March 27th, 2011 Comments Off on Chapter Two
In 1942 Lencho’s two boys, Juan and Jose, decided to leave home in Sugar Land and go to Galveston Texas, here it was rumored, there were many jobs, thanks to the war fueled economy. Ernesto Rodriguez believes his two brothers left home willingly because of fights they had had with their father over their use of marijuana, even then a popular drug among Mexican teenagers. In Galveston they would be spared their daddy’s well meaning, if sometimes brutal, efforts to discipline children and there, at least, they wouldn’t get all the flak from Lencho if they did something he disapproved of. It was a chance to spread their wings.
Galveston during the war years was a totally corrupted place, once called the “Playground of The South”, a twenty four hour a day city which could boast of most of the vices commonly associated with port towns. There were wall-to-wall whorehouses on Post office Street and thanks to three shifts at the ship repair yard, the non-stop loading and unloading of ships, and the large number of servicemen, there were drunks staggering the streets around the clock. Sailors, marines, merchant seamen, and defense workers crowed the bars and brothels, which were legal in Galveston in those days. Gambling was commonplace, with “One Arm Bandits” every where, supplies of heroin were abundant, and an Italian named Sam Macio (pronounced May-seo) was reputedly the capo in charge of the town’s sporting and social activities. The opportunities for skimming, partnerships, and payoffs were limited only by the size of the city and the financial needs of Galveston’s politicians, which is to say there was plenty of business for Sam.
Several months after Juan and Jose moved away from home they sent word up to Sugar Land that there were jobs for the asking in Galveston. Packing up their five remaining children, Lencho and Jesusa responded quickly and joined the two older boys in Galveston, where Lencho was not to be disappointed in his search for a job paying more than he received from the Marshall Canning Company. He quickly landed one as a tack welder with the Cain boiler Works at sixty cents an hour, but after a few months tired of the eye strain he experienced in the work, he quit to open his own little café. Sobre Las Olas. It was the first of several he was to operate in Galveston.
There was no problem connected with the move because Lencho and his family moved in the building where his sons lived, a big white frame house one in which the boys paid five dollars a week for room and board. With all nine of the family reunited, they took over half of the second floor of the not so fancy two story building.
It is not known whether Lencho knew what he was doing at the time but the new lodgings he selected for his family were located smack dab in the middle of Galveston’s whorehouse district, which in those days thrived as never before. In using the term “smack dab in the middle” I do not mean to suggest that there were brothels in a mixed neighborhood comprised of ma and pa grocery stores, a café here and there, and a Christian science Reading Room. That wasn’t the case at all. 2710 Post Office Street, where the Rodriguez’ lived was the only building on the street in that block and for blocks around that wasn’t a whorehouse. Scantily clad women of varying dimensions and origins graced the windows and balconies of the entire neighborhood, advertising their qualifications for the profession of their choice.
As Ernesto remembers the neighborhood, it had been many moons since the young ladies in his neighborhood had played “post office,” the children’s old kissing game, it being much more likely they had moved straight from “doctor’s game” to the hard stuff. Not wishing their city to acquire a bad reputation with its visitors, the city fathers insisted that all licensed whores received periodic physical exams, a requirement only slightly better than no check-up at all, considering the volume of business done in those war years.
The most colorful members of Galveston’s urban life were the whores, the young ladies who strutted the streets, wore their finery with great élan. They were the big spenders. Because mid day was a slack time for them, it was during those hours they patronized the city’s restaurants and stores. For the most part Anglos, Mexicans, and Cubans–the Blacks were segregated–the ladies developed a symbiotic relationship with the Galveston street boys, promising them one “freebie” for every ten paying customers they boys referred to them. With most of the very young boys the promise of sex held less appeal then did the accessibility of the houses’ gambling devices: pin ball machines, slot machines, peg board games, and so forth. The odds offered by the whorehouse machines were twice as favorable to the gambler as they were in other business establishments. Kids who learned how to cheat the machines–they did this by hitting the handle hard and quickly to start the machine , then if the machine showed a jackpot, they would quickly insert a coin in the slot and if the machine stopped on the jackpot, they would quickly hit the handle to drop the coin in and the machine would pay off–if it stopped on the jackpot. Kid who did this and were caught by Sam Macio’s men were beaten severely and kicked out of town!
The Rodriguez’ home at 2710 Post Office Street was designed much like a small two story hotel, with an entrance, stairway, and a corridor on both floors separating the five rooms on either side of the building. Except for two connected rooms at the end of the corridor, it was necessary for a person to step out into the hallway to enter the adjacent rooms. The family solved the space problem by putting the three girls in one small room, the three boys in another, and the parents–when they weren’t accusing each other of infidelity–slept in a third. The two connected rooms at the end of the corridor served as the living room and kitchen. With a few plumbing changes 2710 was easily convertible to a sporting palace.
Two of the boys in the building became very good friends of Ernesto. One was Albert Saucedo, known to his pals as “Skinny Albert,” and the other–his closest friend–was Antonio Galicia, the son of the family who leased the entire building from its owners and who, in turn, subleased it to the Rodriguez’ and other families. At least young Ernesto had two friends who could side him in the many fights that became part of his Galveston life.
To get to school from his house at 27th and Post Office Street Ernesto walked twelve blocks, about one mile, to the Goliad Elementary School, which accepted White children and Mexicans, but not Blacks. The Black children had their own segregated school which, unfortunately, lay directly in the path many Mexicans and Whites were forced to take on their way to Goliad. Taunting and stone throwing by one side or the other was the daily drill and very often it led to fights on the way to or from school, fights which might easily have been avoided by walking a block or two out of the way to bypass the Black school. Ernesto was not the type of little Mexican boy to take even ten extra steps to avoid a fight. Using his fists and feet, he showed early signs of becoming a first rate street fighter. This, of course, caused new problems and new fights because, like famous gun slingers of yore, he was often put to test. He had a rep, one he built on until 1980. On the way to or from school his principal opponents were two Black boys, brothers named Bobo and Roscoe. (Roscoe later died when he dove from the deck of an empty cargo ship and became ensnared in an underwater obstacle, barbed wire. By the time rescuers found his body several days later, most of it had been consumed by crabs.)
For the most part, fights at school took place along ethnic lines, Mexicans against Anglos. But not always. If Ernesto was caught during recess talking to a little girl some other boy thought was his, fists flew. Even an unwillingness to share a cigarette with his seven year old classmates at Goliad Elementary School could precipitate a fight. One of the things he says he never dared do was to play hooky. To do that was to court his father’s wrath, something certainly to be avoided because his father was bigger than he was and pulled off his belt with the slightest provocation. But Ernesto found a safer way to avoid going to school; he went to sleep in school and was sent home. The little boy really was tired–he wasn’t faking–because the night time activities of Galveston’s streets and alleys were of considerable interest to him and others in his crowd. He didn’t have to worry about making a noise when he came home, the stairs creaking or stuff like that, because he and his brothers had a room separate from their parents and he could let himself in or out with no one the wiser. Unless the weather was bad on the days he was caught sleeping in school he went to the beach to play rather than go home to catch up on his rest.
A fight with his mother Ernesto still remembers having was over a twenty-five cent piece. Often when Lencho whiled away time in a café–his own or someone else’s–little Ernesto visited him. He had learned that his father would usually give him small change–five cents, ten cents, or even a quarter–to beat it, get lost. On one such occasion Lencho had given him a quarter and Ernesto gave the money to his mother for safekeeping, to be used for food the following school day. The next morning when he was leaving for school he asked for his quarter and Jesusa gave him one, but it was not the same quarter he had given her. The date and the identifying letter on the quarter of those days was different. He wanted his own quarter back. Mother and son wrangled for half an hour and finally Jesusa lost patience and threw a fifty cent piece out into the street, yelling that it was worth two quarters and that he should get off to school.
The money was important because no breakfasts were served at home and for ten cents Ernesto could buy three sugar glazed donuts on the way to school and still have fifteen cents left over for a five cent bag of potato chips, and a three cent soda water, Big R.C., and still have seven cents which he could use to see a five cent movie at the Dixie Theater on Market Street, and still have two cents to buy two “all day suckers” for a penny. That he thought, was worth fighting for. He did not know the real value of a “half dollar.”
Scampering out in the street, the argumentative little nine year old picked up the fifty cent piece and threw it back at his mother. He wanted his own quarter back, not money that wasn’t his.
Jesusa blew her top and chased after her son, screaming, “Huerco cabron chingado!” (You worthless little son-of-a-bitch).
Being much faster than his mother, Ernesto leaped and splashed across a big puddle which stopped his mother dead in her tracks. The furious Jesusa picked up an empty Coke bottle and hurled it at her son, missing, only to discover that the huerco cabron chingado threw it back at her. He was being a real brat and the loving mother was madder than ever.
Ernesto ran around the corner of the block accompanied by his Mother’s swearing and circled back to his house, where he climbed up the ceramic drain pipe that led to the one bathroom window, he locked himself in and waited for the screaming and yelling of his mother and the neighbor to die down. What he didn’t know was that his mother was baiting a trap for him with the help of Lupita Corona, the neighbor woman upstairs and across the hall.
Little Ernesto had not had a bite to eat that morning., he was feeling pangs of hunger, and soon the smell of cooking beans and frying tortillas drifted under the door of his toilet sanctuary. Not caring much whether he went to school or not, he knew he had been feeling argumentative all morning. What was bothering him now, filling all of this thoughts, was food.
“Ernesto,” he heard Lupita’s voice call out, “I have some nice beans, and the tortillas are ready. Would you like to eat some? They are very good. I am having some.”
The young boy ignored the invitation the first time, but the delicious smells grew stronger, more enticing, and the second time he was invited he unlocked the door and joined Lupita in her apartment. Starving the way he was, he thought it very kind of her to share her frijoles with him.
No sooner was he in her apartment than Lupita slammed the door and braced her back against it. “Susie! Susie!” she yelled at Jesusa, “I’ve got him. I’ve got him. Help! Quick!.”
Moments later, Jesusa, carrying a long length of rope, let herself into the room and the struggle between the two grown women and the nine year old boy began. Tying his hands behind his back, his arms to his side, and putting a halter around his neck, Jesusa led her son down the stairs to their own apartment. Screaming epithets at him while she dragged him along by the neck, the loving mother made sure he didn’t escape again until his father came home. She tied poor little Ernesto, who was now completely naked, to the couch, a place where he would have ample time to think about his father’s leather belt.
When Lencho returned that night and learned of his son’s peccadillos, off came his leather belt and punishment followed. Lencho’s belt was only a standard width but to the little boy it looked and felt like it was one quarter inch thick and six inches wide. Spare the belt and spoil the child, Lencho believed Ernesto was spared nothing that night.
Most of the important things to be learned in the city were forcefully and vividly taught. For the young children in the whorehouse district sex education was along audio-visual lines, learning made possible by open windows and only partially drawn shades. It was very easy for children tall enough to look into a first floor window to sneak along the spaces between the houses and get a close-up view of grown-ups in action.
When Ernesto was ten years old he describes himself as being “still basically honest.” He didn’t want to accept money from other boys who had picked drunks’ pockets because while his newspaper sales didn’t earn him much, it was at least honest money. Then one day his attitude changed; he found a five dollar bill under a table on the floor of a restaurant and took it home to show his father.
When the boy explained how he found the money, Lencho asked, “Are you sure you’re telling me the truth?”
“I told him I was,” Ernesto remembers, “but my father hit me a hell of a hard blow on the side of my head. I even showed him how it had been folded and described everything to him, but he just yelled, ‘You stole this god dam money!’ It made a deep impression on me and I started to think more about money.”
Soon Ernesto joined his friends in stealing and robbing. The thought came to his mind of “buying a suit, tie, and a pretty scarf.” He began to burglarize with them and doing whatever else struck their fancy. They did it after store hours, posted sentries, and were never caught.
Next it was bicycles. He asked Lencho for money to buy one and was told to go out and earn the money for it. As Ernesto says, “I shined shoes. I swept out four barber shops who let me shine shoes there. I could never save up any money and then I bought a lock, a combination lock. My father asked me why I bought that and I told him that when I bought my bicycle I could put it on so no one would steal it. But I was never able to save enough. Frank Capiano, one of the older boys and kind of a leader in the neighborhood, tried very hard to get me involved in robbing soldiers and sailors. I saw that other kids were involved in stealing bicycles and finally I went from these little piddly robberies, like stealing yo-yos from Kress’, nickel and dine stores, to bicycles. I stole them for parts for my friends, stuff like that. We went on a spree and we were stealing on the average about six a day. We stripped them and kept everything except the frame, which had the serial number on it. Then we’d buy an old bicycle, get the papers with the serial number, and put new parts on the frame and sell it.
“I was about ten when I got my own bike”, Ernesto remembers. “My father was too busy to know, to see, what I was doing. And My oldest brother, Paco, (Juan) told my dad that I had a closet full of tires, bicycle parts, and said, “The kid’s out stealing bicycles, he’s asked you for the longest time, and you refuse to get him one. Now he’s got his bicycle and it’s all stolen stuff.” Paco, probably gave him some money and made my dad buy me a brand new bicycle. Then they tried to get me to get rid of all the parts I had accumulated. But by that time I was kind of deep into the business so I just moved the stuff over to a friend’s garage and anytime he sold something we split the money.”
About two years after Lencho had moved his family to 2710 Post Office Street the owners of the building who rented the house to the Galicia family decided they could realize a greater return on their investment by changing its thrust. Thus it was; they converted their property to a whorehouse in order to take advantage of the booming business and easy availability of both the management and the individual talent Sam Macio’s organization could identify and procure. The revenue from the girls and the slot machines which graced each whorehouse parlor would push them into a higher income bracket but there were plenty of accountants around to handle that problem.
The Rodriguez’ were forced to move to an apartment on 21St Street, a full two blocks away from the closest house of ill repute. Staying there for only a short time, they reunited with the Galicia family a few months later at 309½ Tremont Street. It was when he was still living on 21st Street that the ten year old Ernesto witnessed an event which was to have a decisive influence on his later life. He saw a knife fight in an alley on 21st and State Street, home.
The alleys in Galveston were where all the action was. That’s where neighborhood gangs fought, where drunks were rolled, where teenagers made love, and where knife fighting took place. It was in one of those alleys he watched two men fight it out, one using his fists and the other using a knife. When the yells and cursing were silenced, the man using only his fists lay bleeding in the alley and the knife fighter was long gone before the ambulance arrived.
As Ernesto tells it, “It was then I learned a big lesson. I found out how important it was to have an equalizer. And later when I was in prison, where all knives are strictly forbidden, I learned it was much safer to be caught with one than without one. I never had much money so I went to Kress’ and stole a boy scout knife.”
Self defense was uppermost in his mind in those days because one of the neighborhood boys named Joe, who was called “Jew Baby” picked on the young Rodriguez. He was quite a bit larger than the ten year old. It had all started down at the Greyhound Bus Station on 21st and State Street, where the boys picked up and were paid for the newspapers they sold on the streets for Mr. Simon.
After one of those days Joe had approached Ernesto. In the alley, “Hey, kid how much money did you make today? Let’s see.”
When the younger boy innocently held out his hand and showed Joe the pennies, nickels, and dimes he had earned. Joe slapped the hand, scattering the money and driving off Ernesto.
“After that happened to me I decided I had to do something about Jew Baby. And that knife fight I had seen gave me the answer. I would use my equalizer.”
Ernesto’s new school, San Jacinto Elementary, sent many of its boys to the Y.M.C.A. and there, taught by a Mexican who later fought professionally, young Ernesto learned how to box. But since knife fighting wasn’t part of the curriculum at the “Y”, the techniques of the sport had to be passed around by word of mouth or observed whenever possible in a good pirate movie. Sword fighting and knife fighting were watched with avid interest in the local movie houses by Galveston’s street children. Admission to the city’s cheaper theatres cost kids only four cents and the places were jammed when they showed good fight scenes.
The black theatres, the Dixie, the Carver and the Booker T. Washington, were fully integrated but the White owned theatres were segregated and required all Blacks to use the balcony. The black owned theatres showed many westerns in which the entire cast, ranch owners, rustlers, cowboys, were black actors, thereby giving the young Rodriguez a rather unusual view of how the West was won. “It was blacks against indians, which took some of the heat off the pale faces.” Rodriguez said jokingly.
Ernesto showed signs of guile at an early age. To get the predatory Joe off his back, a necessary change if he was going to be able to keep his own earnings. Ernesto lured the bigger boy into an alley at the bus depot. He had told Joe that he had made quite a bit of money that day and that if Joe would go into the alley with him they could count the money and share it. Ernesto didn’t want to fight with him anymore.
“Oh, yeah,” said Joe. “Let’s go.”
“So we went into the alley,” Ernesto explained, “and instead of pulling out my money I pulled out this knife and told him, “This is all you’re going to get, you son-of-a-bitch” and I went to stab at him like I had seen that guy do in the alley, y’know, and Jew Baby squeezed in between the brick wall and the telephone pole that was there and took off on a dead run! It looked like he left part of his coat hanging’ on the post when he came out the other side of it. I really didn’t want to stab him. I didn’t know how to use a knife, but wanted to make him think I really wanted to get him. He ran about three blocks and I was right behind him, pretending’ I was trying’ to cut the cheeks of his ass. And everybody was hollering “Get him! Get him!” I was chasing Jew Baby down the street and I was just a little kid. He was scared to death I was going to cut him and I was just a little kid. that’s when I learned first hand what knives can do, specially for kids in tough neighborhoods.
“There were a lot of drunks and people trying to pick on kids so we resorted to weapons, either blackjacks, zip guns, pipes, bricks, or big rocks, stuff like that.”
The Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” was quickly adopted by the young Ernesto and there were few times after that episode with Joe that found him without a knife in his pockets. But being prepared was about the only aspect of scouting that held much appeal to him. He certainly doesn’t remember helping any old ladies across the street and if he helped any drunks get from one side to the other it was for the purpose of picking their pockets.
One episode that remains as fresh today in Ernesto’s mind as the day it happened involved a dispute between Lencho and a few of his acquaintances. The setting was a small saloon across the street from Lencho and Jesusa’s second café, La Alma Latina (The Latin Soul). Ernesto was in a small shoe repair shop located next to his parents’ place, dickering with the owner over the cost of fixing the only pair of cowboy boots he ever owned. He was facing the back of the store and the owner was facing the street, where he could see into a small bar across the street on 25th and Market.
While the young boy and the shoe repairman were talking, the shoe maker suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my God, they’re fighting again. There’s another fight going on across the street. These people are forever getting into fights.” he pointed across the street.
“I turned to look,” Ernesto recounted, “and yelled, ‘Oh my God, that’s my mother and my father,’ I saw her come out of the little bar and she was screaming, she was hysterical. I ran across the street and then I saw my father backing out of the little tavern like he was in some kind of shock. He was looking down at his stomach and trying to keep his intestines from falling out all over the place and he kept pushing them back in, trying to hold them with both arms. He staggered out and I saw three men come out of there, all of them holding knives in their hands.”
Two of them ran west down the street and my father said to the man who had done the cutting, ‘you’re not going to get away with this. I’ll kill you’, “Words to that effect. I looked at the man and told him, ‘One of these days I’m going to grow up and I’ll kill you if my dad doesn’t!’”
“My mother told me to go get Paco, my oldest brother. I ran as fast as I could, but Paco wasn’t at 309½ . I went to the Union hall, several blocks away, and he wasn’t there either so I found Jose, my brother, and told him to get over to there , that our father was badly cut. Jose never moved very fast. I kept running back to Dad and then back to Jose to try to get him to hurry.”
“Dad had followed the man who had cut him, followed him a block, holding his guts in. He wanted to finish the fight. My old man kept hollering, ‘Come on back you son-of-a-bitch! Let’s have it out!’ He wanted to get his hands on the guy, in spite of the fact he was all cut up. He chased him to a long stairway in the building next to a furniture store on 24th and Market .But the old man couldn’t get up the stairs.”
“‘If you were a man, you’d end this one way or another instead of running like a fucking coward. Either you kill me or I’ll kill you!’ he yelled, but the guy wouldn’t come down.”
“I watched him come out of the building and try to cross the street, but he never made it. Twenty-fifth Street was a very wide street and he got only halfway across. When he fell down his guts, his intestines, went all over the street and he just lay there. An ambulance got there before Jose did and the man put Dad on a stretcher, piled his guts on top of him, and drove him away.”
“The old man stayed in the hospital ten days or so, as I remember. Must have had more than a hundred and fifty stitches. Cut him from hip to hip, but I guess they must have missed the intestines. I didn’t really know what the damage was. A few days after they took out the stitches my Dad got into trouble with the same bunch of guys again. At Ricardo’s bar right next door to the first bar he’d been in. I had come back to the restaurant my mother and dad operated. That’s where we all ate. No cooking at home. My mother had father were across the street at Ricardo’s having a beer.”
“Mother’d been with him in the first fight, too. Didn’t trust him none, y’know, and never let him out of her sight. In fact, in a way it was my mother who had been responsible for the first fight.”
“She and my dad had been having a beer in that first bar–I forgot its name–and one of the men there used some bad language. My dad told the man to stop using that kinda language and the guy said that if he didn’t like it, he oughta get his wife out of there, send her home. That’s what started the fight, the first fight.”
“My Dad never really carried a knife or other weapons. No, his favorite thing was a beer bottle or wine bottle, whatever was handy. Preferably full. Gives it more weight, y’know. He’d hit the person on the head with the bottle and then have the jagged half of it left. Probably better than a knife. No, he didn’t carry any weapons.”
“I remember I was across the street from Ricardo’s when the second fight began. Mother comes to mind. Yeah, she wore dresses and high heels about ninety percent of the time. And I heard her coming along clickety, clickety, clickety, y’know. She hollered at me, ‘Your father’s getting in trouble again with the same man that cut him. Go get Paco. Go right now. Go get him. Tell him I said to hurry and get back fast. They’re going to hurt him. There are several of them.’”
“I ran to 309½ and found my brother John at the apartment. He put on a coat–he was like Joe who never hurried–and reached under the pillow on his bed and pulled out a .25 caliber automatic. It was in a little holster and he clipped it on his left side. I grabbed him by the hand, trying to get him to hurry and he just said, ‘You go up ahead. Tell him I’m coming. He was so much older than I was and I thought everyone was supposed to run like me.”
“When we got there–I’d been running back and forth, back and forth between Paco and my father–I saw the men. It was a little itty bitty bar, had a juke box, and a few booths across from a short bar. I went over to the juke box and pretended like I was looking at the names of the records when John came in. He walked over to the booths and could turn his back on them because they were empty and watched my father argue with the five men. John was just standing there facing everybody and my dad saw he had my brother’s support. When he knew that, he growled, ‘All right, you sons-of-bitches, you wanted to fight, let’s fight!’”
“Dad hauled off with a beer bottle to hit the big tall guy who had cut him, but the knife fighter ducked and my father hit the guy right behind him. Got him in the mouth. The guy who’d been hit spit out a bunch of blood and teeth and stuff and the tall guy reached into his pocket for a knife. That’s when John pulled back his coat and put his hand on the pistol. They saw him and the gun, I went to hollering, ‘Shoot! Shoot! And when he wouldn’t shoot, I asked him to give me the gun and let me shoot ‘em…‘Give me the gun–give me the gun!’”
“The five guys scattered, the bartender ducked behind the bar, they were running over each other to get out through the door. Four of them didn’t stop running, but the guy who’d been hit was standing there on the sidewalk spitting out teeth and blood and crying.”
“‘I didn’t have anything to do with your cutting’ the guy cried.”
“‘Bullshit’, my father yelled, ‘You’re a friend of that son-of-a-bitch who cut me.’”
“‘You ought to pay for this. You ought to pay for this’, the guy moaned, blood dripping from his mouth.”
“‘I’m not paying for shit,’ my dad said, ‘You bastards didn’t pay when I went to the hospital.’”
“My brother came out and got a hold of my father, who was still walking around with the broken beer bottle in his hand, and told him that they had better get the hell away from the there.”
“‘Go where? I don’t have to go anywhere’. My dad wanted to return to his restaurant across the street where my mom was and continue drinking. ‘I don’t have to leave, and who are you to tell me I have to go home?’”
“‘I’m taking you home,’ my brother told him. He grabbed my drunken father’s arm and pulled him down the street! As they argued, a black man came by and told my brother to leave the old man alone.”
“My brother let go of my dad, pulled out his pistol and pointed it at the black man like he was gonna shoot him. The black man shouted, ‘Hey man be cool!’ and started dancing quickly away.”
“John told dad, ‘Damn it, you’re going to make me shoot one of these silly bastards. Come on now, you are going home.’ My father finally threw away his broken bottle and didn’t make any more trouble for John.”
“That was the end of that,” Ernesto recalls, “that bunch never bothered my dad no more after that. Paco gave ‘em something to think about, like getting some religion, maybe.”
Knives soon became a very important part of Ernesto’s life. As his techniques in their use became more effective, he graduated from the boy scout knife to a longer one he called a Fish Knife. Then came the Hook Knife, distinguishable by the hawk’s beak at the end of the blade. Next he moved to a straight razor, which were plentiful during the war with Germany, they were brought to American by service men as souvenirs. This was ideally suited for its slashing abilities and the ready availability of its blades. “They were good–only if you knew how to handle them,” Ernesto warned.
Guess who outfitted Ernesto with his first switchblade? If you guessed his Aunt Simona, you guessed right. Aunt Simona carried her weapons in her brassiere and when she discovered that a straight edge razor fit her cleavage better than the bulkier switch blade knife she traded even with her nephew–it was her switch blade for his razor. Later in his career Ernesto switched to daggers and ultimately to sharpened racing skate blades because in the prison setting he found that he preferred instruments with greater penetrating capabilities. In the slums of Galveston an artistic cutting job, using a short blade, was reward enough, because knife fights were engaged in to educate, not always with the intent to commit murder.
In addition to selling papers, Ernesto, as well as most of the young Mexican boys in town, shined shoes. Carrying around hand made wooden boxes in which the polish, brushes, and rags were kept, the boys were like a plague of locusts, each trying to carve out his own territory. Ernesto, always a specialist at learning things the hard way, picked up some very valuable advice from “Skinny Albert” Saucedo, or “Beto”, as he was also known, Beto being the Hispanic diminutive for Albert.
“I always thought Beto was a little tougher than I was,” Ernesto admitted. “He had a punch like a mule, y’know. He was a bony little character with short hair, quite a puncher, and we met on the corner of 24th and Market.” Market was a main street and there I was when Beto walked up to me and said I couldn’t shine shoes on that corner and I got to arguing with him and told him I was going to. He said, no I wasn’t. He hauled off and gave me what we call a sucker punch, the first shot, y’know, right in the face. We got in a hell of a fight. We spilled the shoe shine stuff and we fought and wrassled. Finally, I knew Skinny Albert had gotten the best of me because when that son-of-bitch hit, he hit hard. He had me down and hit me between the eyes a couple of times. Then, when he was still on top of me, he started laughing and I was trying to figure out what was so funny.”
“‘The only reason I’m doing this,’ he said, ‘is because I wanted to teach you a lesson. You’re like a brother to me. And I don’t want you to get yourself hurt. Never argue with anybody. When someone comes up to you and is trying to do you some harm, get the first punch in. And then you talk later.’ Then he ran off laughing.”
When he was about thirteen years old the young Rodriguez was challenged to his first fight by a boy in his neighborhood, the challenge coming from a boy name Daniel Diaz, nicknamed “Tuffy”, who traveled everywhere in the company of his two brothers. Tuffy, like Ernesto, worked out in the YMCA gym, but they had never fought with one another there and the challenge came as a surprise, one which no red blooded Mexican boy could refuse. Ernesto had loaned his bicycle to a friend, “Bananas”, and when he brought the bicycle back, Bananas pointed out that Tuffy had slashed the tires and expected to meet Ernesto a few minutes later in a nearby alley. The gauntlet was down.
Because all the boys boxed at the “Y”, the fight was fair, Tuffy against Ernesto while Tuffy’s brothers looked on. No knives. Only fists. Connecting with two shots to the stomach followed by two blows to the head, Ernesto knocked out Tuffy, reportedly the toughest boy in the neighborhood. Then the next brother squared off against him, and met the same fate. The third soon followed suit and Ernesto had the field to himself. No one was going to slash his bicycle tires again. Unfortunately, Tuffy and his groggy brothers hadn’t learned their lesson well, because as they withdrew they warned Ernesto not to go to the dance they knew he planned to attend that weekend.
“No, I’m going to be there,” Ernesto said. “I just decided I wasn’t going to let Tuffy run me off and tell me I couldn’t go to this dance. So I went home and talked to one of the men who were renting in our house. He was a big, dark skinned Mexican–just out of the Army and he liked to gamble a lot–and I told him these guys were going to jump me if I went to the dance. I asked him what I should do.”
“He said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about those guys.’”
“‘Yeah, but they’re going to pull knives on me and everything else. I can’t stay away, y’know, I got to go. I can’t be afraid of those guys.’”
“He showed me how to handle a short broom stick, how to break wrists, even get to their necks. Up and down, this way and that way, he gave me some quick lesson on how I could mess up four or five guys in a hurry.”
Unlike most of the boys in the various neighborhoods, Ernesto didn’t belong to a gang, as did Skinny Albert and some of his other friends. Ernesto worked as a loner, getting along with different boys in different gangs, if he happened to like them. When the Rodriguez and other families were forced to move from the 2710 Post Office Street address Ernesto didn’t see as much of Skinny Albert as he had formerly.
Beto’s father had been electrocuted when he tried to save the life of another man he was working with who had come in contact with exposed electric wires in a water-filled basement. The mother had become an alcoholic and Beto, only slightly older than Ernesto, was trying to act like the man in the family, the breadwinner, and that responsibility kept him out of some of his usual mischief on the streets.
When Ernesto went to the dance that weekend he took along his short stick and a hook knife in case Tuffy and his gang meant what they had said. Because the stick was too long to fit in his pocket he hid it in the shrubbery outside the dance hall. It it appeared as though someone was likely to jump him that night, he’d quickly go outside and fetch it from the oleander bushes.
Most, but not all, of the people in the large dance hall were young people from twelve to sixteen years old. The girls were dressed in long dresses, bobby sox outfits, or Mexican costumes, and many of the boys, including Ernesto, were dressed in the pachuco style of the time, or zoot suit, fashion which dictated pegged trousers, long coat, key chain, wide brimmed hat, and shaping one’s long hair in the “duck tail” style. The kids who knew how to do it jitter bugged, but most of them preferred rhumbas, polkas, and ranch style country music.
As Ernesto approached the dance hall in Kempner Park he caught strong whiffs of marijuana in the warm air.
To be dressed like a pachuco was to advertise one’s bravery, a bravery usually symbolized by a tattoo of three rays emanating from a small cross displayed on the forehead or the hand. The police enjoyed harassing them because they knew the pachucos were the tough ones, young people who dressed differently and flaunted authority. Sailors quickly picked up the antagonism felt by the police and in 1945 the Pachuco Riots in San Diego made the front pages across the country.
There were Hispanics in many of the large northern cities who aped the pachucos, but for the most part the pachuco phenomenon was confined to the southern border states.
Ernesto laughed when he remembered the dance hall fight and how it had started. “I think I was set up. I had hidden the stick in the bushes and then walked around to the entrance. Tuffy and his gang were waiting for me on the steps. It was fight or run. Beto was part of Tuffy’s gang and he probably knew what was going on but he kept his mouth shut.”
“Tuffy said, ‘I told you not to come to the dance’ and pulled his dagger with about a five inch blade. I had my knife in my pocket but I was afraid to pull it out, afraid that I’d antagonize him and that they’d all jump on me. So I told them they were all a bunch of cowards and that I would fight every one of them one at a time. I more or less guaranteed them that they weren’t going to win. I even offered to take them on two at a time with or without a knife. They said, no, they wanted to jump on me in a group.”
“Like a fucking wolf pack.” Ernesto moaned.
It was Skinny Albert, Beto who saved the day. He had been standing to one side, observing the confrontation, and saw the predicament his pal was in.
“I heard Albert call my name, and when I looked at him, I was surprised!” Ernesto said with a smile.
“Beto pitched me a switch blade–I caught it in mid air–and got back to back with me. The other guys got around us, sort of in a circle, and Beto told me, ‘You and me will take ’em all on!’”
“Tuffy started screaming that Beto was on his side and they didn’t want no trouble with him. Beto was really a mean son-of-bitch, y’know. When we got back to back they decided to leave us alone and Beto called them a bunch of cowards, and warned them not to bother me again.”
That Ernesto from age ten onwards was carrying a knife was really no surprise. A properly outfitted young Mexican in the tough district of Galveston was seldom without one. The kids copied the adults, few of whom ventured forth on the streets or into the cantinas without a knife on their person. Macho and knives were like ham and eggs, they complimented one another. In fact, knives were such a persuasive instrument for settling grievances and disputes that many Mexican males took the precaution of having the Virgen de Guadalupe tattooed on their backs, the feeling being widespread that the Virgin’s image would ward off knife thrusts from that direction.