Saturday, October 10, 2015

I Hanker to Hunker

It has rained enough this week that locals are checking their driver’s licenses to see if they still live in New Mexico.  Normally, around here, it is so dry and dusty the children adopt tumbleweeds as pets and the Spanish Doves build their nests out of barbed wire.  Dry is one of the things we do well in New Mexico. 
All this rain is creating a couple of problems with the rock walls surrounding my house:  some of the formerly bone-dry mortar is leaching out of the walls and one or two of them are starting to look a little lazy.  (Rock walls are something else New Mexico does well.  This is a great place to build with rock and adobe because it never rains—at least, until this week.)
Suddenly, I have to patch my own rock walls and masonry is not in my skill set.  I can fly a hot air balloon, I know which end of a hammer fits the hand, and I can even bake you a fair loaf of cheese bread—but working with concrete is a pain in the ass.  (Come to think of it, most of the men I know are pretty good cooks.  Restaurants, unfortunately, are not one of the things Southern New Mexico does well.  The local notion of a seven course meal is a six-pack of Corona beer and a burrito.)
I miss my rock wall guy.  He would know how to patch the mortar, replace a few missing stones, and while he was doing it, I could get him to build a few new walls.   José built all the sturdy rock walls around my house, and he did it fast and incredibly cheaply.  He was by far the best rock guy I have ever met, and at the bargain prices he charged, I could always find a new wall project. 

Not that there weren’t a few problems working with José.  First off….well, let’s just say he was of questionable citizenship.  Donald Trump would either deport him or have him rebuild Trump Tower in stone. 
It was not even remotely possible that José was from New Mexico.  Quite a few people born locally either learn English as a second language, or not infrequently, never learn it.  In José’s case, he could speak neither English nor Spanish.  José spoke only a dialect of Nahuatl. 
For those of you who have not studied Pre-Columbian Mexican History in my class (and you are welcome—Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:20), Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs, and roughly 1.5 million people still use it—almost all of whom live in Central and Southern Mexico.  New Mexico has 19 pueblos and 3 reservations, but none of them are for the Aztecs.  While a lot of Spanish words have made their way into the Nahuatl vocabulary (and a lot of the really good Spanish profanity has its roots in Nahuatl) it is not the same language.
Luckily, whenever José came to my house to build a new wall, he brought his grandson with him.  His grandson, about 7, had a fair working vocabulary in Spanish, Nahuatl, and English.  His skill in English was about even—poor—with my skill in Spanish (minus the interesting profanity).  So, every time I needed a new rock wall, the three of us would gather in my front yard and enact our own little private version of the UN.  There was a lot of waving of hands and hunkering and drawing in the dirt. 

Since my prodigious hate mail indicates that my readership includes a large number of Yankees, I should explain about hunkering and drawing in the dirt.  In Texas, this is an art form as respected as fiddle playing, bass fishing, or playing dominoes. 

The hunker and draw is a skill honed over eons of time that got its start with primitive man who hunkered down around his fire and drew crude figures in the dirt as he lied about that day’s hunt.  Even today, a good hunker damn near requires a stick in the hand to draw in the dirt.  If two Texans spend more than thirty seconds discussing a deer hunt, they’ll both get down on their haunches and start to draw in the dirt.

After thousands of years of technological improvement, the only real improvement in education is that we have exchanged ‘the hunker and draw’ for PowerPoint.  Socrates described a classroom as a log with a teacher on one end and a student on the other.  If Socrates had been a Texan, he’d have held school without the log.

One of the built-in advantages of hunker and draw is that there is an automatic time limit.  After about half an hour, the newcomer will need a crane to stand up, and as his legs develop a Charley Horse that could run the Kentucky Derby, he may find himself readily consenting to proposals that he might find objectionable standing upright.  If the United Nations building had been erected in Fort Worth, by now we would have achieved world peace.

I would try to get my department head to hold the next faculty meeting outside so we could all gather under a tree for a good hunker, but the damn Yankee, bless his heart, probably can’t tell the difference between a good hunker and a squat.

Even with the best of dirt drawings, communication was difficult.  There is only so much information that you can pass through the vocabulary of a 7 year old.  I learned that the word rock—piedra in Spanish—is teti in Nahuatl.  And flat stone—piedra plana in Spanish—is tepatiachtli in Nahuatl.  Don’t try to pronounce that, it will make your throat hurt worse than speaking German.  (That will probably piss off Professor Grumbles, the German professor.  But, maybe he won’t read this.  He recently retired and opened a Bavarian bistro he calls the Wurst Bar.)

Occasionally, mistakes were discovered in our design.  If you drive by my house, you will notice that the front wall has a definite slant as it runs east.  I have no idea why, but maybe the “blueprints” needed a sharper stick.  I blame it on the 7 year old—it’s hard to teach construction to children.
That front wall was the last job José did for me, since he seems to have vanished.  I haven’t been able to find him for years, and I have really tried.  When he did that last job for me, he laboriously asked—through our translator—if he could deliver the necessary rocks in the cool of the evening, and then start the job the next day.  Naturally, I agreed to the plan.

That night, when I went to bed, the rocks had not been delivered.  I wasn’t particularly worried as doing jobs on schedule is another thing that New Mexico doesn’t do particularly well.  I was certain that in a day or two, José would finish the job. 

The next morning, I was surprised to see a mountain of stone in front of my house.  (So were my neighbors, for José had stacked them in the street, not in my yard!)  How he had managed to put so many large rocks in front of my house without waking me is still a mystery.  By the time I left for work, José had arrived and happily begun assembly of my new wall.

When I arrived at Enema U, there was something of a traffic jam in front of the new Sports Chalet, still under construction, at the end of the football field.  It looked like every policeman on campus was gathered around where they were building a new….rock….wall….around….the parking lot.

Suddenly, I understood how José could build the cheapest rock walls in town.  I have no idea if this had anything to do with his sudden disappearance. 
I think of José every time I drive by the Enema U stadium.  I hope he comes back to town before they finish building the new art building.


  1. Always love reading your blogs..... Former football player and student

  2. Remiinds me of a few East Texas stone masons I've known. Having been a concrete worker back during my senior year of high school, I'm with you on what a pain in the posterior it is to work with concrete. The principle at the church run boarding academy where I completed my high school career was building a pool. Now Adventist believe that work is good for young people and that earning your way through school is a noble pursuit. So I earned my way through Valley Grande Academy building sidewalks and patios. Turns out, I'm a dab hand with a flat trowel and because my fellow students were unable to create the delicate swirly effect of a really nice flat troweled patio deck, I got the job. The principal of the school supervised the work and the patio in question was in his back yard. Not only was my first flat troweled swirly finish job a large patio suitable for entertaining 75 students on a Friday Night (Pie night, but that's another story), but he also decided to dye the concrete green. We had a banquet a few nights later. It wasn't a costume kind of banquet, but let's say that if it had been I could have gone as Shrek, only Shrek hadn't been invented yet, so I went as a green guy with a brand new mustache in a battered second-hand suit.