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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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Cache Creek Swimming Hole

Cache Creek Swimming Hole

I use the word loosely.

I’m talking about just one of the Americas—the one we always see on top, a cartographical positioning that was chosen by a culture that assumes itself to be dominant, i.e. “on top,” the world’s default world view. The rest of the globe appears to have politely accepted European-North American on-top-ness, just the way it has accepted Greenwich Mean Time. Nice of them, but perilous for those who assume that their cultures can’t help but be the measures of all others; and perilous for the “southern” cultures who twist themselves inside out trying to adjust.

I flew from León/Guanajuato to Los Angeles, then on to San Francisco, where I rented a low-slung Ford Focus—which seemed to have no maximum speed for taking curves—and drove to Sacramento, to the 2014 Western Writers of America conference. I never had to ask a soul how to get there because of my portable GPS whose lovely female voice my love had switched to French—which added linguistic anxiety to general GPS anxiety. “Dans huit cents mètres, tournez à gauche.” Turn left in 800 yards! Leaving Sacramento, I insisted on continuing north on Route 5 to take the long way to Sonoma County through Williams and Clear Lake, instead of the shorter southern one Mademoiselle had plotted as shorter and more practical. As I passed by each possible exit, she instructed with increasing insistence, “Tournez-vous immédiatement! Tournez-vous immédiatement!” Turn around immediately, turn around immediately.

But back to the conference. I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps people smelling of cigarettes and beer at nine in the morning, pushing pulp fiction consisting mostly of Bodice Rippers and Armed Male Heroes on Rearing Horses, holding Rifle Aloft. But what I found were kind, knowledgeable, intelligent writers, agents, publicists and publishers. I went to almost each session on the theory that I would pick up something useful whatever the topic. Which proved to be the case. I schmoozed and handed out my postcards that pushed my own Armed Male Hero with Moustache and Sombrero and brought up, whenever I could, the idea of the Mexican western, a concept I found not widely held among my fellow conference goers. In fact, the whole country seemed just slightly beyond my companions’ consciousness. Which is a whole topic in inself—one which I hope I will come back to later in this screed, but may not.

What I liked most about the conference was the hotel where the sessions held and where we stayed. I like to refer to it as the starship or maybe space station Double Tree Hilton, which consisted of several buildings connected by covered causeways, so that you never had to leave the building—which I hardly did over four days and five nights. The food available was delicious and reasonably priced. Especially the breakfast buffet, where I took huge servings of fresh blueberries and strawberries each morning, while others seemed more interested in the biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and sausages.

I was assigned a mentor, a kind man and good writer, who introduced me to various publishers and editors—for whom I felt no fear because I wasn’t offering them a manuscript with hands atremble. I had my own novel Playing for Pancho Villa—which I was now pushing as a Mexican western—and another book in gestation, which I would also bill as a Mexican western wherever that description seemed socially acceptable.

As I mentioned, Mademoiselle GPS et moi, headed north after the conference, quarreling all the way. I wanted to follow a route to Sonoma County I took in the old days when my two boys and I returned from Ishi country, as we called it, between Mill and Deer Creek, northeast of Chico, where we would commune with that fine man, a Yahi Indian, who came into the white man’s world, starving, when none of his people were left.

In Williams, I got off the freeway, probably to Mademoiselle’s relief and went into a hardware store for a piece of nylon rope from which I could hang my hand-washed clothes. Three men sat around the check-out counter, watching the World Cup on an overhead screen. The young Mexican team was trying to keep its miraculous one point lead over Holland. I concluded my purchase. All three men spoke Spanish and I asked in Spanish whether they knew where I could breakfast and watch the game at the same time. They said, almost in unison, “Nowhere.” Which was to say, We are not Mexico, where every eating place will have some sort of TV placed—even outside—for people to watch the most important game in four years. A game on which rode the entire nation’s self-esteem.

I went to the local Trading Post, or whatever it is called, where all the passing tourists were eating heavy and then buying overpriced packaged luxury food items that weren’t good for you. I had Eggs Byzantine or Florentine, or whatever you call it when there’s no ham. The sweet waitress automatically brought me ham. She was equally sweet when I sent her back to remove the ham and replace it with sauteed spinach.

After paying, I walked out into the entry area and found someone had turned on an overhead television. There was a bare table; three men sat at it in three chairs; I settled into a fourth empty chair. They were all over fifty: one man, Dutch; one South African; and one that looked Latino. They were watching the same game—Holland vs Mexico. I joined them until the enfant terrible Robben appeared to fake a foul in the penalty area and thereby win a scoring penalty shot. Holland won two to one. I didn’t want to hang around and live Mexico’s disappointment. I got into the Focus; and Mademoiselle and I headed due west. After a few side roads, she gave up trying to head me off and fell into a brooding silence. As a way of protecting her dignity, I shut off the GPS.

We entered the hot, dry, lovely hill country west of the Sacramento Valley and approached an area I knew used to have streams that the boys and I had swum in. At Cache Creek, North Fork, to the right, I saw a glorious swimming hole, with little kids—closely watched by mothers—leaping off a bank into the clear water. I drove on, looking for a way in, and found nothing. I turned around and passed the swimming hole again. I couldn’t find an entrance, and began to think it must be private property. At the creek bridge, on the right, the opposite side of the road from the swimming hole, I saw a State Park sign that said Cache Creek, Rose Bud Trail or Trailhead, and I drove in.

There was a parking lot, a small bathroom house, and various covered displays telling about the site, the fauna and flora, the site’s history. I parked Focus and headed straight toward Cache Creek to see if I couldn’t find my own swimming hole. Which brings me to my religion and the spiritual epiphanies it offers: skinny-dipping in California creeks, rivers and ponds. Then getting out and feeling the effect of water drying on my skin. That is the image and sensation I hope I call up in the moments before my death.

The first part of the creek I came to served perfectly well; not exactly a hole, but deep enough to swim twenty feet, then stand in the dry air and feel my gods breathing against my skin. One of the displays back at the parking lot had explained that Tule Elk had been released there in the Twenties and that, protected, they had flourished since then and could be seen grazing on the hillsides in the green of winter. As I dried, I wished for the appearance of one of the large creatures, preferably a gentle one—since I thought I might be swimming in one of their watering holes, without permission.

A car door banged; and then two others. I had just slipped on my clothes. Two women with children had stopped to use the toilets. The spell of being alone in an Ishi spot had been broken.

I had spent most of my life being alone in the woods in New England and then in California. There were certain spots that seem holy: a dark glacial pond with turtles; a beech grove with smooth gray trunks, far from a highway, let alone a freeway; a stream where Ishi had fished. That may be a condition of spiritual moments, that one is alone. It is hard to do in Mexico where one is never alone; where there are just too many people with a claim on the land, no matter how remote it may seem. Poor countries, the ones “underneath,” have very few protected wilderness areas, where it is possible to be alone. There is always someone moving through a landscape, sharp-eyed and intensely curious to know what you are doing in the same area.

Except in cars, where one is often alone. In Mexico, you watch for people and animals on the side of the road. They appear in abundance. At night it is quite dangerous. In California, I was alone and car-bound for much of my adult life, with National Public Radio figures as my closest companions. In Sacramento, I saw people walking in parking lots at Whole Foods and REI—but nowhere else. I miss casual contact with people when I’m in the States; I see few people walking, in contrast to Guanajuato, which is a walking city with few roads. I feel lonely in the States; I feel crowded in Mexico. But in that moment, when the toilet visitors were in their car and drove away, I resolved to visit America more often.

Just to be able to dunk naked in Cache Creek again—waiting for the elk.

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Mexconnect.com’s book reviewer James Tipton reviewed my novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I suppose all writers gnash their teeth over parts of reviews. I will let you find the spot where I gnash. Still, it’s good to get some exposure, since that is the challenge facing a small press and a new writer.

According to Mexconnect, more than 500,000 people read their site each month—80% of them from the U.S. and Canada.
More than 54,000 other web sites link to it, and it ranks in the top 1% of all Internet sites in the world.
It has become Mexico’s most-read site in English.

This is James Tipton’s review:

Playing for Pancho Villa
By Sterling Bennett
Libros Valor, Mazatlan, Mexico, 2013
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback (and Kindle)

The year was 1916. Young Frank Holloway “got mercury poisoning working in the Silver Creek Mine in Mogollón, New Mexico.” To recover his health, his doctor told him to get away and go have “an adventure.”

And so… perhaps lacking judgment because of the mercury poisoning, Frank opted for danger as well as adventure. On Tosca, his beloved mare, he rode south, and fifty miles west of El Paso he crossed the border into Mexico.

Frank, “with a fool’s luck, managed to pick his way… between horse thieves from both sides, the Texas rangers who pursued them, Pancho Villa’s Dorados, General Pershing’s 6,000 gringo troops who were chasing Villa after the raid at Columbus, New Mexico, the Carrancista forces who were maneuvering to block Pershing, weapons smugglers who supplied all sides, common bandits with scars across their eyebrows and twitching hands, private agents who protected the alfalfa and coal supplies, horses, mules, and even locomotives for American and European mining operations and finally the occasional outlaw Apache — banished long since from their tribes for crimes against their own people….” That’s enough for any lone traveler to deal with!

Two weeks into Mexico, Frank shot a hungry Carrancista officer who had just shot a young boy with a limp, who was out caring for his goats. Frank’s own almost spontaneous action plunged him into other situations and dilemmas: “He wished he had not fired at the man. He wished the man had not wanted mutton and then drawn his pistol on a boy who limped. He wished the boy had not thrown stones, or even been there.”

After the boy, not seriously wounded, was cared for, Frank washed in the stream, while the boy’s mother, apparently a widow, washed his shirt and trousers. Later, under a U.S. Army blanket, she hugged his naked body all night long, while her own mother and her own son slept on pallets next to them.

In addition to danger at almost every turn, Frank, as he continued his adventure, also continued to come across fascinating Mexican women, two in particular: Doña Mariana (of the narrow waist and long green dress) and the heroin-addicted Sofía de Larousse. He was not particularly experienced with women, as passages like this suggest: “He had never touched a woman’s shoe with a woman still in it.”

He also met, several times, Pancho Villa himself, and only because he could play the piano (Alexander’s Ragtime Band) did Villa spare his life. In a later confrontation, the frustrated Frank admonished the mercurial Villa: “With all due respect… I wish you could ask us for something without threatening to kill us.”

The whole story is told, incidentally, by Frank’s grandson Liam Holloway, who had heard many of his grandfather’s stories, “which interested no one in the family,” and who, with his sister, had recently discovered a steamer trunk in the old barn, filled, of course, with his grandfather’s old notebooks and letters. This is a common story-telling device, and it still works for me.

Frank does have “a girl back home,” Rosa Marta, but she is not a developed character. We do hear that Frank had never been “inside her” (That sounds ever so slightly crass, taken out of context—SB) because she “required something more formal.” In fact she seems, at least for the course of this adventure, to be of little concern to Frank. Frank finds himself far more interested in Sofía de Larousse, who, even in the midst of the life-threatening mayhem of the Mexican civil war, made him feel something “he had never felt before.” To make room for her on his bed, “he lifted the Winchester and put it on his other side.” He begins to realize that knowing a woman “was not always possible and not even necessary, if there was friendship and respect.”

In addition to these two fascinating women, both strong in different ways, we also meet the wise and wonderful Chinese man, Mr. Wu, talented with needles and arrows, and the devoted and philosophical young doctor, Juan Carlos, who had also rescued a young boy, shortly after his father was killed in battle. In their efforts to survive the chaos of the civil war, the lives of all of these characters become more and more connected and intertwined.

Playing for Pancho Villa has a feeling of authenticity to it which I assume is because the author, who lives in Guanajuato, knows Mexico well… and of course because he is a thoughtful observer and a natural story teller. There are a few flaws (How could the reviewer have said such a thing!), but nevertheless Sterling Bennett tells a good story and, as in all good stories, his principle characters are ones we come to care about; and, indeed, we feel their absence for awhile after we have finished the novel.

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The cover for Playing for Pancho Villa, available now in Mexico at www.editorialmazatlan.com

The cover for Playing for Pancho Villa, available now in Mexico at http://www.editorialmazatlan.com

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