chapter 37

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

Mexican "Stumpy."

    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

work.

    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

work.

    "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

half-a-dozen words.

    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

about everything.

    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

names.

    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

gringo pilot.

    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

terminal meanness.

    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

self-examination.

    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

things before.

    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

hour.

    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

here?"

     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

fields.

    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

report:

    "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

beer."

    Knowing that I was whipped, I went home and went to bed.

 

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