Thirty-eight years ago, July 13, 1979, my classmate, Hector Javier Torres, died in a car wreck near Longview, Texas.
Hector, known to all of us of a certain age as Chiqui, a nickname he inherited from his namesake father and the family’s convenience store on the corner of Clark and Arkansas on the other hand, like the good, died young.
Tragically young at age 29.
He left behind his widow, Susan, and their four-month-old son, Nicholas Austin Torres, losing his chance to be a boy’s father, perhaps even a grandfather, long-term husband, to find a career — all the stuff that comes with adult longevity.
Chiqui was not the first or last to have a tragically short life span. We can all think of beloved others who died too young of illness, or accidents, and unfortunately also those who did not survive addictions or wars. Unlike the rest of us who are shocked every morning by the ancient face in the mirror, the creaky joints, unreliable memory, and insomnia, these dearly departed will always be young and beautifully unspoiled by cruel time.
If I remember my friend today with a combination of affection and regret, it’s because he was just that, a great friend. For those of you who also had the good fortune to know Hector Torres, no doubt you will have your own special memories of him from the Laredo days of our youth.
I have been blessed to have had a bounty of friends who loved to laugh. Some of you partners in hilarity may be reading this right now. You know who you are.
If I’ve been too careless to thank you for the laughter we shared, forgive me. Thanks for laughing with me. How different is shared laughter from laughing all by yourself! The latter is almost always bitter and mocking; the former, a sweet bond.
Chiqui was the laugh companion of my adolescence, and at this distance I can’t remember many things about him now that didn’t involve laughing —at ourselves, at other people, at the world. So my memories here mostly take me back to times Chiqui and I laughed.
Although he died in a car accident, I’m sure Chiqui wouldn’t want me to leave out funny car stories.
Okay, he was a terrible driver and generally more attentive to the people in the car he was driving and the people in the cars heading our way than to either of the cars themselves. There was the time we hopped a curb and drove down the sidewalk while he tried to keep the lit cigarette he’d dropped from burning a hole in his pants or the upholstery of his grandmother’s pristine, light green ‘65 Ford Falcon.
There was the time I panicked and veered off the road because there was Chiqui coming at me on the wrong side of the street with no one in the driver’s seat. He was experimenting with creating the terrifying illusion of no driver at the wheel by sitting on the passenger side, steering with his left hand, and pushing the gas and brake pedals with his left foot, a stunt that, of course, relied on automatic transmission. Several times, as I attempted the death-defying act of crossing the street in London still jet-lagged from a long flight over the pole, I flashed back to Chiqui on Arkansas Avenue, on the wrong side of the car with no one in the driver’s seat!
Chiqui was always part of the crew in my car riding around Laredo during those three short high school years when we thought we had infinite time on our hands. I was the proud owner of an 85-dollar ‘47 Plymouth 4-door with front-and-back sofas that could seat six guys comfortably as passengers, and a dozen or so, uncomfortably as sardines. The advantage of having so many passengers was no early-adopter’s version of carpooling. Rather it was the slap-dash solution to the Plymouth’s untrustworthy electrical system, which was known for leaving me stranded without a working starter motor. The passengers were in effect backup battery power, manpower for pushing me down the road at speed enough to pop the clutch and get the old, smoky 6-cylinder engine to cough and catch.
I have no idea how Chiqui’s dad acquired a 1962 Renault Dauphine with a sunroof. It was a tiny car on a scale none of us had ever experienced before, seating only five of us, and the guys shoehorned in the back had to be contortionists. Once when we were out and about in the unpronounceable French Renawlt Dowfeen, we wound up out on Laredo’s eastern city limits, actually only about six or seven blocks east of Chic-E-Lin’s, where the dirt street ended at the adjacent ranch’s barbed wire fence. This area is all built up now, but in 1966, there were just a few small houses and a vacant lot that had been cleared, perhaps as an investment property for development.
Just as we turned the corner at the vacant lot, the headlights swept across the freshly scraped earth and lit up a dozen sets of jackrabbit ears. What could be more natural than to roar into the field and chase the wildlife in the car —just like in the John-Wayne-on-safari movie, Hatari? The passenger seat door latch was unsafe at any speed, and I fell out of the little French car in the middle of a sharp left veer. Lucky for me, it was dirt and not a carpet of sticker burrs.
Round and round we went stirring up clouds of dust so thick that you needed fog lights. The jackrabbits escaped, hopping to the brush on the other side of the fence. But it was so much fun, we just couldn’t forSomeone had a hand-held search light that you could plug into the cigarette lighter socket, the tool of choice in illegal nighttime deer hunting, and we doubled the fun by standing up in the passenger seat, torsos out of the sunroof. With the search light in hand, you could track the hopping prey through 360 degrees and be navigator for Chiqui driving blind below.
This went on for a few nights, and all the circles and figure eights had loosened enough dust for us to make great dust storms in the vacant lot. Being 16-years-old, it never occurred to us that the dust might be unwelcome in the no-air-conditioning, open-windowed houses across the street. Poor people, they must have had an eighth-inch layer of dirt on everything by the time we had chased the rabbits back to the safety of the ranch. After all, we were covered in dirt and looked like a tank crew in a WW2 movie about North Africa.
One night as I took the spotter’s role standing up through the sunroof, I looked over at one of the houses, where I could see a man come out his front door and stand on his front porch under the bare light bulb. He had a big pistol in his hand, like Gregorio Cortez of corrido lore. He held the pistol up and fired two rounds into the night sky. Instantly comprehending that the homeowner had reached his limit with us and our swirling dust clouds and worried that the next shots might be aimed at us, I kicked Chiqui in the shoulder and yelled at him to get us the hell out of there. We were as scared as the jackrabbits, but unlike them, we were crying muddy tears of laughter down dusty faces by the time we made it back to the safety of Chick-E-Lin’s for a round of Cokes.
When my fiancee came to visit Laredo and meet my parents in April of 1970, I took her out to admire the scenic wonders of Lake Casa Blanca. Well, maybe it wasn’t all tourism. When I say it had just rained… I’ve telegraphed the problem.
Yes, indeed, I drove the Plymouth off the road and got it stuck up to the floorboards in the unexpected mud. Having been dumb enough to have done this before and not wanting to call my dad again for help, I called Chiqui to ask that he round up some guys to come help pull us out of the mire.
When he picked up the phone, I made my desperate appeal.
There was a pause.
I’m wondering “what’s the problem?”
Chiqui says, “Hey, man! Do you realize that the Three Stooges just started?”
I’ve only begun to mine the vein of auto adventures and fun with Chiqui.
It was a couple of Boy Scout trips that were the foundation of our friendship in the early 60s.
Chiqui and I were in the Laredo troop on the trip to the 1964 National Jamboree held at Valley Forge. Every troop was required to put on some sort of exhibit for an hour or so at a scheduled time slot.
What could we show?
Easy: Mexican food. Chiqui’s mother, Mami Cuca, gave a couple of us a quick mini-course on making tortillas and lent us one of those hinged and levered metal tortilla presses to mechanize things. Someone else brought a couple of huge cans of sliced jalapeños and we were set. Now you have to remember that this was 1964, before Mexican cuisine had reconquered not only all the area Mexico lost in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but also all 50 states and the rest of the world. The Laredo troop set up our booth, with Chiqui as Jefe de Cocina dressed in a sarape and a big sombrero de charro.
He took his comic role and ran with it, embellishing it with hilarious accents, gritos, and the occasional “¡Ajúaa!” We made hundreds of tortillas de maíz on the little tortilladora and cooked them on a plancha. Chiqui was a big hit, and there was a gaggle of Boy Scouts taking pictures on their Instamatics.
The real fun though was coaxing the gullible Anglos to try one of the Mexican “pickles.” Poor suckers! Their bland Northern European/American diet hadn’t prepared them at all for a surprise capsaicin explosion on their palates. We would be doubled over laughing at them racing off gasping for a fire extinguisher.
Chiqui and I saw many movies together, and I mean “movies.” The Plaza, Tivoli, and the Royal showed movies. We didn’t see “films” until we went away to college.
Hector Torres Senior, was a great fan of Cantinflas and had encouraged his son to enjoy Mario Moreno’s unique comic genius. We went to the Royal to see Cantinflas in El señor doctor in ‘65 or ‘66, the great movie with the beatnik nightclub scene where Cantinflas busts some amazing moves on the dance floor while being hilariously funny at the same time. Unforgettable, like the line earlier in the movie when a hip bearded guy gestures a question at Cantinflas’ signature facial hair configuration. “¿Y eso?” To which Cantinflas replies after initial bewilderment with a smile, “Ah sí. Llevo bikini.” Chiqui and I were still laughing about the “bikini moustache” years later in Austin. I never told him that I tried that fashion statement myself for about three days, until I tired of the tittering and weird looks. I learned the valuable lesson that guys like me have no business trying to appropriate anything from a genius.
One evening, there was an early R-Rated or maybe even PG-13 movie showing at the Plaza Theater. A bunch of the usual suspects, probably Chester Long, Johnny Snyder, Stuart Temple, Rolando García, David Bolick, Chiqui, and I line up at the ticket booth out front. Chiqui was never tall, and with his baby face, had never stopped getting in to movies paying for reduced price Under-12 tickets. We are buying our tickets eagerly anticipating the erotic scenes soon to be enjoyed in air conditioned comfort inside.
Chiqui puts his money through the little mouse hole opening in the glass. The taquillero laughs with great gusto as he pushes the money back at Chiqui and says, “¡Ja ja ja! You’ve been buying those Under-12 tickets for years and now you now want to get in a No One Under 13 or 18 movie! ¡Lárgate, güey!” We are ROFL at Chiqui’s pouting “not fair!” reaction. He always paid adult admissions after that, figuring that saving money was not worth being excluded from certain movies.
In another funny movie story with Chiqui, he was not a spectator, but the filmmaker.
Between 1971 and ‘72 or so, Chiqui was a cook at the Austin landmark watering hole/hip scene “Les Amis” just off the Guadalupe drag. (The place was pronounced LESS-ah-mee, French phonology be damned.) Les Amis features prominently in Linklater’s film, Slacker, and there is even a documentary about it, Viva Les Amis, if you need a hit of Old School Austin. Chiqui was there in its early days, the heyday of Austin’s alternative Texas. The kitchen was often crazier than the oddballs outside, and the smoke was not only from the griddles.
Chiqui was also enrolled in an English course on surrealism — or some such nonsense — that semester with the legendary UT professor Joe Kruppa. Chiqui had to write the obligatory term paper to get the credit that would be a stepping stone to a B.A. In a stroke of brilliant insight into his professor’s interests, or perhaps, his foibles, he borrowed an 8mm film camera from someone and made a four-minute art film of a hamburger sizzling on the griddle. Stationary camera. No narration. No non-diegetic music. Just the ground beef patty popping grease. I hope the customer appreciated his hamburger meat well-done.
Chiqui turned it in fingers crossed with a great title that I’m sorry I can’t remember, something along the lines of “Zen Burger.” He got an A for the class, and Kruppa showed the “film” to the envious class of students who weren’t clever enough to think of such a successful project that involved zero time in the library! Unlike his classmates, Chiqui had the advantage of growing up in Laredo.
The bedroom Chiqui used at his grandmother’s house across the street from his parents’ house and Chic-E-Lin’s on Clark was special. It was in a detached garage that had been converted into a living space, with doors on two walls, a window, a bed, and a pretty good stereo record player.
I never listened to my records at home. Parents, small houses, and loud rock-n-roll are not a good combination, so I kept my albums at Chiqui’s, and it was there that we could really crank up the volume on “You Really Got Me,” “Carol,” and “Desolation Row.” For a whole group of us, that room was a clubhouse where the music was loud, the conversations adolescent, and plenty of cigarettes and Cokes from across the street.
Chiqui’s grandmother, God bless her soul, was a saint — or deaf — and never bothered us. Someone in the neighborhood was annoyed once though, because a squad car drove up and an officer of Laredo’s Finest came to the door. As he told us to turn down the music, he looked over at the corner where a purloined street sign was hanging from the ceiling. To avoid prosecution we took down the Laredo Street Department property and handed it over. As soon as the police officer left, we put the Kinks back on and turned the volume knob to 11.
Hector Torres was the friend of a lifetime. Memories of our fun together has helped me laugh through my easy existence’s mildly difficult moments.
But, if you’ve got this far, please let me end with a memory that isn’t about laughing with Chiqui.
On May 31, 1967, Graduation Night from Nixon H.S., after sampling briefly some celebrations on both sides of the Rio Grande, we both ended up back at his room where we’d listened to all those Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, and Kinks albums. We climbed up on the roof, stretched out, and stared up at the starry night sky. Light pollution was not a problem in that 0% humidity air, and the constellations were up there so clear you could reach up and touch them. In the quiet air above the sounds of customers at Chic-E-Lin’s and traffic down on Arkansas Ave., we talked about how a page had been turned, and how one chapter of our lives was complete. Chiqui was headed to San Marcos and I was off to New Hampshire in September. We conjectured about the futures we’d daydreamed about and wondered whether the stars had any influence on them.
That night the stars made us think about what was to come. Now, 50 years later, when I look up at the stars on the rare northwest night with clear skies, they remind me of the past as much as the future. The constellations haven’t changed, even though I have, and they point the way back to a long-gone Laredo where Chiqui and I had so much fun together growing up.
I wish I could give you an abrazo, dear friend and old companion, but you are there among the stars now, and I’m down here looking up, remembering you, Chiqui, and the lines from Luis de León, a poet I’d never heard of back in 1967:
aquí se muestra toda, y resplandece
clarísima luz pura,
que jamás anochece;
eterna primavera aquí florece.
(Luis de León, “Noche serena,” 1575)
See you one of these days, Chiqui, in that eternal springtime of blossoms in the bright, pure light.
Until then, I haven’t forgot.
And I won’t.