As I have written elsewhere, 1976 was not my best year. In February of that year my first marriage began to unravel and in May it melted down completely. Up until that time I had been working long hours sometimes seven days a week trying to make a success of a construction company which I began with a partner, plus finish my last class in order to earn my bachelor’s degree in history at a nearby college. With the collapse of my marriage came a collapse of my focus. The construction company and college class were abandoned and I secured a small part-time job at which I performed poorly and then devoted the remainder of my time to medicating my pain in whatever ways presented themselves.
For six months I shared a three bedroom apartment with three other people, and that was a time of impressively dissolute living. Every hour of the day when I wasn’t working, which was most of them, I was lounging in the sun drinking beer and reading classic literature or history, and every evening the music was on, beer and rum and tequila were flowing, and marijuana smoke was rolling out of our windows in clouds. One evening a young woman with whom I worked came over to our place with a friend. We had a keg of beer in the bathtub packed in ice and were passing joints like hot potatoes. My friend’s date began to feel bad about partaking of our intoxicants and at length said “If I had known that you were having a party I would have brought something to share.” My friend let out a small, musical laugh and answered him “They’re not having a party. It’s like this here every night.”
Eventually I began to tire of this life however, and the urge to move on began to grow in me. In August my wife and I stood before a judge and said the magic words in proper sequence and he declared us to be legally separated, divorce to be final after a six month waiting period to allow for any possible reconciliation. As we emerged from the courthouse I cried, not the first time and certainly not the last, and returned to my apartment to try to drink and smoke myself into annihilation.
It was a couple of months later as Christmas was approaching that I received a phone call from out of the blue from my oldest friend Wes, who still lived in San Diego where we both grew up. Wes had just broken up with a girlfriend qnd was feeling down in the dumps. We hadn’t spoken to each other in ages so Wes had no idea what my story was. After we hung up I began to take stock of my situation and decided that I couldn’t stay in this rut into which I had fallen much longer.
It was December at this point and Christmas was approaching. Two of my roommates and I had crept commando style onto a high-roller golf course and cut down a tree that would fit nicely in our living room. It was a revolutionary act, you see. We decorated the tree with strings made from the pull tops from our beer cans and crowned it with a piece of cardboard which we painted into a Chinese flag and onto which we glued a picture of Chairman Mao. Our revolutionary credentials were impressive and we were proud of our creativity.
But the thought of spending Christmas of 1976 in Northern California removed from my relationship with my wife but physically residing less than a mile from her was a prospect which I did not relish. Thanksgiving had been bad enough and the hangover from that binge lasted for two days. I had been thinking seriously about leaving for several months and now believed that the time had come.
I called Wes back and said “You want to meet me at my brother’s place?” “Whata you got in mind?” he asked. “I’ve got my passport and I thought about going to Mexico and getting work on a freighter that would take me to Saudi Arabis and work in the oil fields.” Now I had no connection with work in oil fields and in fact had no idea what one actually did in an oil field. I only knew that there was a gob of money being made in oil and I wanted to get as far away from my current life as possible. Wes, being my equal in age, wisdom and capacity for reasoning answered almost immediately and said “Sure. Why not?”
So a week before Christmas I showed up at my brother’s house in Albuquerque. I had at least called to let him know that I was coming, which was very out of character for me, and upon arrival I let him know that Wes would be showing up in a day or two as well. Brad was fine with that, but his wife Ginny was less enthusiastic. I assured them that we would stay a few days only and then be on our way. Brad is four years older than Wes and I and a little more willing to use his head as something more functional than a hatrack. He was therefore tempted to accompany us in our wild scheme but the responsibilities of a family, and the presence of a large wooden rolling pin in a kitchen drawer, persuaded him to sit this one out.
The day after Christmas came and, good as our word, Wes and I were on a Greyhound bus before the crack of dawn rolling south towards El Paso. We arrived there in the early afternoon and walked across the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. A short taxi ride brought us to the train station where we planned to purchase tickets to the port of Veracruz. The ticket seller seemed to be having trouble understanding us even though I spoke a little Spanish. He also seemed to be having trouble figuring out the train timetable, and even the cash register and the book in which the blank ticket stubs were located seemed to be beyond his capabilities. I knew what was going on of course. The ticket seller was waiting for us to pay ‘la mordita’, the ‘little bite’, a bribe to grease the process. I had had a very bad year and was nursing a very bad hangover, and didn’t feel like paying any damned bribe. Consequently, Wes and I were still arguing with the ticket guy when the train to Veracruz pulled out of the station.
So away we went by taxi to the bus station. We had changed our plan and would now take a bus to Veracruz. There were no shenanigans at the bus station, although at this point I would have paid ‘la mordita’ if it had been required. Perhaps they figured that two Gringos taking a long-distance Mexican bus must be so down on their luck that there was nothing to be gotten from us.
The bus meandered south down the Mexican roads, picking up passengers and the occasional chicken or goat along the way, and by evening we arrived at Torreon, deep into northern Mexico. We did not have any Mexican pesos with us, which had never been a problem in Mexico before, but Mexico agt this time was in the midst of an economic crisis. Inflation was out of control and nobody but a bank knew from moment to moment what the exchange rate was, and so no restaurants would take American money because nobody knew what it was worth, and we were hungry! Finally a very nice hotel restaurant took pity on us and took a chance on the value of our money, and we got a meal to hold us over to the next day when a bank would be open. In an hour or so our bus was back on the road leading east into the gloom of the Mexican evening towards Monterrey, the next city on the road to Veracruz.
It was a very long night. Wes and I slept on the bus, of course, and when morning came we were cramped, hungry, sweaty and thoroughly fed up with the bus. Upon our arrival in Monterrey we decided to forget the bus and rent a car. Both Wes and I had driven in Mexico a lot and were perfectly comfortable with the idea of doing so again. We looked in a directory in the bus station and found the name and address of a car rental agency nearby, and a short walk brought us in front of that establishment.
“En que puedo servirle?” asked the agent at the counter. “Por favor” I replied. “Habla usted Ingles?” “Yes, I speak English” she replied, and I told her that we wanted to rent a car and drive to Veracruz. For those of you who are geographically challenged the distance from Monterrey to Veracruz is 529 miles. “You want to drive one of our cars to Veracruz?” she asked, and we affirmed that that was indeed our intention. The agent looked skeptical. “Have you identification? A passport? A credit card?” We had all but the credit card, which I have since learned is critical to renting a car anywhere.
The furrows in her brow deepened as the agent struggled to grasp completely how imbecilic the two Gringos standing in front of her really were. “Do you have an employer with whom we could check?” “No, not currently. I worked for that last six months at such-and-such a business but before that I have been in construction for the last four years.” She looked over at Wes and asked the same questions and got virtually the same answer. The agent thought for a moment longer and then excused herself to go consult with her manager. I could see them on the other side of the office and I am almost certain that I saw them laughing. At length the agent returned. “I’m sorry sir, but we are not going to be able to rent you one of our cars.” We already suspected that that would be the case, and so we exited the building with no further ado and found ourselves out on the sidewalk in Monterrey debating what to do next.
“Aw, the hell with it. Let’s fly” I said. “That would leave me with almost no money there” said Wes. “No worry. I’ll cover you” I said. I had a good bit of cash from splitting our savings when my wife and I divorced, and getting to Veracruz with Wes that very day seemed like a great way to spend it. Wes felt uncomfortable with that plan at first but I convinced him that I thought of it as money well spent.
Within the hour we were at the ticket counter at the Monterrey International Airport buying our passage on the next plane to Veracruz, which was leaving in just under two more hours. Wes and I hurried to a restaurant in the airport where we bought some belated breakfast and washed it down with a couple of beers. At the appointed time we boarded the plane and sat back into the soft seats of the jet airliner. The flight was a quick one, little more than and hour, at the end of which the doors were opened and we descended the portable stairway. We crossed the tarmac, entered the terminal, and exited into the front of the building where the taxis were lined up. Phase one of our mission was accomplished. We were in Veracruz.