Being Real

“Success, they say, always begins with the end of mind. But if that’s true, I’ve news for you:  We’re born to die, that’s what we do. Life is what we seek, not what we find…”

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Mazatlan, 1974

The driving directions I had gotten from the embassy office were difficult to follow.  I had written them down at the phone booth in the mostly abandoned beach side trailer park where we had been camping.  I held a crude map surrounded by scribbles from a broken pencil in a shaking hand. 

Somehow I found the dusty road that wound up the hill at the very back of town.  Tattered shacks came right up to the shoulders.  They appeared unlivable and vacant, but the dangling electrical wires, roaming chickens, and strong odor of garlic and cooking meat told me that some kind of life went on day to day.

Our old van swerved slowly to the top of the hill and broke above the crude cluttered neighborhood just as the Mexican sun peaked in the white hot sky.  We pulled over and parked next to the cemetery grounds at the edge of a sea of white crosses that haphazardly stretched off into the distance.  The proprietor of the mortuary greeted us with a solemn introduction and led David and I around the back of the building.  I could feel the radiating heat as I walked aside the chipped adobe wall.

My friend’s body lay face up under the sharp sun on a thick granite slab, just about shoulder level.  His lifeless form was bloated and chipped by fish bites suffered during the three days before he washed ashore on a remote beach up the coast.  Were it not for the blue swim trunks he wore, and his small mustache that once framed an often mischievous smile, I might have attempted to avoid confirming recognition.

I felt a strange awe that melted into a stranger peace as I stared at the sight.  This was not a memorial service, just an identification visit so the police could wrap up their work.  It was the first of a number of formal and unpleasant transactions that would be necessary before I could hope to leave the country, much less seek closure.

David and I stood with downcast eyes and nodded when the proprietor asked his question in Spanish.  “Tu amigo?”  I nodded, then somehow found the words to inquire if there had been a necklace on him when he was recovered, though I knew  the answer before his reply.  I was there when his girlfriend Paula had given him the solid gold eagle charm exactly one month ago.  She had said it would protect him until he returned home to her.  I felt a chill in the rising heat thinking that on some coming day, in another country, I would have to be the one to tell the tragic story and answer the questions.

El Camino del Gitano

It was the great getaway and every young man’s dream.  The trip down was to be one of those gypsy adventures we had heard about, and we were ready to test our freedom, courage, and manhood. A late autumn wander in a borrowed Ford Econoline window van with sleeping bags and cut-offs and no timetables or deadlines. We were a good team. My friend Kansas seemed to able to solve anything with his spirit, good looks and charm. I could read maps and was more mechanically and practically inclined. We left Bellingham, Washington in late October and drove east through Spokane, Missoula, then Yellowstone and into Denver where we hit a snowstorm, repaired a failing steering shaft, and replaced the brakes that we apparently had installed backwards. I also had carelessly cracked the window with my shoe, and someone forgot to fasten the oil drain bolt properly.

Once fit to fly, we then rolled eastward over the plain to Lawrence, Kansas. We stayed with my buddy’s folks for a few days where I got used to hearing him addressed as Bobby. My calling him his Pacific Northwest nickname would have only confused things. On leaving I promised his mom I would do my best to watch over their only son. We packed some leftover home cooking and pointed south, crossing Oklahoma, Texas and over the border into Mexico at El Paso. 

This is what a lot of kids were doing in the seventies.  It was either the San Francisco area, with its fading flowered counter-culture, a winter ski resort to wait tables for a season pass, or somewhere – a beach preferably – in México.  Laid back and lawless, mysterious and welcoming, we heard one could live for weeks on just a few dollars. That was the story anyway. Kansas temporarily traded his Camaro for a van to camp in, and I headed to the Triple-A office to get some maps.  We met at the Beaver Inn Tavern later, and between games of pool and dime-night beers, we settled on a route to Mazatlán.  Departing as soon as we saved some cash, quit our jobs, and the autumn nights began to turn cold. We left a girl or two behind, which of course added to the drama. No one promised to write.

Cultural Diversity

It was a long and carefree ride south from El Paso into the central plain.  We spoke no Spanish, but were blessedly naïve and had no fears.  All we needed to negotiate were gas stations, food stands and tiendas for beer and ice. When hungry, thirsty, or low on fuel, we just pointed.  Our auto club map showed the route. And we simply accepted the prevailing notion of the Mexican people as gentle, helpful, and non-threatening.  And so it came to be true, because we never presumed otherwise.

Two days of driving across the Chihuahuan Desert brought us to Ciudad Torreón.   Ahead rose the Sierra Madre range – wide, high, remote, and daunting.  A day later we arrived in Durango, and, as darkness fell, found a hotel just off the city square.  This was our first true taste of the authentic México we envisioned.  The México of sombrero and serape-wearing movie stereotypes. 

After dinner we walked about in the cool mountain air and joined the crowds in the brightly lit plaza. Packs of young men cruised in the backs of battered trucks, and like them we found the exotic dark-eyed girls strolling arm-in-arm particularly interesting.  My pal was approached by a smiling young fellow as we sat on the hotel steps.  He attempted to befriend us with his few words of English, but soon it became uncomfortably apparent he had an eye for Kansas and was hoping for a date. We escaped to the hotel room; our night was over.  When the guy later knocked on our door, Kansas completely freaked out and chased him away as I laughed uncontrollably.  The two of us knew as much about homosexuality as we knew of the Spanish language, which was near nada.

Life couldn’t have been better or showed more promise when we arrived on that secluded Mexican beach ten miles north of Mazatlán.  It was Sunday afternoon the week before Thanksgiving.  We spent the first evening immersing our youthful awe in the tropical surroundings. The next morning my best friend got caught in a rip tide and drowned.  On our first day there, a little ways down the shore, out in the high surf. He and some guys we met the night before went for a swim, and he just never made it back.

Header Photo Credit: @jeremybishop

The Elf

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‘Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit. You can’t fire me, I quit. Seems I don’t fit in.’

–Hermey the Elf, 1964

When I finally saw the animated Christmas program “Rudolph” thirty years after its production, I took notice of the quirky idea that one of Santa’s elves, Hermey, wanted to become, of all things, a dentist. He felt himself different, and questioned very earnestly in song why he didn’t fit in. Looking back on my life from its middle, I didn’t miss this ironic lesson. It was with reflective amusement I realized that ‘back in the day’, still made of clay, I was a dentist who wanted to be, of all things… elf.

The best part of dental school was when I wasn’t there. It wasn’t awful and I did very well as a student, but where I really came into my own and learned a thing or two was out in the real world. Weekends and summer breaks were not to be wasted. The world was delightfully crazy. Society was in a glorious upheaval, and it was a good time for a coming-of-age story. (If only I had.)

Party Parking Only

From June to September in the early seventies, I joined a rowdy band of wily mischief-makers working at the state park near Ocean Shores on the Washington coast.  Though it was summer, the sun rarely shown and the clammy damp would have made it a very grim place to earn $359 dollars a month cleaning restrooms and campsites, hauling garbage and registering visitors, were it not for the “side jobs” we picked up in our off hours. These included your usual gang-related activities such as goofing off, chasing girls, drinking, pranking the campers, stealing beer, and raising our own special brand of hell.

Each summer there were four to six of us college-kid delinquents who bunked in a noisy, moist, ant-infested garage. We were joined by a few young ladies who commuted from Aberdeen and several gifted local boys who were in their late teens to early twenties still struggling to graduate from the nearby rural high school so they could get the hell out of there.

It was quite the experience and I learned lessons there that go a long way to explaining the questionable life skills and character anomalies that are with me yet today. In spite of all the shirking and slacking, “work-arounds”, playing hooky, hiding from the boss in restrooms, and raiding the walk-in beer cooler in Patton’s Grocery down the road in Oyehut while patrolling the beach, we managed to get the necessary park work done. These were the days of federal ‘generosity’ in supporting employment opportunity, job training, and government social programs. The Great Society was throwing grants around like birdseed.  As a result, there were three of us for every one job, and everybody was happy.

One night, perhaps a bit bored and certainly a bit sideways, someone – I’m pretty sure it was Pete, who eventually went on to put in his thirty years as a state park ranger — had the brilliant idea to build pipe bombs. Oh, HELL, yes! The park shop had all the plumbing fixtures and tools, and the trunk under Brumley’s bed had black gunpowder for his antique rifle. We would sift off what we needed in small quantities, much like sneaking your dad’s whiskey and replacing it with water.  Packed powder in galvanized pipe, a firecracker for a fuse, and some fool to strike a match. Simple!

On the third volley we nearly decapitated a guy walking his dog up by the sewage lagoon. He wouldn’t have known what hit him. We told the head ranger it was Doug’s car backfiring. That broken window? It was always like that. Every time we lied and went on to almost destroy his park, I think he liked us all the more for being clever enough to get away with the shit I’m sure he wished he had done as a kid.

Fun While It Lasted

After four years I completed my dental education, and also managed to matriculate out of Ocean City State Park without getting arrested, married or maimed. I was single and highly degreed with friends in low, low places. I was succeeding in rejecting expected lifestyle and behavior, though in retrospect, all I was doing was choosing to be “different, like everybody else.”  But I did feel wonderfully liberated and unstoppable.  Naïve, self-centered, and arrogantly unpretentious.

I was so directed, or misdirected, I seriously thought about signing on for a fourth summer’s employment at the park after graduation. The wage had risen to $456 a month (!) and these were my people and this was my party. You can believe my poor father, who put me through eight years of college, was not at all happy. But he said little. Or I heard little. Receiving no direct orders, I was left free to project my choices onto him, and I justified those aberrant wishes in my favor. I’d like to say it all worked out in the end, but our relationship is another story.

This good young doctor was into country music and smoky taverns and sidelong looks from petite feral young women who had a taste for beer and the unknown. I had no commitments and no idea how to make them. The country western sound became part of my wannabe persona: simple, rough around the edges, and somtimes well-intentioned. No regrets, mind you. I was just full of myself. And you know what else. Acting like a grownup for-real dentist in the mid-seventies to me was like the rising sound of disco music – uncomfortably jerky, confusing, and too flashy for my style.