by Bo Keeley
(Swans - June 14, 2010) A lifelong passion for junk and hard times in New Mexico led me to a scrap operation yesterday outside San Felipe, Baja. The alarm rang at 4 a.m., and right on new-era Mexican time my salvaged friend Romero arrived in a two-ton battered Toyota pickup. The truck allowed a range far beyond the 3-mile band of San Felipe dump ring where day and night a hundred imaginative seekers, mostly peers, blackened with ash and laden with pillow cases and other hopeful bags, walk, bicycle, or push wheelbarrows to sift the seashore desert for recyclables.
I'm an old scrapper from Sand Valley, California, having long lived in a cube-cut ditch with one solar outlet for my computer and a small bulb. My dig is adjacent to the Chocolate Mt. Bombing Range where illegal night ops with my neighbors in Mad Max vehicles have helped scavenge, that is to say, salvage, stray aluminum bomb fins, exploded tank targets thanks to the jet jockies, and barrels of wasted copter shells made up of enough prime brass to tally up to $500 per load. That's salvage heaven. However, yesterday was better.
We'd driven the broken-cup littoral edging the Sea of Cortez for three hours swinging in and out dirt tracks, swigging water as the blazing sun rose. Our first cast garnered a rusting 55-gallon drum, prime corrugated tin along with some signs blown up by shoot-em-up marksmen. Romero pulled into rustic Campo Bufo, an American ex-pat outpost, and braked at the first brick house impressed with an old, maybe flyable yellow Piper Cub parked on the beach front yard, and whispered, "Prove your value, Gringo." I knocked boldly to greet a weathered Idahoan who shrugged his bony shoulders and provided directions and implicit permission to visit the private community dump three miles inland. No lone Mexicans would have driven this far nor had the basic English necessary to access the dump. We anticipated a mother load. That is, lode.
Ordinary garbage was heaped on two acres against rolling sand dunes that was trackless except for thick-tread tires that had edged to the dump, jettisoned treasures, and pulled away again and again as the area spread over the decades. Romeo cooed, we thrust on gloves, and stepped gingerly into the mess for the rattlers, tarantulas, and scorpions.
This is a dirty, dangerous Easter egg hunt with the difficult part folding and stamping metal items into tidy squares to stack in the truck. A surprising degree of order and neatness helps salvage salvage. The only supplies needed are a 6-foot pry bar, rake, and boots. We sweatily toted up the finished load at sunset and it included two refrigerators, a stove, washer, two auto gas tanks, brass fixtures, lawn chair frames, small engine parts, four batteries, nuts, nails and bolts, a pail of copper wire, and hundreds of small generic metal pieces. The stack brimmed the straining truck sides extended by flattened drums and tied atop four bedsprings by a fraying rope that I nearly collapsed on after the final knot. Being a Boy Scout knotter was never like this.
We shakily made it back to San Felipe three hours later (surveilling the skies and the inlet roads for the cops as if we were in a stupid movie involving ourselves in purloining metal from a US operation) and I hit the bed hard at midnight in Romero's spare trailer on an arroyo near the old cemetery. He waved goodnight, advised me to guard the truckload of booty should it rain -- a cloudburst filled this very arroyo in 1972 and floated seven corpses down Main Street into the ocean -- I amortized the deadly thoughts and went home on shank's mare and tumbled into an exhausted sleep. Blue collar crime must be less enervating, whatever its other advantages.
Ten minutes later I thought I heard footsteps. There was a strange face in the window, nose pressed flat, eyes ranging over my modest pad. I sprang from bed to the window, banged on the glass and shouted, "Get the fuck outta here!" The trailer door opened and the intruder, showing no fear, barged in rasping an odd "Hsst!"
I shouldered him, at once wondering at a boldness that would permit a Mexican into an alien American trailer. Either he had a knife in hand, or a cohort awaiting outside. I grabbed his wrists to prevent his reaching his pockets, and slammed him against my 2x3-foot mirror that swung open on hinges projecting dingy streetlight on his eye-popped face. He looked 25, 5'8", crew cut with black moustache, and muscled.
We struggled until he looked down at my nude body, and smiled at my lack of ... I had no shoes on! I shoved him out the door, and jumped into Bermuda shorts. After one shoe, there was a thump outside and I knew he had nabbed the Mag spare tire. Before I put on the second shoe he vanished into the night.
I followed the deep footsteps by penlight along the arroyo road until miraculously a police car pulled aside. "Americano," I yelled. "One minute ago a thief battled me and stole a wheel." "Where is he now?" asked the officer pleasantly, and I pointed at the footprints and beyond... "That way!"
"Too dark," asserted the second officer. I spewed Romeo's address and cell number, and the squad car drifted away. "Hey!" I yelled. "What if the thief returns with his friends?" "Don't worry," called the officer. "We'll be back in five minutes."
I sat on the Toyota bumper for five minutes armed with a rake until my pulse lowered to 100/minute. Forty minutes later, a bit calmer, I rose to hike up to Romero's house. The police car screeched up, window lowered, and the driver barked, "There's no one at the house." I asked, "Did you phone him?" "Yes, but there was no answer." "Give me a ride to the home."
The officers didn't know how to get there. On my direction we pulled into Romero's driveway, and I couldn't budge the car door. "Push harder," chuckled one of the cops. "Harder," urged the other, until he flicked a switch and the door sprang automatically.
Romero emerged on the porch wiping sleep from his eyes under the red-white-blue flashing squad light. I hastily outlined the scenario. He checked his cell with no messages, the cop admitted he hadn't called and wagged a finger officiously advising, "Keep your property secure for the safety of our community," And then gunned off giving me a clear view of the license plate. For all the good it would do
"The police motto is, 'We don't serve,'" said Romero staring at the taillight. "They're reluctant to report a crime that reflects poorly on the tourist trade. They didn't help you; they went for coffee."
We jogged to the Toyota where everything but the spare wheel was intact. He dropped me at my apartment, and I slept but a couple hours to make the dawn opening of the salvage yard gate.
The San Felipe salvage yard is dominated by a 20'-long compactor and hay trailer hooked to a semi-truck that fills with ten tons of scrap for biweekly runs north to Mexicali. The yard owner, amicable in a white shirt, polished boots, and cowboy hat entertained me as our pickup was unloaded and pieces weighed in 6' stacks on a 3'x3' outdoor scale. "Mexico is on the shirttail of the American recession, and about a quarter of the male population has worked illegally across the border -- myself for instance walking three days through the desert to live in the USA for ten years -- and have returned because there are no jobs, and now scrap the countryside to buy food and school clothes for the children."
Our load was 1200 pounds that broke down as follows (with present USA prices c/o my Sand Valley ace scavenger):
Generic metal @ $.03/lb. ($.07/lb.)
Small pieces (nuts, bolts, etc.) @ $.05/lb ($.07/lb.)
Aluminum @ $.15/lb. ($.28/lb.)
Brass @ $.50/lb. ($2.00/lb.)
Copper @ $1.00/lb. ($2.30/lb.)
Batteries @ $4.00 ea. ($8.00 ea.)
It was his biggest take in a salvage decade at $160, but Romero fingered his rosary, and vowed, "I shall make last night's scavenger pay the $25 he gets for the rim, or whip him with this!"
We followed the night footprints past the cemetery to the town centro...and lost them. We canvassed the scrap yards and a dozen tire repair shops. And then Romero wrapped the chain around his neck, bought me a Piña Colada for my efforts in the heist and reflected, "I wonder if the real culprit is the tire thief or the police who steal salaries from the townspeople?"
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About the Author
Bo Keeley is a retired veterinarian, former publisher, author of seven books on sports and adventure, national paddleball and racquetball champion, commodities consultant, school teacher, psychiatric technician, traveler to 96 countries, and executive adventure guide who has been featured in Sports Illustrated and other national publications as an alternative adventurer. (back)