My dad was an unpaid pollero, a coyote, an illegal boarder crosser. He was a young restless man, unfit to lay still in the small town he grew up in, he ventured North to the United States.
Prompted by the throbbing earth underneath, he’d jump up from his crouching position and run like a madman in pitch darkness alongside the iron monster that was his ticket out. Timing the passage of the passenger cars he’d jump and toss his body towards the train as he clambered up the side steps until he was in relative safety of the rooftop of the humming machinery that kept on going on no matter what new passengers were now clinging on to their new life.
Sunsets would set and mornings would rise with a promise of new territory, a new land that welcomed exploring.
Being a resourceful, hardworking and possessing a well-liked disposition, or so he claimed, my father would survey a new town (one on the good ol’ USA) and jump off the train several hundred feet before the train came to a stop to seek out employment while he felt out his new surroundings. He usually found work in the fields, picking fruit or in the cattle ranches as a skilled ranch hand.
On one of his trips to the North, my father led a couple of town mates to seek out their own versions of a fortune in the land of riches: the land of Hollywood telenovelas, shiny new cars and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They followed the trains as they snaked their way out of Mexico to the U.S. with little consequence except their light frames from days of hunger. They stopped in the outer fields of Phoenix, Arizona along the way and crawled along the fields to scope out the reception immigrants received. This being the late 60’s, you could never be too safe but they were welcome as laborers. My father quickly befriended a ranch owner and secured jobs for all four in his party in the horse slaughter house.
“It was the easiest and most well paid job I ever had. All I had to do was push a button as the stunned horses came through to pass them through a chute that led to the slaughter house, I never had to see the blood or worry about handling the tools that actually killed and tore those animals apart.”
My father’s young town mate quickly grew restless from the Arizona ranch life. His dream to see the Dodgers play in Los Angeles’ Dodger stadium was what drove him North and he begged my father to lead him there. My father had no desire to leave this secure and warm receptive place but he felt an obligation to deliver his paisano to his relatives in Los Angeles so he promptly spoke to the owner and told him he would be leaving in short time.
The owner dropped them off near the train depot and the two of them, my father and his friend, slept near the train tracks so they could catch the 1 AM train that would lead them to Los Angeles.
Their eyes wide awake with anticipation and anxiety from missing the iron monster kept them awake.
Before the rumbling from the ground would rustle a squirrel from its tree, they were up on all fours ready to run and jump onto their ride.
The air whipped his face with the arid cold wind that the dessert howled around these parts but he kept running, even after he heard an odd thumping sound, he ran until he was on the train. He climbed the side stairs and waited for his friend to answer his call but nothing came but the unforgiving cold. He called out again and again as he started towards his friend, running as quickly as he could from train car to train car until he knew that he wasn’t aboard. The train had picked up speed and only a madman or idiot would think about jumping on or off to their death but without much of a second thought, my father wrapped his coat over his face and hurled his body off the train and onto the unknown darkness underneath.
It seemed like an eternity before he stopped rolling and when he finally felt the ground still below him, he tried to stand and hoped that he was in functioning order. He ran for hours until he thought he was deliriously imagining that his friend had not made it aboard and worried that he’d let him go along guideless. By noon, he finally made it back to see the tree where he’d slept near in the horizon and as he neared he saw a figure on the ground unmoving. As he crept closer he saw the light rise and fall of his friend’s breathing mangled body and gently flipped his body to see his face.
“Hmmmaaaaaaooooo!!!” His friend cried out as my father saw the wide gash across his skull, he had to press down the flapping skin to hide the whiteness of either bone or fresh flesh underneath. He took his bandana and tied it tightly across his friend’s head to prevent some of the bleeding.
“Estoy mal?” “No, estas bien pero deja voy por ayuda para que te limpien la mazeta.”
He dragged him to the shade to protect him from the scorching Arizona sun and went for help. He arrived at a gas station and could not find anyone that spoke Spanish but a crowd quickly huddled close and jabbed fingers, shoved his chest back and demanded something he could not comprehend.
Words cascaded all around him, cutting in deep but failing to penetrate his comprehension.
A young boy was missing in the town, his mother had not seen him for hours after he’d gone for a bike ride. My father – Mexican, brown, dirty and his shirt full of blood stumbled in amongst the frantic search.
In desperation he grabbed on to the nearest stranger’s shirt and dragged him towards the direction he’d come from pointing insistently to follow him. The wild despair in his eyes was tempered by his focused determination as he dragged the crowd a few miles to where his friend lay, covered in blood.
“What happened? What were you two doing?” When he shaked his head, they repeated, “Que hacian you dos?” in broken Spanish and a dance of flying hand motions. He motioned that his friend was running and tripped, carefully avoiding the train subject altogether.
The ambulance came and my father quickly slid into the back with his friend to avoid the local police hauling his Mexican ass back to some unknown area of Mexico.
His friend spent a year in the hospital. My father got his old job back and would visit his friend regularly. He was eventually released to a local nuns convent for further recovery and it was then that my father bid his friend goodbye as the local police was growing unreceptive to outside labor.
The trains beckoned once more and he rode them all the way to Los Angeles where he notified his friend’s family members of the convent and where they could find him. Years later, he ran into his friend again, a reformed, religious and nondrinking man.
His friend never did see the Dodgers but my father found something in Los Angeles that caged his restless spirit and tied his roots to the land of the baseball team he traveled hundreds of miles for a friend to see.