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Breakfast in Mexico . . .

The first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, English novelist (1812 – 1870):

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I began this posting with Dickens’ work to emphasize and compare some of the differences in two sovereign nations, two states of those nations and the towns on their borders. This is not an invitation for my readers to travel in Mexico to observe the differences, not in these troubled times—travel to Mexico is fraught with danger, and as a long-time observer I would suggest that until the Mexican government eliminates the drug cartels, with or without the help of the United States government, all travel to that country should be forbidden, including trips to the interior of Mexico. Twenty Mexican tourists on a commercial bus were recently kidnapped in one of Mexico’s most popular resort cities—no place in the nation is safe from the murderous drug cartels.

I will also add that no place along the Texas border with Mexico is completely safe on either side of the Rio Grande River, but especially en la frontera—on the frontier, the Mexican side of the border. People in Mexico’s border cities are being kidnapped and held for ransom, women are being kidnapped, raped and murdered, and blockades manned by heavily armed bands are being erected along main highways by criminal elements to enable them to exact tribute from travelers driving to and from vacation spots in Mexico.

This is my advice to anyone contemplating visiting or vacationing in Mexico, given in words of one syllable:

It is not safe. Do not go there—not in a plane, on a boat, in a car, on a bus or on foot. You could lose your cash and your life—stay home.

Breakfast in Mexico. . .

The United States Air Force and I entered into a sometimes tumultuous relationship on March 7, 1949 and we parted company on July 1, 1971. Before ending my 22-year-plus career with the Air Force I studied for and took the test for employment with our federal work force, and spent the first five months following retirement waiting for a suitable offer of employment from our government.

Offers were plentiful, ranging from military units to the Veterans Administration to the U.S. Treasury Department, for locations all over the southeastern quadrant of the United States. I finally responded to an offer of employment with the United States Custom Service in the lower Rio Grande Valley at the international bridge at Hidalgo, Texas, a few miles from McAllen across the river from Reynosa, Mexico.

I accepted the offer and waited for a call to arms, but when the call came I was asked if I was familiar with Progreso. I replied that I didn’t know what a Progreso was, and the caller said it was a small town downriver from Hidalgo, that it had just been declared a separate port from Hidalgo, that it needed to be staffed, that my offer of employment was now for that location, and that should I decline the change the offer for employment would be withdrawn.

Having felt then, as I do now, that I am a very slight cut above the average retired military person, I wisely accepted the change in assignment and reported for duty at the port of Progreso, Texas on Monday, December 21, 1971 to begin a tour of duty that lasted almost six years, ending with my promotion to a supervisory position at Roma, Texas.

My memories of those six years are legion and as the saying goes, would fill a book, an enterprise that one day may come to fruition with the assistance of my daughter, the one that lives, loves, labors and languishes in Northern Virginia. Click here for her blog, an adventure that will take a reader worldwide on subjects ranging from agapanthus (lily of the Nile) to zinnias, from Alaska to Antarctica and from aardvarks to porpoises to zebras. This daughter is the middle one in age of three daughters—she is a world traveler, a professional and ardent photographer, a desktop publisher, a skilled artist, a graphic designer, etc., etc., etc. I hasten to add that she is not a chip off the old block—I admit unashamedly that I possess none of her talents and very few of my own.

But I digress—as the title promises, this posting is a tale of breakfast in Mexico, of two barrels and of sewage in the drinking water in a small town  known as Nuevo Progreso—New Progreso, in reference to its sister city across the Rio Grande River in Texas. Originally known as Las Flores—Spanish for the flowers—this is probably one of the most contradictory names of any town—ever.

When I came to work at the port of Progreso, one of Las Flores’ most memorable and most photographed scenes could be observed from the U.S. side of the river. One could watch the town’s water hauler as he rumbled down the slope to the river’s edge, perched high on a wooden bench seat on a two-wheeled cart drawn by a lone burro. In addition to the driver, the cart boasted a huge wooden metal-ringed barrel. The driver filled the barrel by wading into the river and dipping two buckets into the Rio Grande, then emptying them into the barrel, a system that required many trips to fill the barrel before heading back to town for locations that used his services, locations that included small eating places and private homes.

I soon learned how the freshwater system worked. At the end of my first 4 pm to midnight shift at the port of Progreso, the toll collector for outbound traffic, a bridge employee that would become a close friend, suggested that we cross the river and have breakfast at a small café that stayed open well after other eateries had closed for the night. I agreed, and we were soon seated at a table in a small, dimly lighted room with no more than six or seven tables. In addition to the front unscreened door the room had two doors to the rear, one closed and the other open to show the kitchen area. I noticed that there were two large wooden barrels in the kitchen.

Following a short wait, the closed door opened and a woman dressed in a chenille house robe with her hair up in curlers entered the dining area, apparently coming from a sleeping area. I say this because of the robe and the hair up in curlers and because she was yawning—she was also scratching her crotch, a motion that could have meant, but did not necessarily mean, that she had been sleeping.

While we awaited her arrival I asked my friend about the two barrels in the kitchen and he readily explained their purpose. I had suspected the worst, and he confirmed my fears. He told me that the barrels were filled from the burro-drawn cart bearing the giant barrel filled from the Rio Grande River. Two barrels were needed in the cafe—one to provide water for cooking and drinking and diverse other purposes while the sediments in the recently filled barrel were settling to the bottom, and at the appropriate time the proprietor would switch barrels.

My friend ordered blanquillos con chorizo y tortillas de harina—eggs with sausage and flour tortillas—but I stated that I had suddenly been afflicted with a stomach ache and a slight bout of nausea, and felt that I shouldn’t eat at such a late hour. He accepted my declination without comment, and consumed his breakfast with obvious gusto. Our friendship blossomed over the following years, but that was the only time we went across the river for breakfast. Other invitations followed, but I always managed to decline them.

In all the years that I worked on and lived in proximity to the border Texas shares with the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, raw sewage flowed into the Rio Grande River at points all along its length, conditions that probably still exist. The little town of Las Flores sported open sewers that meandered their way through the town and spewed their contents into the river’s murky waters. That was then and this is now, and I cannot speak for the town’s sewage disposal system now—I haven’t been there for more than twenty-five years, but I can assure the reader that raw untreated sewage is still pouring into the river at various points along our border with Mexico.

Just as an afterthought—I lived with my family in Donna, Texas for twelve years before moving out of and far away from that city. Donna’s water supply came from the Rio Grande, pumped from there to an uncovered reservoir referred to locally as a settling pond, then from that point to a water-treatment plant before going into homes and restaurants in the city of Donna. As far as I know, that is still the system used in Donna. Let’s face it—Donna’s settling pond is the equivalent of the second barrel in that little café in Las Flores.

During the years I worked at the port of Progreso, the city of Nuevo Progreso just across the river in Mexico had several nice restaurants  with international cuisine, served on linen-covered tables with all the dishes and fine wines found in upscale restaurants across our nation. I am reasonably certain that their water supply came from some source other than a barrel on a donkey cart. Arturo’s Restaurant was one of the best, and my family and friends dined there frequently. I recommended it then and I would recommend it now were it not for the difficult times and dangers posed by the turmoil existing in Mexico, specifically the drug cartel wars and the government’s inability to control them and their murderous activities.

And now, at the risk of repeating myself, I will repeat myself: This is my advice to anyone contemplating visiting or vacationing in Mexico, given in words of one syllable:

It is not safe. Do not go there—not in a plane, on a boat, in a car, by bus or on foot. You could lose your cash and your life—stay home.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

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Privies, pee-pipes & honey buckets—Kimpo AB, Korea, 1951 . . .

The winter of 1951 in Korea was the same as any winter before and after that year—brutally cold, with snow and howling winds. We lived in tents strategically placed near the flight line, ostensibly so we could respond quickly to alerts but really designed to enable us to, whether on-duty or off-duty, enjoy the sights and sounds of a busy flight line—the ear-splitting sounds of jet engines being tested, day and night, and of jet aircraft taxiing for takeoff or parking after landing, also day and night.

Each tent was equipped with a small JP4-fired (jet fuel) stove which did little to heat our living and sleeping accommodations. We relied on sleeping bags, blankets and multiple layers of clothing, and tended to delay our trips to the privies (outdoor toilets) whenever the need arose—trips were far more delayed and far less frequent at night. I’ll describe our primitive privies in as much detail as I can remember (some 58 years have passed since I used them). Our outdoor toilet facilities were similar in nomenclature and function to indoor accommodations, but remarkably dissimilar in appearance.

First the urinals, used for #1:

This facility accommodated four relief-seekers simultaneously, but was rarely used by more than one person at any one time. It boasted four 6-inch ceramic pipes, placed to form a square and sunk, flared end up and angled outward at approximate crotch level, into a gravel-covered pit. The pit was intended to capture the urine output of some 80 men, both enlisted and commissioned urine (no separation according to rank here). I can only vouch for the upper level of the pit—its construction below the visible gravel level remains a mystery. The urinals were not covered or screened, and were fully exposed to the glances of any passer-by, whether casual or curious. One may be assured that this “privy” was anything but private.

Next the commodes, used for #2:

This structure was a marvel of Korean construction, a dirt-floored building with wooden walls up to waist-level, then screened from there to its wooden roof and it featured a screened door which served both as entry and exit. Inside were six 55-gallon drums, three in a row on each side, sunken to a comfortable sitting-level, their tops cut out and fitted with a cleverly engineered wooden cover, shaped to resemble, and to serve the function of, commode seats. The arrangement of the drums contributed significantly to eye-to-eye conversation between users of the facility (if warranted).

Here I must digress for a moment to discuss Korean farming practices. In 1951 Korean farmers favored the use of human excrement as fertilizer, with amazing results in the size and quantity of produce produced. When the drums neared peak capacity, Korean workers came and poured a flammable liquid into the four end drums (no pun intended) but none into the two center drums, and then lighted the contents of the four drums. Their purpose was to burn off the paper and gases in those drums to prepare their contents to be emptied. When the four fires died down, the workers used long-handled dippers to transfer each drum’s contents to buckets and then to a donkey-drawn rubber-tired cart. From there the drum’s contents would be further processed (that’s an assumption), and the resultant fertilizer sprayed (or bucketed) on growing crops. After the four end-drums were restored to service, the two center drums received the same treatment.

This was a blessing in disguise. Picture this—just imagine one’s self in the privy on a bitterly cold day or night, with four roaring fires in that small enclosure and one’s self seated between two of the fires and two more fires directly opposite. Blissful warmth in bitter cold, and that bliss could be sustained as long as necessary (or at least until the fires died down). To be seated in the #2 privy when the two center drums were burning (seated on one of the non-burning drums, of course) was also pleasant, but considerably less blissful—roughly about half-less.

Oh, and one more thing—we used a GI euphemism to describe the buckets and the cart—they were known as “honey buckets” and “the honey wagon,” respectively.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2009 in Humor, Military, Travel, wartime

 

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