(This continues a story I started telling in April, 2003, about how I spent a college summer in Reynosa, Mexico helping a well-organized church program build houses. And about our contact there, Rommel Kott. And, eventually, how I got a big dent in my left leg.)
Rommel Kott was, single-handedly, the person who transformed the World Servants experience for me from a staid church-camp summer into a cross between Fear and Loathing and Heart of Darkness. With some Eurythmics Missionary Man thrown in. Though he was born and raised in Reynosa, Rommel was ash-blond, with blue eyes. He was also dating the mayor’s daughter. In the States, that might get you occasional seats at a Kiwanis banquet. In Mexico, that’s more like having control of your own sector of postwar Vienna.
Rommel used his connections to kit us out with portable CB radios that were connected with a central repeater and a cellphone patch. This was 1991, and cellphones still had shoulder straps. Our tiny Yaesu radios had an effective range of five miles, and let us place TELEHPONE CALLS. When we went to the mall in Brownsville, Texas, the security guards came up to me and asked, very respectfully, if I was there in “an official capacity.” Apparently, these radios were Strong Juju, a powerful totem in the land of the paramilitary.
World Servants was so loved down there that the rental agencies gave us maximum upgrades, too — so the head of the project down there paid for a Plymouth Horizon for the summer, but was issued a convertible Datsun 280Z instead. So there we were, wearing our green World Servants T-shirts, driving our hot-rod cars, and carrying some kind of License to Kill CB radios with tiny batteries. “It’s a new day in missions!”, we’d laugh before zooming off to go pick up more roofing nails to put in the trunk of the Z. We were probably insufferable, but it was a hell of a good time feeling like we were the Good Guys, with all the Bad Guy trappings. And good tans.
Now, as mentioned before, at the beginning of each week we’d be bringing tens of thousands of dollars of donated construction materials across the border to build houses. This means that you either have to wade through mountains of red tape and bureacracy, or you bring Rommel along to assure the federales at the border that Everything is Cool. So we’d load the pre-cut lumber into a red, rusty tractor-trailer driven by a laconic man in a cowboy hat named Elvis (pronounced “el-WEESE”), and then Rommel and I would follow it to the border. The federales would come out, resplendent in epaulets, bristly mustaches, braces of pearl-handled pistols (I’m not making this up), and Rommel would hop out and shake a few hands, and in we’d go.
Rommel was our liaison because he was involved with the family relief agency in Reynosa, named DIF. One of his many jobs for DIF (besides getting us waved across the border) was to collect the winnings from the palatial cockfight ring in Reynosa, and then escort them home to make sure they were deposited properly. When the cockfights were on the night before our border crossing, I’d stay at his family’s walled compound the night before, ostensibly to make sure that we got to the border at the same time as the lumber the next day.
The cockfight ring — the palenque — in Reynosa was indescribably awesome, assuming that you can get past the whole chicken deathmatch thing. For one thing, everyone was beautifully dressed. Imagine a huge concentric tier of scaffolding and sawdust, covered with a splintery wooden roof, inhabited by a luminous crowd of beatiful women in spotless clothes and their dates wearing natty, well-cut suits. I mean, you could have filmed a dozen Thin Man movies using extras straight out of that place. There’d be five or ten fights, then fresh sawdust would be spread on the blood-spattered ring, and more beautiful women would come out and dance and sing for intermission. Gorgeous costumes! Exposed midriffs! Tight choreography! The mixture of sex, death, and high production values was dizzying, especially when Rommel took me to a smoke-filled back room where a burly man in a black suit and a green eyeshade (again, I am not making this up) was counting tall stacks of paper money. He asked Rommel in Spanish if I was CIA, and Rommel told him no, that I was a priest. The man blinked, stood up, and shook my hand, then caused a beer to be handed to me.
Given that I was a nineteen-year-old with a long ponytail wearing a black frog-button kung-fu shirt, I think that probably seemed pretty improbable, but given the atmosphere (and six or seven Modelo beers in steel cans), it seemed perfectly natural that they would assume that I was some kind of kung fu assassin for the CIA. Or the Vatican. Hey, I had the radio for it, didn’t I?
(More to come)