I’m not a big believer in the extraordinary miracle. When I’m feeling down, you won’t find me wasting my time hoping for some big magical event to suddenly wallpaper my world with wonderfulness. But I do have endless faith in the small, everyday miracles that are all around – like big puffy clouds, hot fudge sundaes, and the smell of sagebrush after it rains. I’m convinced that just appreciating all those little marvels is more than enough to give anyone an amazing life.
That being said, in December of 1971 I received a letter from my Mother that would alter my life, not just in the immediate future, but a long way down the road as well. At the time she was living in Puerto Rico with a fellow named Herb. Herb was an American who specialized in teaching English as a second language. He had gotten a job at Inter-American University in Mayaguez and had convinced my newly-divorced mother to come down to the island and set up house with him.
I, on the other hand, was living in a squalid little apartment in Laramie. I had no job, no prospects, and Winter was breathing her icy breath down my neck.
The first thing Mom said in her letter was that she was writing from the Hospital in Ponce. This was not unusual. Being a world-class asthmatic with a highly sensitive personality, she spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals* and when she was there she’d while away the hours catching up on her correspondence.
Probably the biggest trigger for one of these serious asthma attacks was when someone close to her had said or done something mean, threatening, or unkind. This time it was Herb who had laid her low and it was a lulu.
After she had moved in with him, Herb proved to be a less-than-attentive paramour. He was more of the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am persuasion. He had also given up his very continental habit of drinking a small glass of Port after the evening meal in favor of slugging down a whole bottle of the stuff, then stumbling off to bed to pass out. Their love life became her being awakened the middle of the night for (in her words) “a halitosis quickie.”
After her hints, gentle requests, and attempts to share her feelings had all fallen on alcohol-befuddled ears, she decided it was time for a showdown.
“Look,” she told him, “I came down here looking for a lover, not a rapist!”
I don’t know what she was hoping for in return, but it certainly wasn’t what Herb delivered. What he told her was that his wife, hitherto dead four years before of Cancer, was actually alive and living in Illinois gathering grounds for Desertion.
Mom once told me that she sometimes suspected her asthma was some kind of morbid defense mechanism. It was her body deciding to end an uncomfortable crisis by strangling itself. Within minutes of Herb dropping this bombshell on her and she realizing that she had been lied to, betrayed, and used by this wretched little man, her bronchial tubes promptly closed down almost completely and she was barely able to crawl to a phone and call an ambulance.
“So I have a question for you,” her letter continued. “Would you be interested in flying down to Puerto Rico and staying here with me and putting up with Herb for a few months? I do not need you to save me from the awful man, but if I don’t have a friendly face around the place to relate to, I’ll be back here in the hospital again and again. It will be more than worth it for me to pay for your fare as well as feed and house you while you’re here. I have a couple of friends here, Fitz and Mary, who have a business making papier mache souvenirs for tourists and they will give you a job. Will you come?”
Within three days I was on a plane from Denver to Miami with a connection to Puerto Rico. When I got off the airplane in San Juan, the first thing I noticed was the humidity. After spending most of my life in arid Wyoming, even walking through the San Juan Airport late at night was like walking through a steam bath. The second thing I noticed was how open, smiling, and happy the people were. I had heard and read all the stories about the vicious Puerto Rican gangs in New York and I was admittedly concerned for my safety. Some of the wildlife might be scary – poisonous centipedes, spiders, and cockroaches that fly – but the people turned out to be the sweetest, kindest, most accommodating folks I’ve ever lived among.
The third thing I noticed was a tall Norte Americano with a hook nose and a bald head. We made eye contact, he questioningly held up a homemade sign that said “Tim Pelton” and I smiled and waved. This was Robert Fitzgibbons, known to all his friends as “Fitz.” Mom had not been feeling well enough to make the trip to San Juan, Herb refused, and Fitz was happy to step in. The drive back to the little town of Lajas included the first of many delightful conversations I was to have with the man and with his wife Mary. Fitz was bright, emotional, and very particular and detail oriented. Mary came from Savannah, Georgia and loved to drop sharp little barbs into the conversation cloaked in a honey-thick, Southern accent. Together they were hilarious.
Both of them were creative and clever in very different ways. Mary was an artist and loved designing new and interesting things for them to make. Fitz was a backyard engineer. He invented little machines that would help them make their products quicker and cheaper. As an example, Mary designed and made dancing figurines of Caribbean musicians. Fitz designed the latex and plaster molds that were needed to cover wire armatures with papier mache. Mary (and I) would paint the figurines with bright acrylic colors. Once dry, Fitz would dip the figurines in a vat of lacquer, and then secure their bases to a ferris wheel-like contraption he’d made. Jose, one of the neighbor kids he’d hired, would turn a crank and the figurines would rotate slowly, head over heels, until the lacquer was dry. Because of the rotation, there were few, if any, drips to clean up.
They also made wrist bangles in bright colors, ornamental pins, and cutely cartoonish owls. Once every other week they would put “Hecho en Puerto Rico” stickers on the bottom of all the newly made products, load up their old van, and then drive up to the gift shops in San Juan. American tourists, off the cruise ship for the afternoon, would stop by the shops looking for souvenirs. And that’s how their living was made.
When Herb first moved to Puerto Rico he rented a little house in the town of Lajas, not far from where he worked. When Mom came a month later, this was the house they first shared. Mom immediately noticed, and was curious about, the fact that the Puerto Ricans seemed to like living very close to one another. Houses in the little town were packed together while the hillsides around were sparsely populated. Then one evening she figured it out. Dusk on the island lasts a long time and on nearly every porch up and down the street, families were gathered. The quiet buzz of conversation moved back and forth between the dwellings and across the narrow street. A person could sit comfortably on his own porch, play dominoes (the Puerto Rican national pastime) with Uncle Pedro, and at the same time have a conversation with the whole neighborhood.
Unfortunately for my Mother, a close neighborhood meant lots of traffic, which meant lots of exhaust, which meant trouble breathing. Herb did not especially want to move, but said that if she found something suitable, he would go along. So Mom bought a used Volkswagen bus and spent time driving up and down the hills around Lajas until, at the top of a little, winding dirt road, she found an abandoned night club. Its semi-remoteness, the cause of the club’s downfall, was the big selling point for Mom. The place consisted, primarily, of a cement slab, low walls, and a corrugated tin roof. There was a kitchen of sorts, an office room became the bedroom, and the bar area and dance floor became the dining and living rooms. There were no windows, just the open areas between posts where bats would zoom in and out after dark. When I arrived, Mom had hung curtains around the stage and installed a cot with a mosquitero(mosquito net) hung over it. This was to be, for the next five months, my bedroom. I had always wanted a life on the stage.
The rift between my Mother and Herb had solidified and he had settled into a cold and quiet routine. He’d leave early for work, come back home in the evening to eat his dinner, and then open up a bottle of Port. There was a short while, after he’d had a few drinks but before he got too sloshed, when he could more than hold up his end of a conversation. He turned out to be an intelligent man with a good sense of humor. But soon he’d retreat into a moody silence, turn on Puerto Rican TV, and slowly drink himself into a stupor. By eleven o’clock the bottle was empty and he was passed out in bed.
A few months before I arrived, Mary showed Fitz her latest design. It was a little frog pin. Fitz was skeptical at first, but soon warmed to the idea. They would be simple to make and if they sold, they would yield a lot more profit than the labor-intensive figurines.
“A frog, eh?”
“No,” Mary corrected him, “It’s a coqui.”
There is a little native tree frog, not much bigger than the last joint of your little finger, that in its eternal quest to find a mate, makes a high pitched “oo-ee, oo-ee” sound from which the name is derived. There must be millions of these little guys on the island and they contribute the high end to the cacophony that is the Puerto Rican night.
Fitz and Mary convinced several of their client gift shops in San Juan to carry the little frog pins. And they flopped. None of the tourist ladies was interested in wearing a brightly-colored little frog pinned to her blouse.
Fitz thought about this long and hard, then picked up a pen and wrote the following:
“Long, long ago, before the White Man crossed the ocean, on this island lived a Warrior Prince named Coqui who was so valiant against his enemies and so kind to his people that the Gods created the little tree frog and commanded it to sing the Prince’s name to the night sky for eternity. Listen, you can hear it now! “Coqui! Coqui! Buy me! Buy me!”
He had this printed on cards with the title “The Legend of the Coqui” and pinned each of the frog pins to a card. Two days later they began receiving phone calls from the gift shops asking them to send more of the frog pins. They had sold out. The coqui pins were suddenly their top sellers.
“You see, Timmyteo,” Fitz explained, “it’s all about ego involvement. Now, have you got any suggestions for a legend about owls?”
Within a few weeks, Fitz and Mary began to see “The Legend of the Coqui” – word-for-word – attached to frog-shaped tchotchkes of all kinds. And sales of the pins, though still lively, returned to manageable levels. A couple of months later, in a Travel article in the New York Times, “The Legend of the Coqui” was quoted as being an ancient Puerto Rican folk tale. The Puerto Rican Minister of Culture, an old friend of Fitz and Mary’s, was livid.
“You can’t just make up lies and pass them off as Culture to sell your products! It isn’t right!”
“Look at it this way,” Fitz replied, “Essentially, a legend is just a lie plus time.”
By June of 1972, my Mother had, with help from me, Fitz, and Mary, packed up and moved to Albuquerque. She left Herb, who had been playing the martyr in this drama, a papier mache crown of thorns. We heard later, in a letter from Mary, that Herb had managed to convince his wife to move from Illinois down to Puerto Rico so he could have someone to cook and clean for him while he slowly drank himself to death.
How then, you might ask, does this whole adventure qualify as a miracle? In the short term I got to escape from the frigid rigors of a Wyoming winter and instead bask in the Caribbean sun for several months. Also, I made two great and good friends in Fitz and Mary. But even more than that, I had never before closely experienced a successful, loving married relationship between two mature people. All I had to go on until then was my parent’s marriage and that inspired me only to bachelorhood. So to say that this trip changed my life is truly no exaggeration.
*See Mom Takes the Plane Back Home in the list of posts to the right