At an RV park, we found a spot with some grass and started to set up our tent. While we were setting up, we introduced ourselves to our neighbor, a permanent resident of the park. Jack Larson immediately began telling us about all his medical problems, and problems with the Social Security Administration and the Veterans Administration.
Oh boy, we thought. Lucky us. A whole RV park and we had to set up to next to the park’s grump. At first we tried to politely ignore him, but it soon became clear that he wasn’t really complaining so much as making conversation, and wanting company.
He had a story to tell, and we love to listen to stories.
Jack drove long-haul truck for 37 years until his kidneys gave out. After several years of fighting with the Veterans Administration (they wanted to put him in a nursing home to die), he bought a small trailer and headed south until he found a place he could afford to live independently. Now he lives full time in the park with his cat Puffer. “I’d never live back in Wisconsin. Been here to long with these people.”
He loves this quiet town on the lower Rio Grande River, and the mostly Hispanic people who live here. The townspeople either seem to be very rich from natural gas reserves and agriculture, or the very poor who work in the melon fields alongside the illegals who cross the river daily to work.
Most of his friends are Hispanic and with them, he speaks tejano (ta han a), a mixture of Spanish and English. “You just start to do it once you been here long as I have.”
That night he showed us ocelot tracks right beside our tent, and told us about the javelinas we might hear in the arroyo during the night, and warned us of rattlesnakes everywhere. (We’ve seen rattler skins nearly six-feet long displayed in restaurants — good for the appetite.) The grump was loosening up and brightening our day with his tales and obvious love of the area.
Not far from our tent, colored lights hung in the shape of a Christmas tree around a palm tree, flashing against a pink tropical dusk.
The next morning while the sun dried our dew-soaked tent, Jack took us for a ride in his pickup to see the Rio Grande, “our sewer ditch.” It is such a small river to run well over 1,000 miles from high in the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico. It is about as wide as our Dungeness, which is only about 30 miles long. The water in the Rio Grande is very low, and now I know why there is so much chlorine in the tap water throughout South Texas. It is the most polluted waterway in the U.S., and all the area’s water comes from it.
After we left the river, Jack took us to the town square, an old fort, and historic houses around town. It is a lovely town of wood and stone and whitewash, cactus and blooming bougainvillea. Mesquite infested with mistletoe shades deep-set windows and ornate ironwork from the heat of the sun.
The town is not preserved as a historic district, but rather lived in and loved. Jack showed us the new Catholic church. The historic one was burned by “devil worshipers” a few years ago and a new one was built in its place, a replica of the old. As Jack is fond of saying, “This here is a different country altogether.”
Then he showed us the street where the wetbacks (illegal immigrants) cross the river and come into town to get rides to the fields. They’ve been coming up the same streets, a block off the town square for many years. They lived here and worked in these fields north of the Rio Grande long before there was a Texas and a U.S.A. They still come and work long days in the melon fields for two or three dollars an hour.
“Would you work all day in 100 degree heat for that kind of money?” asked Jack. They float across in inner tubes, and sometimes there is a ferry. The Border Patrol ignores it during the melon season.
Jack talks a lot about the children of the town; the Christmas pageant last year when they dressed as angels in white and glitter, and sang. His eyes said to me that they broke his heart with joy. He had 80 children come to his trailer with their parents this Halloween. Jack is home now with people who love him.
As we talked, it became more clear why he said he could never live anywhere else. This is the home he never had his whole life until now. Jack was an orphan and was never adopted. Then he drove truck all those years — the road was not the home he needed, although he married and had a son.
The son is now married, and he and his wife just spent a great deal of money on hospital care for six months of bed rest, tests and drugs, to bring a pregnancy to term after previous failures. They were given a 50 percent chance that the child would be normal, given the medical measures taken.
Jack is not too happy about becoming a grandfather in such an expensive and risky manner, and he has a unique point of view. That of an orphan. Jack knows of many children across the river in Mexico and here in San Ygnacio: beautiful children, smart children, who would love to be adopted. Children who will never be adopted.
Just like Jack was never adopted.
The grump in the next RV site proved to be no grump at all, but one very complex and special man. I hope his kidneys carry him through many Christmas pageants and Halloweens in San Ygnacio.