chapter 36

I Hire The Madman

    The following summer I was back on the Atascosa. I had three men

working for me full-time that year. Santos was back as the First Sergeant

of my operation. We would usually hire one or two extra men when we got

busy, and Santos would teach them how to flag fields and how to mix

chemicals in an open vat. He taught them about crops, and poisons, and

airplanes, and a dozen other things that most of these men had never

heard of.

    My second hand was a 20-year-old Mexican who had never learned to

drive a truck. His name was Mike. I never really figured out if Mike was a

U.S. citizen, or a citizen of Mexico. He told me one time that he had been

born "... not too very far from this place." It really didn't make any

difference to me one way or another.

    Although Mike couldn't drive, he proved to be a whiz at operating my

mixing vat. My mixing vat was a homemade monster of a rig. It had a

gasoline powered pump that was always hard to start, half-a-dozen valves

that had to be operated in the proper sequence, a 300 gallon hopper, and

pipes and hoses going everywhere. This rig was fed from the 4,000 gallon

storage tank and could be mastered only by a special kind of mind.

    Mike was also a good shade tree mechanic. He managed to keep most

of my worn out old equipment running. He used a lot of baling wire.

    I had been against hiring Mike. "What kind of an idiot never learned to

drive?" I demanded of Santos.

    Santos just shrugged. "I think he is a good man," he said. "I think he

work for us, pretty good."

    So I hired Mike, who turned out to be one of the best men who ever

worked for me.

    And of course, there was the Corpus Christi Kid. Although he was now

back in school, and only on duty during the summer vacation, those

months proved to be the busies time of the year. The Kid had become the

"designated driver" in the outfit. At that time I owned a pick-up truck, a

flat-bed truck, and a tank truck, and the Kid spent most of his days in one

or the other of them.

    The Kid's primary job was to drive the flat-bed to various fields and,

when the airplane showed up, flag the field. Between fields he was

constantly picking up cans of farm chemicals from farm & ranch stores, or

a farmer's barn, or a chemical salesman. He also hauled water, picked up

parts, carried messages, and delivered hamburgers. He had proved to be

reliable, savvy, and solemn.

    We were covered up with work. We were working from dawn till dark,

but every day we fell another hundred acres behind. Most of this work was

fungicide on peanuts, which was "high-gallon" work. I tried to keep the

volume rate down to six gallons per acre, but some of the farmers were

demanding eight, or even ten gallons to the acre. It was mighty hard to

haul more than about 25, some days 30 loads per day. At these high rates

we were only covering 400 to 500 acres per day, and we were seldom

getting more than about five hours of sleep at night.

    And we had problems. Endless problems. A typical day involved at least

one truck with a dead battery, one truck stuck in a far-flung field, a

flagman lost on the wrong road, the pilot lost on the way to a new field, a

flat tire and a flat spare tire, a jack in "the other truck," a pump motor

that refused to start, a locked gate with the key nowhere to be found, lost

jumper cables, clogged spray nozzles, leaking valves, broken hoses,

over-heated radiators, and mad farmers.

    Always the mad farmers. Fine fellows all, but caught up in the heat of

battle along with the rest of us. Fighting the heat, the drought, the

fungus, the insects, the blights, the exhaustion, and the bill collectors.

    During this critical period of the year, the crop-duster found himself in

the miserable position of knowing that an application made 24 hours too

late could lead to a loss of thousands of dollars. It was hard to tell a man

whose cotton was being devoured by worms that I couldn't get to him for

another two days. This was doubly hard to do when the man owed me

money, and I knew that if he lost that cotton crop, I wouldn't see a dime

of it.

    Many's the time I landed to meet an enraged farmer who couldn't

understand why I was spraying "so-and-so's" field when he had told me a

month ago that he would need spraying "just about right now!" I tried to

be fair to everybody, and kept a list in my airplane of the order of work. I

made it clear to everybody that in order to get on my list they had to talk

to me directly, and nobody got to be moved ahead. But people were

always mad and always tired, myself included.

    But I never stopped flying. I would load up that old airplane with gas,

pour in oil quart after quart, pump on a load of chemicals, and blast off

down that dirt runway, always hoping for the best.

    I was a man of high hopes. Hoping I could find a new field. Hoping my

flagman was waiting for me when I got there. Hoping Mike could get the

pump motor running by the time I got back for another load. Hoping I

would get some money in the mail to meet my Friday night payroll.

Hoping that that old oil-sucking Lycoming motor wouldn't blow up for at

least another 45 days. Hoping The Kid wouldn't get picked up by the

Highway Patrol. Hoping Mike wouldn't get picked up by the Border Patrol.

Hoping that sometime in the next hour or two Santos would climb up on

my wing and hand me something to eat.

    Some days we would still be working way after dark. Hauling water,

collecting chemicals for the next day's work, working out last minute

changes with farmers, fixing equipment. We were all getting dead tired,

and we needed at least one, and maybe two, extra hands.

    But we had a problem hiring extra hands that year. The problem was

the Border Patrol. From time to time the Border Patrol would focus on one

particular farming area. That season it seemed that a whole army of

Border Patrol officers were camping out right next door to my airstrip. It

seemed like every time I looked down I would see a Border Patrol car

cruising down the same little back roads used by my hands. The Atascosa

was located on a bare little rise by a country road, and it wasn't a secure

enough place for an honest wet-back who might just happen to need a

good place to hide on a moment's notice.

    I personally never had any animosity for the Border Patrol officers.

They were about the only group of regulating, paper-work compiling,

compliance-enforcing, red-tape winding, rule-spouting, trouble-making,

superior-minded, federally-paid employees I was ever able to get along

with. Most of them were just good old boys like me, doing a job that I

thought needed to be done. But they sure put a crimp in my operation

that summer.

    Although I saw fewer and fewer wet-backs, they were always welcome

to work for me for a few hours, or a few days.

    And they were always welcome to use my always clean, always well

stocked, always-well-ventilated out-house with its built in view of

thousands and thousands of acres of pristine South Texas brush country.

    My big problem was that I could not find men who would work. They

had all simply disappeared. At the time, the U.S. Government was busily

educating its citizens that hard work was not one of the requirements for

life in America. And the government was doing an excellent job.

    Fewer and fewer men could be found who would work. They were being

taught that doing hard work for honest pay was not only not necessary, it

was in fact un-American. Consequently, many of them quit doing hard

work for honest pay.

    Legions of these citizens learned that the only respectable way to earn

a livelihood was to fill out the correct forms, apply for the correct program,

give the correct answers to the correct questions, and to accept the new

philosophy. They were amply rewarded for learning their lesson well.

    Everyone agreed. It was far nobler to report for counseling at 9:30 in

the morning, than to get up at 4:30 AM, be out on a dusty little airstrip

before dawn, work at a difficult and dangerous job for 12 hours in the

blazing sun, and take money from some exploiting white man like me.

    So fewer and fewer men could be found who would do that type of

work.

    Fortunately, there were many good men who easily spotted the lie in

the New American Way Of Life. They continued to get up every morning

and work long, hard hours.  And many of those wonderful Americans

worked for me.

    But when times got tough in South Texas they were few and far

between, and the only reliable source for hard-working honest men were

those who were not Americans.

    Santos tried many times to locate more hands, but there were none to

be found. And not a single wet-back had showed up in nearly three weeks.

I was getting desperate.

    I knew I couldn't drive my hands any harder. I knew that it was foolish

for me to fly an airplane till dark, then climb into a truck and haul water

for another hour and a half. I knew it was foolish to require men to work

at a demanding and dangerous job when they were exhausted and starved

for sleep.

    One day about lunchtime I told Santos to head into town and try once

more to find an extra hand. I wasn't going to be picky, I explained. Just

find somebody who could help us with some of the heavy work.

    Santos returned about dark with a long face. He explained that every

man he tried to hire was either already working, on welfare, attending

well-paid job training programs, in jail, gone to the big city, or drunk.

    There were simply no Americans to be found who would come to work,

although government unemployment figures for South Texas were among

the highest in the nation. There were no Americans who would work, and

there were no wet-backs to be found.

    But all was not lost! It seems that Santos had still a little bit of

information that he was willing to share with me. But he didn't want to. He

really didn't want to tell me, but he knew how desperate we were.

    He finally admitted that he had found "this one guy" who just might be

able to work, but he hadn't hired him because he was pretty sure that I

would never be able to get along with him. Santos didn't want to talk

about it anymore, and I didn't press him. But as the days went by I

brought up the subject of "this one guy" several times. Santos remained

unresponsive.

    Later, I would learn that "this one guy" was a scaled down version of

Poncho Villa with a club foot. He was thought to be about 60 years old. He

had lived in an old school bus down in the brush country for as long as

anybody could remember, and was a famous trouble-maker.

    It seems that he was a strange man. His way of life was strange. His

way of thinking was strange. The way he acted and talked was strange.

And, of course, the way he walked was strange. Plainly put, this man had

a deranged mind. He also drank a lot of homemade liquor that poured out

like buttermilk, smelled like a wet chicken, and always had fuzzy, cloudy

dregs floating around in it. I never drank any of it.

    This guy was always in trouble. He could never hold a job. He got drunk

every Saturday night of his life, and woke up in jail every Sunday morning

of his life. His name was "Stumpy" and, incidentally, he hated gringos.

    Which, incidentally, was what I was.

    The only thing in "this one guy's" favor, Santos explained, was that he

had been willing to come out and go to work. I thought we ought to hire

him on and give him a chance, but Santos was dead-set against it. Santos

argued that Stumpy didn't know how to speak very good English, and that

the Spanish he spoke was hard for the Mexican people in the community

to make heads or tails of.

    "He's crazy," Santos finally admitted. "He's just crazy. He's a mucho

loco guy."

    But we needed help. I told Santos to bring Stumpy out in the morning.

    The next morning Stumpy was waiting at the airstrip. Santos'

description proved to be far less colorful than the real man. He had failed

to mention the wild, staring, blood-shot eyes, or the never-ending nervous

twitching of his arms and shoulders. The man was dressed in ragged

clothing several sizes too big that had never been washed. He was very

little over five feet tall. His hair was wild and tangled. It appeared that his

felt hat not been removed from his head in twenty years.

    One of Stumpy's ancient Brogans had been slit open along one side and

bound up with an intricate web of tangled leather thongs to accommodate

his malformed right foot.

    I proceeded to have an incoherent conversation with this man. We were

both nervous and he was constantly moving, and all he ever said to me

was, "Okay! Okay! Si, si, okay! Si, bueno . . ." And he said these words

over and over and kept staring at me, and then the airplane, and then

Santos, and into the sky, and swinging his arms, and nodding his head,

and crying out in a wild, chanting voice, "Okay! Okay! Si, bueno! Si,

bueno! Okay! Okay!"

    I soon became hopelessly rattled and was happy to have Santos take

over the interview. By now it was an hour after sun-up, which meant I

should have been in the air an hour ago. We were behind over two

thousand acres of peanuts, cotton, and grain. We had been working 14

and 15 hour days. If there was anything in the world I didn't need it was

to waste the morning talking with some gringo-hating lunatic who was

reported to carry a switch-blade knife.

    As I took off I could see Santos standing quietly with his arms folded

and Stumpy limping madly about, swinging his arms, and gaping at the

aircraft as it disappeared in a storm of dust. I hoped I would never see him

again.

    By lunchtime I had made 10 or 12 flights and we had covered over 300

acres. Mike had been handling all the mixing and loading and I had only

gotten out of the airplane once to take a break. On every field I had flown

that morning Santos had stepped off the rows and flagged me in on each

pass. I noted that all morning the legendary Stumpy had faithfully

followed along.

    About one o'clock Santos met me back at the air strip with a sackful of

tacos. Stumpy was there as big as life. Only now something had

dramatically altered his behavior. He was grinning from ear to ear, and

when he stared at me, I realized that it was a creepy kind of friendly

stare.

    Without warning, Stumpy suddenly threw his arms above his head like

a prizefighter and began to cry out, "Bueno! ... Bueno! ... Bueno! ..." Then

he started marching around my airplane like Joe Lewis at Madison Square

Garden.

    I watched in wonderment.

    "He likes you now," Santos explained. "He likes the airplane."

    And so it was. Stumpy liked the airplane, and he liked me. He had

decided that I was a sure-enough okay, hot-stuff of a gringo because I

could make the airplane go across the fields, and climb, and turn, and

dive. He loved to watch the airplane. He thought that it was "Bueno!" And

he thought that I was bueno too.

    So in this way did this strange little man come to work for me in the

patch-work fields of Atascosa County. He worked for me for four long

summers, and he turned out to be a darn good flagman.

    At the time I hired Stumpy I had not the vaguest notion that he would

become a central player in my life.  I figured that he would be just one

more of the many flawed employees who drifted into and out of my life

during those years.  I figured he was just one more wino, or bum, or

petty-thief.  A never-do-well who would serve a few days or a few weeks,

take his cash, and one day simply fade away.

    But Stumpy was far more complicated than that. He was probably the

most honest man I ever knew. He was honest in ways that most of us are

incapable of being honest.  Honest, as an old hound is honest.  A man

without guile.  A man incapable of pretense.  A man with no capacity for

tact, or common courtesy, or simple civilized restraint.

    Stumpy was a man who could not be controlled.  He could not be

managed.  He could not be taught.  His ever action was originated within

himself.  The things he did were done as though by instinct, as a reptile

might go about its life without regard to the other species that shared its

habitat.

    Stumpy was not like you and me. He was different. He was a

mysterious and unfathomable human being.

    You see, Stumpy was a madman.

 

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