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Taco Hell by Duncan Grant


May 25, 2017 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ SCA Articles



Taco Hell
By Duncan Grant

We fly over an unforgiving, thorn-spiked landscape in search of ducks, bass, and bobwhites. The chief export here is marijuana, the national pastime is drunk driving, and even the lizards don’t like the water. What could possibly go wrong?

By Duncan Grant

Eight hundred feet below, God has scorched the earth. Brambles, briars, cacti, and jagged rocks line rutted, dusty trails that lead north behind us, toward the border. It appears that we are flying over Hell. I’m sick. And the airplane I’m in is trying to kill me.

There’s a perfectly good reason for being here, however— flying over this 150-mile stretch of Mexican backcountry, so let me begin at the beginning:

Ducks do strange things to those who hunt. We travel to the ends of the earth, spend huge sums of money, and endure horrendous weather to hunt and shoot them, knowing full well that a chicken plucked from a Wal-Mart rotisserie tastes better. You want to shoot a lot of ducks? Try a freshwater impoundment in Mexico.

Bobwhite quail, that storied little bird pursued by gentlemen who insist on proper attire and good manners, using expensive dogs and even more expensive shotguns, they tug at our heartstrings, too. You want a great wild bobwhite hunt? Brush up on your Spanish.

Largemouth bass rule the fishing world. On bass pro tours, they infect even the best-educated Yankees with Southern drawls. You want a ten-pound big-mouth? Put Mexico on your bait-bucket list, and mark its wet places on a map.

A place that has all three—ducks, bobwhites, and largemouth bass—exerts tremendous pull on sportsmen. Think redheads, single malt Scotch, or the Dutchman’s gold. Mexico is a tractor beam for sportsmen. We’re going, bad water and banditos be damned.

Our trip began the day before.

We land in South Texas on a Friday afternoon. My guns, tackle, and clothes do not. I’m really pissed. How can an airline lose my stuff on a one-stop flight?

Realizing it’s almost certainly hopeless, I make the call from our hotel anyway. Stunned, I actually get someone; no less than the head of baggage handling in Atlanta, a nice fellow we’ll call Steve.

“Steve, this is your lucky day. I’m going to give you the opportunity to save your job.”

“Sir?”

“Steve, between South Carolina and Texas, you’ve lost my bags, my guns, and my tackle.”

He goes into monotone mode: “Sir, we’ll do everything we can to locate your luggage.”

Steve has answered the phone by mistake and doesn’t really want to be bothered, because his answer sounds a lot like: The Standard Answer For Peasants.

So I pull out my small club: “Steve, here’s the bad news: I’m supposed to board a plane at seven in the morning to fly on south . . . and this is where things get tense for you. I’m writing a story about this trip for Sporting Classics magazine.” I pause to let that sink in. “If my equipment and clothes are not with me, I’m going to have to describe this luggage situation to thousands of subscribers . . . in detail . . . Steve, are you following this?”

Delayed silence, then tentatively he says, “Uhhh, yes sir. I . . . I do.”

Now I have his attention. Taking no chances, I pull out my bigger club.

“Steve, if I have to hunt in Mexico with no guns, fish with no rods, and do it all naked, well, guess what?” I pause again. Clearly shaken now, Steve whispers, “Uh, I don’t know sir. What?”

“Steve, if I have to hunt in Mexico with no guns, fish with no rods, and do it all naked, well, guess what?” I pause again.

Clearly shaken now, Steve whispers, “Uh, I don’t know sir. What?”

I go for broke: “At your next shareholder’s meeting, I’m going to make sure a copy of that Sporting Classics magazine is sitting in front of each one of your board of directors. And I’m going to name names.”

Seven seconds of silence, then this: “Sir, if humanly possible, I’m going to find your luggage and get it to you as fast as I can.”

Business partner, longtime friend, and roommate for the night, Art Carter has been listening intently and is astounded.

“Dunc, I bet you scared the Samsonite out of that guy! I didn’t know you had it in you. Can I use that?” Then, remembering one of his own airline luggage experiences, he adds a dose of sarcasm. “What’d he say . . . that your luggage would be here in about a month?”

Four hours later a beat-up 1980s Ford wagon pulls up. In it are Steve, head of baggage handling, and my luggage. Art is speechless.

It’s ten o’clock and pitch dark when our host, former African Professional Hunter H. Floyd Coddingham, Art, and I cross the border into Mexico for a dinner reservation. We are two hours late and I’m starving, having traveled all day with nothing to eat.

Driving slowly through a dusty section of this little town, we approach a cross street, and Floyd suddenly slams on the brakes. A battered Chevrolet Nova, without headlights and not a window left in the car, runs right through an alto sign. No, really, right through it—pieces of the sign fly out into the street, missing us by inches. As the car careens across the road, the driver heaves an empty liquor bottle, gives us the finger, and lurches out of sight. “Floyd, you might want to work on that welcoming committee,” suggests Art. Five minutes later we pull up to an ancient stucco building. “You’re going to love this place,” Coddingham assures us.   “You’ve probably never eaten real Mexican food.” We’re greeted by the maître D, a deeply tanned man dressed in an embroidered white shirt and black trousers. He seems angry. Unsmiling, he pushes the saloon-type doors open and yells something in Spanish over our shoulders. The border town restaurant is one of those open-air affairs. Our table sits out under the stars in a plaza-like area surrounded by a tin-roofed portico. The waiter takes our drink orders and evaporates. Far in the distance I see lightning flash, outlining dark storm clouds. I count to 30 before I hear the thunder. Six miles, I think, if my math is right. I count after the next flash to see if the storm getting closer. It is. As Art and Floyd discuss the best places to hunt kudu, I size up Coddingham: tall and thin, slicked-back dark hair, Robert Ruark mustache. British-like accent. He’s outfitted in a tailored twill safari jacket with leather patches at the shoulder and elbows, and a Tattersall shirt. He’s even wearing a regimental tie. I try to join the conversation, only to be rudely interrupted as soon as Coddingham discovers that I’ve killed neither elephant nor lion. He brags about his shooting, his homes, his women, his sports cars, and his money. I’m thinking this is going to be tedious, that Floyd might be one of those arrogant boors who believe they inherited brains with the money. And that accent is beginning to sound more New Jersey than Newcastle.

In the middle of our expanded metal table sits one of those three-tiered plastic carousels loaded with what appear to be red, orange, and yellow bell peppers. I love the tart, fruit-like taste of red bell peppers. Trying to maintain a bit of decorum in front of the PH, but overcome by hunger, I retrieve my dinnerware from the linen napkin and spear a forkful of red peppers. Floyd is on a roll. Art is trying not to yawn. And even though I’m thirsty, my mouth is watering. The peppers are three inches from my face when I notice a burning sensation in my nostrils and around my lips. Art and Floyd continue talking, but glance in my direction just as I realize something is very wrong. They are both watching me now, so I put the peppers in my mouth. That was a giant mistake. Have you ever hurt yourself so badly that you think your body is lying to you . . . that nothing could be that painful? This was worse. The peppers are too hot to chew. They are burning the inside of my nose. Desperate to never let them touch my tongue again, I’m clinching them between my teeth and trying to breathe around them. But even the scent burns my throat. Too embarrassed to earp them out, I gulp down the whole mouthful. Try to imagine swallowing a live tomcat, one that’s on fire. I’m gasping for breath. Huge beads of perspiration grow on my forehead, dribble down my face, and burn my eyes. My ears are ringing. I soak through my shirt. Looking back, I still consider it one of the proudest moments of my life, because as much as I wanted to, I did not scream in front of Art and the PH. When my Coke arrives several days later, I drink it in one long gulp. Before the waiter can leave, I point to the bottle, indicating that I want another. Art is staring at me now, and I’m almost certain he can see blisters on my face and lips. Interrupting Floyd’s story, he asks casually, “Dunc, you must be thirsty?” I try to speak, though nothing comes out but a choking sound. Fearing I’ve been found out, I’m saved by Coddingham, who is at the climax of a tale about seducing a safari client’s wife. I just nod at Art and smile, something I always do when I think I’m going to die. I drink the next Coke in two swallows and point again to the empty bottle, this time holding up two fingers. The waiter never moves. Then it occurs to me that he needs my food selection. So I point to Number One on the menu: Muy Grande Taco. Hell, I don’t even like tacos. Suddenly, a deafening explosion crashes above us, illuminating the restaurant in high-intensity white light. Concussion and thunder rattle the tableware and the tin roof. Coddingham dives to the tile floor and rolls under our table. My mouth is on fire, I can’t hear, and now I’m blinded by the lightning flash. As the deluge begins, Coddingham crawls from under the table mumbling something—yep, that’s definitely New Jersey— about “bloody mortar fire.” We hurriedly move our napkins and silverware to another table under the tin-roofed portico, my sweat-drenched shirt disguised by splattering rain.

It’s an hour before I can speak. The storm has eased. Hoping to wipe the last of the scorching habaneros from my throat, I swallow the remains of the taco. But it doesn’t taste quite right. By the time we cross the border to get back to our hotel and I crawl into bed, my stomach is churning and I’m thinking, Boy, tonight ain’t going to be pretty. It wasn’t.

So Dunc, you ready for some duck hunting?” Art yells through the bathroom door early the next morning. “Hurry up, son! Breakfast time! We gotta plane to catch.” I moan.

I’ve spent most of the night contemplating the bathroom’s cheesy decor. I’ve got a splitting headache. Getting on an airplane seems like an incredibly bad idea. But I’m thinking surely it can’t get worse. Maybe I can take a nap on the flight down. “No breakfast for me, Art. You and Floyd go ahead. I’m not taking chances.” Two hours later we make the short flight to the Mexican side of the border, then tip our way though inspections. Now we’re on our way south in this little Cessna. The pilot looks like Drew Carey doing his best Barney Fife imitation. Sweating and mumbling, he keeps snatching up and examining road maps, then frantically looking down at the ground. Fifty miles out the wind is howling, coming straight at us, driving the single-engine Cessna violently up and down, up and down, as if it’s on ski slope moguls. The undulations are so severe our luggage is jumping three feet off the floor. Screws are backing out of the dash. Tightening our stomachs and our seatbelts, Art and I put our legs across the gun cases to help hold them down. I’m getting greener by the minute. At least Art and Floyd are feeling it, too. Both are as pale as new refrigerators. Happy I missed the egg omelet breakfast, I’m mentally placing bets on who’s going to grab for a barf bag first. It’s Floyd. Yep, I’d have paid good money for that. As we approach the dirt runway, a lost mule stares up at us. We have to buzz him to get the animal to leave. When we land I want to kiss the ground, but I’m afraid to lean over. We get settled in our rooms, and since no one wants lunch, Floyd gives us the nickel tour. It’s a palatial lodge with big rooms and a huge dining hall full of trophies from Floyd’s African years. Everywhere, wall-sized photos of sportsmen kneel behind mountains of ducks and quail, or hold up lengthy stringers of bass. After the tour we drink lime margaritas and rest up until dinner.

It’s early the next morning. The last of the taco has left me and I feel better. After breakfast Art and I traipse down to the boat landing in near darkness. Coddingham is already there. In the glare of the landing’s single bare light, he’s cursing and screaming bloody murder at a young helper. The teary-eyed boy is in a panic. I finally grasp that the berating is about storm water remaining in the boats overnight.

Floyd finally notices us approaching and ends his tirade. The sobbing young man begins bailing out the boat. An old man quietly appears out of the darkness and climbs in to help. Coddingham shoves the boy out of the boat, motioning for him to help load the guns and bags. Irritated at his treatment of the boy, I head to the back seat of the jonboat to sit down beside the old man—evidently our boat driver. Art is in the middle seat. Floyd is in the front facing back toward us.

As I take my seat I get a better look at our driver. He’swearing a straw hat, it’s rolled brim frayed from use. Coarse white hair streaked with black escapes the hat to curl around huge ears stained red by the Mexican sun. Bushy black eyebrows arch over rich brown eyes. His sun-tanned face is carved by deep lines and features a carpet of gray stubble running from his large nose down his chest. An infectious smile spans his face, drawing attention to missing front teeth. A loose, two-button homemade shirt and pants that are belted with a rope and rolled to his knees complete his wardrobe. He has no shoes. “Como se llama,” I ask, remembering a little college Spanish. His animated face breaks into another smile, and he answers loudly, “Francesco!” “Mi nombre es Duncan,” I reply. Trying to irritate Floyd, I shake Francesco’s hand. Before we launch I ask Floyd, “How many ducks can we shoot?” “Kill ’em all. The sons-a-bitches deserve to die,” he says, laughing wildly. Then, “Welcome to Mexicoooo!” as Francesco fires the engine. Out on the lake, Floyd begins cursing again, this time hollering at Francesco to speed up. Art looks back wide-eyed and gives me that “Coddingham is an ass” look. In the near darkness we are already going faster than I’d like, swerving at breakneck speed around flooded trees, mats of floating grass, and tree stumps the size of linemen. As Francesco twists up the throttle, I’m thinking, I’ve never seen a duck worth dying over. But Coddingham is still mad about the water-in-the-boat incident, not satisfied with the speed, and is getting angrier by the second. Infuriated, shaking his fist, and cursing, Floyd leaps up from his rear-facing seat to approach Francesco. I’m wondering if he’s actually going to hit him when, in one of those brutally justified acts of the Almighty, a four-inch-thick mesquite limb looms out of the foggy darkness and whacks Floyd squarely in the back of the head. The rotten limb explodes, disintegrating into dust. Tiny shards fly everywhere. Stunned, Floyd staggers past Art, stumbles over the seat and falls face down into the wet bottom of the boat, his expensive fedora flying into the lake.

We help Coddingham up, wipe him off, get him back to his seat, and retrieve his hat. The front of his coat is soaked withwater, fuel, soggy feathers, and the aroma of rotten fish. Floyd assures us he’s fine, just a lump on the back of his head, and that we should continue on, but he’s silent for the rest of the ride, the anger finally knocked out of him. If I’d known that the limb hadn’t killed Coddingham, I’d have laughed a lot harder. Twenty minutes later we arrived at a tiny island, a 12-foot-high dirt hump 60 feet in diameter surrounded by flooded mesquite. Francesco helps Art and I unload our gear, then he and Floyd head farther down the lake. The ducks are already flying. I’ve never seen so many pintails, wood ducks, green-wing and cinnamon teal, mallards, and canvasbacks, all flying high, low, and everywhere in between. Streaming straight down the lake, many are passing within a few yards of us even though we are without decoys. Art and I both get one-shot doubles. After 45 minutes the water is littered. It’s not a duck hunt, it’s a duck kill. So after we’ve both taken close to the supposed 20-bird limit, we resort to the creative. Flying high above us are geese-sized birds that Francesco had called “patos royale.” I’ve never heard of patos royale, but they look suspiciously like muscovy ducks. Regardless, we decide to bring one down. It isn’t easy.     Crosslit by the morning sun, a single black-and-white royale approaches from the south, wings beating un-duck-like slow in the cool morning air. Due to his size, the bird looks closer than he is, so I lead him a bit and let him have a barrel load of number 4s. He flinches but does not slow down. So I unload the other barrel. This time feathers fly and he veers somewhat right. Still, he keeps going, eventually making a wide circle as I reload. Incredibly, he comes right back over us. “He’s big, but not very smart,” Art says, stepping up and taking aim with his pump. As the bird passes directly over us, Carter fires three rounds quickly, almost straight up. Instead of folding, the bird locks his wide wings and goes into a 200-foot death spiral. I’m imagining the whistling sound of a Mitsubishi bomber as it loses air speed and altitude after being fatally punctured by P-38 machine gun fire. The giant duck/goose/whatever makes two complete circles, Art and I firing away each time it passes over. I’m almost expecting to see parachutes when, in a fitting crescendo, the royale glides wings-locked, crashing into a flooded mesquite tree, taking out the entire rotted top half. Art and I sit down to enjoy watching the ducks stream past and to wait on Francesco and H. Floyd. Our first morning in Mexico and it’s already an incredible trip. I’m starting to forget the things that have gone wrong so far. After lunch and a siesta at the lodge, Art and I climb aboard Franceso’s boat for an afternoon of bass fishing. Thankfully, Coddingham stays to greet a group of new clients. Out on the lake, we’re poking along when we are overtaken and passed very closely by a hot-rod bass boat. Above the roar of the twin engines, I can hear the other fishermen laughing like hyenas as their spray and wake hit us. The boat races on and is a half-mile in front of us when I hear the distinct distance-delayed sound of a crash—the expensive noise an outboard motor makes when it encounters an immoveable object. As we approach the disabled boat, Art looks at me smiling and loosens his belt buckle. I nod approval. As we motor slowly by, we drop our pants, bend over, and moon the other two fishermen. They sit open-mouthed and slack-jawed as we putter past. Francesco is completely astounded. It has to be the very last thing that he ever expected. He doubles over, laughing so hard he falls to his knees. Every time he tries to climb back up on his seat he looks at Art and I, shakes his head, and starts laughing all over again, tears streaming down his face. Franceso’s missing teeth make it even funnier. So Art and I are howling too. Looking back now, after all these years, I’m sure those fishermen thought they’d encountered a boatload of crazies. A half-mile down, Francesco is still snickering and wiping away tears as we cast along a brush-covered shore. Art and I are using blue plastic worms to reel them in. Landing the two-to-seven pounders isn’t easy, however. Art is taking the brunt; his seven-foot spinning rod allows fish to get under logs, or wrap around fallen limbs and break off. My bait-cast outfit lacks a little casting distance, but I can horse the fat females away from stumps and limbs. We fish until the sun sinks to the tops of mountains foggy in the distance. With the sky putting on a spectacular show of color, it’s time to head back. We’ve broken off half our lures, we’re sunburned and sore from fighting fish, and we’ve lost count of how many bass we’ve caught and released—but man, what an afternoon, complete with a full moon! After consuming a platter of some Mexican dish, the name of which I could not pronounce, let alone spell, and drinking . . . well, several margaritas, I sleep as if I’m in a coma. And dream of hunting bobwhites.

When we arrive for breakfast the next morning the old Coddingham has returned. Against a far window he’s sitting at a table by himself, eating scrambled eggs, drinking coffee, and reaming out the kitchen help. “Art, if I have listen to Floyd brag and chew folks out right through breakfast, it’s going to sour my coffee. How about we sit at another table?” I suggest. Before he can answer, Floyd spots us. “Come on over guys. Have a seat,” he yells. “How’d youse guys sleep?” “Great. Slept like a stone. The rooms are perfect,” Art replies. Youse guys? Did I really hear Floyd really say that? The fake British accent is AWOL. “Ready to see the most quail you’ve ever seen?” asks Coddingham, with all the modesty of a siding salesman. “We’ve shot all your ducks and caught all your bass. Unless we want to make our wives mad, I guess we’d better stick to shooting your quail next. So, yeah,” Art replies, grinning.

Five miles from the lodge a half-dozen quail run across the sandy, deserted road. Carlos, our guide, slams on the brakes, sliding the van to a halt. He drags two anorexic pointers out of the back, beats the daylights out of them, gives the dogs water, and sends them into a huge cutover field divided by long rows of dead brush. Smiling beneath a wide-brimmed hat and a gigantic black mustache, Carlos announces, “We hunt, Amigos!”

I’m hoping that’s not exactly what he means as we step into a field where the dogs are already on point. Art gets a double. Before we can locate the singles, the dogs are on point again. Then again. It’s like that all morning, covey after covey after covey. Under a pecan tree at noon, Carlos unloads an entire kitchen from the back of the van. He builds a mesquite fire, cleans and washes the quail, and drops the meat into a plastic box of brown marinade. When the coals are red, he spreads them out with a stick, lays on the quail, and a well-worn cast iron pot filled with red beans. A cucumber and onion salad with a citrus and herb dressing is served while the quail roast. It has peppers in it too. I’m damned careful to avoid the red ones. Carlos eats them with his fingers and chases them with beer. The grilled quail are too good to describe. Stuffed with the best food of the trip and buzzing from the beer, Art and I nap on a tarp in the shade of the old pecan. Life is good. An hour later I’m dreaming about clouds of ducks when Art snatches off the hat covering my eyes. The afternoon finds us walking each side of a fence where high weeds and low trees grow close. Carlos bangs the fence with a stick as we walk, and the quail fly out into the fields on either side. It’s easy shooting. Carlos helps retrieve the birds. Three hours later, tired from walking and my shoulder 12-gauge stiff, we arrive at the lodge. I’m embarrassed by the avalanche of birds that spill out of the van, but console myself with the idea that Carlos’ family is going to eat very well. I hand him a hundred U. S. dollars, and ask him to go easy on the dogs, though I’m sure he didn’t have a clue.

We fish for two hours the next morning, then it’s time to head home. After lunch we load our gear into a ten-year-old, twin-engine King Air. The plane has changed, but we’ve still got Barney the pilot. So I sit up front, thinking that I may need to help. Barney hits the starter but the engine spins and spins. Just as the battery begins to sag, the engine fires up. We pull out on the dirt runway and take off into the clear blue Mexican sky. Of course, we have to put down in Matamoros to pay dues/fees—or whatever—before crossing back into the U. S. After we land Barney goes inside with a 50 greasing his palm and returns with a handful of stamped papers. No one inspects anything. He hits the starter. The engine spins . . . and spins . . . and spins. This time it grinds to a halt, the battery as dead as road-kill. He gives me a defeated look. Mumbling something about a mechanic, he climbs out and trudges across the ramp to a beatup metal building. Ten minutes later he’s back in an old fuel truck with a half-dozen mustachioed men hanging on. The driver pulls right up, almost touching the plane with the truck’s grill. One of the men pulls jumper cables from the truck’s battery to the plane’s cowl. It barely reaches. As he passes the window I can’t help but notice that the lead clamps are missing. Someone is going to have to hold raw copper wires on the battery terminals while Barney tries to start the plane. Glad that’s not going to be me. There’s a lot of confused fussing as they try to open the engine cover. Finally Barney sticks his sweaty crewcut back into the cockpit and asks, “Any of ya’ll got a screwdriver?” That’s not a question you want to hear your pilot ask. I’m thinking of climbing out and walking home when a cheer goes up. Someone found a peso and opened the cowl. Barney climbs in. A mechanic revs the truck engine until the valves float. Barney hits the ignition. The plane’s motor spins like crazy. And spins . . . and spins . . . Barney scratches his head. Tries again. Nothing but spinning. In a revelation, Barney glances upward and does a noticeable double take. Reaching just above the windshield, he flips two toggle switches. The right engine immediately fires. I’m looking at the switch panel not believing my eyes. The label reads: “FUEL PUMPS.”

So yes, unless I’m writing this from a parallel universe, I made it back. When I get home my wife has a few questions. “Let me get this straight: Your luggage got lost, you ate habanero peppers hot enough to cause nuclear fission, and then you ate a poisoned taco? Your host nearly gets killed? And you fly back with no fuel pumps, then take off in a plane that had to be jump started?” “Well, yes, sweetheart. But you should’ve seen all the ducks, quail, and bass we got!”

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