Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Brazos River Funeral

The two old ranchers were sitting on the bluff overlooking the Brazos River, performing mouth-to-mouth on a six pack of beer positioned between them.  Sadly, despite diligent effort, the patients were dying, one right after another.

Mike turned to his friend and said, “Why are you here today?  I thought you were going to spend the day with your wife.”

“I was and I did,” replied Kent.  “Least, as much as she’d allow.  After a couple of hours, she told me to ‘Go get lost.’  Well, I figured I’d get lost where I could drink your beer.”

“This ain’t exactly lost.  You’ve been here about as often as I have.”

“Yeah,” said Kent.  “But my wife doesn’t know where I am—and that’s lost enough.”

“I heard from Bob over in Stephenville yesterday.  He’s doing poorly.  Said he doesn’t think he will live through the month.  Said he had a real bad spell last week—even the doctor didn’t think he’d live through the night.  Bob said the only reason he was still hangin’ on was pure anger.”

“Hate to see Bob go, he’s about the last of the old bunch around here, ‘cept for you and me.”

“Yeah,” said Mike.  “Did ya’ ever think you’d get to the point where about the only times you get together with friends was at funerals?

"I know what you mean.  Forty years ago, the wife and I were always going to weddings.  Then, about twenty years ago, it was baby showers and christenings.  Now, it's nothing but funerals and wakes."

Kent reached over and took another beer, twisted off the bottle cap and handed it to his friend.  "Here," he said.  "Keep this, it's valuable."

Mike accepted this cap, but gave his friend a quizzical look.

"It's a genuine Texas rain gauge," said Kent.  "I was at a funeral last month—Philip Odd died.  His whole life, Phil got sick and tired of people making fun of his name, so he left instructions in his will that he wanted his tombstone left blank.  Now, everyone that walks by his grave stares at the stone and says: 'That's Odd.'"

Mike looked at his friend with annoyance.  "You know, I got a brother that talks just about that foolish."  

Mike stared at the distant river for a while and said, "I was just thinking that life is kind of like standing on a sandbar in the middle of a fast river.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Kent.

“Well, at the end of the sandbar, new sand is always washing up, and new people arrive to stand there.  But with time, the leading edge of the sandbar keeps washing downstream, and as the edges erode, people vanish into the river.  Some fight and shove for more space, and before long, the front of the sandbar is just a thin thread of land, with a few old codgers like me and you desperately trying to stay dry.  We’ve lost a lot of family and quite a few friends—sooner or later, we’re going fall off, too.”

“No more beer for you,” Kent announced.  “You’re starting to get mopey.  Besides, you never finished telling me about Bob.  What happened?”

“Well,” said Mike as he reached for the last bottle of beer, ignoring his friend.  “Bob thought he was going to die.  His family and friends thought he was going to die.  Even the doctor said one more clean white shirt would do for him.  So there he was, alone in bed, waiting to meet his maker, when suddenly he smelled the aroma of fried chicken.  His wife was making a fresh batch of fried chicken!”

“No doubt about it, Sue makes the best fried chicken in Palo Pinto County,” Ken agreed.

“Now there is nothing in the world that Bob likes better than Sue's fried chicken, so he carefully got out of bed,” Mike said, ignoring the interruption.  “The Doctor had warned him that if he exerted himself, the strain would probably kill him, but Bob just had to get one last piece of chicken.  So Bob carefully climbed out of bed and tottered into the kitchen, and sure enough, there was a large platter of fresh fried chicken right next to the stove.  Even better, Sue was just starting to fry up another batch.”

“And?” urged Kent.

"Well, Bob put out a shaky hand, reaching for what was probably going to be his last drumstick this side of the flowerbed….and Sue whacked the back of his hand with a hot oily wooden spoon!”

“Leave those alone!” scolded Sue.  “Those are for the funeral!”

“Makes sense,” said Kent.  “Knowing that stubborn bastard, he’s probably going to outlive her for spite.”

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Volunteer Fire Department

Its been a dozen years since the fire and the damage is long gone.  Unfortunately, so is the volunteer fire department.

The fire occurred at a small apartment complex I owned; six modest apartments catering to the needs of people seeking a lower-priced apartment.  Since this was Southern New Mexico, it meant that at any given time, most of the apartments were filled with immigrants from Mexico.  Frequently, they were younger workers with green cards who had brought over an elderly parent.  This was the origin of my firemen.

Four little old men—the viejitos—gathered everyday under a tree out back of the apartments to sit at an old dilapidated card table and play dominoes.  Well, they actually mostly drank good Mexican beer (good Mexican beer is a redundant phrase)—Dominoes came second. 

I loved these old men, and they thought it was hilarious that I taught Mexican history.  Some days, I would sit with them while they told the pendejo gringo (evidently, this means "learned scholar") outrageous stories about Mexico.

Half of the stories were the kind of nonsense that too much beer and sun would produce—they variously claimed to have fought with Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata (impossible since none of them was that old.)

But, occasionally, I would hear stories about Lazaro Cardenas standing up to the would-be dictator Calles.  I heard stories about bullfights, about cousins who left to work in the oilfields and were never heard from again, and how they could never have afforded to immigrate to the US if a family member had not won the tanda (a strange Mexican lottery system run among friends and family).

These men hadn’t fought during the Mexican Revolution, but they had been born during it.  They had lived through the Cristero Rebellion, World War II, and countless events that I lectured about, but had no personal direct knowledge.  I loved to ask them questions, and they loved to talk—it was a fair trade.

When the fire started, I was not around.  Another tenant evidently had left a cigarette burning on a large fabric sofa while he went off to lunch.  The first people to realize there was a fire were the four old men playing dominoes—evidently they saw smoke leaking out under the front door.

This presented a real challenge to the old men.  They obviously didnt want the place to burn down because it was their home.  But—like many immigrants—even though they were legally residing in the country, they feared the authorities might deport them.  There was no one else around the apartment complex….what were the viejitos to do?

Im sure the decision-making process was partly "augmented" by the case of beer the men had consumed.  Drunk would be an unkind description—accurate, perhaps, but unkind.

After a quick discussion, the men decided there was only one course of action—they decided to fight the fire themselves.  They carefully broke a small pane of glass from a multi-paned large window.  Then, three of them helped/pushed/shoved the fourth man through the opened window.

After the front door was finally opened, all four men gathered in front of the burning sofa in the living room.  While there was more smoke than actual flames, there was no doubt that the sofa was truly on fire.  What to do?  Each of the apartments had a fire extinguisher, but these men didnt know how to use them.

Eventually, the four beer-filled old men found a more….ah,..natural means of extinguishing the fire.  An unusual but effective method.  It was sort of a group effort and one that left the men drained, so to speak.  Im sure you understand.

One of the other residents finally noticed what was going on and called me.  By the time I had raced over, the "fire crew" had carried the somewhat worse-for-wear sofa outside to air and had returned to the domino game.  There wasnt much for me to do: it wasnt my sofa, and the tenant who had started the fire was so nervous that he was promising to fix the window.

After a moment of contemplation, I got back in my truck and drove away.  When I returned, I gave the firemen two cases of Tecate—my own personal favorite Mexican beer.

After all, I had to refill the extinguishers—there might be another fire!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Football War

During the summer of 1993, I spent a couple of weeks doing research in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  This meant that during the day, I spent long hours in dusty archives, dimly lit libraries, and overstaffed government offices.  During the nights, I spent equally long hours in bars.

My reason—well one of them—was because the capital of Honduras during the summer is as hot as Southern New Mexico—but with ten times the humidity.  Because of a water shortage, the town's water supply only functioned two hours a day: between 4:00 and 6:00 AM.  Every morning, when the water was turned back on, you could hear the water rushing through the old, leaky pipes.  The air escaping made a low moaning noise that echoed off the mountains that surround the city.  (This early morning sound has often been theorized to be the cause of the town's high birth rate.  At 4:00 AM, it is too early to get out of bed, but too late to go back to sleep.)

My hotel room was so small it would have been illegal to use it as a jail cell, even in Mississippi.  In the evenings, the room had no water, no window, and nothing resembling air conditioning, so it was no wonder I spent my evenings in bars, drinking the local beer, Port Royal.  (Let me give you a small travel tip:  if you are forced to brush your teeth with either beer or Coca-Cola—use the beer.  You wouldn't believe what happens to Crest Toothpaste when you mix it with Coke.)

Properly lubricated, the locals in the bars had some great stories about life in Honduras.  One of my new-found friends insisted that up in the mountains, there was a tree that was poisonous to touch.  He claimed you could find it by looking for the dead birds that lay around it.  But there was an even better story, about a strange war Honduras had fought with El Salvador over a soccer game—The 1969 Football War.

One of the bar's patron had vivid memories of a C-47 (that's the military version of the civilian DC-3, an old, slow cargo plane from the second world war) flying lower than the surrounding mountain tops as it wound its way through the valley holding the country's capital.  The plane was so low that the man could clearly see the men rolling bombs out the cargo plane's door.  When the plane ran out of bombs destroying the runways at the city's sole airport, the men threw out sandbags on the old adobe buildings of the city center.

The Football War did happen, and although a soccer game really was the triggering event, there were a few other important factors that brought on the war. 

El Salvador is geographically a small country with a relatively large population for its size.  This gives it the second highest population density in the Western Hemisphere—right behind Haiti.  Almost all of the usable farmland is in the hands of only fourteen families or corporations. What little arable land is left is not nearly enough to satisfy peasants desperate for a small measure of financial independence.

Honduras, on the other hand, is much larger, with a smaller population, and still had (at least in 1969), vacant farmland.  The availability of lands and jobs had enticed approximately 300,000 Salvadoran peasants to illegally enter Honduras.  Some purchased land legally, others simply squatted on land and established homesteads, and others found work in the cities.  A few Salvadorans even opened stores or started businesses in Honduras.

By American standards, 300,000 doesn't seem like many, but in Honduras, this meant that one out of every eight workers was from El Salvador.  In the late 1960's, a disease devastated the banana plantations, forcing companies like United Fruit and Standard Fruit to begin importing bananas from Ecuador and laying off workers.

Honduras responded to civilian anger and a rising unemployment rate by cracking down on the Salvadorans.  An agrarian reform law was passed under which a lot of immigrant farms were seized—even those that had been legally purchased.  Diplomatic relations between the two countries rapidly broke down.

Still, an actual war might have been averted if not for the 1970 World Cup.  The two countries played the first of three matches in Tegucigalpa, where the locals may have been less than proper hosts.  Thousands of locals stood outside the Salvadoran team's hotel and cheered, honked horns, and beat metal pans all night in an attempt to prevent the team from resting the night before the match.

The next day, the Hondurans won 2-1, but the deciding point was scored in overtime.  Feeling it had been cheated, all of El Salvador screamed, "Foul!"

The second game was played in San Salvador, and when El Salvador won, Honduras not only screamed, but began looting Salvadoran shops in Tegucigalpa and organized an economic boycott on all goods manufactured in the rival country.

Wisely, the third game was played in Mexico City.  The Salvadorans sat on one side of the stadium, with the Hondurans on the opposite side; separating the two were 5000 Mexican cops.  Honduras won the game, so El Salvador broke off diplomatic relations with Honduras, and then sent both its army and air force to invade its neighbor.

Interestingly, both countries had similar military forces; both countries had armies about the same size and both countries used equipment given to them by the United States. Surplus World War II tanks, guns, trucks, and jeeps were used on both sides and both countries flew F4U Corsairs and F-51 Mustangs. 

The only real military difference between the two countries was that the Honduran Air Force was much larger.  Perhaps this is why El Salvador attacked first, and damaged the runways of the Tegucigalpa airport where most of the Honduran Air Force was based.  During this raid, the Salvadorian Air Force did, indeed, use an aging cargo plane to bomb the Honduran capital by rolling bombs out a door designed to be used by passengers.

Despite diligent research, I was unable to either confirm or repudiate the story about El Salvador's bombing buildings with sand bags.  (But, if it is any consolation, the story about a tree with poisonous bark turns out to be true.  Though it was not, in fact, surrounded by dead birds, I have seen it.  I did not touch it.)

For the next two days, El Salvador controlled the sky, allowing its army to penetrate into Honduras about a hundred miles.  This was made easier by the sudden discovery that a Honduran general on the border had a smaller army than his payroll indicated.  It was probably a bookkeeping error.

After two days of repairing the runways at the Tegucigalpa airport, Honduras finally got its planes into the air.

In the last aerial dogfight in history pitting conventionally powered, propeller-driven aircraft against each other—Honduras took control of the sky.  If you are interested, the Corsairs proved superior to the Mustangs, but this may have been due more to maintenance requirements and the availability of spare parts than to the innate superiority of aircraft design.  By the fourth day of battle, both sides were having difficulty getting any planes into the air.

The Organization of American States negotiated a ceasefire and El Salvador agreed to return to its side of the border.  Though the war only lasted roughly 100 hours, more than 6,000 people died and 12,000 people were wounded.  An estimated 50,000 people lost their homes as villages and countless farms were destroyed.  Technically, even now—some 46 years later—the dispute is ongoing.

Such a strange war! Now, it seems almost impossible that most of the world missed it.  Even at the time, few people paid any attention to it.  This was not solely because the world cared little about Central America.  Something else was happening that attracted everyone's attention.  The war started shortly after Apollo 11 launched, and ended the same day that Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle, the lunar lander, onto the surface of the moon.

Most of the United States was too busy looking up to take any time to look south.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A New Mexican in Paris

As a student from New Mexico, Glen was excited when he was offered the summer internship in Paris.  The excitement came partly from his finally getting a chance to practice the language he had studied for three years, and partly because it would be his first trip to Europe.   Mostly, however, he was excited to be working for an entire summer at the Notre Dame Cathedral.

This promised to be the best summer of his life.  True, the job was a menial, unpaid position that would chiefly entail running errands and performing tedious tasks, but it was in Paris!  At Notre Dame!

It was not lost on Glen that this also meant that he would miss a summer in southern New Mexico, where the blazing hot winds of June and July were like suffering the hot breath of Satan.  While he wasn't quite sure what the summer would be like in Paris, he was pretty damn sure it would be better than summer in a New Mexican desert.  (At least, he had never heard of a dust storm in Paris.)

As it turned out, the Parisian summer was fantastic!  Glen loved his new job, he loved his tiny student apartment, and of course, he loved the Gothic cathedral where he worked.  Finished in 1365, the old stone cathedral was older and taller than any building in southern New Mexico.

Every morning, Glen would climb the spiral stairways of one of the cathedral's towers to the top.  There, he could watch the sun rise across the famous city.  He had to be careful on the old stone steps--they had been rounded and worn by centuries of use, making them as smooth as glass and almost as slippery.  At the top, Glen always took the time to admire the numerous gargoyles.  His favorite carving reminded him of one of his former instructors, Professor Maleficent, who was now the Dean of Women at the state penitentiary. 

His job wasn't all sightseeing: he spent most of his time running errands for the cathedral.  During his first week on the job, he had been checked out in the cathedral's car, a red Peugeot 308—a type of car not sold in the United States.  The small car had a gold outline of the cathedral on the doors above distinctive large gold lettering: Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris.

Once he got used to the insane complexities of driving in Paris traffic, Glen loved to drive the car.  The lack of lanes, the narrow streets, and the insane parking conditions were balanced with the adventure of a new culture, the magnificent architecture, and a city steeped in history.  While he invariably got lost, no matter how tiny a dead-end cul-de-sac or out of the way alley he eventually wandered into, smiling and friendly Parisians came out of nearby buildings and surrounded the car.

Even while driving down major thoroughfares, Glen got the impression that people stopped and waved at him whenever he drove by.  And even the taxis—world famous for their aggressive driving—seemed to brake and allow him to easily change lanes.

Glen could hardly believe how friendly the people were!  He wondered if this was because the locals could tell he was an American....  Or, did they just really like the people who worked at the old cathedral?

One day, Glen asked Emmanuel Cloche, the director of the intern program, about the incredibly warm reception he was getting from the people.  Was it really because they could tell he was an American?

"Êtres-vous fou?" asked Emmanuel.  "Non, no!  It is not you they are excited to see, it is the car they want to see.  It is world famous: everyone on the planet wants to meet la petite Peugeot."

"What?" asked Glen.  "I've never even heard of it."

"Don't be absurd!" cried the Frenchman.  "You have never heard of the Hatchback of Notre Dame?"