Category Archives: memoir

Chiapas Air Ambulance

A repeat of a story blogged four years ago.

(Please share this story with others and “rate” it, below.)

We’re circling over Corralito, a remote airstrip in Chiapas State, Mexico. I check for animals on the strip and wonder if the injured Tzeltal Indian man is still alive. The tiny strip lies tucked in below a terraced cornfield on a hillside, so I need to approach around a low hill. At the last minute the airstrip appears in my windshield. We bank, line up with the strip and soon we feel the long grass under our wheels as we taxi the red and white Cessna 180 over to where Mario lies inert on a stretcher with his tumid stomach bulging below his pulled-up shirt.

Antonio, his brother, stands by mute while another man talks to me in Spanish. “Capitán, Mario was feeding stalks into the trapiche sugar cane press when the horse’s bar turned and squeezed him against the press.” As we lay the injured man in the airplane, I think, he’s young; he has a good chance of pulling through.

We depart Corralito for our home base. San Cristobal sits on the Pan American highway at an altitude of 7,200 feet, landlocked in the bottom of a vast basin with high mountains surrounding. Last night a squally norther blew across the region and its soggy remains still stick fast to the mountains. I test the entrails of the storm, probing one cloud-clogged pass after another. Finally I see a bit of light where the Comitán highway snakes between two hills. We high-jump the pass and then drop down into San Cristobal bowl. We can see the ground, but a solid wall of clouds plugs the path ahead! I bank steeply in the cramped head of the valley to reverse course, pulling on flaps to decrease our turning radius. We cut it so close it seems the wing seems buried halfway into the mountainside. Even using the best angle of climb we barely make it back through the narrow pass. I almost decide to divert to Tuxtla down in the valley, but at the last minute we slide through a hole along the rim and drop down into the huge San Cristobal bowl.

After landing in the late afternoon light, Chuck, the chief pilot, helps me load Mario into our old Chevy van to drive him to the small hospital for X-rays. The doctor tells us, “His interior organs are damaged. He needs to go to Tuxtla.”

We can’t fly at night; we must take him down the mountain in the van. So again we load him in and soon we’re on our way down the winding road. I think, Antonio must feel helpless in the hands of strangers who are struggling to save his brother’s life. I sit in the back next to the patient, feeling his heaving chest and listening to his hoarse, shallow breathing.

Then white foam bubbles out of his mouth—his lungs must be filling with fluid! I tell Chuck to drive faster. Then his breathing stops.

Antonio asks me in broken Spanish, “Will we get there in time?”

“We’ll try our best.”

Then I realize he’s gone. Antonio begs us to continue on to Tuxtla, but Chuck tells him, “There’s nothing we can do; it’s too late. We’ll have to go back to San Cristobal. If there’s still a little bit of life in him when we arrive, we’ll see the doctor again.”

We head back into town and rouse the doctor in the middle of the night to ask for a death certificate. He gives it to us, but we can’t quickly get the additional permit to transport the body back to Corralito so we’ll have to do it secretly. We drive into our darkened hangar and carefully lay the man onto the floor of the plane. His forlorn brother works to arrange the limp limbs before rigor mortis sets in. I get back to my hostel late, vomit, and then lie sleepless all night. It’s the first time I’ve seen a man die.


The next day at first light, Chuck takes off to fly the body back to Corralito. Antonio, dejected, sits in the copilot seat. I walk outside the hangar feeling the morning chill, my eyes following the plane as it climbs out over the valley—a tiny red dot silhouetted against the green mountains. I know something of grace in my life; I now pray grace for the dear, waiting family who must plan for a funeral. I trust that our work can continue here and that our flight service can help lighten the load for many of these Chiapanecos.

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A little rebellion in 100 words

Every weekday I would drive my immaculate metallic gold 1953 Ford—dual chrome pipes, nosed, decked, and hung—into Orange High School’s dusty, potholed, student parking lot. It got dirty. One morning Larry, Ron, and I mounted a protest and all parked over in the paved faculty lot. At noon, Larry and Ron went out to move their cars back. I didn’t. Principal Townsend called me in and said, “Move your car.” I moved it. The next year he paved our student parking lot and awarded me the Outstanding Student Medallion. I never found out why.

Barbara’s childhood on the farm

Here’s a chapter from Barbara’s book, about her life on the farm.

“There is nothing better for a person than to enjoy his work” Ecclesiastes 3:22

 The Swinging Bridge. A footbridge high above Pequea Creek provided a shortcut to Uncle John’s farm. We also used that bridge to go visit our grandparents who lived with Uncle John. Narrow boards hung on two cables, with two more cables for handgrips, but no sides. It was scary going across that bridge, especially if a brother or sister came behind and started jumping to make the bridge swing and seesaw up and down.

Grandpa. Grandpa Jacob often came over to our house to visit. I remember him sitting by the wood stove in our kitchen, holding us on his knee and telling us stories. Sometimes he would fall asleep. When he woke up, he would say, “I don’t think God meant for us to sleep all at one time.” He would rev up his car loud and fast when he would leave. We enjoyed his visits.

Darning Socks. My mother darned socks all the time, and she taught me how to do it before I started first grade. “Darning” involved sewing a criss-cross stitch over the holes. Later she said that I darned socks better than she did. I do not remember when I stopped, and I don’t think I would have patience to do it now. We must be rich now, because we follow the advice of my brother-in-law, Lawrence, who discards his old socks. He says, “I look at those holey socks and say, ‘those darn socks,’ and then throw them away.”

Driving Tractor. Working on the farm was no hardship, because I took pride in the jobs we had to do. I especially enjoyed driving tractor for the farm work in the fields. I preferred work in the barn or fields to housework. Many times my mother would say, “If you girls want to do the milking, I will do the work in the house.” Sometimes I wonder where we learned to cook, bake, and clean.

Hoeing Corn. Daddy and all of us children would head out to the fields early in the morning to hoe the weeds in the cornfields. It was a tiresome, hot job. In later years we abandoned the hoes and sprayed the weeds instead.

Chickens and Eggs. We had laying hens that gave us enough eggs to collect and sell. Sometimes the hens would peck our hands as we reached into the nest for the eggs, and occasionally we had a controlling rooster who would come after us. Just the thought of going in there chilled my blood. We kept the eggs in the “arch,” a room below our cellar with a brick-arched ceiling, where we cleaned them with a type of sandpaper, graded them according to size and weight, and put them in crates.

Besides the laying hens, we raised our own broilers to sell for meat. Do you know how to “dress” a chicken? When we wanted chicken for a meal we would catch it, take it to the chopping block, hold its neck between two nails in the wooden block, and chop off its head with an axe, whereupon the bird would flop around until it finally lay motionless. Then we would immediately dip the chicken in a bucket of boiling water to soften the feathers, making them easier to pull out. Afterwards we would singe the tiny hairs off using a flaming newspaper. I rarely cleaned out the insides myself. I remember how Mother carefully removed the liver and gizzard so as not to break the gall bag.

Rat Raids. Where on earth did all those rats come from? The rats would hide under the chicken houses. Then at night when the chickens were on the roosts, they would sneak up into the houses and eat the chicken food. So we used to plan rat raids. We sighted all the rat exit holes ahead of time. Then on a designated night after the rats entered, the men and boys, and sometimes even us girls, would sneak in and plug the holes. We tied our pant legs shut so the rats would not crawl up our legs. At the word “charge” we all ran into the chicken houses, turned on the lights, and, crash, bang, we clubbed as many rats as possible. One time my sister Verna climbed up on the roost, slipped, and ripped a deep gash in her leg above the knee. I nearly fainted at the sight. After the raids we would have many baskets of dead rats.

Learning to Drive. I drove tractor a lot but had never driven a truck or a car. Mary Myers, a classmate, was staying with us one year during high school. She and I needed to deliver water to the chicken houses out in the field below the barn in the pick up-truck, but no one was available to tell us how to drive it. We put several old milk cans on the back of the truck and filled them with water. Starting the engine was easy enough, but we couldn’t figure out how to put it into gear, work the clutch, and take off without hitting fences or gates. We decided it would be easier to push the truck to get us moving. That was fine going downhill to the field, but coming back uphill was a different matter. After experimenting quite a long time, we hit a gear that got us moving. What a hilarious time it was for both of us; our laughter shook the whole truck! That was how, before I was of driving age, I learned to drive.

Milking Cows. We had about thirty milk cows, plus heifers (“adolescent” cows) and calves. In the early years we milked the cows by hand, sitting on a three-legged stool with a bucket between our legs—good hand exercise. Then the day came when we all learned how to use the new milking machines. We had to get up at five a.m. to help milk. If it was summertime, we girls had to bring the cows in from the field and into the barn and tie them up in their stanchions. While Daddy or Paul fed the cows, we girls would milk, a routine we repeated twice every day. The chore I hated most was washing the milkers and buckets after we were done. Then, if we didn’t have school, we would go back to bed after breakfast. As I reflect on this I am glad that I learned the value of hard work through this experience.

Here’s Barbara, milking:

Flowers and yard. I had a section in the front yard by the orchard that was mine to plan and plant, and I loved to plant flowers and watch them grow. We girls took pride in our yard, mowing and trimming it.

Butchering Beef and Hogs. Butchering took place at the far end of the barn in the corn shed. Father killed the animal with a shot and then hung it up so it could be bled, a gory sight. After it bled out, the men in the family would gut and skin the animal with sharp knives. The meat would be left hanging for a day or two in the cellar before they would cut it up and take it to the large walk-in locker at Engleside, or give it to the women to can in jars, since we had no freezer at that time. Even after we got a freezer, we still used the locker because of the abundance of meat. When we butchered the hogs, we made use of everything we possibly could. I remember the intestines had to be washed and cleaned to be used for stuffing the sausage. We made bologna from the beef, mixing up the ground meat and the seasonings, then smoking the bologna, or curing it by salting it and letting it dry.

A lot of this work was done in the basement of the summer house, a room off the back porch where we did the canning in the summer. At times, the upper part of the summer house became a storage place or a junk-collecting room. Our laundry was also in the basement of the summer house, where we set big tubs over a fire base to heat water for washing. We also had a corn dryer there that we used to dry apples and corn. On the farm there wasn’t much that we did not do ourselves.

Canning Fruits, Vegetables, and Meats. My mother worked hard preserving foods for our whole family. We worked together shelling peas, snapping beans, or preparing fruit. I loved best preparing the cherries. We would pile in the truck with dozens of containers and go to Shank’s orchard where we would pick the big sweet cherries. Sometimes we would stand on top of the truck cab and pull cherries off by the handfuls. We ate so many that we would get diarrhea, but they were so good. Grandpa would always say to the weigh-out person, “These children should be weighed going in and coming out.” When we got home, the work began of washing the cherries, picking out stems, and seeding some of them for canning.

Threshing Time. When it was time for threshing the wheat or filling silo, we had twelve to fifteen people at a time come to help harvest. The men from several families would work together when it was harvest time by sharing their farm machinery. Then they would go from farm to farm, repeating the same work. Each time they came to our farm we provided the meal, a large sit-down dinner in our dining room that we girls helped prepare. During threshing, we girls had to get the cows in by ourselves, and start the milking.

Lord, I thank you for my past, for times of working together as a family, for learning and working with that which you created.

Loving the Orange Grove

At five, I started learning Spanish from our Mexican bracero orange pickers. Most of the English words they knew were dirty ones. One bracero said, “Go ask your mother what f* means.”

I asked her. She knew. She said, “Don’t you ever go out into the orange grove again!”

But I couldn’t keep out—the orange grove always beckoned. I built a lean-to there with surplus boards. When I disobeyed, I would hide out there. I would hide things there I didn’t want anybody else to see. Sometimes I would go there to cry, or pray. The leaves greened the year round. The trees, filled with insects and noisy birds, sheltered like a canopy. I breathed in the smell of fallen leaves. In summer we would overnight beneath the low branches, feeling the leaves beneath our backs. We woke up seeing the sun gilding the dew on green leaves, and smelling the sweetness of the white orange blossoms.

Behind our orange grove lay a large lot filled with miscellaneous old door and window frames, used lumber, and all things made of wood—Joe’s “lumber-” [think junk-] yard. Sometimes, we would shortcut through the lumberyard on the way to school. Bill the tramp lived there with his long, unwashed, disheveled hair. He wore a dirty, torn shirt and baggy pants with his knees sticking out the ripped holes. One day we were shortcutting through the lumberyard, rounding a disordered pile of used 2×4’s, when Bill appeared from nowhere! He just stared at us. We ran all the way to school.

One day when I was in second grade, I decided to run away from home—I forget why. I cut an orange branch and tied a large red kerchief to the end. I told my mom, “I’m running away tonight.”

Mom said, “That’s a great idea; I’ll pack you a lunch.” Her enthusiasm blunted my joy a little, but after dinner (I didn’t want to leave hungry) I left my childhood home forever and trudged west, walking through the orange grove. I paused just at the edge of Joe’s lumber yard, and wondered where Bill the tramp was. Would he be already asleep, or might he be wandering around? It was an epiphany moment. I wavered, and then decided that it would be nice to sleep in my own bed that night—I could always run away the next day. So I turned around and ran home.

Grandfather bought these four and one-half acres of oranges in the 1920s, a few years after he moved his family from South Dakota. After he buried his plow horse here in the grove, he bought a Fordson tractor with steel-cleated wheels that hurled up great hunks of earth. He used it to pull a sledge—its rough wooden runners scraped and screeched on the rocky soil. The sledge carried dead branches or young plantlings that had gunny sacks tied around their tender, moist roots. Sometimes it carried his screaming grandchildren.

Of all the trees, we liked our solitary navel tree best. Unlike the Valencias, the navel oranges have a belly button on the bottom. We hung No Glom signs on this tree so the braceros wouldn’t pick the precious navels. (Although I’m fluent in Spanish, I have no idea what No Glom means.) My sister and I used to sit under this tree as rulers of the realm, devouring the fruit of our family’s labors. The navel’s thick skin peels off in seconds, and I can still feel the sting in the nose from its acidic smell. We sucked the sweet juice from the seedless pulp.

In summertime the bending branches drooped with oranges, and the ones that fell off provided ammunition for our combat operations. We piled a few “lug” boxes up for a barricade, gathered rotten oranges, and stationed ourselves opposite our opponents. The rules of engagement—no green oranges and no head shots. A beautiful feeling when a rotten orange splattered all over the clothes of your enemy! He even smelled rotten.

Tending the grove

Snails infested the orange trees, so Dad sent us kids into the grove as a conquering army. We would pry the snails off the tree trunks, drop them into tin cans, and then pour lots of salt into each can. We weren’t bothered about the snails’ agonizing death—they didn’t make any noise.

Orange County’s meager rainfall (10 inches per year) meant we always needed water. Southern California is dry, so dry that once the bushes in our Santiago Creek streambed caught fire. Dad sprayed down our cedar shake roof under the swirling sparks.

So we irrigated. The sanjero (“ditch man”) from Santa Ana Valley Irrigation would ask Dad, “What head do ya want?”

Dad usually said, “A fifth head, and run it for 12 hours or so.”

One dry summer day, I stood at the end of Culver Street watching the sanjero unlock the lid on the big concrete cistern and turn a valve to release a fifth head of water. When the water flowed into our orchard, Dad told me, “Check the concrete standpipes at the head of each furrow.” I used a shovel to open the little tin doors so the water could flow down the ditches toward the back of the orchard, and I crafted tiny wood-chip boats with paper sails and sailed them down the shining stream. My dreams rode on those little boats, dreams of travel, of adventure, of faraway places, of finding my place in the world.

We laid the dry ground up in wide ditches that stayed usable for several years. But this “no-till” method meant weeds, and weeds meant spraying. Dad would say, “Jamie, the Revis orchard has some big weed patches.” I would reluctantly fill a little weed sprayer and carry it out to spray the dichondra, purslane, and especially the Bermuda grass. Yet it seemed the weeds thrived on the spray. Within a couple weeks they always came back—a vast, rebellious sea of green, always threatening to overwhelm the orange trees and steal precious moisture and nutrients. One day I accidently spilled the spray on my arm. It burned for a week. Once every year we brought in the heavy artillery—a truck with a large tank sprayer. We walked behind with two hoses, spraying everything in sight. I felt proud to walk alongside my dad.

California winter nights would turn cold, and when the temperature fell below 28o, frost would ruin the oranges—the pulp turned hard and the juice soured. Our neighbor’s grove stood on lower ground, so on the coldest nights he lit oil-fired smudge pots. I could see the flaring pots, and smell the burning fuel oil. Larger growers had tall wind machines that circulated the chill wind to prevent frost. We had no smudge pots or wind machines, so our grove lay naked to the cold. Dad said, “Well, the oranges don’t produce much income anyway. We’ll just hope it doesn’t freeze this year.”

When orange trees died, we cut them down and dug up the stumps. Dad would say, “Stack the dead branches and we’ll let them sun-dry.” After a few weeks, we created a huge bonfire to roast hotdogs and marshmallows for a summer picnic. The firelight played on our hot faces as we sat around and told stories.

When I was young, instead of “get outta my hair,” Mother would say, “Go out and play in the orange grove.” The grove provided a womb to nurture our childhoods. It bonded our family and gave us a common purpose.

 The braceros

In the late 1950s, almost one-half million braceros worked in the U.S. under agreements with the Mexican government, working on the railroads, harvesting vegetables, and picking oranges. The bosses would warehouse the orange pickers in barbed-wire-enclosed tent camps near Santa Ana—euphemistically called “bracero housing.” When we drove by and saw the men milling about inside, I felt like I was on a zoo tour looking through the barbed wire at caged animals. California needed their labor but did not want their families, and did not want them to stay. Except to pick oranges.

We would wait for the braceros to arrive in our grove. One July morning, as always, the braceros drove up without warning, riding in big tarp-covered trucks where they sat on wooden benches built along the sides. Dirty handkerchiefs protected their sweaty heads. These were resourceful and frugal men. They didn’t work for themselves, but sent their wages back to their families in Mexico.

The picker would climb a ladder to the tree canopy and work fast. His plier-like snippers cut the stems and released the oranges into the canvas bag slung around his waist. When the bag was full, he unhooked its bottom flap and spilled the oranges into the lug box, which measured one foot by one foot by two feet long. I wondered what the bosses paid him per box.

We kids felt a little scared of the braceros—their language and ways seemed strange. At noontime we would watch the men gather a few stream cobbles and build a fire between them to heat their burritos. They rolled pinto beans into their tortillas and added some chile sauce and cooked chicken or pork. The smell of the warming burritos made me hungry.

Orange packing house

The empty lug boxes came to the orange grove stacked high on flatbed trucks, the braceros poured their oranges into them, and the same trucks returned the full boxes to the Santiago Orange Growers packing house. Built during WWI, it processed oranges and juice for almost a century.

Grandma worked at the packing house on the conveyer belt where they washed, culled, graded, and packed the oranges, lemons, and grapefruit. She sat on a high stool and pulled the bad oranges out as they rolled by. A huge freezer building housed a compressor where workers froze three-foot-long ice blocks to cool the oranges during shipment.

One summer when I was in high school, my friend Bill and I rode our bikes down to the packing house and told the office guy, “We want to pick oranges.”

“OK,” he said, “We’ll give you 25 cents a lug box.” We walked out. I developed a new appreciation that day for the braceros who worked for 25 cents a box. Even today [2014] it is estimated that ex-braceros are owed $500 million in illegally-withheld wages.

The orange grove was a great place to grow up. Our family lived immersed in the vast sea of orange trees that covered Orange County—until the 1960s, when the subdivisions swallowed them all. I learned lots of Spanish words that served me well in my ten years in Latin America. The grove didn’t provide much income, but it’s branches sheltered and shaped all our childhood.