I’m a Boomer, born long enough ago that I remember the Gringo Trail when it was a trail, lined with forgotten beach hideaways, not a superhighway lined with all-inclusive resorts.
I was stuck in Puerto Arista, a nasty little beach town in southern Mexico on the Pacific side. It was late 1978, and I was broke, out of ideas, out of places to go, and I had amoebic dysentery, or “los bichos”. Puerto Arista was a terrible place to be broke and sick. One main drag, unpaved, lined with tin-roofed cabanas and a stony beach. No shade, no palm trees and a couple of thatched bars. That’s it. The beach was rocky, and there was a wicked undertow a few feet off shore, where the bottom dropped out. I almost drowned the first time I tried swimming there. The short lethal waves would break over your head before you could draw a breath, and leave you tumbling in a vortex of bubbles and sand.
I’d come with a friend, and he’d had the good sense (and the money) to leave. I couldn’t afford to. My salvation came in an unlikely form. I met him in one of the bars one morning.
Capt. John Yancey, USMC (Ret.) was a retired liquor store owner, and Arkansas’ most decorated war hero. He had earned his first Navy Cross in WWII, along with a battlefield commission to Lieutenant, and then joined up again for Korea at the age of 32. He and his company of 270 men attacked up Hill 1282 during the Battle of Choisin Reservoir. He took three Chinese bullets to his face, and ended up leading just 23 men back down the hill after taking it and being reinforced. He walked 10 miles to the medic tent. He won his second Navy Cross for that, plus 3 Purple Hearts. Many think he should have gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Come Vietnam, at the age of 45, he tried to enlist again, to lead a company of marines. They unfortunately wouldn’t take a man so riddled with holes. It was around this time he got involved in state politics in Arkansas, supporting integration. He ran for Senator on this platform against the noted racist and later Governor, Orval Faubus, and lost. He knew he would, but he had to do it. He’d served with too many good black soldiers.
Several years later, there he was, driving his 1963 Pontiac from Guatemala to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he had an apartment and some friends. He stopped in Puerto Arista on the way, and needed someone to help him with the driving. Thanks be, he asked me. He’d pay the room and board for the trip. I tried, I really tried to drive that car, but it was a three-on-the-tree, and I just couldn’t make it work. Poor John ended up doing all the driving. John always wore a one piece overall with short sleeves and short pants that he had designed for himself. It looked silly, but it was very practical and comfortable, and had lots of pockets. In the shirt pocket, along with his currency, John kept a tiny loaded automatic.
We got to Cuernavaca, John turned in to his apartment and I booked the cheapest hotel in the center of town I could find. John spent the next few days introducing me to all his friends. They were a motley crew to be sure. There was Margaret, a dear middle-aged lady who loved square-dancing. Her ex-husband had been the CIA station chief in Chile in 1973, just 4 years before, when Allende was overthrown. She used to say “The colonels and the generals, they were so dashing, they danced so well. Especially General Leigh”. Air General Gustavo Leigh Guzman was the man who invented air-dropping dissidents out of helicopters over the ocean.
Then there was Bill, the ex-CIA spook, who seemed to have forgotten the “ex” part. He was always armed, and would often, late at night and drunk, accost innocent drivers in their cars and force them to drive him home from the Zocalo.
The Zocalo, that’s where everyone met in the evening for café and drinks. The CIA spooks would share tables with the veterans of the Spanish Civil War, the former members of the Lincoln-Washington Brigade and its Canadian equivalent, the MacKenzie-Papineau Brigade. Blacklisted New York intellectuals would sip café express with crypto-Fascists and old OSS men, dedicated still to the downfall of Communism.
Once, sitting in the Zocalo, I saw a big black Mercedes drive through. In the back seat, clearly recognizable, were Henry Kissinger and the newly former Shah of Iran. Henry was gently taking him to his first exile, a mansion outside town. By the way, this Zocalo, unlike many more modern town squares, still had a classic Paseo every weekend evening. The boys in their finery would walk arm-in-arm clockwise around the Zocalo, while the girls, in their finery, would walk arm-in-arm counterclockwise. Everybody was on display, and many brides were courted. In the soft Mexican twilight, it’s the most romantic thing imaginable.
Eventually I met Ruth, an indomitable octogenarian from New York City. She and her husband had left the US during the McCarthy years and never returned. She was very active in the local expat cultural centre, where they had book groups, poetry readings and pottery classes. That’s another story, but I ended up building Ruth a theatre for her cultural centre and running it for her. We put on two dozen plays in two years, some in Spanish, some in English, some in both tongues. Our masterwork was a production of Peter Weiss’ Marat-Sade, with a cast of dozens. The church which was our landlord, took umbrage at the explicitly anti-clerical tone of the play and kicked us out. I left shortly after.
But I’ll never forget John Yancey, and I owe him a debt of gratitude. He literally rescued me at my lowest point, and gave me a new purpose. He died in 1986, and has a statue in Fayetteville and a Marine Reserve company in Texas named after him. He didn’t look like a hero, with his white cotton short-short onesies and his collapsed face and the tiny automatic pistol in his shirt pocket, but he was. A real life everyday hero. Semper fi, John.