Thursday, April 15, 2010

…stranger things, Horatio…

My first post on my new blog. Better be good.

True story I kid you not. Debra will attest.


In the spring of 1980 my companion Debra and I were traveling down the Pacific coast of Mexico, not Baja but on the mainland, camping out of a pickup truck, intent on stretching not much money a long way. We had big plans, a big agenda attended by a narrow budget. There was a lot we set out to do, some if it we were instructed to do, and it was our assignment in part, to conserve our resources for the long haul. And of course, make an adventure and have fun.

We got adventure all right, in spades. Read on.

It was a little rough at first, like it will be for anyone traveling in a foreign country, but made perhaps a tad moreso by our chosen mode of transportation and lifestyle, putting us closer to the earth as it were, closer to the bone. Neither one of us were what you’d call strong Spanish speakers as you will see, which has its frustrations, and humor too, and uses I might add, but getting the hang of living on the road in a foreign land with only rare visits to restaurants, motels and other such not-in-budget comforts, takes some practice, dedication even, getting used to.

We would buy our food in the markets, cook it over a fire or on a little backpacker stove off the tailgate, bathe in rivers and lakes, in campground showers, or on occasion with a washcloth in a restaurant or gas station bathroom. Public restrooms in Mexico were a rarity in those days and, relative to the States except in the high tourist areas, that is still true.

There were some typical difficult moments, like putting up the tent, flashlights in our teeth on a dark beach, both of us exhausted, while being devoured by a million or three vicious no-see-ems, then, when getting finally ensconced inside, spending a couple more hours killing every last little one of the buggers that came in with us. You could see them on the tent wall, they squish easy, hundreds at a swipe. Amazingly we were in good spirits through all that, and very thorough. We had a bottle of wine in there too.

Another time after a long day of driving hot dusty roads, getting lost again and again in search of some “you-gotta-see-this” place someone had turned us on to, with frustration brewing inside the cab all the while like pressure in a cooker, we… said some things we wished we hadn’t. In not so quiet voices. I finally found a place to tuck the truck in that seemed good, backed in and shut off the engine. We had the option besides the tent, of sleeping in the back once we moved stuff around. We did that, she got into bed, I went to take a pee. We were both exhausted and short tempered as hell.

There was a bad smell around there. I had noticed it while we were wrestling stuff around, but now I really smelled it. Some kind of rotting big animal was close by, small ones don't last long enough to get that putrid. I went to climb in the truck and get in bed and Debbee announced in no uncertain terms, “We can’t sleep here!” I threw a slug-the-tail-gate-cussing-hissy-fit of course, but never mind that, even though I knew… we couldn’t sleep there. I got back in the cab and drove on, she stayed in back.

About an hour later when I climbed into bed, Debbee thanked me so well I’m not going to tell you any of it.

Anyway, I digress. There are lots of stories to tell but there was a particular incident I had in mind when I set out to tell this one to you and now I’m going to tell it. We were about five weeks out of the States by this time, and well on our way to working the kinks out of how to live this way.

One evening we found a grassy bluff above the ocean not too far off the main road. We noticed fire rings from other campers and figured no one would mind us stopping here. I set up the tent while she got to work on dinner, probably rice and veggies. We had started out to keep a cooler with ice, but it was so much trouble we worked out a different system, which was only having stuff with us that had a good shelf life like grains, fruits and nuts, cabbage, chayote, carrots, onions, eggs etc. While we were rustling up grub and getting squared away another camper came in off the road, a blond American kid with a ponytail and huge backpack. He waved at us as he went by and smiled, went over to another firepit a discreet ways off and started setting up his own camp. The breeze off the water was cooling and soothing, as only a tropical breeze can be, the sunset gathering up looked to be a good one, and there were no bugs. We felt happy and safe, 'at play in the fields of the Lord.'

Before Debra and I had left the States, we had been attending study groups of a man whom we regarded as something of a guru or spiritual teacher, but really was more of a friend. Jim had had certain revelatory experiences in his life that led him to write a book, and because of it, acquire a small but international following. We attended group sessions of his, where he alternately lectured us and led us in song, or rather more accurately, in chant. The dove, the return of the dove, figures hugely as a symbol in Jim's work. On the eve of our departure, something prompted Debra to ask Jim if there was some mantra or chant we might use if it ever happened we got into trouble. Jim was delighted and energized by this request and immediately commenced to run us through the intonations and tempo of a certain chant several times right there on the spot, until he was satisfied we had it down.

Part of our mission on this trip was to deliver a couple of cartons of his books and tapes to various groups of Mexican people who studied his work. Technically, we were smuggling, as bringing that sort of “propaganda” into Mexico was, due to “la Catholica,” illegal at the time. Probably still is. We had been listening to these tapes as we drove and had picked up some uncommon lingo in Spanish such as "stralims de luz” and “maestros de luz” (pillars and masters of light).

Each morning since crossing the border, I had, with a book of verbs, a dictionary and a pad of paper, been studying my way into Spanish. At first Debra joined me in this, but had gradually drawn away from it, until she outright refused to participate. I was too mean, she said. The outcome was, if there was any speaking to be done, it was pretty much going to be me doing it and that was that. This was a periodic, ongoing point of uneasiness between us.

Meanwhile back on the beach, after Debbee and I had eaten and were cleaning up the dishes, our neighbor, wandered over and introduced himself. Ken from Oregon. We chatted for a minute, then he invited us, if we wanted, to come over and share his fire for awhile. Sure, we said. We finished up, I took my flute and we made our way along the bluff, pulled up a rock and a log and sat down.

Ken was a type of vagabond I had seen many of in my travels. Some would have called him a hippie, but he was a just a, skinny, pony-tailed, dope smoking, gentle mannered carpenter, probably about 30, who worked to pile up enough money to be gone down into Mexico for as long as he could make it stretch, all of the winter if he could. He’d done it many years running. He lived out of his backpack hung on a tree, with just a hammock and mosquito net, a raincover, a knife fork and spoon. a pot, pan and grate, and a Hawaiian sling (for spearing fish). He was on his way back north, after having spent five months living on a stretch of beach much further down the coast, in Oaxaca, a place he’d been several times before, and one we we were to get to months later. This place where we sat now was in Nayarit. I played my flute, and the three of us joked and laughed, smoked a joint Ken produced, and swapped stories back and forth as the sun dropped into the sea and darkness came on.


This is where it gets hairy.

The sound of the surf must have muffled their approach. With the unmistakable whump! of a blow to the body, Ken flew off his stone and across the fire. Suddenly dark shapes loomed all around. Ken hung in mid push-up over the fire for a confused moment of disbelief, then rolled off to the side, pulling flames in quick flicks with his hands from the ends of his hair.

There were five of them, all Mexican men. One brandishing a six foot or so long fence post, the implement he had just used to drive Ken off his seat and across the fire, danced into the circle of firelight and hovered over Ken, daring by his gestures, for Ken to make a move. True, cold, adrenalin-spiked dread settled over us, hairs stood up. Alarm! Neither Debra nor I had moved. Across my lap lay my flute, a two-foot long section of bamboo, wrapped with bands of waxed twine. All of their eyes were on it, and I realized they were suspicious it was a weapon of some sort. I slowly brought it to my lips and tried to blow a few notes, like I was cool and untroubled in any way, while my heart tried to rip it’s way out of my chest like a fighting fish. When I managed to produce a sound, you could hear every heart-thump in it.

The interlopers burst out in sneering laughter, both at the recognition it was not a sword or something, and at my obvious fear. “Es una flauta no mas heh heh.” In the firelight their bandito grins chilled me, chilled us all to the bone. Oh shit I’m thinking. Oh fucking shit.

The giant squared off on me, while the little guy in the sombrero cornered Debra, his face up close to hers. The other three stood as guards crowding behind Debra, and Ken, grinning and chuckling. They each had pistols that I could clearly see, for their hands rested on them, two stuck in belts, the one, the butt sticking out a back pocket. No good. Nope. No good here at alll.

The big man loomed above, squatted down to face me. I held still, trying to look him steady him in the eye. He grabbed my face in his huge hand, pinched it hard and leaned in so close I smelled his dinner. "No tienes temor?” he said in a low voice that only he and I could hear, “no tienes temor?” (aren’t you afraid?) His squeezing and hurting my face as he wrenched my head back and forth, and the grin he had on that I can only describe one way, malicious evil, caused the last bit of hope I had that this might turn out all right, to fly like birds from the coop. My heart literally was thundering my whole body. “Si,” I said, holding his eye, trying to nod, “Tengo temor.” It came out muffled. “Si”? he said louder, wrenching my jaw. “Si” I said.

The small man, "Solito" he called himself, stood in front of Debra, leering in her face, talking in Spanish in a sing-song nasty way, threatening her, terrifying her, terrifying me. I couldn't understand much of what he said but… without question, it weren't nice.

Debra looked like a deer in the headlights, so brave and so terrified, so both. Each time I peered at her, the big man twisted my face back around to face his own. Of course they were going to rape her, everything pointed to it. The three guards, I was sure, were even talking it up. Oh mommy. It settled on to me that there was no choice here, I was going to have to do something, something hugely dramatic, and very soon. Something that I was pretty certain would be the last act of my short little life. There really was no choice.

I had caught a glance at Ken from time to time through all this. He sat the whole time on his rock, arms between his updrawn legs, head down looking at the ground. I never saw his eyes. I didn’t know anything about this man but for whatever reason, I believed that if I started something, he’d be in there trying to help out. He was as good as dead too, same as me, nothing to loose.

The bluff was ten or twelve feet off toward the sea, the drop down to the rocks probably that much again. If I could get the big man positioned right, I might with a lot of luck and perfect moves, be able to run him off the cliff. How I was going to extricate and not go over with him was something I hadn’t worked out, but that was what had to happen. And then… there were other guys, aw jesus…

Ken sat, head down, almost like he wasn't there.

A large, raggedy and bent joint had appeared in Solito's hand. He seized Debra’s head by the back of the neck and was jerking her forward, forcing the joint up to her mouth. "Lo fumas," he said. "Fumate!" (smoke it!) With small twists and squirms of her head she tried to pull away. The big guy with his hand clamped on my jaw twisted my head back around so violently I tasted blood. Solito's voice rose higher, and his face contorted more, as he shook her by the shoulder.. "Porque no fumas la mota puta? Porque no fumas? (Why don't you smoke the pot, whore?)"

Of course we had just smoked a joint with Ken so it wasn’t a matter of whether we smoked pot or not but rather one of concessions. If we were to concede anything, and Debra seemed to be well aware of this, best to drag it out.

Now. It had to be now. Do or die. If I had any chance, was to have any speck of an advantage in this at all, the move I made when I made it, to get this big man up and moving and out of balance and… would have to be a total full on commitment, totally vicious no-holds-barred, primal, and a surprise to him, and everyone. I tried to catch Ken’s eye but could not.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, unplanned and unbidden I swear to you, not even in my mind for weeks, beginning low in my throat at first and rising in volume, began to come the chant that Jim had taught us. And at precisely the same instant, the exact same moment, the same tones began to issue forth from Debra.

The two voices, each one inaudible to begin with, grew and twined and resonated into a strong, and then stronger drone.

Out over the sea a bright light flashed!

Everyone, everything, stopped! All eyes swept around to look out to sea. It flashed again, a little less bright this time, and then once more, dimmer still, moving left to right, north, up the beach. Each flash, in my head, was attended by a sound, a “flup,” like an old time flashbulb makes… or a wing beat. The second flash, which we all clearly saw, you won’t believe me when I tell you, did not look like anything other than an angel, a feminine angel, pearlescent white, with great wings and slender arms. The hands were doing something, shaping something, forming something. Can’t say that I saw feet, the body if it could be called that, tailed to a point at the bottom. And the third flash came, less bright, smaller, farther away it seemed, a little more to the right; same feminine form, hands still busy, a burst, and was gone. And that was all. All was black. The sounds of the surf washed over us.

I don’t know how long we all stood there, frozen motionless, staring out to sea. Seconds maybe. Minutes maybe. One or some of the Mexican men mumbled quiet rapid things, murmurs, I have no idea. I imagined them crossing themselves. I heard clothes rustling, feet scuffling behind me. They were scared, the Mexicans, of this I have no doubt. Somewhere in there I got hold of Debra’s arm, and squeezed it. And she, drawing her arm close, squeezed me back.

Out of this awestruck cluster of humans, huddled there in the dark, out of the mouth of my Debra, came the only full sentence in Spanish I ever heard her speak, before or since: in a clear, strong voice, with no tremor and without falter, she said, "No fumimos la mota porque los Maestros de Luz regressan a la planeta, y necessitamous hacer listo."

Solito came around in front and stared up at her, then, slowly, sank to his knees, his hands clutched under his chin. In a soft voice that was a sob, filled with awe, fear and reverence, in English! he said, "I have heard of this."

"We don't smoke pot because the Masters of Light are returning to the planet and we need to be ready," is what she said.

The rest of that night was spent with all of us leaning forward around the newly built up fire, Debra and I hugging close, talking eagerly, respectfully, excitedly… on into the early morning hours. I have never given or received so many handshakes, high fives and slaps on the back in such a short period of time in all my life, nor have firelit gold-toothed smiles ever looked so lovely. Solito spoke perfectly good English. Cahuamas of beer appeared from somewhere and we drank all around. Such a huge ham of a hand the big man, my prison guard/nemesis Carlos, had on the end of his tree-trunk arm; it enveloped mine and I shook it again and again and again. And one last time. We were buddies he and I, hermanos, for ever and ever. No one offered up a joint. These men, who had so terrified us, to the very limits of our ability to bear, walked off into the dark in the end, arm in arm, singing, the sound drifting back as they went up the road.

Ken, Debra and I, stood in a long, three-way embrace, for a long, long time... There were no words... There were no words in the tent either.

We never saw these men again. When I walked over to Ken's campsite the next morning, he was gone without a trace, his fire cold.


I haven't a clue how to explain the ‘how’ or ‘what’ of what happened that night. To this day I do not believe there is anything else in the world that could have saved us, Debra, Ken and I, other than what did. Debra was sick for days afterward, would not eat, would not talk, would not come out of the tent. It is my hind-sight belief that on some level of reality, a sacrifice was made, a conjuring was done, by her, through her, or on her behalf. Perhaps the chant… who knows? There was an intervention, there was a cost, at least to Debra, we were saved.

I have in the years since that happened been asked a number of times, “Do you believe in God?” as some sort of qualifier for something or other. As this question almost invariably is grounded in some litany of the questioner’s own, I have instead of answering yes or no, told this story I just told you. I don’t know about God I would say, I know about this. I believe in this.

I should also say that though each person there that night experienced three successive flashes of light moving off to the right, no one saw what I saw, no one else could be sure they heard a sound. Debra saw a dove. No one saw the hands performing mudras that I did. But all saw a light flash three times, moving up the beach, more or less in the configuration of a cross.

One detractor years later, an ex-military man who'd seen action in the first gulf war, said after hearing the story, “If those were Arabs you’d be dead.”

© Lee Driver - 2010