In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,
till thou return unto the ground -
A HALF hour after the flying machine splashed down in the harbor of Mazatl'an Margrethe and I were seated with Sergeant Dominguez in the enlisted men's mess of the Coast Guard. We were late for the midday meal but we were served. And I was clothed. Some at least - a pair of dungaree trousers. But the difference between bare naked and a pair of pants is far greater than the difference between cheap work trousers and the finest-ermine. Try it and you'll see.
A small boat had come out to the flying machine's mooring; then I had to walk across the dock where we had landed and into the headquarters building, there to wait until these pants could be found for me - with strangers staring at me the whole time, some of them women. I know now how it feels to be exposed in stocks. Dreadful! I haven't been so embarrassed since an unfortunate accident in Sunday school when I was five.
But now it was done with and there was food and drink in front of us and, for the time being, I was abundantly happy. The food was not what I was used to. Who said that hunger was the best sauce? Whoever he was, he was right; our lunch was delicious. Thin cornmeal pancakes soaked with gravy fried beans, a scorching hot stew, a bowl of little yellow tomatoes, and coffee strong, black, and bitter - what more could a man want? No gourmet ever savored a meal as much as I enjoyed that one.
(At first I had been a bit miffed that we ate in the enlisted men's mess rather than going with Lieutenant Sanz to wherever the officers ate. Much later I had it pointed out to me that I suffered from a very common civilian syndrome, i.e., a civilian with no military experience unconsciously equates his social position with that of officers, never with that of enlisted men. On examination this notion is obviously ridiculous - but it is almost universal. Oh, perhaps not universal but it obtains throughout America... where every man is 'as, good as anyone else and better than most'.)
Sergeant Dominguez now had his shirt back. While pants were being found for me, a woman - a charwoman, I believe; the Mexican Coast Guard did not seem to have female ratings - a woman at headquarters had been sent to fetch something for Margrethe, and that something turned out to be a blouse and a full skirt, each of cotton and in bright colors. A simple and obviously cheap costume but Margrethe looked beautiful in it.
As yet, neither of us had shoes. No matter - the weather was warm and dry; shoes could wait. We were fed, we were dressed, we were safe - and all with a warm hospitality that caused me to feel that Mexicans were the finest people on earth.
After my second cup of coffee I said, 'Sweetheart, how do we excuse ourselves and leave without being rude? I think we should find the American consul as early as possible.'
'We have to go back to the headquarters building.'
'More red tape?'
'I suppose you could call it that. I think they want to question us in more detail as to how we came to be where we were found. One must admit that our story is odd.'
'I suppose so.' Our initial interview with the Commandant had been less than satisfactory. Had I been alone I think he simply would have called me a liar... but it is difficult for a male man bursting with masculine ego to talk that way to Margrethe.
The trouble was the good ship Konge Knut.
She had not sunk, she had not come into port - she had never existed.
I was only moderately surprised. Had she turned into a full-rigged ship or a quinquereme, I would not have been surprised. But I had expected some sort of vessel of that same name - I thought the rules required it. But now it was becoming clear that I did not understand the rules. If there were any.
Margrethe had pointed out to me a confirming factor: This Mazatl'an was not the town she had visited before. This one was much smaller and was not a tourist town indeed the long dock where the Konge Knut should have tied up did not exist in this world. I think that this convinced her quite as much as the flying machines in proving to her that my 'paranoia' was in fact the least hypothesis. She had been here before; that dock was big and solid; it was gone. It shook her.
The Commandant had not been impressed. He spent more time questioning Lieutenant Sanz than he spent questioning us. He did not seem pleased with Sanz.
There was another factor that I did not understand at the time and have never fully understood. Sanz's boss was 'Captain' (or 'Capit'an'); the Commandant also was 'Captain'. But they were not the same rank.
The Coast Guard used navy ranks. However, that small part of it that operated flying machines used army ranks. I think this trivial difference had an historical origin. As may be, there was friction at the interface; the four-stripes or seagoing Captain was not disposed to accept as gospel anything reported by a flying-machine officer.
Lieutenant Sanz had fetched in, two naked survivors with a preposterous story; the four-striper seemed inclined to blame Sanz himself for the unbelievable aspects of our story.
Sanz was not intimidated. I think he had no real respect for an officer who had never been higher off the water than a crow's nest. (Having ridden in his death trap, I understood why he was not inclined to genuflect to a sea-level type. Even among dirigible balloon pilots I have encountered this tendency to divide the world into those who fly and those who do not)
After a bit, finding himself unable to shake Sanz, unable to shake Margrethe, and unable to communicate with me except through Margrethe, the Commandant shrugged and gave instructions that resulted in us all going to lunch. I thought that ended it. But now we were going back for more, whatever it was.
Our second session with the Commandant was short. He told us that we would see the immigration judge at four that afternoon - the court with that jurisdiction; there was no separate immigration court. In the meantime here was a list of what we owed - arrange payment with the judge.
Margrethe looked startled as she accepted a piece of paper from him; I demanded to know what he had said.
She translated; I looked at that billing.
More than eight thousand pesos!
It did not take a deep knowledge of Spanish to read that bill; almost all the words were cognates. 'Tres horas' is three hours, and we were charged for three hours' use of I aeroplano'- a word I had heard earlier from Margrethe; it meant their flying machine. We were charged also for the time of Lieutenant Sanz and Sergeant Dominguez. Plus a 'multiplying factor that I decided must mean applied overhead, or near enough.
And there was fuel for the aeroplano, and service for it.
'Trousers' are 'pantalones'- and here was a bill for the pair I was wearing.
A 'faldo' was a skirt and a 'camisa' was a blouse - and Margrethe's outfit was decidedly not cheap.
One item surprised me not by its price but by being included; I had thought we were guests: two lunches, each at twelve pesos.
There was even a separate charge for the Commandant's time.
I started to ask how much eight thousand pesos came to in dollars - then shut up, realizing that I had not the slightest idea of the buying power of a dollar in this new world we had been dumped into.
Margrethe discussed the billing with Lieutenant Sartz, who looked embarrassed. There was much expostulation and waving of hands. She listened, then told me, 'Alec, it isn't Anibal's idea and it is not even the fault of the Commandant. The tariffs on these services - rescue at sea, use of the aeroplano, and so forth - are set from el Distrito Real, the Royal District - that's the same as Mexico City, I believe. Lieutenant Sanz tells me that there is an economy drive on at the top level, with great pressure on everyone to make all public services self-supporting. He says that, if the Commandant did not charge us for our rescue and the Inspector Royal ever found out about it, it would be deducted from the Commandant's pay. Plus whatever punitive measures a royal commission found appropriate. And Anibal wants you to know that he is devastated at this embarrassing situation. If he owned the aeroplano himself, we would simply be his guests. He will always look on you as his brother and me as his sister.'
'Tell him I feel the same way about him and please make it at least as flowery as he made it.'
'I will. And Roberto wants to be included.'
'And the same goes for the Sergeant. But find out where and how to get to the American consul. We've got troubles.'
Lieutenant Anibal Sanz was told to see to it that we appeared in court at four o'clock; with that we were dismissed. Sanz delegated Sergeant Roberto to escort us to the consul and back, expressed regret that his duty status kept him from escorting us personally - clicked his heels, bowed over Margrethe's hand, and, kissed it. He got a lot of mileage out of that simple gesture; I could see that Margrethe was pleased. But they don't teach that grace in Kansas. My loss.
Mazatl'an is on a peninsula; the Coast Guard station is on the south shore not far from the lighthouse (tallest in the world -impressive!); the American consulate is about a mile away across town at the north shore, straight down Avenida Miguel Alem'an its entire length - a pleasant walk, graced about halfway by a lovely fountain.
But Margrethe and I were barefooted.
Sergeant Dominguez did not suggest a taxi - and I could not.
At first being barefooted did not seem important. There were other bare feet on that boulevard and by no means all of them on children. (Nor did I have the only bare chest.) As a youngster I had regarded bare feet as a luxury, a privilege. I went barefooted all summer and put on shoes most reluctantly when school opened.
After the first block I was wondering why, as a kid, I had always looked forward to going barefooted. Shortly thereafter I asked Margrethe to ask Sergeant Roberto, please, to slow down and let me pick my way for maximum shade; this pesky sidewalk is frying my feet!
(Margrethe had not complained and did not - and I was a bit vexed with her that she had not. I benefited constantly from Margrethe's angelic fortitude---and found it hard to live up to.)
From there on I gave my full attention to pampering my poor, abused, tender pink feet. I felt sorry for myself and wondered why I had ever left God's country.
'I wept that I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.' I don't know who said that first, but it is part of our cultural heritage and should be.
It happened to me.
Not quite halfway, where Miguel Alem'an crosses Calle Aquiles Serdan at the fountain, we encountered a street beggar. He looked up at us and grinned, held up a handful of pencils -'looked up' because he was riding a little wheeled dolly; he had no feet.
Sergeant Roberto called him by name and flipped him a coin; the beggar caught it in his teeth, flipped it into his pocket, called out, 'Gracias!'- and turned his attention to me.
I said quickly, 'Margrethe, will you please explain to him that I have no money whatever.'
'Yes, Alec.' She squatted down, spoke with him eye to Eye. Then she straightened up. 'Pepe says, to tell you, that's all right; he'll catch you someday when you are rich.'
'Please tell him that I will be back. I promise.'
She did so. Pepe grinned at me, threw Margrethe a kiss, and saluted the Sergeant and me. We went on.
And I stopped being so finicky careful to coddle my feet. Pepe had forced me to reassess my situation. Ever since I had learned that the Mexican government did not regard rescuing me as a privilege but expected me to pay for it, I had been feeling sorry for myself, abused, put upon. I had been muttering to myself that my compatriots who complained that all Mexicans were bloodsuckers, living on gringo tourists, were dead right! Not Roberto and the Lieutenant, of course - but the others. Lazy parasites, all of them! with their hands out for the Yankee dollar.
I reviewed in my mind all the Mexicans I had met that day, each one I could remember, and asked forgiveness for my snide thoughts. Mexicans were simply fellow travelers on that long journey from dark to eternal darkness. Some carried their burdens well, some did not. And some carried very heavy burdens with gallantry and grace. Like Pepe.
Yesterday I had been living in luxury; today I was broke and in debt. But I have my health, I have my brain, I have my two hands - and I have Margrethe. My burdens were light; I should carry them joyfully. Thank you, Pepe!
The door of the consulate had a small American flag over it and the Great Seal in bronze on it. I pulled the bell wire beside it.
After a considerable wait the door opened a crack and a female voice told us to go away (I needed no translation; her meaning was clear). The door started to close. Sergeant Roberto whistled loudly and called out. The crack widened; a dialogue ensued. Margrethe said, 'He's telling her to tell Don Ambrosio that two American citizens are here who must see him at once because they must appear in court at four this afternoon.'
Again we waited. After about twenty minutes the maid let us in and ushered us into a dark office. The consul came in Y fixed my eye with his, and demanded to know how I dared to interrupt his siesta?
Then he caught sight of Margrethe and slowed down. To her it was: 'How can I serve you? In the meantime will you honor my poor house by accepting a glass of wine? Or a cup of coffee?'
Barefooted and in a garish dress, Margrethe was a lady - I was riffraff. Don't ask me why this was so; it just was. The effect was most marked with men. But it worked with women, too. Try to rationalize it and you find yourself using words like 'royal', 'noble', 'gentry', and 'to the manner born' - all involving concepts anathema to the American democratic ideal. Whether this proves something about Margrethe or something about the democratic ideal I will leave as an exercise for the student.
Don Ambrosio was a pompous zero but nevertheless he was a relief because he spoke American - real American, not English; he had been born in Brownsville, Texas. I feel certain that the backs of his parents were wet. He had parlayed a talent for politics among his fellow Chicanos into a cushy sinecure, telling gringo travelers in the land of Montezuma why they could not have what they desperately needed.
Which he eventually told us.
I let Margrethe do most of the talking because she was obviously so much more successful at it than I was. She called us 'Mr and Mrs Graham' - we had agreed on that name during the walk here. When we were rescued, she had used 'Grahain Hergensheimer' and had explained to me later that this let me choose: I could select 'Hergensheimer' simply by asserting that the listener's memory had had a minor bobble; the name had been offered as 'Hergensheimer Graham. No? Well, then I must have miscalled it - sorry.
I let it stay 'Graham Hergensheimer' and thereby used the name 'Graham' in order to keep things simple; to her I had always been 'Graham' and I had been using the name myself for almost two weeks. Before I got out of the consulate I had told a dozen more lies, trying to keep our story believable. I did not want unnecessary complication; 'Mr and Mrs Alec Graham' was easiest.
(Minor theological note: Many people seem to believe that the Ten Commandments forbid lying. Not at all! The prohibition is against bearing false witness against your neighbor - a specific, limited, and despicable sort of lie. But there is no Biblical rule forbidding simple untruth. Many theologians believe that no human social organization could stand up under the strain of absolute honesty. If you think their misgivings are unfounded, try telling your friends the ungarnished truth about what you think of their offspring - if you dare risk it.)
After endless repetitions (in which the Konge Knut shrank and became our private cruiser) Don Ambrosio said to me, 'It's no use, Mr Graham. I cannot issue you even a temporary document to substitute for your lost passport because you have offered me not one shred of proof that you are an American citizen.'
I answered, 'Don Ambrosio, I am astonished. I know that Mrs Graham has a slight accent; we told you that she was born in Denmark. But do you honestly think that anyone not born amidst the tall corn could possibly have my accent?'
He gave a most Latin. shrug. 'I'm not an expert in midwest accents. To my ear you could have been born to one of the harsher British accents, then have gone on the stage - and everybody knows that a competent actor can acquire the accent for any role. The People's Republic of England goes to any length these days to plant their sleepers in the States; you might be from Lincoln, England, rather than from somewhere near Lincoln, Nebraska.'
'Do you really believe that?'
'What I believe is not the question. The fact is that I will not sign a piece of paper saying that you are an
American citizen when I don't know that you are. I'm sorry. Is there anything more that I can do for you?'
(How can you do 'more' for me when you haven't done anything yet?) 'Possibly you can advise us.'
'Possibly. I am not a lawyer.'
I offered him our copy of the billing against us, explained it. 'Is this in order and are these charges appropriate?'
He looked it over. 'These charges are certainly legal both by their laws and ours. Appropriate? Didn't you tell me that they saved your lives?'
'No question about it. Oh, there's an outside chance that a fishing boat might have picked us up if the Coast Guard had not found us. But the Coast Guard did find us and did save us.'
'Is your life - your two lives - worth less than eight thousand pesos? Mine is worth considerably more, I assure you.'
'It isn't that, sir. We have no money, not a cent. It all went down with the boat.'
'So send for money. You can have it sent care of the consulate. I'll go that far.'
'Thank you. It will take time. In the meantime how can I get them off my neck? I was told that this judge will want cash and immediately.'
'Oh, it's not that bad. It's true that they don't permit bankruptcy the way we do, and they do have a rather old-fashioned debtors-prison law. But they don't use it just the threat of it. Instead the court will see that you get a job that will let you settle your indebtedness. Don Clemente is a humane judge; he will take care of you.'
Aside from the flowery nonsense directed at Margrethe, that ended it. We picked up Sergeant Roberto, who had been enjoying backstairs hospitality from the maid and the cook, and headed for the courthouse.
Don Clemente (Judge Ibafiez) was as pleasant as Don Ambrosio had said he would be. Since we informed the clerk at once that we stipulated the debt but did not have the cash to pay it, there was no trial. We were simply seated in the uncrowded courtroom and told to wait while the judge disposed of cases on his docket. He handled several quickly. Some were minor offenses drawing fines; some were debt cases; some were hearings for later trial. I could not tell much about what was going on and whispering was frowned on, so Margrethe could not tell me much. But he was certainly no hanging judge.
The cases at hand were finished; at a word from the clerk we went out back with the 'miscreants' - peasants, mostly - who owed fines or debts. We found ourselves lined up on a low platform, facing a group of men. Margrethe asked what this was - and was answered, 'La subasta.'
'What's that?' I asked her.
'Alec, I'm not sure. It's not a word I know.'
Settlements were made quickly on the others; I gathered that most of them had been there before. Then there was just one man left of the group off the platform, just us on the platform. The man remaining looked sleekly prosperous. He smiled and spoke to me. Margrethe answered.
'What is he saying?' I asked.
'He asked you if you can wash dishes. I told him that you do not speak Spanish.'
'Tell him that of course I can wash dishes. But that's hardly a job I want.'
Five minutes later our debt had been paid, in cash, to the clerk of the court, and we had acquired a patr'on, Sehor Jaime Valera Guzman. He paid sixty pesos a day for Margrethe, thirty for me, plus our found. Court costs were twenty-five hundred pesos, plus fees for two non-resident work permits, plus war-tax stamps. The clerk figured our total indebtedness, then divided it out for us: In only a hundred and twenty-one days - four months - our obligation to our patr6n would be discharged. Unless, of course, we spent some money during that time.
He also directed us to our patr'on's place of business, Restaurante Pancho. Villa. Our patr'on had already left in his private car. Patrones ride; peones walk.