Saturday, March 30, 2013

***From The Brothers Under The Bridge Series-The Stuff Of Dreams-Down Los Gatos Way

From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin:

In the first installment of this series of sketches space provided courtesy of my old 1960s yellow brick road magical mystery tour merry prankster fellow traveler, Peter Paul Markin, I mentioned, in grabbing an old Bruce Springsteen CD compilation from 1998 to download into my iPod, that I had come across a song that stopped me in my tracks, Brothers Under The Bridge. I had not listened to or thought about that song for a long time but it brought back many memories from the late 1970s when I did a series of articles for the now defunct East Bay Eye (Frisco town, California East Bay, naturally) on the fate of some troubled Vietnam veterans who, for one reason or another, could not come to grips with “going back to the real world” and took, like those a Great Depression generation or two before them, to the “jungle”-the hobo, bum, tramp camps located along the abandoned railroad sidings, the ravines and crevices, and under the bridges of California, mainly down in Los Angeles, and created their own “society.”

The editor of the East Bay Eye, Owen Anderson, gave me that long ago assignment after I had done a smaller series for the paper on the treatment, the poor treatment, of Vietnam veterans by the Veterans Administration in San Francisco and in the course of that series had found out about this band of brothers roaming the countryside trying to do the best they could, but mainly trying to keep themselves in one piece. My qualifications for the assignment other than empathy, since I had not been in the military during the Vietnam War period, were based simply on the fact that back East I had been involved, along with several other radicals, in running an anti-war GI coffeehouse near Fort Devens in Massachusetts and another down near Fort Dix in New Jersey. During that period I had run into many soldiers of my 1960s generation who had clued me in on the psychic cost of the war so I had a running start.

After making connections with some Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) guys down in L.A. who knew where to point me I was on my way. I gathered many stories, published some of them in the Eye, and put the rest in my helter-skelter files. A while back, after having no success in retrieving the old Eye archives, I went up into my attic and rummaged through what was left of those early files. I could find no newsprint articles that I had written but I did find a batch of notes, specifically notes from stories that I didn’t file because the Eye went under before I could round them into shape.

The ground rules of those long ago stories was that I would basically let the guy I was talking to give his spiel, spill what he wanted the world to hear, and I would write it up without too much editing (mainly for foul language). I, like with the others in this current series, have reconstructed this story as best I can although at this far remove it is hard to get the feel of the voice and how things were said.

Not every guy I interviewed, came across, swapped lies with, or just snatched some midnight phrase out of the air from was from hunger. Most were, yes, in one way or another but some, and the one I am recalling in this sketch from 1979 fits this description, had no real desire to advertise their own hunger but just wanted to get something off their chest about some lost buddy, or some event they had witnessed, or some story that had stuck with them. I have presented enough of these sketches both back in the day and here to not make a generalization about what a guy might be hiding in the deep recesses of his mind.

Some wanted to give a blow by blow description of every firefight (and every hut torched) they were involved in, others wanted to blank out ‘Nam completely and talk of before or after times, or talk about the fate of some buddy, some ‘Nam buddy, who maybe made it back the “real world” but got catch up with stuff he couldn’t handle, or got caught up in some stuff himself that he couldn’t handle, couldn’t handle because his whole blessed life pointed the other way. Pete Allen’s life story fit that latter description, the couldn’t handle part. He just kind of drifted around the West Coast (after spending a little time back home in the East) after he got out of the service, got caught up with some wrong gees, did too much dope and a little time and landed in the “jungle,” the one they set up in Segundo near the arroyo where I met him.

What makes his story different from others, almost uniquely different in some respects, is that he wanted to tell a story that had haunted him for a while that was told to him when he first started frequenting the jungles back east a little in Gallup, New Mexico at the huge jungle camp (which got bigger, much bigger during Native American Inter-Tribals in August) near the old Southern Pacific sidings back in 1973. There he befriended (or was befriended by) an old Mex hobo, Felipe, who had been on the road for almost forty years after the events he related. Felipe had seen good times, bad times, and worse times but no matter what he told his story, the story of his encounter with the legendary Mexican bandit chief , El Lobo back in the 1930s (who even I had heard of when I went south of the border for various, ah, things, okay). Pete felt in respect for his friendship with Felipe that he had to relate the story, to continue Felipe’s work. Why it haunted him (and maybe haunted Felipe too, these things are hard to figure) was whether he too should think twice before pursuing any stuff of dreams that he might have had. Good point. I like to finish up these introductions by placing these sketches under a particular sign; no question Pete’s sign was that of the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Stuff Of Dreams-Down Los Gatos Way

It didn’t start out that way, the stuff of dreams, the search for gold that is, but it sure finished up that way, finished up that way with guys lying face down in some broken unnamed desert arroyo, nobody to mourn them, or cover them over except those fierce desert winds that would make short work of the matter, if that counted. Yah, it didn’t start out that way with pipe dream guys just buying into another guy’s dreams, catching their own fire dreams to get out from under whatever it was they were trying to get out from under from. Trying to brush off the dust of their own small dreams, maybe just trying to get back to square one, gringo Norte Americano square one from whence they came, came south for some reason, or no reason, came south to sunny Mexico. Maybe took up the dream, another man’s dream to get back to some long lost Molly, all bright blue eyes and straw blonde, and a fresh start, and, damn, to get away from that stinking brown-eyed world, that brown dust from the brown roads, those brown-skinned, fierce-looking brown-eyed braceros, and those brown senoritas with their sparkling, dancing brown eyes and their karma sutra tricks (although none of them, the senoritas, would have known that term or the book they came from , just the arts from handed- down cantina mother to daughter practice ), whores, really, who spoiled a man, a gringo man, for blond-haired Mollies if you didn’t get away fast enough. Or maybe they came south for the senoritas , for the brown-eyed senoritas, for the cheap and easy brown-eyed senoritas with the sparking dancing eyes looking for sugar daddy gringos with fierce blues eyes and strange hungers, strange hung-up sex hungers, to get out from under the bracero life. So yah it didn’t start out that way, no way.

Maybe I had better start at the beginning, or at the beginning where my just then road amigo Felipe, who saw the whole thing many years before and lived to tell about it, came into the story and told a bunch of us the story over a windy night camp fire in a jungle camp along the Southern Pacific Railroad just outside of Gallup, New Mexico one night, one 1973 night. Told us about how when he was young he had got caught up with a trio of guys, gringos of course, who were bitten by the stuff of dreams.
It started down in Vera Cruz, like I said down in sunny Mexico, and it started with this gringo, Burl, bumming a cigarette off Felipe who was driving a cab at the time down at the docks where this Burl’s ship, some tramp freighter that had seen better days, the S.S. Corcoran, had just landed. This Burl, after Felipe gave him the cigarette (and a pack of matches to light it with too, damn Felipe should have cross the gee off right there), asked him about hotels, and, more importantly about cantinas and senoritas, stuff like that, just like a million guys have done who have been guy ship bound for too long months since they invented ships. It seemed, contrary to his appearance, four or five days growth on his face, in a time when clean-shaven was the rule, ruffed-up clothes, non-descript worn-out shoes, really sneakers, and smelling, well smelling like he could use a bath, or something, that this guy has some dough coming, coming as back pay off his tramp steamer journey as a ship’s mate. Felipe brightened to this news because now he turned on his tourista guide niceness full blast, offering the guy another cigarette (keep the matches, amigo) and his services as someone who could safely get Mister Burl through the maze of Vera Cruz night life in one piece. Burl agreed and the game was on.

Two weeks later after drinking up half the high-shelf scotch in town, keeping company with half the brown-eyed senoritas at the La Paz whorehouse (nicely named although more hell got raised there, more fortunes got lost, more teeth got knocked out that in the rather placid other precincts of the town) and setting his favorite from the La Paz , Maria (hell, they are all named Maria or Lupe something in cantina- ville), up in an adjoining hotel room for serious pleasure, and after smoking just one too many joints of that high-spirited marijuana grown in some wilds outside of town Burl, Burl Jackson, from Baltimore, U.S.A. was flat broke again, flat broke with no ship heading out since the Corcoran had left the week before without him (and good riddance he said of that old tub in an alcoholic haze one night when Felipe informed him of the ship’s departure), no prospects, no money for the room rent, and by now probably no Maria as well.
While Burl pondered his choices he asked Felipe for a cigarette, and a loan. No dice, Felipe wasn’t born yesterday and was keeping his easily earned dough and so he just pleaded that he had already spent his dough trying to feed his family, gracias though. So Burl would have to bracero/gringo/downtrodden pan-handle the ricos Americanos for a while over at the Central Plaza where they hung out to get a stake up and find another ship if not in Vera Cruz then some other port.

And that is where Burl Jackson met Tim Conway, Tim Conway of Laredo, Texas and also with no dough, no prospects and no place to stay just then but with big dreams, big dreams of easy and cheap brown-eyed mex whorehouse girls, and plenty of them, who would take you around the world for a dollar and a little tip. Jesus, Burl said at this news. He wised the kid up about the cheap part, forget that once those laughing Spanish eyes got under your skin and you set up a one for your easy rider, easy rider woman like he had with Maria, although he left the easy part for the kid to figure for himself. In fact Tim, after some conversation, had sized Burl up as a gringo rico and was ready to put the bite on him. Jesus, again. They talked for a while and kind of got along.
While they were standing on that good Mexican soil trying to figure out if two gringos were better than one this old geezer, this old ancient geezer with a beard like Jehovah, the stink of a guy who had been out in the desert or someplace without a bathtub, long straggly hair, and about six missing teeth drawing a couple of pack mules behind him came by and asked if they were American in some low-down English.“Of course they were Americans, jesus, what did he think they were some brown-eyed braceros,” Tim had wailed out. He then asked them if they were looking for work. “Of course they were looking for work, and what of it.” Burl had shouted out. The old geezer (real name Walter Simons but nobody ever called him anything but Old Geezer according to Felipe who had seen him off and on around town when he came in from the hills for the previous four or five years) had a proposition for the boys if they would trouble themselves to show their faces at the Imperial Hotel about six o’clock that evening after he had cleaned up and had supper. Burl looked at Tim and shrugged his shoulders in disbelieve at the Old Geezer’s address but were non-committal on the appointment.

Needless to say they were, after a fruitless afternoon of not finding anything worthwhile, knocking on the door of Room 216 of the Imperial Hotel at six that evening. And here was the now regal Old Geezer’s proposition. He was an old time prospector (believable) and had hit some pay-dirt, some gold dust pay-dirt, out in the arroyos and foothills around Los Gatos about one hundred and fifty miles away from there toward the interior of sunny Mexico. He needed help to dig for and pan the stuff on an equal basis, each a third share. He didn’t trust the Mex, the dirty braceros that would cut his throat for a dollar and change if he turned his back on them but with gringos he could feel that at least they wouldn’t cut his throat and he had size dup Burl and Tim as okay, okay for what he was offering. No soap though, not that night and not for a few nights more until Burl and Tim were forced into some stinking bracero rooming house with about fifty stinking braceros in a space for twenty when a rain squall forced them indoors. Then they were back at Room 216, hats in hands.

A couple of days later they took off, Tim, Burl, the Old Geezer, four pack mules loaded with supplies and tools for a couple of months work, and Felipe who Burl persuaded the Old Geezer to take along for wages to “keep house” for them. (They kept Felipe in the dark about what they were up to until they got close to Los Gatos but he had kind of figured it out when Tim and Burl kept talking about registering their claim in Tampico. He knew the area as well and the history of a million gringos going for the gold but he just let them play out their hand, like he always did with gringos, because they were kind of trigger-happy when it came right down to it.) Needless to say a couple of gringos one more at home in the seas of the world, the seven seas, and whorehouses like Burl and a raw kid like Tim, who dreamed of whorehouses and keeping his hands lily-white in the bargain sweated, cursed, wanted to turn back about six times, got a little sunstroke, maybe a little desert- addled, maybe snake-bit and insect- bit and twelve other kind of bits for the seven days it took to get to Los Gatos after stumbling, tumbling, mumbling over some rocky arroyos, some saline desert and some ragged foothills. But damn they made it, made camp and prepared for el dorado, yah, big time el dorado if the Old Geezer wasn’t cracked.

Do you need to know the work, the twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day work these tres hombres went through for about a month before they even clawed, scratched, culled a small assay of gold for their troubles, work sleep, eat and not too much to preserve the supplies. No, you can figure that part of the story out, and if you can’t Felipe said even he had helped out just to past the time. Finally that small assay traced down into a bigger lode, yah, they had hit pay dirt. Not big, according to the Old Geezer, who over midnight camp fires would tell them about how many times he had hit pay-dirt, jumped on easy street for a while, then busted out and hit the road again looking for that really big mother lode. This one, also according to his estimates, was not the mother lode but a month’s work would let them ride easy street for a while. Burl and Tim bought the ticket and took the ride, especially Tim, a smart young guy who figured that with his share he would just buy a whorehouse and then he would get his loving free. The Old Geezer laughed, hell, even Burl laughed at the kid’s moxie (and naiveté).
So they worked, worked the lode, worked it good, and plied their takings together one for all, at least at the beginning. Burl, Felipe guessed was the first to get the fever, gold fever, checking each night for an hour, maybe more the weight, and calculating his share, and maybe more than his share after a while when Felipe noticed that fevered look he had seen before when a man had been out in the desert, had suffered privations, and, hell, hadn’t been around the gentle influence of a woman, even a brown-eyed Mex whore, for a while. The he started staying in his tent more, avoiding the nightly gabfest camp fire except to eat, eat quickly and return to his tent. Tim caught it too, caught it as bad, so most nights before they headed out back to Tampico and then Vera Cruz it was only the Old Geezer, sometimes muttering to himself like he had the fever too and Felipe although Felipe had caught a certain look from the geezer that made him realize the old man was playing with his younger companions. Not a good sign.

After a couple of small incidents, incidents that if left to fester would have led to gun play between Burl and Tim no question in their then current state, nothing in the real world really something about the food and how it tasted funny ( a reflection of Felipe, and his culinary skill, if nothing else but fuel for their feud) magnified out in the hills the Old Geezer declared they had been out long enough and it would be best to go back to civilization, divvy up the profits and each head their separate ways. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, Burl and Tim bucked the idea at first wanting pan forever, when the geezer mentioned stray banditos out in the hills who if they found out some gringos were afoot might come and do them all in. That got the boys’ attention and so they broke camp, started heading back. A couple of days out they ran into a couple of stray banditos, fought them off, and began to hunker down on security. Three or four days later coming out of a narrow canyon they were confronted by a bandito force of about twenty desperados, some with they look of career bandits about them, others who looked like the remnants of Pancho Villa’s various armies now free-lancing with whoever paid and fed them.

The leader, a serious guy named El Lobo, a legend in the Mexico night just behind Villa and Zapata in the local hill pantheon and a name known even in places like Tampico and Vera Cruz, known and dreaded by Felipe one he spoke his name, who between spits, told the gringo trio (he did not direct anything, in anger or calm, toward Felipe) that he knew, knew so don’t lie to him, that they had gold and that he wanted half of it to let them go. The three parlayed. Tim and Burl, strung out on gold like men strung out on some unattainable woman, were for fighting it out and moving on quickly, the old man wiser and ready to take half of something, gold something, rather than a hail of lead was ready for compromise. He finally talked them into it, although the arguments were heated and the vagrant smell of gun powder was just below the surface. He called over to El Lobo, rendered the collective decision, went to the pack mule saddle bags, got the goods, passed El Lobo his share, and then went back and joined up with Tim and Burl.

Just then a fusillade of gun fire rang out from the bandito side. Tim fell first, then Burl, and finally the Old Geezer cursing El Lobo’s name. As the bandito army took everything not tied down away, gold, mules, supplies, El Lobo shouted to Felipe, now su companero, and asked if he wanted to join the gang. Felipe said no. To that El Lobo, the blood rising in his face and the thought that tonight at least his men would be fed and bedded indoors in some back road cantina , said-“Tell everyone you see what happened here today, and what will happen to them if they come looking for the oro in El Lobo’s backyard.” And he did.

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