A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

The houses were detached with large front lawns. Children were playing. There were no fences or walls between the houses. As a young boy living in Mexico, bardas and paredones (walls and big walls) were the rule. I had never seen anything like this. I saw red Flyer wagons and strange bicycles with thick tires. I am not sure if subsequent exposure to the Saturday Evening Post confused my memory. I am almost sure I saw a Dalmatian and a Cocker Spaniel running with the kids. This was Laredo, Texas, June 29, 1955 and I was 12 years old. My mother bought me a Revell plastic kit of what was a circa mid 50s Chevrolet truck. I was in heaven. It was my first venture into the United States of America. I have been an Ameriphile since. I had yet to note the significance that this first venture was through Texas.

This first entry into the United States was the realization of a dream that had started in Buenos Aires through my mother's connection to Americans by virtue of her job at the local American Grammar and High School. We were lower middle class but as her son I had free tuition so I attended the grammar school from kindergarden onwards. It was in that school where I made friends with Americans and first discovered Bazooka and Double Bubble, Gene Autrey and Roy Rodgers cap pistols and those impossible to get Lee jeans. We Argentines were starved and obsessed for American products. I remember with an absolute certainty a huge ad for Cemento Portland in the Retiro train station that had in parenthesis (USA) after every mention of the product. It would have seemed that Argentines and Perón depended on this great product to go forward on those Five-Year-Plans.

My mother brought stuff from school. I remember my first package of lime Jell-O, my first taste of a poppy seed bagel, and that Erector set that I received on Christmas made all my Argentine friends jealous.

I had a distorted view of my mythical country. I remember showing pictures to my friend Mario Hertzberg of wide-shouldered norteamaricanos who lived on a an island called Columbia. This island was protected by a very large statue of a woman holding a torch. This confused idea of mine had come (I realize this now) from an article in Life magazine about Columbia University ( its football team) and its proximity to the Statue of Liberty since the university is in New York City.

One of my mother's friends was the assistant (to the American Consul. The assistant and his wife would visit us in their baby blue 1950 Ford. When they parked this car at the front of my house I was the king of my Coghlan neighbourhood.

That first entry into the US through Laredo was one of several other short visits that my mother and I made. To get our Mexican residency (we had moved from Buenos Aires in 1954) we needed to leave Mexico and come back. This archaic and expensive bureacratic method still lives on in many countries.

While living in Nueva Rosita , Coahuila where my mother taught at the one room school house of the American Smelting and Refining Company school for the children of its engineers we made frequent visits to Eagle Pass (prounounced Eeglay Pass) by crossing from Piedras Negras, Coahuila. I remember most fondly the Eagle Pass Hotel that was decorated with Remington rifles and portraits of John Wayne. In Eagle Pass I sqandered $5.00 American Dollar bills (my special allowance) on Revell and Monogram plastic model kits. I had a huge collection.

These visits and my subsequent 4 years at St. Edward's High School in Austin, Texas managed to erase whatever ideas I had about being either an Argentine or a Mexican. I became an American. I became an American because I chose to be one. I felt American and even to this day I can claim that part of me is American. When you are in an American school and you study civics, you learn the workings of the three branches of the American federal government and even the details on the differences between misdemeanors and a felony it is difficult to "fight" the system.

It was difficult to fight this system when I visited the nearby Bergstrom US Air Force Base and ran my hands on the sharp edge of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter or gazed up on the gigantic tail of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. It is only today that I notice or remember its name, The City of Austin.

It was difficult not to feel American when I heard the F-101 Vodoos streak above our neo-Gothic main building knowing (so we had heard io on Radio KTCBC, now KLBJ!) that one of them had fired a rocket that had flown up the tailpipe of a Russian Mig in Korea and downed it in a flash.

It was difficult not to feel pride in being an American when I saw our Catholic White Hope, Senator Kennedy debate Vice-President Richard Nixon on TV.

On the Easter holidays of my first year at St. Ed's my mother had scraped up enough money to send me on a school-sponsored trip (we went in a rented Grehound Scenicruiser!) to Washington, DC.

I have memory of shaking hands with a tall man with large hands and large ears. He gave me a card which I promptly threw away. It was a card that certified that I (my name was written on it) I had attended a hearing at the US Senate Chamber. It was signed by our Texas senator, Lyndon Johnson. The B of the LBJ was not to surface until John Kennedy became JFK. It was in DC where I bought my first serious camera, and Agfa Silette type 1 at a pawnshop. I asked for film and I remember that the druggist said, "Try Kodak Tri-X, it's the best film we carry." To this day, even though they have stopped the manufacture of many of my favourites, i shoot the film in from those familiar bright yellow and blue boxes.

Looking back on this all as Rosemary and I prepare our July 15 trip with Rebecca to Mérida, Yucatán via Austin, Texas I can feel that this American part of me is a bit less American and lot more Texan. It was living and growing up in Texas, falling for my first sweatheart Judy Reyes that was so important in my becoming who I am today. Those long bus trips from Nueva Rosita to Austin, took me on Continental Trailways Flxible buses that passed through Texas towns like Carrizo Springs, Del Rio, Uvalde, Crystal City (the first US city with an elected official of Mexican heritage) on its way to San Antonio. There I would board one of those exceedingly handsome and magical Greyhound Scenicruisers that seemed to fly on the Texas concrete-made expressways (as Texans call freeways) which were part of President DwightD. Eisenhower's legacy to the US. These expressways started the American dependancy on the automobile. I remember that both Bing Crosby and Bob Hope appeared in large Life Magazine ads that trumpeted the advantages of concrete freeways.

Those lonely (it was always sad to leave home after the Christmas holidays to head to the bleak, cold and rainy Austin winters) bus trips were through stark Texas landscape of mesquite and desert with the occasional flash floods that made dry river beds suddenly look like small oceans. I first became used to that Texas landscape, and then without knowing I absorbed it so that I now anticipate with tremendous pleasure being able to see it soon.

Near Austin we will visit my friend Howard Houston and his wife Lynne. We will eat all kinds of Texas barbecue and Tex-Mex food. But principally we will visit our old St. Ed's and hug Brother Edwin Reggio CSC who was there with us and was a key element in our transition from boyhood into manhood.

But he had nothing to do with the fact that today I am a Canadian citizen born in Buenos Aires who feels very Texan. I feel Texan enough to know that the US has had two Texas born presidents. That second one, the one you probably cannot remember, was born in Denison, Texas. That's Dwight David Eisenhower.


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