The Madman Wins
The biggest problem I had with Stumpy had to do with his name. For
some reason, I found it distasteful to call a crippled, club-footed old man
"Stumpy." It was true that I was leading the woolly life of a South Texas
crop-duster, on the edge of civilization, often on the edge of the law, and
that during those desolate years I was the last guy anywhere to feel
compassion for anybody or anything.
But strangely enough, some struggling spark of decency buried in my
subconscious mind rebelled at the idea of calling this crazy, crippled old
The second day he worked for me I attempted to open a conversation
with him. My objective was to learn his real name, and to address him
thusly. It didn't work. I asked him questions and he answered in mixed-up
Spanish and Texas-Border English. He talked too fast and kept swinging
his arms everywhere. Finally, he just ignored me and went to limping
around all over the place, and grinning, and snapping his fingers and
making funny little dance steps. Every now and then he would stop in
front of me, give me a monster grin with a mouthful of black teeth and
taco chips. "Okay!" he would cry out. "Okay! Bueno!" And he would nod
his head toward me approvingly, and clap his hands, and grin at Santos.
This whole episode left me dumbfounded. Completely baffled as to how
I should deal with this situation, I got back in my airplane and went to
Many long, hot days went by. Every day farmers would show up on my
strip with lists of new fields that had to be sprayed "immediately." The
days grew longer and more hectic, but to my surprise, Stumpy was
proving to be a perfect flagman. There was absolutely nothing else that he
would consent to being taught to do, but he was a perfect flagman.
Santos soon found that he could leave Stumpy in a remote grain field
and depend on him to be there when the airplane arrived, sometimes
hours later. I could always count on his flag suddenly appearing in just
exactly the right place anytime I rolled into a new field. He would count
the rows accurately, and wave his flag gallantly. He was a good flagman.
But the problem with his name kept bothering me. Actually, the thing
that was really starting to bother me was that Stumpy didn't seem to
understand that I was the boss, and that when I asked him questions he
was supposed to give me answers. It bothered me even more because we
had finally hired a wet-back and a part time local wino to help with the
"What if this whole crew gets the idea that they don't have to listen to
me", I kept thinking? I fancied myself as a tough boss running a tight ship,
and I knew that the whole thing would go to barrel staves if the other men
started to ignore me the way Stumpy did.
I was staring to get mad.
The next day I approached Stumpy again. I was far better prepared
than I had been the first time. "I want to know your correct name," I said
sternly. Stumpy's whole body kind of jumped and he looked at me like I
was a man from another planet. Suddenly he grinned, thrust his fist into
the air and cried out, "Okay!"
Then he turned around and walked off.
I was amazed.
I was also mad. I walked off after him and started hollering, "Hey!
Hey!" and other such things.
About this time I realized that Santos was standing between me and
Stumpy. I came to my senses and decided that I would just let Santos take
care of the problem. There followed a long, drawn out event in which
Santos spoke with quiet words and gentle gestures, and Stumpy raged on
with much arm-swinging, limping, and grinning. Finally he fell silent with
a crazed, happy look in his eyes and a conclusive snap of his fingers.
Of course, I didn't have any idea what all the jabbering and carrying on
had been about, and waited patiently for Santos to summarize the
message in English.
Which leads me to an earlier complaint I had about Santos. He had this
annoying way of editing all discourse that was conducted in the Spanish
language before summarizing it for me in English. It seems that Santos
had never attended the school where men are trained to be interpreters to
fill jobs vacancies at the United Nations. He clearly had the idea that any
translation he made on my behalf was not in any way to be a direct
repetition of the spoken word. He directed his efforts to determining just
exactly what any conversation in Spanish had really meant, and passed
this information on to me in summations that rarely exceeded
At first this got under my skin, but I got over it. I came to see it as a
blessing that I was not required to sift out all the words by everybody
So after watching this great display by Stumpy, and listening to the
great flood of syllables, I had not the slightest illusion that I was about to
be enlightened as to what had really gone on.
After a rather long and thoughtful silence Santos turned to me and
said, "He say his name is Stumpy."
Well, I didn't like that answer. I just wasn't going to stand for that kind
of nonsense, so I got mad all over again and did a lot of talking and arm
waving of my own. I kept insisting that no mother ever lived that named a
son "Stumpy" and besides, he had to have a last name of some kind and
besides, if he was like most Mexicans I knew, he had a whole bunch of
After that Santos said something else in Spanish and Stumpy went back
to pacing, and waving his arms, and raving in a strange mad mix of
English word parts, Spanish curses, babbles, snorts, and wild animal
noises. Finally he stopped talking and put on a big phony grin. He marched
about in a real cocky manner and it was evident that he was very pleased
with whatever it was that he had been saying. Santos looked
unconcerned, shrugged, turned to me, shrugged again and reported:
"He says he doesn't have a mother."
"Oh, yeah!" I hollered. "Oh, Yeah! OH, YEAH!!"
By now Stumpy was marching around and around in round circles and
square circles and figure eights, and he was grinning, and strutting, and
swinging his arms like a drum major. It was plain to see that he thought
that he had got the best of the argument and was doing a kind of half
tango, half Indian war dance, half turkey-strut so that everybody on the
strip would be sure to see that he had got the last word on the smart-ass
Well, I wasn't going to let that half-wit little cripple get it over on me,
so I marched over and stood right in front of him, leaned down to his eye
level, and started telling him the facts of life. But every time I got face to
face with him he just made a West Point type turn and marched off into
another square, or half square, or a big Z, and I would have to try all over
again to get to his other side. The guy just wouldn't stand still and he
wouldn't stop strutting and grinning.
I guess the heat and long hours had finally gotten to me. I was
determined to chew-out that little Mexican if I had to kill him first to do it.
But every time I leaned down to get in his face, he simply turned his back
on me and did a little "two steps forward, half step back" routine and left
me yelling "OH,YEAH! OH, YEAH!" at the back of his head.
This episode went on for a rather long time before I finally got hold of
myself and went over to talk to Santos.
"Tell that son-of-a-bitch that I don't want any man working for me who
doesn't have a decent name!" I said.
Santos shrugged and went over to talk to the madman. As he began
talking in soft Spanish, Stumpy slowly discontinued his marching dance
routine. He slowed to a stop and started getting stiffer and stiffer all over.
He had stopped grinning. As Santos continued with slight shrugs and
gentle gestures of his hands, I could see that Stumpy's demeanor was
reverting back to his earlier staring eyes, nervous twitching, and the
intense gazing at every object in the area.
And then he started talking. And as he talked his words grew louder,
and louder, and louder. And faster, and faster, and faster. And wilder, and
wilder, and wilder. And he was marching and limping everywhere, and
throwing his arms into the air, and rapidly hunching his shoulders, and
snapping his head this way and that. And he was striking his fist into his
palm, and doing left faces and right faces. And his eyes were growing
bigger, and bigger, and bigger. And crazier, and crazier, and crazier. And
the words were strange words flooding out of him in Spanish and English
and Pig-Latin, and long, long strings of mixed up Tex-Mex obscenities.
And his voice was growing higher and higher in pitch, and his black
eyes were bulging almost out of his head, and now and then he would cry
out, "BUENO AVION," as Father Hidalgo, long ago, must have issued his
fateful Cry of Dolores. And these portions of the speech were accompanied
by wild and sweeping motions of his hands to illustrate the way the
airplane climbed, and turned, and slid over the trees and under the wires.
And throughout this episode Santos just stood easy and made an
occasional shrug, and now and then turned up his palms in a gentle,
sympathetic little gesture as if to assure everyone present that his
sentiments were 100% on the side of the madman, and the only reason
he didn't join in the demonstration was that the gringo-pilot always paid
well and usually on time.
And as all this was going on a funny thing began to happen in my mind.
My thoughts kept wandering off to scenes that had nothing to do with
airplanes, or crops, or crazy Mexicans without decent names. My mind just
took a little time off from my all too real and misdirected life, and began to
reflect on what it would be like to be an accountant, or a lawyer, or an
insurance executive, or some such fancy person, and wear a clean shirt
every blessed day of my life.
What would it be like, I wondered, to work in one of those 40 story
glass buildings in Dallas, with six inch deep carpet on the floor, and air
conditioning in the air, and good looking secretaries with long legs in
every corner of the room?
And I thought about this for a long time, and a long time more, and
every time I quit thinking about it I could hear Stumpy's lunatic voice
banging through the scorching air. And when the voice, and the heat, and
the dust, and the life returned to mock me, I would force my mind to slip
away and think of all the different things I could be doing with my life.
And the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the whole
mess of it all, the more I found that I was starting to agree with Stumpy.
At least I agreed with him in so far as I could fathom the flood of
thumping, insane brain waves that were erupting from that frothing head.
As near as I could figure it out it went something like this: The whole
world is one big screwed-up mess, and nothing, absolutely nothing, ever
goes right. And every time something almost goes right, some jackass
jumps up and make it go wrong. This stark reality was plainly evident to
Stumpy, and he could not understand why no one else could understand
it. He could not understand why men were so compelled toward this
And as I reflected on life as I had known it, I began to see his point.
And as I considered my role in the present confrontation, I began to see
myself as the universal jackass determined to screw-up something that
was almost going right.
But I found that I was having difficulty focusing on that point. I found
that my mind, my inner spirit, did not want to be on that dusty airstrip. It
did not want to be confronted with such difficult questions of
My mind simply did not want to be there. It did not want to be there at
all. My mind wanted to be in an entirely different location upon this earth,
within an entirely different life. And it would relentlessly drift away,
searching for that other shining world that I had so deliberately shunned.
My mind wanted to think of that different world and different life that I
might have made my own.
But I always had to come back to the scene that was playing out before
me. It was a scene in which I was not simply an observer. It was a scene
in which I was a core figure. Not an imaginary scene. Not a dream. Not a
vision. This was my life, and it was taking place right then, right there.
The man standing on that dusty airstrip and dutifully exercising his role as
the universal jackass, was me.
And standing there like a stranger, I cast my vision across that
weed-infested little air strip. I saw the empty chemical cans, the
broken-down equipment, my skinny little shack of an out-house. I saw the
dirt on my boots, and the dust-devils rising on a 115 degree column of air.
And I considered these harsh realities as though I had never seen such
And I looked at that oil-burning, tooth-rattling, bug-smashing, wreck of
an airplane, and saw it in a way that I had never seen it before. I saw the
cracked and peeling cloth covering the wing panels. I saw the chipped
paint. I saw the dents and notches in the leading edge of the wing where I
had suddenly made contact with all manner of things at 100 miles per
I saw clearly, for the first time, the accumulation of patches on that
chemical stained airplane, and I recalled the sudden clutch of fear every
one of those scars had produced. I saw the oil-streaked cowling. The
high-time, smoke-belching engine. The scarred and scaled-up hopper. The
chemical encrusted booms. The dirt-caked tail wheel.
Why, I wondered, was I daily strapping my precious life into that
stinking shaking bellowing death-trap of an airplane?
"What am I doing here", my mind cried out?
But I had no answer for that question.
And I saw my chemical-smeared mixing vat, and my three worn out old
trucks with their bald tires, rusty fenders, and no insurance. And I saw
those six men standing on that forgotten South Texas airstrip. Five
Mexicans, one Anglo. Two natives of Mexico, two Americans, two of
unknown citizenship. And somewhere off in the shade of a live oak tree, a
kid from Corpus Christi.
At least one of those men was mad. I was the only man there who could
read and write. I was the only man there who had ever in his lifetime
been more than 200 miles away from that dustiest spot of earth on which
we were standing. I was the only man there who was not bi-lingual. I
began to think of all the years gone by, and tried to imagine all the
different directions my life might have taken. I thought of all the twists
and turns, all the reversals and detours of my life. I thought of the long
and torturous and unmapped road that had led me from all the places I
had ever been, to that single spot of ground in a South Texas still
struggling into the 20th Century.
And I thought again of those long silken legs, and the way they moved
together, and I heard the man who limped, and raved, and stared, and
shouted. And I thought, for the millionth time, "What am I doing here?"
"What am I doing here", my mind kept screaming? "What am I doing
And Stumpy went on. He went on and on. I guess he would have gone
on forever if he hadn't suddenly choked and clanked to a halt with a wild,
hacking, spitting cough. Then he became very quiet, and still, and came to
a kind of attention. He stood there in silence and stared out across the
And that silence grew thick in the heat. The silence of men on the
broken edges of their lives, standing in the dust. And gazing out across
those fields we waited. Each in his own way, waiting for answers that
would never come.
It was Santos who finally moved his feet, and shrugged, and issued his
"He says you can call him anything you want to." Santos' voice was
soft, and kind, and carried a gentle threat. I listened very carefully.
I thought about that reply, and I knew that there was nothing more for
me to say. I got in my airplane and sprayed 300 acres before sundown.
That night Santos had a message for me from Stumpy. It seems that
Stumpy had decided that if I wanted to fire him it would be okay. Only he
didn't want to stop working for me. He would just keep on working even if
he was fired. I wouldn't have to pay him anymore, Stumpy had explained
to Santos. All he wanted in exchange for his day's work was, "just a little
Knowing that I was whipped, I went home and went to bed.