Originally published on Sunday, June 28, 2009 @ 3:54 am
This is, unfortunately, a true story.
It was about 10:30 on a sweltering June Friday night in 1988, and I was in the back seat of a crowded car mid-way between Los Angeles and San Diego. One of the strangers in the front seat turned on the radio, and The Plugz’ Hombre Secreto, their inspired cover of the Johnny Rivers classic Secret Agent Man, came blaring out of the speakers. I cheered. It was perfect, for that night we were headed into Mexico.
Had I been completely sober and had a firmer grasp of social niceties, I would not have been on this trip at all. My long-suffering girlfriend at the time, let’s call her Sonya, had been invited to spend the weekend with some of her college friends at a rented villa in Ensenada, a few hours south of Tijuana on the Pacific Coast of the Baja Peninsula.
I was politely asked if I wanted to come along, the safe assumption being that I would refuse. This was because I
- had just spent a week in the VA hospital vainly trying to fix my crippling back pain,
- had an abscessed tooth that was driving me mad, and
- was a notorious stick-in-the-mud that never wanted to do anything but sit home and drink.
They figured I would say “No, thanks,” and Sonya would get to spend a guilt-free weekend with her vaguely shady friends whom she’d been spending an awful lot of time with while I was in the hospital. She would be off in a foreign country, and several hundred miles away from her drunken boyfriend.
For some reason known only to Satan himself, I said, “Sure! Why the hell not?” Luckily I was too wasted to be aware of the resentment this caused, a condition that would not change until the following Monday while Sonya was angrily chewing me out for my atrocious behavior.
It wasn’t all my fault, of course. If they’d thought about it a little harder they would have simply come up with a plausible lie instead of being polite. They rolled the dice and they lost. It’s like asking a co-worker how he’s doing and he spends the next thirty minutes vividly describing his impacted colon, complete with arm gestures and sound effects.
We crossed the border and made our way through the sleazy maze of Tijuana. I had never been further into Mexico than that wretched hive of scum and villiany, and once we were past the city limits and headed south on the divided roadway the change was startling.
There were no streetlights. It was unbelievably dark, and quickly became eerie. No one spoke for long periods. After half an hour we drove slowly past a car burning beside the road. There was no one around, and the only illumination came from the guttering abandoned automobile.
A few miles later we passed another one just like it on its side in the ditch between the lanes. We were getting seriously spooked.
I don’t know if it was a planned stop or a desperate attempt to save us, but soon we pulled into a little roadside shrine to the Virgin Mary. There were candles around, and people praying, and even though I’m not very religious I felt quite a bit better about our situation. The mood lightened.
Just outside Ensenada the road joined again, and what had been two lanes per side became two lanes, period. We turned a bend and a carload of kids headed back to the US was in our lane. Our driver, who had been on his toes since we passed the wrecks, was able to avoid a headon collision by running off the road.
We got out. It was cool and windy. We were all pretty shaken. There was no moon, and we still could not see anything. It felt like we were inside a cave. We climbed back in and headed into town.
We found the villa quickly enough. It was a timeshare on the slope of a valley north of town; there were dozens of them. We turned on all the lights, had a few drinks, laughed about our narrow escape, and went to bed.
The next morning we drove out to where we had gone off the road. It was a couple of yards from the edge of a fifty-foot cliff, and there was no guardrail.
Sonya and two of her friends and I explored town. It was a lot like Tijuana without the pickpockets and donkey acts. I liked it. We found a little resaurant and went in for breakfast. I was badly hungover, and decided that I could probably use some heavy-duty food to replenish my system. I ordered steak and eggs.
When it arrived it did not look particularly appetizing, the steak being an odd grey color. I cut off a piece and put it in my mouth. It was tough, and full of gristle. After ten minutes of chewing, I was still unable to determine its species, and was only willing to make the roughest guess as to its phylum. Soon my face was greyer than the meat.
After our repast, we began searching for our real objective: legal prescription painkillers. Sure, I could have taken Tylenol and it would have worked fine, but I had heard that percodan could be purchased over-the-counter in Mexico. After dragging my companions fruitlessly all over town from pharmacy to pharmacy, we finally gave up.
We did, however, find a fireworks store. A regular shop right there in the middle of town. We went inside and looked around. Hundreds of different firecrackers and roman candles and skyrockets lined the shelves. The smell of gunpowder was intoxicating. And then I saw it.
It was on a shelf all by itself. I can still picture it in my mind’s eye, laying on its silken pillow, surrounded by a sparkling golden aura while heavenly choruses filled the air and cherubs fluttered above. It looked like… No, it couldn’t be. Could it? It was red, and was the right diameter. It had the fuse coming out of the middle. It had the paper endcaps. Yes!! It was!!!
I was looking at a genuine M-80. It was for sale. And I had enough money in my pocket to buy it.
Percodan, schmercodan. This was a goddamned M-80!
For those of you who have led an overly sheltered life, the M-80 is a, no, let me rephrase that, THE firecracker. It was developed by the US military for wargame simulations. It had been illegal in the United States for decades, and with good reason. A significant chunk of the generation preceding mine were missing fingers and hands because of it. It has, no joke, about sixty times more powder than the biggest firecracker you can legally buy in the US. The M-80 is the H-bomb of firecrackers.
Be honest with yourself. Would YOU have been able to resist? I bought it with trembling fingers. Which I am damned lucky to still possess, as you shall see.
We went home. It was one o’clock. A barbecue was planned for later that evening. I figured it was time for happy hour.
I’m still not entirely sure what happened that afternoon; there was a polaroid I took of Sonya flashing her breasts, but she’s got a sour look on her face and definitely didn’t think it was sexy. I must have gone back into the villa and passed out. I woke up in a bedroom at seven-thirty, after the barbecue was long finished. There was none left for me, and I was upset that no one had woken me up to eat.
Later some locals showed up for a poker party. They brought some visiting friends from El Salvador and Guatemala. I played like shit, and they loved me. We were drinking Mescal, and I didn’t just swallow the worm, I chewed on it. I was hungry, after all, and it tasted way better than the donkey/monkey steak I’d had for breakfast. Sonya and the others went to bed.
We had a great time bitching about Ronald Reagan. I drank too much too fast, and went to the bathroom to be sick. When I came back they had another shot and a fresh hand waiting for me. Either they really liked me, or they were trying to kill me by alcohol poisoning.
At three in the morning I had The Idea. I explained blearily to my new Central American friends that I had an insane, gigantic monster firecracker in my actual possession. One of my amigos pointed out that he did, in fact, have a lighter on him. I got the firecracker of which dreams are made out of my bags and we staggered out through the sliding glass doors to the patio.
I placed it on a low stone wall about thirty feet from the house. We stood in front of it, reverently bowing our heads. Some people have their shrines, and I have mine. I was handed the lighter while my accomplices prudently retreated. “Do Not Hold In Hands” was printed in stern letters on the casing. I thought to myself, “No shit,” and lit the fuse.
I ran as fast as I could back toward the villa. As the fuse quickly burned away toward Armageddon, I suddenly realized what I had just done. We were standing in front of a big sheet of glass and were only slightly more than the length of a city bus away from an explosive device the US Army had designed to teach soldiers what being under a mortar attack feels like. I brought my arm up to my face just microseconds before it went off.
The blast was far bigger than I had imagined. The glass behind us rattled, but thankfully did not shatter. A chunk of rock hit my forearm, the same one I had thrown over my eyes. It drew blood. We felt the shock and heat of it, and a massive boom rolled across the landscape.
Our ears were ringing. Lights were switching on all over the the neighborhood. From far across the valley we could just hear an American voice screaming “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MINDS!?!” We looked at each other, and busted up in helpless laughter.
We walked over to look at the wall. There was a shallow crater the size of a dinner plate blown out of it. I knew I was going to remember this trip for the rest of my life.
I was awakened the next morning by a bunch of obnoxious frat boys from USC who had rented the place next. I was face-down on the couch, and just beginning to feel the leading edge of the worst hangover I’d ever had. My mouth seemed to be filled with dust and dead spiders.
One of the frat boys was standing about three feet from my head, wearing fluorescent lime-green swimming trunks. I snarled that if he didn’t get those fucking green shorts out of my face I was going to rip his face off and stuff it down his throat with his own foot. He moved away.
I remember nothing of the trip back other than nobody making eye contact with me. That’s probably all for the best. Sonya didn’t ever completely forgive me, and we broke up not too long afterwards.
The weekend had been full of sullen companions, agonizing pain, unforgivable drunken misbehavior, multiple cases of almost-getting-killed, and what could very well qualify as an international incident.
But good God, it was glorious.
© Coypright 2009 by David Bryant. All rights reserved