05 May 2017

The day suddenly got interesting when I was in my “office” writing a report on my little Mac 512. Suddenly, I heard frantic radio traffic in the nearby office trailer then shouting by the radio operator. He was calling to the Party Manager that the man he’d sent to pay our drill crews had been robbed. The payroll amounted to about $32,000 in cash, an enormous amount of money in rural Mexico.

I only had time to grab my cap before I heard the rotors turning on our Hughes 206 helicopter and saw the Nacho running by. I caught up to him at the ship and jumped into the back seat, even though he tried to wave me out of the chopper. But, as the safety supervisor, the robbery was part of my job. At the moment we had no idea whether the payroll clerk had been hurt.

The payroll clerk had stopped on the road by five men in a gray pickup with blue license plates. They robbed him then torn his radio out but let him go. One of the drill camps he was going to was only minutes from the site of the holdup so he’d hurried there and used their radio. Less than half an hour had passed before he reported it.

The road the robbers were following was the main road that ran near San Miguel. Within minutes we saw the truck, three men seated in the back and two men in the front. Unfortunately, the banditos didn’t know they’d robbed a company with two helicopters, one of which was being dispatched from the closeby market town of Tlaxiaco with crack anti-terrorist police aboard. We trailed the truck and the pilot coordinated with the pilot of the other ship.

The three men in the back grew very nervous about the helicopter following them. Occasionally the driver would take off his straw sombrero and lean his head out of his window to look at us. We were close enough that I could see his broad face and thick hair buffeted by the wind, his squinting eyes, the wispy beard. Neither of us knew that he had a very short time left to live. Sometimes I still see that vital face before I go to sleep.

When the robbers crested the switchbacks from the valley onto the straight section to the Boca de Perro junction they must have been shocked. They saw a helicopter hovering in a cloud of dust two feet off the ground. Standing on the skids with automatic rifles in their hands, were grim policemen dressed in black. Our pilots, like the police, had experience in anti-drug ops and knew how to maneuver. As a result, when the driver and two men from the back abandoned the truck to run in one direction the pilot dodged the ship in their direction because the driver had the bank bag in his hand. The other two men escaped into the forest but were later arrested.

One bandit made things easy for the police when he turned to shoot at them with a pistol, giving them an excuse to shoot; as if they needed one. He was shot in the head, the second man was shot in the back, and the driver was shot through the forearm, shattering the ulna. I gave what little medical aid I could, using the First Aid kits from the helicopters and a survey stake for a splint.

The man shot through the chest died in fairly short order but not before coughing blood and lung tissue on my face and into my hair. Later, I would watch the bloody bits swirl down the drain of the shower.

All but $8,000 was recovered and the investigation discovered that there was no conspiracy, that the robbers had only gotten lucky. Their MO was to steal a vehicle then pick a rural road that started and ended on a main highway. Then they would rob everyone on the route—stores, delivery men, people on the road. They would then ditch the vehicle in a barrio of a large town and take a bus home; they’d been doing it successfully for years. Later I would learn from my cultural anthropologist friends that the Boca de Perro junction where this shootout happened was a historic place for stagecoach robberies in the 18th and 19th centuries.

April 30 2017

Men can be killers but there are ways to deal with them. On the other hand, when Mother Nature tries to kill you, you are almost completely helpless.

I wanted to drop in on a drill crew. This time I parked my pickup next to a main road that paralleled a pretty little river that I crossed easily. The water was a bit higher than my hiking shoes.

There were two crews drilling down a valley toward the river. I observed the bottom crew through my binoculars and decided to skirt them because if they were inspected first they would radio the higher crew that I was coming. I passed that crew in the trees and proceeded up the mountainside for perhaps half a mile.

The morning had been beautiful with just a few puffy cumulus clouds. However, as I climbed the light began to change and the tops of the trees began to sway. It got darker and darker. When a large open space appeared I stepped into it and saw that the sky was black and the white bottoms of storm clouds were close overhead. Then came the first lightning strike.

A pine tree about fifty meters away was split down the center and sparks flew from the rocks at its base as the canopy exploded in a ball of fire. The sound of the thunderclap came instantly and almost knocked my legs out from under me; not from its energy but from fright. Then came an onslaught of hail and rain with more lighting.

I was standing below  broad promontory and it must have contained metaliferous rock because it was drawing electricity from the lowering clouds like a Tesla coil. Another tree blew up, this one within twenty-five meters, so I knew I had to find a low place, and soon. Luckily, there was a large gully downhill and I scampered down to it, only to watch in horror as two other trees exploded within a dozen meters. I was terrified, but the worst was yet to come.

The gully was about fifty feet deep, three times that wide at the top and a smaller ravine fed into it at the place I’d taken refuge. At first, the runnels of water were insignificant and I was concentrating on the barrage of hail the size of marbles pounding me. Luckily, I was wearing my hardhat and always carried a sweater and rain poncho in my pack so I was surviving that ordeal. However, my shoulders and arms would carry bruises from the ice for over a week.

It wasn’t until the water, full of ice, surged from my ankles to mid-calf in about five minutes that I realized where the real danger was. The surge was funneling from a side ravine to create a large eddy where I was standing. Sticks and rocks banged against my bare legs. I grabbed a sturdy branch as it came by, to use as a third leg, as I’d learned in military survival school. By facing the current and forming a tripod with the pole and legs you can keep from being swept off your feet by all but very swift water or large jetsam.

Being knocked over was one worry but the flood soon reached above my knees and I was becoming hypothermic from the ice-clogged water. The lightning barrage soon passed but the sides of the ravine were too steep and muddy to climb. Now it was just a matter of waiting…and praying.

Suddenly, the sun broke through and hope flashed through me! But the water kept rising as the runoff from the mountain continued. I was shaking so badly I could hardly stand, and I was close to blacking out from time to time.  The water was pushing at my crotch now, and my knees were buckling. All I could do was squeeze my eyes shut and pray.

The next thing I knew, the water which was now at my crotch began to drop noticeably. Sometime later I was walking downhill on rock because the bottom of the ravine had been scoured of most of its soil. When I found a big rock I sat down and sobbed and sobbed. And I thanked God because I knew that He had saved me, as He has done more than once.

I also used this incident in the novel when I needed a climactic scene near the end of the book.

28 April 2017

Another good reason to carry something to defend yourself with is that there are bad people in the mountains, and good people afraid of unexpected strangers. Especially if you are a young female herding goats and have never seen anything outside the ordinary, let alone an enormous gringo. They will sic their dog, or dogs, on you every time and it only took me one encounter to be afraid of the protective animals.

Herding dogs are smart but Mexican dogs are both smart and trained to be aggressive. When the two are mixed you get a genius with a mouthful of teeth and the heart of an assassin. They also seem to have developed a special gene that helps them immediately gauge a human’s ability at rock throwing. After two tosses they will stand two feet out of range then move in as the thrower tires, ready to tear the crap out of your legs. After my first encounter I carried a walking stick to give the dog something to bite so I could pull him close enough to use the machete. I used my experiences with them when writing the chase scene in Murder in the Tetons.

If you have seen the movie Deliverance you know about bad people who live in the hills of Appalachia on their own terms. Believe me, it’s the same in the Mixteca Alta. I found that out late one afternoon as I returned from a surprise inspection in the mountains above San Miguel.

The path I was following was well worn and I was glad to have found it after bushwhacking down from a promontory from where I’d sighted the village below. When I came around a bend I saw two figures huddled on the trail. When I approached them I saw a man lying on the ground and a boy about seven or eight years old sobbing while he shook the man.

When I asked what had happened he said his uncle was drunk and he’d been trying to get him to wake but the man wouldn’t respond. It was hot on the trail, which faced the west, and the sun was beating down. I poured what was left of the water in one of my bottles on his face and the guy woke with a start.

He was disoriented for a while after I helped him to his feet. His homespun clothes were dirty, his bare feet looked like they were made from leather, and his eyes were the most feral I have ever seen. He kept looking at me, my backpack, my shoes, my ring, my watch, and it didn’t take me long to figure out what he was thinking.

In Spanish, he said, “I want to buy you some drinks. C’mon Mister, you come with me.”

I said thanks but I needed to leave. He grabbed my arm with both hands and started screaming at his nephew to run to Tierra Blanca and get some help. He was strong and he had his long fingernails dug into my bare arm. I punched him in the face. He turned his head but my third punch knocked him down and I escaped directly down the steep mountainside until I reached some trees. My arm was bleeding but I let the blood run to flush out the crap from the guy’s filthy nails then dressed the deep scratches.

I reached San Miguel just as the evening Paseo was starting. Each evening the young people dress up and go to the center of the towns, and the young men walk in one direction, the girls walk in the other. The young people flirt and some of the boys and girls mix while the elder women watch to govern the parade. It was still quite light when I came striding through the parade of young people in their immaculately laundered and ironed shirts and dresses. My bandage wrap and hands were crusted with blood and my left leg, shorts, sock, and shoe had been spattered. The parade of young people parted before me as though I were an apparition.

When I arrived at base camp Marcos changed the bandages and he kept looking at me like I was crazy while I told him the story. But Nacho thought the story, and I, were cool. For a change.

27 May 2017

I carried short machete in my North Face intermediate pack designed to hold  gear enough to survive for a week. It had two good-sized pockets on the sides. I carried a liter bottle of water in each pocket and my machete in the space between the right pocket and the pack. The handle protruded just behind my right ear and was easily unsheathed. The handle was wrapped with rough Bulldog fabric tape so it would not slip in one’s hand, a safety precaution I demanded on all my crews. It greatly reduced accidental machete wounds due to hands slipping on the plastic handle grips.

 

 

One time I was chopping my way through some brush when I heard an older worker sucking his teeth in disgust. I chuckled and asked him for some instruction which surprised, and delighted, him. Gringos just don’t ask for advice from Indians, it’s just not done.

The problem was that I wasn keeping my edge too sharp so it wasn’t holding up. He showed me where he had been cutting and each branch, no matter how thick, had been cut through with one swipe right at the main bole. “Mine is a working edge, not a fighting edge,” he said.

He took a short file out of his back pocket and passed it over the blade of his machete about three times on each side and handed it to me saying, ¡Cuidado! “Be careful”.

I tested the edge and it was sharp as a butcher knife. He then took my machete, tested the edge, looked at me mournfully and said,. “Let’s find a place to sit down, this is going to take a while.” He showed me the correct angles to file to put a working edge on a machete, an edge that would last, and could be easily sharpened. He also said, “Never put your blade back in its sheath without sharpening it — you never know when you may need it in a hurry.

Needless to say, I never forgot the lesson. Years later in Peru I was waiting for a helicopter flight out of the field and a smartass drill hand who was waiting for the same flight pulled my machete out of its scabbard without permission, a bad breach of etiquette.

“¿Listo par’ un Tuco?” he asked. “Are you ready for a terrorist?”

He was talking about the Shining Path guerillas who were were looking for me and my Canadian friend Ian Curry; and was asking if my machete was sharp enough to defend myself, but asking in a macho manner.

While looking at me, he drew his thumb over the edge of the blade and split the ball of his thumb halfway to the bone.

I have to hand it to him, he didn’t yell, just sucked in his breath and grabbed the thumb with his other hand and squeezed tight. But blood still gushed from between his fingers as he hunched over and stared at me.

¿Demasiado?” “Sharp enough?” I asked mildly as I dug in my backpack for my Medic’s first aid kit.

14 September 2016

We moved to Kemmerer, Wyoming in 1951 after spending much of our childhoods on the road during World War II. We had lived in small trailers, and were known as “trailer trash” by the good folks when we first came to town. Our mother soon went to work on proving that we were just as good, if not better, than the locals. Truth be told, she had been working on the “Horton Twins” project while we were still moving three or four times a year.

First came the tap dance lessons from a private teacher, Mrs. Kasai, who had a dance studio in Las Vegas, Nevada, which was an hour’s drive away from where we lived in Overton. Jac and I were in the second grade and won the grade school talent show. We were in the third grade in Pocatello, Idaho when Mom started us playing Tonettes, a rudimentary clarinet, and we won a local talent contest on the radio. After that, there was no stopping her, and she bought us used cornets and arranged for private lessons from a music professor at Idaho State University. When we were in the fifth grade we were good enough that we played with the high school concert band, and I can still hear the laughter from the audience when we took our places near the edge of the stage in our tailored-down uniforms.

Our mother had been small town gentry in Star Valley, Wyoming, coming from founding Mormon pioneer stock. The Gardners owned the local grist mill that made all the flour used in the valley, and as many as three saw mills that supplied the lumber for most of the first residences and the huge (for those times) tabernacle. Her mother had been the sole, and pioneering, teacher of children with mental disabilities, and there was no shortage of students in an isolated community where serial first-cousin marriages weren’t uncommon. In fact, there is an artless joke that still goes around: “If Mormons get a divorce are they still first cousins?”

The Horton Twins Project began to get real legs when Mom paid for private music lessons from the high school music teacher, a mostly-secret alcoholic who had once played violin with the Edinburgh symphony orchestra. Eventually, we would be members of the town’s premiere marching and concert bands, and won more medals than Mexican generals by also performing solos, duets, and in a horn ensemble during music festivals.

In addition to music and academics, we were also prodded into running for school offices and participated in athletics. I was Sophomore and Senior Class President while Jac was Student Body President, and we won letters in football, basketball, and track for three years. Needless to say, we were busy, and grew accustomed to ambition, and success. We had no idea how small the pond was, but we thought we were big fish all the same.
1959

14 September 2016

We moved to Kemmerer, Wyoming in 1951 after spending much of our childhoods on the road during World War II. We had lived in small trailers, and were known as “trailer trash” by the good folks when we first came to town. Our mother soon went to work on proving that we were just as good, if not better, than the locals. Truth be told, she had been working on the “Horton Twins” project while we were still moving three or four times a year.

First came the tap dance lessons from a private teacher, Mrs. Kasai, who had a dance studio in Las Vegas, Nevada, which was an hour’s drive away from where we lived in Overton. Jac and I were in the second grade and won the grade school talent show. We were in the third grade in Pocatello, Idaho when Mom started us playing Tonettes, a rudimentary clarinet, and we won a local talent contest on the radio. After that, there was no stopping her, and she bought us used cornets and arranged for private lessons from a music professor at Idaho State University. When we were in the fifth grade we were good enough that we played with the high school concert band, and I can still hear the laughter from the audience when we took our places near the edge of the stage in our tailored-down uniforms.

Our mother had been small town gentry in Star Valley, Wyoming, coming from founding Mormon pioneer stock. The Gardners owned the local grist mill that made all the flour used in the valley, and as many as three saw mills that supplied the lumber for most of the first residences and the huge (for those times) tabernacle. Her mother had been the sole, and pioneering, teacher of children with mental disabilities, and there was no shortage of students in an isolated community where serial first-cousin marriages weren’t uncommon. In fact, there is an artless joke that still goes around: “If Mormons get a divorce are they still first cousins?”

The Horton Twins Project began to get real legs when Mom paid for private music lessons from the high school music teacher, a mostly-secret alcoholic who had once played violin with the Edinburgh symphony orchestra. Eventually, we would be members of the town’s premiere marching and concert bands, and won more medals than Mexican generals by also performing solos, duets, and in a horn ensemble during music festivals.

In addition to music and academics, we were also prodded into running for school offices and participated in athletics. I was Sophomore and Senior Class President while Jac was Student Body President, and we won letters in football, basketball, and track for three years. Needless to say, we were busy, and grew accustomed to ambition, and success. We had no idea how small the pond was, but we thought we were big fish all the same.

1959

April 15 2017

The place name Achiutla comes from two Mixtec words that mean “place” and “fire” or Place of Fire. By happenstance, a long drought was going on while I was working there and the countryside was on fire. I’d worked on the Yellowstone Fires of ’88 as a photographer and the ones in Oaxaca weren’t of that order but it could be scary. One time the road to Tlaxiaco was cut off by fire and when I turned around to drive back to camp the road had been cut off behind me. That night I made plot notes to write about people being desperate to appease the god of rains to forgive the community for a transgression. I didn’t know what kind of transgression would be large enough to punish the place with catastrophic fire, but was confident that I’d find one. Later, I found out that the other American on the crew, the Assistant Party Manager, was buying museum quality artifacts from the locals and I had the key to the plot. In the novel two brothers have sold a priceless image of Dzaui and sold it to an anthropologist living in the Jackson Hole area. Because their rain god has been exiled the prayers of the people can’t be heard, and the ancient curse of fire that gave the place its name has returned.

Juan had been raised in a culture that featured sacred mushrooms, but even he wasn’t prepared for what we went through. He was gone when I came around, and it was several days before I saw him again, even small as the camp was. When he finally appeared in my office I was writing a report. When I looked up his face was solemn, and he said “Hizo mucho muy extrañjo” (A lot of strangeness happened). All I could do was shake my head in agreement. Like him, I was still trying to digest the night. The closest I could come to describing our experience was years later when I wrote over 400 pages in a poor attempt to imagine the scope of that night. Here is a climaxing excerpt that results in the re-enactment of a human sacrifice:

“Plato and Socratio escorted the travelers to the fire and they saw José and Patricio standing in front of a stone pillar. On the pillar was set a stone visage of Dzaui about the size of a large pumpkin. It must have been secreted in the ground before being elevated because it was dark with water the limestone object absorbed. But the damp sculpture was striking for the effect the water-darkened surface gave, reflecting the pink firelight from the matte black surface.

The reflections heightened the contrasting eye sockets, black wells into which the light fell and did not return. The gouged mouth was open in what appeared to be a screaming grin.

The elder brothers stood in front of the pillar and visage with their arms raised and their voices chanting together in a sing-song wail. The song line rose and fell, turned from duet to solo and back to duet as the two sturdy-throated men twined their voices in a song old as the stones.

Their costumes were even more striking, with plumes and ornaments of an unbelievable variety of colors. The costumes were readily recognizable for anyone who had studied the codices of the ancient Mixtec civilization. There was a breathtaking extravagance about the dress that underlined the intricate vocal celebrations. The effect the scene had, lit by a fire that other men were feeding to a frenzy, was striking. Exciting.”

Neither Juan or I felt willing to repeat our mushroom experience. But he also had brought back what he called Ojos del La Pastora (Eyes of the Shepherdess) that were leaves you chew then hold in your mouth without swallowing. After fifteen minutes you spit it out then lay back in the dark and brace yourself for the carnival to start. It was amazing stuff. Not life-changing like psilocybin; more like being a character in the movie Roger Rabbit.

April 13 2017

The plot of Murder in the Tetons is infused with psychedelia and historic indigenous practices like ritual human sacrifice. Why? Because I met spirits of the ancient city. I was writing Murder in Jackson Hole at the time and took a lot of notes after the experience to use to plot the sequel.

I previously mentioned that the camp carpenter was from the once-famous pueblo of Huautla de Jimenez, a stopover on the Hippie Trail of the 1970s.

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/08/world/huautla-journal-the-place-for-trips-of-the-mind-bending-kind.html

I had noticed s tattoo of a mushroom on his upper arm and guessed that he was a member of the cult, but said nothing until I got to know him better. I gave him a safety award for his immaculate work shop and other efforts that distinguished him from the camp layabouts.

 

Receiving a Safety award lent a lot of status so he was appreciative enough to trust me. After a while I knew, or could find out, everything going on with the crew. Western’s and Perforadata’s management had formed a cabal to keep me in the dark, but after the laborers found out I came from the same part of American society they occupied in Mexico there were no more secrets. Actually, I was the only manager who knew most of the truth.

The pyramid at the center of Achiutla’s ceremonial life was built on the southern tip of a mountain that loomed above the town. On the overlook above the San Juan River was the plaza where human sacrifices and other rituals had been practiced. The place is now occupied by a huge colonial Dominican monastery. The Catholic Church built their holy buildings over pagan power places in order to confound the old gods. Given the size of the monastery that replaced it, the plaza must have been a large place. The sacred ball game of the Mexican peoples had to be large enough for the standard ball court and stadium seats. The losing teams were sacrificed to the gods so it was also a bloody place.

 

A small dam had been built at the toe of the hill to catch the water from a big spring that runs from the arroyo west of the place. It was considered sacred, and was about half a mile walk over rough terrain from base camp, but easily covered under the light of a full moon.

The reservoir is a refreshing place during the day. In Murder in the Tetons I sited a fictitious cave next to the dam where the figure of a sacred artifact representing the Mixtec rain god Dzaui, rescued from Jackson Hole, is resuscitated. After what happened to us at the holy spring it wasn’t hard to imagine a dead god being brought to life through the re-enactment of human sacrifice.

Juan had brought back some santitios from his break, and there was going to be a full moon in a few days so we made a date. There was no privacy in the camp so we needed away from ignorant people. I told him about the little reservoir that saved water from the sacred spring and we agreed to eat the “little saints” there.

When evening came we went down to the dam and leisurely ate six mushrooms each, two at a time, and talked about indigenous customs and rituals of Oaxaca. I noticed that the river below the dam began to glow a neon blue and the little reservoir began to shimmer and dance. The landscape began to be very, very, important in an inexplicable way and became incomprehensibly different. I looked at Juan and he was radiant. My hands were radiant. The ground where we sat came alive.

If you have had a heavy experience with psychedelics you know that human language can be wholly inadequate. Safe to say, we met some spirits who wanted to make their presences felt..

01 March 2017

In Mexico, chopper pilots are almost exclusively the sons of important people, usually the progeny of officials in Pemex, the country’s oil company. Pemex at that time was owned by the government, the oil workers union, and corrupt political figures who are rewarded with shares in the company. Fernando had escaped any repercussions for his past stupidities because he was well-connected, but this dangerous mess was serious. He shut down the helicopter.

The Capataz came from a class near the bottom of the ladder, though he was smart, resourceful, and good with people. In my experience, most Mexican men who hold a position of authority have the first two attributes, but seldom have the third. I told him to get a hose and siphon enough water out of the barrel to make it soft enough to extract. Then I said to the pilot, “Fernando, I can’t fire you directly. However, I guarantee that you will not fly for this crew after today, and if you can’t fly for this crew you may never fly for another American company.”

Up to that point, he was aloof to my safety lectures. However, when he realized that I might have the power to get him blackballed from the most lucrative flying jobs in Mexico. My threats turned out to be just more nails in my corporate coffin, because Nacho overruled me. Not only that, a week later Fernando tried to leave me and the doctor in the field overnight. Instead, we walked to a village and I hired a local to drive us to base camp. But I got the hint.

It was getting dark and I had a long walk ahead of me. I couldn’t fly because of the dog so we walked downhill to the distant village of San Juan Achiutla.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Juan_Achiutla

The swale broadened and turned into hayfields then the little cornfields called milpitas planted beside the river. I’d radioed from the drill site to base camp to send a pickup to come for us at San Juan. We waded the shallow river, walked through another milpita and, as sometimes happened, frightened a couple of kids. They took off screaming, Mami, Mami! at the top of their lungs. A big man with long hair accompanied by huge black dog walking out of the mountains at dusk would be the stuff of any child’s nightmares.

San Juan was built between the river and a limestone cliff about a hundred meters to the west. Sheltered from the afternoon sun, and cooled by the nearby river, it was a pleasant, clean little place. While waiting for my ride, I noticed an old man in traditional homespun and a handmade straw hat. He was squatting near a hole with flames licking out of it.

I bought a five-pack of cigarettes from a roadside kiosk then walked to where he was sitting and gave them to him as a universal gesture of respect I learned from a Shoshone Indian elder named Willie LeClair. He took them, stared at me for a few seconds, then opened the pack and gestured for me to sit down. In the hole I saw that he was firing a graceful clay pot. He stripped a long sliver from a pine stick and lit a cigarette with the flaming splinter that lit his weathered face. His visage was serene, but his eyes looked like they’d seen as much as they’d wanted to.

We didn’t say anything to each other, just sat there for a while, but some other men stopped to visit. When a huge gringo with a big black hound walks into a tiny village the elders have the duty to ask what he is doing there, especially when he walks in from the mountains.

They had heard rumors about the oil exploration operation on the ejido lands and seen the helicopter flying overhead but what was really going on was a mystery. We sat around the fire and I told the story of how we shoot dynamite under the ground and sound waves go into the earth and bounce off rock buried miles below, then are captured by the cables and geophones laid out on the mountains above their town.

It is an exotic story to them, barely believable, and they are enthralled so I am too. To have the honor of being the storyteller around a fire, the snapping flames reflecting off the faces of men native to an obscure culture is a dream straight out of the books I’d read as a boy. It was the first, but not the last time, that I would look around me and think, “My god, I’m having an adventure!”

14 February 2017

My reasons for these long hikes through dangerous country were to make surprise inspections of the drill crews, to keep them looking over their shoulders. Drillers are sloppy about safety, always doing things like mishandling explosives and working without required safety equipment. Like men all over the world, they preferred to depend on their reflexes and luck to save themselves. I had to use surprise inspections to make them use safe practices.

Where life is cheap “safety” as an organizational concept is almost unheard of. In Mexico the crews had never heard of anyone walking for hours in steep terrain to make inspections, and they both admired and hated me for what I was doing. The laborers would smile when I came walking off a mountain or out of a forest. The Capatazes, foremen, were seldom ready for an inspection, and I made life miserable for the chronically careless ones.

Drill camp move and inspection

I never embarrassed them in front of their men, instead took them aside to chew them out. But that added to my reputation as un hombre de mas cojones. The last thing I always did was to make a list of things the Capataz needed for the crew, then I made sure he got them. This went a long way to getting his cooperation, because much of the equipment his crew needed was sold locally by the supply. It was Mexico and he expected it, but my willingness to take care of those problems personally made grudging admirers of them, but it took a lot of effort with little or no managerial support.

Drill camp kitchen

When I finally got to the drill site they were trying to extract a barrel of water from the cabin of a hovering helicopter. Men were ducking under the tail boom, and dodging the waggling tail rotor, hard hats were blowing around—all the grossest-sort of infractions of helicopter LZ safety. All heavy equipment is supposed to be slung as an external load, and their efforts were making the ship unstable. It was as if they were practicing to have a multiple-fatal accident.

I ran out of the trees into the pilot’s field of view, pulling my right index finger across my throat to signal killing the engine. His eyes bulged and he began shouting to the men who were extracting the barrel, but it only added to the confusion and danger. I had to finally lean into the ship and scream at him to shut the chopper down. Later, I became convinced that my surprise inspection prevented a fatal accident. God works in those ways, y’know.