chapter 34

The Corpus Christi Kid

    The Corpus Christi Kid appeared one morning in March. He was ready to

go on the payroll. He claimed that he was thirteen years old. It is possible

that this was the truth.

    When asked what he could do, he replied that he could drive. When it

was pointed out that he was too young to have a driver's license, he

insisted that he was a very good driver.

    Hmmmmm ... What to do with this kid?

    He was put to work driving an old four-speed, flat-bed truck down

country roads. He drove to barns and carried out specified cans of farm

chemicals. He drove to fields and flagged them as the aircraft roared

overhead. He hauled fuel in 55 gallon drums. He drove to various little

South Texas towns and bought hamburgers, a dozen to the bag.

    He weighed about a hundred pounds. He was very skinny. He was

sun-baked to the color of old saddle leather. He seldom talked. He was

smarter than the average bear. He was a good driver. He was a good

worker. He was amazingly good at following directions. He worked for me

for four summers. He almost never got mad. He almost never got lost. He

almost never wrecked a pick-up truck. He was a pretty good kid.

    The Corpus Christi Kid was kin folks. He was a problem kid. He didn't

have a daddy. He was brooding and silent. Nobody could figure out what

he was thinking about. He wouldn't follow rules. He didn't want anybody

bossing him around. He had quit school. He was a trouble-maker. He was

headed for "a bad end."

    As it were, I too was known as a man who didn't like other people's

rules. I too was quiet, and bitter, and nobody could figure me out, either.

When I quit college and went to flying crop-dusters, friends and family

foresaw the worst. I, too, was headed for "a bad end." Therefore, the

logical thing to do was to send this kid to me.

    That's how he ended up standing on my airstrip one spring morning in

March. We got along just fine.

    As it turned out, The Kid became my right-hand man. I was going

through another one of those chronic periods of my life in which I was

always broke. I was operating on the very edge. I had several people who

owed me money, but were slow to pay. Some of them never paid.

    Meanwhile, I was doing my best to keep money flowing to the people I

owed money to. I was in the typical position of the small businessman. The

people who owed me money had no reason to get in a big hurry about

paying me. But the people that I owed money to had to be paid on time.

    If I failed to pay my fuel bill, I wouldn't get any more fuel. If I failed to

pay my phone bill, my phone was cut off. If I failed to make my payroll,

my help would stop coming to work. If I failed to pay my room rent, I

would be out of a place to live.

    Most of the things I needed for daily operation were paid for cash on

the spot. This included everything from truck gas, truck parts, and truck

tires, to nuts, bolts, nails, pipe fittings, pumps, hoses, boots, shirts, socks,

hamburgers and tacos.

    The Corpus Christi Kid fit right into this headache of problems. I didn't

have to pay him very much. In fact, I didn't have to pay him at all. If I was

short of money, which I always was, I could just write him his weekly

salary on a piece of paper and hand him an I.O.U. Later, when I finally

started getting into a better cash flow position, I think he was a little

surprised when I actually made good on all those I.O.U.'s.

    The Kid simply didn't have any requirement for money in his life. He

was sleeping on my couch, and often in the seat of one of my trucks. I

bought his food, soda pop, toothpaste, underwear, and an occasional comic

book. That's all he really needed to get along in the world. That's all he

got.

    The Corpus Christi Kid was also on my payroll 24 hours a day. I don't

mean he got paid for 24 hours a day. I mean that I could send him off on a

job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I could send him the 150 miles to

San Antonio to pick-up an aircraft part at some machine shop, hand him a

signed check with instructions to "fill in the blanks" if the total did not

exceed "X" amount of money, to call me if it did, hand him 100 bucks for

gas, food, a long shopping list including PVC pipe, brass valves,

miscellaneous repair parts, and assorted hardware, tell him to drop by the

Post Office and pick-up my mail, and to be quick about it.

    He would be back by midnight with the correct parts, the correct

paperwork, the correct change, and the correct attitude. I could roll him

out at dawn and he would be ready to do it all over again.

    One of the first jobs The Kid was on was one of Bob's big brush runs

east of Laredo. We had several thousand acres lined up over in Duval

County. There were three airplanes on the job, and eight or ten other men

to do the truck driving, flagging, mixing, loading and 40 other things. Bob

had put together a pretty good crew of rednecks and wet-backs. This was a

rough bunch of men.

    We were soon working deep in the Texas brush country. We spent the

next several weeks working from dawn to dark, living in cheap hotels,

eating out of our hands, and traveling from one job to another like a

gypsy carnival.

    We seldom operated for more than three or four days from a particular

airstrip, and we were repeatedly setting up operations at a new little back

country airstrip that had never been anything else but range land 24

hours before we arrived.

    The Corpus Christi Kid blended right in with this bunch and was hardly

noticed. Living with such a rough bunch of men, and working day and

night, you would have thought that there was no humor in his life. But

there was.

    But there was a problem with The Kid's humor. The problem was that

nobody could understand what it was that made him laugh. Just as nobody

could ever figure out what he was thinking about, nobody could figure out

what he would suddenly be laughing about.

    He would sit there, solemn as a judge, through much course horseplay,

then unexpectedly emit a subdued chuckle when there wasn't anything at

all to be amused about.

    That summer was The Kid's first exposure to the inside world of men.

And the men he was exposed to were a rough lot, living totally apart from

women or any of the temporizing influences of civilization. He had come

directly from the world of children, Junior High students, fussy teachers,

demanding women, and a life of enforced sanity and restricted behavior.

    I'm not real sure about this, but I think he found humor in his sudden

interior view of the intricate way men worked with one another. I think he

sometimes burst into an uncontrollable little laugh when he observed the

absurdity of some of our behavior. I think he was surprised to discover

that men, even men in isolated little bands where the lines of authority

were clearly drawn, still acted in much the same way eighth graders did

establishing positions of dominance.

    And I think this insight struck his funny bone.

    But I could be wrong.

    But whatever the psychology of his behavior, there was one thing for

sure. The Kid would laugh, or smile, or snicker, right out of the clear blue

sky, and nobody could figure out why.

    At first this strange behavior was very disconcerting to everybody,

including me. When, right in the midst of some edgy, semi-hostile

argument between two grown men, The Kid would suddenly suppress a

little laugh and kind of mosey off, a taught and uneasy silence would fall

over the group. We would all stand there mystified, eye The Kid

suspiciously, and then eye each other suspiciously.

    Every man present would suddenly be caught-up with the conviction

that somebody had been making faces at him behind his back. We would

all fall silent and throw sharp glances at one another.

    But after this sort of thing happened a few times, it came to be an

unexpected source of humor for everybody. When The Kid would suddenly

give an uncontrollable little laugh, everyone present would give him a big

howl, accuse him of being nuts, and demand to know what the hell he

thought was so funny.

    But we were never told. The Kid would just grow embarrassed, and

more silent than ever.

    One night he did give me the barest insight, though. We were working

out of a remote ranch strip south of Freer. At lunch time two of our hands,

both retired Anglos working at this part-time job to pick-up a little extra

cash, got into some kind of stiff argument over something that was

unimportant then, and can't be remembered now.

    These were men who had spent their lives around oil derricks, cows,

guns, bulldozers, trucks, and beer joints. They were rednecks, and they

were going at it hot and heavy.

    They were standing on a dusty little airstrip and jamming each other in

the chest with an extended index finger. They were not having what

anybody would characterize as a "polite conversation."

    Bob and I were both getting uneasy. With a ton of problems already,

the last thing in the world we needed was two men in their 60's getting

into a fist fight right in the middle of our airstrip. It was a job that so far

held out the slight possibility that we just might be able to clear enough

money to meet the payroll that weekend, and broken bones or a cardiac

arrest would have ruined the whole operation.

    We were saved by The Kid. Without warning, he suddenly went into a

wild fit of choking laughter. He had hid behind a tank truck and tried to

control his outburst, but it didn't work. That got everybody laughing, and

got The Kid a good cussing from half-a-dozen different men, in two

different languages.

    That night the whole crew piled into a cheap hotel in Freer. The Kid and

I were in the same room. After we were both in bed with the lights out, I

asked him what it was that he found so funny that day.

    "Didn't you hear what that guy was saying?" he asked.

    "No, I guess I didn't," I said, puzzled that I might have missed

something important. "So what was he saying?"

    "Well, he kept saying, 'I'll tell you one thing, Buddy!'", explained The

Kid, and started snickering.

    "So what", I wanted to know?

    "Well," repeated The Kid, as though his point was self evident. "That's

what he kept saying, 'I'll tell you one thing, Buddy!'"

    "So what", I demanded impatiently?

    "Well, that's what he kept saying," The Kid repeated, as though I was

some kind of an idiot who couldn't understand simple English. That's what

he kept saying! 'I'll tell you one thing, Buddy!' He just kept saying that. He

just kept saying that over and over and over. 'I'll tell you one thing,

Buddy!' But he never told him anything. He just kept saying that he was

going to tell him something. But he never got around to telling him

anything. He just kept on saying, 'I'll tell you one thing, Buddy!' over and

over again."

    Then The Kid got real quiet in the darkness, but I could hear him trying

to bite back all the laughter.

    I'm not sure, but I think that damn kid was laughing at all of us. I think

he was laughing at me. I think he was laughing at life. But I could be dead

wrong. It might have been that he found humor in things I simply didn't

understand, and never will understand.

    I know I never again bothered to ask him what he thought was so

funny.

 

**********

 

previous chapter                                  chapter index                                        next chapter