Tuesday, August 13, 2019

This is Mexico by Dean Ricci

This is Mexico
by Dean Ricci

I’ve never felt further away from home than I did at that moment. I could feel the pieces of tooth swimming across the left side of my tongue, but it was a distant and almost unimportant sensation. At that instant I was focused on the baseball bats in the hands of the four men surrounding me, but much more so on the pistol aimed right at my chest by the fifth. The tiny little (sixth) guy with the ring that had split my canine tooth in half was still bouncing around in front of me like a madman, and I, well I must have had the most confused look on my face I have ever had in my life.
Perhaps a bit of a rewind is in order. Cut to my very first solo Otter load flying for Chicagoland Skydiving Center. I had told Doug, the owner and pilot training me to fly her, that I wasn’t sure if his winter trip to Mexico was something I’d want to take on. I’d suggested that perhaps we both find out first if I could handle the Otter there at home before I agreed to fly it off to Mexico. I was climbing through about 8,000’ on my first solo Otter load before I radioed down to manifest to tell Doug that Mexico sounded just fine to me! That’s how much I loved flying that plane.
Chicago to far southern Mexico is no small trip. Flying your own aircraft internationally is no little deal. Doing it with nothing but a few notes from a jump pilot buddy named Kro, the first flight plan I’d made in more than two years, an outdated GPS database, and non-pilot co-pilot is just, well it’s f*cking stupid.
Hinckley to Texarkana to Brownsville went off without a hitch. My close long-time friend Mandy kicked back in the co-pilot seat listening to music and enjoying the view, while I sat wondering if the cloud layer we’d been over for the last 200 miles would break before we got to Texas and I’d have to shoot an approach I was completely unprepared to make. Once the Otter was firmly planted on the ground in Brownsville, Texas (through clear skies), and the prevailing weather had been checked (f*cking crap), I let the boss know that I wouldn’t be continuing on to Mexico until the next day (even though Brownsville, Texas was the biggest shithole town I’d ever been in) because the thought of trying to land in some random field in Mexico in the forecasted bad weather ahead scared the living f*ck out of me.

Two days later … Puebla, Mexico was in sight. It was a pretty straightforward flight, other than the fact that it didn’t appear that Mexico had an air traffic system (that I could identify anyway). I believe after having crossed the International line, I spoke to only one Mexican controller, and he basically told me he didn’t care what I did. Once I was on the ground in Puebla I started their version of clearing customs, which involved spending a lot of money on paperwork I wasn’t told I’d need and going back and forth between two counters filled with people whose apparent jobs were to make the whole experience as difficult as possible. I made contact with the DZO Tony, who told me he was about an hour’s flight south of Puebla, just around the back side of the big f*cking volcano. He said that Pepe, his “guy” on the ground, would be waiting for us.
Imagine the most rutted-up f*cked up, weed-covered, rock-strewn, pothole-filled back road you’ve ever seen. That was the runway. Place on one side of that runway 50’ tall high-tension power lines. Place on the other side of that runway a rather deep ravine. Space those two very daunting obstacles about 2,000’ apart, angle the runway downhill just a touch and then stick the whole f*cking mess at about 4,500’ above sea level. Now bring in a fully fueled Twin Otter stuffed to the gills with everything from a dozen spare tires and enough spare parts to build a second plane, to a scooter and a six-month stockpile of cleaning supplies. Put in the pilot seat a guy who’s only landed that Otter completely empty and at sea level, and … BAM! Welcome to Mexico!
Cut to a day and a half later. The plane had been emptied, and was happily parked on a completely different runway that had everything from pavement to a centerline. I was about a million times more secure with my choice than I had been the previous evening, and was starting to think that I might just manage to survive the whole experience for more than a week. My nerves were settled, I once again believed I knew how to fly a plane and was totally ready to get it all started. It was Friday, the beginning of the DZ’s Halloween Boogie, and people were starting to show up for what promised to be quite the party.
DZO Tony had quite the reputation as a total party animal, and f*ck me, it was true. I was to be a guest at Tony’s house for the first week or so that I was in the country, which, unfortunately for Mandy, Fritz Pfnür, Fritz’s girlfriend, and me, meant we couldn’t get away from the damn music raging at Tony’s house long enough to get any rest. As I began flying on Saturday, it was only the mood of the jumpers that kept me awake.
[...I watched him taxi the King Air down a hill and hit one of the props on the runway...]

Besides the Otter, the DZ had a King Air leased from a drop zone in Colorado that was being flown by a local pilot by the name of Cesar. I’d heard about Cesar from Kro, the pilot who had flown the Mexico gig before me and was warned quite firmly to keep an eye out. At first Cesar didn’t seem to be much of a concern. He didn’t speak English, and didn’t seem to have any desire to get to know the gringo pilot in the flash Otter. I’d almost decided not to give Cesar a second thought—until I watched him taxi the King Air down a hill and hit one of the props on the runway, sending sparks and a few chunks of pavement flying! I was floored almost to inaction by what had happened, but after what I’d seen soaked in, I ran in front of the King Air as the jumpers began loading the plane screaming, “Shut this f*cking thing down! Shut it down!” Not only had Cesar known he had a prop strike, but the f*cker was still gonna fly the load, putting not only himself but everyone onboard at serious risk! There was just no way in hell I was gonna let that happen.
After I’d finally managed to get the attention of Cesar, as well as Tony, I was able to get the load transferred over to the Otter while they “inspected” the King Air. I didn’t really know what type of inspection they were doing, but as I pulled up to load the third group since the prop strike I saw some really stupid shit … The King Air was chalked on all three tires and completely unattended with both engines running. I can only assume that Cesar must have decided that doing a run-up from a safe distance would be a good idea. The next thing you know … He also decided that taking a quick flight was a good idea as well. A quick flight that involved buzzing the Otter at high speed! I just about lost my f*cking mind.
Luckily for me, Cesar hadn’t learned English in the two days I’d been in Mexico, so he couldn’t understand the massive string of profanities flowing through my headset—but Pepe on the ground sure as hell could! I was so mad I couldn’t see straight, and ended up glad that I had another two hours of flying before I was able to shut down, giving me a good chance to cool off before I could confront F*ckstick for his actions.
With Tony interpreting, I told Cesar that he had absolutely no business being a pilot. I made it very clear to him that in no uncertain terms was he to go anywhere near the Otter either in the air OR on the ground, and that he should stay the hell away from me as well. As it turns out, considering I was basically all alone in far southern Mexico right around the time the drug cartels were really getting the hang of killing people and cutting off their heads, calling Cesar out in that way may not have been the wisest of choices.
It was almost twenty-four hours later that I climbed out of the plane after a beautiful flyby that I found myself approached by the six men I mentioned earlier. I guess it had been a really good day, full of fun jumps and happy people, because the previous day’s excitement wasn’t even remotely in my mind when the first guy walked up and said, “We have a problem.”
That’s just about the time I swallowed half of my tooth. The little guy, who probably stood no more than about five-foot-five, threw a sucker punch from my blind spot that confused me more than anything else, because my first reaction was to laugh and bark out the word “what??” It wasn’t until he came in for punch number two and I’d shoved him away that I saw the baseball bats. As he came in for number three, I got my first view of the gun barrel pointed straight at my chest, and let the little shit swing away.
Cesar, being the big man that he was, stood a safe twenty feet back from the action, letting his boys prove how rugged and tough he was. The gang clearly saw that I saw the gun CLEARLY, and slowed the pace a bit, I assume to savor what was to come. “This is MEXICO” came from the mouth of Mr. We Have a Problem. He had clearly been voted the spokesman for the group, and was taking his job quite seriously, using the full weight of the situation to really put some impact behind his words. And then … My savior!
Mandy had been watching the situation unfold, and according to her, screaming her f*cking head off (although to this day I don’t recall hearing a sound) loud enough to attract the attention of the military on the field. It didn’t appear that the military intended to do a damn thing about the attack, but they did stand up and look our way (I assume to get a better view), which turned out to be just enough to back my new friends off just a touch. The Spokesman looked to the military, then to me and said, in his most ominous tone, “Eeef you are here Saturday, you go home in a box.”
“Doug, if I’m here on Saturday, the f*ckin’ guy says I go home in a box! So … Either I leave Mexico with the Otter, or I leave without it! Your choice!” To his credit, he handled the news pretty damn well. I mean really, when you consider I had just called him to tell him that I was flushing his entire winter down the toilet because of something that happened to somebody else’s plane, he was a real gent.
Tony, the DZO, had quickly gone into damage control mode, and was busy telling his entire staff that there had been no gun, and that for some unknown reason I was making the entire story up. It wasn’t until Fritz’s girlfriend stood up and called bullshit that he stopped trying to play everyone. Luckily for me, she had seen the guy with the gun (who turned out to be a f*cking Federale) and told the entire staff right then and there what she had seen. Between her, Mandy, and a staff that wasn’t blind or stupid, everyone got a pretty good picture of what had transpired.
From then on out, things started to get a bit strange … First, I found myself standing in front of a group of 20 or so staff members, telling them that I was leaving as soon as the sun came up WITH the Otter, then apologizing deeply because I knew that I was ruining their season by doing so. I felt horrible in a way that I never have before, but it was the only choice that was to be made. Once Doug had the chance to get a handle on the situation, he told me flat out to get in the Otter and get the f*ck outta there. To this day I still greatly respect his decision and how hard it must have been to make. Then, the staff, whose entire season I was about to destroy, did something I really never would have expected.
Each and every one of them went above and beyond, and helped me load thousands of pounds of equipment back into the Otter so that I’d be ready to leave at first light. They actually helped me take money right out of their pockets. Of all the staff, I only knew Buzz from Chicagoland. I don’t know a single one of the other staff members’ names, but I owe them a huge debt of gratitude nonetheless.
That night Tony took me to meet a Mexican version of the Godfather who told me, through Tony, that I should put the past behind me, and that I should not worry. He told me that I should not speak of that night any further because I was now under his protection, and nobody would touch me. He invited me to stay to finish the season in comfort, knowing that he would be looking out for me. I flew out as soon as the sun hit the horizon the next morning.
As I crossed the border from Mexico back to the U.S. and Brownsville, Texas, I remember thinking that it was just about the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. If it hadn’t been so damn close to the border, I probably would have settled down there …
["So, to the staff of that DZ in Southern Mexico I give my heart-felt thanks."]

I lasted a total of four days in Mexico. It was the last time I visited that country, and I still have no plans to return. Ninety nine percent of the people I met there (well, ninety five anyway) were wonderful people. Had it not been for the crazy events that took place there, I truly believe I would have had an amazing experience. The staff at the DZ were kind, full of smiles, apologetic for the events, and were amazingly generous with their help. It is a testament to what I hope is the real spirit of the Mexican people.
The true test of a choice that you make is simple. Would you make the same choice if you had it to do all over again? Absolutely! Would I change the way I approached f*ckstick Cesar? Sure. I can tell you from experience that having a gun pointed at you sucks! Would I change stopping him from flying a load of jumpers after the prop strike? NEVER! Those were my people! It didn’t matter if I knew them or not, they were skydivers, and I would never be willing to risk their lives under any circumstances, no matter who they were or where they were from. So, to the staff of that DZ in Southern Mexico I give my heart-felt thanks. To Cesar I say, “GO F*CK YOURSELF!” (From a safe distance and an undisclosed location).

This article was posted on SkydiverDriver.com with permission from Dean Ricci and  Blue Skies Magazine

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