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.

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