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>don Bernardo, Revolutionary

August 8, 2010


The house photos below were taken in December, 2009, on my first trip back “home” in many, many years. The house is substantially unaltered from when we lived there. The episode that follows, with don Bernardo, our gardener, remains one of my warmest memories of the years I spent in Mexco.


don Bernardo, Revolutionary

SNAPSHOT: This is the third house we lived in. It’s shaded along one side by tall trees and has a tiny but neatly tended front yard separated from the street by a low concrete wall. Except for the wooden front door, the entire length of the front wall of the house is glass, floor to ceiling. It’s very new and very modern with lots of granite, tile and wrought iron.

SNAPSHOT: Mexico has been called a land of contrasts. Here’s an example.  Next door to our very nice, very modern house is a family living in a crude adobe dwelling, tucked right up against the wall of our house. There are chickens in the yard, a pig and a couple of goats. Their plot of land is enclosed by barbed wire strung between tree limbs cut to size and stuck in the ground, the same kind of fencing common throughout Mexico’s countryside.
We moved again in 1958. It’s curious that I don’t remember doing any actual moving. I don’t remember packing, unpacking, loading or unloading a truck. I just remember being in a new house. This one was at Santa Maria 87, still in Colonia Chapalita. Our rent was $56 a month. Irene and Socorro came with us.
Cooking was done with propane and periodically two large propane tanks were delivered and hooked up and two empty tanks taken away. Deliveries were often iffy propositions.
It was critical to know just when to call. If we called too soon and they came when they said they would, they took back tanks with considerable propane still in them, propane we’d paid for. On the other hand, if we scheduled a pick-up and delivery with only a little propane left in the tanks, we ran the risk (too often realized!) of them not showing up as scheduled. Then we invariably ran out of gas, requiring repeated trips by me or Irene to Farmacia de las Rosas several blocks away and the site of the nearest public phone, for more phone calls and demands that they come out immediately. It used to drive Mom crazy.           
SNAPSHOT: A large picture window runs the full length of the living room wall, looking out on the backyard. The neatly trimmed lawn is bordered with well-tended plants and flowers. There’s a banana tree in each corner and a bougainvillea frames the garden exit to the carport.
We had a gardener, don Bernardo, who took excellent care of our yard. The lawn was always neatly mowed and edged, flower beds weeded, the banana trees pruned (and they produced every year), and the bougainvillea was healthy — beautifully healthy!
Don Bernardo spent half a Saturday every week gardening for us. He was in his sixties, of average height and slender, weighing no more than 150 pounds. His skin was dark and leathery from years spent outdoors. He always dressed the same: huaraches, navy blue work pants and a white shirt. His dark eyes were sandwiched between three days of beard and the brim of his straw hat. The only time the hat came off was when he was talking with Mom. He would stand there with his hat in his hands, listening patiently as Mom explained in her terrible Spanish what she wanted done. His deference was an act of courtesy only: he was a proud and independent man who never felt himself subordinate or inferior to anyone.
If don Bernardo disagreed with Mom’s suggestions about the garden he would very politely tell her so and try to talk her out of them. This always resulted in a highly animated but very slow argument, as each one in turn had to speak slowly and carefully, with many gestures and frequent repetitions. Miscommunications and misunderstandings further confused the discussion.
 Don Bernardo usually won these exchanges. Or if he didn’t, he did things his way anyway and then apologized profusely for “misunderstanding”. Actually, I think they argued more for the fun of it than anything. Mom enjoyed the challenge of trying to argue in Spanish and I think don Bernardo enjoyed taking a hand in helping her learn the language.
Once he took me on a day-long trek through some fairly rugged terrain a couple of hours outside Guadalajara. He had fought in the Mexican revolution of 1910 and the outdoor survival skills he had learned from that experience and from his many years working in el campo, the countryside, were still with him.
From the moment he asked me if I wanted to go I was excited about the trip. For one thing, I liked the image of me hiking and hacking my way across the landscape, mounting rocky tors and otherwise testing what I thought of as my incipient manhood. Even more, I liked don Bernardo, a lot. He was never at a loss for some interesting story to tell about fighting in the Revolution or things that had happened to him over the years as he worked all over Mexico.
He told me to be ready early the following Saturday, around six o’clock in the morning. Being a teenager, I wasn’t even aware there was such a time as six o’clock in the morning. Nonetheless, I was up and waiting when he arrived. He had a little cloth sack looped over his belt that held all the food he would need for the day. Other than a thermos of cold water I don’t remember what I carried for lunch or what I carried it in. It was probably something far less practical than a small cloth sack looped over my belt.
We got in the Ford and I headed us down the highway to Los Arcos and past the fountain with the enormous statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, invention, the arts and martial prowess. (Talk about multi-tasking!) Then onto the highway that took us west out of town and into the foothills. The state of Jalisco is famous for its tequila and as we passed mile after mile of the cultivated blue agave cactus, used in its making, don Bernardo recounted the story of a battle he was in.
“Si, hombre, there were seven of us, including Pancho Villa himself. This was back in 1910, we were en el norte, near the border with the gringos, in a town occupied by the Federales.” There was a slight smile of remembered satisfaction as I glanced over at him while driving.
“What was the name of the town? Do you remember?” I don’t know if I was challenging his account or genuinely wanted to know.
“Do I remember? ¡Claro que si! You think my memory’s no good?” He went on, although he still didn’t mention the name of the town.
“Villa needed money and one of our spies told us there was a train due later that day with a cargo of gold coins to pay the Federales. About fifteen kilometros out of town we rolled a boulder onto the tracks and positioned ourselves in a ravine nearby and waited.” There was a long pause.
“And then what happened, don Bernardo?”
“We heard the whistle of el tren and prepared ourselves. We checked our rifles and revolvers. And with the bandoleros wrapped around our chest we each had plenty of ammunition. As soon as the engineer saw the boulder he applied the brakes and the train began sliding and screeching on the track. This was our signal and we rode up and out of the ravine, rifles firing in the air.”
Another pause as the blue agave continued to flash by.
“What our spy didn’t tell us was that there was a compania de federales on the train and even before it stopped they were out and firing at us. We could have turned and run but that wasn’t Pancho Villa’s way. ‘¡Oigan, muchachos!’ he yelled, “let’s get the troops and the gold! ¡Vamonos!’ And just like that Villa kneeled down, took aim and knocked off the first soldier he saw. ¡Que hombre, ese Pancho Villa! He wasn’t even sweating! The rest of us followed his example and in five minutes we’d killed or run off all the federales.”
“How many were there, don Bernardo?”
“You expect me to remember everything?” forgetting his earlier assertion about his memory. “We were outnumbered and outgunned and we still managed to get the gold. ¡Que hombre, ese Pancho Villa!” he repeated.
We rode in silence for some time and then he directed me to pull off the highway onto a dirt track worn smooth by carts, horses, mules and people. We bounced along for another five minutes until he said, “Here, we’ll leave the car here and start out.” I pulled into a little clearing, turned off the engine, grabbed my lunch and thermos and locked the car.
SNAPSHOT: Don Bernardo and I are standing on a rocky hilltop miles away from the city, from the road, from everything. The sun hangs in the cloudless blue sky. I’m looking down at my thermos of water, dashed against the rocks below. Don Bernardo is smiling.
It was a cool but sunny and pleasant morning as we started out, promising a warm afternoon. My spirits were high. Just two men roughing it in the rugged hills miles from Guadalajara. Don Bernardo led the way along a path and through terrain he obviously knew well. Almost immediately we started a gradual ascent up into the foothills.
As we ascended, picking our way among the rocks and scrub brush, don Bernardo began pointing out the different edible roots and plants that grew there and even some edible insects. “I’ve survived more than once on just those kinds of things. This is valuable knowledge.” I nodded my agreement, but to myself I was thinking, “Yeah, like I’m going to put those in my mouth!”
We continued our slow ascent with the sun climbing higher and the day getting hotter. For me, it was becoming an arduous uphill trek with no end in sight. I didn’t think roughing it would be this rough. The scenery held nothing of interest to me: dirt, scrub brush, small boulders, once in a while an agave cactus. And the path kept going up. I was sweating profusely and my legs were rubber, but don Bernardo just chugged on, oblivious to the steepness of our climb. I began to notice that as we went higher, the path became fainter until finally there was no path. At least, none that I could make out. Don Bernardo kept up his steady pace, skirting, sometimes clambering over, increasingly large boulders, pushing his way through the brush.
I’d already finished half my water, in spite of don Bernardo insisting I ration it, and I was still thirsty. And then I noticed, for the first time, he didn’t have any water. I wondered if he expected me to share mine . . .
SNAPSHOT: A study in contrasts. My expression is one of dismay and desperation as I peer down the slope to the rocks, and my Thermos, below. Don Bernardo has a big grin on his face.
Too thirsty to forego water any longer I stopped to take a drink. I unscrewed the cap, took out the stopper . . . and dropped the thermos. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the hillside, heard the silvery sound of the glass liner shattering into thousands of tiny microfine glass fragments. So here we were, miles from the car with no water on a hot day. Don Bernardo grinned at me. “No te preocupes. Don’t worry. We’ll be fine without the water.” I think he was secretly pleased. It was an opportunity for me to learn firsthand about survival.
I watched curiously as he closely examined the ground around him, looking for something. After a couple of minutes he bent over and picked up some pebbles. He popped a couple in his mouth and handed two to me. “Here, put these in your mouth and just keep moving them around. They’ll keep the saliva coming and prevent your mouth from drying out.”
 Skeptically, and hesitantly, I did and we resumed our hike. After a short time I was pleasantly surprised to find that the pebbles did just what he had promised. A little thing like no water wasn’t going to deter don Bernardo.
The path only don Bernardo could see led us to the top of a hill. I looked out for miles in all directions. There were hills everywhere I looked. The pebbles had taken my mind off my thirst and for the first time I began to enjoy the scenery. Don Bernardo pointed out places he had been, places, again, only he could see. “There’s a river over there,” gesturing off to the right, “with a beautiful little waterfall. I came across it when I was a young man and got lost while hunting. I followed the river for two days and eventually came to a little village. The people there gave me food and I spent a couple of days recovering my strength.” He similarly pointed out other locales, recounting a different tale for each one. I listened in fascination, forgetting my thirst, forgetting about being hot and tired.
Soon he turned and beckoned me to follow him down the other side of the hill. He picked his way surely and confidently. I had no idea where we were nor in which direction the car lay. We’d not seen another human being the whole day and if anything happened to don Bernardo. . . I imagined someone out walking these hills years later and coming across a pile of bones. My bones. Picked clean by coyotes or wolves or mountain lions or vultures or . . . I quickly picked up my pace and walked a little closer to don Bernardo.
After another hour of walking and listening to him tell me about his travels and adventures I was once again unbearably thirsty. “The pebbles don’t work anymore, don Bernardo, and I’m thirsty.”
He stopped and again examined the ground and the vegetation. Finding what he was looking for he motioned me to follow him as he walked over to a low-growing bush. Kneeling down, he grabbed it and deftly pulled it up. The root, instead of being long and skinny, was a bulb about the size of a chicken egg. With his knife he cut the bulb away from the plant, peeled it and cut it in half. “Here,” he said, handing me half, “put this in your mouth and chew it. Don’t swallow the pulp, just the liquid.”
 So, famous last words notwithstanding, I was, indeed, putting “one of those” things in my mouth. I began to chew. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of cool water with a not unpleasant taste. I chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed some more and then spat out the pulp, as I saw don Bernardo do. Meanwhile, he had pulled up a couple of more plants, cut off the bulbs and put them in his pocket.
“Can I have some more, don Bernardo? I’m still thirsty.” But he refused me any more for the moment.
“These plants are here to help us survive, not to quench our thirst every time we feel dry. Be patient. Learn to live with a little discomfort.” And we went on.
For another hour or so we walked the hills, don Bernardo pointing out different edible plants and animal tracks I never would have seen on my own, recounting how he had acquired these skills. Then he spotted a small grove of tunas, prickly pears.
¡Que suerte! We’re fortunate to come across these! They’ll provide us with food and something to drink.” There were some two dozen cacti growing in the grove, most taller than me. Many of them had spiny green nodules about the size and shape of a hand grenade. He was delighted.
“You’ll like these, they’re a real treat.” I couldn’t believe he was pointing at the green, spiny nodules. They might as well have been hand grenades for all the damage they looked like they could do.
I watched don Bernardo as he walked among the tunas, sizing them up, deciding which ones to eat. I simply looked at them in puzzlement. Each one grew atop a round, thin cactus leaf. How could you eat or drink anything like that? But I shouldn’t have doubted. Using his knife, and without touching the plant, don Bernardo sliced a few tunas off their stems, letting them fall to the ground. Then he carefully placed his boot on one of them and gently rolled it back and forth on the ground, breaking off all the spines. After picking it up he partially peeled it with his knife, exposing the fruit inside, and offered it to me. It was a deep purple and fleshy. After the pebbles and the root I was learning to trust him so I took it and bit into it. Aside from the fact that it was full of small seeds it was very good, sweet and full of juice. He told me to prepare the next one and I did, and it was easy.
“Let’s eat here,” don Bernardo says, so we prepared a few more prickly pears and sat down to enjoy our midday meal.
The rest of the day passed in a like manner. When I was feeling thirsty, I popped a couple of pebbles in my mouth until I could locate the plant with the root. Don Bernardo, who could probably go the whole day without water, told me he’d no longer point out the plant, I’d have to find it myself. After several unsuccessful attempts I found one, prepared it and drank its liquid, fixing the size, color and leaf shape of the plant in my mind. But he wouldn’t let me take more than he thought I needed. Nature had been too good to him over the years for him to take advantage of it.
SNAPSHOT: The sun hangs a hands width above the horizon as we stop at a pond near our car. The water was a brackish green and I could clearly see frogs, water bugs, small fish and other things I couldn’t identify.
By five in the afternoon we’d made our way back to the car. About a hundred yards from where we had left it was a pond with frogs, water bugs, polliwogs and other things I couldn’t identify.
“Here’s where we tank up on some real water!” don Bernardo enthused. He got down on his knees, put his face in the water and started drinking. I didn’t hesitate. The pebbles, roots and prickly pears had done a good job of allaying, but not quenching, my thirst and I figured if he can, I can. I’m sure it was the most enjoyable drink of water I’ve ever had.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 5:23 am

    >Another excellent one. My survival night was in pouring rain in the woods with a knife and wet matches – I would have prefered your great adventure…weten dawoods

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