In the 1950s, the start of the great American culture shift began. The boys and girls who would one day transform society still played cowboys and Indians, war, or hopscotch. Their parents, who spent the final years of the forties celebrating after the gloom of the Great Depression and World War II, had by the middle of the next decade all but partied out, but not so their offspring, those privileged kids of the “Greatest Generation.”
At the end of There Is a Generation, West Texans Hect and Tim met a black man in the Juarez, Mexico jail named Juweel, or “Ju,” who grew up in South Africa somewhere. Ju wouldn’t reveal where he’d been born because of a hatred for nationalism, saying he “belonged to whichever country didn’t know he was there.”
Ju, Hect, and Tim escaped from jail on the back of a giant truck with balloon tires able to drive over a high-voltage, electric fence. Tim might not have gone, except he unintentionally offended a gang leader of cutthroat convicts. While making their getaway, they clung on the back of the truck’s cab, balancing on the bed rails while speeding through the night out into the Mexican desert. Tim burned his hand grabbing an exhaust pipe and, barely able to hold on, at the first bump did a somersault through the truck frame. The driver wouldn’t stop, and Tim got left behind. The tumble knocked him out cold. He woke up before sunrise surrounded by a vast desert, which as soon as the sun came up, would begin the countdown to an agonizing death. Lost, hurt, thirsty, and with little hope of ever finding civilization, he started walking.
At long last, he happened onto a broken-down windmill. After Tim made some repairs to get the windmill working, the next night three thirsty mules heard water splashing in the trough and stopped by for a drink. Tim befriended them. One in particular, which he dubbed “Half-Ear,” allowed Tim on his back, and the three mules carried him to a farm on the edge of a small village outside Juarez. The farm’s owners, Bernardo and Maria, took him the rest of the way to the border of Texas.
Safe at home at last, Tim was surprised by a $2000 check in his name from Trustworthy Insurance Company as a reward for saving them paying losses on a dress shop. The owner of the dress shop set fire to the building in an attempt to collect damages, having stored her inventory in an old shack in a deserted auto junk yard. This same abandoned shack Tim and Hect burned down on a lark, and then spotted a blazing human figure in a window, which turned out to be a mannequin. Not knowing that at the time, the boys began their adventures as fugitives from the law in the belief they were murderers. Despite ending up innocent of the “death row” crime and $2000 richer, Tim could hardly celebrate for being guilt ridden over his best friend who was still out in the Mexican desert somewhere at a mysterious place called “the camp.”
Chapter One – The Camp
The sun bore down with cremating heat out of a vaulted sky. Even the buzzing flies passed by with what sounded like tiny screams. Four long trailers had parked in a semicircle close by a “town of spirits,” as Raul had called the ghost town in his so-so English. Empty buildings in various stages of collapse gave the one-intersection town with its dirt roads a haunted look. The tallest structure in town, a water tower, had a death’s-head painted on it. Below the skull and crossbones, the Spanish word Toxicohad been added. Past the water tower stretched a wide, flat desert whose lonely occupants, whirlwinds, waltzed across a sandy dance floor.
Young men stood motionless in evenly spaced lines. Most looked about my age, fifteen or so, and yet at the same time older somehow. No one spoke, nor did any eye stray from straight ahead. I surveyed the rows of sunburned faces searching for Hect, hoping to find him, despite knowing better. Sure enough, no luck. How sad to come all the way across the Mexican desert to finally locate the notorious hidden camp and, more importantly, to rescue my best friend and end up empty-handed.
Moments earlier, the “boys,” as the Commander had called them, entered the mess hall in a most un-boy-like manner. Each one dressed alike in T-shirts and khakis, marching stiff as toy soldiers with not a smile among them. They arrived double-file, every pair of eyes to the front as their boot heels pounded the metal floor like the slow boom-boom-boom-boom of a kettledrum. As they approached, I stood in the middle of a room filled with empty tables, the one out-of-uniform newcomer, feeling like a helpless bug being encircled by red ants.
Once past the entrance, the double-line divided. Both ranks peeled off across the front of the building, marched, turned ninety degrees, marched, went down along each wall, and cut a second squared-off turn. The two lines met at the back of the room, stopped, turned sharply, and faced the center, forming a rectangle in which I wound up the focal point.
“Hi-yaah-tu!” a lone high-pitched voice squealed.
The lines along the walls broke apart at what must have been a command and reformed around each table as if everyone knew their place. No one sat. Instead, they snapped their heels in a single click while remaining ramrod straight.
One young man from out of the crowd went to the front, striding importantly. Tall, lanky, and muscular, his body nevertheless appeared out of balance because of an overly small head. From his broad shoulders down, he was powerfully built, but from his shoulders up his head looked a little bigger than a softball. Unlike everyone else in their T-shirts and khakis, he wore a buckskin suit with tassels and knee-length moccasins fringed in strips of leather. The tassels resembled hundreds of tiny legs and had no doubt been the inspiration for his nickname El Ciempies or, as Raul translated for me, “The Centipede.” One look at his acne-ravaged face, made even fiercer because of all the pockmarks and pimples, and it became obvious why, again according to Raul, no one called him that except behind his back.
Since our arrival late yesterday, Raul had found out a good bit about our leader in talking with others. Although I’d been knocked unconscious the whole time, they’d told him that Centipede actually came from a border town in Mexico; that he went to school in Texas where he’d learned English; that he’d been recruited early on and that, being a fanatic and cruelly ruthless, he’d achieved his present leadership role. They also said he was very sensitive about his looks, especially his odd-sized head, and to never make the mistake of saying “Centipede” in his presence; that one recruit, who spotted a venomous Texas Redhead crawling up a friend’s pant leg, cried out the name in formation, and the leader flew into such a rage that he searched the assembly one by one until he found the quaking recruit, who he then challenged on the spot. The fight that followed was not only one-sided and unfair, but gory beyond description.
The gawky leader lifted both arms, pumping his fists while parading back and forth on the podium. “Ahhh-aha-ahaaa!” he yelled at the tops of his lungs, reminding me of Tarzan’s jungle cry in the movies. “Ahhh-aha-ahaaa!”
Everyone around the tables stiffened their posture and clicked their heels again. He slammed one fist into his chest, making a thud. The room responded, ramming their fists across their own chests, making an answering THUD that echoed off the metal walls. Not wanting to be the odd one out, I imitated the salute, but too late. The room already quieted. The buckskin-outfitted leader’s glance fastened on me. My knees quaked. I’d managed to accomplish the one thing I wished to avoid—attract his attention.
Next, Centipede clapped his hands three times quickly, and the whole room sat down as one, except for me. I’d been so worried about making a poor first impression that I failed to react. This drew yet another scornful glare, but I got down as fast as possible.
Centipede clapped his hands twice and everyone produced a notepad and pencil. He then left the platform. The tension in the room eased. Rather than anyone talking, laughing, or roughhousing, they behaved more like serious students preparing for an exam.
Someone shut the blinds, darkening the room, and a projector shot a beam of light onto a screen near the podium. With a sinking heart, I realized a film would begin any minute, possibly a lecture, judging by the studious looks around me, and everyone had come ready to take notes but me, much like in my school days back home. Fortunately, a problem arose with the projector and the blinds had to be lifted. It was a chance for me to get prepared.
The kid next to me not only had a notebook of several blank pages, but an extra pencil as well. I leaned over close. “Beg your pardon,” I ducked my head and whispered in case Centipede might be within hearing. “I’m new here, my first day actually. Would you loan paper and a pencil to me? I have nothing to write with.”
I could’ve saved my breath. The fellow even scooted his writing materials farther out of my reach as if I might steal one. I turned to my neighbor to the other side, but he stretched out a tattooed arm, creating a sort of blockade between us. This seemed odd. Never in all my days as a student had I run into two so unwilling to oblige.
Wary of disappointing Centipede as I had done twice already, I motioned for the table to lean in close. “I’m sorry.” I spoke as loud as I dared. “I’m from Texas and have nothing to write with. Yesterday I was…” I started to say “captured” but changed my mind. “Brought here out of the desert, and I know nothing about any of this or where I am, actually. Would someone please loan me writing materials?”
No one budged. Everyone stared with blank, joyless expressions. Never had I seen such lifeless eyes. They all seemed to not have laughed in ages, if ever. The glum looks gave me an idea. Weren’t they an audience? A tough one but still an audience. And how long had I been preparing for just such an occasion—not exactly like this for sure, but still—to perform? Had all my stand-up routines at the Joke Shop back home where I’d practiced performing in front of live audiences been wasted? Had the untold hours doing impressions before a mirror and throwing my voice been for nothing? Was I a ventriloquist, or not? And what had the founder of the Joke Shop, who in his day had written lines for such legends as Edgar Bergen, drummed into my head before going on stage—“Grab their interest to start or bomb.”
After a deep, bracing inhale and slow, nerve-settling exhale, I extended my right arm to the center of the table and made a puppet of my fist. “Pssst! Guys?” By moving my thumb up and down for a bottom lip, my fist turned into a mouth. “Hey, fellows? Look’it here!”
Those at the table looked at my hand, then up at my mouth, then back to my hand, and finally to my mouth again. One or two smiles broke out. Such a feeling of relief came over me that I had to really focus. My audience hadn’t been won over yet. “My name’s Pepe.” That had been the stage name for my puppet at the Joke Shop. “My friend needs a pen and paper, please.”
All eyes stared at my hand puppet. A single giggle from among the onlookers proved the inspiration I needed. “My friend forgot to bring something to write with.”
The neighbor to my left, the one who shunned me first, bent down for a closer look. He was about my age, although his shoulders came to my eye level. His face had rough, leathery skin. A tic kept bunching one cheek, tugging his upper lip and partly opening that corner of his mouth. Just as it seemed there’d be no reaction, he looked over and his face lit up. His whole personality changed with that smile. I heaved a silent sigh.
Encouraged, I extended my third and fourth fingers and, while using my thumb and index finger for a mouth, strutted the hand puppet back and forth across the table as best I could. Smothered laughter came from every direction, which pleased me as much as a standing ovation.
A red-haired fellow across the table motioned everyone to lean in close. For a second, I resented the intrusion, worried he might be hogging the limelight. “El Ciempies,” he murmured, pointing at my puppet. This brought on repressed snickers.
Not until then did I realize the figure did look like Centipede. His long-legged strut, his being all mouth, and his having no head to speak of made the puppet a dead ringer. Because of this, I used my little finger as best I could to cross my puppet’s chest in a Roman-style salute as the lanky leader had done and breathed a quiet, “Ahhh-aha-ahaaa!”
This really broke everyone up. I became so absorbed in the fun I forgot who might be standing within easy viewing range. Some in the audience stifled laughter behind their hands, while others, with shoulders quaking, buried their heads in their arms atop the table. To my great delight, several elbowed their neighbors, increasing the number of onlookers. I was a hit, if I did say so myself. Such a bounty of pencils and paper appeared in front of me that, if Centipede weren’t around, I would’ve jumped up and shouted for joy.
However, the next moment everything tanked. The room darkened, and my small audience turned away one by one until all faced the projector screen. The reason for their lost interest, besides the film beginning, could only be one thing—the novelty had worn off. Anyone who’d studied the entertainment business for very long had read about the “Comedian’s Curse.” Those who couldn’t come up with fresh jokes were doomed. Every book on the subject warned about the letdown and resulting depression that followed the Comedian’s Curse. Unless prepared for beforehand, many a comic sunk into despair and a career-ending loss of sense of humor. Thankfully, the film started, sparing me from the disappointment. After the thrill I’d just experienced, though, who could pay attention? Not me, unfortunately.
The film finished at last, but before I could set up to perform again everyone at the tables stood. This time, unlike their orderly entrance into the mess hall, they left as a milling mob. I tried to show the last stragglers my puppet trick, but they acted in too big a rush. Consequently, I ended up one of the last ones out the door.
In no hurry and still relishing my recent triumph, I stood under an awning at the top of a short staircase, overlooking the trailers, the ghost town and the water tower with the sloppily painted death’s-head. Down below in a dirt yard, three square formations had already assembled, each composed of four lines.
That’s when it hit me. The sight brought to mind my predicament. Where to go? No one had told me. Either that, or else the film had given instructions and I failed to pay attention. A cold dread spread over me. From where I stood, no open spaces appeared in the even lines of bodies.
I hurried down the steps. The afternoon sun, after the shade, felt like going under a launch pad where a rocket was blasting off. Reflections from shiny objects pricked my eyes, while patches of shade, rare as they were, looked as inviting as cave openings.
The assembly stood at attention. Our buckskin-outfitted leader paced back and forth in front of everyone, appearing the picture of impatience. I hunched down behind the last line, still searching for a gap to fill, but was unable to find an opening. The view between the lines of recruits went all the way to the front. Our lanky leader had stopped pacing. His tiny head with its quick eyes rotated mantis-like. How long could I go on without being noticed? Should I try to sneak back into the mess hall? But how to get up the stairs without being seen? I almost wished the earth would open up and swallow me. As expected, those two beady eyes locked onto the one out-of-place oddity.
Centipede cocked his miniature head as if unable to understand at first, but then his pimply face reddened and jutted forward. He shrieked a cry like some awful parrot and stabbed a finger at the ground in front of him. Left with no choice, I crept forward, cringing and shivering with every step, barely able to keep my legs underneath me while stammering an apology.
Centipede made a sweeping gesture with his hand, but I couldn’t stop. He had to understand that my disruption hadn’t been on purpose.
The small-headed leader charged forward as if to run me down. I shrank back, covering my head, but thankfully no blows came.
“Fifty sit-ups!” he yelled down on my head.
I peeked out from under one arm, uncertain I heard right. Fifty? Did he say “fifty?” But I can’t do that many. I’d never done so much as one. “I’m sorry, but—
Sixty? That’s even worse. As I stared, his furious face bobbed up and down, which seemed strange until I realized my own trembling was the cause. “N-No, pardon, but—
Impossible! This was getting out of hand. What was needed was for everyone to take a deep breath. “H—Hold on, let me ex—
“Oh, really, that’s out of the question. I’d never be able—
“Please, listen, won’t you? I’m out of shape. A weakling, really, who c—
“One hundred. More?”
I wondered what the chances of going back to fifty were. It didn’t take an Einstein to know better than to ask. Maybe if I showed him I couldn’t do it, he’d be satisfied? So I dropped to my knees. The sand’s heat burned through my jeans and stung me despite my shirt as I stretched out onto my back. After crossing my hands over my chest, I twisted through every contortion imaginable to accomplish eleven sit-ups. Exhausted, I fell back and squinted at a bright sun straight above, hoping by some miracle the effort would make him happy.
A narrow shade overshadowed me, blocking the sun. Directly above, a small face exactly fit the orange ball in the sky and outlined his shrunken head in a fiery halo. He bent down close. With a calloused finger, he lifted my chin, tilting my head back into the sand.
“In thirty days, you’ll do two hundred sit-ups, two hundred squat-thrusts, duck-walk one-hundred meters, and run fifteen kilometers with a pack—all before breakfast. You’ll read and study at night and learn what we teach perfectly.” He snorted. “You stay here today. Tonight, too. No water. Tomorrow you do one hundred sit-ups or stay the next day and night.” Before leaving, he chucked me under the chin with a painful scrape of his rough finger. “Now, prac—tice.”
The bad-tempered leader left, followed by all the others. With everyone gone, I let go a long, slow, emptying sigh. Doing a hundred sit-ups might as well be a thousand. In case Centipede still watched, though, I laid unmoving except for my twitching stomach muscles. After licking sand off my chapped lips, I tried sit-ups again, this time reaching twelve. An improvement, but still a long way to go. I tried once more. Twenty-one, but on the last three I cheated by pushing off with one hand. Was it even possible for someone who had never done so much as one sit-up to do a hundred within twenty-four hours? Doubtful. Very doubtful. Sure enough, the next try I only made it to ten before collapsing, my worst effort yet. No, I’d been wrong before. Not a thousand sit-ups, more like ten thousand.
As I lay there grieving over the hopelessness of the task, only one question occupied my mind. How in the world did I ever get myself into such a mess?