When the night has come and the town is dark … that’s when I leave my lonely cabin. That’s when I go searchin’ for you, Baby. I walk the streets knowing that one night I will find you.
You have long auburn hair that flows down over your shoulders. Your eyes are green, you have curves that just won’t stop. I know everything about you except your name. Is it Diane? Is it Nadine? Or is it Aphrodite? Are you my goddess of love?
I saw you five months ago walking with a man. You went into Jimbo’s honky-tonk, and I followed. I sat at the bar and watched you. As I looked on, I fell in love. I fell in love with your smile, with your laugh. I fell head over heels in love with your beauty. From that moment on, I was yours. You just don’t know it yet. I should have followed you when you left, but I didn’t. I thought I’d see you soon enough, but I haven’t.
When the night starts its retreat and the beginning light in the East tells me I must stop my quest, I go back to my empty cabin and think of you.
I dream of you while I sleep the day away. I know that if I am to find you, it will only be in the dark of night where I first saw you.
I’m searchin’ for you, Baby, and one day I’m gonna find you.
Howdy, the name’s Jim Bridger and I’ve got me a story to tell. It ain’t no shoot ‘em up western tale, though it does take place in the west. It ain’t no detective yarn, though something is found. And it sure as hell ain’t no love story, though a love blossoms. I reckon I best be gettin’ to it.
I rode the rodeo circuit all my life, started out as a snot-nosed kid handling stock. Then I was given a chance to break horses for the promoter I worked for. And I was pretty damn good at it. So I saved up the fee and entered myself in the bronco event when we set up in Salinas. I came in second and that was all she wrote. With the prize money, I bought myself a pickup truck and started to follow the circuit. I was never the best, but I made out all right. It wasn’t long before I was entering other events. I was particular to bull riding and steer wrestling. Of course, I had to do chute dogging first to prove myself before I could do any steer wrestling.
I broke my fair share of bones, and nowadays when I wake up in the morning, it takes me ’bout an hour to work out all the kinks before I can walk straight up. I never had no social life. It was just movin’ from town to town, mostly sleeping in my truck. I reckon the only thing I was ever close to was my horse, a gray dun that I had named Tex. I had to put him down five years back when he got the colic.
When all the broken bones and the other abuse I had put my body through finally caught up with me and I couldn’t compete no more, I became a rodeo clown. Then even that became too much for my old bones. I was offered a job handling stock, but that was where I started out thirty years earlier. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I hit the road in my twenty-year-old pickup looking for something, although I had no idea what. I was fifty-five-years old, had a hundred and twenty dollars in my pocket and a half a tank of gas in my truck.
I picked up day labor here and there. It kept me fed and gas in my truck, but one Sunday morning, a year after leaving the rodeo, I found myself out of gas, out of money, and out of hope. There was a gnawin’ in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten in a day. I was outside of Blythe, California, just across from the Arizona line.
The truck coasted to a stop and I looked about. The country looked as desolate as my spirits felt. There was only one building that I could see; it looked like a small farmhouse, but then I noticed the sign. It read: KATE ARCHER, VETERINARIAN. With nothing to lose, I decided to go up and ask to trade some work for a meal. It being Sunday and all, I figured no one would be about, but it was my only option.
As I approached the house, my heart sank. It was in disrepair; it looked as though no one had lived in it for a while. Then I saw the corral. There was a single horse in it, a skinny pinto. I knocked on the back door, which was immediately opened by a woman of about fifty.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry to disturb you on a Sunday mornin’, but I was wonderin’ if you might have some work that needs doing in exchange for a meal?”
She took so long to say something, I thought she was gonna slam the door in my face. But finally she told me to come in, that she was just fixin’ breakfast.
“Ma’am, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather do the work first.”
She smiled and said, “I can tell you’re hungry, and a man can’t work on an empty stomach. God knows there’s plenty that needs doing, so don’t worry, you’ll earn your meal.” Then she stood aside so that I could enter.
While she busied herself at the stove, I sat at the kitchen table and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Kate Archer, and she was a veterinarian as the sign had suggested. We made small talk until the food was ready. Nothing never looked so good. As I shoveled eggs and bacon into my mouth, Kate said that it was good to see a man enjoy her cooking.
The short of it is, Kate told me there were some shingles that needed replacin’ on the roof, and that there were a stack of ’em in the lean-to out back. I thanked her for the grub, found the ladder and shingles and got to work. Four hours later, just as I was finishing up, she called me down to lunch.
While we were eating, she asked, “So, what are your plans?”
“Reckon when I git done with this here fine food, I’ll walk into town and look for work.”
She looked shocked and asked, “You’ll walk to town? Don’t you have a car?”
“I’ve got a truck, but it’s kinda outta gas.”
Then she wanted to know what kind of work I did.
“Whatever needs doin’. ’Ceptin’ I don’t do no doctorin’ of animals, nothing like that.”
She smiled at my little joke and said, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot of work that needs doing right here. I can’t pay much, but I’ll feed you and you can sleep in the lean-to.”
I didn’t have to think on it long.
I pushed my truck into the yard, put my kit in the lean-to, then went up to the kitchen door and knocked. When she opened it, I said, “All moved in, ma’am. What do you want me to tackle first?”
“First, I want you to call me Kate. Then I want you to get comfortable. That lean-to needs some fixing up if you’re going to live in it. So why don’t you work on that for now. At dinner I’ll give you a list of things to get started on and you can get to them in the morning. It’s Sunday after all, a day of rest.”
That’s how it started. There were always things that needed looking after, both inside the house and out. And somehow, I just never left. But after almost two years, I had the place looking pretty good and a few dollars in my pocket, so I reckoned it was time to move on.
Generally Kate was gone during the day making her rounds. So I was alone out back at the corral replacing a cracked board when Kelly trotted into my life. She was a black mustang . . . not much more than a foal. Of course her name wasn’t Kelly then. She was just a scrawny little filly looking the worse for wear. I gave her water and some oats and put her in the corral, then went about my work.
When Kate got back that night, a troubled look crossed her face. I was rubbing the mustang down in the lean-to and talking to her gently. “Hello,” said Kate. “How did she get here?”
I was startled for I had not heard her drive up, probably because all my attention was on the mustang. But I recovered quickly and answered her question. “I don’t know how she got here. She just came into the yard, trotted right up and nuzzled me. I think it was love at first sight on both our parts.”
“Well, we have a problem. That horse belongs to John Middleton and he’s not a very nice man. It’s likely when he learns she’s here, he’ll swear you stole her and have the law on you.”
I stopped rubbing the mustang and said, “Hang John Middleton! This horse has been mistreated and if I ever meet up with the man, I’ll beat the tar outta him. This horse goes back to him over my dead body.”
Kate sighed and said, “Put her in the corral and come inside. We’ll talk about it.”
As I sat down at the table, a name flashed in my head. KELLY!
Kate made us a drink of bourbon and water and sat down opposite me. “Jim, we’ll talk about the horse in a minute. But first I want to talk about us.” She saw that I was uncomfortable, so she hurried on. “You’ve been making noises over the last few weeks about leaving. I just want to ask you, aren’t you happy here?”
I sipped my whiskey and told her the truth. “Kate, when I showed up at your door, I was a broken man. I didn’t have a dime to my name and my prospects were zero. You fed me and housed me. For two years now, this has been my home. The only home I’ve ever known. I never told you, but I was an orphan. I ran away from the place at seventeen, and in all these years, you are the only person that showed me any kindness.”
I noticed that my glass was empty and stood to pour me another shot. Seeing her glass was still half full, I sat back down and continued. “I can’t stay here. If I do, I won’t have no self-respect. There’s no work here anymore.”
Kate sighed, downed her drink in one gulp, and said, “Make yourself useful. Pour me another one, no water this time.”
When I handed her the drink, she put it down, leaned back in her chair, and stared at me for a long minute. She shook her head before saying, “Now you listen here, Mister Jim Bridger. This place was worthless until you showed up. It’s now worth three times what it was. You work all day and then if I have a night call, you drive me. You have a way with animals. There were many a time if you had not been there to calm a sick and scared horse, I might have been trampled. I figure you earned your way into a partnership. And I dare you to say otherwise!” With that she downed the entire contents of her glass.
I didn’t know what to say. I’ve never seen her like that, I mean angry. She stood up and retrieved the bottle from the counter, saying, “This will save steps because we’re not leaving this table until we work things out.”
There was nothing to say to that neither, so I sat there with my mouth shut. But Kate sure had more to say. “For two years now, every single day we’ve eaten our meals together. We go shopping together. We talk on the porch in the cool of the evening. And not once, Jim Bridger, have you ever made a move on me. What’s wrong with me? You make a girl feel unattractive.”
She was so wrong. I thought her the most beautiful woman in the world, at least to me. There were many a night I lay in my bed and I thought of her. How I wanted to say something to let her know how I felt. But a man with nothing has no right to speak of such things to a woman.
There we sat, across the table from each other, neither one of us speaking. Then Kate got up, came over, and plopped herself right down on my lap. She put her arms around my neck and gave me the longest, deepest kiss I’ve ever had. It took me a few seconds, but then I returned it.
When we broke apart, she said, “Now that we have that settled, go get your things and move them into our bedroom.”
“I will. As soon as you get up off my lap.” She laughed and told me that she might not ever get up.
With her arms still around my neck, I asked her what we were going to do about Kelly. Kate tilted her head sideways and said, “Kelly?”
“The filly out in the corral.”
“Oh yes, her. Middleton is a son-of-a-bitch, but he owes me money. I’ll tell him I’m taking the horse as payment. If he gives me any trouble, I’ll report him for animal cruelty. What is her name again?”
“A nice name.”
That was the day I got me two first-class fillies. A year later, we sold the house, Kate sold her practice, and together with Kelly, we moved to Montana. We bought a small cabin and I built a heated barn for Kelly.
Now when it snows, Kelly is content in her barn. And Kate and I are content in each other’s arms.
I went off to war at the tender age of sixteen. My mother cried and begged me to stay, but my country needed me. I would not see my mother again for four very long years.
Due to my age, I was assigned to field headquarters as a dispatch courier for the first two years of the war. However, by the beginning of the third year, I had grown a foot taller and was shaving. And because men were dying at an alarming rate, I was sent into the trenches.
They say that war is hell. I say hell is peaceful compared to living in a muddy trench with bombs exploding around you at all hours of the day and night. Though there were periods of respite from the shelling. Those were the hours when the enemy had to let their big guns cool or else the heat of firing would warp them. I lived like that for two years.
I was at Verdun where I saw the true hell of war. After eleven months, we fought to a standstill. When the dead were counted, almost a million men from both sides had given their lives and not one inch of ground had been gained.
By November of 1918, we were out of food, out of ammunition, and almost out of men to send to the slaughter. The people at home had had enough of seeing their sons and fathers and brothers shipped home in boxes. There were marches and protests against the war. Near the end, the dead were not even sent home. They were buried in the fields where they had fallen.
At last, the war was over. I am told that nine million men died in those four years, and another twenty million were wounded. I was there and those numbers seem a little low to me, but what do I know? I was only a private.
When I returned home, President Ebert was there to meet us soldiers. He shook my hand and said, “No enemy has vanquished you.” He said the same thing to each man as he stepped off the train. Then I read in a newspaper that he repeated the same phrase in a speech. He should not have done so. It was the basis of, the beginning of, Dolchstoßlegende, the Stab-In-The-Back Myth. The myth that said we lost the war because of the Jews, the Socialists, and the Bolsheviks. But mostly because of the Jews.
I told you of my war experience because I wanted you to know I was there. I saw why we lost the war, and it was not because of Dolchstoßlegende. However, Dolchstoßlegende would affect me much more than the war ever had.
My mother, when she saw me, dropped the dish she was holding. It broke on the floor, shattering into many pieces. She rushed to me and held me tight. I felt her warm tears on my neck until she let go and held me at arm’s length. “Let me look at you,” she said as she cried with happiness. “My, you have grown so big! You remind me of your father.” My father had died years earlier; I barely remembered him.
It was good to be home. I had no plans except to sleep late every morning and eat my mother’s good cooking. However, the sleeping late was not to be. When I left, my mother was working in her friend’s millinery shop, but the shop had gone out of business during the war. My mother had been living off the money I was sending home every month. She said she did not write me of her plight because she did not want me to worry about her.
I was no longer a boy. I was now a man of twenty years. I had seen the horrors of war and I had lived through those horrors. Certainly, I could provide for my mother and me. Four days after returning home, I went in search of a job.
My first employment was with a blacksmith. However, that did not last long. The automobile was driving him out of business, and he had to let me go. Then Herr Hoffman hired me; he ran the largest bakery in Berlin. It was a good job because I was treated well and shown respect by Herr Hoffman. It was a job I was to have until . . . well . . . until I could no longer work. More on that later.
It was about that time the troubles began. The Allies had demanded reparations, and because of the war itself, there were food shortages and inflation. It was not uncommon to see someone with a suitcase filled with Mark notes going to buy a few groceries. One day, a man came into our shop with a 10,000 Mark note and asked if it would be enough to buy ten loaves of bread. Before the war, a loaf of bread cost 10 Pfennig, the equivalent of an American nickel. It was good to work where I could take a little food home every day, even if it was only a loaf of stale bread.
By 1924, inflation had gotten so bad that the Mark was replaced by the Reichsmark, but it did little good. There was still rampant inflation, and food shortages persisted. Of course, someone had to be blamed for the sorry state of affairs. That is when the Brownshirts appeared. I used to see them on the street corners giving speeches. They were always going on about the Jews and the communists.
In those days, I kept mostly to myself. However, being a young man, I did, on occasion, go to a beer hall for a stein or two. It was on one of those occasions that I had my first, but not my last, run-in with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. They called themselves Nazis.
The year was 1931. I was thirty-three years old. I still lived with my mother and I still worked for Herr Hoffman. But by then, I did more than carry the fifty-pound bags of flour for the bakers. I was now a baker myself. It was a very good position.
I was sitting at a table with four other young men, none of whom I knew. At the next table was a group of Brownshirts loudly going on about how the Juden betrayed the Fatherland during the Great War.
After my second stein, I could take it no longer. I turned to them and asked, “Were any of you in the war?” I knew none of them had been because of their age. I think the oldest one couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.
One of the younger ones answered my question. “No, but if we had been, we wouldn’t have lost the war.” At that, I had to smile. I was dealing with children.
My smile seemed to anger them. “What are you laughing at?” one of them asked. Another stood and approached me. “Are you a Jew?” he demanded.
That was enough for me. I stood and said, “No, I am not a Jew, but I fought shoulder to shoulder with them during the war while you were sucking your mother’s tit. And pound for pound, I’d rather have a Jew fighting next to me than any of you!”
True to the Nazi form, they took out their batons and beat me. There were six of them, so I did not have much of a chance, but I did get in a few good punches. One of which knocked out a front tooth of the man who had asked if I was a Jew.
Someone called the police, and they broke up the brawl. Just in time from my way of thinking; I was getting the worst of it. I was told to go home, and as I paid my bill, I saw the policemen talking to the Brownshirts. They all seemed quite friendly with one another.
In January of 1933, Herr Hitler became the chancellor of our republic. In February, the Reichstag burned. The Nazis said it was arson and Hitler persuaded President von Hindenburg to pass the Enabling Act, which suspended our civil liberties. The Act empowered Hitler to name himself dictator of Germany, which he did in 1934. His first act as dictator was to outlaw trade unions. Then he passed laws prohibiting Jews from working in the civil service and as lawyers or doctors for anyone except their own people.
By 1938, I had been promoted to master baker in Herr Hoffman’s shop. My life was good. My mother was still alive, and we still lived together. On my way home one night, I stopped off at a local ratskeller for a stein. As I entered, I bumped into a man wearing the black uniform of the Schutzstaffe; he was missing a front tooth. I knew him right away. He was the Brownshirt whose tooth I had knocked out back in 1931. All of Germany knew of Hitler’s storm troopers, and all of Germany feared them. I could see that he remembered me from somewhere, but was not sure where. Before he could remember, I left without having my stein. As I was going through the door, I turned to see him talking to the barmaid, pointing in my direction.
Since the passing of the Enabling Act, it was legal to arrest a person for little or no reason. Most of the arrests were of people who spoke out against Hitler. The SS Storm Troopers were the ones that did the arresting. Once the SS had you in custody, you ended up in a concentration camp.
The establishment of the camps was also one of the things Herr Hitler did in his first year as chancellor. I had no desire to be sent to a camp for punching a party member in the face years earlier, so I hurried home that evening. I remember the date well. It was 8 November 1938, one day before Kristallnacht or Crystal Night, also known as The Night of Broken Glass.
Over a two-day period, the SS and non-Jewish citizens throughout the country destroyed property owned by Jews. Storefronts were shattered; homes entered and looted; synagogues set afire. The property of Jews was easy to identify because their stores, houses and synagogues were painted with a yellow Star of David or the word Jude.
When the rampage ended, the sunlight reflecting off the fragmented glass lying in the street gave it the look of broken crystal. Two thousand Jewish men had been arrested—two thousand Jewish men . . . and me.
On the final night of Kristallnacht, the SS—led by the storm trooper with the missing tooth—came for me. My mother cried and pleaded with them not to take me. I said nothing; I knew what it was about. It was about revenge for a single punch in the face seven years earlier.
The SS put me in jail and there I sat for a month before I was charged with treason to the Fatherland and being a “Jew-lover.” Without a trial, I was sent to Dachau, which was located in southern Germany. At first, I was treated as any other prisoner. I was sent to a sub-camp and used as slave labor, hollowing out a mountain for a military installation. Then one day, two prison guards hauled me out of the mountain, transported me back to the main camp, and escorted me into the office of the camp commandant, Hauptsturmführer Piorkowski.
I stood before his desk with a guard on either side of me. Piorkowski was reading a file and did not acknowledge our presence. I was hopeful that at last someone had realized my arrest had been a mistake, that it was due to a vengeful major of the SS. I had been in the camp five months by then and had lost forty pounds. I would not last much longer if I was not freed.
Presently, Piorkowski raised his head from the file and looked at me. “It says here in your dossier that you are a baker.”
It was not a question, but I answered him anyway. “Yes, I am a master baker.”
Piorkowski smiled and asked if I knew how to make strudel. Of course I did, and I told him so. Again he smiled and said, “We will see.” He told the guards to take me to the showers, get me a clean prison uniform, and escort me to the kantine. Turning to me he said, “This might be your lucky day. If you can make a decent strudel, I will take you out of the mountain and put you to baking for the officers and enlisted men. Our cooks are adequate, but none of them can make a proper strudel. And their breads are not much better.”
With those words, any hope of my release flew out the window.
After I cleaned up, the two guards took me to the main kitchen. There were two kitchens, the main one that prepared the SS’s food, and another one that did the same for the prisoners. Both were staffed by men of the Wehrmacht or regular army. The men of the Waffen-SS were above such things as running a mess hall. Of course, prisoners could not be trusted to work around food considering the insufficient amount we were given. They would not have been able to help themselves and would have stolen more food than they prepared.
When we arrived, one of the guards left and the other one told the cook on duty what the commandant wanted of me. The cook shrugged and pointed to a table next to a wall of ovens. The guard said, “You will find what you need under the table.” And he added, “The ovens are heated and ready to go.” He did not leave; he just stood there and watched me work.
I did have to ask where to find certain ingredients. But I soon got down to work. It felt good to knead flour once again.
The smells of the kitchen were driving me mad. I was hungry, incredibly hungry, but I knew if I asked for something to eat, I would probably be beaten. Soon the strudels were ready for the oven. I had made twelve filled with cheese.
When they were done, I took the pan out of the oven and laid it on the table. The guard was a young private; he was licking his lips as his eyes followed the strudels from oven to table. Then the cook came over. He looked at my work and then picked up a strudel. It was hot, but it did not seem to faze him. He took a bite, chewed and swallowed. Without saying a word, he nodded at me and went back to whatever it was he had been doing. It was all I could do not to shove a strudel into my mouth.
The private took me and the strudels back to the commandant. This time we had to wait in the outer office for about fifteen minutes. But at least I was not in the mountain with a pickaxe in my hand and a machine gun at my back. At length, we were summoned into Piorkowski’s office.
As we entered, the commandant told me to lay the pan on his desk. I could see that a place had been cleared for that purpose. Then he said, “If they taste half as good as they smell, you will have a new job here at our little camp. Now wait outside until called for.” The guard and I left Piorkowski to enjoy his strudels.
By the time we were called back in, two of the strudels were gone, and Piorkowski had a smile on his face. “It is a good thing for you that you are not a Jew,” he said. The questioning look on my face must have prompted him to go on. “If you were a Jew, I couldn’t allow you in the kitchen. None of my men would eat anything that was touched by a Jew, no matter how tasty.” As I turned to leave, Piorkowski told the guard that, after he brought me back to the kitchen, he could go about his regular duties. “I don’t think our new baker will try to escape because, if he did, then I’d have to have him shot.” To me he said, “The head cook will tell you what you need to know. I’ve instructed him to give you one meal a day, regular rations. We don’t want you getting too weak to make your wonderful strudel.”
As I bent to pick up the tray with the remaining strudels, he told me to leave it. Then as an afterthought, he said, “Keep clean. I will give orders allowing you to shower every day. And when your uniform is soiled, ask for a clean one. I do not want dirt or lice falling onto what you bake.”
I nodded, and the guard and I started out, but before we got to the door, Piorkowski asked, “How are you with pfeffernüsse?” I told him I was the best with anything he wanted baked, including spice cookies. When I answered him, there was a slight edge to my voice. I was still disappointed at not being released.
His smile was quickly replaced with a frown. “Never use that tone of voice with me again or I’ll send you back to the mountain. Now get to work!”
I was brought back to the kitchen and placed in the hands of the head cook. He informed me of my duties. His main concern was bread. There were 1500 camp personnel, mostly SS, but there were also, as I have said, some Wehrmacht. He would need 1000 loaves per day. Of course, it was also going to be my duty to make desserts. Unless ordered by the commandant to produce a particular dessert, he would leave the decision of what to prepare up to me. He was a nice man, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht. He treated me as an equal the entire time I worked in his kitchen. His name was Joseph Müller.
It was late in the afternoon, and there would be no more baking that day. They fired the ovens at 3:00 a.m. and that was when my day would begin. It would not end until I had everything baked for the evening meal, usually between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m.
After he had finished showing me around and told me what was expected of me, I told him that I could not come up with 1000 loaves of bread per day and desserts for 1500 men twice a day, every day, without some help. Sgt. Müller said he had detailed six men to help me. He had told them to do what I said and pay no attention to the fact that I was a prisoner. It was the first time in five months that I had been treated like a human being and it brought a tear to my eye.
Unlike Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Dachau was not a death camp. It was a camp for political prisoners. Many died, but the deaths were mostly from disease and starvation.
I felt guilty eating my one meal a day in the kitchen while my fellow prisoners lined up for their meager meal of watered-down soup. We were always hungry, but I had it a little better than the other prisoners. That is why, one afternoon when my work was done, I smuggled two loaves of bread from the kitchen and brought them to my barracks. My intent was to feed a few poor souls. But when the people saw what I had, a riot broke out. People were shoving and stepping over one another to get to me. The loaves were wrenched from my hands before I was five steps into the barracks. Of course, with all the commotion, the guards came in, and when they saw what was happening and what had caused the disturbance, I was brought before Piorkowski.
He was furious and paced back and forth as I stood in front of his desk between two guards. Finally, he stood in front of me, and after a moment’s hesitation, he slapped me hard, right across the face.
“So that is how you repay my kindness?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on. “One more incident like we had this afternoon, I will hang you in the yard and your body will stay there until it rots. It will serve as a reminder to the other prisoners that my will is law, and anyone who breaks my law will suffer a similar fate.”
He then calmed down, and in a softer voice, he said, “Seeing as how you love your fellow prisoners so much, you can eat with them for the next four days. After that, you can go back to your meal in the kitchen. I don’t want you too weak to work.”
When I returned to the barracks, no one would look me in the eye or speak with me. They were ashamed for the way they had acted and resentful of me for being the cause of their shame. But I could not blame them. Hunger is a terrible thing. To be hungry day in and day out, with no relief in sight, will take away one’s humanity.
Six other commandants followed Piorkowski, and they all kept me baking my breads and strudels. That is how I survived Dachau. I did not starve to death because I ate relatively well. Besides my daily meal, I snuck cheese and fruits meant for the strudels and a piece of bread now and then. I had to be careful because, if caught, I’d be reported. Sgt. Müller knew what I was doing, but as I’ve said before, he was a good man. I did not succumb to disease because of my diet and the fact that I was allowed to shower daily.
I’ll never forget the date the camp was liberated. It was 29 April 1945. I was forty-seven years old.
The commandant and the SS officers left in the morning; the Americans came in the afternoon. The first thing the Americans did once they had control of the camp was separate the men of the Wehrmacht from the SS. Then they stood forty-five men of the SS up against a wall and executed them. At the time, I did not speak English, but a prisoner who did told me why the SS were shot.
A half mile from the camp, the Americans had come upon railroad cars that were locked and standing idle. When the cars were opened, there lay two thousand dead Jews. They had been left locked in the cars with no water or food for three weeks. Many of the Americans retched from the smell of feces and rotting flesh. Many more were sick just from the horrible sight.
So, when the Americans liberated our camp, they were not feeling too kindly towards members of the SS. In fact, they stood around and watched, and did not interfere, when prisoners who were not too weak or too sick attacked SS guards that had been rounded up and herded into the roll-call yard. When the SS men were dead, one man who took part in the killings came towards me holding a shovel, shouting that I was a Nazi-lover. He would have struck me, but another prisoner came between us. He held up his hand and said, pointing to me, “This man has done nothing against any of us. He did what he had to do to survive. You were not here at the time, but, at great risk to himself, he brought bread to us. He was found out and told that he would be executed if he did it again. What would you have done differently, my friend?” The man dropped the shovel, buried his face in his hands and cried. I think he was crying because at last the horror was over and once again he could live as a human being and not as a feral animal.
We could not leave the camp because the war was still raging all around us. The Americans were fighting their way to Berlin. My mother was in Berlin and I wanted to see her again so badly. We could not leave, but we were fed three meals a day, and the Americans brought in medical personnel to treat the sick. Half the camp was down with typhus.
Two large warehouses held the clothes that were taken from us upon our arrival at the camp. We were allowed to pick out a suit of clothes to replace the hated prison uniforms.
The war ended about two weeks later when Admiral Dönitz unconditionally surrendered. Hitler had appointed him head of state in his will. We were free to leave the camp, but before we could go, we had to queue up and get a card stating that we were ex-prisoners. This was done because many SS men had discarded their uniforms and were claiming to be either civilians or ex-soldiers of the Wehrmacht.
There was no train service because the tracks had all been bombed. So I started walking to Berlin. It was a three-hundred-and-fifty-mile walk. Along the way, I saw what the war—or more to the point—what Hitler had done to our country. There was devastation of one sort or another in all the cities. The countryside for the most part looked untouched. But wherever I went, people were hungry. And so was I. I stole vegetables from some farms and received handouts from others. There was no food to be had in the towns or the cities, at least not for me.
I was stopped numerous times by allied soldiers. Even though I had the card stating I was an ex-prisoner, I was asked on more than one occasion to remove my coat and shirt and raise my arms. The soldiers were looking for the tattoo of the SS. All SS men had the symbol tattooed on the inside of their biceps. Some soldiers let me pass without checking for the tattoo because of my thin frame. It was obvious that I had not been eating very well or very much for a long while. All members of the SS were well fed.
It took me eighteen days to reach the outskirts of Berlin. I thought I had seen devastation on my journey, but I was not prepared for what I beheld as I walked the streets of Berlin. The city had been thoroughly destroyed. There was not a building left intact, and the people were walking around in a state of shock. I went right to my former home to find only a crater and half of a wall standing where my house should have been. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I prayed that she had not been in the building when the bomb struck.
I spent the rest of the day walking the streets looking for my mother before I had to stop because of darkness. I found a cellar that was unoccupied. Even though the floor was rough and hard, I slept through the night. I was awakened by an excited clamor up in the street. It was the sound of many people talking all at once. I brushed the dust off my clothes and went to see what was happening.
There was a line of people waiting to be fed. At the front of the line were American soldiers ladling out what looked to be soup. I hurriedly got to the end of the line and asked the man in front of me what was going on. “Isn’t it obvious? The Americans are feeding us so that we don’t devolve into cannibalism,” he said with a slight grin on his face. He went on to tell me that twice a day, at various locations, they dished out just enough food to keep a person alive. Then he looked at my empty hands and added, ‘Unless you are going to carry your soup in those, I would recommend you find a bowl somewhere.” By then there were about twenty people behind me and I hated to give up my place, but he was right, so I left the line.
I had to go only a block. In a destroyed building, on the ground floor, I saw an exposed kitchen. I moved bricks around until I unearthed a pie tin. Next, I looked for a spoon. I was throwing bricks aside as fast as I could. I was in a panic that the soup would run out before I could get back. Then I found what I was looking for. There was only one problem. The spoon was attached to a woman’s hand—a dead woman’s hand. It was all that I could see. The rest of her body was buried under a pile of bricks.
I had seen many a dead body over the last five years, so one more did not shock me. And I am ashamed to say it, but I took the spoon from her cold, dead hand and hurried back to the food line without giving her another thought. As I said, hunger is a terrible thing and a man will do terrible things to alleviate the pain.
That was my life for the next month. I would line up twice a day for something to eat, usually soup. When I wasn’t in line, I would search for my mother. At night, I slept in an air raid shelter with two hundred other displaced Berliners. The occupiers had converted all the shelters into sleeping quarters. Unless you were extremely sick, you were not allowed to be there during the day.
On all the light posts were notices put up by people looking for lost family members. I borrowed a pencil from a nice woman and found some paper that I tore into four pieces. I wrote my name, my mother’s name, and a short message on each piece, saying that she should meet me at the house where we used to live. I then placed one of them on the wall left standing at our old house and the other three on different light posts around the city. For as long as I was in Berlin, I went every day to where our house had stood, even long after my plaintive notices had blown away.
It wasn’t long before the Americans told us that all able-bodied people would have to work if they wanted to eat. I was given a wheelbarrow and told to collect bricks and deposit them in neat stacks at a certain location. I wasn’t the only one doing so. Men and women all over Berlin were doing the same thing. I think the work that the Americans had us do was as much about keeping us occupied as it was about cleaning up Berlin. But there was no shortage of bricks, and I kept busy in that fashion for the next five months. At the end of each day, I was given a piece of paper that allowed me to get in the workers’ line for food; a little more food was doled out there than at the other food lines.
After six months in Berlin, I had given up hope of ever finding my mother. If she were alive, she would have been at our old house waiting for me long before I even got back to the city. It was time to get on with my life. I was a baker, not a brick picker-upper. And as things were, there was no need of my services in Berlin, nor would there be for the foreseeable future.
By the time I came to that decision, some of the railroad tracks had been repaired, and there was limited train service, but only for commercial reasons. I hid in an open car that was carrying coal and heading northwest. The train stopped in Cuxhaven, a small seaport town on the North Sea. On the spur of the moment, I decided I would try to get to another country. Germany had been destroyed and, without my mother, there was nothing to keep me there. But first, I would need some money.
I was in luck and found a job loading and off-loading ships. Everything was still a mass of confusion; however, the Allies wanted to get the economy up and running as soon as possible to avoid the inflation that followed the Great War, and shipping was a necessary component of that strategy.
I had been working on the docks for a little over six months when I decided that I wanted to go to America. But I did not have enough saved for my passage. I worked hard and I got to know a few of the captains that frequented the port. One captain in particular, Captain Hans Becker. One day he invited me to come to his cabin when the loading of his ship was completed. “Come and have a glass of schnapps with me when you are done,” he bellowed from the bridge.
Once we were seated at his table, both of us with a glass of very good schnapps in hand, he said, “You once told me that you were a baker. Do you know how to cook also?”
I took a sip of my schnapps and thought for a moment before answering. “I cook for myself every night. I do not waste money eating out. I am saving for my passage to America.”
“That is very good, but will the Americans let you into their country?”
“I don’t see why not. I am able-bodied and can support myself. It is a big country. I am sure they can use one more baker.”
“There are such things as passports and visas, my friend.”
Yes, I knew of those things, but I refused to dwell on them until I had the money in hand for the trip.
Hans poured me another glass of schnapps and said, “I am sailing for America in two days, and I need a cook. If you agree not to poison my crew with your cooking, you can sign on. We will be in America for two weeks before returning. It will give you a chance to see if you like the country, and you will be earning the whole way there and back with no expenses for lodging or food. You will be able to put more away than if you stayed here.”
It may have been the schnapps, but I accepted his offer without hesitation. I was going to America!
It was a fast crossing. We pulled into New York Harbor just seven days after leaving Cuxhaven. The customs people came on board before we had even finished tying our lines to the dock. They checked Hans’ paperwork and when they saw that he was carrying industrial parts from the IG Farben Company as part of the war reparations, we were quickly documented and told to enjoy ourselves while in the city of New York. IG Farben was the company that made the poison gas used in the death camps.
At first I had trouble adjusting to the tall buildings. I had never seen anything like them before, except in the moving pictures that came from America prior to the war. I soon began to love the city. Whenever I had the time, I would walk the streets and observe the people. They were all so intent with their lives. Rushing to wherever it was they were going. I wondered if they knew how lucky they were that the war had not affected America as it had Germany.
One day while walking in a part of the city that I later learned was known as Little Germany, I happened upon a bakery. The smells coming from inside reminded me of Herr Hoffman’s shop. I went in not knowing how I was going to make myself understood. At the time, I still spoke no English. However, I need not have worried. The shop was empty but for a man behind the counter who asked me, in German, what I would like.
I told him I was just over from the Fatherland and it was good to hear my native tongue spoken in America. When he heard that I had been in Germany just a week earlier, he asked me to sit down at a little table by the window and excused himself. He was back in less than a minute with two cups of coffee and a plate of cinnamon cookies.
He had seen newsreels and read the papers. He wanted to know all about how things were back home. He asked if it was true that Germany had been totally destroyed. I told him what I had seen from one end of the country to the other, especially what had been done to Berlin. He sat there and listened without interruption and without touching his coffee.
As soon as I had finished speaking, he took my cup, went behind the counter and refilled it. When he sat down again, he asked about me personally. Was I immigrating to America? What had I done during the war, and a thousand other questions. We talked the afternoon away. By the time I realized that I would be late getting back to the ship, I had learned that he was a Jew and had left Germany two years after Hitler came to power. He had seen the handwriting on the wall. And I told him that, like him, I was a baker. He said he had things he wanted to talk to me about, but I didn’t have the time right then, so I agreed to come back to his shop the following day. The baker’s name was Herman Klein. He would turn out to be the best friend I would ever have.
I arrived early the next day, and the shop was busy. There were at least fifteen people in line and Herr Klein could not serve them fast enough. When I saw one lady get frustrated at the wait and walk out, I joined Herr Klein behind the counter and helped him serve his customers.
At last, the shop was empty. Herr Klein poured two cups of coffee, and we resumed our seats by the window. After blowing on his coffee to cool it a bit, he said to me, “If you would like to stay here in America, I think I can fix it for you. I can vouch for you and tell the authorities that you have a job with me so that you will not be a burden on the people of this great country. And when they find out that you were in one of the camps, they are bound to let you stay.”
I wasn’t so sure of that and I started to say something, but he silenced me by holding up his hand and saying, “Let me finish what I have to say, and then you can talk.”
“My wife died before I left Germany, and I have no children. I’m over-working myself and I could use some help, but good bakers are hard to come by. If you come in with me and we get along, I will give you a 25% partnership in my business after six months.”
When it was my turn to talk, I could think of nothing to say. I desperately wanted to take him up on his offer, but I had a commitment to Hans. I told Herman that I would have to discuss the matter with my captain, but whatever the outcome, I wanted him to know that I was deeply moved by the proposition.
That night, Hans only laughed when I told him that I did not think I could stay in America because it would leave him without a cook. “Listen, my friend. You would be a fool not to take Herr Klein’s offer. The crossing is seven days; I think we can manage that long without a cook. The men can take turns doing the honors. It might be interesting to see what they come up with.”
That is how I ended up in America. I was allowed to stay because I had money, a job, and a sponsor. Herman was right—having been a prisoner did help my case. When I showed the man who was interviewing me the card stating that I had been at Dachau, I saw something in his eyes, something sad.
Herman taught me English and when I was proficient enough, I took the citizenship classes to learn about this wonderful country and its history. Six months to the day after I started working for him, Herman gave me a 25% interest in the bakery. It was official; his lawyer had drawn up the papers.
I became a proud citizen of the United States on 9 February 1947. I was forty-nine years old. Herman and I worked together for ten years. He was nineteen years older than I and in the fall of 1957 when he was seventy-eight, Herman announced that he could take the cold no longer and was retiring to Florida.
He sold me his interest in the shop, but no cash changed hands. Our agreement was that I would send him a check every month to cover his expenses with a little left over. If I sold the shop, then I would send him his percentage of the proceeds. This time there was no lawyer involved. It was a handshake deal. Two years later, Herman died in his sleep . . . two days after his eightieth birthday. I was listed as his next-of-kin and was duly notified of his passing. I closed the shop for a few days and flew to Florida to bury my friend under the warm Florida sun. I was sixty-one-years-old.
I ran the shop until I was eighty-five. Of course, I had help. I trained a young man to be a master baker and ended up selling him the shop with no money down. He sent me a check every month for ten years.
I am now one hundred and three years old as I sit in the Florida sun waiting to die.
Now I come to the purpose of my narrative. My hands shake too much for me to write, that is why I am speaking into a tape recorder.
I told you the story of my life so that anyone who hears these words will understand that I know whereof I speak. I lived through two of the worst periods in human history. And they took place only twenty years apart. The first, of course, being what was then known as the Great War. I saw the carnage first hand. In that war, nine million men were slain. The second occurrence of man’s inhumanity to man was the second great war. Sixty million men, women, and children died in that war, including the eleven million human beings that perished in the concentration camps.
To my point: All that suffering and all those deaths came about because of fear. I was young at the time, but I remember the election of 1912. The left-wing Social Democratic Party made huge gains in that election. The right-wing Prussians feared a loss of power and started agitating for war to distract the populace. Terms like “nationalism” and “territorial rights” were used. We Germans began to fear that there was not enough land. We felt that we had to take land from others so that we would have enough for ourselves. It is ironic, or maybe not, but that is the same argument Hitler used when he had his army march into Czechoslovakia. He wanted land for the German people.
In 1914, it was fear of not having enough space in which to live that caused the death of nine million men and seriously wounded another twenty-two million. And here we are one hundred years later and still there is plenty for everyone.
All wars are fought because of fear. Hitler did not hate the Jews, he feared them. He feared the left-wingers, and he feared anyone that was not just like him. Unfortunately, there were too many people in Germany at that time that had the same fears. That is how concentration camps come about. Concentrate those who are different from you behind fences of barbed wire.
In Germany, we gave up our civil liberties through the Enabling Act because of fear. The Reichstag had just been torched, and we were all fearful. Fearful of what, we were not quite sure. We were definitely afraid of the Jews, but our other fears were not so self-evident. We believed our leaders knew best, so we allowed them to take our freedoms in the hope that they would protect us. And once you give up your rights to a government—any government—it is very hard to get them back.
Here in America, this beautiful adopted land of mine, we gave up our civil liberties after 9/11 through the Patriot Act, another act that was born of fear. Like the Enabling Act, it was supposed to lapse after four years. And like the Enabling Act, it is not going anywhere.
In Germany, it was the Jews. Now many of us here fear Muslims. I am not saying that America is on the verge of another Hitler. What I am saying—and this is from an old man on his way out who has seen it all and lived it all—what I am saying is this: Come from a place of love, not fear.
I am one hundred and three years old as I speak these words, and I can still get around. I walked to a pawnshop not far from where I live and bought this recorder. It is a cassette recorder. The man in the store told me they were obsolete, so he gave me a good price. I bought it to say just one thing. I have to say it now because tomorrow I will be either in heaven or in hell, I do not know which, but wherever I am, you will not be able to hear my words. So I speak them into this microphone to be placed on a tape, and I pray that someone, someday, somewhere will hear them. Not only hear my words, but also heed them.
This is what I spent the better part of an hour getting to: There is only love and fear. That is all. All negative emotions come from fear; jealousy, hatred, greed, just to name a few. Fear of not having enough, fear of not being loved enough, fear of someone that is different from us, fear of someone who worships a different God than we do. There is only fear and love. I tell you: Live your life with love. The kind of love a mother has for her child. The kind of love that a man has who jumps in front a bullet to save his friend; love like Mother Teresa had for the poor of this world, the love that Jesus had when he laid down his life.
Love or fear?
Please . . . do not let what took place in Germany ever happen again!
To those of you who have been following my hitching adventures, I want to thank you for reading my stuff. This is the last of those adventures I’ll be posting. There just ain’t that much more to tell. I wrote this in a rather flippant style, but I assure you, when it was going down, I was shaking in my boots. Also, now that the statute of limitations has run out on most of my crimes, I reckon it’s safe to tell you that Andrew Joyce is my pen name. In another life, I was known as Billy Doyle.
It all happened in a little café just across the border. The year was 1971 and I was twenty-one-years old. I was hitchin’ west and was let off outside of El Paso, Texas. It was just before dawn and I had not slept or eaten in a day. But at twenty-one, that’s not a big deal. This is a story of friendship, and how the length of the relationship does not matter. What matters is the commitment and intensity the participants feel for one another.
As I stood on Highway 90 waiting for my next ride, a little man walked up to me and said, “Excuse me, sir, but would you like to make some easy money?”
Now, if you know me, you know money has never interested me all that much. However, the unknown—something new—drew me as a moth to flame.
I said to the man, “Whatcha got in mind?”
It seemed that, because I was a gringo, he thought I might be able to help him. He then laid out the plan to me. His wife was being held captive for a debt that he owed. She was forced to work in a café just across the border in Juarez. He wanted me to go into the café and ask for her, and then pretend I wanted to go upstairs with her; but I was to bring her out the back door and walk her across the border. For this, he offered me the princely sum of twenty-five dollars. Son-of-a-bitch! Even to a kid who hadn’t eaten in a day, $25.00 was chump change.
But his story got me angry. How could those damn assholes keep a man’s love from him? It got my Irish up. And goddamn it, I was going to get that man’s woman out of that café if it was the last thing I ever did. And it nearly was.
But first things first. If this guy had money on him, then he could buy me breakfast and fill me in on the details at the same time. I suggested we adjourn to the nearest diner and he readily agreed. We walked a few blocks until we found a hash house that was open. We entered and made a beeline for the counter.
Because I had not eaten in a long while, I ordered the biggest damn breakfast you’ve ever seen. Of which I could only eat half. I don’t know how many of you have gone a day or two without eating, but a funny phenomenon takes place. The first day you’re hungry as hell, but by the beginning of the second day, the hunger, for the most part, is gone. Mentally you’re hungry, but physically you’re just fine. At the time, I was told it was because your stomach shrinks, but I don’t know how true that is. I’ve never gone a full forty-eight hours without food, so I don’t know what happens then. Anyway, that’s why I could only eat half of what I had ordered. But while I was eating, the little man, whose name turned out to be Miguel Delarosa, told me his story.
He was of Indian descent, as are the majority of Mexican people. There are two classes of people in Mexico: those descended from the Spanish who own most of the country, and those descended from the people who used to own the land, the Indians.
He came from a town in the estado (state) of Oaxaca, which is located in southern Mexico. The town’s name, which I never did learn how to pronounce properly, was Tehuantepec. He had been married about eight months by the time we met. Three months after getting hitched, he made the determination that he wanted a better life for himself, his wife, and any children that might someday come along. So it was decided that he would go to America to get work and get settled. When he had saved enough money so his wife could make the trip by bus, he would send it to her and they would be reunited. The reason his wife, whose name was Asuncion, or Asun for short, did not accompany him to begin with is that they had no money. Miguel would have to make the trek by walking and hitchhiking; and he’d be traveling the entire length of the country. Not the sort of trip a man wants to bring his bride of a few months on. The trip would be not only arduous but also dangerous. There were still bandits roaming the highways and roads of Mexico. A man and women alone could very easily find themselves in dire straights out in the countryside.
Now we come to the part of Miguel’s story where he fucked up. It seems he was homesick, so on Saturday nights he’d walk across the border into Juarez and hang out at this particular café. Of course, he was in the country illegally. And with all the hysteria today about the great horde coming up from Mexico to take our jobs, rape our women folk, and pillage our cities, it may be hard to believe that in those days the border guards where hip to the goings on. I mean they knew the guys going and coming on Saturday night were not kosher, but the local farmers and ranchers needed their labor, so everyone was cool.
The name of the café was “The Mouse Trap,” or as the sign above the door read, Café La Ratonera. It was owned by a man named José. He’s the villain of this piece. He was big and fat, but more big than fat. He stood 6’ 4”, wore a grizzled black beard, and had a large scar in the form of a lightning bolt on his right cheek. (No shit. This guy had the scar on his cheek just like I said. He was right outta central casting!) When he smiled, the gold front tooth that he was so very proud of shone brightly in the dim light of his café. He was a bad motherfucker. No … bad is not the right word. The man was downright evil.
José could spot an “illegal” a mile away. By illegal, I mean a man who was in the United States without documentation, without his “papers.” Most seemed to get homesick at some point, as Miguel had, and would walk across the border for a little bit of home. And the biggest, gaudiest place in all of Juarez was the Café La Ratonera, so naturally that is where most of the men ended up.
José’s choice of name for his establishment might have been a coincidence, or it may have been by design; but regardless of serendipity or intent, he did snare the weakest of men in his “trap.” His method of doing so was quite simple; once he had scouted his prey, he would befriend his intended victim in some small way. He might forgive that evening’s bar bill, buy the man a few drinks, or perhaps, if he was in an expansive mood, give the man a few pesos to put toward bringing his family to America. All the men José preyed upon were working, and saving for one reason, and one reason only, to be reunited with their loved ones. Of the men’s longing to be with their families, José was able to make a very despicable living.
This is how Miguel got taken. José scoped him out and did his usual bullshit, pretending to be his friend. Then when Miguel told him of Asun and how he was working to bring her to America, José laid out his trap.
The trap consisted of exactly what Miguel wanted to hear. José told of how he had connections throughout Mexico, how he could arrange to have Asun brought up to Juarez, and then he, Miguel, could walk her across the border on a Saturday night. Of course, Miguel wasn’t completely brain dead. He did ask, “Why would you do this for me, and will there be a cost involved?”
To which José responded, “Man, you are my compatriot, mi amigo, we are simpatico. Yes, there will be a small cost, not everyone thinks as I do. But we’ll work it out, mi amigo.”
And work it out ol’ José did. He did indeed bring Asun up from Tehuantepec and got her to the Café La Ratonera. But once there, Miguel was told the fee for bringing her up was $1,000.00. It might well have been $100,000.00 as far as Miguel was concerned.
That’s when Jose cut out the being nice crap—the “I am your amigo” crap—and let Miguel have it right between the eyes. He informed Miguel that until the debt was paid, Asun would work in his hellhole of a café. And then to emphasize his intent, he pushed a button that was affixed to the side of his desk (they were in José’s office at the time) and two men appeared out of nowhere. José simply said, “Eighty-six the son-of-bitch.” Eighty-six being a universal term used in the bar and liquor business meaning throw the bum out, and don’t let him return.
Miguel told me that was two weeks ago, and he had yet to set sight upon his wife. And he was beaten if he even walked by outside the café. Of course, he was not allowed in. He knew she was there because he had friends, or more like co-workers, go in and they had spoken with her. She told them that her job was to serve drinks, be nice to the men, and if things were slow, she was to help out in the kitchen. The damn place was open twenty-four hour a day. She had a small room she had to share with two other young girls who were in the same predicament as she.
If my Irish was up when he first told me of his problem, it was through the fuckin’ roof after hearing the details. I might not have seemed upset on the surface because I was so busy shoving eggs, bacon, and hash browns in my mouth, but I was. When I pushed away the remainder of my breakfast, and told Miguel to pay the man, I rose and walked to the door of the place, stretched, scratched my stomach, and looked at the brightening sky in the east.
As Miguel joined me at the door, I asked him if he would be so kind as to answer a few questions. He said he’d be glad to. So I asked the most obvious question first. “How come an illiterate bean picker like you speaks better English than me?”
I’ve got to admit he did have a ready and plausible answer. “The priest in our town was from your country. He taught me when I was very young, and we conversed only in your tongue whenever we spoke.”
Okay, next question: “What the hell day is it today?”
He had a ready answer for that also. “It is Friday, my friend.”
Wait one fuckin’ minute, thought I. I am now this little man’s friend. Then I thought I did have him buy me breakfast, and I did intend to help him out. But holy shit! If he was now a friend, that would mean there would be no pulling out if, or when, the going got tough. So be it, I’ve got me a new friend. What the hell.
Third and last question: “You got a place I can crash for a while? I’m not going to be good to anybody until I get some sleep.”
“Yes, my friend. There is a small shack that I share with other men who work on the farm with me. We will be in the fields all day. You will have it all to yourself.”
There he goes with that friend shit again, but I had resigned myself to that. What touched me, though, was the way he offered his humble abode. He seemed to imply having what I was sure was a shithole all to myself was a high honor. Nothing against my little friend. My point is that the assholes who employ men like Miguel house them in conditions that, if you housed your dog in like manner, you’d be arrested for cruelty to animals.
So, the two new friends turned their backs to the rising sun and Miguel walked me to his domicile. By the time we got there, it was empty of inhabitants. He showed me which bed was his, and told me he would see me at the end of the day. He was late to the field and said he had to vamoose. I dropped onto his bed, and I was so tired I think I was out before Miguel hit the door.
I woke up a few times throughout the day, but thought it advisable to keep a low profile. I didn’t know how the owner of the outfit would take to a gringo, a non-working gringo at that, hanging out in his shithole of a shack. So I went back to sleep to await Miguel.
I was awakened by Miguel shaking my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, I beheld Miguel and three other men standing over me. When Miguel saw that my eyes were open, he said, “Mr. Billy, these are my friends, and I have told them that you are here to help me. They are now your friends also.” There he goes with that friend shit again. I rubbed my eyes and yawned before saying in my best American accent, “Hola.”
I know I’ve used this phrase before, but it is so apt. First things first: “Miguel, I need a shower. Whatcha got?”
He, as it turned out, didn’t have much. I’m not even going to tell you how these people were forced to wash themselves. No, the hell with it, I’ll tell you. There was a hose outside next to the shack and you had to stand there holding the damn thing over your head while cold water poured down on you. The owner of that place, I am sure, is roasting in hell as I relate this tale to you. So everything works out in the end.
After my “shower,” I dressed in the best clothes I had with me, which ain’t saying much. And even though the sun had just sunk beneath the horizon, I asked Miguel to buy me another breakfast. In my mind, I planned it more as a council of war than an eating experience. Miguel and I had to lay out our strategy. His original idea of me just waltzing into the café and walking out with his beloved, I was pretty sure, was not going to work.
As I shoveled my second meal of the day into my mouth, I told Miguel that the “extraction” would take some planning, and most importantly, some reconnoitering. I thought it good that it was a Friday night. If the café was busy, then I might have a chance to talk with Asun. Then it hit me, Does she even speak English? So I asked Miguel, and his answer was a simple “No.” That was going to make my job a whole lot harder. I couldn’t see her just walking outside with a perfect stranger, especially one babbling in a foreign tongue.
We dawdled at the hash house until just before midnight. I figured that the café should be getting up a good head of steam right about then and I wouldn’t stand out as much. But first, I needed Miguel to tell me something I could tell Asun so she would know I was a friend. I had the “Mi amigo … Miguel” down pat, but I thought I should have a closer, just to make sure that if the chance presented itself, she would leave with me.
Miguel thought for a moment before saying, “I gave her a ring for her birthday last year when she became a woman; it was her eighteenth year. No one ever knew of it but us.”
“Okay, Miguel, lay it on me. Teach me to say, “Miguel gave you a ring for your eighteenth birthday.” It took a while, but I finally got it down, “Miguel te dió un anillo cuando cumpliste dieciocho años.”
To quote a man I am not too familiar with, but he did come up with some good lines now and then: “Once more into the breech. Cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war.” Man, I love that quote. I use it whenever I can. But in simpler terms, I merely said to Miguel, “Let’s boogie.” Yeah I know, very archaic, but hey, so am I.
We walked into town and crossed the border without incident. There was never any trouble going into Mexico. They were damn happy to have you and your gringo dollars come into their country. Miguel led me to the café and said, “I better not go any farther. They know the sight of me. It would not be good for us to be seen together.”
Well damn, why hadn’t I thought of that?
Miguel had already told me what Asun looked like, so now it was up to me. I pointed to a little bar down the street and told him to wait for me there. I walked the half a block to the front door of the café and entered.
From the outside, the Café La Ratonera didn’t look half-bad. But once inside, what a fuckin’ dump. You entered, and through the haze of cigarette smoke, the first thing you saw was the bar. It was a massive thing; it stood against the far wall, and ran the entire width of the room. Of course, at that time of night every stool was taken. And there were men and women standing in between and behind every stool. Between the bar and the front door were tables, maybe thirty. They were not set up in rows or anything like that. No, they were haphazardly strewn about, and they too had people sitting at each and every one of them. There was no band, but some kind of noise (some, not many, might call it music) was blaring out of a single speaker situated over the bar.
Running back and forth from the bar to the tables were girls—young girls—serving drinks and talking with the men sitting at the tables. Then I noticed something I’d missed when I first entered. The place was all men, the only women I saw were the ones serving the drinks and the few at the bar who I was sure were “working girls,” if you know what I mean. To me, they—and the drink servers—all looked alike. How was I to tell which one was Asun?
I was conspicuous enough being the only gringo in the place, so I thought I had better order a drink and go into my dumb and stupid act. I saw that the girls were getting their drink orders filled at the far right-hand end of the bar, so that is where I headed. I figured at least there I’d get a chance to ask each girl, “Asun?” When I got an affirmative answer, then I could use my code phrase.
As I stood at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice me, I made another observation of something that had escaped my attention previously. Against the far wall was a staircase that led to a balcony that ran around the entire room. It was hard to see in the dim light, but it looked like there were rooms, one every twenty feet or so. I counted ten doors. That meant that if the layout was the same on the other three sides, there were forty rooms up there. What the hell took place up there, as if I didn’t know? I didn’t think Asun had been there long enough to be indoctrinated into that part of José’s scheme. But, We better get her out of here quick before a fate worse than death befalls her, I thought as I surveyed the upstairs.
As I was thinking the worst, I was asked something in Spanish by the bartender. I guess he wanted to know what I wanted to drink. So I said the first thing to come to mind, and the only drink I knew how to order in Spanish, “Tequila, por favor.”
After being served, I paid for the drink, with a healthy tip for the bartender so I’d be left alone for a while. Hey, it wasn’t my money. Miguel had given me all he had on him, which wasn’t much. But I did need a front, no matter how meager.
As I stood there, the girls, one by one, came up to the bar to order their drinks. I was less than three feet from the serving station. And as the bartender left to fulfill an order, and the girls stood waiting, I’d lean into them and say, “Asun?” The first two ignored me completely; the next three shook their heads, and then ignored me completely. On my sixth attempt, the girl turned, looked at me, and then nodded towards the girl standing behind her.
So it was to be lucky number seven? When number six had departed, and number seven took her place at the serving station, I did my usual, “Asun?” The startled look told me that I had finally hit pay dirt. Before the bartender returned, I went into my act, “Miguel mi amigo. Miguel te dió un anillo cuando cumpliste dieciocho años.” Just then, the bartender walked up and she gave him her drink order. He saw that I had spoken to her, but it looked like he thought I was just hitting on her, which was cool with him. Asun played it cool too. She turned away from the bar, so no one could see, and winked at me. Hey, Miguel got himself a smart one!
Now that I knew my target, I thought I’d get a better lay of the land, so to speak. If there was a back door, I sure as hell couldn’t see it. What the hell was Miguel talking about? Also, José was nowhere to be seen. As I scoped out the skinny, I came up with a plan. Admittedly, a simple plan, but a plan nonetheless. I ordered another Tequila, so not to arouse suspicion, drank it, and left.
Once outside, I proceeded to the bar where Miguel was waiting for me. He was standing outside looking forlorn, like he didn’t have a friend in the world.
“Whatcha’ doin’ out here, amigo? Why aren’t you inside?” I wanted to know.
“I gave you all my money and they won’t let me sit in there unless I buy something.”
“Okay, mi amigo, let’s go in. I’ll buy you a drink … with your money.”
“Si, mi amigo.” We went in, got a couple of beers, and I laid out my plan of action.
“First of all, I don’t know what fuckin’ back door you’re talkin’ about, pal, but if there is one, it’s gonna be locked up tighter than Kelsey’s nuts. Next, the only plan I can come up with is just getting Asun near to the front door and then we make a run for it. It might work if there was some interference put in place as we hauled ass. Or more to the point, as you and Asun haul ass. I plan on being the interference. And by the way, that’s one smart broad you got hooked up with. No offense.” Fortunately, Miguel did not understand the lexicon of 1950s America. He took no offense of me calling his wife a “broad.” Then I said, “Miguel, any chance of us getting a firearm?”
“You mean a pistola?”
“Yeah pal, a fuckin’ gun. You know … boom, boom! And don’t worry; I’m not gonna shoot anyone. I just want to use it as a persuader.”
“Yes, one of my amigos I live with has one.”
“Well, go get it, boy. I wanna’ finish this up tonight. I was California-bound when this little detour came up. Comprende? I’ll wait for you here, now git movin’.” I always drop my g’s and talk like I was in a Gabby Hayes movie (look it up) when I’m nervous. And nervous I was. But I said I’d help the little guy, and after getting an eyeful of his wife, it was my mission to get her outta that hellhole.
Miguel was gone two beers’ worth, and returned with a bulge under his shirt. I thought it a good thing he was coming into Mexico, and not going out, looking like that. I told him to sit down, and went to the bar and got him a beer. After we were settled, I asked him to hand me the gun under the table, which he did. Once I had it in my hand, I sneaked a peak at it. It was an old Colt .45, the kind you see in cowboy movies. While still holding it under the table, I checked to see if it was loaded. It sure was—every chamber filled.
While Miguel was gone, I had formulated my plan. I told him to go to the bar and get a piece of paper and a pencil from the bartender. After he returned with said items, I told him to write the following (I didn’t have time to learn any damn Spanish):
“This is a friend. Get near the door, and when he tells you, run out into the street. I will be there waiting for you. Miguel”
Of course, it was written in Spanish.
The plan, as I’ve said, was simple. I’d get Asun out the door, and then the two of us, me and Mr. Colt, would try to dissuade anyone from following her. “The best laid plans …” Another favorite quote of mine, though one I don’t like to use often. It usually means that I fucked up.
“Okay, amigo; let’s get this circus on the road. When Asun flies through the door, you grab her and haul ass.”
“ ‘Haul ass’? ”
“Yeah, run for the fuckin’ hills. Get your asses across the border; I’ll be right behind you. Tell your friend you owe him a gun because no fuckin’ way am I bringing this monster across any border, let alone into the United States.”
Before getting up, I slipped the gun into the waistband of my pants, and covered it with my shirt. Now I had the bulge. When we got back to the café, I told Miguel he better keep a low profile to ensure his being there when Asun exited. It wouldn’t do to have some of José’s bouncers see him and drive him off … or worse.
I left him standing on the street, and that was the last time I saw him until he rescued my ass. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
I went into the café and proceeded to my usual haunt right next to the service station. When asked, I ordered my usual Tequila; everything was as usual. Except for the gun under my shirt. It wasn’t too long before Asun came up for a drink order, and I was able to slip her the note. She, as I’ve stated, was one smart cookie; she took it in stride without even looking at me. I had no doubt she would read it the moment she had a chance. So I thought I better position myself by the door and be ready.
I moseyed (more Gabby Hayes talk) toward the door and stood by the table that was closest to the exit. I stayed there pretending to listen to, understand, and enjoy the conversation at said table, all the while praying that Asun would make her move soon. The guys at the table kept looking up at me, wondering what the fuck I was doing.
It wasn’t long before I saw her come out of the back. I reckon she had to go someplace private to read the note. She went from table to table taking drink orders. All the while working herself closer to the door. When she got to the table I was at, she took the boys’ orders, and then looked at me. I nodded, she nodded back, and then all hell broke loose.
She dropped her tray with the glasses still on it, and made a spectacular dash for freedom. I didn’t, at that stage in my life, know a woman could move so fast. I stepped into the space Asun had just vacated as she went through the door, pulled out my partner, Mr. Colt, and fired a shot into the ceiling. I hadn’t planned on discharging the weapon, but I saw two burly types come charging toward me. They were obviously bouncers, and girl wranglers. The shot stopped them in their tracks, but only momentarily. Then both of ’em pulled out their own version of Mr. Colt and started firing right at Yours Truly. I think the only thing that saved my ass was a conk to the back of my skull. All I remember is seeing stars.
I don’t know how long after all the excitement that I came to. But I found myself in a dark room lying on a bare mattress, which was on the floor. The only light was the light that came in from under the crack at the bottom of the door. My head was pounding. It was worse than the worst hangover I’ve ever had. Before or since, and I’ve had some doozies. I knew I was still in the café because I could hear that goddamn noise they took for music.
When I got around to thinking about it, I figured it must be early morning because the din of drunken revelry had diminished considerably. So there I sat, or more to the point, that is where I lay for what seemed like hours. And it seemed like hours because that’s what the fuck it was.
I know as I relate this to you years later, I may come off as glib at times, but I assure you, I was one scared motherfucker while all this was going down.
Finally, a little action. I heard someone at the door, I guess unlocking it. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, I did try the door shortly after regaining consciousness. I’m not a total boob, just a partial one. Anyway, the door swings open and in walks the big asshole himself, José, followed by a man in a lime green suit with no tie. He looked like a bookkeeper, which was a good thing, because I was shortly to find out that’s exactly what he was. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and stood a little over five feet in height. And he turned out to also be José’s interpreter.
I was lying down when I first heard them, but I made sure I was standing when the door opened and they walked into the room. José says something in Spanish to the little guy, and he in turn tells me that the man before me holds my life in his hands. Wow, no preamble, no how do you do, no nothin’.
I told you what the bookkeeper was wearing, so I guess it’s only fair to tell you of José’s taste in clothing apparel. From the ground up: cowboy boots, jeans, and here’s the kicker, an oversized Hawaiian print shirt. I reckon he thought it would help cover his bulk. It didn’t.
Now, down to business. José, through his interpreter, tells me that I stole one of his women. His women! I thought, Jesus H. Christ! What fuckin’ balls on this asshole. He then goes on to tell me I have two choices. One, I can be driven out to the desert and have a bullet placed in my head. Or two, I can work off the debt Asun was working off.
I was told José was going to have his noon repast. That’s not how it was phrased, but that was the general idea. And afterward he would come back for my answer. Yeah, let me think about that. Death or servitude? That’s a hard one. Take your time, José ol’ buddy. I’ll wait for you right here.
José and his toady left and locked the door behind them. I sat back down on the rank mattress and thought, Billy boy, how do you get yourself in these messes? Or better yet, how the hell ya gonna get yourself outta this one? Well, at least I made a friend. One who is probably getting laid at this very moment. I know I’d be, if I hadn’t seen my woman in three months. Friend, smend, I hope I never hear the fuckin’ word again.
I was thinking those negative thoughts when all hell broke loose downstairs. At least that’s what it sounded like from my vantage point. I listened with keen interest. Had the Marines landed? What the hell was going on?
Within a very short time, there was a crash on the door, then another, and finally a third. That’s when the door gave way and fell from its hinges. And guess who comes in carrying the leg that used to be on a table? My old amigo, Miguel. He was followed by a few others, but I only had eyes for Miguel.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“We are here to rescue you and the women,” was the simple answer to my simple query.
Because you and I were both out of the loop on this one, I’ll fill you in on what I later learned. When I didn’t return by daylight, Miguel got his housemates to forsake work for the day, and instead they went into the fields and told the men how Asun had been freed. But the man responsible for her freedom was now being held a prisoner at the same location. Word spread as the morning progressed. Somehow word got to the neighboring farms, and some of the men who heard the story also had women held at the café.
Without anyone actually suggesting it, as the noon hour approached, the men walked out of the fields and met at Miguel’s shack. They were about fifty in number, and it was decided that they would do something about the café and its owner once and for all. The men who had women there—and they were the majority—were going to free their women now that they knew it was possible. The others were outraged that the gringo boy who had freed Miguel’s wife was now in José’s hands.
Miguel took charge. He told the men to cross the border in groups of twos and threes and meet up at the little bar down the street from the café. Once they were all there, they simply walked to the café and stormed its battlements. Because the placed never closed, gaining entrance was no problem. And they got lucky in the fact the gunmen were off duty. José probably didn’t think the expense of gunmen was necessary in the middle of the day.
When inside, they broke up the tables and chairs to use the legs as clubs, just in case anyone got in the way. Clubs weren’t really needed. The sheer force of their numbers kept any would-be heroes at bay. As soon as the ground floor was secured, the men, both patrons and employees, were herded to one side of the room. The women were put in a protective area near the door, and while half the men stayed downstairs to keep an eye on things, the rest charged upstairs and went room-to-room freeing women who had been locked in. Oh, and by the way, they also freed me in the course of events. Unfortunately, José was nowhere to be found. Or fortunately, depending on your point of view. I’m sure José found it quite advantageous not being on the premises that afternoon.
Now that the men had me and the women, Miguel issued his marching orders, “Back to America!” It was said in Spanish, but I got the “America” part. We left the café as a conquering horde, but soon split up into twos and threes. Each man with his woman, and those who didn’t have a woman, paired up with the guy or guys nearest him. Miguel was my date.
When we got close to the border crossing, we held back, out of sight, so two of our little group could cross at a time. We spaced it out. Because even though the border guards were hip, they were not going to let almost eighty illegals cross in one fell swoop. Miguel and I were the last to cross. When we got back to the shack, he formally introduced me to his bride. Not being able to speak English, she thanked me in her own way. She put her arms around my neck and gave me a big kiss, one on each cheek.
Asun told Miguel that while he was gone the foreman had come looking for the missing men to find out why they were not in the fields. She told him her story, and he being of Mexican descent, told her to tell the men they all better be in the fields first thing Monday morning. He also said that she could not stay in the shack, that was for single men only. She and Miguel would have to move into one for married couples. He then smiled at her and said, “Welcome to America.”
I didn’t stick around either. I gathered up my stuff, put it in my suitcase, and turned to Miguel and said “Gracias, mi amigo.” He started to say something, but I held up my hand to stop him. “There’s nothing to say. I’ve gotta go.” I turned to Asun and said, “You are beautiful.” She cocked her head to one side, indicating she did not understand. And as Miguel turned to her to translate my statement, I walked out of that shithole of a shack and into a new life, one where I took a man’s friendship to heart.
Well, that’s my story of how I came to believe in friendship. Miguel had what he wanted, but he organized and led the revolt to free me because he had said he was my friend. It was as simple as that.
If anyone feels so inclined, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my Facebook page. You can click on the button on the right side of the page. Thank you.
We sit upon your couch. Your head rests on my chest. I hold you to me. Your legs are drawn up under you and your left arm lies across my belly. The top of your head is just below my chin.
You have just gotten out of the bath. I love the smell of your body mixed with the aroma of the soap. You burrow deeper into me. I, in turn, pull you closer. We cannot get close enough to one another.
Twilight has descended. We sit in the semi darkness with only thoughts of each other going through our heads. There is no television, no radio; there is nothing to distract our thoughts. We do not speak … we have no need of words.