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>Barra de Navidad & Chased By a Bus

July 25, 2010

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 Barra de Navidad
SNAPSHOT: Jane Hastings sits on the edge of our couch, tense. A tear courses down one cheek. Mom, sitting in a chair opposite, looks very concerned. The expression on my face is one of ill-concealed excitement.
I was home for lunch one Wednesday afternoon in late spring when Jane Hastings came to our house, visibly agitated. Jane and Vernell Hastings were an American couple my Mom knew casually. I knew their daughter, Amanda, from the American School and parties we had both attended. Jane, a chain smoker, was a stocky woman of Mom’s age with dark hair. Normally upbeat and cheerful, Mom and I were both surprised to see her so upset.
“Come in, Jane,” Mom said, “come in and have a seat.” She led the woman to a chair opposite the couch where Mom I took our seats. We waited for her to compose herself.
Jane knocked a cigarette into her nicotine-stained fingers from the pack she was clutching, lit it and leaned back. A stream of blue smoke from her nostrils became a haze around her head. She began her story.
“I don’t know if you know this, but last year Vernell and I invested a lot of money, most of our savings, in the construction of a resort motel in Barra de Navidad. We believe it’ll be the next Puerto Vallarta.” Barra was located on the Pacific coast some two-hundred kilometers south of Puerto Vallarta, even then a popular destination.
“Anyway, Mexican law prohibits foreigners from owning land within fifty kilometers of the coast so we took on a Mexican partner who could legally buy and own the property. We went to a lawyer, drew up the necessary papers, and went ahead with the project. We thought the legal papers would protect us. Boy were we stupid!” Jane stood up and walked to the picture window that looked out over our backyard and lit another cigarette from the butt of the one she’d been smoking.
“How about a drink, June?” Mom offered.
“I’d love one. Gin and tonic, please.”
Mom went to the wet bar and clinked some ice cubes into a glass. She returned, handed Jane the drink and looked at her expectantly.
“Boy, were we stupid!” she repeated, shaking her head, “Stupid and naïve.” Her face darkened with anger. “That son of a bitch, that goddam son of a bitch! He’s kicking us out of the motel and taking it over.”
“But you’ve got legal papers . . .” Mom began.
“Screw a bunch of papers! That property is in his name one hundred per cent. We went back to the lawyer and he said there’s nothing we can do. He’s a son of a bitch, too! They’re probably working together to screw us.” Another cigarette, ice rattling as she quickly finished off her drink. “Screw ‘em all! Here’s why I’m here, Jeanne. Vernell left for Barra yesterday. I had to stay behind to make arrangements for Amanda  and now I’m ready to go. Problem is, I’m too worked up to drive. I need someone to drive me to Barra and I was hoping you or David could do it.”
I knew what was going through Mom’s mind. The drive we’d made from Los Angeles to Guadalajara, plus our regular border trips every six months, was more than enough driving for a lifetime; I knew she wouldn’t want to make this trip. Nor would she want to leave me and Val alone for several days, even with Irene and Socorro in the house. And, most of all, I don’t think she wanted to be caught up in Jane and Vernell’s troubles.

Reluctantly, Mom said I could go and I was elated! (Not that I hid it well, I’m sure.) I’d be driving Jane’s pick-up to the ocean, spending four unsupervised days there and I’d be missing several days of school. This was an unbelievable stroke of good luck! Did I sympathize with June? Yeah, a little, but not enough to quell my excitement.
“Thank you, Jeanne, I can’t tell you how much Vernell and I appreciate this. How soon can you be ready, David?”
Ten minutes later my suitcase and my guitar were in the back of Jane’s truck, I was behind the wheel and we were ready to take off.
“Shouldn’t you take some school books, David?” Mom said. “Don’t you have homework you could do?” I ran back up to my room, silently cursing. She can make me take them, I thought to myself, but she can’t make me use them!
Mexican highways in the mid-fifties had none of the safety features we take for granted today, not even those of U.S. highways of the same period. They were laid down using cheap materials by workers with little knowledge or experience. Most highways were two narrow lanes with maybe-visible center-striping. The striping paint they used wore off quickly and it was a long time between stripings. Nor were there any painted lines along the shoulders, the asphalt sometimes trailing off unevenly into the dust, sometimes dropping unexpectedly two or three inches. Curves were either poorly banked or not banked at all. Potholes were common and there was always the possibility of a washed-out bridge.
Dangerous as the highways were, though, many Mexican drivers, and their poorly maintained cars, were even worse. We’d already had lots of experience with drivers passing on curves, on hills and on the shoulder. Speeding, tailgating, honking – all were common.

Then there was the problem with livestock. Unfenced pastures were common and you never knew going around a bend if you’d be in the midst of a flock of sheep or staring down two or three cows in the middle of the road.
 Whatever highway gods may exist watched over us as we covered the one-hundred seventy-five kilometers to Barra without incident. I remember the sheer joy of the adventure, the road winding through the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains from Jalisco south to the state of Colima and then west to Barra. For me, sitting behind the wheel and sitting on top of the world were one and the same. Even Jane’s glum, silent mood couldn’t dispel my euphoria.
The sun was beginning to set when we pulled up in front of the motel.
It had yet to be landscaped and there were mounds of dirt and piles of discarded building materials heaped off to the side of the road. Workers were throwing debris into a large truck. Guests were expected at the end of the month.
There was one guest there already, however, Al March, a friend of the Hastings, and fear swelled up like a balloon in my stomach when I saw him, the father of my best friend, Greg. He was a big man, six-foot two or three, two-hundred twenty pounds or so. He had a rectangular face, an aggressive jaw and ruddy features. Sparse hair was combed straight back and his eyes and mouth were both unsmiling.

But it wasn’t only, or even mainly, his appearance that scared me; Greg had told me about the kinds of abuse he suffered at home, including being tied to his bed and beaten with the buckle end of a belt. Nor was I reassured by the big hunting knife Al carried everywhere strapped to his waist. I made it a point to stay out of his way.

I helped Jane unload her things and then grabbed mine. We walked through the lobby to the registration desk. Jane went behind the counter, rummaged through a drawer and handed me the key to a room. “You’re probably hungry, David. Go on into the kitchen and see what you can find to eat.” Their erstwhile partner was not there yet. She, Al and Vernell were going into the dining room to make their plans for when he did arrive. I found the makings of a good sandwich in the kitchen, took some pop, cigarettes, a deck of cards, a couple of Playboy magazines and headed for my room.
SNAPSHOT: A full moon hovers over a soft, quiet night on the beach, spreading silver light. The water is softly rippled, almost still. Slack tide. An eerie light blankets the small bay of Barra de Navidad.
About eight o’clock I went for a swim. I slipped on my trunks, grabbed a towel and made my way down the soft, sandy path to the beach, illuminated by a full moon hanging in the sky. There were soft night sounds coming from the tropical vegetation that framed the bay and when I got to the water I was stunned by something I’d never seen before. A beautiful soft, blue-green luminescence shimmered across the warm water, an effect captured and multiplied by the moonlight sparkling off the gently rippling surface. I stood there, taking in the unexpected beauty, unwilling to go in the water, unwilling to disrupt the magic of the moment. Eventually, though, pleasure edged beauty aside and I plunged in, the myriad blue-green droplets exploding into the air, blue-green rivulets streaming from my body each time I emerged.
For half an hour I delighted in the beauty of the neon water, swimming and splashing. When I returned to the sand I again stood there, watching tranquility return to the surface. I turned and left, feeling that nature had shared something special with me.
SNAPSHOT: I’m in a small, dimly lit storage room at the motel. I’m holding a Kotex pad in one hand, looking at it closely. The other hand holds the open Kotex box.
The next day, Friday, passed sin novedad, uneventfully, with the exception that I got my first look at Kotex. It came about because Jane’s pickup was almost out of gas. There were five gallons in an uncovered can in the storage shed but something would be needed to filter the gasoline as it was being poured into the pickup’s tank. It was Al’s idea to use the Kotex and I was dispatched to bring some, along with the gasoline. In spite of Mom’s comprehensive and detailed talks about sex some years before, I was not certain just what Kotex was used for and I was hoping that its appearance and shape would give me a clue.
I took the key Vernell gave me and found the small storage shed behind the kitchen. Inside, I found a stack of boxes labeled “Kotex”, took one down and opened it. I took out one of the white pads and examined it, turning it over, rolling it up, folding it, even smelling it. Not a clue. All I knew about Kotex was that it could be used to filter gasoline.
SNAPSHOT: Now I’m at the bottom of a forty-foot deep well, standing waist deep in water. Above me, way above me, is a faint beam of light from Vernell’s flashlight.
The next morning I stripped down to hop into the shower, only to find there was no water. I quickly threw on my bathing suit and went looking for someone to tell. Jane was in the kitchen, the first place I checked.
“Vernell and Al are at the well, working on it, “ she said, in response to my question. How about some breakfast?”
I should have said yes, but I wanted to see what the problem was with the water so I politely declined and went out to join the two men. They were looking down into the well that supplied fresh water to the motel.
“Yeah,” Vernell was saying, not looking up at my arrival. “I figure the intake is clogged. Someone’s going to have to do down there and unclog it.” There was that ominous word again, “someone”. The last time I had heard it sent me swimming up a jungle river at night. Now, breakfast sounded very appealing and I wished I hadn’t been so quick to turn it down. I also regretted having put on my bathing suit. I just knew what was going to happen.
Vernel continued staring down the well. “It’s kind of narrow, isn’t it? And even smaller at the bottom, where the pump is. al, you sure as hell can’t do it.”
That left two of us, Vernell and me. Vernell was not very big, not much taller than me and probably not even as heavy. He was slender and he could easily go down and unclog the intake. Hell, it’s his motel! But I knew who was going to go forty feet down into the dark, stand in the water, grope around for the intake on the electric pump and unclog it: I was.
Vernell assured me all the power had been turned off and there was no danger. “We’ll shine a light down there for you, too,” he said, helpfully. I didn’t feel reassured.
I lowered myself over the edge of the well and started descending the rebar rungs down the inside, hoping they would hold up better than the Jericho walls I suddenly remembered from when we had lived on Juan Bernardino.
About halfway down the flashlight beam still penetrated the darkness. I looked down but the light wasn’t powerful enough to show me the bottom. “Everything OK?” Vernell yelled down.
            I looked up and saw the dark shape of his head leaning over the well, silhouetted by the sun. “Yeah, just fine,” I sent back. Didn’t feel “fine”, though.
            “OK, I’ll keep the light on.” Good. At least that’ll keep him there.
            After a few more minutes of cautious descent I was just above the water. I didn’t want to go any farther but I couldn’t go back up without first unclogging the pump and I couldn’t stay where I was. “On the horns of a dilemma” flashed through my mind, followed by “Twixt the devil and the deep blue sea”, followed by a memory of the time I stuck a hairpin in an electric outlet when I was six and got one hell of a painful jolt. I definitely needed to stop thinking.
I was about to touch a toe to the water when I started thinking again. I couldn’t help it. It occurred to me that I was holding on to iron rebar while testing the water surrounding an electric pump.
            “You got her unclogged yet, Dave?” Vernell hollered down to me, his voice bouncing and echoing down the walls of the well like a handful of marbles rolling downstairs.
            “Not yet.” I imagined my voice sounding like someone talking from the bottom of a well. Or the grave. I felt like adding, “But I’m still alive!”
            Nothing left to do but do it – and so I did. I lowered myself into the water, which came up to my armpits, and started fumbling around for the pump. No luck. I was going to have to squat down, completely submerged, grope blindly in the water for the intake valve, take off the filter, unclog it and then put it back on. Deep breath, submerge, grope, probe, poke and prod. Nothing. Up for air. Deep breath. Submerge, grope, probe, poke and prod. This time, by guess and by gosh, I found it, the filter over the intake. It pulled off easily and I stood up. I cleaned out some sediment that had accumulated as well as a little vegetation, submerged once more and I was relieved when the filter slipped on as easily as it slipped off. I stood up, breathed a sigh of relief and started the four story climb back to the world.
            When I reached the top and clambered out, dripping wet, Vernell and Al, backs turned to the well, were discussing the fishing trip they’d taken yesterday. I stood there, ignored, by the two men. Finally Vernell turned around. “Attaboy!” he said. Lassie would have gotten more.
            I don’t know that I ever told Mom about this. I don’t think I did. I’m sure she would not have been happy.
SNAPSHOT: The dining room of the motel is freshly painted in warm yellows and light greens. New chairs and tables sit expectantly on the soft gold carpet. Jane is facing a bald, pudgy man, repeatedly jabbing a butcher knife at his belly.
It was early afternoon and I’d just finished a snack in the dining room and was heading for my room to get my guitar and go to the beach. Walking through the lobby, I stumbled on the showdown between Jane and their erstwhile partner, the man they’d been waiting for. Jane, in a fury, stood in front of him, forcing him into a clumsy backward gait by jabbing viciously at his stomach with the blade of a butcher knife as long as her forearm. Sweat rolled off his fleshy face and he was back-pedaling so fast he was in danger of falling over backwards, which would have been a huge mistake. Jane meant business and he knew it. A couple of Jane’s slashes actually brushed his stomach and the only thing keeping him from serious injury was the rolls of fat he carried around. “You buy us out, you son of a bitch or I’ll cut off your balls!” The iambic rhythm of her threat was not what I was concentrating on, even if I had known what that was.
And the threat was not an idle one. There was no question in my mind that she was angry enough to stab him if he didn’t agree to return their money, on the spot. I stood there, rooted. A small part of my mind wondered what it would be like to have my balls cut off. A larger part was grateful it wasn’t me.
The commotion attracted Al’s attention and all of a sudden there he was, striding across the dining room, pushing chairs out of his way and covering ground quickly as he sized up the situation. Without hesitation, he stepped between the two, smoothly stripping Jane of the knife. Then, almost effortlessly, still carrying that big old knife, he half escorted, half dragged the man to the door and threw him out. “Get out.” Al didn’t need to raise his voice, no exclamation point needed. And no second invitation, either.
Jane started crying and left the room. Al went to find Vernell. I stood there in admiration of Al’s actions. He’d known just what to do and he did it. If he hadn’t arrived on the scene I might have been testifying at Jane’s trial for assault. Or murder.
The next day was Sunday and I had to drive Jane back to Guadalajara.
Jane had promised Mom I’d be back in time for school on Monday. I never learned the outcome of the motel dispute. I was simply glad for the experience, glad to be the center of attention recounting my adventure to my friends.

Several months later the Hastings left the country. Before they did, they brought a large trunk to our house. In it were dozens of cartons of cigarettes, various and sundry toiletries and other things that they had planned to sell or use at their ill-fated motel. The best part for me, though, were the many, many World War II copies of Stars and Stripes, the US Army’s newspaper. Vernell had been in the Army and kept all the issues. I spent months reading them, particularly enjoying Bill Malden’s “Willie and Joe” cartoons. Wish I still had them.
Chased By a Bus
SNAPSHOT: This is del Parque, the quiet, tree-lined street where Perico, Alejo and Ramon live. The blue and white Colonia Chapalita bus does not normally go down this street but today is an exception. It’s chasing me.
It was a warm spring day. Ramon and I had taken the bus to school in the morning and we were riding together back home for lunch, seated in the back, talking. A few blocks before our stop Ramon pulled a couple of firecrackers out of his pocket, leaned over and whispered to me, “When we get off, let’s light the firecrackers, throw them under the bus and run,” and he handed me one of them. “If we start running immediately,” he continued, “there’s no way the driver can follow us; we’ll lose him right away.”
I eagerly took one of the firecrackers and clutched it in my hand, smirking. This was going to be fun!
As our stop drew nearer we started snickering at the fun just ahead and the story we’d have to tell our friends later.
We pulled the stop cord and with other passengers made our way to the exit at the front of the bus. Stepping to the ground we casually walked toward the back of the bus, surreptitiously lighting our firecrackers. We threw them under the bus and I took off as fast as I could, hearing the two almost simultaneous explosions behind me. I laughed and turned to look at Ramon, but I was alone: he was nowhere in sight. What was in sight, though, was the bus with all its passengers rumbling down the street toward me and picking up speed. The bus driver had backed up impossibly fast and made a wild left onto Calle 12 de Diciembre. He was out for blood!
SNAPSHOT: The afternoon sun splashes over the low whitewashed wall and the young woman standing behind it watering her garden. The blue and white bus charges up the tree-lined street.
Adrenaline and fear lent me speed as I dashed down the street, cut across a vacant lot and turned left onto Ramon’s street, del Parque, putting me briefly out of the bus driver’s sight. I had no plan and no time to make one. But, as luck would have it, Perico’s older sister, Berta, was out watering the garden in front of her house, next to Ramon’s. I ran over, vaulted the three foot wall and threw myself face down in the dirt, forcing myself up against the wall as hard as I could, hoping that the bus driver hadn’t seen me. In a matter of seconds I heard the bus rumbling down the street and with a squeal of brakes it stopped in front of Perico’s house. The bus driver threw open the door. “Have you seen some little cabron running down the street?” he demanded to know of Berta. “The one who almost blew up me, my bus and all my passengers?”
Bless her soul, and in spite of the fact that she probably believed the driver, Berta coolly told him she saw me running down the street toward the park and she waved her hand in the general direction of the glorieta. He cursed, closed the door and with another curse and a clash of gears was off again. In a few seconds Berta gave me the all clear.
Just about then Ramon came walking nonchalantly up to the house, calm as could be. I got up and dusted myself off. “Where the hell were you?” I demanded. “I thought we were doing this together!”
“I didn’t need to run,” he explained. “Once you started running I just joined the other passengers who got off the bus and let the bus driver chase you. By the way, how did you get so dirty?”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 25, 2010 10:48 pm

    >You continue to have amazing stories. Reminds me of the old truth is stranger than fiction strip.konson jinc

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