Friday, 27 December 2013

Christmas in those Days - III

     For all the years we lived there, with me included in we, there would be a couple of pick-up trucks that would pull into our elongated semi-circular driveway (gravel, like our feeder street), right around sun-down on those days just before Christmas.   Perhaps there were a couple of occasions when they came on Christmas Day, but normally is was a day or two earlier.
    It was the Latin folks who were intertwined in the construction company owned by my Godfather and Godmother.   Two of the boys were construction workers, and their mother was the maid of the house of those godparents of mine.  She was also the person who generally kept my godmother on some kind of even keel, given her schedule and responsibilities.  Both of the boys were integral to the actual practise of constructing things.
     By things, we might mean the better part of a large school complex including the parking lots, the buildings, the gymnasium, the football stadium, and so forth.  Or it might mean just coming over one Saturday morning and replacing our staircase and landing to the upper floor of the back building on the patio of our domestic compound.   My godfather, called Uncle Harold by all three of us brothers, also famously built several Post Offices in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, as in Monterey, California style, as per the GSA design number such-and-such, which included a very un-necessary basement.   They might have made good wine cellars in a different setting.
    Andrea was the woman who cared for the essentials of the hearth and home of my godparents.  Her name for me in Spanish and English was Pumpkinhead.  She was a traditional woman, found by my godmother's father on a main canal bank south of Mission, Texas.  She was there with several younger brothers, sisters, and cousins and an older woman who was also a relative.   The older woman and Andrea informed the gentleman that they had come from the battle.....and that all their men were dead.   Very little was asked beyond that, and the American man (a Southerner) rounded up the females and found carriage for them to make it to a trusted Mexican family in Mission.   The females had scant beyond the clothes on their backs, although they did carry a good amount of Mexican silver coinage which was valuable as currency.
     Places to stay and various jobs were found for these persons who had been thrust into an ill-defined journey, I never really heard or if I did, it did not stick in my pumpkin head, exactly how many people were involved in the group.  The only thing was that they all became self-supporting people and married well or well-enough.   Andrea's husband was probably the worst of the lot...lazy and a bit arrogant.   Andrea, however, was a dynamo, learning the domestic arts and sciences rapidly, and then connecting with a newlywed, well-t0-do girl who had recently married a contractor/ construction man.  The newlywed girl was the daughter of the man who had found them in the mud on the canal bank, shortly after the Battle of Reynosa in 1914, during the worst period of the Mexican Revolution of 1910  -  1917.  And, of course, the newlywed girl would come to be my godmother.
     In any regard, Andrea Vasquez de Herrera dominated the activity of the house, and became that person upon whom everyone was dependent.   There was the death of one baby of the newlywed girl, a boy, and the two daughters  were born and lived.     The first was born into the Depression and the other into the time right at the beginning of the Second Great War.   Andrea had her own brood of fine boys and a couple of girls.  Her husband went to St. Louis during the War and worked in a war materiel plant of some kind.  It was the only time that he made any real money.   My godfather was ordered into some kind of service that required building facilities for pilot-training fields in the San Antonio area.

     But, back to the semi-circular driveway.   The two pickups came in on that Christmas Eve, while we were in the middle of "dressing up" for the midnight mass.  The trucks stopped at a convenient place and several younger boys began pulling foil wrapped bundles out of shiny garbage cans.   My mother called for us to bring some big bowls, which we did, and as we came up to the pickups, Andrea directed the boys to mete out 6 dozen packets of tamales...our Christmas gift from the Herrera Family.   Andrea and her friends and nieces were famous throughout the McAllen area for their excellent traditional renderings of common to gourmet Mexican cuisine items.   The tamale was a staple and, for Anglo-type country people, as close to gourmet, comfort, and soul food as the living could produce for the living.
     "How many dozens have you made, Andrea?   Goodness gracious, how many garbage cans do you have here?"
    "Only twelve.  We made about 500 dozens, and we're giving our best friends six each."  she rendered the sly complement.
     My father handed Andrea's niece an envelope, somewhat surreptitiously, and it struck me odd that he had come out with his shirttail untucked although he already had his tie on and knotted perfectly, as usual.  But, it was simply that he did not want to delay the little convoy.   They had driven "way out north" and would work their way back to little clusters and then some slightly out of the way places in the city, hoping to get back in time to avoid disturbing Santa Clause. Andrea knew what my father had passed to her niece, and she scolded my father a bit...."No hay necessidad, Sen~or...por favor...."
    To which my father replied, "Si, yo lo se."   Which cut off any other debate.   The envelope contained some twenty dollars in one dollar bills that Andrea could use as favours to the children of her clan during this night and the next morning.   Before much time had passed, civilities were exchanged, various Merry Christmases and Feliz Navidades and we were back at our task of making ourselves presentable.   I seem to recall that this particular pass by the Herreras was the Christmas Eve Mass that was the first for the "middle brother'' to serve as an acolyte, but the image is not coming through.   Perhaps it is because we vested for service at the Church, and not at home.
    Mesquites with their leaves still on, and the hackberries, still with leaves, but losing quite a few as the Winter progressed.   Darkness was very dark in the country, the sounds in the night almost always very clear.   We could hear the two vehicles take off from the stop sign, crunching gravel and then mounting the concrete paved State 336 which formed 10th Street as it entered McAllen a couple of miles to the south.
     This is what a 1952 Buick convertible looked like, and it was a wondrous and frightening thing to a farm boy.   We had a really nice Studebaker, the one with the three headlights, and we had eleven tractors.  We also had several pickups at any given time, as well as a couple of trailers.   But a Buick like the one pictured?  No.   A Willy Jeep Box-station wagon, yes....but nothing like the Buick pictured above.
     It was during that same Christmastide, about a three week hiatus from school, that the following events occurred.   It was afternoon.  We could hear the sound of a vehicle turning off of Tenth Street and  coming onto the gravel road that passed by our place.   It was moving slowly however....almost as if the driver were lost or shy.   We could hear a gaggle of post-adolescent female voices, speaking in a jumble of correct English and correct Spanish, and giggling...even outright they come closer to the entrance to our "semi-circular driveway" that passed through the north edge of our front yard.
Miss Irene Garza
 a true princess of
McAllen, Texas
    The vehicle came to a stop before entering into the drive-way, and....and this is the sad, funny, and silly part....we three boys and our mother were all within line of sight of stopped vehicle and the six occupants.   There was that pregnant pause....and I, being the youngest and least important, went running towards the car, screeching,  " have to get us one of these!"   It looked like the one above, except in pale blue.   It was  also a convertible, all but brand new.  Our mother recognised the girl driving and a couple of others.   Although she came from a well-established family, it was her wealthy cousin, also in the front seat whose family owned the auto.  But as best friends, and I think cousins, it was not at all unusual that the Contreras girl would allow the Garza girl to drive the impressive vehicle.  All the girls were colonials, as it was common to call such families  who had been Spanish and Mexican royal land grant people in the area.
   El Gringo Viejo's mother  directed them in a maternally authoritative way to come on in, "Don't park out there on the road, you might have Old Man Schroeder run into you.  He's as blind as a bat."   The girls all giggled...something between nervously and relieved that the Anglo lady hadn't called their parents and pleased that they had been accepted without invitation.  It was a different time.   Unmarried girls did not drive around, landing at the home of young unmarried (or married) boys without several layers of chaperonage.  Nor did they ever initiate a telephone conversation to a boy, barring some severe emergency.
     "How are you, Mrs. Newton..?   These are my friends..." and the driverette methodically introduced the girls, one by one, identifying each girl's parents and each girl's grade in school, and some interesting point about each girl...played in the band, was on the debate team, is the president of the Y-teens, etc.   It was all very impressive, almost formal, friendly, and ....nice.
     The middle brother was standing almost motionless, over by the canal.  The problem was that he was doing some tree trimming and had no shirt, so he was slinking on towards the housing compound.  I was standing there about six feet from the Buick, gazing at the Spanish faery princesses and their carriage sans cheval.
     "We were wondering if Chico were available.   We needed to talk to him about the play."  the girl driving really was one of the stars of the high school.  She was referring to the my oldest brother, who was nick-named Chico, because the workers from Mexico had so dubbed him as the younger man with the same name as his father....a junior, in other words.  Chic0 was my brother's name, and still to this day, when what few of his classmates or chums are still encountered, they will refer to Milton as "Chico".   And yes, he did had chief supporting role in the annual school play.
     "He's probably doing something in the house, let me see if I can get him out here." and my mom disappeared back into the house.  My excellent long-distance memory fails me here, but I am sure that El Gringo Viejo was a dazzling conversationalist, probably talking about pigs and cows, and snakes of course.   The girls spied a rabbit, a cottontail, and squealed in delight.   Two of our cats ran off at the noise, and that made the girls squeal even better.   "Hay, que hermoso lugar!   It's like a park"   They all seemed taken by the nice formal front yard, that still had it's elegance in spite of the assaults by the weather during the past two years.
     Milton finally came out, doing his best to act like a shy country boy.   His slicked down, wet hair bespoke of the fact that he had been trying to put on an appearance a least a little better than that of a semi-feral gorilla.  I was wearing shorts and a shirt, all made by my grandmother from flour sack fabric on her treadle.   And, of course, I was wearing my special footskin shoes.
     They talked for a long time, which for a five year old might have been seven minutes.  It was easy to see, however, that there were many agendas being served.   The girl driving was the famous Miss Irene Garza.  The next September she would take over as Drum Major of the Varsity Band of McAllen High School.   She was first-chair piccolo, and had also been first chair French horn.  She was in various clubs, and was known to have a scholastic average in excess of 95, making her a cinch for top ten, and perhaps even having a chance to be Valedictorian or salutatorian.   She was very active in her Church, The Church of the Holy Rosary, in downtown McAllen.
     As the years would pass, she would graduate from college, become a teacher, and then be murdered and her body thrown into the 2nd Street Main Canal that ran from south to north on the east side of McAllen.   In 1960, when she went missing during the Holy Week period, and was missing for several days....McAllen held its breathe...hoping against hope...
Fr. John Fiet
as he appeared in
the period 1960 - 1961
in McAllen, Texas
     This little story began late in 1952, and ended in the Spring of 1960, when one of the prettiest and most intelligent girls to have graced the City of McAllen was gone from us.   It was the worst episode in the history of McAllen simply because of the magnitude of the impact.   Totally senseless.
     A Roman Catholic priest was  implicated in the tragedy, as being the murderer, but fogs of covering and manoeuvring by the Diocese and higher removed the priest under suspicion.   His name is Father John Fiet, never charged, never convicted, but totally suspected by many police, Texas Rangers, and others.   There were a couple of other possible suspects but no real tangible evidence against either.   The only evidence, some flimsy and some circumstantial and not substantial pointed to the Roman Catholic priest who was assisting in the officiation of services the night Irene went missing from confession and mass at the Church of the Holy Rosary.  Do a search-up of Irene Garza - McAllen - 1960 and it will break the small parts of your heart.
    My brother had two really serious flames in High School, and when he learned of this matter he almost passed out.  My mother, father, the ladies of McAllen, Anglo and Latin, everyone was bereft.  Normalcy was destroyed during those hours.

We'll talk more about events during interesting times...perhaps happier times in the Magic Lower Rio Grande Valley in later posts.
El Gringo Viejo