the social worker finalizing the adoption.
Baby Boy Hagle became David Allan Serby.
Two years later, the Serbys moved to Illinois, with David and his baby sister, whom the couple, to their surprise, had conceived on their own.
Although neither Arvene nor Verna was musically inclined, David loved music. He played violin in elementary school and saxophone in middle school, sang in a band in high school and taught himself the guitar while in college.
By then, the family had moved back to California, settling in Placentia. David married his high-school sweetheart, followed his father into the insurance business and bought a Spanish-style home in Highland Park.
At age 30, though, David's comfortable life started to crumble. His marriage ended in divorce about the same time his father died after a prolonged fight with colon cancer. In the sadness of those days, David turned to music. He dusted off his guitar, which he hadn't touched in nearly a decade, and practiced constantly. Soon, he started writing his own songs.
David, who had known from an early age that he was adopted, also became more interested in his biological parents after his father's death. He wrote to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services for any information it might have. Under adoption laws, the county couldn't disclose the identities of his parents, but it could reveal other details about their backgrounds. That information seemed to put his interest in music into perspective.
On the maternal side: "All of the family was musically inclined." And his biological father played guitar in a "traveling band."
Another piece of information struck an even stronger chord: His mother and father had had a baby boy 11 months before his birth and had also given him up for adoption. Somewhere out there was his older brother. Did they look alike, he wondered. What did he do? Did he play guitar?
David struggled with what to do with this new information for weeks, then months and ultimately years. By this time, he had married again. His new wife supported David's interest in music and his desire to find his brother.
He took lessons to improve his guitar playing, enrolled in songwriting workshops and played at bars and coffeehouses on open mike nights. He also quit his job as a claims adjuster, which he had come to loathe. In just a couple of years, his playing and songwriting were receiving more notice. He started getting regular gigs. As he approached 40, he cut his first CD. Then a second. Both received critical acclaim in country-western circles.
In 2004, he contacted a private investigator who specialized in finding the families of adopted children. For $500, she said, she would find his brother.
Within two weeks, she e-mailed Serby giving him his brother's name and address. Mark, the brother, lived less than 20 miles away in Whittier. If David intended to contact his brother, the woman advised that he send a note in a Hallmark greeting card envelope. It's less likely to get tossed as junk mail, she said.
So that's what he did. In the note, he documented the information showing that they were brothers and asked that his brother call, if he was interested in talking. Days later, Mark called. At first, he was suspicious of David. Why was he making contact now? Did he want something? As the conversation continued, Mark, a banker, seemed to believe David was legit. But he had a couple more questions.
What's your hairline like, Mark asked.
Not so good, David replied.
Do you drink beer?
Maybe we're really related after all, Mark said, laughing.
A couple of days later, Mark and his wife visited David and his wife. Mark's experience with adoption wasn't as pleasant as David's. His folks were less nurturing, and his older brother a bully.
While David had no hard feelings toward his biological parents, Mark carried a grudge. Both, however, decided they wanted to find them.
Using information from the private investigator and clues from the county's letter years earlier, David's wife, Barbara, combed the Internet. Within hours, she had located both parents: They were married to each other and living in Arizona, just miles away from David's adoptive mother.
David crafted another letter. As he had done with his note to his brother, he laid out the information showing they were related. He wanted the couple to know that he and Mark did not mean to invade their privacy or disrupt their lives and would honor their decision should they not want to have contact with them.
"Please understand that we want nothing more than the chance to meet you," David wrote. "If I were to use an analogy, I would say I feel like a character in a book that was spun off into a different book after the first chapter; I am curious to know how life turned out for the characters in my first book."
'They found us," Evie shouted to Pete. "They found us."
"Who found us?" Pete asked, trying to calm his wife. "Who?"
"Our boys," she exclaimed.
The letter, which arrived just days after the couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, couldn't have been more welcome.
The decision to put their sons up for adoption was one they had always regretted. Ironically, they found the maturity to get married only months after they gave David up for adoption. As a young couple they struggled financially. In 1966, Pete was drafted and went to Vietnam. After he got out of the Army, he and Evie settled in L.A. He joined a band that had steady gigs at joints such as the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.
They talked often about their sons. Wondered how they were doing. Were they doctors or lawyers? Were they punks or in jail? Did they love music?
Pete and Evie even thought about trying to find the boys, but decided it wouldn't be fair to the families that had adopted them. For years, they tried to have more children to raise on their own, but Evie was never able to get pregnant again. They saw the letter from Mark and David as a second chance.
Evie picked up the phone. When David answered, Evie's nervous voice cracked.
"We've been waiting for this letter all our lives," she said.
Weeks later, David, Mark and their wives went to Arizona for a weekend to meet Pete and Evie. At first, the conversation was awkward. They exchanged stories about their lives. Evie brought out baby photos she kept of the boys and cried as she told them about her decision to give them up for adoption. David and Pete bonded over their shared interest in country music.
Pete took out a scrapbook with pictures of him with Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire and other musicians. Staring back from one of the photos was a face David immediately recognized.
Pete said it was the face of his friend JayDee Maness, "the best steel guitar player in the world." David agreed. He had recently hired Maness to do session work on his CD.
David enjoyed the visit. He had satisfied his curiosity about his roots. He felt invigorated in his musical pursuits after learning about Pete's career.
But he also had the unsettling feeling that the emotional stakes were greater than he had anticipated. He could tell that Pete and Evie hoped for a tighter family bond by which they could become integral parts of their sons' lives as parents and as grandparents to Mark's two children.
David, however, wasn't looking to replace his family with a new one. He loved his adoptive mother and knew that she loved him. And he knew that his quest was causing her heartache, though she didn't say so.
David also saw that his brother had bottled up resentment, especially toward Pete, whom he blamed for failing to take responsibility for the boys and allowing them to be adopted.
In a telephone call shortly after their first meeting, Mark angrily told Pete precisely what he thought. After he hung up the phone, a shaken Pete had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital.
Hours before showtime at the VFW, Pete and David strummed guitars on the back porch of Pete and Evie's desert home. They played Harlan Howard's "Heartache by the Numbers" and a few other country classics. Pete shared a couple of songs he'd written over his career. His voice was a bit raspy from years of smoking, but David was impressed with the lyrics and melody.
Likewise, Pete admired his son's talent. He spent several days listening to David's CD, charting all the chord changes for his band the Good Ol Boys.
Before meeting David, Pete had given up the guitar and retired from music. David's emergence in his life, however, reignited Pete's passion for playing.
His heart attack caused both parents and sons to reevaluate their expectations. Mark became more accepting of Pete and Evie's actions and recently grew closer to his own adoptive father. David understands their desire to establish a bond. And Pete and Evie realize that building any sort of relationship with their boys is going to take time.
Still, Pete and Evie have a hard time containing their joy at getting to know their sons. At the VFW that night, they made sure friends and relatives were there to see father and son take the stage.
"I couldn't be prouder," a grinning Pete said after the show. "I couldn't be prouder."
For David, the whole thing was an almost out-of-body experience. He smiled and posed for pictures with folks who embraced him like the long lost relative he was.
Driving back to his hotel after the show, David reflected on his search for his roots and its unexpected consequences.
"Once you start walking down a road like this it's hard to stop," he said. "You can't manufacture a family out of thin air, and there is pressure to build relationships that weren't there before."
But he doesn't regret it.
"It's mind-boggling the paths your life takes," he said. "All of our lives could have been so different in many ways."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times