Miller, Chicken Coop – 1979
Interested in the prequel? The War That Never Happened (https://thedaysforward.com/the-war-that-didnt-happen-1979/) explains the background for my assignment as the US exchange officer to the Mexican National War College for 1978-79.
As a US Army Foreign Area Officer in training, my mission was to learn everything possible about my country of specialty, Mexico, including its geography, political system, history, and its Army and officer culture. All this while attending the final year of their three-year War College program, six days a week during my twelve-month duty there.
My job was to travel as widely as possible in order to learn about every region of the country and every local custom and dialect of Mexican Spanish I could. When possible, I was expected to bring my family [my late wife Kay and our sons aged 13 and one] along on official orders so they could become acculturated as well. During my time there, between class field exercises, family trips and official travel, I managed to visit every part of Mexico in detail.
I traveled in and spent at least one overnight in every one of the 31 Mexican states.
In the Latin American culture, it is particularly important to be able to say, “I know [meaning I have been to or stayed in] your city [or state or country],” especially when it is a place almost nobody has ever heard of. By the end of my year in Mexico, my Spanish was near-native, although “a la Mexicana.” In my subsequent travels throughout the Caribbean, Central America and South America, I was always taken by my accent for a Mexican, never once for a North American. Although the Brazilians all guessed my Portuguese had an Argentinian accent.
In February 1979, I got the opportunity to take my family on a long weekend trip to the southern state of Guerrero, and its famed capital, Acapulco.
Our class was scheduled for classified briefings on Monday and Tuesday, from which I and the other foreign officer, my twin brother, Rene Emilio Ponce from El Salvador were excused. [Within nine years of our graduation, Ponce was the four-star Salvadoran Secretary of Defense. He and I were twin brothers in the Latin culture, having both been born on April 27, 1947; our younger sons were also twins, having been born on April 8, 1977]. So, I went through the American Embassy travel agent and paid in full in advance for reservations at a moderate Acapulco family hotel for those three nights.
As soon as I got out of class on Saturday afternoon, we finished loading into the government vehicle I had available for official travel. It was a black Ford station wagon, previously used for Embassy security duty, with armored side panels that made it very heavy handling. We had barely made it into the Mexico City suburbs when the bearing on the right rear axle gave out and began chewing through the axle itself.
I limped the walrus of a government vehicle to a small repair shop, where the mechanic on duty diagnosed the problem. He said it would be next week before he could get a replacement Ford axle [in Spanish called a “flecha,” or arrow], and that I would have to leave the vehicle until then. I left my family unloading the government car, while I caught a rattle-trap taxi back to our apartment to pick up our personal car, a VW bus.
By the time I returned with our VW and got it loaded and back on the road, it was late in the afternoon. The several-hour drive down to Guerrero State would put us in our destination well after dark, but I had no worries. I had paid in full for the three days reservation in the family hotel, so it just meant we wouldn’t get to see much of the area that first day.
Unbeknownst to me, that weekend was a national holiday in Canada, and tons of chilled Canadians were flocking to the sub-tropical resort of Acapulco for a break from their Arctic climate. Arriving at our hotel after dark, I was shocked to discover that our paid-for room had already been re-rented out to a Canadian family, and there were no other vacancies in the hotel.
Although I was indignantly outraged, I could get nothing more satisfying from the hotel manager than “Lo siento.” Too bad. Even showing him my “paid in full” receipt for three nights meant nothing. He could offer no suggestions on where I might put my family up for the night, since every other hotel was similarly booked solid all weekend long.
I parked my family in the hotel restaurant to get some supper, while I demanded that the manager find us an alternative place to stay. After merely going through polite motions for a while, he suggested I might inquire with the concierge for help.
Turns out the concierge had a brother-in-law who had a friend who drove a taxi who maybe knew of somebody with a place we could stay. So, at 9:00 PM we followed this taxi up into the foothills overlooking Acapulco Bay, where we stopped at an adobe house with two goats in the driveway. The owner came out and began a dialogue too fast for me to follow with the taxi driver, who then pulled away.
The owner led us around behind his house to a shed with a falling-down door.
Using a flashlight, he pointed out a cot inside with a straw-tick mattress. His wife brought out a couple of blankets for us and we did our best to bed down for the night. Our toddler thought it was a great adventure; our 13-year-old not so much.
In Mexico, most windows are merely holes in the wall, occasionally with shutters. This shed wasn’t so fortunate. By the light of a setting quarter moon, we stretched out. Only then did we learn that the shed was actually the domain of the family chickens, who had been rousted out by the owner’s wife. The indignant rooster flapped up onto the sill of the open window and began annunciating his displeasure at being displaced from his roost.
All night long this rooster crowed in anger at us intruders. All. Night. Long. We would just begin to drift into sleep when he would decide to resume his tirade at us, three feet from our heads. By the time the sun finally arose, we were all zombies except our toddler who managed to sleep all through the night! We adults couldn’t get out of that place fast enough.
The night before while I was making vague threats involving the American Embassy and the CIA, the manager of the hotel had told me to return in the morning, when he was certain he would be able to find us a room in his place. Sure enough, by the time we staggered back to the hotel front desk, there was an apologetic note with a small package of Mexican chocolates awaiting us. Plus, a key to a modest room, but at least it did not come with an indignant rooster.
We slept most of that Sunday, occasionally interrupted by church bells. It was only into the afternoon that we were able to venture out to some of the local open-stall marketplaces and I could pursue my mission of gaining a feel for the culture and wares of Guerrero State.
Turns out the Embassy never reimbursed me the 500 pesos that night staying with the chickens cost me. Since I had a paid receipt for hotel accommodations for that date, they wouldn’t cover my out-of-pocket costs for my decision to stay somewhere else. Lo siento.
This adventure has become a permanent part of our family lore. To this day, any time I hear American tourists raving about the joys of a luxurious Acapulco vacation, I can’t help being reminded of the night I had to put my family up in a chicken coop.