Looking at the Ground
I will not bother to explain about the next few days of my life, or the
next many weeks. It's really not all that clear to me, anyway. But I do
remember all those eyes, just the eyes that stared down at me on the
hard table. And the pale green suits, and the eyes staring from those pale
green slots, and the whitest lights on earth. I remember all the probing,
and the tubes, and the needles, and the pain.
But by springtime I was back in the air. Back turning with the buzzards
and the hawks, back looking at the sky, and looking at the ground.
When a man flies around close to the ground everyday, he has an
opportunity to see things never seen by most people. Flying over South
Texas during those years, I saw lots of interesting things. At least, they
were interesting to me.
But that land was so barren, so lacking in color or detail, that most
people took one look at it and knew that there was nothing more for them
to see. And they were right. There wasn't anything else for them to see.
But there was a great deal for me to see. And over the years, I did a lot
of looking. And I saw many things. In that triangle of land bordered
roughly by lines extending south and west of San Antonio, with the
Mexican border making up the third side, I have done a great deal of
looking at the ground.
I have spent many, many hours, in some kind of old airplane,
wandering along at about a hundred feet, looking at things on first one
side of the Rio Grande and then the other.
I would meander around over on the Mexican side of the river, and
then drift back into Texas. I would spend hours flying along dusty gullies,
or wandering over lost trails, or staring at the barren rocks and endless
sea of scrub. And I never failed to see something, something that I wanted
I have seen countless herds of javaleno hogs over that country. These
are the wild hogs known as razorbacks. They are small, and lean, and
tough, and mean. Mostly, they're just wild. I discovered that I could herd
them with an airplane. I would find a pack of them out there somewhere,
and drive them into milling little knots. I would get right down on top of
them, and wrack around that old airplane in tighter and tighter circles,
until I would have 15 or 20 of them charging about in angry confusion.
And after more-or-less rounding them up in one general area, I would dive
right into the center of the pack and watch them scatter like a bunch of
I cannot remember why I got such amusement from this kind of
nonsense. But I did. I'm sure there are dozens of psychiatrists out there
who would be pleased to explain to me the reasons for my abhorrent
behavior. No doubt they would impart this information to me for little
more than the cost of a new pick-up truck.
There are lots of deer in that country, too. Big, rangy white-tails that
have adapted to that rough land of brush and stony soil. Many's the time I
have seen a buck of massive proportions, looking at me back over one
shoulder, and shaking a rack of horns that looked like limbs off of a pecan
That part of the country was also famous for mountain lions. Those big
cats that went by many different names: cougars, panthers, mountain
lions, pumas, cat-a-mounts. I have been told that they are all the same
kind of big cat, all going by a different name. But I really don't know. I
don't know very much about them. I always wanted to see one, but I
But I can tell you that there are millions of razor-backs, and coyotes,
and deer, and jack-rabbits, and roadrunners, and rattlesnakes, and
buzzards, and eagles, and hawks, living along that stretch of the
I was told there were lots of wild turkeys in that country, too. But I
never saw one of them, either.
But I have seen many hawks and eagles, gliding on the summer
thermals, scouting along the ragged tree lines, diving on their prey. I have
seen them snatch little animals from out of the cactus, and along the
barren little draws, and from the fields and brush lands. I have seen them
perched on a tree limb tearing apart a rabbit, or a rat, or a snake, or some
other writhing creature.
One day I saw a hawk, I am almost sure it was a red-tailed hawk,
fighting a rattlesnake. The reason that I saw this fight was that it was
taking place on one end of a little dirt runway I was operating off of west
That country was rough and dry, and I was spraying some scattered
little fields of milo that probably wouldn't make enough grain to pay for
the seed. Those fields were eaten up with midge. That little dirt runway
pointed out over about a 40 acre grain field that had been planted early,
and had just been harvested. I was told that that grain field had made the
cost of the seed, and maybe even the cost of the fertilizer, but that was
about all. Farmers in that area were having a hard go of it that year. But I
got paid for all the work I did, just the same. Often it was the poorest
farmers who paid the best.
The day that that 40 acre field of grain was harvested proved to be a
tragic day for all the little critters who had been living there. As the
harvesting machine began moving out across that field, hawks began
coming in from far and wide to patrol overhead and make deadly dives at
all the little animals that were suddenly exposed. As the day went on, and
more and more of that field was cut, several dozen hawks and a few
eagles made countless dives into that field. Just about every fence post
around that field had a big hawk perched on it, some eating a fresh caught
meal, others waiting for their chance to make a kill.
Above the field, the big birds turned in deadly circles, and hesitated in
deadly hovers, and fell like stones on any living thing that moved. Hawks
would vault from a fence post in short killer dives, or circle at 50 or 60
feet and stab into the field like lightning. They were having a killer feast.
I had seen this scene played out many times before, and wasn't paying
it much attention. My biggest concern was not to get tangled up with some
big bird as I made my approach directly over that killing field.
On one landing I came in over the fence and saw a great big hawk
flapping and jumping just about exactly where I intended to touch down. I
veered off to one side, added power, and made a tight turn to look down
and see what was going on.
There was a big fat grand-daddy rattlesnake coiled up there and
fighting that hawk. The hawk would rush at him with wings spread wide,
and the rattler would strike and seem to hang in the feathers of the
hawk's wings. The snake would coil, and turn, and roll, and strike out, and
kept moving closer and closer to the brush along that bob-wire fence. The
hawk would slash with his claws, and beat at the snake's striking head
with his wings. The last I saw was that the hawk was standing on the
rattler with his claws, and the snake's upper body was lashing about wildly
striking at the hawks head, and body, and into the beating wings.
I got the airplane turned around and landed, and parked at the far end
of the runway. The only truck on the field was the tank truck, and it was
loaded and hooked up to the discharge hoses. I didn't want to move it, so I
told the farmland who was helping me that I was going to walk down the
strip to "watch a hawk kill a rattler."
He was busy, and I could tell he didn't think I should be wasting time on
such things, but I walked on down the strip anyway. By the time I had
walked the quarter mile to the bob-wire fence there was nothing to be
seen. There were lots of feathers, and a little blood, and all the signs of
combat marked in the dust. But the fighters were gone. I stayed there a
few minutes and watched those hawks work that field. But seeing a hawk
catch a rat just isn't as exciting as watching a hawk fight a rattlesnake.
I'll always wonder how that fight turned out.
Sometimes I would see men out in that wild country, but not very
often. Now and then I would fly over a cowboy, or a rancher, or farmer, or
oil field worker. We would always wave at one another like we were the
last two men left on earth.
From time to time I would see three or four men walking single-file
through the brush. These would be the Mexican peasants, walking into the
land of promise, the land of Los Estados Unidos. I always took time to
circle them and wave heartily. As I flew overhead and hollered out a
welcome, they would look back with blank looks, at what was without a
doubt the first gringo they had seen since swimming the Rio Grande.
Maybe the first gringo they had ever seen, ever. Sometimes they would
wave back at me, sometimes even smile. On occasion they showed fear of
the airplane flying overhead. They had good reason to fear the airplane.
Other men, the Border Patrol pilots out of Laredo, were also flying little
airplanes along that river.
Usually, they simply looked at me and waved back. Perhaps they
realized that there was no way I could do them harm, even had I wanted
to. Besides, where could a man go to escape an airplane in that barren
country with no place to run, and no place to hide? I would finally leave
them to their solitary journey, flying off with a wave, and a wish of good
luck. They probably thought I was crazy. Maybe they were right.
Along that flight path I spotted many ruins of old stone buildings. There
were more of these old ruins on the Mexican side, than on the American
side. Most of them were little more than traces of tumbled down rock walls
in little rectangles. Some walls were only partially crumbled, and a few
were still intact. All were deserted, lonely, desolate places. Often they
would be far out in the brush country, far from water, without any
indication in the world as to why a man might choose to build a home in
such a place.
Sometimes there would be unmistakable traces of graves, forgotten in
the brush and cactus. It was hard to realize that at one time, these places
had been the home of living human beings. Who those people were, why
they came, what they did, where they went, were questions that will
always occupy a place of mystery in my mind.
I know where there is an old granary on a bluff above the Rio Grande. I
have never been to it, but I have flown over it many times. It is located in
some very rough country, and does not look like anyone ever goes to it. I
guess the walls are ten feet high, and it must be 15 feet across. It is
circular, like a silo. The walls are crumbling, and there isn't any roof. I
asked Bob about it and he said that it had been there for years. Of course,
that had been the whole point of my interest, and I asked him if anybody
knew about it. "Sure," he said, "everybody knows about it. It's been there
I wasn't sure that everybody did know about that granary, and someday
I plan to walk out through that rough country and give it a closer look.
There are other old sites on both sides of the river. There is a town site
up the river from Laredo that many people know about. I talked to a
Customs Agent who had been to that site with a metal detector. He found
a few odd coins and nails and other such things.
I told a rancher I knew that I was interested in these "old buildings." He
told me he had an old stone building in one of his pastures that was miles
from the nearest roadway. He had fitted it with a corrugated iron roof and
was using it for a hay barn. He told me how to get there, and I spent a day
getting to it. It was just an old stone hay barn with a corrugated iron roof.
But it was interesting to me because it had gun ports in the walls.
These are the holes through the walls that are small on the outside but
funnel-shaped on the inside, so that a rifle could be aimed in several
different directions. The walls were a couple of feet thick. That old hay
barn just may have seen some wild things in the days of the Yankee
settlers, and Lipan Apache indians. That hay barn should last for another
century if some redneck doesn't knock it down with a bulldozer.
Probably the best known ruins along that river is the abandoned town
of Old Guerrero. This old town is down south of Zapata, and is right out in
the middle of Falcon Lake. When that dam was built, the people of Old
Guerrero were forced to move out as the waters backed up and flooded
I flew over Old Guerrero a couple of times. It was quiet a sight. Old
Spanish buildings, homes, churches were sitting out in the lake with water
up above their windows. I never bothered to go to Old Guerrero. It didn't
interest me all that much. Too many people had already been there. Too
many tourists, too many fisherman, too many vandals, too many
photographers, too many scholars. I was only interested in the places that
nobody else cared about.
It is strange, the fascination I had with those old traces of habitation. I
was a man who had seen the remains of ancient Rome, the pyramids of
Mexico, the lost city of Angkor. I had walked upon the same stone trod by
Gautama Buddha in the Ganges basin. Yet those barren traces of life on
either side of the Rio Grande were more meaningful to me. They were my
own private mystery. They were the faint traces of an obscure people
whose presence had little meaning and no significance in man's quest for
civilization. Their presence had been hardly known, and long since
forgotten. Unimportant people, known only to an unimportant man,
caught up in the struggles of living his own unimportant life.
There are many other lonely little sites along that river. Several I
managed to walk to when I wasn't busy. They usually didn't amount to
much. It's hard to imagine why I enjoyed standing around inside some
broken down old walls for an hour or two. But I would look at those walls
and marvel that sometime in the past, another man had actually lifted
those stones and placed them in position. What was his life like, I would
wonder? Why would any man build a house in such a place?
I have always had a strange fascination for the past. That is why I have
the need to look at the ground, and at the old stones, and cogitate upon
that which preceded me. I am struggling to understand where my own life
fits into that great flow of human history.
I hope that someday some institute of higher learning doesn't launch an
investigation into the history of all that barren country over which I flew.
It would be a shame if a bunch of archaeologists went down there and dug
up all those little sites, and explained what it was all about.
It is better that those old tumbled places be allowed to slowly blend
back into the landscape, amidst the mesquite and the prickly pear, with
the javaleno hogs and jack-rabbits resting in their shade. Just let them
stay there, just the way they are. And maybe ever 20 or 30 or 50 years
some guy like me will want to wander out there and stand around inside
whatever might be left.
That man might just need such a place to go and reflect on the lives of
those who came before, and on the passing of his own life.