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>On the Threshold & Bandits? Really?

January 10, 2010


In 1956, of course, there was no internet, no way for Mom to get some idea of what to expect. Although she started us on this journey with her eyes open, there was nothing to see. She knew only that roads would be bad, towns and gas stations few and far between. There were rumors of bandits stopping cars and robbing (or worse!) the passengers. She couldn’t communicate with anyone and, unlike now, there were not that many Mexicans who spoke English. And maybe that’s all just as well. Had she been able to gather information, she may have gotten cold feet. As it is, she tossed aside the devil she knew for the one she didn’t. Good decision, Mom!
7: On the Threshold

For Valerie and me, this trip was going to be fun. We didn’t feel sad or apprehensive. We weren’t leaving behind friends and home. After Dad’s suicide, our friends, at their parents’ demand, were no longer our friends. Not long after, Mom sold the house. Unlike Mom, however, we had no idea of just how fundamentally changed our lives would become. Whatever reservations Mom might have had about her decision she kept to herself. The face she presented to my sister and me was one of excitement and confidence. She was treating this as an adventure and we followed suit.

When I imagined Mexico, little came to mind. I remembered only three brushes with Mexican culture before our trip. One was a third grade field trip to Olvera Street in LA, a “safe” place for Anglos to sample what passed for Mexico and its culture. Here we bought Mexican jumping-beans, miniature Mexican sombreros and little Mexican flags. Another was a trip to Tijuana where I had my picture taken astride a mangy and tired-looking donkey with a serape over my shoulder. The third brush was on Saturday mornings when I would turn on the radio and skip down the dial to tune in to my Saturday morning shows – Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy! and others. Occasionally I would pause at a Mexican station from Tijuana, listening in fascination to the Spanish that came tumbling out. I was no better prepared for our trip than Mom was; I just didn’t realize it.

* * * * *

“O-w-w! That hurts!” I was in the bathroom, combing my hair. Val was sitting on the edge of the bed, Mom next to her, pulling a comb, forcing a comb, through her long hair. Another snarl, another plea from Valerie, this time accompanied by a tear drifting down her cheek. I smirked at myself in the bathroom mirror, glad to be a boy.

Mom was impatient this morning, impatient with Valerie’s hair, impatient with my usual thirteen-year-old dawdling ways. She checked, double checked, then checked a third time to make sure all our papers were in order, our money and travelers’ checks still in her purse, the Berlitz Spanish-English dictionary and a highway map of Mexico at the ready. Before leaving the motel for breakfast (was she wondering if this would be our last good, or, at least, familiar, breakfast?) she made me go back into the room and make sure we’d left nothing behind.

SNAPSHOT: It’s early morning, 7:00 AM early, and the cool morning shadows are welcome. The four of us are sitting in the car outside the motel, Felice once again glaring from her perch and Valerie in front this time. Mom has a pensive and anxious look on her face. If I had some of Dad’s white ink I’d label this snapshot “Doubt”.

I try to imagine what she was thinking and feeling as we crossed the border. Everything in the world she owned and loved was in the car with her. How apprehensive was she when we pulled into the aduana, the Mexican customs station? How doubtful was she now about the decision to start over in Mexico? How much was she feeling her responsibility for the safety of the four of us? There must have been a great burden of doubt and anxiety that she shouldered as we crossed.

I wish I could go back and relive that experience of crossing the border because I don’t remember it. I would love to see how Mom handled it. I would love to see the reaction of the Mexican officials to a young, blond, attractive, American woman with two small children (and a cat!), but no husband, no man, crossing into Mexico, not to visit but to live. They must have been astounded. I think they also must have been impressed with her pluck and maybe even a little concerned for her. I think we probably passed through customs with lots of friendly advice and good wishes. I don’t know. I was reading comic books.

I look at a map of Mexico now, tracing the route we took from Nogales to, ultimately, Guadalajara. I’m surprised, though I don’t know why I should be, to find that some of the things that for years I had taken for granted about our trip don’t bear out. I “knew,” for example, that San Blas was our second stop, after Guaymas and before Mazatlan. Now, looking at a map of Mexico, I’m jarred. Seeing San Blas south of Mazatlan, I’m forced to mentally rearrange the sequence of events and places in my memory, shake them from their customary niches and see them from new perspectives.

8: Bandits? Really?

“We made it, kids. We’re in Mexico.” Mom smiled as she spoke, clearly glad that the border crossing was behind us. “It’s smooth sailing from here to Guaymas. We’ll be staying at a motel right on the beach for a couple of days. You kids’ll have lots of fun.”

“How long before we get there, Mom?” Val asked.

“How far did you say it was, David?”

I looked again at the road map. Guaymas, on the east coast of the Sea of Cortez, two-hundred fifty miles south of Nogales in the state of Sonora. A tiny black dot. “Well, if we average fifty miles an hour, we ought to be there in five hours, Mom.”

I’d already read the new comics I bought, twice, and had nothing to do now but watch the unchanging scenery appear and disappear. There were mountains in the distance to the east, desert stretching as far as I could see to the west. I wondered if there were Indians. I was already bored.

Abruptly, Mom slowed the car. “What the hell . . .?” She was frowning and looking worried again. Two men stood in the middle of the road, waving rifles at us. All of a sudden I was no longer bored. Were we going to be robbed? Murdered? Why didn’t Mom just gun the engine, swing around them and get out of here?

SNAPSHOT: Our car is pulled over to the side of the road, next to a small wooden shack. The car doors are open and almost everything that we had packed so neatly and carefully is now scattered on the ground, being vigorously searched by the three men armed with guns. Mom, holding Felice, is standing by the car, trying to tell the men something in her non-existent Spanish. Val is clutching my leg.

“Gun it, Mom!” I yelled at her, “Gun it!”

Mom didn’t say anything. She was looking intently at the nearest man and then I could see her visibly relax and slump back in her seat. As we rolled to a stop I saw why. These weren’t bandits (we’d been warned about them), they were customs officers. Mom saw the uniform as we got closer and took a chance that they were, indeed, legitimate.

The men waved us over to a small wooden building and motioned us out of the car. Mom grabbed Felice and I took my sister’s hand. A third man, with a pistol strapped to his side, approached us, a big man, sweating profusely even though it was still early in the day. Strands of black hair escaped his official cap, marked ADUANA.

“Aduana, senora“ he said, then, in English, “Customs,” although it came out more like “Coastooms.”

“But we went through customs in Nogales,” protested Mom. “Why do we have to do it again?”
“Coastooms in Nogales, one.” And he held up a finger. “Coastooms here, two,” holding up two fingers. Then, with three fingers in the air, “One more, fifteen, twenty kilometros. Visa, please? We sorch car now.” Mom handed him our visas and he went into the shack, stamped them and returned them to us.

It took them several minutes to pull everything but the camphor chest out of the car. The chest was too heavy and the day was already too hot. They opened our tan Samsonite suitcases, inspected them, looked through the boxes and bundles that made up the rest of our cargo and then put everything neatly back in the car. The camphor chest was left unsearched. The men conferred for a couple of minutes and then the man with the pistol, apparently the boss, slapped a sticker on our windshield. “You go now, senora, y buena suerte. “ Mom smiled and pulled out her wallet, not knowing if there was a fee, official or otherwise. It never hurts to make the gesture.

“No, no, senora, you go now. No pay.” Putting his hand up in the universal gesture that means “Stop”, he repeated, “No pay.”

“Muchas gracias,” Mom said in her American Spanish. We got in the car and were once again on our way.

Just as promised, the third aduana appeared in about twenty minutes, again with an armed man waving his rifle at us. We went through the same routine with the difference that this time we were asked to explain the cat. Not that it was a problem bringing Felice into Mexico, it was just . . . unusual.

Explaining the cat was no easy task. For one thing, we had little more than the word gato in our vocabulary and the customs officers could already see for themselves that that’s what she was. For another, as we were to find out later, pets, especially cats, were far less common in Mexico than in the United States. The idea that we were bringing a housecat into Mexico must have struck them as little less than loony. Nonetheless, we cleared this checkpoint fairly quickly and easily, also. Being young, attractive, and blond can be advantageous.

NEXT: Rules of the Road (Mexican Style) & Bridge? What Bridge? (Or: “We don’ need no stinkin’ bridge!”)

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