How “THAT” Came About
MARK HASSALL and ANN KERLIN-HASSALL
Nothing comes easy in a country like Guatemala except sunshine and rain. Anything else requires hard work. That’s why I like it there. It always seemed to me that the “civilized” world misses the point. There, the fruits of labor are highly valued but not the labor, and every man is made poor by that notion. From that standpoint, I was a rich man, and nothing made me richer than the struggle to acquire materials for my boat....like my six barrels of epoxy resin.
I made several trips to Puerto Barrios (a two-hour ride on a chicken bus) to check with the shipping agent, only to be told the resin wasn’t there. It was now nearly eight months since it had been shipped from the States, and I was worried. Here, let me explain that Latin bureaucrats are tricky customers for us gringos. An American makes assumptions based on his own notion of rational behavior and clear communication. For the Latin, none of that matters. What is, is; the rest is just so much horse puckey.
The fact that the shipping agent in Puerto Barrios said my resin was not there did not mean that it hadn’t been there and, after posing the right question, I was able to discover that they had mistakenly shipped it through to Guatemala city weeks ago. In a panic, I caught the next bus to the City. Unclaimed goods were usually auctioned off within a few weeks.
I contacted the head of the shipping company immediately and asked if he could see to it that the barrels be sent back to Puerto Barrios.
“Sure,” he said. “You pay shipping costs and we’ll send them back.”
“I can’t afford to do that, and besides, it isn’t my fault that the stuff got shipped here.”
He turned a deaf ear. I knew him slightly. He’d always considered me part of the hippie garbage that spilled out of the U.S. in the’70s and would just as soon I fell off the face of the earth anyway.
It took three separate trips to the shipping company before I located the right guy. Funny how there’s always one somewhere in the woodpile – the guy with a heart, the guy who’s willing to do you a favor. I learned later that he got into big trouble with the boss over me, and for that I was sorry.
Extricating goods from the arms of the government has given birth to a whole class of professionals in Guatemala: the “tramitadores”. There are hundreds of them, with offices clustered around bureaucratic installations. Many have no office at all but simply a card table, with a manual typewriter on it, sitting in the middle of a busy sidewalk. I located a good tramitador who discovered the resin was sitting in a storage warehouse on the other side of the city. It took him four days and 15 pages of paperwork to break it loose. He kept the matter hush-hush (lest the resin be confiscated by someone else) and worked with the determination of a rat chewing through floorboards. When the paperwork was in order (the purpose of which is to make sure nobody can figure out what the hell happened), I hired a truck to move the resin back to the shipping company’s dock that night. I called my inside man at the company from a phone booth.
“The resin is now at your dock,” I said.
“Bueno,” he whispered. “I’ll get it on a truck soon as possible.”
“Thanks,” I said, “I don’t know what I would have done without your help”.
“Neither do I,” he replied.
When the resin finally arrived at the River, Chung and I were ready with a plan to get it across to our bay. We had tied three canoes together and laid boards across the whole works to make a platform. We dropped each 600-pound barrel from the truck onto a big tractor tire, rolled it to the river’s edge and up onto the boards. With my little 4-horse outboard, we pushed a ton and a half of resin across the Rio Dulce and into our bay. We picked four of the strongest men in the village to push the barrels off the barge, up the hill, and into our new shed.
Chung and I had built the shed a few weeks earlier. We built it up on the hill, behind my house, where the land levels off. It was 70 feet long, 43 feet wide, with 16-foot ceiling joists. There were no walls, but neither was there a roof, and a roof I needed very much in order to keep the wood – that I still didn’t have – dry. My son-in-law, Art Mitchell, was visiting at the time. He overheard Chung and me discussing the number of palm leaves we were going to have to cut in order to thatch the shed.
“Ah, hell, Mark,” said Art, fishing in his pocket, “Forget thatch. Go buy yourself some corrugated iron,” and he shoved $2,000 into my hand.
So, now I had a shed big enough to build a locomotive in, and more epoxy resin than anyone else in Central America, and not one scrap of wood. It’d taken me three full years to get this far.
There is a mill in San Andres (near Flores) about 250 km of bad roads north of the Rio Dulce, in the Peten. It was one of the biggest mills in Guatemala, and I arrived there one day to see what they had to offer a poor gringo boat-builder. After I talked to the manager and told him what I wanted, he took me to see the Spanish cedar which they were currently under contract to sell to boat builders in New Orleans. It was gorgeous stuff, and I could see why boat builders value it. It was clear, straightgrained, strong and relatively lightweight. It was sawn to 2”x12”x20’ lengths, and was selling for $1.25 per board foot.
I had no idea it would be so expensive, but there was no question but that I had to have it. I sat the manager down and told him about the boat I was going to build, and within an hour he was offering to sell the wood to me for 70 cents per board foot. I bought 10,000 bd. ft., and we made a little side agreement too. For an extra 500 bd. ft., I’d give him one of my little high-speed ‘shoe’ boats. Since not one board foot of lumber is allowed to leave any mill in Guatemala without the government first getting its share of the money, I had to write a check before I left. The wood, they promised, would be on the road within a week. Not trusting the mail system, the manager and I went to the local airport to find somebody who would be willing to hand-deliver the check to the proper authorities. Eventually, a lady turned up whom the manager knew, and she promised very prettily to be our courier.
I went back to the Rio Dulce to wait. And wait. And wait. Three weeks went by, and there was no sign of the lumber. By now, the wet season was upon us, and it was raining every day, all day, in heavy, warm avalanches of water.
Bonnie and I decided to take the bus into the City (six hours of rough jostling on a chicken bus), fly from the City to Flores and walk the rest of the way to San Andres, if we had to, in order to find out what had happened to the lumber. We waited two days to get seats on the plane.
Eventually, we stood face to face with the mill manager who told us that the lady who promised to deliver our check had left the envelope in the back seat of a taxi in Guatemala City. A search for the check had been made, but the authorities, and everybody else involved, gave up within a day because nobody had the slightest hope of ever finding it anyway.
Ten days after the check was left in his taxi, the driver walked into the central lumber office in the City and handed over the envelope and all its contents. That, plus the deplorable condition of the roads, was the reason my lumber was still stacked at the mill in San Andres. Back to Square One.
One thing was for sure: I hadn’t spent three miserable days travelling to San Andres just to go back empty-handed, nor was I about to wait six months for the rain to stop before I got my lumber. I went in search of a truck driver.
It wasn’t that easy. Every man I approached, if they bothered to reason with me at all, told me I was crazy. The roads were impassable. Period. No puede. By late afternoon, I needed a little nip of gin to shore up my resolve. I slipped into a bar and downed three of ‘em. No puede, my ass.
That’s when I found Roberto. I was wandering down a side street in town when I happened on a fellow with his head buried deep in the engine of an old flatbed Bedford.
“Excuse me,” I said. “does this thing run?”
“Well, I’m looking for somebody to haul a load of lumber. You be interested?” (using their lingo).
“Haul to where?”
“The Rio Dulce.”
“The Rio Dulce?”
“Shit, man, you’re crazy.”
“Desperate is more like it.” I said. I turned to walk away.
“How much you pay?”
“Three hundred quetzales.” I knew that’d nail him.
“Sure! I haul for you.”
“Great. Let’s go load ‘er up.”
He was right, the thing ran. It just didn’t have a starter. So, I pushed and got it rolling while he clutched it into gear.
Early the next morning, when the cocks were still crowing, the three of us – Bonnie, Roberto and I – climbed into the front seat of the truck and started off for the Rio Dulce. We made good progress, 150km to Los Angeles by 4 o’clock that afternoon. We were in good spirits, laughing, singing, telling stories. Roberto was making an easy 300 quetzales (1 quetzal = 20 cents of a dollar), and I was just a few short hours away from having a shed full of lumber. But, we certainly weren’t going to be able to get to the River before dark, and none of us wanted to spend the entire night together in the truck cab, so Bonnie and I decided to catch a bus back to the River. That way we’d be ready with our canoe barge for unloading when Roberto arrived the next morning.
However, a few miles outside Los Angeles, the road disintegrated and the bus got stuck. The ruts were four feet deep and getting deeper by the minute. By then, it was dark. The bus was full of crying children and squawking chickens. We knew that if we didn’t keep going we might easily be stuck for longer than any of us cared to think about. Every able-bodied man got out and pushed. The rain drenched us to the bone within seconds, but we kept going. Occasionally, the road was solid enough for us to climb back on board. Wet as we were, the air inside grew steamy and rank with the smell of baby piss, chicken poop, sweat and stale tortillas. At three o’clock in the morning, we pulled into the Rio Dulce, tired, sore, and cranky, but thankful to have arrived at all. We heard stories about people who were trapped in a 3-day, 3-night bus ride from Flores to Guatemala City, a distance of only 446 km.
Roberto did not arrive the next day. Nor the next. By the third day, when there was still no sign of him, I was plenty worried. I couldn’t wait any longer, and I announced to Bonnie that I was setting out on foot to find Roberto and my lumber. There wasn’t any point in trying to stay dry so I wore nothing but a T-shirt, jeans and a pair of flipflops. I was on the road about an hour when a truck happened along and gave me a 40 km, lift. At the end of that 40 km, I came upon the biggest mess I had ever seen in my life. There must have been 100 trucks going north, 100 going south, and nobody was going anywhere. The road was no longer a road but a mud lake full of partially submerged vehicles, some laying completely on their sides with their contents floating in the goo.There were food trucks, beer trucks, diesel trucks, kerosene trucks, and several trucks carrying a dismantled oil rig. There were livestock trucks, full of cattle, lying in a massive heap in one corner of the tilted truck, bawling like a herd from hell. Loose chickens, goats, pigs, children, Indian women in their bright costumes ran hither and thither, all covered with mud. There were trucks full of spilled candy, soda and plastic toys. One hundred-pound sacks of rice, corn, and beans, were stacked on plastic sheets on higher ground – some split open, leaking rivers of color through the mud.
It looked as though it would take an act of God to clear up a mess of that magnitude. Instead, there was one man with a big tractor doing his best to get the wheels of commerce moving again, but even he spent most of his time trying to get unstuck.
The Indian women, bless their resourceful souls, had taken their meager food supplies and firewood to higher ground where they made ground tortilla coffee, tortillas and beans, for anyone who needed food and drink. The men were busy running cables between trucks, digging out buried axles, some with shovels, some with their hands, and hauling sacks of produce to higher ground. The cooperation was wonderful, and all this while the rain fell so heavily that it was like moving around underwater.
My flip-flops were worse than useless; the mud sucked them off every time I took a step, so I let the mud eat ‘em, and I continued on, barefoot. I had a feeling Roberto was in this godawful mess somewhere, but so far I hadn’t spotted him. I hoped like hell we’d lashed on the lumber well enough, but what if we hadn’t?
I slogged past the northbound trucks, sinking nearly to my knees with every step. Finally, I reached the southbound trucks and, there, 15th in line, sat my lumber and Roberto. I scraped off as much mud as I could and climbed in beside him. He was grateful for the company. In two days and two nights he’d made a little less than 4 km. I stayed with him all day; we made little progress, but the fact that we made any was just short of a miracle.
I left him again at sundown since there wasn’t room for two of us to sleep in the cab. I hiked to the end of the line, thinking I would get a ride with the first truck to break loose, but none did.
There wasn’t much else I could do except keep walking. All night, I walked barefoot through the pitch-black jungle and the pouring rain. Sometimes, unable to see, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled to keep from breaking my leg in a bottomless rut. There were other four-legged night critters out there too. I heard them in the bushes and sometimes saw a pair of iridescent eyes trained on me but, by then, I looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and whatever they were, they kept their distance.
Now and again I stopped to rest, remembering the days long ago (in California) when I used to drive to a lumberyard after breakfast, and before lunch, the boards were stacked in my back yard. It may have been easier I thought, wiping my hands on the bark of a tree so I could unzip, but not half the fun. After all, what can you say about a trip to the lumberyard except that prices had gone up? You sure couldn’t sit your grandchildren down on your knee some day and tell ‘em how you crawled through the jungle with your mouth full of mud on a dark and stormy night. To my way of thinking, that’d be real poverty.
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, when I had made it past the worst, a van came by, and I was able to ride the rest of the way to the River.
It was another two days before Roberto turned up. A more patient, long-suffering soul there never was. Chung and I had brought our 3-canoe raft to Fronteras, and Roberto helped us unload 10,500 board feet of lumber. It took us five trips back and forth (a distance of 3 miles one way) to complete the job. I paid Roberto, fed him dinner, and wished him Godspeed.
That evening, Chung brought some of his homemade pineapple ‘hooch’ to the shed, and we sat in the gathering dark listening to the rain pelt onto the corrugated iron roof. On one side of the shed stood six 55-gallon drums of resin, on the other stood a tower of air-stacked Spanish cedar, and in the middle was a huge empty space for one hell of a boat.
It was then he told me about the baby.
“Marta, she getting big,” he said, grinning and holding up his glass.
“Big?” Seemed to me Marta was skinny as a rail and getting skinnier, what with the three little girls to tend to.
“Si. Baby coming.”
“I’ll be damned. When?”
“Well, here’s to a boy,” I said, holding up a shaky glass.
He grinned and poured.
One night in early May, Bonnie and I put on our best costumes for the yearly festival at Fronteras. As usual, there was to be a talent show, and they had asked me to dance. Everybody came, all decked out and drunk as skunks. I danced with every woman in the place, and when there weren’t any of the left, I did a Russian folk dance by myself. It was an annual tradition. Everybody stayed into the wee hours of the morning to watch Don Markos dance, and I gave them a show they’d talk about until next year’s festival.
It must have been close to 4 o’clock when Bonnie led me to the canoe, settled me in a corner, and started the outboard for home. We’d no sooner tied up to the house when Chung appeared, looking like he’d put in one stinker of a night. While we were out dancing, he’d delivered a baby.
“It’s a boy,” he announced proudly.
“A boy!” I hollered, grabbed his arms and danced him all around the deck. He laughed and kicked up his heels with me. We fell in a heap by the front door. He removed himself from my arms and said solemnly “We name him for you, Don Markos. We call him Markos Cruz Alvarez.”
“Ah, Chung,” I cried, grabbing him to me, tears running down my cheeks, “that’s the greatest honor I’ve ever had.”
“You come see,” he said.
I walked up the hill propped between Bonnie and Chung. Down the part, through the lemon and banana trees, over the sleeping pigs and chickens to his home, a large round cane house thatched with manaca. It was by far the nicest house in the village. He opened the door. Inside it was dark but for a single burning stick of incense, and silent. The babies were sleeping. On the dirt floor, directly in front of the burning stick of incense sat Marta, cross-legged, as all Indian women did after birth. She would sit like that for three days while her organs resumed their natural place. The baby lay beside her.
She unwrapped the baby’s rag bindings for us to see him. She had tied a bright colored piece of cloth around the umbilical cord. He was incredibly tiny, as most Indian babies are, but his color was good.
We were offered seats. Chung shooed a sleeping chicken out of an old wooden chair for Bonnie, and I got the hammock. Bonnie and I longed for nothing more than bed, but this was a sacred time for Chung and his wife, and we knew it. Chung had bought real beer for the occasion. It was absolutely the last thing either of us needed or wanted, but it wouldn’t do to refuse. He popped the top, a noise which made the girl babies, sleeping in their bunks behind a partition, stir in their sleep. We drank our beer in silence, watching the still figure of Marta in the dim light. She looked like a goddess sitting there so straight, black hair braided down her back, her bright woven shawl gathered around her shoulders, staring intently at the burning incense with her newly born babe tucked beside her. Chung stood behind her, the man of the house, and drank quietly to his new son.
It was noon the next day before Bonnie and I could bear to face sunshine. Bonnie had just put on the coffee water when Chung appeared at the door. His face was drawn and pale.
“Marta is feeling bad,” he said.
A little later in the day, he appeared again, His eyes were big with fear. “Marta is in pain,” he said. “Not like the other times. This time is different.”
He was right. This time was different. Marta was clearly very ill. There was no question that she needed immediate medical attention. She was burning with fever, her pulse was rapid, and she looked like hell. I jumped into my launch and sped across the River to El Relleno, the little community at the south end of the Rio Dulce bridge, and begged to borrow the old VW from the wife of the road construction overseer who was one of the few people around with an automobile. Meanwhile, Chung took his four babies to Marta’s mother who lived a few houses away from them.
We wrapped Marta in blankets, gently lowered her into the launch, sped to El Relleno, laid her as comfortably as we could into the back seat of the VW, and took off for Puerto Barrios and the nearest county hospital. Two hours later, in the hospital waiting room, we were told that the doctor would see her shortly and that there was nothing for us to do. We might as well go home. We left, assured that all would be well, and that we could pick her up in a couple of days.
Early next morning, Chung was eating breakfast, listening to the Puerto Barrios radio station as most people did because messages were sent to individuals over that station, there being no phone system. He hoped to hear that Marta Alvarez was ready to go home but, instead, they announced that if Concepcion Alvarez was listening, he should come to pick up the body of his deceased wife.
We borrowed the old VW again; Chung, his wife’s brother Mateo, and I. At the county hospital, they opened a drawer in the morgue and showed us Marta. We were told she must be removed immediately, but that we couldn’t move her unless we had a coffin. I had brought 50 quetzales with me, but the cheapest coffin we could find in town was 150 quetzales. We went back to the morgue. I told them the situation and promised that by tomorrow this time we would be back with a suitable coffin. They agreed to wait.
It was dark by the time we got back to the River. I started the generator and gathered material for the coffin. Within half an hour the entire village, most of whom were related to Marta, had gathered in the shed, each carrying a candle in her memory. They stood silently and watched for the next few hours while I built the coffin. At the break of day, Chung took the coffin and two men in a borrowed pick-up to Puerto Barrios. By late afternoon, they were back with the body.
According to custom, the village gathered in Chung’s house. Someone had constructed an altar of palm fronds, with a faded picture of Jesus and one of Marta, on the limestone hearth. The villagers had brought candles to hold, and we sat on the dirt floor, silently. Chung sat with his little girls on his lap, and stared at the limestone stove which Marta had made with her own hands, and where she had stood every day of their married life, slapping out tortillas and stirring a pot of black beans. His baby, Marquito, was in the arms of a skinny, greasy-haired, gap-toothed woman who had milk in her breasts because she, too, had given birth not long ago. Looking at her, I couldn’t help but wonder about the quality of Marquito’s nutrition. Everybody in the village knew she was a drinker.
Two days after the wake, Chung went to the woman’s house to check on his baby. He found her drunk on the floor, the two babies wailing at the top of their lungs, lying in their accumulated urine and feces on a dirty bed...
Chung came to us in desperation. His baby would die if he didn’t get help. He knew nothing about caring for a baby and, besides, where would he get milk? He could not afford cow’s milk and, even if he could, who would look after the baby? His little girls were no more than babies themselves. We promised to find help as quickly as we could.
Bonnie and I sat quietly across the table from each other after Chung left. We were both afraid to say a word, and yet the words hung heavily in the air as if someone had strung a flashing neon sign between us.
I was 51 years old. I had a boat to build. It had been almost 30 years since there’d been a baby in my life. What could I possibly need a baby for?
Bonnie was 42 and had never had a baby. She’d made that decision years ago.
How was it possible that we could suddenly be faced with having a baby? Who had the right to ask such a thing of us? Chung hadn’t. And, yet, there it was. Clear as day.
I took swig of strong coffee and cleared my throat. Bonnie looked up. For a minute she simply stared into my eyes. Finally I said the words... “Maybe we’d better take the baby. At least until a permanent home can be found, or until Chung remarries.”
Slowly, her mouth broke into a smile. She got up from the table, found her purse and took out some money.
“I’ll need diapers,” she said, “and bottles and a basket for his crib, until we can get something better... and mosquito netting... and formula and powder...
While Bonnie threw herself into mothenbood, heart and soul, I pressed on with the boat. Months ago, I had made a trip to Poptun, 110km northwest of the Rio Dulce, to visit my dear friends Mike and Carol Devine. They owned and operated Finca Ixobel, a wonderful hostel up in pine-tree country. Mike was a man after my own heart. He could make a house out of twigs and feathers if he had to, and would consider it a fine challenge. Naturally, he was fascinated with my boat project.
“Just what are you going to do for a sawmill?” he asked. “Buy one?”
“Hell, no. But I’ve been trying to figure something out. I need a set-up big enough to run 10,000 board feet of lumber through. Been thinking that maybe I’d get me an old car or truck and power a saw with that.”
Mike’s face brightened. “Damn right. Why not? Fact is, I got an old Ford pickup parked in town behind the restaurant. It’s been years since I fired her up. Body ain’t for shit. Got no brakes, battery or radiator, but it’s yours if you want it. Wanta see it?”
“Naw. I figure it’s as bad as you say, but I’ll take it. I can’t this trip, but I’ll be back one of these days for it.”
About two months after Marquito joined us, I was ready to set up a sawmill, which meant a trip to Poptun to get Mike’s truck. I talked Bonnie into letting friends of ours in Guatemala City take the baby for the two or three days that we’d be gone. They were a childless couple who wanted a baby very much, and it seemed to me Marquito might be the baby they needed. Reluctantly, Bonnie let herself be separated from Marquito, and we took off on yet another chicken bus ride. I’d scrounged up an old radiator from somewhere, which we tied to the roof of the bus, and a battery which we stuck under our feet. The trip to Poptun normally takes five hours, but the road was still in pretty bad shape from the rains, and we arrived 11 hours later.
I found the truck half hidden in the weeds behind Mike’s restaurant. The tires were bald and the floorboard missing, in addition to its other problems. I fixed it up enough to run it the two and a half miles to Mike’s house, but even so we had to stop and fill the radiator twice and drive at a walking pace because there were no brakes. At Mike’s house, I exchanged radiators and tried fixing the brakes, but the front brakes were too far gone. I tied them off and concentrated on the rear set. Once bled, they seemed to work. The handbrake was another lost cause, and something ailed the electric system. The lights were too dim to be of any real use. That meant we had to make it back to the River before nightfall.
We started for home with our ‘new’ truck as soon as there was enough light to see by, the next morning. The first part of the road out of Poptun is called the Carousel because it winds around and around the mountains. However, it is a good road of hand-laid stone and one of Guatemala’s oldest. About 23km from Poptun the Carousel takes off down the mountain.
Starting down the grade, I braked three times to keep from gaining speed, but the fourth time I hit them, nothing happened. Or rather, plenty happened. There was a community at the foot of the grade, and by the time we hit town we were flying. It was still too early in the morning for people to be up and about, thank God, but we made a few chickens, a couple of pigs, and some dogs run for their lives. I was having to do some fast thinking about what I could run into to stop the truck without killings us, or anything else. Fortunately, the town had a crossroad that ran steeply up a hill. I saw it just in time to make the turn which we negotiated on two wheels and a prayer. We tore up the hill, banging and rattling and bouncing all over the place until we came to a stop.
“Need a bathroom, Honey?” I asked, as we both emerged shaking, from the wreck we were driving. “Or is it too late for that?”
The trouble was that I had tied the copper brake tubing to the axle and the tube broke. I didn’t have any spare fittings either.
The town was just waking up; the cocks were crowing, smoke from cooking fires began to curl into the sky, a baby was crying somewhere. An old man, just emerging from his house for a look at the day, told me there was one mechanic in town, and he lived a mile and a half away. I walked to the mechanic’s house where I found him still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, but he cheerfully set about finding me a couple of flanges. I hurried back to the truck, reconnected the tubing, attached it to something other than the axle, and we were off again.
The road began to get rougher, and with such a light rear end the truck jumped around like a jack rabbit. It was a full-time job keeping it on the road, let alone on my side of it. We rattled into a stone quarry a few miles farther on and loaded up with rock. It was a big help, gave better traction, and I was able to hold the road pretty well. About mid-morning, a terrible racket commenced under the hood. This time, the water pump shaft had busted which caused the fan to fly in between the radiator and the pulley wheel. I stuck it into neutral and we rolled backward. For a mile and a half we rolled backward. And when she finally came to a nice gentle stop, we unscrewed our necks to find that we were smack dab in front of a little tienda (closet-size family store where you can get a plain meal, cigarettes, candy, soda, etc...). I removed the water pump while Bonnie got us some food.
“You stay here, Honey,” I said. “I’m gonna see about getting this fixed or replaced.”
She nodded her head. She knew, without saying so, I could be gone a couple of hours or a couple of days. From the day I met her, some 17 years earlier, she let me make all the decisions. “I’m just along for the ride,” she always said. Beyond that she never said much. Somehow though, she wasn’t saying anything now either. I had the uneasy feeling that this was one ride she’d just as soon have missed. And she didn’t really seem to be there, as if her thoughts were elsewhere.
A trucker stopped to pick me up somewhere along the road and told me the the Highway Department had a maintenance shop about 25km south on a side road. I found the place, and they welded the shaft together in no time. I hiked back to the main road just in time to see the northbound bus rounding the bend. I hailed it down and got a ride back to Bonnie who was surprised to see me so soon. I installed the shaft, the water pump and the fan, and off we went again, belching and smoking, down the mountainside.
Near Los Angeles, the road flattened out but it was still so scarred with ditch-size ruts that it was near impossible to drive on. We got hopelessly stuck within seconds. There wasn’t anything to do but sit and wait for somebody to come along and help.
Before long, the southbound chicken bus rounded the bend, swerved to avoid us, and then stopped.
“Need help?” hollered the driver.
“Yeah, sure do.”
He threw me a cable; I tied it around the axle and out we came. The whole busload cheered. I threw them a big kiss and we roared off. Not far from home, Bonnie got out the flashlight because we had no headlights. We came to the portion of the road which was being paved just as the road crew was breaking up to go home. The road was no road here, but a shallow sea of muck some three feet deep. Five or six of the crew hopped in the back as ballast and another five or six pushed. We waltzed across the mess, swinging and swaying like a broad-assed mama at a barn dance.
Thirteen hours from the time we left Mike’s, we arrived at the River, every bone in our bodies jarred loose.
In the morning, Chung and I came to Fronteras with our now-famous three canoe raft, and pulled it up to the truck.with the help of a considerable crowd of onlookers. We rolled the truck on backwards, pushing the canoes out father into the water as the weight of the truck came on board. The crowd held its collective breath, but we stayed afloat with a little less than four inches of freeboard.
Going across the River was a delicate operation. The smallest wave could sink us, and we prayed that no motorboats, much less the big Coast Guard cutter, would happen along, or it would be all over...and under. Chung curled up beneath the back of the truck, bailer in hand; and I steered the little 4-horse outboard.
On shore, men, women and children lined up to watch the truck float across the water. Chung and I heaved an enormous sigh of relief as we putted into our bay. We butted up to the bank and placed a board bridge from the canoes to land. As we maneuvered the truck off, the boards flipped; the wheels slipped off, and she sank axle deep into the mud.
The hardest job was yet to come. Steady rains had softened the hillside up which we had to move the truck. We got out come-alongs, hooked cables to the orange trees, and winched the truck up the hillside. But even with the truck’s horsepower and manpower to the tune of 10 natives, and the winches, it was an all-day ordeal to get it up the hill.
But once on top, our little community celebrated. There never had been a vehicle on our side of the River because there were no roads, and they couldn’t have been more thrilled if I had floated a purple Porsche over. I ran the old wreck around in circles, with the back full of wide-eyed Indians who whooped, hollered, and laughed at the wonderful machine Don Markos had bought.
November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier