Tuesday, May 10, 2005

More tales of the border: My father-in-law goes to Juárez

Though he was not, in the years I knew him, an exceptionally religious man, my late father-in-law Tom Sutherland had an unusual regard for fecundity and the biblical instruction to go forth and multiply, and he observed this article of his faith punctiliously, perhaps even zealously, fathering eleven known children and was very reasonably suspected of being the father of several more.

In addition: He liked long, ill-smelling cigars. He liked small picturesque drinking places, especially if they were in Mexico. He loved novelty and excitement. He liked to travel. Most of all, he liked to tell stories, and had quite a gift for doing so, in both English and Spanish. His personality had some of the elements of Falstaff, some of Samuel Johnson, and some of Don Juan Tenorio. We will not see his like again.

One time he came to visit Kay and me in El Paso. I forget the occasion. It was in the mid 1970's. After a day or so of family stories and gossip, he got restless, and demanded to go to Ciudad Juárez, to acquaint himself with a small, picturesque watering hole we had told him about, the Bar San Luís. Like every old bar in Juárez, it promoted the myth—and like many myths, it may have been true—that Pancho Villa himself had slaked a thirst for tequila there. It had holes on the exterior walls said to be bullet scars from the Battle of Juárez.

So I took Tom to the Bar San Luís.

Unfortunately, the only car we had at the time was an old, beat-up red 1963 Volkswagen. Now Tom was a very bulky man. The Volkswagen was a very small car. Tom was wearing a polyester suit bought for him at a garage sale by someone who could not have been his friend. It fit him poorly and had unremovable dark stains on the lapels, but Tom could not see well enough to notice, nor would he have cared. He had little concern for fashion.

Tom squeezed himself into this small steel canister and away we went. His body occupied much more than the right front seat, it encroached on the driver side such that I had trouble moving the floor shift beyond second gear, at least not without bruising his leg. There was slight room for his Stetson hat.

But we made it OK to the Bar San Luís, which was gratifyingly dim and funky. Tom loved it. He got to speak Spanish with the bartender and tell him and several bystanders stories about his days as a student in Mexico City. He had a couple of shots of Mexican whisky. As I recall there actually was a Mexican brand of "bourbon" sold with the label "Waterfill Whisky, made in Juárez, Chihuahua", a raw and mouth-burning rot-gut, but Tom loved that too. I had a couple of beers.

Time came to go, and Tom was happier than he had been when he came, and he squeezed into the Volkswagen again, and lit up a cigar. His knees were too near his chin, and he was red in the face and could hardly move. We were off. I began to smell a burning smell very different from the smell of his cigar, and even fouler. I took no notice of it, bad smells being common in Juárez. Tom talked on about the virtues of this obscure Mexican bourbon he had been drinking.

Suddenly, he stopped talking. This in itself was unusual. He appeared to be contemplating. The smell grew worse, and I noticed that smoke from Tom's side of the car was thicker and darker than cigar smoke. Tom, an old-fashioned English professor, was not a man to use vulgar language, and I was suddenly startled to hear him burst out with GOD DAMMIT, SON OF A BITCH...! as he launched into some loud, fluent, and serious profanity, at the same time he began to flail wildly at the intersection of his pants legs, where I realized the smoke was coming from. That part of his polyester suit had reached ignition from a fallen cigar ash.

Though he beat vigorously at the fire, it had no visible effect on the widening circle of smoldering plastic near an area of his person he prized very highly, and suddenly he began a mighty burst of activity, incredible in that confined space by a man of his size, which culminated in his removing the sizzling pair of trousers from his body and hurling them, now burning with a sooty flame, out the window onto Avenida Juárez, where they melted and burned up on the sidewalk, as he and I and several Juárez street urchins watched; the boys so fascinated they didn't even importune us with "Chicle mister?" A cloud of black smoke rose.

At some point, before or after hurling has pants out the window, he had retrieved his billfold, and there was nothing else to be done, so Tom said "Let’s go home", and after we were underway he remarked, pensively, "That was a close call."

The customs official peered with distaste through the window of the beat-up Volkswagen at a hippie and an old fat man, the old fat man wearing scorched only white boxer shorts and the upper half of a suit, with a loosened tie, and a slightly crumpled Stetson hat. We declared we were US citizens, which he could tell already. He waved us through, wearily.

When we got home Kay asked us what happened. For the first and only time I ever knew of, Tom passed up the opportunity to tell a good story, and he said only that he had thrown his pants away in Mexico.

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