By James Stark
"Eee haa, get along li'l dogie. Hey Junior, this is Ralph's really good round-up in the desert. Brought to you by your local border agent man. Puedes bring up the troque."
"Copy that, cowboy."
Karl heard Ralph's banter through the static of the radio in the official INS Ford Explorer. Through his night vision goggles the scene of his supervisor/partner, Ralph on the chestnut quarter horse named Tigger brought a faint smile to his lips. Ralph's use of Spanglish showed he was in good spirits. Ralph, or Rafael Perez by birth, had just corralled an illegal border crosser in the Sonoran desert north of the US-Mexican border. Try as he might, the illegal could not elude the expertly tossed Manila hemp lasso drawn up and held tight around his arms.
The Explorer responded to his touch with a mellow roar as Karl spoke into the radio: "I'm approaching on the borderline road, ETA two minutes." Karl, or Junior as his co-workers called him, gave a nervous touch to his sidearm. Just to confirm it was there. Sometimes individual border crossers, known still as wetbacks, acted as decoys to divert attention away from the larger group being transported in vans and trucks by their "coyotes". Sometimes shots were fired. Often lives were lost. And not from gunshot wounds. Dehydration and over heating got most of them. In the quiet of most nights you could hear muffled voices and the scratching of feet in the dirt. A massive migration was taking place all along this stretch of ground.
Even as an INS patrolman, Karl sometimes wondered how practical borders were. After all, they were nothing but artificial lines drawn to keep people in or out. What had drawn him to this profession, especially considering his background? But the answers to the whys of tracking down and corralling people in the desert with low-light cameras and thermal-imaging scopes and even seismic sensors were far above his pay scale at the moment.
The four-wheel drive pride of Detroit took the ruts and the rocks through the mesquite and prickly-pear cactus in stride. It carried the rookie Karl to his first official human roundup in the desert night. The red and blue colored dust bounced off the light bar of the Explorer as he rolled up to the scene of Ralph on Tigger, holding a young Mexican man at bay at the end of a rope. Amid the dust bouncing off the flashing lights his peripheral vision caught the shape of another person, from the shape, maybe a woman. She was off to the right, mostly hidden by a man-sized cactus, lying with her knees up under her chin in the sage and whitethorn. Karl could see that she was still alive, but, unlike the man, there was no more run left in the woman. As he slowed down, he could make out that she was only a girl of maybe seventeen. Her contorted cheeks were lined with tears running through the red-brown dust on her face. Ralph had either not seen her, or was preoccupied with his "li'l dogie."
Some of the stories he had heard from his father and grandfather about Eastern Germany after the war came back to Karl as he headed for Ralph's roundup. They had told him of women just like this one, some with babes in their arms, crossing several borders, in their flight from deathly fear and hunger. Some ran into worse conditions than they had left.
Tigger's flared nostrils and the downcast eyes of the Mexican illegal swirled through the confusion caused by the whinnying horse and the light bar in the desert night. Some where in the distance the howl of a doleful coyote calling for his mate or pack, lent a certain poignancy to this human scene in the desert. Karl could make out Ralph's questioning of the young Mexican, while performing the systematic ritual of the arrest. With Ralph, everything was done by the book.
"Como te llamas y cuantos anos tienes?" Ralph was asking the young Mexican for his name and age. Carlos was under twenty and had no papers on him. It was clear, he was no rookie border crosser. His English was rudimentary, but adequate and he offered up his wrists for the restraining bands like a veteran. Karl had often questioned the efficiency of this kind of roundup. All the old timers back at the INS base told him that they saw the same faces over and over.
"Well, Ralph, you sure got this one wrapped up nice and neat. I wish I had a picture of the fancy rodeo work you did with that lasso. Just like roping a calf. That kid isn't any more than a calf himself, is he, Ralph? Makes a guy wonder sometimes what we're doing here, doesn't it? All these people, your people really, just want what you and I take for granted every day. How can a guy keep these people from that?"
What came back from Karl's Mexican-American supervisor was swift and to the point.
"Listen up, you young, dumb gringo asshole. This is a good job with good benefits and a good pension. And you know what? My people have been here a long time before you gringo assholes showed up. My people have worked hard for what they got. But there's new lines in the dirt now that I didn't make up, and laws I didn't make either; I jus' carry 'em out; and you just carry 'em out. Don't you forget that, me entiendes?"
Karl could see that Ralph was tired and in no mood to justify himself to a rookie. He was the boss and it was Karl's job to do what he was told. This particular night Karl was to bring the detainee in to base alone. Ralph would head to the stable with Tigger and meet Karl at the office.
"Look, Junior, you've lost your cherry. That's a hard thing for a guy with compassion. You'll get through it. But the tough part is the mountain of paperwork we gotta get through."
"Sure. I'll see you back at base." Ralph had come down hard on Karl. But he hadn't wanted to alienate his trainee.
"Listen man, you got to get hard to this stuff. Don't wimp out on me. Laws are laws, rules are rules. We don't mistreat no one. Think of us as the Dutch boy with his thumb in the dike. He kept the water out. We keep the people where they belong. And you can't cut these people no slack."
"I guess you're right", was all Karl could muster through his tiredness. It had been a long shift. This night there had been stretches of boredom interspersed with fast-paced action. At least this part of the shift was over. It was especially hard adjusting to night duty all rookies pull their first few years. He helped the cuffed Carlos into the screened-off back section of the big van. Carlos would be processed and maybe see a judge. Then he'd be released on his side of the border. It was catch and release. Like sport fishing for trout. Sometimes Karl's non official side felt that slack was what these people needed a lot of.
Karl turned the van around and retraced the rutted creek bed through the darkened desert for several minutes until the van's wheels started to bite into the more solid surface of the broken pavement. All of a sudden, Carlos started pounding on the screen separating the holding area from the front of the van with his chest and head. "Donde esta` mi mujer?" The van's rattles mixed with the half-cry, half demand of the illegal Carlos. The van's noise and the jarring movement made comprehension by Karl more difficult for his still-rudimentary Spanish. "Que dices?" What are you saying, he repeated, until he finally understood the word "mujer". "Oh my God." The image of the cowering woman behind the cactus reappeared to Karl. He slammed on the brakes, throwing Carlos up against the steel mesh. He spun the wheel around 180 degrees and headed back onto the dirt track. By this time Carlos was sobbing in the back. In the rearview Karl saw the anguish on the face of the young Mexican. He also saw the blood on his shirt from pounding with his chest on the wire screen.
"Agent Perez, do you read me? I repeat, this is Agent Schulz, come in, Agent Perez, we have a complication." There was no response through the crackling transmitter. Maybe Ralph hadn't brought his transmitter into the stable. Could it be the hill up ahead shadowed his reception? "Damn, the lights are still on." Having discarded his night vision goggles, Karl saw the landscape through the windshield in blue, red and white tones. He threw the radio down on the seat next to him and tried unsuccessfully to reach for the lights' toggle switch. He couldn't get the lights off. "She'll run for sure, she sees that" he said out loud to no body in particular. "If she runs any more, she'll be back in Mexico."
Karl couldn't help thinking of what Ralph had said. This is a good job. He accepted that, but now he was having reservations. These people were just trying to make it. True, he was paid well to keep people out of his country and on their side of the border. Maybe his own history had something to do with his questions about what he and Ralph were doing. Karl's family had told him stories of borders and the people who crossed them while he was growing up. Even the bad parts had seemed exciting to the young Karl. Maybe guarding borders was in his blood. His father had patrolled the eastern side of the Berlin wall; Franz Schulz had had the job of keeping his own countrymen inside their own country.
But here and now Karl had a problem. According to the regulations, he was supposed to radio his supervisor the information and instructions regarding the woman. He'd get a reprimand for not mentioning the woman before. Why hadn't he mentioned her? Everything had happened so fast. Is there such a thing as an honest mistake? What about the woman? Karl shook involuntarily from a chill through the half-opened window onto the desert night. Was there somebody else out there to help her? What if she died? Who would know? Carlos would know. Karl would know. He also knew he would have to do the right thing, where ever that led.
There was a chain of hamburger joints in the West and Southwest of the US called "Carl's Junior". It drew your eye because it used a star in its trademark. Karl Schulz spelled his name with a 'K'. That's how his parents named him. And he wore a star on his badge. His co-workers ate often together at hamburger joints. Since Karl was a rookie, it seemed a natural. One letter of the alphabet led from Carl's Junior to Karl the junior. He didn't mind. It wasn't just his name that had singled him out. The close-cropped straw colored hair, pale blue eyes and the square jaw marked him as different from most of his co-workers here on the US-Mexican border. His parents had said he inherited much of his appearance from his grandfather Schulz.
Karl had first met his grandfather in person after the Berlin wall came down. Opa Rudolf Schulz was ramrod straight in his 70s then. The creases in his face formed lines between grief and joy. There were bullet entry wounds on his legs and torso; signs of violence marked his head and face. Opa knew a lot about borders and about stars on uniforms, especially red stars seen everywhere in Eastern Europe. He also told Karl about the Gypsies in Europe who acknowledged no borders. "These are the real citizens of the world, Karl. They cross where and when they want."
Like opa Rudolf, Karl's father, Franz and his mother, Anna, also knew about borders. They had showed him the press accounts of their own daring escapes from East Germany. Unlike Carlos in the back of the van, they had had enough to eat in their country; but they had been hungry for freedom. While in Germany to celebrate the country's reunification, Karl's parents took him to where the Spree River had formed the border between East and West in Berlin. It was not far from the famous Brandenburg Gate. A series of white crosses marked where people tried and failed in their attempts to cross to the West. Karl's father knew some of the names on the crosses. They, like he, had been wetbacks. Franz had swum the river through claxon alarms, spotlights and rifle fire. No one lassoed him or sent him back. He had crossed over to the other side. That was l972. A year later, Anna, widowed and not yet Franz's wife came under the wall through a tunnel. She had carried her firstborn, Klaus, just a few days old. Had he lived, he would have been Karl's older half-brother. As a border guard, Franz had manned watchtowers with binoculars and weapons. He never took a life. He had always aimed high.
Grandpa Rudolf told Karl about the fall of 1939, when then Leutnant Schulz had led his men across the German-Polish border in Hitler's Wehrmacht. When opa crossed back in l950, after five years of Soviet prisoner of war camp, the borders had changed. There were Poles living where generations of his family were buried. He was sent to the Soviet sector of the new Germany. There he was reunited with his son, Franz. His wife, Maria, had not survived the Soviet "liberation" of Germany. When Franz crossed over to the West, Rudolf had stayed behind. He would not leave his wife's grave. It was then that his humiliation and degradation at the hands of the Stasi state security people began. Interrogations, loss of employment and arrest were all in store for a relative of a border crosser.
The van's right front wheel hit a small boulder just as the river bed curved to the left on a down grade. Karl fought the wheel on the tipping van and brought the top-heavy rig back to all four wheels. His hands were sweaty and he knew he could lose control at any moment. "Slow down", he cautioned himself.
In the back, hugging the mesh separating him from the front seat as best he could with his hands bound, Carlos became animated. "Mira, esta' mi mujer" "Look, there she is." "Si, la veo" I see her. With both feet jammed on the brake pedal, all Karl saw was an almost phantom-like form swirling in and out of the red, white and blue dust in the headlights. The souped up engine of the rig caused it to fish-tail left to right in the narrow passage and it tipped on to two wheels. Clouds of yellow dust swirled around the headlights of the van. Karl could see he was losing his orientation along with his control over the pawing, lurching rig. Where was up. Where was down. How far had he driven? He had no more visual contact with the woman. In the confusion, Karl wasn't even sure he was still in the US.
"Hey Junior, where the hell are you?" Ralph's voice had an edge to it as it crackled through the car's radio. He was probably counting on some help with the paperwork. No doubt he was thinking of heading home to his ranchito, as he called it.
Karl instinctively reached for his radio to respond to Ralph. All it took was one less hand on the wheel of the bucking, rolling van. As he opened his mouth to speak, he felt and heard a light thump on the right front side of the rig. "What was that? Did I hit her? "Please don't let it be true." He heard Carlos's muffled cry through the mesh screen in the back. With no seat restraints, he was buffeted around in the back like a cork on water. His moans and sobs competed with the van's struggling wheels. The rig came to a stop with the two left wheels perched on the side of the dry creek bed, listing hard to the right. The motor had died, and with it, the churning of the front wheels.
With his free hand, Karl released his seatbelt, opened the right side door and slid out into the multi-colored dust swirling around in the desert night. "Junior, goddamit, respond, will you. What is happening?" The mixture of anxiousness and annoyance in Ralph's voice jerked Karl out of his shock. "Uh, something's come up. But I'm on my way in right now."
The otherwise clear desert night was awash with the van's one remaining flashing blue light and one headlight. The stillness was broken by Carlos' moans developing into wails in the back of the van. A movement drew Karl's focus. Barely visible in the deep dust and the scrub brush was the young woman. "Oh my God," was all he was capable of. The van's impact hadn't seemed to cause her any serious injuries. She would have a bruise or two. Karl felt his gorge rise. He wanted to unburden himself of his failure to report and its results, to confess everything to someone. How could he make everything right? But he knew he couldn't do it over the radio.
The woman rose and walked slowly, but without hesitation, toward Karl. She was holding something tightly in her arms under her wrap. As she approached, the desert air carried a pungent, earthy, but not unpleasant smell of the struggle of new life from her. The woman's wrap opened with her movement, exposing in her arms a tiny head with thick black hair slicked back with the wetness of the newborn. Its tiny round brown face grew slowly into a wide opened crying mouth. Under her wrap, the front of the woman's white shift was brown with dried blood. Her face in the dusty light seemed surrounded by the glow of a young woman's pride and happiness, as if she were saying, "Look what I have produced." She showed no fear of the uniformed tall, blond gringo with the pistol at his side. "Mira, es mi nina." Look at my little girl. Karl started to reach for the baby, but instead he could only muster "Well, I'll be damned".
"Agent Schulz, I want a report on your status. And I want it right now. Where are you and where is the illegal?" There was more than just exasperation in Ralph's voice on the radio.
"Agent Perez, there is a complication. I have picked up what seems to be the detainee's wife. She had a baby in the desert and is in critical need of assistance. She fled back over the border after giving birth on the US side. I'm bringing her and her baby in with her husband, Carlos."
"Agent Schulz, leave the woman in her country and return to base with the detainee. That is an order. Junior, this is serious. Your job is on the line. Return immediately."
It took several attempts to get the rig started and righted by rocking it back and forth with the gears. Karl turned the topside bar light off and helped the woman and her baby into the front passenger seat. His eyes as well as his mind were clouded as he moved the heavy vehicle back slowly toward his side of an unseen line in the desert. The air inside the van filled quickly with cries and whispered conversation as Carlos and his wife talked through their tears and through the wire mesh enclosing the rear of the van. Karl turned up the heat in the vehicle and reached for his jacket to give to the woman who was shivering from the cold and the excitement. When she took his jacket, he looked into the woman's upturned round face and oval, brown eyes. In the deep pools of those eyes, Karl saw a weariness far beyond her seventeen years. But he also saw acceptance of her new status and a trust that things would be better now for her and for her baby. He took his hand from the steering wheel briefly and touched the nursing baby's head. He felt a lightness mixed with sadness.
Karl drove awhile until he was again on US soil. Only then did he call in to base.
"Agent Perez, this is Agent Schulz reporting. I am heading into base with the apprehended detainee. I am also bringing in a new American citizen accompanied by her mother."QLRS Vol. 7 No. 4 Oct 2008