In 1980 I was living in San Diego and I got a phone call from Andy Brody who was down in Mexico City with his girlfriend, Estrella. They were supporting themselves by teaching English. He invited me down knowing I had no job at the time. He asked me to join him to learn something about Mexico — he said he’d help me find a job teaching English.
When Andy called I was a stringer for the People’s World, a weekly paper put out from Berkeley by the Communist Party, USA. I had just finished doing a telephone interview for them with Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR). WAR was a white supremacist group based in Fallbrook, a small town 40 miles north of San Diego. Metzger, in 1980, was the Democratic Party contender for a Congressional seat. He was running against Claire Burgener, a Republican so well established in San Diego the Democrats never bothered to run anyone against him. Metzger had registered for the primaries at the last minute and the Democrats didn’t have time to put up anyone else. Democrats from Governor Jerry Brown on down denounced Metzger and supported Burgener. Burgener won his seat with the largest margin any Congressional representative had ever had.
When Andy called, Metzger was involved with Minute Man vigilantes patrolling the border to keep the migrant Mexicans from crossing. I had read an article in the San Diego Union that claimed that in 1979, over 50 Mexicans had been found dead from “unknown causes” in the parts of San Diego County where you’d expect Mexicans would try to cross to border to get a job. I wanted to write something about migrant labor and Andy’s offer gave me a place to start. I thought I’d go down for 6 weeks or so and do some research. I ended up staying in Mexico City a year and a half.
I bought a ticket for a train to Mexico City. The train left from Mexicali, a two hour bus ride from San Diego. For 60 dollars I got a sleeping compartment. My ticket was for the 1st of May so I took a Greyhound bus the night before to Mexicali’s sister city on this side of the border, Calexico. The bus pulled in after midnight. I had a backpack full of clothes and a few books (a Spanish dictionary for one) and also carried an old Smith-Corona portable typewriter. My train was leaving at 9 that morning. I found a park in Calexico and slept a while before catching a cab to the train station in Mexicali across the border that next morning.
Wrong day. It was May 1st and the cab driver told me he might not make it to the train station because we probably wouldn’t be able to cross the route that the May Day parade took. He was right. He dropped me off six blocks from the train station on the north side of the parade.
At the station I met a young hippie who was on his way to Mexico City to sell Spirulina, an algae food supplement. When we boarded, we split up — and I went to my sleeping compartment. I didn’t see him again until that evening when I went to get a beer in the club car. He was sitting with another gringo. His name was Robert Stamps. He was a short, intense, talkative man from Ohio, about 10 years younger than I was — I was 40 at the time. I asked him where he was going — Mexico City — he said he was going there to climb the pyramids at Teotihuacán — not too far from Mexico City.
It took 48 hours to reach Guadalajara and the train had to pull over on a side track for the rest of the day and night. It wasn’t a scheduled stop but the train coming the other way from Mexico City was late. There was only a single track from Guadalajara to Mexico City. We had arrived in Guadalajara before noon and we were told to stay in our seats (or sleeping compartments as was my lucky case) or find a place in town to stay for the night — the train would pull out early next morning. I wouldn’t have known what was happening if Robert hadn’t explained it to me.
Robert had graduated from Kent State in Ohio with dual majors — Sociology and Spanish. He had lived in Mexico City with his parents when he was in high school. He spoke fluent Spanish and he suggested to me and our mutual friend, the Spirulina Man, that we go with him to find a cheap hotel and then to do some site seeing. There was a mural he wanted to show us.
We got a room and stashed our luggage. Robert took us to the Governor’s palace (a museum) to show us a mural painted by José Orozco. It was a painting of Miguel Hidalgo, a parish priest and one of the heroes of Mexico’s War of Independence portrayed giving “el grito” — the shout for independence on September 16, 1810. Robert taught us a lot about Mexican history while we were in Guadalajara.
The next day our train arrived in Mexico City in the early afternoon. That was on May 3rd. Robert had asked me to go with him to Teotihuacán the next day, where the pyramids were. I told him I had to get settled in with Andy and Estrella.
Andy and Estrella were waiting at the station when the train got in. Robert gave me a phone number and told me to call him when I got settled. Andy, Estrella and I took a bus to where they were staying. It was a pensión, a boarding house, where there was a large room for the men with 10 beds, 5 to each wall. It was cheap for the night, about $3. But Andy told me that we were moving the next morning to another pension. It was all arranged for the 3 of us. I had Andy help me call Robert to let him know what was up. We called from a pay phone using two 10 centavo coins — much smaller than a dime and worth about 2 cents. That’s what a phone call cost back in 1980 in Mexico. I told Robert what was happening and he said he’d go with me to my new digs and from there we’d take the bus to the pyramids at Teotihuacán.
Andy and Estrella had to work early next day, but Robert showed up after they left and we took a bus to the other pensión in Coyoacán, another neighborhood, or colónia. It was where I lived for the next year and a half. The pensión was six blocks from Frida Kahlo’s blue house.
Robert paid our fare as we got on the bus. A few stops later a woman got on and sat in the seat behind us. Robert and I were talking and he made a joke. The woman behind us laughed and Robert turned around and asked in Spanish, “You speak English?” She said yes. Robert introduced himself and he introduced me to her. Robert told her I was new to Mexico and spoke no Spanish. They talked awhile and when she told him she was getting off at the next stop he asked her if she’d take care of me while I was visiting Mexico City. She laughed and wrote down her phone number and gave it to me. Her name was Beatriz Nazar, a school teacher. Her grandparents had immigrated to Mexico from Lebanon. Before I left Mexico a year and a half later, we nearly got married, but that’s another story.
Robert and I got to the pensión. I met the landlady and paid a month’s rent, $125. I left my stuff and Robert and I took a local bus to the central bus station. Robert knew his way around. From the central station we bought tickets for the bus to Teotihuacán to see the pyramids. It was an hour or so bus ride from Mexico City — we got there by noon. This was May 4th.
On the ride to Teotihuacán I asked Robert why he wanted to climb the pyramids. He told me that today, May 4th, was the 10th anniversary of the Kent State Massacre in 1970. He’d gone to the annual reunions back in Ohio and said he couldn’t bring himself to go to the tenth reunion, today.
Ten years ago he had been shot in the hip by the National Guard. Four students were killed and nine, including him, were wounded. He wasn’t a demonstrator — he was on his way to class. He told me he was nearly a 200 yards from the Guardsmen who were on a knoll called Blanket Hill when they opened fire. A bullet from an M1 lifted him off the ground and he landed flat on his back. He rode in the front seat of the ambulance that carried Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause to the hospital because there weren’t enough ambulances to carry all the dead and wounded. Miller and Krause died, along with two others. He told me that he was only watching the demonstration from a distance and when the Guardsmen started shooting, he turned and ran. The National Guard had fired off over 60 shots from Blanket Hill at the student demonstrators who were over a 100 yards away.
Robert said that at the hospital they treated him like a criminal. Governor Rhodes, who had called out the Ohio National Guard, said in a speech the day before the shootings that, “They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes.” Robert told me that since he’d been shot, he’d developed a severe fear of heights — acrophobia. He was going to get over them today, May 4th, by climbing the pyramids at Teotihuacán — he’d climbed when he was a teenager.
Teotihuacán is an enormous archaeological site in the Basin of Mexico, containing some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas. Little is known about the inhabitants who disappeared around the 6th Century. Robert wanted to climb the largest of the two pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun — the smaller one was called the Pyramid of the Moon. He told me that since he’d been shot, he thought if he could climb the pyramid he had climbed as a teen-ager when he lived in Mexico with his parents, it would get him over his fear of heights.
The pyramids were once covered with a lime paste that smoothed out the blocks that reached a height of 230 feet. They have long since lost their covering. The blocks that make the riser steps to the top of the pyramid were about 15 inches tall and maybe a step of 4 inches deep. Mexican kids on holiday were bounding their way to the top. Robert and I started climbing and Robert was doing fine. He was a little bit slow and I got ahead of him. About a third of the way up he was breathing hard and he stopped. John, he said, I have to go back down. Sure, Robert. I was about 15 steps above him and I turned around to go back down. Robert was frozen, leaning forward, hands on the steps. You OK? No, help me down. He wanted me to hold his hand to go back down. I braced him until we reached level ground. He was sweating and trembling. He said, I wasn’t afraid of heights before I got shot. I thought I could get over it here.
When we got back to Mexico City he asked me to go with him to Acapulco to spend a couple of days before he returned to the States. I had only been in Mexico City a few days, but I said, sure. He said he’d come to my pensión to pick me up — he’d call.
Except for an Argentine couple and a woman from France, the pensión was filled with University of California students, all in an exchange program with UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónomia de México), one of the largest and cost-free universities in the world. My roommate was from Berkeley. There was no phone except in the landlady’s house, but she would let us use it and fetch us when we got calls. All her fine furniture had plastic coverings because the air in Mexico City was filled with soot. She’d take the covers off when she had company.
Robert called a few days later and we boarded a bus from the central bus station for Acapulco around midnight. Acapulco is 240 miles of mountainous roads from Mexico City, usually a six hour trip. Mexican buses range from old school bus types to Greyhound-type coaches — not all in the best of conditions. The bus we boarded looked new and the driver was athletic and cocky, who I guessed was in his early 30s. Robert caught some of the conversation the driver was having with a man sitting behind him, a bus driver himself who drove this route. Robert told me they were making a bet.
Robert and I sat about half-way back, Robert had the window seat. We’d been assigned a seat over the wheel well — a form of Montezuma’s revenge for gringos. Robert took the short seat. I had no idea he was doing me a favor — I didn’t know we’d been screwed. Traffic was light getting out of D.F. (day-EFF-ay), short for Mexico City — Distrito Federál. The driver slalomed through what traffic there was and then we were on the highway.
We traveled through the mountains to the west coast, and the driver was flooring it. I didn’t have a moment of panic, though maybe I should have. The bus was sound and the driver was good. I didn’t sleep a wink while Robert dozed beside me. Every time the driver passed a slow 18-wheeler on a curve or uphill with no line of site to on-coming traffic I became more wide-awake. The 18-wheeler he was passing and our driver would both turn out their headlights, passing on a curve or up a slope. The reason for this I figured, was to see if something were coming from the other direction. The trucker knew. Our driver knew. They were in cahoots.
We pulled into Acapulco just before dawn — maybe five hours of driving 250 miles. I saw the passenger/driver who was hitching a ride to Acapulco pull out his wallet and pay off the bus driver as Robert and I were getting off.
We didn’t know where we were going to stay so we walked to the beach to sleep until the sun came up. After an hour or so we found a market to buy something to eat for breakfast. Robert asked the shop owner if he knew where we could find a cheap hotel. He told us there was one up by the cliffs. We climbed the streets that led to where cliff-divers showed off for the tourists. At the top of the hill, close to the cliffs, we found an ancient two-story hotel that had vacancies. It cost us $28 a night for the both of us. It was clean and had a balcony that had a view of the cliffs. Eager to do the tourist thing, we got into our bathing suits and walked back down to the beach and spread our towels out in front of a large tourist hotel. Peddlers on the beach were selling suntan oil in what looked like Tabasco bottles. They held them between their fingers and rattled them like castanet’s.
Out in the bay there was a float that was used to launch daredevils who would hang from a kite while being pulled around the bay by a motor boat. For thirty bucks the boat would pull you around the bay 60 feel in the air and land you in the water a few yards from shore. Robert told me he was going to pay the 30 bucks to do it. I couldn’t believe it, after his experience at the Teotihuacán pyramids. But he did it.
Afterwards how he could have taken the kite ride, considering his acrophobia. He said after he was strapped in, he had no choice but to go up, and once he was up, there was nothing he could do — he wasn’t coming down until they let him down. Robert was hell-bent on getting over his fear of heights. He offered to pay for my own kite ride. I don’t have acrophobia, but I’m blind as a bat and the ride would have been wasted on me so I turned down his offer. Instead, we walked through the sand to the entrance to nearby Acapulco hotel pool, took a shower to wash off the sand and jumped in.
On the way back to our hotel we bought some bolillos and fruit and took up to our room to eat. We took a nap. Undressing down to our shorts, I wanted to ask Robert if I could see the scar the bullet left. I didn’t. That evening we hopped on a local bus that was decked out like a disco bar with accompanying music and we rode to a nightclub to watch some disco dancing. 1980.
I saw Robert Stamps 15 years later at “Earth Day” in Balboa Park in San Diego. He was a counselor for recovering addicts. We exchanged greetings with promises of getting together. I never saw him again. He died in 2008 in Florida from pneumonia. The obit I read didn’t mention his Crohn’s disease, the obituary said that he had suffered from Lyme’s disease. He was 58.
US out of Cambodia now.
A campus invaded —
Protests were banned
The Governor thought were led by Mao.
The Guard paraded,
Fixed bayonets manned
Upholding every soldier’s vow.
May 4th on top of Blanket Hill
The order was given to shoot to kill.