Skip to content

>Into the Wild Blue Yonder & Home On Leave

October 3, 2010


Into the Wild Blue Yonder
It’s November, 1960, time for our semi-annual trip to the border. This time, though, it was different: Mom and Valerie would be returning to Mexico, but I wouldn’t. There were many reasons for this. I had dropped out of Cervantes after flunking the third year of secondary, and I wasn’t going to return to the equivalent of ninth grade at the age of seventeen. I refused to deliver milk any longer; it was demeaning and I felt mortified doing it. Worst of all, I couldn’t stand to be around Mom. Life at home had degenerated into a series of daily yelling matches. Hateful words were flung back and forth by two people without the skills or resources to improve their situation. But the most important reason I wouldn’t be returning is that I had something that promised escape and hope: I was going to join the Air Force.
Mom’s life, if anything, was more miserable than mine. Antonio was a bitter memory, she had raised a son who was failing at life and her drinking was out of control. And maybe worst of all, for her there was no out, no escape, no hope.
And Valerie? Once again, I gave no thought to her. I look back and I’m clobbered again and again with the terrible, painful fact that Val probably suffered far more at Mom’s hands than I ever did. I never made myself aware of it at the time and leaving home then, when she was eleven, meant that all Mom’s anger, her drunken rages, the crushing failures of her life were taken out on Valerie. But even if I had been there, what would I have done? Just what I’d always done: nothing. Val was still on her own, with no one to come to her defense.
Being only seventeen, I needed Mom to sign for me, and she did, probably with a great deal of relief. I’d no longer be around creating problems and weighing on her conscience. Even more, Mom must have seen the Air Force as I did, a way out. And she probably saw beyond what I saw, that the Air Force might make something of me.

Why the Air Force? In my mind the Air Force had a certain cachet that the other services lacked. Unlike the Army, the Navy and the Marines, the Air Force, just a little over a decade old, was a newer branch of the military. I also liked the blue uniform and I liked the idea of flying (which I would never do, other than from one assignment to the another). And I had heard or read somewhere that basic training in the Air Force was easier than in the other services. That decided it for me.
But I wondered and worried whether the Air Force would accept me, being only seventeen and a high-school dropout. If they didn’t, I’d have to try the other branches, like it or not. And if they didn’t? I didn’t like to think about it; it was too much like the end of the road. If I couldn’t get into any of the services, what were my options? Return to Mexico? To a life holding no happiness, no hope, no future? Or stay behind in the U.S.? And do what? I was a high school dropout with no job skills and no work experience other than delivering milk and dehorning cows. And I was clearly no good at the latter.
Our trip to the border was virtually silent. The weather was gray, gloomy and heavy, matching our mood. Mom and I had nothing to discuss. She didn’t feel the need to give me any advice and I wouldn’t have paid her any attention in any case.
We headed straight for San Antonio this time, instead of going to Brownsville or McAllen or Laredo, all border cities that we had been to on other trips. Air Force basic training was at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and maybe Mom thought I had to sign up right there. Whatever the reason, we went to San Antonio and got a room at the Blue Bonnet Hotel, in the downtown area. We still had no idea if the Air Force would take me.
SNAPSHOT: A line of guys, all of us between seventeen and twenty-five, is boarding a bus behind a nondescript one-story brick building. The sign in the window of the building says Air Force Recruiting Office; the lettering on the side of the dark blue bus says “Lackland AFB.” I’m one of the last to get on a bus that’s taking me to the rest of my life.
The next morning Mom picked up the phone, called the Air Force recruiting office nearest the hotel and got the answer we’d been hoping for: they would take me, but I would have to pass both a physical and a battery of aptitude tests. My world opened up. I had a future.
In less than a week I was officially in the Air Force. I filled out all their forms, took the tests and passed the physical. (God! How I hated taking off my shirt in front of all those other guys! I was mortally embarrassed by my acne.) I was sworn in on the 22nd of November 1960, standing at attention with several other recruits in a small room in the same recruiting station I had first gone to. When the swearing in was over, we turned, marched out the back door and onto a waiting bus. I was on my way to basic training. On my way to salvation.
Home on Leave

SNAPSHOT: The man in the gray uniform is smiling effusively as he waves JC and me out of the Mexican customs station. You can just see the corner of a fifty-peso bill tucked in his shirt pocket.
It was sixteen months before I returned home to Mexico. During that time I completed basic training, eight months of intensive Chinese language training in Washington, D.C. and four months of tech school at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. (How big was San Angelo? The Chamber of Commerce listed the Greyhound bus depot under “Sights to See in San Angelo” in its brochure.) My next assignment, my first operational one, was to be Osan Air Force Base, forty miles out of Seoul, South Korea, where I would be listening in on Chinese Communist military aircraft communications. Pilar and I wrote to each other often during this time. We were still very much in love and couldn’t wait to see each other. I had accrued forty-three days of leave by the end of tech school and I was going to spend them primarily with her.
 I wanted my homecoming to be a surprise for Pilar. She knew approximately when I’d be arriving but I hadn’t told her the precise date to expect me. It was February, 1962, a month from my nineteenth birthday and she had just turned eighteen. We’d been “going together” (which in Mexico was considerably more serious than “going steady”) since before I left to go in the service. This was to be my great homecoming to Pilar. I’d bought her an expensive watch at the Base Exchange at Goodfellow Air Force Base where I had been stationed, and I wanted a memorable occasion for presenting it to her. I got it.
Getting home, though, proved to be a memorable event in itself. Actually a series of memorable events.
To save money, I decided to hitchhike the two hundred miles from San Angelo to San Antonio, there to meet a long-time friend, JC Herren. He and I had been friends in Guadalajara, hanging out with the American crowd.
JC was over six feet tall with blond hair trimmed in a crew cut. His eyes and his mouth always looked like he was about to smile. He lived in San Antonio and we were going to drive the thousand or so miles from San Antonio to Guadalajara in his old (even then) ’51 Chevy. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I just had it tuned and the brakes checked. Everything’s okie-dokie.” Everything was always okie-dokie with JC. It was his mantra.
We left late one morning and the first one-hundred fifty miles, from San Antonio to the border, were uneventful. Not so at the border.
Unlike most of the other vehicles, we were asked to pull over for inspection. We pulled into a side lane and waited. And waited. Eventually a Mexican border official strolled over, his crisp, gray uniform not yet soiled or spoiled. His name tag proclaimed him to be Eduardo de Alba y Santos.
“Out of the car, caballeros!” he ordered as he approached the car, motioning us over to a couple of benches. We took seats and watched. Having nothing illegal in the car we weren’t particularly worried. Legal things, however, like the portable tape recorder I’d bought, were apparently cause for worry.
“You can’t bring this into the country,” de Alba y Santos said, his tone of voice implying only idiots or smugglers would dream of bringing such a thing into Mexico.
“Why not?” I asked, innocently enough.
“Because it’s against the law,” syllables dropping out of his mouth very slowly, convinced now we weren’t smugglers, just idiots. But, where there’s a bill, there’s a way and a fifty-peso bill convinced him the law in this case just might be wrong.
“Everything’s okie-dokie!” JC smiled. I was to come to hate that phrase.
We cleared customs and faced another one hundred fifty miles to Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon and Mexico’s third largest city. The weather had turned gray and rainy but we were in good spirits and “toolin’ along” as we used to put it, on the two-lane highway when we unexpectedly found ourselves wrapped in a very heavy fog. Visibility was so poor I couldn’t even judge how far ahead we could see.
After a bit we came up behind another car going (rather sensibly I thought), considerably slower than JC wanted to go.
“Damn!” he muttered, “we’ll never make it at this rate!” He had thoughts of doing the eight hundred miles from the border to home in under fifteen hours and this car ahead of us was clearly not cooperating. JC kept edging closer, trying to peer around the slower car.
“Uh, JC?” My voice was strained and I was beginning to look for things to hold onto. “You’re not thinking of passing are you?” I was almost afraid to ask, afraid of putting ideas in his head.
SNAPSHOT: This is the view from inside JC’s car. A pair of headlights stabs at us out of the fog. They’re from a car rushing toward us and we’re occupying his lane. To the right is the car we’re passing.
“Everything’s okie-dokie,” he smiled. At the same time, he swung suddenly into the oncoming lane and stomped the accelerator. Had he waited five seconds more he would’ve seen the approaching headlights, now probing the fog ahead of us, in time to scoot back to safety. Now we were simply involved in a classic game of chicken.
And then it dawned on JC that his headlights weren’t on and that the other car has no idea we’ve preempted his lane. JC again veered abruptly to the left, skillfully negotiating the drop to the hard-packed sand on the far shoulder.
Reacting instinctively, he gunned the engine and as soon as the oncoming car shot by, horn blaring, he made a sudden turn back to the right, to the highway. We hit the shoulder, hard, bounced high, came down in the right lane and proceeded down the road.
For about ten seconds neither of us spoke. Then, from JC, weakly and none too confidently, “Everything’s okie-dokie.”

In Monterrey (and after the usual two additional customs checks) we stopped for something to eat. After eating we clambered into the Chevy and encountered our next problem: the starter was dead. For the next two hours JC grumbled and muttered while we hunted down first a starter and then a garage that could install it.
             Back on the road again we made pretty good time over the next two hundred miles or so. Then, thirty miles north of Matehuala, the halfway point, the engine sputtered and stalled: we were out of gas. At least one thing on JC’s car wasn’t “okie-dokie”: the gas gauge didn’t work. We coasted to a stop on the shoulder. Because I could speak Spanish (JC was one of those many Americans who lived in Mexico but never learned the language), we decided I would be the one to hitchhike into Matehuala for gas.
In just a couple of minutes an old dark green Dodge came along and stopped. A middle-aged man, balding and with a large face and horn-rimmed glasses, stuck his head out the window. I quickly explained that we were out of gas and asked if he’d be willing to give me a lift into Matehuala. The man behind the wheel assented quickly. “¡Si, si, subase!” he said and, thanking him for his generosity I opened the car door to get in.
SNAPSHOT: We’re looking into the interior of the Dodge and counting the heads. One, two, three, four in front on the bench seat, one, two, three, four, five, six in back.
It was only then that I noticed the car was already full. As a matter of fact, it was full and then some, with four adults and six children ranging in age from one to ten. Two of the kids were crying lustily. I might have graciously declined the ride, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. For one thing, hospitality is taken very seriously in Mexico and once extended, even under these conditions, refusal is awkward. For another, there was no way of knowing how long I might have to wait for another ride.

As I opened the driver’s-side back door the six people already in the back seat began to rearrange themselves to accommodate the seventh. Two toddlers were shuffled from one lap to another, a baby transferred from one maternal relative to another and a small seven-year old boy was squeezed even more than he had been.
I wormed my way into the approximately seven or eight inches of space they had made for me and figured the only way to close the car door, with half my butt hanging over the end of the seat, was to slam it. Bad move. I yelped and sprang up as the inside door handle walloped my hipbone. I came down on the thigh of the woman next to me who, in turn, suddenly shifted to her right. The seven-year-old boy next to her must have felt he was sharing the back seat with a python.
After some more child care rearrangements, I now found myself wedged in hip-to-door handle on one side and thigh-to-thigh on the other, with one-and-a-half children temporarily calling my lap home.
It was only fifty kilometers (thirty miles) to Matehuala but, traveling at only fifty kilometers an hour, it took a full sixty minutes to get there. Other vehicles flew past us or leaned on their horns to urge him to go faster. But to no avail.
“Cautious drivers are the safest drivers,” explained the man driving, oblivious to the hazards he himself was creating. I wondered if, packed as it was, the car was even capable of going faster.
On the outskirts of Matehuala the man pulled over into a Pemex gas station (the only kind there is Mexico, a state-run monopoly) and I hopped out. The man refused the money I extended to him. “Just drive slow and be safe, that’s all,” he said to me, sagely, and resumed his slow journey.
I purchased a gas can and some gas and again I was fortunate. I found a truck driver willing to take me back right away. He was a small man, just barely big enough, it seemed to me, to see over the steering wheel of his rig. But he was wiry and muscular and the look on his face was intense in the way a surgeon’s face is intense during a delicate operation. His driving philosophy was just the opposite to that of the first driver. “Speed is what counts!” he snarled.
Oh, Lordy. I thought to myself, What am I in for now?
 “When those faint-hearted bastards see me about to run up their fucking tailpipe, they move out of the way fast! And if that isn’t enough,” he went on, reaching for the cord above his head, “I give ‘em this!” He pulled on the cord and his air horn blasted through even the loud rumbling of the engine, the sound physically assaulting my face. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” but his sly smile told me otherwise.
He had several opportunities on the way back to demonstrate his driving philosophy as his eighteen wheeler approached speeds of one-hundred-thirty KPH on the narrow highway, speed limit one-hundred KPH. I kept wondering what would happen if “speed counts” came up behind another “cautious and safe.”  
We arrived back at the car in just under twenty minutes. The truck driver accepted my thanks but, once again, not the proffered money and he roared off down the road, looking for more “faint-hearted bastards.”
With gas in the tank we were once again in high spirits as we started rolling toward Matehuala. So far we’d overcome a border problem, a broken starter, and running out of gas. We were at the halfway point in pretty good shape and figured to be home before dawn, in about ten hours. What else could go wrong? “Everything’s okie-dokie!” came the familiar refrain and this time it didn’t bother me a bit. It should have. inlaid
Within minutes our personal demon of misfortune put in another appearance. Taca-ta-taca-ta-taca-ta-taca. Any unusual sound coming from the engine is unsettling, but this was particularly ominous, Taca-ta-taca-ta-taca-ta-taca. It was very rapid and getting louder, the sound of metal on metal.
It continued getting louder as we rolled into Matehuala. We gassed up and grabbed a bite to eat, both of us hoping the sound would somehow just “go away” while we were in the restaurant.
It didn’t, of course. Instead, it increased in intensity until it was obvious that it was just a question of time until the engine beat itself to death. JC hadn’t commented on everything (or even anything) being “okie-dokie” for a long time now.
Finally it happened. The engine in that old ’51 Chevy threw a rod and expired. We were ninety kilometers south of Matehuala (which seemed to have become the focal point of the universe for us), it was seven-thirty at night, pitch dark. And we were stranded.
Our fortunes, which had been up and down ever since the trip started, again took a turn for the better. While we were still puzzling over what to do, a first-class bus came rolling out of the darkness, heading north. I desperately flagged it down and, surprise of surprises, it stopped for us! In Mexico, one can flag down second- and third-class inter-city buses virtually anywhere but first-class buses stop only at designated points and we were definitely not at a designated point. But the bus driver must have seen our car with the hood up, sympathized with our situation and stopped to pick us up anyway.

Our good luck continued to hold (although I wished we didn’t have to use it all up countering our bad luck). We made good time back to Matehuala and were able to get a tow truck back out to the car in a minimum of time. By eleven-thirty that night the car had been towed back and entrusted to the care of a mechanic who said it’ll take a week and fifteen hundred pesos ($120 US) to repair.
JC, apparently practicing car repairs . . .

We sat sipping coffee in a restaurant next to the garage, discussing our situation. The only way to get home now was by bus, first to San Luis Potosi, about three hundred kilometers further south, and then to Guadalajara. The next bus out of Matehuala, though, wasn’t until five the next morning and the restaurant closed at midnight. We asked about a motel and found out the nearest one was ten kilometers away but that we’d have to walk as the phone was out of order and there was no way to summon a taxi. Walking was out of the question. I had a large suitcase and an even larger, too-awkward-to-carry, coming-apart-at-the-seams cardboard box tied round and round with rope. I had no intention of struggling with all that for ten kilometers down an unlit highway in the middle of the night.

Again, just when things seemed bleakest, our luck turned again. The only other customer in the restaurant had been sitting two or three stools down from us at the counter, eating quietly, giving no indication he was even aware of our presence. After finishing his meal, though, he swung around to face us.
“I’ll take you guys to San Luis Potosi,” he said in heavily accented but good English. “You can help with the driving and buy the gas.”
“Great!” exclaimed JC, clapping his hands. But I beat him to it: “Everything’s okie-dokie!”
Primo, as his name turned out to be, was a Colombian national on leave after completing Marine boot training at Parris Island, South Carolina. He was maybe a couple, three years older than us, stocky and solid. He was driving a two-year-old, maroon, four-door Buick.
I wrestled my unwieldy box and suitcase into the trunk alongside JC’s things and climbed into the back seat, JC having already claimed shotgun. Primo kicked the engine to life and we pulled out into the night, a little after midnight.
After all we’d been through, it was sheer bliss to sit in the back of that big old Buick and just relax. I looked out the window at the fierce desert landscape flashing by, visible only in varying shades of relief, and suddenly felt overwhelmed by the intense beauty of the black, black night with its countless stars strewn carelessly across the sky. In a matter of moments I was asleep.
The rest of the trip was a piece of cake. We arrived in San Luis Potosi around six in the morning and thanked Primo profusely. He dropped us off at the Central Camionera where the next first class bus to Guadalajara was due out in forty-five minutes. I’ve no idea what ever happened to the car.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 8:32 pm

    >I continue to be amazed both by the numbers of exciting "adventures" in your life and by your great memory of them. Unless, of course, it is all the result of those glass ornaments you ate last christmas.Darles Carwin

  2. October 5, 2010 4:19 pm

    >Is that what they were? I thought they'd been left for Santa . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: