When I was thirteen, I entered Laguna Beach High School. It was the 60’s and the school district just hired a new principal who had a lot of crazy liberal ideas about teaching. They took 20 of the top test scoring students and put them in a special class.
They made us do all sorts of weird stuff. Once, we went down into a basement with no windows below the auditorium stage with the crew-cut football coach. He turned off all of the lights and it was a lot blacker than black ever was. Then he turned on the most advante garde band of our time, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. We sat there huddled in pitch darkness with a WW II Marine in the room, listening to the music of serious anti-establishment drug users. It was very freaky!
Then they told us that because we were so smart, we did not have to attend school anymore. We just needed to drop by once a week and give our counselor whatever project we were working on at the time. — I read a book of Emily Dickenson poems and wrote an essay about each one. That really blew their minds!
And at the same time my parents went through a major upheaval in their marriage. They were both causing eachother so much pain and grief that I realized I had an opportunity that never before existed: I could disappear for awhile, travel around, and no one would even notice! — This is a true story.
I took a bus from Laguna Beach to the Mexico border, about 70 miles. I got off the bus and began walking across the bridge between our country and theirs. Two US Border agents stopped me just a few feet from the Mexico side. “Hey, where do you think you are going?” said a big US officer in a tone that meant, “You ain’t crossing no way and no how.” I figured this plan was over. But then his buddy, a Mexican American, intervened. “Hey man, let him go. I went into Tijuana all the time when I was his age. I bet he has a whore who likes little boys.” He looked at me and gave me a sweaty wink. I winked back. I crossed.
Here I was, 13 years old, alone in Mexico, with $75 dollars I had saved in my left sock beneath my foot, and no one in the world knew where I was. And no one was wondering about me. I could have disappeared forever. And I almost did, in many ways.
For a couple of days, I stayed In Tijuana. Now, this was during the 60’s. Camp Pendleton Marine Base was not that far away, plus a few more bases too. The place was swarming with US armed forces! And eventhough I was just 13, I still looked just as old as some of the 18 year old G.I.s. I had no problem getting into any bar I wanted. And that was all there was it seemed, bar after endless bar, mile after mile. Each was trying to out do the other with hookers, drink specials and naked young girls dancing. I blended in and slept there safely, since those bars never closed and always had sleeping Americans fallen over in their booths. No one noticed. They might push you over to make room. But it was all in the natural order of things.
I grew up when TV was new and the number one show was Gunsmoke, about a sheriff in Dodge City, Kansas in the 1870’s. A lot of the show was shot in a prototypical cowboy saloon. The sheriff, Matt Dillon, had a thing for the local Madame who ran prostitutes out of a local bar. (The town doc liked her too.) Anyway, I digress. — Tijuana to me looked exactly like the TV set of Gunsmoke. It was all clapboard construction. And the sidewalk was elevated several feet above the dirt streets that were broad and filled with a chaos of traffic, staggering drunk Marines and sailors, vendors, buses, Mexicans, whores, horses, and sometime what looked like dead bodies. I hated that place! It made me think of Bottecelli’s painting of Dantes’ Hell.
When I awoke on the 3rd day, I walked to the bus station and waited for a bus to Mexicali, another border town that had a direct route into the heart of Mexico by train. It was me and 26 mid aged Mexican women, all discreet and silent and humble with bowed, solitary heads, and one young male schizophrenic. He was unfortunately demon possessed. He stripped himself of his clothes and did sexual things to his body that I had never imagined. It horrified me. But not one of the ladies waiting with me showed any sign of being aware. They allowed him to act insanely without any objection or comment. I knew then that I was definitely in a different world.
From Mexicali I was able to get a train that would take me over 1000 miles into the heart of Mexico. In Jr. High I had taken Spanish from Senor Lincon. It gave me some basis for understanding, communicating and learning the language as I traveled. I learned quickly.
The first region of Mexico I recall seeing from the train was a red desert with tall plateaus of rust colored dirt. Hundreds of miles of nothing but very red dirt and many hills cut off by Nature to be level and flat on top. In the middle of absolutely nowhere I saw a tiny, white painted, stick constructed hut on top of a plateau near the tracks about 200 hundred feet high. It had a picket fence that confined a flop eared mule. A lone Mexican came out. He looked directly at me. He smiled and took off his wide brimmed, floppy, straw Mexican peasant hat and waved it back and forth in the empty air. He smiled broadly with brilliant white teeth. He was happy to see me. — I waved back vigorously and envied him. We stared into eachothers’ eyes until distance reached too far.
When we got to Mazatlan, I was in “real’ Mexico. A platoon of “Federales,” (Mexican soldiers) got on the train. They walked slowly down the aisle of my car to the caboose behind us. No one looked them in their eyes, but me. Big mistake!
Shortly after they had settled in, two large soldiers hovered over me and ordered me into the next car. As I entered, there was a large business desk with a Lieutenant and several dirty, partly uniformed sergeants behind him, and 20 or so troops lying on the wooden floor behind them trying to sleep. The sergeants pushed me into a hard steel chair in front of the desk. “Dónde está su pasaporte?.” I had never even thought about getting a passport. Suddenly, I realized that it may have been a very serious mistake. The Mexican officer repeated his inquiry again, louder. I figured it was best not to tell I did not have one. So instead, I just kept pretending to have no idea what he was saying. And I made apologetic and respectful glances around to the other sweaty, burly men in the room that indicated that I was only a harmless boy. They did not appear to be touched nor care. But then the darnedest thing happened. The Lieutenant turned his attention from me to his sergeants and they smoked and talked vociferously. The officer and I had the only chairs in the room. The officer turned his chair and had his back to me as he conversed with his men. At first, I was very scared. I was certain that they were discussing my fate. After an hour passed, I became very bored instead. Just before sunset, I slowly got up, opened the door and quietly walked back to my seat. No one stopped me nor even noticed. At the next stop, they got off. Everyone, especially me, exhaled a collective huge sigh of relief. And most of my fellow travelers turned and glanced back at me with love and gladness at my safe release. Yeah, I thought that I was a goner too.
I fell asleep for several hours. Just as dawn was rising the train stopped. We were now in a jungle. Everywhere was flat, except for tropical trees being everywhere. I looked out of the window and saw the low, white wall of a village a couple of hundred yards from the tracks. On the white walls was a hammer and cycle and the words ‘Muerte a todos Americanos’ (Death to all Americans.).
The shadows beneath the hovering and seclusive trees of that dark village and the emblem of America’s greatest enemy terrified me. I was a child who had grown up in the hottest part of the cold war. Communists were Satan’s devils. That was what my parents and everyone I knew believed. I kept imagining machete zealots running out of their narrow enclave gate and hacking me to death.
But then the train’s engines started again and we rolled away into a multi-landscaped terrain. And we climbed through the jungle, up, slowly up into the clouds, into the heavenly city of Guadalajara, the beautiful, Spanish built city, constructed in the 1500’s: one of the greatest cities in the western hemisphere. Oh my! What a glorious gem of architecture and humanity.
In Guadalajara the train stops on a steep rise above the city, From where I was sitting, I could look across the entire metropolis at dusk’s rose colored best. It was like seeing the New Jerusalem. It gleamed with tranquil beauty! Despite its hugeness and foreign difference, I felt secure and safe.
A cab took me to a clean hotel that charged me $6 for a room and a meal. I stayed and after a week, I still had $40 dollars in my pocket. Most of my time was spent at the “Mercado Grande,” the largest open air market in the world. I practiced bartering a lot, but I never bought anything. I survived on my $6 a day plus meal.
I went towards the coast because a Catholic priest, Father Francisco Serra, the father of the California missions, sailed from there to California 300 years before. I wanted to see where he lived before accomplishing that incredible feat.
After a short stop in the magnificently tiny and perfect village of Magdalena, I got off the train in Tepic, a city half the size of Guadalajara. A gigantic political rally was taking place. Huge, multi-storie size banners of political candidates’ and their face’s photos hung from 400 year old buildings. Above the myriads passionate, flag waving followers at the event was a tall cathedral overlooking the massive plaza. I climbed up the steps of its great granite steps. A lone Indian was my sole companion. We sat apart and watched the melee below with ignorance and consternation.
I had packed a small Brownie Kodak camera. The Indian across from me was in beautiful white muslin pants and shirt and sash. Tropical colored images of birds and trees and other animals were woven into the fabric with thick embroiderery. He was the most beautiful human I had ever seen. I took out my camera and positioned myself to take his picture. But fortunately, a young boy came to my rescue. “Senor, no lo hagas!” ( Do not do that!)
Por que? I asked. Then he told me how he might hack me to death with the machete hanging from his belt if I proceeded. “Do not tome su aima! (“Do not take his soul.”)
I regret it now, but I do not have one picture from that entire sojourn in Mexico. The Indian was calm and cool eyed. It would not have been a crime for him to defend his spirit, or a mortal sin to him. It would have been simple justice, that’s all.
I walked back to the train station abruptly and went on to San Blas, the little town below the jungle engulfed mission where California’s evangelist of western civilization began his journey along the coast of what was then Mexico’s north western region, inhabited by stone age Indians.
In 1963, the quaint little fishing town of San Blas had maybe 300 residents, half Mexican, half Indian and a transient clan of about 20 retired Americans in trailers parked below the palms along the beach and by the river. The bus left me off at the top of a hill before the steep incline down to San Blas after traveling miles along a dirt road. Its heart was its Catholic cathedral, with a Spanish fountain and a diameter of stone seats before it. In the evenings before the Indian fishermen pushed their boats out to sea, all of the respectable residents of San Blas, and their entire families, would gather and sit in the ancient chairs of this aged town’s plaza and enjoy the bliss of community. Indians and Mexicans and all of the town’s small clan of merchants would also attend. The children would run around the tall spraying fountain spewing water. Guitars played. Some people sang. Vendors sold flavored ice and bakeries. The Indians sat and watched. They were there, and participating as members of this ritual as many generations did before them, but they were separate. Their village was on a bluff above the town, overlooking the beach and the ceaseless ocean. The Indian homes were made from palm fronds stuck into the brown ground and bent to form a circular habitat. They were painted on both sides with white paint. Their yards were defined by white palm stakes in perfectly straight lines, like our common picket fences. The wives would sweep their yards meticulously every day to keep them as clean as any dirt yard could possibly be. And like the Indian on the steps in Tepic, when they got dressed up, their muslin woven pantalones and camisas were beautifully colored. The Mexicans on the other hand, dressed in a western style mostly. But everyone took pride in cleanliness. Even the children running around in their wonderful innocence and open laughter were bathed, dressed well and polished before joining their nightly communal gathering.
Most of my life’s memories have faded or tattered. But this experience and its picture in my mind will not leave soon. It is too precious. Sadly, even in the many Christian churches I have attended since, in the last 50 years, none has contained the mutual respect, dignity, acceptance, contentment and quietude that I knew then.
Playa de San Blas is situated in a tropical Pacific cove, surrounded by steep coastal hills, thickly entangled with vines, foliage, trees and especially foreboding darkness. But like a barrier between its dangers and the beach residents was a deep, although not particularly wide, river. It swept its microbe enriched waters into the reliant creatures of the sea at the southern tip of the beach. Between it and the town was a long Isosceles triangle of brilliant sand, widening as it reached towards the village, for maybe a half mile.
The only thing in between the river’s gush and San Blas was a singular fisherman’s hut with a large and highly fenced yard about it. Nothing else dared to be any closer to what often crept out of primeval labyrinth. But I did not know any of this when I arrived by bus.
The road from Tepic had remained paved for less than half of the 50 miles it took to get there. The remainder of the road actually physically exhausted every passenger because of the unending gyrations of our bodies as we were tossed like salad for many miles over a severely rutted dirt mountain ledge that twisted up and down. All of the muscular strain required to not be hurled into the aisle or into another’s person took immense exertion. It was immensely surreal; for in the midst of this constant strain everywhere outside resonated with exotic sounds, and was splashed with colorful plants as well as inspiring and fearful vistas. Beauty, terror and sweat: what a weird experience!
By the time I got to San Blas and saw its foreign, warm sea it was just seconds before I was unclothed and bathing in its deep blueness. Afterwards, I dug a sheltered pit in the high banks of its triangular beach and slept. But I had been watched. And soon an immense hairy Mexican, in ragged shorts, stood over me and blocked the sun.
“Que pasa?” He asked in a bizarre accent. “No sabes que es peligroso aquí?” (Don’t you know that it is dangerous here?) In difficult English he then began trying to say ‘crocodile’ and ‘alligator.’ He was trying to warn me. What he was trying to say is that I would soon be eaten by the giant thousand toothed lizards that crawl from the river and that also sun themselves on this beach! He put his rugged hands on his hips and stood there until I got up and put my pants on. “Sígueme!” (Follow me!)
He took me into his enclave in the middle of the beach. Now I understood the purpose for the high steel and wooden fence. He called himself “Joe,” and he longed more than anything to be an “Americano.” It was his dream. It gave his life hope and light. To have me inside of his home was more marvelous than you and I can understand. Joe pestered me with incessant questions. He ridiculed, insulted and reprimanded me for coming to Mexico. “Qué afortunado eres!” (How fortunate you are!) He kept repeating until it hurt my ears to hear it one more time.
Joe was a particularly peculiar person. In the weeks that I stayed with him and his almost mute Indian wife. She spoke so rarely and briefly. I also learned that Joe was descended from a Jewish rabbi that had come to Mexico soon after the Conquistadors. His forefathers were a mixture of various races and ethnicities. I believe that was the reason that Joe lived entirely separately from everyone else. He was not considered either an Indian nor Mexican. And worse than that, he had married a local indigenous woman. They could not live among the Indians nor with the Mexicans. So they built a small fortress on the beach and lived there, away from everyone else.
Joe took me in as his guest. There was no discussion. He let me in and I stayed. It was one of the most amazing, beautiful and sometimes terrifying experiences of my life.
San Blas was a fishing town. Catching and selling fish was the occupation of almost every citizen. The Indians fished for just enough to feed their village. The Mexicans and Joe, fished to feed themselves too; but, they were also entrepreneurs. Refrigerated trucks came into town about noon to pick up that days catch and paid the fishermen.
This was our days schedule: After the evening time in the plaza was over, about 9 PM, everyone returned to their homes and slept until about 3 AM. Then virtually the entire beach came alive with boats being readied for their daily sojourn into the sea. Oars, sails, buckets of bait, nets and long ropes with dozens of fishing hooks attached to woven-in planks of wood with hooks on either side were piled neatly into the the brightly painted and well cared for crafts. Children and wives all pitched in. The boats were heavy and each needed the strength of a dozen people to push them into the waves.
Only two men would be in each boat, about 20 feet long. Joe had always gone alone. But now he had me as his mate. By the time the boats were readied, dawn still had not broken. We worked by starlight and moonlight. Depending on the tide and weather, we rowed or set sail. My job was to attach the heads of sardines unto the many hooks on each rope. Then when Joe gave the sign, I would toss them overboard. And if we found a large school of fish or bait, we would cast our net.
It was very strenuous work. And our boat and bodies reeked with the strong stench of the ocean’s salty inhabitants. But after a few days, my nose learned to ignore it. Gulls and pelicans were our constant companions. Flying fish, whales and porpoises also came by to visit often. The routine and ritual of this daily endeavor became second nature to me soon. And when my mind stopped thinking about what to do and just did it, I experienced the subtle bliss that all fishermen know. The light, the water, the motion, and the work all blended into one.
We would stay out between four to six hours, depending on the tide and our luck that day. And then all of our town’s boats would return at the same time as if a signal had gone out. The women and children would be waiting on the shore. And when the waves lifted our heavily laden boats, making them lighter we would all push and pull our crafts unto the beach. No discrimination happened here. Every fisherman had all the help he needed.
Then we would strip to our underwear or shorts and bathe in the sea and rub ourselves with its brine to get the fish slime and oil off of our bodies. And before we dried off, a bucket of fresh water was poured over our heads from the river nearby. Then we put on fresh, clean clothes, went back to our homes and slept until noon.
When Joe and I awoke, his wife, as all the other wives, had cleaned and smoked the portion of fish for our needs and taken the rest into the village to be picked up by the trucks and delivered throughout the inland towns of our province. We sat outside, shaded by awnings from the intense sun and ate tortillas, beans, rice and fish. Our beverage was always beer.
Not being accustomed to alcohol, and being beneath a tropical sun, taking the traditional siesta after our meal, happened without thought. Within 30 minutes of breakfast, where ever I was, I would fall down beneath a palm tree and sleep for awhile in the warm sand. It was not optional.
I spent the rest of my days exploring the area, making friends with local citizens, sometimes helping them with chores, and answering Joe’s incessant questions about America and what I learned from attending school and reading books. Then there would be the gathering at the town plaza in front of the church, and afterwards another day would begin. I was so content that the thought of returning to school and to my parents slipped out of my mind.
Joe and I became good friends. His English greatly improved and I became nearly fluent in Spanish. Our conversations became longer and more personal. He understood now why I had left home. Eventhough, he always encouraged me to return and continue my schooling because he envied me for being able to have an education. He had wanted to attend school when he was young. But the necessities of survival and the lack of a true ‘public’ school system made that dream impossible.
About a month after I came to San Blas several college aged Americans showed up and rented a large hacienda. They blared their music across the town all day and night, disturbing our sleep and tranquility. And their hoots and hollers from drink and drugs irritated our people who soon began referring to them as “los borrachos” (the drunks). They did not attend our meetings in the plaza. They ‘partied’ continually instead.
The most holy and sacred time of the week for virtually every Indian or Mexican in San Blas was Sunday, when the church bells called everyone to attendance. Every person, old and young, dressed in their very best. It was a beautiful procession to watch.
I never entered the ancient Catholic church. It belonged to them. I was just a visitor, beloved, but not a true member of their society. Knowing one’s place is critical to getting along in a foreign land. After the doors were closed and the Mass began, I would bask in the solitude it permitted me for this one hour once a week.
Then a terrible and horrific thing happened. Three of the Los Borrachos, probably high on LSD, walked down from their hill top hacienda into the town completely naked. I was not there when this happened or in the ferocious melee. If I had been I may have also become a victim. The “Drunks” walked directly into the church about 20 minutes after Mass had begun. Who knows what their addled minds were thinking. But it was a very unfortunate and deadly decision.
Without hesitation or doubt the men of the congregation subdued the young men and carried them down to the beach towards the foreboding and giant lizard infested river. They were hurled in the waters and kept from being able to swim out until pulled below the waters and becoming food for the dinosaurs within. Then some of the men went searching for the rest of the Americanos who had come with them. That is when Joe went looking for me. I was sleeping against the trunk of my favorite Palm tree.
“Amigo! Amigo!” He called out when he saw me. I woke up to find my friend rushing towards me with a look of extreme alarm. “Rapidamente!” he shouted. “Get up! Get up!” I stood to me feet, startled. “Vamonos! Let’s go.” Joe exclaimed as he took a hold of my arm and pulled me with him to a small path that lead out of town. Along the way he gave me the brief details of what just happened. He was frightened that in the rush of emotions I may become a victim too. He pushed me along the path, then he turned and ran back to keep anyone else from following after me. I never saw Joe again.
The natural kindness of the Mexican people kept me fed, housed me and gave me rides until I re-entered the US several days later. I had stayed much longer than I had imagined when first starting out. Of course, my parents and school both had noticed that I was missing by now. I staggered into the kitchen of my parents house at dinner time. My grandmother, mother, and sisters jumped up and hugged and kissed me. Their tears of happiness and relief fell on my neck. My father had a different reaction. After I sat down and a plate of food was set before me, he swiftly took his fork and stabbed me in my right shoulder! I was back home at last.