Another Tale of Derring-Don’t

Well, now that Justice Kavanaugh has endured the attempted suspension of the presumption of innocence, and the passions are dying down, I thought I’d write some more about my crazy life. I made a big swear when I was a young man that if I were given a choice between security and adventure, I’d always choose adventure. So this is the story of how, as the result of a series of misunderstandings and coincidences, I ended up involved in LSD-assisted psychotherapy in Hawaii … well, it’s the first part of the story at least, it’s a convoluted tale. It all started sometime around 1971, when I was maybe 23 or so.

Somehow, I’d ended up in and around Cotati, California, the home of Sonoma State University, about an hour north of San Francisco. Wait, I remember now, I’d gone up with a friend to see what he assured me was the most outrageous marijuana grow house on the planet. He was right. This was back before they were searching from the air. A guy had rented a place with an old chicken house in the back. He looked at the old chicken house. He looked at the piles and piles of chicken manure. He saw dollars. He cut out most of the roof of the chicken house. He and some friends spent hours shoveling in the ancient, well-composted chicken manure into the house. He put in a sprinkler system. He’d walk by in the morning and turn it on, then shut it off twenty minutes later. The chicken house was maybe a hundred feet long by twenty wide (30 x 6 metres). He took me inside. It was a jungle, thick with plants. The aroma, there on a late summer afternoon, was overwhelming. He made about thirty kilobucks on the crop, which put him through college at Sonoma State. Another college entrepreneur.

After various other adventures, I met a man named Peter Klimansky. He was working as a “shade tree” butcher. A shade tree butcher goes out to the farmer’s field. He kills the animal, guts it, skins it, and takes it back to the butcher shop where it is hung, and then cut into roasts and steaks and the like. I worked as his apprentice, for minimum wage. I learned that most of the stuff that I knew about butchering was wrong. Oh, and that I didn’t really know how to get a knife razor sharp. Working with Peter, I became somewhat expert at both. I also realized that it is wrong to eat the meat and blame the animal’s death on the butcher … another valuable rule of thumb for my life—“Don’t eat the meat and blame the butcher.”

While doing this work, I ran into an old friend of mine, David Cohen. He and I decided to go to Mexico. I don’t know why. It seemed like a good idea at the time. So following my lifelong rule of thumb which states “Retire early … and often!”, I retired again, and David and I hitchhiked south. Down near LA, we were let out on the coast. We went to the ocean and picked double fistfuls of mussels off of the rocks. We cooked them in a tin can with a couple tomatoes we’d found in a dumpster behind a grocery store. I still remember the flavor. It was the best soup I’ve ever had, before or since.

After more rides, we walked the north-south width of San Diego and crossed the border. Back then Mexico had passenger trains, so we got on the train for Guadalajara. Of course, it didn’t leave on time, but after while the train started south.

The train was everything we’d expected of Mexico. It was old and slow, really slow. How slow? We met a charming young Japanese guy on the train. At one of the numerous interminable stops, he came to tell us he’d met a guy on the train with some good dope. He and the guy were going to go across the field to smoke it. We said, “Have a great time, we’ll pass” … doing that overseas didn’t seem smart.

They disappeared across the field. After a while, the train whistled. Nobody appeared. Soon after, the train started to move. Finally, we saw the Japanese guy and his new friend racing across the field and running along the track. We ran to the last car, and arrived at the tail end of the train just in time to see his new friend take a stupendous leap onto the back platform of the last car … and to see our Japanese friend try the same thing and stretch himself full-length out on the crossties.

We figured that was the last we’d see of Mr. Japan. But in about fifteen minutes, an antique taxicab pulled up alongside the train on the highway. The driver was honking his horn. The Japanese guy was in the taxi, waving madly. We waved back and laughed. He sped on and joined us at the next stop … that’s how slow the train was. Slower than a Mexican taxi.

Finally, after what seemed like several months, the train arrived in Guadalajara. We spent a few days enjoying the city, then we decided to move on. So one afternoon David and I found ourselves sitting in the welcome shade of some trees in a railroad yard in Guadalajara, waiting to hop a freight train. We were planning to ride the freights south, although most of the riders were going north. I’d ridden the freights in the US, I wrote about it here.

In Mexico, freight train riders aren’t called hobos. They’re called “moscas”, flies. They were going north to try their luck crossing the border.

mexican moscas.png

Two young boys came walking past where we were sitting under a tree by the rails. They were brothers, the older one said, perhaps four and seven years old. They were built on the usual blueprint of the poor, undersized and skinny. I struck up a conversation in Spanish with the seven-year-old. The younger boy never said a word. He just trailed a few feet behind his older brother and watched everything with black shiny eyes.

The older boy had a slingshot, what the Brits call a “catapult”, made of a tree branch “Y” fork. The power was supplied by a dozen or more ordinary office rubber bands of all sizes and colors attached to each fork of the “Y” and to the leather pouch. It looked like this, but with many more rubber bands and much more colorful.

slingshot 2.png

I asked what they were doing. The boy said they came to the railroad lines because there were perfectly round stones for his slingshot in the railroad bed. He showed me how hard it was to pull his slingshot. “Oh, I suppose you are the “grán cazador”, the mighty hunter”, I joked in Spanish.

“Si, Señor, yo soy”, he explained very soberly. “Yes, Sir, I am”.

My skepticism must have shown in my eyes. “Mira”, he said … watch.

He searched around, picking up and discarding a few stones. Finally, he settled on exactly the right one. He put it in the pouch of the slingshot and started walking around and gazing intently up into the tree branches above us. He stopped, pulled back and let fly.

There was a “poof” sound up in the tree, and a bird the size of a small robin, that I didn’t even know was in the tree, tumbled down at my feet. He and his tiny brother both jumped on it, and he twisted its neck in an economical, practiced fashion.

With my mouth hanging open, I hastened to assure him that I was wrong to doubt his word. I said he was indeed a great hunter. I asked what he would do with the bird. “Oh, pa’ comer, señor” … it’s for food, sir, he said.

I said, are you going to take it home to your mamá to cook it?

“Oh, no, Señor, somos siete”, he said … oh no, Sir … there’s seven of us kids … I nodded my understanding. I remembered that when I was a kid, my big dream was to be a grownup so I could buy a bag of M&Ms (small candies, AKA Smarties) and eat them all myself, every single one, and not have to split them seven ways with my brothers and cousins I grew up with.

I reflected that while I dreamed of not having to divide a chocolate dessert seven ways, he dreamed of not having to divide a sparrow seven ways …

He and his short confederate scurried off. They returned with some grass and twigs. He pulled out a tattered matchbook and lit a fire. In no time he had plucked that bird, gutted it, skewered it on a convenient twig, and had it cooking over the fire. I watched in astonishment.

His little brother watched in anticipation, eyes wide.

I walked to the corner where an old lady was frying tacos on a dished-top tin can stove. I bought a few potato tacos the size of silver dollars, tiny tortillas with a dab of mashed potato in the middle. She didn’t sell meat tacos. Poor people don’t buy meat tacos. She made tacos with potatoes and tacos with beans. I brought them back and gave most of them to the midget hunter and his mini-amigo.

And God damn it, that tiny gran cazador wanted me to take half the bird. But I could see their eyes caressing it.

So I told them I couldn’t eat it on account of my liver. Since at the time the liver was the common scapegoat in Northern Mexico for any physical infirmity, the older boy nodded sagely. He agreed that a man has to take care of his liver, you can’t be too careful. He said his liver was fine, thanks, and they happily polished off that bird. I bought another round of potato tacos to celebrate, which had similarly short lifetimes.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about that when I’ve read stories from Americans, Europeans, and others asserting that they are poor … meeting those two young boys changed my point of view about poverty forever. I decided that until I was reduced to eating little birdies out of trees, I would never again complain about being poor …

We never got to ride the freight train. David wasn’t feeling well. He couldn’t eat, even potato tacos, and he got sicker and sicker. We took a small room with an unshaded light bulb. I brought him soup, well boiled, until he recovered. We decided we’d seen the scene in Mexico and we had the vomit to prove it.

We had just enough money for a ticket to Hawaii. We flew there. Someone had spoken highly of Maui, so we hopped on a flight to Maui. Nearly penniless, we arrived on the island. It was warm. There was tropical sunshine and tropical ocean. I was in heaven.

[To be continued …]

Here, the piano tuner has come to our house and is beating our piano back into shape. It’s an old spinet with a lovely, slightly tinkly kind of sound that strongly reminds me of the piano I used to play in a whorehouse in Manila. So I’ll be happy to have it tuned again.

And thinking of young boys eating sparrows, no matter how many dollars I have in the bank, I rest contented knowing I am a very wealthy and amazingly fortunate man …


20 thoughts on “Another Tale of Derring-Don’t

  1. Excellent, Willis.

    Looking forward to the promised sequel. I tried LSD only once, and found it less exciting than our local cannabis (known in he far North of NZ as wacky baccy or electric puha, Puha is a nettle-like green vegetable, bitter in flavour, that is delicious with pork and mutton cooked in a hangi, or earth oven).

    I could use some electric puha right now. Bride of 50 years is indeed making progress recovering from her knee replacement surgery, and we hope she will be medically cleared to drive again in the next two weeks or so. That will be welcome, as I have had an occlusion on the branch retinal artery of my left eye, resulting in the loss of about three-eighths of the field of vision in that eye. While I am otherwise completely unimpaired, and can see clearly when both eyes are open, It is legally considered in the same way as a stroke – that is to say, I am prohibited to drive for one calendar month. It’s the right thing – the doctors must be sure that other road users are not put at risk while I recover.

    We have great support meanwhile. Our daughter shops for us each week, and the St John ambulance people provide a shuttle service to get us to and from medical appointments. They’ve taken Bride to Pukekohe for physiotherapy, and ferry me to and from Thames for blood tests and doctor’s assessments. Bride will take over the shuttle stuff when she is cleared. She walks around the house now without crutches, so it won’t be long.

    The glass is very much half-full. It wasn’t a brain stroke, and all of the blood tests, brain scans, ultrasound, x-rays, ECGs etc show positive results. The ophthalmologist and the acute medical specialists said they can find nothing wrong with me that gives them cause for concern. A life of dependency on atorvostatin and clopidogrel is as rich as it was beforehand.




  2. My parents took a trip in an RV into Baja with my uncle. They showed me a picture of a man siting under a bush by the side of the road. Next to him was a sign that said that he removed the large rocks from the road and would appreciate the travelers to give him something for the effort. No wonder people south of the border will do almost anything to get to the US.


  3. I look forward to your next installment. Your writing always makes me feel better. I’m not sure why, but I hope you will continue.


  4. That’s a fine looking slingshot, Willis. Well, that’s what we called the forked-branch weapons. We also had and used slings, which was the two strings and a leather pouch swung ’round a time or two or three before letting fly.

    My father thought it was improper for a boy to go about unarmed. I have two older brothers and when we reach the age of… oh… about six, he would take us out in ‘the woods,’ to find a suitable forked branch to make a slingshot. I still remember my turn; the path we took, and even the general spot where we found that perfect branch to take home.

    This was serious business. Dad was skilled with his hands (and leery of us cutting leather and rubber with a single edge razor blade needed to do a proper job) and would cut a nice pouch and slice two bands of rubber from an old innertube. (Of course everyone reading here remembers when tires had innertubes. Tubeless tires were a futuristic concept; it seems not that long ago to me.)

    My brothers and I had the best slingshots in the neighborhood because, to paraphrase the Hallmark Cards slogan, my dad cared enough to send us out with the very best.

    I can’t honestly claim to have been nearly as good a shot as that boy in Mexico, but I was good enough to hit the hindquarters of any mangy stray dogs to encourage them to move along from our property, and annoy any aggressive raccoons (possibly rabid?) that were reluctant to scurry off on their own volition.

    Oh, slings… My cousin Charlie in Texas, who only wore shoes to school, was riding his bike one day, barefoot of course. His foot slipped and his right big toe was cut completely off in the spokes. What’s a proper Texas boy to do in such a situation? Well, he got his sling out of his pocket, put his severed toe in the pouch, got some serious rpms going with his sling and “flang it out yonder inta the field.” Then he rode his bike home.

    I’m looking forward to part two. I enjoy your stories of your younger days. They are highly entertaining and also bring back memories of my own younger times.

    I also enjoy the comments from others who share some good stories of their own that your tales have triggered. You have created a virtual potbellied stove for your readers to sit around and swap yarns. Thanks, Willis.


    • And my thanks “back atcha”, H.R. Like you, we used both slings and slingshots. I was pretty good with a slingshot. Never slew Goliath with the sling, but I got to where I could hit the barn with it. As long as I was standing inside.



      • I am in awe of your skills, Willis. I could only hit the side of the barn from inside in two out of three tries. 😜

        It’s a wonder that more boys weren’t killed by slings back when most boys had a sling. I witnessed others’ missiles, and had many a rock of my own, head off in some totally unintended direction. Close shaves were just part of the fun. And nobody would rat out accidents to the parents, anyway.


  5. Slingshots (as you call them) must have been a worldwide accessory for boys growing up in the ’50s.
    In Queensland, Australia we used to call them “gings”
    Where that term came from, I have no idea.
    But I do know you wouldn’t bring a cap gun to a ging fight.


  6. Many areas of the U.S during the ’30’s depression were like the poverty described. My dad who was a teenager in rural Eastern Oklahoma at the time described having to live off about anything they could kill with a B-B gun (which back then apparently shot much harder) including sparrows. Hunger will also surprisingly make for a much tastier dish as I remember during a hiking outing that a cold can of pork & beans tasted as appetizing as fresh cooked steak.


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  8. This is a comment on your 2016 piece, “freighted with memories” – figgered there was no point posting a comment to it two years later; I read it all and as always, entranced (although “SHE” and I would never do such a thing; when you’ve been stuck with somebody as long as I have with myself, you come to know your luck – and what you would never get-away with…)

    A story you might enjoy, which I found in Arts & Letters Daily, concerns a girl who lived her life as you’ve lived yours – and is currently a bête noire of the global anthropology clique for suggesting they’re wrong about what really caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The whole makes fascinating reading, if you don’t have any adventures planned (or unplanned) for the afternoon:


    • Thanks, Y. “Freighted With Memories” is one of the earlier pieces of autobiography that I wrote, almost six years old now, and I still enjoy re-reading it. Good times.

      I’ve been following the dinosaur extinction story for a while now. Keller puts up a good case for vulcanism. Me, I think it may have involved both the meteor and the volcanoes.

      All the best of life to you,



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