We had a few firecrackers left over from the packages we had bought passing through town on our way south to the beach at La Salina. We were nervous. We were 13 years old and had never smuggled any contraband into the United States before.
I thought about this a couple of weeks ago with the news stories on that “sophisticated” tunnel under the border, from a warehouse in Tijuana to another warehouse in San Diego. Sophisticated, the authorities said, because it had electric rail cars and lights. And because they found 30 tons of marijuana in the tunnel.
Things have changed, obviously, in the intervening 50 years. Back then Tijuana was quaint. Poor, yes, and dirtier than the places we were used to in Southern California, but harmless in a cheap, colorful, Cantinflas sort of way. Pat’s parents knew some other gringos who owned a little trailer on the bluff above the beach at La Salina, and they offered to take us there after school let out in June. I remember being thrilled with the exchange rate – the first time I’d experienced one – and equally thrilled with the explosives we could buy for just a few pesos.
We spent a lot of time in the dunes digging elaborate tunnel systems and blowing them up. I don’t know that we were necessarily re-enacting Iwo Jima. (Viet Nam was not yet on anybody’s radar.) We were just young boys who liked to light fuses and duck behind the dune grass and hold our ears and watch stuff blow up.
We thought it would be neat to bring a few cherry bombs back home to impress the other kids. They had this waxy coating that let you light one and toss it into the ocean, where, like a mini version of a depth charge in the TV series Silent Service, it erupted in a vertical fountain.
At the border, the U.S. agent took one look at Pat’s Leave It To Beaver parents and waved us through.
A year or two later my dad bought a pickup truck and a used cab-over camper, and suggested we take the rig on a shakedown cruise into Baja California, the three of us men, with Pat. We took along two .22-caliber rifles. One was my dad’s, the other must have been Pat’s, and we planned to camp a couple of nights along the deserted road to Mexicali.
The Mexican guards at Tijuana never stopped anybody with U.S. plates. We sailed through. (Can you imagine getting caught sneaking guns into Mexico now, with the drug wars and the wholesale trafficking of weapons into Mexico? Not to mention the DEA and Operation Fast and Furious.)
Out in the desert we plinked away at tin cans. We shot at and invariably missed a few rabbits. When it came time to cross back, at Mexicali-Calexico, we suddenly got paranoid about the guns. I don’t know if my dad was genuinely worried or if he just felt a little chagrined that he hadn’t really thought through the whole deal. At any rate, we decided to hide the rifles under the mattress in the cab-over. And Pat and I were to lie up there on top of them, like little kids, chins on our hands, peering innocently out the front window.
In those days you didn’t need a passport; you didn’t need insurance. Mexico was like another state to the south of California, a tattered, somewhat disreputable (or unfortunate) state, for sure, but it didn’t represent the ideological divide it has become. I don’t remember debates about “illegal” immigrants. Braceros and their families came north to pick vegetables in the San Joaquin Valley, but they were not viewed as a threat. We had a twice-a-month gardener come to our house when I was in high school named Mr. Ogata. He was Japanese.
As I recall, the border at Calexico was empty. We drove up to the U.S. agent, who asked a few questions of my dad at the wheel, and waved us through. My stomach didn’t settle until many miles later.
There is one more border story. Same Ford pickup and camper. Only this time I was driving. I was 19 and had borrowed Dad’s rig to take my two college roommates to Baja for the weekend. We were sophisticates by then, of course. Paul was already an expert on Scotch whiskeys, and Dane, a Canadian, knew all that could be known about Hiram Walker and Sons. We would spend a night in Ensenada, load up on no-questions-asked booze and return to campus with unimaginable riches.
(The dinner in Ensenada is famous still in family lore because of Dane’s negotiation with our waitress. The menu listed dozens of examples of the local catch: lobster, red snapper, yellowtail, rock bass, calico bass, black sea bass, and on and on. Dane asked for the black sea bass, and the waitress said, “Si, feeesh.” And Dane said, “No, you see, I want this particular fish, the black sea bass.” And she came back again: “Si, feeesh.”
That went on for a while before Dane gave up and ate the delicious mystery fish she eventually brought out.)
We hid the liquor in several places – there were a lot of bottles – underneath the floorboards in the bottom of a cabinet and beneath the dinette floor. We weren’t going to fool anybody who was really looking; we just hoped we would slide through with maybe a cursory glance in the back door.
But this time the border agent at Tijuana glowered and ordered me to pull over under the lights beside a green florescent-lit building. Later in life I would see movie scenes of border crossings in sinister East-bloc countries that reminded me of that light. We were told to get out and enter the building, where another officer queried us about our trip.
I couldn’t stop looking out the window at the two agents tearing the camper apart. They looked under the mattress. They checked in all the cabinets. They pulled our backpacks and sleeping bags out on the ground and went through them all. I swear, one guy lifted up the floor under the dinette and looked right at a couple of bottles. I thought, oh great, here I am just an adult – well almost – and already I’m going to jail for underage smuggling. And they’re going to confiscate my father’s truck!
But the guy put the plywood floor back in place and moved on. Eventually, they let us go. We still had our stash, but the adrenaline had pumped for so long we were empty, drained even of relief.
Decades later, Ellen and I were driving north on Interstate 5, many miles from the border, when traffic slowed to a crawl. It was night. We were returning from a memorial for my uncle in San Diego and we had just passed through Encinitas, a once sleepy town known for its surf break and fields of commercially grown flowers.
For miles the freeway was stalled. When we finally got to the head of the line, we found it was a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, lights flashing, flashlights pointing in windows. Everyone was suspect. You never know who might have four or five desperate Mexicans in the trunk.