Posts Tagged ‘Mexican’

IMG_0072_1024Ninety- nine years ago today, September 15, 1916, the bandit-general of the Mexican Revolution Pancho Villa pulled off a daring attack against Carrancista forces in Chihuahua City, in state of Chihuahua, with 2,000 Villista irregular troops against 9,000 government soldiers—the opposing revolutionary faction recognized and supported by the U.S. At the same time, 10,000 American troops under General Pershing were not that far away, looking for Villa for his attack on Columbus, New Mexico earlier that year on March 8 – 9, in which eighteen Americans died.

September 15, at midnight, is when Mexicans traditionally give the Grito, the Cry of Independence, re-enacting the cry Hidalgo gave in 1810 in Dolores Hidalgo, a town forty-five minutes from here, Guanajuato, declaring war against Spanish control.

Villa’s troops entered Chihuahua at midnight without challenge because they blended in with people coming into town for the celebration. Much of the citizenry was sympathetic to Villa. The Cry for Independence—”Viva, viva México!” soon turned into “Viva Villa!” as sympathizers realized what was happening. Villa freed potential allies from the Penitentiary and occupied the Presidential Palace, then withdrew.

This is the scene then in my novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, when Frank Holloway and his friend Juan Carlos, a young doctor, captives, find themselves forced to join Villa’s attack on Chihuahua. Frank survives, Juan Carlos does not.

Because the latter believed in the civilizing power of horses, that night still outside Chihuahua, Frank and friends build an immense fire beside the river Chuviscar and burn Juan Carlos on top of his horse’s side—both killed by Carrancista machinegun fire.

“Dawn was coming and the stars faded. A river of sparks curved up and away. The fire crackled and spit. River stones exploded from the heat. A slight breeze came up. The three of us stood upwind, so we would not have to smell the roasting horse, which was acceptable, or Juan Carlos, which was foreign and troubling.”

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Before my father died, he had a nurse call the house in Boston where I was staying. I caught the phone so that my brother and mother would not be disturbed. It was two thirty in the morning, April 30th, my mother’s birthday, a warm spring night with light rain. The nurse said my father wanted me to come back to the hospital, he had something he wanted to tell me. I asked which name he had used, mine or my brother’s. She said my name. I said, okay I’d come.

I drove to the hospital. It was three when I arrived. I was already exhausted from a long day of visiting, waiting—watching my father fight for his life. His heart was giving up.

The nurse on duty was Nora. The one I had a crush on. A dark-haired Irish beauty, tall, charming, a warm smile, dark eyes—prettier than you could imagine.

She asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. I said that would be fine, I was exhausted and needed a boost.

“Cream?” she asked, and I said yes.

“It’s just a plastic holder and a paper cup,” she said.

“That’s fine,” I said.

She handed it to me with her elegant, brown, I imagined Galway–Lisbon fingers. I saw the gold ring. She was not available. And because I was so weary and she was being so kind, I said: “Ah, you’re not available—I see the ring.”

And she, who may have been just as batty from being on the night shift so long, said, “Available for what?”

I was too tired from everything that had happened to fall victim to my usual shyness, and I just grinned at her–lovingly, I’d have to say.

After a moment I said, “My father wants to talk to me.”

“I know, “she said. “You’re not available.”

At which we both laughed, and I turned away and went down the corridor over the shiny linoleum into my father’s room.

He lay on his back with oxygen at his nose and tubes in his arms. He was small, shriveled, white-haired, unshaven—and bright-eyed in the way I imagined people were when they were possessed.

He croaked something–dark, indistinct words. I asked him to repeat it. He cleared his throat, reached out a bony hand and tugged on my sleeve. I brought my head closer to his, leaning forward in the bedside chair.

“A long time ago,” he said, “when I was your age, I took a walk near our house. It was a country lane, a dirt road.”

I knew the one he meant. It was a paved road now.

“There were almost no houses then,” he continued. “It had been raining. I turned into the dirt road. A woman was just starting down the road ahead of me. I believe I knew she was Mexican. She had the broader shoulders, the narrower hips, the slender legs, slipper-thin plastic shoes with almost no heel. She was poor. I knew she was headed to the Owen’s house far down the lane. They were wealthy but also a little stingy and preferred to pay the very lowest wages. As I came up behind her, she turned to assess my approach. As I passed her, she turned her head away from me . She was trying to make herself inconspicuous. I said Buenos días! and lifted my hat the way my father used to, although mine was just a baseball cap and his, a full–brimmed felt one. She replied with a Buenos días! from her side. I walked on ahead, satisfied she was no longer afraid.”

I helped my father drink from a glass of water.

“Several days later I took the walk again,” he continued, “down the same dirt road. It had been raining. I saw her tracks in the sand and knew they were from her modest slipper shoes. Her step turned slightly inward. I knew this was her, with her long-suffering poverty and dignity and vulnerability. Someone who could be frightened by a strange gringo coming up behind her.”

“The road turned, and I could see her up ahead. I followed along behind her but this time took pains not to overtake her. This is the part I want to tell you. When I looked down again a little later, her foot prints were gone and in their place were the prints of a deer, a young one. I tried to understand this, but couldn’t. My mind wandered away on its own walk. When I focused on the surface of the road again, the deer’s tracks were gone, and those of a fox–I know the print–had replaced them and continued on down the road, weaving slightly, the way foxes do when they’re not well. I found this disturbing. Soon the tracks changed again–I could see the print of the heel of her shoe. And then there was nothing. But she was still up there ahead of me.”

He was silent for a while. He closed his eyes and his breathing was labored. I waited, watching him, thinking about the time of night and the situation itself, how tired I was, about how long this might go on.

My head jerk up when he began again. His eyes were duller, his voice softer, more serious, an earnest whispering.

“I called you here because I have been thinking about that woman.” He paused, watching me. I nodded, to show I was listening, although all I really wanted to do was just sleep.

“I think she was so poor and so sad maybe that she left this life as we know it and entered some other place.”

He looked at me. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded, but my expression must have given me away. He was not convinced and felt he had to explain it to me again.

“She left because she was so sad, so poor, her prospects seemed so hopeless.”

“Maybe she went and came back,” I said. “Maybe her being Mexican and poor and at that place on the dirt road in a foreign country were all just very tentative.” I didn’t hear the conviction in my own voice.

“No,” he said, and his voice was heavy with fatigue. “No, she left because she was so poor, and the ones she went to do not judge people the way we do here.”

He paused and took a deep, halting breath that was too slow, like someone who isn’t sure he’s still interested in breathing.

“That’s what I want you to remember about me,” he said.

I nodded.

“Do you understand?”

I nodded, even though I didn’t understand. I could see his eyes watering, and the man who never seemed to have touched me or held me my whole life whispered, “Kiss me, my son,” and I stood and leaned forward, hardly able to see him because of my own watering and, avoiding the tube to his nose, kissed him on his barely responding lips and then lay my head against his and wept.

After a while I collected myself sufficiently to realize he had stopped breathing. His eyes looked somewhere else. There was a smile on his lips, and he seemed serene. I was very sad and, I think, also more hopeful than I had ever been for some time. I can not say why.

I sat in the chair again. I watched him for I don’t know how long. I heard soft steps behind me now and then. Once when I focused, I noticed someone had closed his eyes. Dawn seeped through the window. At some point I felt a hand on my shoulder, light like a bird, and then once touching my hair. And finally I heard Nora, the lovely dark Irish beauty say, “There’s a telephone call for you—and I was wondering if you were available.”

“Available?” I repeated.

“After the call,” she said. “Maybe some breakfast.”

And then, as I stood up and let out a long sigh, she put her arms around me and held me and felt warm and substantial and very familiar.

“What about the telephone?” she said.

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On Saturday, November 14, 1998 at 3:30 AM, in a relative calm, the strip-planked crabber “Rainbow Rainbow Warrior” picked its way through a thin fog, turned right at the end of the Bodega Bay breakwater, and took the shortcut between Bird Rock and Bodega Head–a gap about a quarter mile wide and known as a shortcut not to take. Even in calm weather, old swells from the northwest wrap around the headland and join other swells unaffected by the point, and together create two patterns thirty to fifty degrees apart.

Which is to say, when outward bound, it is possible to put your bow directly into the wrapping, more northerly swell, mistaking it for the only pattern, and then be struck from the left by the unblocked, much more westerly, predominant swell of the outer ocean. The unexpected swell can come from as much as fifty degrees to the left of the ship’s heading, resulting in an unplanned rolling motion.

The “Rainbow Warrior” may have had a search light on, sweeping it from Bird Rock to the Head just to get a sense of position. Maybe then, as a kind of headlight, it was aimed straight ahead, over the bow, to see what kind of water was coming. Usually the searchlight is fixed to the roof of the wheelhouse, with a handle extending through the roof, so it can be directed manually. A light positioned on the top of the wheelhouse also shines on the forward part of the boat. The resulting reflected glare can cause night blindness for the helmsman, making it harder to see what’s coming.

The “Rainbow Warrior” rounded the breakwater, turned right, swept Bird Rock and the headlands with its light to determine its position, steamed forward for probably a minute and a half–ninety seconds–plowed through the first swell or two, then rolled suddenly, in a roll that did not end, and sank so quickly that the captain, who was in the wheel house, had to kick out a window to escape. He floated on a hatch cover for fifteen minutes, and was then picked up by another crabber who was coming along behind, perhaps using his own search light, and by chance saw him in the fog and darkness.

For the next few days “The Rainbow Warrior” broke up, and pieces came ashore on Doran Beach, the stretch of sand where I jog each morning. The ship’s stern section washed up first, some twenty feet in length, the ten-foot beam, a stable platform for work, curved at the transom, the exposed floor joists carefully arched, so the deck would shed water through the scuppers, if green water came over the gunnels and threatened to overwhelm the ship. It was a well-made piece, massive and at the same time small compared to the sweep of the sea. Perhaps one ton in weight.

The “Rainbow Warrior” was loaded, perhaps over-loaded, with hundred-pound crab traps, each attached to at least one hundred feet of line, with a buoy at the end. A deck ten by twenty feet could have been carrying three hundred crab traps, and thus an additional above-waterline weight of fifteen tons. The unnoticed west, south-westerly swell, probably a sleeper wave, maybe twice or three times its average size, struck the left side of the hull.

The boat rolled, pitched, and yawed. The combined weight of the keel, the lead ballast, and the engine were not enough to counterbalance the additional fifteen tons of crab traps. The boat reached its maximum roll angle or “frozen position.” At the same time, its buried downward gunnell created a pivot-like effect. The crab traps, stacked eight feet high, pitched in the direction of the roll and collapsed on two young Mexican deck hands.

The tangle of traps and lines drove the two men down into the dark cold water, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 feet. Perhaps at 60 feet, they heard the sound of pirules in a warm afternoon wind–the smell of pepper corns–in Calderones, high above Guanajuato. Perhaps they saw burros moving over paths bordered in September by marigolds, children in a pueblito built of green stone–cantera–a small town, where there is no work, or eucalyptus, on a hill near a white clapboard house, that sway in a cooling afternoon wind that arrives just ahead of the fog. This is their new home, far above the border. A woman waves from a window. They feel her caressing hand, their mother, who came up from Michoacán to be with them.

I do not know how long one sees these things, or whether at all, at 60 feet, at 25 years of age, after fifteen seconds of struggle–holding one’s breath.

On the first morning, the Sheriff’s helicopter made great circles overhead, replaced later by one from the Coast Guard, then fixed-winged planes, a Coast Guard cutter, and fishing boats–all looking for bodies. From Bird Rock, close by, came the smell of harbor seals, sea lions, and sea elephants, their muffled throaty gossip, the smell of seaweed and their shit.

The next day the surf built. The “Rainbow Warrior began to breakup. I jogged their each morning. The stern came ashore, then two survival suits, which I told the Coast Guard about, so they could return them to the families. Then the front of the wheel house, with one window kicked out. Then sections of planking, with the wiring still attached, then rubber work gloves, sweaters, a rubber boot, and a slicker.

The day after the sinking, someone placed a bouquet of flowers in the sand, up near the dunes, facing seaward, perhaps to honor the dead, and invite them to come back from the sea. Parts of the Rainbow Warrior decorated all two miles of Doran Beach.

On the third day, another bouquet appeared in the sand at the water’s edge. The Coast Guard refused to dive for the bodies, because it was not part of their charge, and they would not send their young men down into dark water to become tangled in the wreckage.

On the fourth day, fishermen gathered on large dragger, steamed out the channel, turned right at the end of the breakwater, and stopped over the “Rainbow Warrior.” They wrapped the floating crab trap buoys and their lines over a hydraulic pulley and brought up the tangle–in one mass, minus the hull, along with the two young men, boys really, dangling and pale, and not entirely untouched by the crabs they had gone to hunt.

And after that, nothing appeared on the beach. The stern piece of the “Rainbow Warrior” still sits on the beach, two-thirds of the way from the breakwater, a mile and a half, to just where the golf course begins. The flowers reappeared for a while. In all likelihood, I think, a mother may still wait. Burros move across the slopes of Michoacán and Guanajuato. The sun releases the smell of pepper from the pirules. I suppose a young woman looks northward–remembering. She sees someone waving, from there in the north, but after a while, less and less. The Germans have a word: Trauerarbeit, the work of mourning, which describes hearts trying to heal, waiting for the knot in the chest and the heart to loosen and go away.

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