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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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Re: 60 miles on one gallon of diesel . . .

Earlier this month I posted a story about a rabbit that thrived on diesel fuel—not a real rabbit, of course—this was a Volkswagen Rabbit that performed heroically for our family in the years between 1978 and 1984. I would like to believe that it is still performing, some 26 years after I donated it to the Salvation Army in McAllen, Texas—could be—who knows?

Click here to read about the Rabbit’s ability to travel 60 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel.

For a related story about the car, A Rabbit with an attitude, click here.

What follows is a comment from one of my three daughters, the princess that lives in a Dallas suburb with her husband, her son, her daughter and a Blue-heeled Australian Shepherd named Wrigley, along with various insects and other creepy-crawly specimens collected by her daughter. I felt that my daughter’s comment, combined with my response, qualified for a separate posting. My daughter also has a WordPress blog. She started off at top speed then came to an abrupt stop, but the initial posting is well worth the read. Click here for her posting about the Easter bunny.

This is my daughter’s comment:

What I remember most about this car was driving to San Antonio to buy the car. You and mom dumped—okay, dropped—us off at the movies to see “Jaws.” Cindy and I sat through one showing and you didn’t show up—we sat through another showing and you still hadn’t come back to pick us up. Halfway through the third showing you proudly came into the theater with the great news that you had bought the car. I am sure that seeing Jaws two and one-half times has something to do with my fear of being ripped to shreds by a shark—that and my overactive imagination.

This is my response to her comment:

Sorry about that, but thanks for your comment. It taught me a new word—galeophobia. Had I been asked the meaning of that word before now, I would have guessed that it meant a fear of strong winds—tornados, hurricanes, summer breezes wafting o’er the meadows, etc. For your edification—if needed—and that of the hordes of viewers stampeding and elbowing one another in their efforts to gain access to my blog, I am including Wikipedia’s take on fear of sharks—click here for the Wikipedia web site.

From Wikipedia:

Fear of sharks: Excessive and persistent fear of sharks is termed galeophobia. Sufferers from this phobia experience anxiety even though they may be safe on a boat or in an aquarium or on a beach. Hollywood films depicting sharks as calculating, vengeful diabolical monsters have no doubt enkindled the fear of sharks in many persons. So have validated reports of sharks venturing into rivers and lakes.

Most of the more than 300 species of sharks rarely attack swimmers and scuba divers. However, great white sharks, hammerhead sharks and tiger sharks will attack on occasion, especially if they detect blood in the water. More than 60 percent of the victims of shark attacks survive. Oddly, the largest of all sharks, the whale shark, feeds on plankton and has no appetite for human flesh.

The term “galeophobia” is derived from the Greek words “galeos” (shark with markings resembling those on a weasel) and “phobos” (fear). “Galeophobia” is also sometimes used as alternate term for ailurophobia, fear of cats, because the Greek word “galeos” is derived from “galee,” a Greek meaning “polecat” and “weasel.”

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

Postscript: I stumbled upon a website that featured a Panama-brown Rabbit owned by a lover of Panama-brown Rabbits. Click here to view multiple photos—this car differs from my rabbit only in the number of doors—mine had four—and its fuel requirements. The owner doesn’t say, but I believe this is a gasoline model. My Rabbit was configured for diesel fuel.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2010 in cars, drivers, Family

 

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60 miles to the gallon on diesel . . .

In 1977 I began the year as a journeyman Customs inspector at the port of Progreso, Texas at the international border with Mexico, just as I had done for the past six years since beginning my employment with the U.S. Customs Service in December of 1971, just six months after my retirement from the U.S. Air Force in July of that year.

In the summer of 1977 I applied for a supervisory position at the port of Roma, some 75 miles farther upstream on the Rio Grande River, and I was selected in the competition for the position of a first-level supervisor at that location. I went to Roma in October of 1977 and remained there two and one-half years until 1980. Early in 1980 I was promoted to a second-level supervisory position at the port of Brownsville, Texas and I relocated there in April of that year.

My home was in Donna, Texas, a small town in the lower Rio Grande Valley some 60 miles distant from my duties at the port of Roma. At the time I was driving a 1972 Ford LTD that used a considerable amount of gas per mile, so I searched for a more economical vehicle. I sold the Ford and bought a 1978 Chevrolet that turned out to be a gas hog, so I traveled to San Antonio is search of a vehicle a bit easier on fuel.

I returned to the Valley with a Panama Brown 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit equipped with the original Rabbit gasoline engine that had been modified to run on diesel fuel. Diesel in Mexico was selling for a whopping 12 cents a gallon at that time, and the station was a mere one-eighth of a mile from the Customhouse, across the river in Miguel Aleman, Mexico. I gave the Chevrolet to one of my daughters in Donna, Texas.

The Rabbit had four doors and seated four passengers in relative comfort considering its diminutive size, with front bucket seats and a floor-mounted manual gear shift. It had the basic required dashboard instruments, but the only extras were a radio and air conditioning. Its color was called Panama Brown, but it could only be considered a rather bright shade of orange.

I started making the 120 mile round trip between home and work and soon realized that I was getting excellent mileage, but I wanted to know exactly how far the little car would run on a full tank of diesel. The tank held 10 gallons—I told the station attendant in Mexico to pack it in, and filled a one gallon can with diesel to carry in the car. I intended to run until the tank was empty—I couldn’t think of a better way to get an accurate picture of the performance of a gasoline engine configured to run on diesel.

I decided to run without air conditioning for the test because I knew that the compressor took a toll on the engine’s power. I zeroed out the mile indicator and maintained a steady maximum speed of 60-65 miles per hours for the duration of the test. I drove until the engine stopped running and then let the car coast to a stop. The coasting didn’t gain much, because the terrain between home and work was flat, with no hills and no curves.

Including the one hundred feet or so covered in the coasting when the tank ran dry, I recorded exactly 600 miles. With a ten-gallon tank that means the little orange Rabbit averaged 60 miles for each gallon of diesel—I sure wish I had it now!

I drove the Rabbit for the two and one-half years I  worked at Roma, then for another three and one-half years that I worked at the port of Brownsville, a round-trip distance of 100 miles between my home in Donna and my work site in Brownsville. In October of 1983 I passed the Rabbit to my daughter that at the time was living in Donna and making the same 100-mile round trip in the gas-guzzling 1978 Chevrolet. She parked the Chevrolet and I donated it to the Salvation Army in McAllen, Texas and took a decent tax write-off for the donation.

Now for the kicker: My daughter drove the Rabbit for another two years, then she parked it and came to live with us in Washington, D.C. I donated the little car to the same charity and took another decent write-off for the donation.

Its speedometer showed an honest 186, 000 miles, and here is the clincher—I never changed the glow plugs nor ever replaced a tire—never even had a flat. The only maintenance performed on that magnificent automobile during that 186,000 miles was the replacement of the fan belt—it broke at exactly 100,000 miles while I was on the way to work, still with about 30 miles to go. I lost all electrical power, but a diesel doesn’t need electricity—the heat of the glow plugs keeps it running. I drove directly to the Volkswagen dealer in Brownsville and had the belt replaced.

That’s my story of my 1978 Panama Brown diesel Rabbit, and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2010 in bridge, cars, taxes, Travel

 

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Letter to the editor, McAllen Monitor, from a double-dipper . . .

I wrote this letter to the editor of the McAllen Monitor while employed with the U.S. Customs Service in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. I spent twelve years on the Mexican border (1971–1983) as a Customs inspector, progressing from trainee to first level supervisor to second level supervisor, then transferred to Customs Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

This letter was my response to an editorial published by the McAllen daily newspaper, the Monitor. I never got the editorial update I requested, but I was rewarded by several subsequent submissions from the public on my criticism of the paper’s rant against “double-dipping” Civil Service workers, submissions that reflected and supported my comments on the paper’s editorial.

The McAllen Monitor
McAllen TX, Sept 17, 1977

Letter to the Editor:

Your editorial of Tuesday, August 30 entitled “Welfare—Civil Service Style,” is an unbridled and unprincipled attack on a segment of our population that has done nothing to deserve such an attack. You present only one side of the story and leave too much unsaid.

You say that there are 150,000 military retirees in federal service. How many military retirees are not in federal service? You estimate the average annual pensions of the 150,000 at $6,000 plus, and their annual Civil Service salaries at $12,000 plus. You don’t mention the extremes that make up those averages. You don’t mention the retired privates and corporals and sergeants, nor the many low-paying Wage Board and General Schedule jobs filled by military retirees. You say nothing of the merit selection and promotion systems in which military retirees compete equally with all others for employment and promotion.

You cite two extreme cases involving high salaries but you say nothing of the positions. Were they unique? Were the retirees qualified? Did they possess unique skills in scientific, professional or administrative fields that were urgently needed by the government? Skills that were not readily available from other sources? Since these things were left unsaid, they could well be possible.

You say that “98 percent of those who apply for federal disability retirement get it.” You omit the fact that virtually all those applications are based on years of service completed. Retirement eligibility has already been established. It has already been earned, regardless of whether the request for disability is approved.

You use the term “100 percent disability” as an all-inclusive condition, indicating that the retiree is supposedly unable to function as a worker. You either overlook the fact, or you are unaware of the fact that the disability percentage applies, not to the individual but to the percentage of his retired pay that will be exempted from federal taxes. And you overlook the fact that a retiree’s disability may have no effect in the career fields different from the one he is leaving.

You say nothing of other retired people in federal service. How many retirees from city, county and state Civil Service systems are employed in U.S. Civil Service? How many retired railroad workers? How many retired policemen, firemen and merchant seamen? How many independently wealthy people are employed by the federal government? Would you have our United States senator from McAllen resign his office? I’m certain his “outside income” is at least equal to the average military retiree’s pension.

I am ashamed and embarrassed by your editorial, not for myself or for the other military retirees in Civil Service, but for your editorial staff—for its lack of sensitivity and understanding and for its one-sided presentation of facts. I feel personally offended by such distorted reporting. I traded a military career spanning 22 years and two wars for a pension with no disability. Evidently my disabilities were not among those “relatively easy to fake.” I am now employed with the U.S. government and I am labeled a “welfare case” by you and your staff.

I cheerfully admit that I am a double-dipper, and I intend to continue double-dipping after retiring with a full pension at age 60 after 20 years of federal Civil Service. And I also intend to draw Social Security benefits based on maximum quarters paid in during military service. I suppose that will make me a triple dipper. Actually, I am already a triple-dipper because I am currently receiving educational benefits under the GI Bill. I suppose you would consider that another “welfare” payment.

You probably won’t get much repercussion from your editorial. The Valley is not a favorite of military retirees because of the high cost of living and the absence of those military facilities that provide additional welfare benefits—hospitals, commissaries, exchanges, etc. A military-oriented community—San Antonio, for example—would react more strongly.

Are our past wars really so distant that you feel free to use your critical and influential editorial space and privilege to condemn and label, as “welfare recipients,” people who served their country honorably in the armed forces for 20 years or more?

I would appreciate an editorial update, a note possibly, to the effect that while the system that permits double and triple dipping may be faulty, those involved in it are not. Not all of them “faked” their disabilities, and not all of them are simply “dipping in.” They are also “putting back.” Most were professional and dedicated military men, and most will never dip out enough with their pensions to compensate for the hardships, privation, and dangers they endured through their long military careers.

No military retiree objects to the highly descriptive, albeit somewhat derogatory, term of “double-dipper.” You may be sure, however, that every retiree objects to the “welfare” label. We deserve, and have earned, more honorable mention.

Hershel M. Dyer
Donna, Texas

 

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