I remember where I was when the Space Shuttle crashed. I remember where I was when John Belushi died. And I remember where I was when I heard the news of his death. A man who, by no measure, was a good man in the conventional sense, but who I adored as a child living on the Texas/Mexico border.
It must have been six months after he was assassinated…killed like a feral dog by ‘authorities’ on both sides of the border…that the news of his death hit my ears. It came in such a casual tone that, had the words not stung so badly, I would probably have simply smiled and nodded. I was busy…I had clothes in my arms, walking through the apartment, gathering things to take to the laundry, listening to the ceaseless drone of a person I didn’t want to speak to that day, to begin with.
When the words spilled from her lips, “You heard they got ol Pablo, didn’t you?”, I thought I misunderstood her. I asked this nag of a woman to repeat what she said, fully anticipating that I had, in fact, misunderstood. “Yep…they tore his ass up in that shack over in Santa Elana. Big ol mess. Sumbitch got what he had comin’. You know they’re gonna shut that shit down on the border…”, she said, her words trailing off as I went blank.
I asked the woman to leave…made up some ridiculous excuse. You know, the way you do when there’s an imbecile spewing word vomit all over your nice, clear floor. As soon as the door closed behind her, the tears came, pushed to the fore by a tidal wave of sorrow. My grandmother always said that you should not shed tears for the wicked. I wonder if she knows that I never shed one for her. But, I digress…This man was not wicked, in my eyes. He was sainted long ago, in the heart of a child. Every memory I had/have of him was filtered through that lens, and my grief overwhelmed me.
While I knew of his dealings long before I learned of his death, his memory was part of the tapestry of my life that was very beautiful to me. One, small, section that was not filled with pain and chaos. On the border, there lived ‘in-laws & outlaws’ as we’d say. To me, the outlaws were far more interesting, and most were more honest than the regular Joes. Thinking about it, that probably is not true at all. I think that I mean they lived more honestly. No secrets…balls out. In his case, he had a soft spot for us kids. Not in a perverse way, but in a sincere way. He built hospitals in old Mexico where children could get care they needed, free of charge. He built clinics and payed for operations that the poor could not afford. He was a hero in so many ways. Us kids always knew we had nothing to fear from him. That is the man I mourned that day and that is the man I allow myself to remember now.
To remember someone like him in a loving way may disgust some people, or make them call my character into question. But, I cannot remember him in any other way. To do so would be like taking a chisel to the only real foundation I ever had in life. Those years that I lived on the border are the years I draw the most strength from. The culture shaped my view of those things one carries with them through life, like the meaning of true beauty and the importance of respect and of having your feet on the ground. It filled my head with memories of characters, the likes of which most only get to see in the movies.
To me, the border was a magical place and, to this day, it lives in my heart. Though it has changed now, it will remain glorious and free to me, frozen in the best of times, for memory’s sake. Because it must.