The whirling of the push mower blades sings their song of torment as I struggle to advance the heavy beast forward. I miss cutting the grass by two days; now, it’s akin to whacking my way through a South American jungle. I’m eight years old, and it’s the 4th of July, 1957.
Later this afternoon, friends and relatives will arrive for a backyard cookout and fireworks at dusk. There is a watermelon packed in an ice-filled tub. Cold beer and soft drinks fill another. Both tubs are sitting in the shade of our backyard Mimosa tree. My father’s beloved Leonard Brothers all-steel charcoal grill sits on the driveway, loaded with briquettes.
Many of the relatives are on my father’s “shit list,” but being the nice fellow, he extends the invitation on this day and the Christmas holidays. They always come, and the reason for their banishment soon rears its ugly head. Beer gives them the strength to make a beautiful ass of themselves. I’m a kid and could care less. I want to play with dangerous fireworks and blow things up.
People arrive around four. A few cousins close to my age make the party tolerable. My tomboy cousin Ginger brings her bow and target arrows. She wastes no time shooting my cousin Jok in his left buttock. My father removes the arrow, and a band-aid dresses the wound. Kids were tough back then. A speeding bullet is the only thing that might stop us. We move on to firecrackers, cherry bombs, and sparklers.
Burgers are served along with “tater salad” and watermelon. Pearl beer gives my father’s uncle Orum the ability to talk like Will Rogers. His home-spun recounts of past family gatherings captivate the adults. Without the lubrication of beer, he is as humorless as a cardboard box. Cousin Ginger finds her bow and arrows and sends one through the bedroom window glass. She gets a well-deserved butt whooping. It’s not often I see a girl get a butt busting. She does the one-arm dance as her mother delivers the blows. Cool.
I destroy every ant mound in our alley with Black Cat firecrackers and send a tin can into the stratosphere with a Cherry Bomb. Cousin Jok sits a cherry bomb on top of the front tire of his older brother’s new MG convertible to test the velocity of the explosion. The firework blows an outward dent in the fender. Jok is a doomed kid when he gets home.
Darkness arrives, and we swirl sparklers in figure-eight patterns. Sticks of metal burning at 3,000 degrees. Kids holding a welding torch; what could go wrong?
Ten o’clock arrives, and I’m lying in bed after my bath. The soft whir of my bedroom swamp cooler lulls me into La La Land. The adults are still in the backyard. I hear their laughter and catch a few words of some dirty jokes.
Drowsiness comes; sleep is but a minute away; then I hear my mother singing God Bless America, and the others join in. It feels good to be a kid on the 4th of July.
This will be my 5th installment of childhood feel-good memories to take your mind off the present situation that greets us every morning. It always starts with the “we are all in this together ” the horror movie called “The Evil Bug From the Continent We can’t Name Because It Will Offend Someone And Make Them Cry Or Tear Down A Statue and God Help Us If That Misunderstood Sock Cap Wearing, Birkenstock stepping, Back Pack Toting, Green Haired, Pierced Eyebrow Unemployed Young Person Is Squished.” It’s a long title, but you get the message.
Childhood memories are like teeth, we all have them, good ones, and rotten ones. If you grew up in Texas in the 1950s, you will identify with some of mine, or maybe not.
I was nine-years-old before I dined in a Mexican restaurant. I knew they existed because my father and mother enjoyed them, bringing home little mints and matchbooks touting the restaurant’s name. I got the mints, my parents put the match books in a jar in the kitchen. I dreamed that one day, I might visit one.
In Texas, Mexican food is part of life. It’s one of the major food groups, and a boy cannot grow into a man of substance without it. Looking back, not having real Mexican food at that young age affected my evolution into a healthy young specimen. I harbored a nervous tick, I stuttered at times, and one leg was shorter than the other. All those maladies were cured, once I ate the real-stuff. The medicinal qualities of Mexican food is amazing.
I had for many years, eaten tacos at my cousin’s house and believed those to be authentic Mexican food. Sadly they were nowhere near the real deal. A few times over the summer, my cousin Jok’s mother, Berel, would cook tacos and invite the families for a feast. Cold Beer and Tacos. Pure Texas.
Berel would stand at her massive gas range, a large pot of ground beef, and a cauldron of boiling grease heating up the room to cooking temperature. She would drop that Taco in the witches cauldron, pull it out and toss it to the pack of wild African dogs sitting around her breakfast table. The dogs, of course, were my cousins and me. My poor mother would leave the room. She could not bear to see her son eat like a feral child: growling, biting, snarling as we consumed the tacos like they were a cooked Wildebeest. That is what I considered to be Mexican food and proper behavior when consuming it.
If you drove northwest of downtown Fort Worth on Jacksboro Highway, right before you come to the honkey tonks, you would find “Trashy Juanita’s” Mexican restaurant. Legendary for its Taco’s, frijoles, and cold Jax Beer. It was also legendary for other things that my father would not mention until I was older. Gambling, shooting dice, and in general questionable behavior was part of the after-hours entertainment. It wasn’t on Jacksboro Highway for the view.
Juanita Batista Carlita Rosanna Danna Esposito, the owner, was not a trashy woman, but a middle-aged Latin beauty with a bawdy laugh and sharp wit. It was the restaurant’s front yard adornments that earned the name. Offended at first, she finally accepted her crown and wore it proudly.
Two old rust-eaten pick-up trucks, one painted blue, and the other yellow sat abandoned in the front yard behind a cyclone fence. Pots of flowers decorated the fenders while the beds were overflowing with vines and small flowering trees. Fifty or more chickens strutted and pecked around the yard, giving the place a barnyard atmosphere. Some saw a work of art, while others called it a junkyard that happened to serve great food. In an interview in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Juanita claimed to be related to General Santa Anna, Pancho Villa, and the Cisco Kid, making her royalty in Mexico. The people of Fort Worth loved her, and she was considered a local character.
Trashy Juanita’s was my first introduction to real Mexican food, and all that comes with it.
My father sold a fiddle to a buddy, and with the profit, he took the whole fam-damly to dine at Trashy Juanita’s on the Fourth of July, 1958.
Juanita had gone “whole hog” on this holiday. American flags hung from the front porch and draped the cyclone fence. Two small children sat in the front yard shooting bottle rockets at the cars driving on Jacksboro Highway, and the chickens were wrapped in red-white-and-blue crepe paper streamers. Very patriotic, and also very redneck Texas.
A jovial Juanita escorted us to a large table next to the kitchen doorway. A waiter delivered tortillas, salsa and two Jax beers for my father and grandfather. Large, frosty glasses of sweet iced tea for the rest of us. There was no menu; it was Tacos or nothing at all.
The unfamiliar aroma of exotic food floated on a misty cloud from the kitchen, filling my young nostrils and activating my juvenile saliva glands, causing a torrent of spit to drip from my mouth onto the front of my new sear-sucker shirt. My mother cleaned me up and wrapped a napkin around my neck. I was ready; I had my eating clothes on. We decided that the family would dine on a medley of beef and chicken Tacos, frijoles and rice, and guacamole ala Juanita. The waiter rushed our order to the kitchen.
The evening was turning out great. My father was telling jokes, the Jax beer was flowing, and then a waiter walked past our table into the kitchen. Under each arm, was one of the patriotically wrapped chickens from the front yard. My grandfather must have forgotten that there were two young children at the table and remarked, ” there goes our Tacos, can’t get any fresher than that.”
His remark went unnoticed until I chimed in, asking my father, ” Dad, or we going to eat the pet chickens from the front yard?” He didn’t offer an answer. I got a big lump in my throat, and my eyes got misty. My sister whimpered and cried like a baby, and my grandmother, seeing her grandchildren in such distress, shed tears in support. Mother gave the two adult men the worst evil eye ever. The mood at the table went from happy to crappy in a minute or less. So much for a joyous family celebration. We might as well be eating Old Yeller for supper.
There was a ruckus in the kitchen, yelling, pots and pans clashing, and the two chickens, still wearing their streamers half-flew and half-ran through the dining room, and out the front door. The cook was right behind them but tripped over a man’s foot, knocking himself out as he hit the floor.
Juanita, standing in the middle of the dining room, announced that there would only be beef Tacos tonight. The two doomed birds had escaped the pan, and my sister and I were happy again. My father breathed a sigh of relief that the night was saved, and my grandfather bent down and polished the new scuff on his size 12 wingtip.