TWO BIG PESOS
A "pre-adventure" to the adventure
My orders came down on July 4, 1966. Good date as any, I guess. At least it has a little historical significance.
I got a "heads up" phone call from the Bn Asst S-1 of the Basic Combat Training ( BCT) Brigade at Ft. Bliss, TX where I was assigned. Coulda done without that, actually. The Asst S-1 was generally regarded as a rigid jerk by his fellow officers. He tried to make "First Lieutenant" sound like brigadier general. He coulda wrote a companion pamphlet to Dale Carnegie's classic and titled it: "How To Lose Friends and Really Piss Off People". He called me to let me know the orders to Vietnam were forthcoming and he was speaking to me in compassionate tones. That probably took many hours of practice for him to accomplish.
Well...hell's bells. That meant, among other things, that I had to pack up and move. Here I was on the "waiting list" for months to get a very nice apartment-type BOQ at Ft Bliss. They started you off with sharing a rather sparse double in a painted firebrick two-story building when you come in at the bottom as a new arrival. Then, your next move was to one of these sparse beauties all to yourself. Then, you got to share an apartment. I was enjoying apartment living just for a few months when "the word" comes down. Now I had to "un-ass the area" as we said back then. This meant that all those souvenirs from Juarez, Mexico had to move as well.
Never did travel much...and even less outside the US. So...going down to Juarez was like discovering a whole new world that I never knew existed. I was extremely impressed...both by the shocking level of poverty that existed right outside El Paso and by the seemingly never-ending joy that instilled the life of the Mexican people. Maybe there is a lot of happiness to be gained by ignoring wealth, I don't know. But the word "quaint" just begins to describe the border crossing (before the ugly concrete and steel makeover) and all the shops and souvenirs on the main drag. I really enjoyed visiting Juarez and began collecting many of the American tourist staples, such as the malachite figurines and chess boards, the very artistic yet delicate blown-glass creations, leather goods, carved wooden statues, etc. Also discovered that virtually all of the well-known brands of liquor and liqueurs could be purchased at half-price until you tried to cross back into Texas. Then you were asked the famous question by the border agents: "Do you have anything to declare?" Which almost always meant you had better show your bottles of liquor so that they can keep the Texas nightclubs happy by applying the ABC tax to each bottle. That took a lot away from your Mexican "bargain".
On the other border crossing, the "drive-across" border known as Zaragoza, you saw a more "upscale" version of bordertown Mexico. Here you would find the better hotels, museums, restaurants, etc., attracting the visitors who wanted to see a more modernized version of Mexico. One of the brand new attractions in that area back then was the beautiful "Hipodromo" or race track. They ran greyhounds during the weeknights and the horses on weekends. I was immediately magnetized to the greyhound races because they were devoid of some scrawny-butt jockey yanking their horse backward or electrifying it forward and jacking around with the final outcome of a good race. I became pretty good at betting "quinellas" and made some beer money doing it. It quickly became my favorite off-duty activity and I would zip across the border in order to catch the first race at 7pm.
Oh, yeah...another reason for crossing the Zaragoza border was that you had a lot more room in your vehicle and the trunk to return your souvenirs to the States rather than dragging them across the Ciudad Juarez crossing in shopping bags. If you had the inkling to do so, you could take your chances as to whether the Border Patrol agent would ask you to "open your trunk" after you said that you had nothing to declare. Of course, there is a huge penalty for playing this game and losing. And this, finally, is the subject of my "war story".
With all of the aforementioned "junque" that I had collected from Mexico, I now had to move it. So rather than make many single trips in and out of my quarters, I borrowed a large wooden footlocker from a buddy. I got it the day before I was to begin packing up. That evening was to be my last in the El Paso area, so I wanted to bet on the dogs and try my luck with the quinellas. So, off I go for a final night of dog racing. As I recall, I didn't have the greatest night there, but...what the heck, it was fun. Most of the races only lasted for 32 seconds or so...there wasn't a real long wait to determine if you won or not. Time to go home, so I left early to get a jump on the other Americans returning to Texas. Once you got to the Zaragoza border crossing, the Mexican agents would routinely wave you through. They didn't really care; it was more a matter of national pride. Since the US had agents at the border, they felt they should be there also. The US border agents...now that's a different matter. They would ask the two routine questions...over and over...to each vehicle returning. "What is your citizenship...Do you have anything to declare?" The first question got the automatic answer: "American". (Now, who would be stupid enough to say anything else?) Aha...but the 2nd question was the "go straight to jail" question if you got it wrong. Tell them you have nothing to declare...and they may wave you through back to El Paso. OR...they could say "Please open your trunk". Any undeclared items found in there and you would soon learn how you looked in a striped uniform.
Well, some US agents moved the incoming lines along faster than others did. Perhaps they were making random checks or made a quick judgment of the "honesty" of your face. In any event, it was common to change lanes to the faster-moving line. Only...don't let the Agent catch sight of your vehicle while doing so. This wasn't to be one of those nights. Just as I crossed over to the faster moving line, the Border Agent happened to look up. Oh-oh...not good. So...when I finally reach his station, he asks me the two routine questions. And then...BAM...he nabs me: "Please open your trunk, sir!"
So, I got out of the car, walked to the rear of the vehicle with him and proceeded to open the trunk. Now I was driving my very first vehicle, one of those big, ol' 1959 Chevrolet Impalas. The rear end looked like a flight deck and the trunk could easily hold a footlocker...sideways. I unlock the trunk and the lid flies open. KA-CHINGGG! His eyes bulged to the size of those large, unwieldy Mexican pesos! "Omigawd!", he probably thought! THIS IS IT!! I'll be promoted to Captain...no, Chief of the Border Patrol Agency...I'll get a huge bump in salary...I can retire in luxury! I've caught the biggest and dumbest fish of my career!" He gingerly leans over to reach for the lid of the footlocker as if some monster was waiting inside to jump out and grab him. He opens the lid slowly and.......the BIG NOTHING stares back. He is crestfallen. His dreams have been shot to hell. He waves me on through as if I had just pulled the meanest trick in the world on him.
Har-de-har, pal!! I laughed and laughed...laughed all the way back to Ft. Bliss. I told the story many times...still laughing.
Well...the border agent didn't have any room to complain....at least he wasn't on orders to Vietnam!
Lt Dennis Dauphin