Thursday, February 22, 2018

Pepe's on the River, Written in "Texas Blood"

I recently read the book "Texas Blood" by Del Rio native Roger Hodge. While Hodge is an excellent and even exhaustive researcher, the book works better as a collection of essays than a coherent whole. I found myself skipping chunks of it (a chapter on Cormac McCarthy) and moving on to parts that held my attention and brought back a lot of good memories.

Hodge devotes considerable time to the Border Patrol and technology issues. As I'm a native of Mission, Texas, three miles from the Rio Grande, one passage especially caught my attention, about the well known landmark Pepe's on the River Restaurant, known to me in the 1960s as Pepe's Boat Ramp. This resonated with me because I grew up knowing the man behind the local landmark: Jose "Pepe" de la Fuente and his familyhis wife Irene and my mother Shirley worked together for decades as secretaries at the Mission insurance agency of Conway, Dooley & Martin and our families were very close. We spent many holidays, like the Fourth of July, out at the boat ramp enjoying BBQ and Dr Pepper. Pepe is still going strong in his 90s with a large and loving family that I follow on Facebook. The family no longer owns the place, but the name and the memories remain.

Here's what Hodge wrote:
From the relatively lofty viewpoint of a McAllen levee, we descended to a riverside boat launch at a spot called Chimney Park. A small fleet of riverboats patrols the navigable portions of the Rio Grande; the boats are owned by the Office of Air and Marine but manned by Border Patrol agents. The shift was ending, and the agents prepared to haul the boats out of the water. I was supposed to go out on patrol in one of these so-called safe boats, but the Zapata murder had made the sector officials nervous, so I was obliged to content myself with a sky box, a somewhat more cumbersome mobile surveillance unit than the scope truck, and learned about its uses, both as a surveillance instrument and as a deterrent. Unlike the scope truck, which possesses its own means of locomotion, the sky box is basically a surveillance tower mounted on a trailer; a hydraulic lift raises and lowers an enclosed platform on which are mounted the standard combination of conventional and thermal cameras.
Downriver, at a popular restaurant called Pepe's, traffic had been pretty hot, so they deployed a sky box and the traffic moved elsewhere. Last summer's big floods threatened to wash the sky box away, so they pulled it out. Inevitably, the traffic resumed, and so the sky box returned to Pepe's; it wouldn't do to have the restaurant's patrons watching the immigrants run by as they sat eating their carne asada and listening to the nighttime song of the Rio Grande chirping frog.
After I found the passage, something buzzed in my memory about another book that mentioned Pepe's. After rooting around in the basement, I found what I wanted: "Patrolling Chaos: The U.S. Border Patrol in Deep South Texas," a 2004 book by Robert Lee Maril, a professor  of sociology at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

Thanks to its extensive index, "Patrolling Chaos" told me exactly where to find details about what is called in the book "Pepe's Riverside Fiesta Club . . . a popular bar and dance hangout south of Mission." Due to its location, a lot of Border Patrol action swirled around the place. Maril included details that will sound dead-on accurate to anybody from the area, as when he wrote,
His ears still ringing after two-stepping the night away to oldies like Hank Williams's "Your Cheating Heart," an old man from Iowa, who was just another snowbird killing time at Pepe's Riverside Fiesta Club, was climbing into his car when he had seen the boat zoom up to the dock. Four men tossed the bales into the back of the dark blue van. The whole thing took less than thirty seconds. The old man went back inside Pepe's to make the call from the pay phone. Info from snowbirds—unlike that from many other sourceswas as reliable as their pacemakers.
I haven't lived in the area for 40 years, and I lasted visited Pepe's in the mid-1990s when my Mission High School class celebrated its 20th reunion. As an aging baby boomer living in the Northeast, I probably come closer to the profile of a creaky frozen snowbird than anything else.  Still, reading about Pepe's Boat Ramp, as I still think of it, in these tales of the Texas border makes me feel a timeless thrill of recognition and identity.

With books, you can go home again.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Second World Wars: An Implacable America Seeking Absolute Victory

I finished reading the eye-opening The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson and came away with a lot to think about: the continuity of military issues from ancient times to today; the shifting alliances of World War II; how the Germans and Japanese misread the American capacity to make war; the British tenacity in keeping the war going for a year until the Germans invaded the USSR in 1941.

I found something compelling on every page. One passage in particular struck me in its sweep of U.S. military might and determination of attack enemies worldwide, with every weapon at hand. The passage, from pages 216-217, demands quoting in its entirety:
Why the American Army was small, in relative terms, is also illustrated by how diverse and spread over the globe the American military had become by the latter part of the war. For example, on the single day of the invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944), around the world other US forces were just as much on the attack at sea and in the air. As part of the ill-fated Operation Frantic shuttle-bombing operations between US airfields in Italy and refueling bases in the Soviet Ukraine, over 150 B-17s and their P-51 escorts attacked the oil fields at Galati, Romania. Another five hundred B-17s and escorts hit the often-targeted Romanian oil fields at Ploesti. Meanwhile, the 12th Air Force conducted continuous tactical air strikes on German positions in Italy. Allied ground troops also had just occupied Rome two days earlier and were garrisoning in the city in preparation for offensives against the Gothic Line in northern Italy.
In the Asia and Pacific theaters on this same landmark day of June 6, the US Pacific Fleet was making preparations to invade the Mariana Islands within a week, with a combined force almost as large as had landed at Normandy. Meanwhile, B-29 bombers prepared for their first raid against Japan from forward bases in China, while six B-25 Mitchell medium bombers and ten P-51 fighter escorts conducted operations against Tayang Chiang, China. B-25s were also attacking Japanese troops moving on Imphal, India. Meanwhile, the submarine Raton was tracking a Japanese convoy near Saigon. The submarine Harder sank a Japanese destroyer off Borneo, while the Pintado torpedoed and destroyed a cargo vessel off the Marianas. B-24 heavy bombers hit Ponape Island in Micronesia as tactical strikes were conducted against the Japanese on Bouganville, New Britain, and New Guinea.
In other words, even as the American Army and its supporting naval and air forces participated in the largest amphibious landing in history, the US military was on the offensive against the Germans in Italy, conducting long-range bombing from Italy and Britain, torpedoing convoys in the Pacific, assembling forces to storm the Marianas, and carrying out air strikes from bases in China all the way to New Guinea. On such a single typical day of combat, diverse fleets of B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s, B-29s, A-20s, P-38s, P-39s, P-40s, P-47s, and P-51s were all in the air from Normandy to the China Sea.
Could the United States ever again muster that social, economic and political will to "win through to absolute victory," as President Franklin Roosevelt said in seeking a declaration of war the day after Pearl Harbor? I don't want to find out.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

"The Second World Wars" -- Compelling on Every Page

I've always liked the online essays of classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson. His work combines deep historical knowledge and jargon-free expression to make big, discomforting points about current affairs. I had never read any of his books, however.

I hadn't until yesterday, when I started reading his latest, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and WonHanson grabbed me from the introduction and hasn't let go. I can pay it a high accolade: It kept me awake on the train commute home to the suburbs, when I'm usually dozing off. I'm only 30 pages in on a 500-page book, but I know what I'll have my nose in for the next week whenever possible.

Every page has striking passages that draw from Hanson's knowledge of classical culture and world history. I want to quote something from every paragraph, he's that compelling with his original take on World War II. Rather than a chronological approach, Hanson discusses the war in seven timeless, elemental themes: ideas, air, water, earth, fire, people, ends. His long, well-balanced sentences are a challenge to summarize or excerpt. One typical example:
Yet the pathetic socialist pamphleteer and failed novelist Benito Mussolini, and the thuggish seminary dropout, bank robber, and would-be essayist Joseph Stalin--traditional failures all--proved nonetheless in nihilistic times to be astute political operatives far more gifted than most of their gentleman counterparts in the European democracies of the 1930s.
Lessons applicable to current civil challenges constantly struck me. In his total grasp of the subject material, Hanson reminds me of both Charles Dickens and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The originality and argument of his thesis compares well to Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, from 2010. While I've only started Hanson's book, I suspect one difference is that Hanson will come to an elegant and succinct conclusion, in contrast to Snyder, who struggled to close with a Big Message, as if his book needed something beyond its statement of horrors. That being said, Snyder's use of statistics was so eye-opening that I wrote about his book soon after it appeared, at the Times of Israel.

Bottom line: Color me impressed and informed by Hanson. I'll say more once I finish the book.

Car Stories

[For an open-mic performance of this essay, follow this link .] My name is Van. I’m named after a car, the 1950s British racecar called ...