Right of North
As a man who has spent most of his adult life in aviation, maps have
become second nature to me. Anytime I talk about land, or roads, or U.S.
Foreign Policy, I want to get out a map and see how all those places fit
In my pick-up I carried aviation sectional charts, a Texas road map,
several county maps, and a few U.S. Department of the Interior
quadrangle maps of the areas I worked the most. I studied maps, worked
with maps, drew pictures on maps, and made notes on maps. Most of my
planning was done with a map in front of me.
Nobody I worked with was the least bit interested in looking at one of
None of my hands understood the first thing about maps. None of the
farmers, chemical salesmen, flag-men, tractor drivers, landowners, or
anybody else that I came in contact with every day, wanted to look at one
of my maps. Countless times I have unfolded a map on the wing of an
airplane or on the tail gate of a pick-up truck and tried to draw someone's
attention to one of my maps. I would point out the position of a certain
field, its location in relation to another field, the direction of a particular
road or highway, the distance from a particular intersection or barn, etc.,
etc. Without fail, my efforts were met with puzzled expressions.
I have had men look at one of my maps, gaze at it a long time, and
finally announce that it was "upside down." The map would then be turned
over, gazed at some more, and be declared to be, "still not right that way
I have had men study one of my maps a long time, and finally
announce that a particular highway "...was not shown right..." He would
then take a ball-point pen and draw it in "right." This new, "right" highway
would go wandering out across the countryside across other roads and
creek beds, and on the wrong side of little towns.
When I would point out that the newly drawn highway no longer went
in the direction of a particular town on that highway, the map would be
further studied, and it would soon be announced that that particular town
was also shown in the wrong place. This error would soon be corrected
with a ball point pen, and miscellaneous other roads and highways running
into that town would also be repositioned.
I have argued that my maps had been made from actual aerial
photographs and compiled by U.S. Government cartographers, and
therefore had to be correct. The reply to this argument would usually be,
"I've lived in this country all my life. What makes you think some
government S.O.B. knows more about this country than I do?" That was a
hard position for me to argue against.
Looking back over my lifetime, I guess that the maps printed by the
U.S. Government where just about the only thing printed by the
government that I had 100% confidence in.
I was always dragging out a map and trying to explain something to
somebody. Whoever I was trying to communicate with would invariably
fall down on one knee and began to draw his own map in the dirt, usually
with a crooked stick. Soon we would all be squatting on the ground,
everybody present adding his own enhancements to the map being
laboriously scripted in the dirt.
These maps were usually outrageously inaccurate, but I soon learned to
keep my objections to myself. Usually the problem at hand was to explain
to some flag-man or pilot how to get to a particular field. As the map took
shape, the flag-man would freely add his own amendments using his own
stick. The whole drawing would be accompanied with elaborate
explanations about fields, crops, people, and weather conditions over the
previous years. There was much debate as to what crop had been planted
in a particular field last year, or the year before, or ten years ago.
Often, right in the middle of a busy day, all map-making would come to
a mandatory halt until it could be resolved just exactly who it was that
had married the widow of the farmer who had owned a particular field of
milo that had been lost to aphids several summers earlier. When the new
husband's name was finally agreed on, the day's work could be resumed.
Official numbers used to designate state highways or farm and ranch
roads were never used. None of my men had any idea in the world where
State Highway 85 was located. That highway was "The Road to Dilley."
Farm & Ranch roads that were clearly numbered and marked with signs
were never identified by their assigned number. They became such things
as, "the road out by the Collins place," or "that road out past Rock Bottom
Creek," or, "Remember that road where they stuck that big John Deere
last fall? Well, that's the road you need to take."
It mattered not that The Great State Of Texas had spent untold millions
of tax dollars erecting road signs all over the place. These signs were
never seen, much less read.
A man would be instructed to, "Go out the Big Foot Highway about 15
minutes, maybe a little longer. Then go past that big grain field on the
left. A little ways past that you will see a line of raggedy little trees. Go on
past those raggedy little trees to a big crooked fence post and turn back
toward that bottom land where we did the cotton two years ago. Turn
there, and go on a little ways more to that new peanut field."
Not in a million years would one of my men mention the sign erected
right beside that "big crooked fence post." That sign clearly stated the
official county road number, but no power on earth could ever make one
of my men actually see that sign. They much preferred to search for
"raggedy little tree lines", "big crooked fence posts", and fields
remembered as, "not that field where Parker had the watermelons last
year, but the one past that."
It was a wonder to stand aside and watch one of these maps being
created in the dirt. Distances had little meaning. Cardinal directions were
seldom referred to, and when used, were usually wrong. Roads that
curved and twisted all over the place were shown as straight lines.
Significant curves were vastly exaggerated. Little fields were drawn in at a
scale that made them miles across. Creeks and roads that intersected at
right angles were shown running parallel.
Everybody present was free to add his own modifications as he felt
necessary. Accordingly, as the map developed, one editor would show a
particular road running one direction, and the man at his elbow would
point out that, "... no, that little road runs like this...", and he would draw
in his own version. Sometime a third party would add his interpretation of
the exact alignment of that little road. These contradictions were seldom
reconciled, and nobody, nobody except me that is, thought the least thing
In time I discovered one of the unspoken rules in constructing these
homemade maps. It seems that nothing was to be drawn on the map that
could not actually be seen when driving down the route being discussed.
This meant that intersecting highways were never to be drawn as long
lines, but only as short little segments crossing the route of travel. Creek
crossings were seldom shown as much more than short extensions either
side of a bridge.
If one's route of travel were to take him down a highway that crossed a
creek within a mile of a large town, made a sharp turn down a gravel road
two hundred yards past the bridge and re-crossed that same little creek
over a second bridge less than half a mile from the first, the map would
never show the segment of creek bed extending between those two
bridges. If I were to lose all self-control and bend over and drawn in the
creek bed extending between those two bridges, others present would lean
back with puzzled looks on their faces, completely baffled as to the
significance of my addition.
Of course, the major town would never be mentioned at all, and if I
were to be so presumptuous as to draw it in and point out that it did in
fact exist, the whole group would retreat into a mystified silence.
Watching these sessions would nearly drive me nuts. When somebody
would draw in a particular cotton field, I would want to scream that that
cotton field could not possibly be where shown because it was on the
wrong side of a road that somebody else had just drawn, and right next to
a particular barn that was in fact miles away.
None of this craziness bothered anybody but me. After one of these
exhausting sessions, all parties involved would stand up, brush off their
knees, and agree that they all understood exactly what they had been
talking about. The amazing thing was that my hands actually could
competently travel about the country and locate all kinds of obscure fields
based on these outrageous maps drawn in the dirt.
My greatest frustration with this contempt for the logic of maps was
from trying to work with Santos. In all other things Santos was extremely
practical. The man was highly intelligent and made good use of common
sense. He had a good sense of direction, and could find his way all over
the countryside. He could also give intricate directions to another man,
and they would be carried out successfully. He understood clearly that the
sun came up in the east, and set in the west. He knew that San Antonio
was to the north, and Mexico to the south.
This man should have easily picked up on the utility of using maps in
our work. But he didn't.
The whole idea of maps drawn on paper, and folded up and carried
around in a pick-up truck, was something that Santos could never come to
deal with. To him, and I think to many others, a map was a living thing
that only had utility when it was constructed before his eyes, and the
accompanying narrative explained the objective at hand.
Santos was smart, and I know that in many ways he was more
intelligent than I, but maps were never to be a part of our relationship.
To top it all off, he would routinely interchange the words "left" and
"right", for the words "east" and "west". He would calmly explain to me
that a certain barn was not on the west side of the road, it was on the left
side of the road. No amount of arguing on my part could sway him from
this certain knowledge. He would smile and nod in agreement at my
explanations, but he didn't believe them for one minute. In time, I always
seeded the point. The whole problem was obviously giving me heartburn.
It wasn't bothering him a bit.
In retrospect, I can see where Santos' misunderstanding of the use of
cardinal directions could easily be attributed to me. Beyond doubt, the
poor man was on countless occasions subjected to my unending harangues
about "Easterners" being "a bunch of leftists." If such was the origin of his
error, it is regrettable, but hardly something for me to feel remorse over.
Over the years we worked together, he clearly had far more influence on
my way of thinking, than I ever had on his.
In time I came to keep my maps to myself, and to passively participate
in the ancient practice of drawing lines in the dirt with a stick. I finally
came to appreciate this activity as an art form in itself. In addition to the
stick-drawn line, there was the finger-drawn line. There clearly was a
subtle difference, but I never figured out what it was. There was also the
practice of depicting landmarks by pressing the ball of the thumb into the
dirt and rotating it a half turn. This seemed to be done for emphasis, to
drive home a particular point. Other objects were often used in these skull
sessions. Blades of grass were aligned as fence rows. Rocks became barns
or ranch houses. A beer bottle or empty oil can was an appropriate marker
for a town. Little chips of wood, pocketknives, day-old french fries, and
other assorted bits of rubble could also be used to good effect.
The important thing seemed to be to talk in sufficient detail as the map
came to life. No one seemed to mind that a highway drawn in the dirt, and
that everyone agreed went to Pleasanton, was in no way pointed at the
beer bottle that had just been designated to represent Pleasanton. But
just let somebody suggest that peanuts had been planted two years ago in
a field that someone else remembered as having been planted in
watermelons, and a debate would rage on for 15 minutes.
I have heard Santos tell a flag-men to go down some little road
described as, "... that little road, not where you got lost the other time,
but the one past that one..." and to then "... take the first left on the right
not so very far." This man would then be instructed to "... go back the
other way for a few minutes."
The man would nod his head silently, and half an hour later when I
arrived with a loaded airplane, he would be waving his flag just exactly
where he was supposed to be.
And so it went. Day after day my little band of agricultural specialists
traveled countless miles of twisting little country roads and did our job. I'll
never understand how. I think that there existed a certain level of
communication among those rag-tag men that was simply beyond me.
I'm sure that when I was not present that gang of home-made
mapmakers compared stories sagely, shook their heads sadly, and
reflected on the unfortunate inability of the gringo pilot to understand