It’s 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 didn’t 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?
I’m 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 didn’t 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. I’m 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 wasn’t much for me to do: it wasn’t 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!