El Gringo Ancianísimo by Andrew J. Hogan

After I was discharged from the Marines, I needed a VA hospital not too far away from home that had the facilities to take care of my back injury. There are some small VA facilities closer to Ojinaga, where I was born and lived most of my life with my mother, and to Presidio, where I was conceived by my father, a U.S. customs agent. The only VA hospital with a real orthopedics program was in El Paso. My back was too weak for any kind of physical work, so I decided to go back to school.

Before joining the Marines I had a pretty good ear, and I wanted to sing. I lost a lot of my hearing during the invasion. I can’t carry a tune anymore. I thought since there were so many great Norteño musicians from my hometown of Ojinaga, I should learn how to write corridos.

I didn’t want to write more songs about lost love. I wanted to write songs that say something about how people on the Border really live, songs like Los Tigres del Norte sing. I know not everyone approves of their song, La Reina del Sul, because it seems to glorify drug dealers and violence, but it’s a song about real people, not some fairy tale.

So in January 1988 I enrolled in the creative writing program at El Paso Community College, but it was just a few days before the beginning of the semester and the classes on songwriting and poetry were already filled. I talked to a student advisor, and she said since most Norteño songs are corridos that I would benefit from taking the short story course, to practice developing a narrative.

It seemed like a good idea, at least until I went to the first class and got a look at the professor, Herman Brayle. He was ancianíssimo, he looked like a hundred and fifty years old. I wondered what somebody that old was doing teaching a course mostly to teenagers.

He walked very slowly up to a little podium. His voice was so weak he needed to use a microphone even in our small classroom. By the end I was planning to drop the class. As I passed by his desk, he said to me, “You’re the soldier?”

I wasn’t sure what I’d heard. I leaned closer.

“I see on the class registration list you’re enrolled with military/veteran status,” he said.

“Yes, I was in the Marines.”

“You saw combat?” he said.

“Yes, in Grenada.”

“Wounded?”

“A back injury.” I could feel the stiffness at the base of my spine.

“You’re my first vet from Grenada.” He blinked. “It wasn’t a big deployment, as I remember.”

“Only about 1,200 troops participated in the initial invasion,” I said. “There was pretty heavy fighting for a couple of days. Another 5,000 troops were landed or flown in, and the Grenadan and Cuban troops surrendered.”

“I’ve had writing students from other wars. I had many from Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. I even had a couple from World War I, but, you know, those doughboys didn’t much like to write about their experiences.”

“I want to write ballads,” I said, “Norteño corridos. I wanted to take the songwriting course, but it was full. My advisor told me to take this course to learn how to develop a narrative.”

“That’s good advice, but I think you should develop your skill by writing about what you know.”

“I know a lot about living on the border, the drug smuggling and the illegal immigration,” I said. “My father was a U.S. customs agent.”

“Right, but your powers of observation and description will be most challenged by writing a story about your experience in a strange land.”

“Okay, sure.” I could see there was no point in arguing.

“Good, you can disregard the regular short story assignments. Write your first story about your experience in battle and the second about your recovery from being wounded.”

 

The writing assignment was harder for me that I expected. I had been a stranger in a strange land just being in the Marines. Everybody knew I was the half-Mexican kid trying to become a citizen. My English was okay, but I’d never met so many guys with strange accents. There was a black kid from Alabama whom I never understood very well. There was another kid from Harlem in New York City who could talk some kind of dialect that nobody could understand.

It was a struggle. And the training. ¡Hijole! I would fall asleep at dinner, even though I was starving. My muscles ached all the time for about the first month. After that it got worse. We had to sleep in the mud overnight, or in trees. We had to eat roots and strange plants ̶ even bugs ̶ to learn how to survive in the forest.

I began to wonder if my father’s sending me into the military to get my US citizenship was such a good idea. Maybe he could have found another way, but back then it probably wasn’t possible, not with Reagan in the White House. I wasn’t really treated any worse than anybody else. It was just that living off and on with my father in a border town like Presidio didn’t really prepare me for how different other Americans could be, and it took me a while to adjust.

I really struggled with the first story assignment. I thought I should put in a lot of action, show the fighting, blood and guts. The kind of stuff you see in the movies. The only problem was I never really got to see any of this action myself. My LVT left the USS Manitowoc around 0-400. We were on the Grand Mal Beach at St. George Bay around 0-500. Within five minutes of landing my LVT was being hit by Cuban small arms fire. We stayed on the vehicle and proceeded up the beach to a wooded area to disembark when the LVT hit a large rock on the left side. I went flying out of the vehicle and into a thicket. I was unconscious for some time. I woke up with my head pounding, but it wasn’t the concussion that hurt; it was the Howitzer set up next to the thicket while I was unconscious. I couldn’t move even an inch. I thought my back had been broken; it turned out I had ruptured several discs in the fall. I couldn’t move my legs without excruciating pain. It was nearly an hour later before one of the cannon cockers finally heard my calls while they were waiting for another load of DPICM rounds.

A chopper landed to evac me. It was light by then, but my eyes were filled with grit from the chopper. The only thing I saw was the blue water under the chopper and the deck of the carrier USS Independence. If you took me back to that beach today, I wouldn’t recognize where I had landed.

My battlefield experience didn’t seem to make a good story. Well, I said to myself, this is a fiction class. So I wrote up the story like it was a Hollywood movie, with lots of gun battles, storming the fortress – I never even saw a picture of Fort George until I looked it up in a travel brochure. It was a hokey story; I knew that when I submitted it. I expected a bad grade. When Professor Brayle handed back the first set of stories, mine wasn’t in the bunch he laid on his desk for the students to pick up at the end of class. He gave me a look of disappointment when I approached the desk.

“Please come to my office after class,” he whispered.

I waited a long time on the chair in front of his office. The elevator bell rang, and I looked down to the end of the hall for somebody to get off. Nothing happened; then a cane stuck out beyond the door. Professor Brayle took another five minutes to walk the distance from the elevator to his office. Once he was sitting in his chair, I came in and sat down.

“Why didn’t you follow the assignment I gave you and write about your own experiences in battle?” he said.

“I never got to see much of the battle. I was wounded almost as soon as our LVT reached the beach. I called out for help, and they evaced me to the carrier. I never saw anything.”

He leaned over and picked up a small packet of yellowing papers. “Read this,” he said. “Think about this story and then re-write your story.”

The title on the top page was ‘One of the Missing.’ It had been cut from a book; there was no author listed, only page numbers, seventy-one to ninety-two.

I wished I could have dropped the course, but it was too late in the semester. I needed a passing grade to move on to the short fiction workshop, taught by somebody much younger. “Sure, I’ll try,” I said.

The story the Old Professor gave me was set during the American Civil War. A private, an orderly in the division headquarters, is sent out to gather information on enemy troop movements. The private has the chance to shoot a Confederate artillery officer, but before he can aim, the Confederate officer launches a badly aimed shell at some nearby Union troops, which instead hits a tree next to the private, covering him under the rubble. The private is “caught like a rat in a trap” and dies a slow and painful death.

It wasn’t exactly my experience, but it was close enough; being trapped in the thicket, unable to move, unable to get help because of the noise of the nearby Howitzer. I rewrote my story, using my own experiences, the fear of death and frustration I felt being injured with no one looking for me, just another expendable greaser, seduced by the dream of US citizenship.

I turned in the revised story. A week later Professor Brayle handed it back to me, covered with red ink; there was hardly a sentence he didn’t want changed, but still he gave me an A.

For the next class Professor Brayle told us to read ‘An Occurrence at the Owl Creek Bridge’ from our Norton Short Story reader to demonstrate the use of time. It’s a famous story about a Confederate sympathizer being executed by hanging during the American Civil War. In the time it takes for him to fall from the bridge and for the noose to tighten and snap his neck he dreams of his escape from the execution and swimming to shore and freedom. The author of the short story was Ambrose Bierce, who had been a Union soldier during the American Civil War and later became a famous journalist and short story writer.

Then I had to start working on my second story, about my recovery from the back injury I suffered in Grenada. It was the middle of October, and I was in Ojinaga for the Fiesta de San Francisco. That Friday night I took Serena Martinez to the Cine Paraiso in Presidio to see the ‘Old Gringo,’ the one where Jimmy Smits played an illiterate general in Pancho Villa’s army, around the time of the Battle of Ojinaga. The Old Gringo title character in the movie is actually Ambrose Bierce, the author of ‘An Occurrence at the Owl Creek Bridge.’ In late 1913 when Bierce was past 70, he crossed the border into Mexico during the Revolution. He came to Mexico under the pretext of being a journalist and then said he wanted to fight with Pancho Villa for La Revolución, but really he’s trying to get himself killed. He was most likely killed in my hometown during the Battle of Ojinaga.

When I got back to El Paso, I went to the campus library and found a biography about Bierce. The book confirmed most of what was in the movie, that Bierce had come to Mexico and spent time in Chihuahua around the U.S. border. Although there was no definitive information on his death, the speculation was that he probably died in or around Ojinaga, but how and where remains a mystery.

 

I finished my second story on the treatment I received for my back injury and handed it in to Professor Brayle at the end of April. On the last day of class, he handed back his critiques on the second stories; again mine wasn’t in the pile. We had a little party at the end of class, and as the party was breaking up, I asked Professor Brayle about my story.

“Julio,” he said, “would you mind coming over to my house next Tuesday. I’d like to go over your story with you personally. I found it very reminiscent of my recovery from a battlefield injury.”

When I arrived at his house around 6:30, all the lights were on inside and a young Latina girl was setting out some traditional dishes of Chihuahua, including Ojinaga tamales de maiz verde. It was a wonderful feast, and when we finished, Professor Brayle gave me my paper, again covered with comments in red ink and another grade of A.

“Are you teaching again in the fall, Professor?”

“No, Julio. This was my last class, and you are my last student. That’s why I invited you here tonight, to end with someone from Ojinaga, if not in Ojinaga, as I tried to sixty-six years ago.” He looked at me and saw I was surprised, but not confused. “So, you know who I am, who I was?”

“I know who I think you are, but it’s not possible. No one can live so long.”

“Sometimes a soul must pass through Purgatory before it can go to heaven.”

“And you are finished waiting?”

“Yes.” He got up from his chair with great difficulty and moved toward the door of his rear patio. “Let me show you what came to visit me today.”

I followed him out onto the patio. There was a large bucket with a piece of plywood covering the top.

“Have you ever seen a Mojave rattlesnake?” he said.

“No, I didn’t know they lived this far east.”

“They are rare here, but not unknown. My gardener found it this morning,” he said. “It must be a sign.”

“They are dangerous.”

“Yes, let me show you.” He lifted the plywood, and the snake began to rattle. He put his hand in the bucket and lifted up the snake. It had a beautiful row of dark brown diamonds running the length of its spine; each diamond was completely bordered by two white scales. Below the diamonds on each side the snake was a creamy brownish-yellow. The tail just below the rattle had three sets of black and white stripes.

The snake’s long black tongue came out to sniff the air. It was cool, and the snake was sluggish. Suddenly, the snake opened its mouth and flicked out its fangs; it bit the Professor on the hand. He dropped the snake, which fell back into the bucket; a small stream of blood oozed from the wound. I covered the bucket and went to help the Professor.

“I’d like to be remembered where I should have died,” he said. “You’ll come up with an appropriate ceremony.” He smiled and then stopped breathing.

I called the ambulance. The EMT called the coroner when he couldn’t get any vital signs for Professor Brayle. The coroner pronounced the Professor dead. Two days later, a lawyer representing Professor Brayle’s estate called, telling me that the Professor had left me money to organize a ceremony in his honor in Ojinaga.

 

It was just past midnight on January 11th, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Ojinaga, when I returned to the apartment of my Aunt Consuelo; she lived just a little south of the Plaza Municipal in Ojinaga. She’d fallen asleep in her chair waiting for me. The apartment was cold, so I covered her with a comforter.

“Julio? Is that you,” she said.

“Yes, Tia. I’m sorry I woke you,” I said.

“I wish I had been well enough to attend the fiesta de conmemoración you organized for your old professor. The music must have been wonderful.”

“It was awesome, Tia. All the great Ojinaga Norteño Bands came, at least the ones that are still together. Even some of the original members of Los Diamantes de Ojinaga showed up to sing the old songs. Do you remember Miguel Herrera who used to live over on Calle Central? He came back and sang ‘Yo Sin Ti’ with the rest of the band.”

“It must have been wonderful.” Aunt Consuelo was up, making herself a cup of tea. “Why’d your old gringo professor leave you the money in his will to hold this fiesta in his memory here in Ojinaga of all places? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

I was too excited for sleep, so I told Aunt Consuelo my history with Professor Brayle and who I thought he was. At the end of my story, something jogged in my memory. The biography of Ambrose Bierce described several of his stories. I’d gotten a copy of his most famous book, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, so I could read them. Aunt Consuelo yawned, so I kissed her goodnight and went to my room to look at the book.

I scanned through the first five stories until I came to ‘Killed at Resaca.’ In the story a Lieutenant Herman Brayle puts himself in constant danger during the Battle of Resaca, ignoring obvious risks and at one point riding directly toward the enemy lines, where his luck eventually runs out, just like the Ambrose Bierce character in the Old Gringo movie. Although the movie is fiction, Bierce wrote a letter to his niece just before he crossed over the border from El Paso to Juarez suggesting he hoped to be killed.

At the end of ‘Killed at Resaca,’ the narrator, a comrade of Lieutenant Brayle, is delivering a letter to Brayle’s fiancé that was found on the Lieutenant’s dead body. The fiancé opens the letter but throws it into the fireplace once she notices a blood stain. ‘Uh! I cannot bear the sight of blood!’ she said. ‘How did he die?’ The narrator decides to lie to the fiancé, a beautiful but detestable creature. ‘He was bitten by a snake.’

Next morning I showed the book to Aunt Consuelo, my finger on the page about the snake bite. She gave me a puzzled look.

“The Old Professor took his name from the character in his own story,” I said.

Aunt Consuelo looked at me and sighed.

“Julio, you have a great imagination. Someday you will write a great corrido about the ancient professor. And who knows, maybe a love song about your sainted mother, my sister.”

“Or maybe a song about my favorite aunt,” I said.


Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine.

Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published more than eighty works of fiction in the Sandscript, OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), The Legendary, Widespread Fear of Monkeys, Hobo Pancakes, Twisted Dreams, Long Story Short, The Lorelei Signal, Silver Blade, Thick Jam, Copperfield Review, Fabula Argentea, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Defenestration, Mobius, Grim Corps, Coming Around Again Anthology, Former People, Thrice, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Black Market Lit, Paragraph Line, Subtopian Magazine, Pine+Basil, Festival Writer: Unpublishable, Fiction on the Web, Children, Churches and Daddies, Midnight Circus, Stockholm Review of Literature, Lowestoft Chronicle, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Spank the Carp, Beechwood Review, Pear Drop, Marathon Review, Cyclamens and Swords, Short Break Fiction, Flash: International Short-Short Story Magazine, Slippery Elm Online, Story of the Month Club, Birds Piled Loosely, Zero Flash, Canyon Voices, Alebrijes, Rose Red Review, Yellow Chair Review, Serving House Journal, Funny in Five Hundred, Penny Shorts, The Thoughtful Dog, Front Porch Review, Minetta Review, Silver Pen Anthology, Zany Zygote, Ginosko Literary Review, Four Ties Lit Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern.

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