June 30, 2017 somewhere in the southwest:
“Beware the Ides of March my massive white ass!” Travis Redfish was bellowing at a group of disinterested tobacco smokers outside the Javalina Coffee Shop in Silver City, New Mexico. Since none of them had quoted Shakespeare, nobody knew what triggered the tirade. The smokers were operating under the erroneous notion that, if they just ignored him, Redfish would go away. “Okay, so a bunch of Eye-Talian senators in togas filleted a single would-be dictator in Ancient Rome. I’ll give you something to BEWARE! How many morons in this country blow themselves up; crash two-tons of high speed steel into fellow citizens; or accidentally put a bullet in a loved one every Fourth of July? How many? I ask you!”
His tirade drew no response, but seemed to make the contents of the smokers’ coffee cups so fascinating they felt compelled to stare, transfixed, down into them. This indifference did nothing to slow the Redfish rant. “Ever since Thomas Jefferson and John Adams conspired to make their birthday our national celebration of independence…” Seizing a golden opportunity, I snuck out through the patio and put as much distance between Redfish and myself as I possibly could. But, though it pained me to admit it, I felt the hulking buffoon had a point.
I have always found the Fourth of July to be the most dangerous holiday. After all, we have unofficially decreed that the best way to celebrate our independence is by blowing up as much crap as possible. And if we can achieve an extraordinary level of intoxication while performing the blowing-up, so much the better.
Don’t get me wrong, as a true son of West Texas, I loved the smell of cordite any time of day or night. The Fourth of July fun would begin with a fiver, then a ten spot, and the drunker daddy and his friends got the more money they would give us kids for fireworks. More than once my brothers and I managed to set tumbleweed-filled vacant lots ablaze by detonating Baby Giants or M-52s. With great effort, we always managed to put out the fire. And when we returned home, no one bothered to question us about our smoke-blackened white t-shirts.
Inserting a firecracker into something, lighting it and hurling it like a grenade was a particularly pleasant pastime. But it did have a down side. No one I knew back then managed to get through childhood without an explosive-filled gourd going off in their hands. One summer, only ten years later, I thought about those exploding gourds while I lay helpless on the side of a hill in Vietnam after a real grenade exploded and did some serious damage to my hand. It was at that point the romance went out of the blow-up game.
Sometimes the activities on the Fourth can turn into more than child’s play. Try though I might, I can’t forget the time our family spent Independence Day weekend at my father’s friend’s ranch outside Sanderson, Texas. We did our best to recreate the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air. Firearms of all sizes were discharged. Tequila was consumed. Copious amounts of tequila were consumed. And not just by the adults. I’m not sure about my younger brothers, but I know those of us 14 and older sampled the mysterious cactus juice.
That night the adults partied in the main ranch house. The younger kids were confined to a backroom. Pablo, the foreman, and the three other undocumented workers had their own party in the bunkhouse. Ronnie, the rancher’s stepson, and I shared a garage apartment. At one point we snuck over and peeked in the window of the bunkhouse. Pablo was passed out and the two newest undocumented workers were going through his pockets. One of them found the key to his truck and they took off in it. Ronnie alerted his stepfather. My father was passed out.
Before I knew what was happening, Ronnie and I were in the backseat of his stepfather’s car carrying rifles. One of the men from the party was riding shotgun, literally. Outside the house my mother and several other ladies were laughing and singing a popular Johnny Cash song with the lyric, “Don’t take your guns to town Bill, don’t take your guns to town.”
I breathed a sigh of relief when we entered Sanderson and spotted a Sheriff’s car at the Dairy Queen. But my relief was short sighed. “Fuck the Sheriff!” commanded the rancher. “If he messes with us fire the first shot at his headlight. If that don’t turn him, put the next one through the windshield.”
This call to violence made me a bit uncomfortable, but I was also caught up in the self-righteousness of our mission. We had right and an impressive arsenal on our side. All those virtues like right and good seemed much easier to identify back when Eisenhower was President.
As soon as we entered the poor side of town, we spotted the pickup outside an adobe house. Before we could all get out of the car, the worker ran out of the house speaking Spanish and waving a wad of bills. The rancher grabbed him by his collar; turned him around; and dragged him to Pablo’s pickup. The other worker appeared from behind the house and hurriedly got in the bed of the truck with his amigo. Two more people were instructed to join them – me and Ronnie. What had seemed like some kind of a movie lark was becoming much too real.
I didn’t enjoy sitting in the bed of the truck pointing my rifle at the Mexicans while the rancher drove us back to the ranch. I knew this whole scene was wrong, but I didn’t know what, exactly, was wrong about it. It began to dawn on me that I didn’t know much and was knowing less by the minute. Were these fellows dangerous outlaws, a menace to the folks of Sanderson? Or were they just strangers in a strange land? A couple of poor, lost, drunken cowhands, who borrowed their friend’s truck for a ride into town? I hoped I wouldn’t shoot them if they tried to escape. And when I think back, I still hope the 14-year-old me wouldn’t have shot them, no matter how much peer pressure I was feeling. The bottom line is they didn’t make a break for it, and I didn’t have to find out what kind of boy/man I was. Wherever those gentlemen are today, I hope they have learned to lay off the tequila.
It was either the next fourth of July, or the one after, when a buddy of mine and I went fishing with his dad and two other men where the Pecos River runs into the Rio Grande. We pitched camp on the banks of the Pecos, which ran through a very deep, steep canyon. We could see a highway bridge far above us, but civilization seemed a million miles away.
By the time the sun came up the next morning it was already too hot for anybody but mad dogs and West Texans to even think about getting out of the shade. But we “didn’t know no better.” I do believe tequila was once again present. Although I did not touch a drop, I may have had a beer or three.
Once the men were a bit tipsy, they headed out in a boat to run our trotlines and haul in the big, fat catfish. After my buddy and I drowned a few worms in the Pecos, we got restless. It seemed like a real good idea to climb up to the highway at the top of the canyon.
We were still feeling pretty strong just 100 yards or so from the top. There was just one steep little bit of climbing left. That’s when my buddy reached up for a handhold and found a rattlesnake about the same time the rattler’s fangs found his finger.
After two or three minutes of “you oks?” and “what the fucks?” we realized we had no blade to open the wound and wore no belts to use for tourniquets. Some boy scouts we were. We had to get up to the highway. Nuthin to it but to do it.
Once we reached the highway, we discovered we were at a scenic overlook. We couldn’t make out our camp below us, but we knew it was there.
I went up to an older couple peering down into the canyon from their shiny new Chevy Impala. Before I could complete a sentence they peeled out of the parking lot. I suppose two ragged teenagers, sweaty and dusty from the climb must have looked menacing, but I was surprised that they and the folks in the next three cars refused to help us.
When a blue Buick pulled over, I asked no one’s permission, but opened the back door, shoved my buddy in and hopped in beside him. The driver was a man in his thirties. With him were two children – a girl about ten and a boy about eight. They all three looked more scared than we did.
The driver managed to give me a razor blade and his belt. When I sliced the wound and started sucking out the poison, both my friend and the little boy threw-up. The little girl stared at me with enormous eyes and asked if she could help.
They drove us to the site of another July 4th adventure – Sanderson, Texas. There we found a paramedic, who treated the wound. He put my friend in an ambulance and drove him to the nearest hospital – Odessa Medical Center. I suddenly realized the driver and his kids had vanished. Now all I had to do was figure out how to get back to the camp and find his father.
Finally I located a Deputy Sheriff dozing at his desk. Couldn’t help wondering if he was the one I’d seen parked at the DQ on that other July 4th. When I asked him if he could take me to the campsite about thirty miles back, he looked like he had just bit into the world’s sourest lemon. But he came around when he heard about the $50 my buddy’s father would pay him.
We found the camp. We found the dad. He paid the deputy. We drove to Odessa. We went to the hospital. My pal was okay. I was exhausted and assumed this would be the longest Independence Day I would ever experience. I was so very wrong.
Cut to: Venice, California July 4, 1981 or ’82.
It was hot at the beach. Not hot by the standards of Texas, New Mexico or Florida, but well over eighty. My girlfriend at the time was very eager to go to the Santa Monica Pier for the 10 million dollar fireworks extravaganza. She listened to my explanation of why combat veterans tended to avoid things that went boom. She didn’t get it. “You’ll be fine,” she insisted. “I mean, like there’ll be thousands of little kids there on the pier, so how scary can it be?”
My mention of how being in the midst of thousands of children sounded almost as scary as 10 million dollars of explosions drew laughter. “Don’t be a curmudgeon. Tomorrow you’ll be joking about how you were just as brave as a thousand children.”
She was right. That did sound like me. How bad could it be? And it would only last for an hour, two at the most. Right?
The pier was packed. At that moment, East L.A. must have looked like a ghost town. Those of us who lived near the beach tended to forget that the temperature could be 20 degrees hotter just two miles inland. Go to the beach and beat the heat. Why not?
Although it was strictly forbidden, every kid on the pier had some form of explosive device. They seemed to find it hilarious when a bang or a pop would make me jump. And then the main event began. The sky lit up like a 100 helicopters firing M134 Miniguns at 6,000 rounds per minute while .50 caliber machine guns on the ground returned fire and bombers outlined the action with exploding napalm.
“This is spectacular, but I can’t deny how uncomfortable it is making me.”
“Don’t worry, I anticipated that.” My girlfriend produced a rather large pill from her purse. “ Take this tranquilizer. I promise, it will definitely mellow you right out.”
Discreetly removing the can of beer from my boot, I popped the top and forced down the oversized capsule, anxiously waiting for the downer to do its job. Thirty minutes passed and I felt more, not less, nervous. An unpleasant metallic, vaguely familiar, taste formed in my mouth. That’s when the stomach cramps started.
“You know,” I mumbled with a wavering voice, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think I just dropped MESCALINE!”
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “I gave you the wrong capsule!”
I puked. That’s when things started to get a little weird. Which memories are of real events, and which are recollections of hallucinations, I cannot say for sure. Nor do I really know if there is any difference. What is reality?
I saw myself below the pier, down on the beach. A gang of ten-year-olds were hurling firecrackers at me, forcing me closer and closer toward the water. A lifeguard stood over me laughing hysterically. I asked him if he’s on “Baywatch” and he laughed even louder. Two children in diapers smashed cones of cotton candy in my face. The Dylan line “The sun ain’t yellow, it’s chicken” got stuck in my brain. Then I realized I’m looking at the moon, not the sun, and I completely understood the lifeguard’s laughter. And then I didn’t.
The person who dosed me with the drug guided me back to the parking lot. She took the tranquilizer intended for me. There was no way either one of us could possibly find my car amongst the flotilla of automobiles pointed toward Catalina. Driving was not an option.
We walked into Santa Monica. We heard music. Somebody had Doug Sahm singing “Poppa Ain’t Salty No More” blasting on the stereo. We arrived at a party of Austinites. Travis Redfish appeared. Somehow we were back at my house. In only twelve hours the drug would wear off and I could stop pacing the floor and hiding from the relentless Fourth of July bombardment.
Meanwhile back in Silver City. I returned to the Javalina. Redfish was regaling a young couple from Minnesota with tall tales of his July Fourth misadventures. He spotted me. “Hey Dude, remember that time I saved you from the Mescaline Monster out in Santa Monica?”
I remembered. At least that part wasn’t a hallucination.
ALERT: The avoidance of tequila and mescaline can contribute to a safe and sane Independence Day.
James BigBoy Medlin © 2017
James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"
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