Thursday, May 01, 2003

Most summers as a child, my family would make its way down to my grandmothers house in Mexico.

The house was not what it once was. Before my grandfather died, they had had not only pigs and chickens but also cows and a small stable of horses. My grandmother, to make ends meet, had sold off most of the livestock and even sold off tracts of land.

Nevertheless, the now small house still had its charms for me. In Mexico, many houses are built around a central patio. The patio is open to the elements and is surrounded by covered corridors. The rooms of the house are off of these corridors, surrounding the patio. When it rains, for example, the safest way to get from room to room is of course to walk around the central courtyard. But, the best and fastest way, certainly for a small child, is to run madly through the rain.

My mother would pass the summers cooking and gossiping with neighbors. All the people in the small village would walk from house to house to stop and chat, moving almost synchronously, like some large coordinated dance. Children, including my brother and I, would hop around like cats, climbing random fixtures, sitting at first quietly and then making sudden, unexpected dashes, playing with slingshots and soccerballs, whatever we could find.

My father would spend most of his days sitting in the sun listening to old records, Beethoven, Mexican mariachi, Benny Goodman, even Chuck Berry. He would invite over his own friends, other men, and together they would concoct some new liquor, usually a mixture of tequila and the juice of an exotic fruit.

My father also often had some project, or perhaps better said, some crazy idea that occupied him wholly throughout the summer. In these schemes, he would recruit us kids since we were cheap labor and were always game for something new.

One summer he declared to us kids that after some initial investigations of his own, he had come to the conclusion that there was hidden treasure somewhere in the walls of my grandmothers house.

There were old stories and rumors, he explained, that sometime during the Mexican Revolution, my grandmothers house had hosted a small cadre of bandits (for some reason the word bandit always summons up for me a picture of an unshaved man with an eyepatch) and that the bandits had arrived with stolen treasures. Apparently they had left the house to go one some new raid but then never returned, presumably either captured or had a bad run-in with other bandits. In any case, my father concluded, the treasure must still be inside the house.

And so it began. My father was our commanding general. We were his dutiful lieutenants. He had made a rough sketch of the house and pointed out to us where he believed the treasure might be hidden. Our first task he explained was to scout out likely hiding places. He showed us how we should knock on walls and listen for the sort of non-thud sound that would betray the presence of a hollow.

In retrospect, I do wonder why my mother showed no reaction to having a small army of neighborhood kids stalking through rooms, knocking on walls, crouching in corners. She must have dismissed these antics as the impenetrable games of children.

The next phase arrived rather quickly. My most vivid memory is of my brother telling me excitedly that something had been found and that even now my father was out back excavating it. I ran out behind the house and discovered my father kneeling on the muddy ground with his hands reaching into some hollow he had dug up. I've found it! There's a metal box buried in the walls!, he turned to me and said in triumph and then returned to his work.

My father did indeed make a find but it was less than he expected. The metal box was an old ammunition container and inside the box was no treasure, it was nothing but paper - old receipts, tax documents, scribbles. This box more likely held the secrets of an old tax dodger than of a pirate. Still, my father diligently studied all the papers, hoping some new mystery, perhaps a battered treasure map would be revealed.

It was in the following days that the women of the house, to their horror, discovered my father's excavations. They were outraged that he had been digging small holes in my grandmothers house, all for what they considered a childish game. My father, under their stark glare, made a sheepish confession.

It was hard not to feel pity for my father and, at first, we did help him to undo his destruction. But my mother, in a fit of vengeance, deemed that my father would have no help. That it was his idea, not ours and so it was his burden.

I wouldn't say my brother and I were happy to be characterized as unwilling pawns. But, if it meant we got to run off and play while my father plastered walls, then so be it. The rest of that summer was fairly miserable for my father although some of his elder friends did come to help him, mixing strange tequila drinks with him and listening to old records as they leisurely rebuilt my grandmothers house.

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