THE FIRT TIME I ever went to Eagle Pass, Texas, I was a third-grader. I joined all the other students from my school who’d tested positive for TB on a school bus for the 45-mile trip to an old hangar in an abandoned Air Force base. There, a giant X-ray machine (at least it seemed that way) would scan our small bodies and decide if we had TB or not.
Getting on that bus was the loneliest action I had ever taken. I felt like an outcast. If I had known then what a leper was, I would have felt like one. If I had known then about the Holocaust, I would have felt like a Jew being shipped off to a concentration camp aboard a rail car. I felt worse than what I imagined the students who periodically were found to have lice on their heads and treated with a white powder on their hair.
That I was with about 30 or 40 other students mattered little. I was still an outcast. It was likely that I felt that way because nobody else in my immediate family had tested positive for TB, but at that point in my early life, I wasn’t into analyzing the emotions that gripped my heart.
I was already feeling bad — different – because, as I wrote in a previous post, that year was the first year I had been required to go to the El Campo school. That was not the name of the school. It was known as Airport 2 School, because it was near the airport (why bother coming up with a real name for a school attended by Mexicans?), but we called it that because the school had it’s beginning as one of several schools built during World War II in a camp for the Japanese-American and German-American kids who had been forced to move to South Texas with their families (some of the Japanese families were from South America).
When the war ended, the government turned over the camp — including it’s airport and schools — to the city and school district. This particular school became a junior high school until the late 50s when a new junior high was built and the school became another elementary school for Mexican kids, particularly those from migrant families.
The school I felt I should be attending was Grammar School, which was about four blocks from my home. That was where my two sisters (one and three years older than I) went to school and that was the school I always assumed I would attend after I left DeZavala, the school for first and “pre-primer” grades. Pre-primer was like kindergarten for the Mexican kids who did not know English when they turned 6. It was the grade during which we were supposed to learn enough English to enter the first grade.
Grammar School was also the school that housed all the Anglo elementary students. Each grade got a certain number of teachers at the beginning of the year and as the Mexican migrant kids from our neighborhood returned from the northern states, they were allowed to enroll in a class at Grammar until each class filled up. In the second grade, I was lucky enough to be one of those students who were able to get a place in one of the Grammar classes (Mrs. Busby was my teacher).
But when we returned from North Dakota the next year and I went to Grammar, fully expecting to join one of the third-grade classes, I was turned away. I would have to go to the Airport School, the all-Mexican, mostly migrant school at the other end of town. It was a traumatic rejection for me. It meant that I would be separated from my sisters and most of my neighborhood playmates and would have to walk more than a mile each day across town.
Even at that early age I recognized that Airport was an inferior school. Unlike the solid brick building that housed Grammar, the Airport classrooms were in drafty wood-frame buildings. The playgrounds were either a desert of bare dirt or a sea of sticky mud.
To make matters worse, that year was the year that school officials decided there were too many students at Airport and they had to send some of us to the old junior high, which they now called Airport 2 (the other became Airport 1).
So I was already feeling like an outcast. I — who had always been the good boy, who had always followed the rules, who had never caused any trouble — was now somehow being punished, sent into exile far, far from my home.
I’m happy to report that the feeling of being an outcast didn’t last very long. It was only a matter of time before I became inured to the idea of getting up earlier than my sisters so I could get to school in time, to not being able to go home for lunch, to walking and running across a muddy (or, more often than not, dusty) field filled with thick mesquite brush, to try to get to the high school in time to hop on the bus that hauled the rural kids to their homes before it departed for its next stop, Grammar School. Getting on that bus meant getting home at least half an hour earlier, and about a mile less walking. I didn’t always succeed, but I always tried, and every time I hopped on that bus, driven by Don Chema (who was also the high school janitor), I would have done a high five had high fives been invented back then.
I made friends at Airport 2. There was a kid named Raul Reyes, who lived about six or seven blocks from my home and became sort of my best friend. He was a stud, even in third grade. He combed his hair like Elvis and he would sing You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes at our class parties, complete with the hip swivels and snarling lips. The girls loved him and the rest of us envied him. His family eventually decided to stay in Wisconsin year-round and I lost track of him. There were others. Dora Mata, who dressed and acted like some girl out of “Grease,” and who was very popular with all the boys but not so popular with the girls. There was Olga Guerrero, a tall, tall girl. She didn’t care about fancy dresses or girly hairdos and thus she was treated as a weirdo.
Dora and Olga were rivals. They were always getting into fights and vowing to meet each other after school to duke it out. The word would get out and as soon as the final bell rang, throngs of blood-thirsty students from every classroom swarmed around Dora and Olga as they headed down the dirt road towards town. I don’t remember there ever actually fighting, but the excitement of a possible fight was all we needed.
I liked both girls, but I was partial to Olga. First, because she was a Guerrero, daughter of Juan Guerrero, who took his family every summer to the same town in North Dakota to work in the sugar beet fields. As such, Olga was like family. Secondly, because Olga, in her gangly, unsexy way, was seen as an outcast, and nowhere near as popular as the flirty Dora. Even at that early age, I was always – always – for the underdog.
One day, somebody drew a picture on the blackboard of a monster-looking character while Mr. Davenport, our third-grade teacher (funny: for years, I have not been able to remember his name until now, as I am writing this, his name pops into my head). We all found it funny. Then Dora yelled, “Olga,” meaning that the monster represents Olga. Immediately, Olga replied in an equally loud voice, “Dora.”
The next time Dora called out Olga’s name, a few more voices joined her. When Olga responded, it was only her voice that was heard. And each time the routine was repeated, more voices joined Dora until it became a boisterous chorus shouting, “Olga,” and only a defiant Olga declaring, “Dora.”
I had kept quiet throughout until I felt I couldn’t sit by any longer and the next time Olga said, “Dora,” my timid voice joined her. And it continued that way, two against thirty or so, until Mr. Davenport came back.
Dora never held it against me. I think she understood. Olga never said anything about it.
I STARTED THIS by writing about a bus ride to a strange town to get find out if I had tuberculosis. You should understand the significance of TB at that time. It was still very much a public health threat. One of my father’s younger brothers had died of TB in the mid-1940s, leaving his wife with six children to feed. In the mid-50s, one of their older children was found to have TB and he was taken from his family to a sanitarium in San Angelo, where he spent I don’t know how many years. Several years later, his youngest sister was also taken away.
So you can understand why it was a terrifying disease: not because I had any idea what it did to one’s body, but because I feared that if I turned out to actually have the disease, it was possible that I too would be hauled off to a faraway hospital for years and years, away from my family and my neighborhood and my school. Of all my siblings, I was the only one who ever tested positive whenever those TB patch tests were administered, and it was only I who would have to be X-rayed to prove my innocence.
I often wondered what would happened if I were sent to San Angelo or some similar place. My cousins would send home pictures of themselves in the hospital, wearing pajamas and robes. I had never owned a pair of pajamas in my life (underwear and a T-shirt was all I ever needed; why waste good money on pajamas?), and in a way, I envied them. I fantasized about living in a world with indoor toilets and no working in the fields every summer, a world where I would wear pajamas and a robe – and I would try to convince myself that maybe it wouldn’t be that bad.
I’d soon snap out of it, though, because I thought of my mother and thought about how her heart would be totally, completely, irrevocably broken – shattered — if I were taken away from her. I often wondered how my aunt was able to go on with her life with two of her children far away, unable to visit them except maybe once or twice a year. I loved my aunt and was close to her, but she was a stoic, solid person. She never betrayed her emotions. At least not to me. I never asked her.
So, if you’ve read this far (and I thank you for that, if you have), you’ve pretty much figured out that this post is about the fear of alienation, about being scared of being torn away from family and community. And you’re probably wondering (I know I am), if this dread is such a major part of me, why is it that I have spent most of my adult life tearing myself away from family and communities of friends?
The hell if I know. (One of the first columns I wrote for The Houston Post was about this. I’ll try to dig it up and post it here.)
(The first few paragraphs of this post were written in November, when I went home for Thanksgiving and I joined my sisters and various nieces on a trip to Eagle Pass for a movie. I was in the back seat of a car, looking out the window and suddenly the memory of that first trip to that town came to me, and so I took out my iPhone and started writing. Thank you, Steve Jobs.)
Note: I wrote this 11 years ago but I posted on an earlier blog. I thought it would be a good idea to migrate it here, where it belongs. If you’ve read this far, thank you.