My father offered vacations that hardly fit the definition most would imagine, but they fit me just fine. We could travel a lot farther when we spent next to nothing and that was the case in 1964 when we headed out of Butler in our 1961 VW camper for several weeks of who-knows-what. After an interesting drive through Alabama during the height of simmering racial tensions we spent a few days in the “jungles” of the Florida panhandle looking, as we often did on these trips, for lost pirate treasure. Covered with chigger and mosquito bites and no richer we then headed for Padre Island and then into Mexico.
My Mexico was not a resort. My Mexico was a collection of small villages off the backroads. The trip began with a visit to colorful and energetic Satillo. There was mariachi music in the street and a market I remember most from the smell of meat that was past fresh. We saw the marvelous caverns there and headed west towards lands where we hoped we might see some off-the-main-trail ancient ruins. It is hard to describe the villages we passed through and sometimes stopped to see. The streets were dirt. Children and dogs ran about and appeared to have no particular destination. Machete wielding men sold watermelons they would apparently cut to specifications. The melons were piled onto old tires for display. Entire villages had no power. The poor huts often had no windows. This was not glamorous, but I was getting an experience! In the desert north of Chihuahua we were directed to a remote spot where there were indeed some ancient relics just lying about in the sand. Committing what I now know to be an archeological crime, we picked up what we found making no effort to even record where we found them.
We had originally planned to stay only a few days but our success and new information encouraged us to extend our stay. On our way towards another site near Nueva Casas Grandes, we stopped for an ice box lunch along the road beside a mestizo village called Buenaventura. After finishing our bologna sandwiches, we got back in the VW and headed out. About a half-mile into our plan, an ancient Chevrolet truck pulled from the right side of the road directly into our path. Dad slammed on the brakes but had virtually no room to stop. The front passenger side of the VW caved in taking my right leg with it. I think I went into shock almost immediately because I have no memory of any great pain. I simply recall having the presence of mind to look at Dad’s watch which he kept hanging from the rear view mirror to check the time. I remembered special insurance purchased when we entered the country a few days before was scheduled to expire at noon that day. I incongruously reported to Dad, “It’s only 11:40, our insurance is still good.” I then did a self- assessment of my wound. Based on my Boy Scout training I knew that my breathing was fine but I was bleeding significantly. If I had not been using the lap seat belt Dad had installed a few months before, I am certain I would have been tossed through the windshield. I used that seat belt to construct a modified tourniquet trying to tighten only to the degree necessary. I also noticed I had several fragments of the broken safety glass in my eye. I also noticed a strong smell that was emanating from the truck cargo that had splattered over my chest. I determined it was manure.
Given the severity of my wound, my Dad faced a decision and decided to direct the man in the truck to take him to find professional medical help. My eleven year old brother, who was just fine, was now my only companion. In a matter of only a few moments two Texans in a bright new Ford truck pulled up and decided to lend a hand. Seeing my leg trapped, the men decided to use the jack from their truck to pry me free. We all knew the risk associated with this maneuver, it could open blood vessels that were pinched and increase bleeding. I told them to go ahead and after a few attempts to get good purchase for the jack I was free. Apparently, the bleeding was no worse. In a matter of minutes a fortuitious tranvia (Mexican bus) came along headed for Nueva Casas Grandes. I was loaded on along with my brother. After passing out and regaining consciousness a few times we arrived. How my father managed to be there to take me off the bus we were never able to recall. He had learned of a “hospital” and I was taken there by some means I do not recall. I do remember arriving at the “hospital” and meeting my doctor, a graduate of the University of Colorado Medical School. He had several nurses who appeared to be very young and not really trained as nurses. They were, however, very kind. He had no medicine for pain, not even an aspirin, so he told me to bite on a rolled up towel as he set my leg. Again, I must have been in shock because I do not recall any unbearable pain as he worked. I was then sent off to a room which I shared with another patient. I recall being very uncomfortable but never in the weeks to come did I ever suffer. I’m pretty sure my roommate had tuberculosis.
Dad used his military-acquired Spanish and found a local rancher who said he could fly us to Juarez where we could then travel by ambulance to a hospital in El Paso that the doctor had arranged. Dad, my brother, and I arrived at the air strip to fly out. The rancher’s plane would normally accommodate all of us, but my leg was in a cast that precluded the plane from taking us all. Again, my dad had to make a difficult choice. I could not enter the US alone. My brother, age eleven, would have to remain behind and depend on the kindness of strangers. This may be unthinkable today, but our experiences to that time had all been positive. My dad and I took off. I watched brother Don wave us off as we became airborne.
We landed and with no difficulty I was transported across the border to Providence Memorial Hospital and placed in the care of Dr. Basim who determined that I would have surgery the day after tomorrow. Dad left and now I was on my own. When he returned he saw Don along the airstrip cooking some canned beans he had recovered from our wrecked van. The VW was placed back into barely drivable condition and the next day my dad and brother drove to a VW dealership in Juarez. Not wishing to spend more money than needed, my dad and brother actually slept in the van at the dealership at nights during its challenging rebuild. (To this day, I am amazed that the Mexican insurance company accepted our word about the time of the accident and they paid for the repair minus a small deductible.)
My father had an interesting “encounter” with the German manager of the dealership with whom he had established a friendship. Dad learned that the manager had served in the German Navy in WWII and was stationed undercover in Panama. This was the same area where Dad had served as a spy and had been taken prisoner. Dad decided to keep his side of the story quiet.
I had my operation and was in the hospital for a total of two weeks. I was introduced to Tex-Mex food such as tamale pie. My roommate told me that he loved baseball so I asked about the triple A team I knew they had in El Paso. He gave me insight into the Texas concept of a weekend trip when he told me that his family would travel twice a year by car to Houston to see the Colt45’s (as the Astros were then called). That is a trip of 750 miles one way.
We eventually were able to pack up and go home in the repaired VW. Dad drove almost straight through stopping only for occasional catnaps. When we got home, the story was in the Eagle and I got a lot of questions when I got back to school. I was on crutches until April. I will say that the experience changed me. Until that time I had been rather shy and lacked confidence. After stopping my own bleeding and eating tamale pie, I felt I ready for anything!