Senior Seminar, Part I
Sparks hissed into the night as I tossed another stick into the fire. It was a good fire, as it should be: I kept it fed but hungry. We didn’t need a great deal from it. February, yes, but this was the Sonora desert along the Sea of Cortez. The nights felt cold after the heat of the day, especially on the beach, but we were in no danger of exposure.
I watched the sparks climb into the air as though they wished to be with the stars but their little embers consumed their fuel completely in seconds rendering them puffs of ash driven by the sea winds. Their dreams of joining the stars only a flash of chemical energy then forgotten by all.
Ray and I kept up the effort at conversation but the length of fire duty began to drawn down the reserves of interesting events in our quite, mostly boring, short lives. Reaching deep for something to keep the silence from overwhelming us I came up empty. I sighed and shrugged my failure just as two figures appeared suddenly in the small ring of firelight.
Two adult figures. Not who we were expecting at all.
Ray’s face was a triangle of three large circles. Oh, man. We are in trouble.
Denver, December, 1976. Third period Psychology with Mr. Ziegler, a small mustachioed man with wavy dark hair. The semester ends in a few days and Mr. Ziegler has mounted his soap box to pitch Senior Seminar yet again. Experiential learning is his catch-phrase. We’d heard about this all semester long because Seminar is his baby.
I had my plans figured out, though. Denver Public Schools declared that, as a transfer student, they would not issue a diploma unless I attend at least two semesters in spite of the fact that I have enough credits to graduate after one. I was required to take at least one class for my final semester of high school and that was exactly my intention.
Also, I earned a part in the school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. One final, ultimately pointless, semester of school but it would be spent on easy street.
Ziegler poured it on that day, really made Seminar come alive. I began to rethink my decisions. Everything I’d been doing so far was, frankly, other people’s decisions. Family habits/traditions, right down to the play. I had been following along like the good boy doing what everybody else had done.
Time was running out. I had one day to make the leap from the familiar to the unknown.
January, 1977. Daily meetings, planning, instructions, briefings. Five dozen kids or so divided into groups of eight with an adult leader. The leader of my group was Pam, a college student from Colorado School of Mines. She was not much older than us, straight brown hair, pretty but not distractingly so. Oh, well. Pam knew how to lace up a pair of boots.
The teams were only for the first event of Seminar: two weeks in the Sonora desert.
We drilled in desert survival as well as dealing with the vagaries of Mexico. Bribe money was budgeted. A source of clean water secured. Gear checks made. Each team planned and bought their own meals. The girls refused to allow the boys to participate in the grocery shopping, a decision we’d all regret by the end.
Water was always on people’s minds. We might go days between chances to refill. One of our team had a nurse in the family. He secured empty saline drip bottles to use as canteens. In those days, IV drips had transitioned from glass bottles to hard plastic bottles with rings on the bottom to hang from the IV stand but also perfect for hanging on a pack frame.
Daytime temperatures would be in the 70’s to the 80’s. Nighttime would drop into the fifties. We packed down jackets and sleeping bags along with t-shirts and gym shorts for the daytime.
Mom came to town for some reason shortly before I left for Mexico. She bought me a nice pair of Raichle boots but wouldn’t spring for a new backpack. My six-year-old canvas and aluminum pack would not survive the semester, but it did (mostly) get me through Mexico.
February, 1977. In the bitter cold early hours the Seminar kids trickled onto campus laden with outdoor gear, bandanas and attitudes. Envious students watched from classroom windows as we loaded up on three buses dedicated to our exclusive use for the semester. We were absolutely wired and about to be confined to these tin cans for three days of non-stop driving.
I grew up sixth of seven kids a stone’s throw from the end of a commercial airport. Noise didn’t bother me – I rarely even noticed it – but it must have been a nightmare for the adults. We didn’t even start to wind down until well after dark. Then the first realities began to set in.
School buses are designed to transport kiddies a few miles at most. Not a thousand miles. Oh, no, the designers never imagined that possibility, I can promise you. The first night people quietly maneuvered for the two or three open benches but by the second it was all-out warfare. Some tried to fit into the overhead racks, others simply lay on the floor. Anybody who had already slept on a bench alone was badgered into surrendering it if they tried for another round. Mostly, though, we just leaned up against each other and tried our best to sleep.
Restrooms were not always available on the empty stretches of highway we travelled a fact the girls found irritating. The boys began shouting in unison, “We can hear you” then laughing at the angry responses from the girls. We never tired of that little game. I mean, the boys never tired of it. The girls already were.
Nogales, AZ. This was the most crucial point in the journey. We had been repeatedly instructed about the different ways the border crossing could go. The guards could make everybody get off, unload all the packs, go through every single item in every single pack, dragging the inspection on for hours. Or waive us through. Partly it depended on the amount of bribe money offered but mostly it depended on the deportment of seventy-five sleep-deprived high school kids who had been confined to a steel box for two days.
Zeigler glared at us one last time before departing the bus. Nobody dared speak above a whisper and only a very few risked even that. Agonizing minutes later a man came out wearing an over-stuffed khaki uniform with the apparently-required mustache, trailing Ziegler and the drivers of the other buses.
The Federale step up into the bus but stopped by the driver’s seat, scanning us closely. He nodded, smiled. Somebody responded with, “Hi” chased by whispered hush’s and rolled eyes. The Federale chuckled a little then left.
Soon after Zeigler hurried onto the bus and we were moving again. If a bus could burn rubber Zeigler would have. No other comment was necessary: we were back on our way to the accompaniment of raucous cheers.
Vince, who was in my group, turned to me. “I’m so glad we didn’t get searched. I brought a Bowie knife in my pack.”
We stared out the windows at the passing streets of Nogales. This was the Mexican version of the city and we were like deep sea explorers peering from the windows of our little American capsule floating through the dirty, chaotic streets.
We stopped for lunch in Magdalena.
These days I marvel at the entire Senior Seminar enterprise and how impossible it would be. The adventures in Mexico were only the beginning: we did these kinds of things the entire semester. No school district could do it, no attorney would approve it, no insurance company would underwrite it, no parent would trust it.
In Magdalena the bus doors opened and seventy-five American kids stormed the city. The only instructions were a departure time. On the bus or not, it was leaving at the designated hour.
I joined up with a small band of kids from various teams. I had no idea what to order for lunch or how to go about it. Some of the kids knew a few words of Spanish – that would get us into and out of trouble on more than one occasion. Those phrases will never leave me.
After lunch we roamed, sometimes colliding with other knots of Seminar kids.
One girl told of being accosted on the street by shop owners. They would practically drag her into their establishments and give her food. Kathy had straw-blonde hair and these men were in awe at such a site. The rest of us had to pay.
Well after dark the buses stopped in an empty field outside of Hermosillo. We bedded down in the field to the tune of distant train horns. Suddenly, the leaders were quietly waking everybody. There was real concern in their voices as they told us to pack up as quickly – and quietly — as possible. We did that getting back on the road in record time.
We were never told more about that night, except that one of the adults had good reason to believe there was imminent danger to us. The buses rumbled through the night then spat us on the beach in the tiny village of Bahia de Kino, which we only called Kino, during the last hour of night.
Bahia de Kino. Inbound. Morning sun nudged us, one-by-one, from the grip of sleep. Those who answered the waking call were treated to a cobalt sea patrolled by squadrons of Pelicans. Those who lingered in dreamland got a rather different treat.
A battered Rambler station wagon (is there any other kind? I suspect they left the factory as such) pulled up next to the buses. Two very drunk Federales stumbled out onto the beach, beers still in their hands and guns on their hips. They shouted slurred slurs at each other and then proceeded to engage in what, during sober moments, might have been called a fistfight. Neither one had much interest in serious hand-to-hand combat so it was more comical than threatening.
The real entertainment was watching the kids who were just waking up as they tried to focus their tired brains enough to make sense of the sensory overload and the bizarre images, smells and sounds around them.
I ate my first huevos rancheros in a “restaurant” sporting corrugated steel walls and a dirt floor. Several places in town had large piles of wood of a very rich, dark brown. This was Ironwood, carved by the locals using metal files into beautiful pieces of art. Dolphins and Orcas were popular motifs. Some of the kids bought pieces for a fraction of what the same would cost back home. I got a little something as well but my “budget” wouldn’t permit what my eyes desired.
Kino hosted one gringo hotel and that was where we got our fresh, clean water. Fifty-gallon drums were filled. The drums had housed peanut oil in their previous job and sometimes you’d get a little flake in your drink but it never affected the taste. It didn’t take long, either, before thirst overcame whatever squeamishness one might have towards peanut oil flakes in your canteen.
El Desemboque. The buses trundled North-bound out of Kino along the coast through an empty gray-brown desolation. The road was hard-packed gravel but in good condition.
Before long we stopped. One team was unloaded then the buses moved on. One-by-one the teams were dropped at their starting location until only my team remained.
The program was designed as a circuit, with each team moving on foot from location to location where they would engage in various exercises, lessons, or experiences unique to that position.
Interestingly, none of the groups/teams had any type of designation. No name or number. The closest thing was identifying the group by the name of the adult leader. One team, however, managed to earn a nickname.
Our group began at the northern-most position: a barren dirt Indian fishing village we knew as Desemboque. This was the beginning of our time in the Sonora desert and we would start in grand style.
The sun was growing weary by the time we watched the bus get chased away by its dust trail. Calling Desemboque a village is a tall tale. In fact, it was a few unpainted structures with even fewer fishing boats. There was a store, though. It didn’t have anything much on the few shelves, which were, in keeping with the local motif, also unpainted.
These people would have to work hard for generations to reach the poverty level in this country.
We hiked a few hundred yards from the village to make camp on the beach. The stunning Sea of Cortez at our feet, we built our first campfire in Mexico.
Pam and Ziegler stood in the light of the fire, attempting to be congenial. Ray and I had GUILTY tattooed all over our faces.
“Where’s Laura?” Pam asked sweetly, cocking her head to one side.
“She’s over at the water with…the…fish,” answered Ray, slowly realizing he had revealed too much. I wanted to glare but my stomach was churning. I was in no position to comment since I’d have done no better.
“Oh?” said Zeigler. The word “fish” had captured his attention and he marched into the night towards the lapping surf.