Zorro at the Alamo

Illustrations: Carolyn Raship

am at the age where I forget things and then, later, remember them again, and the memories are different but just as strong as before. Some of the things that slip my mind and return were told to me when I was a child by adults who were also at the age where they forgot things and then, later, remembered them again.

Here are some recent memories that I’m fairly certain are not, in fact, dreams: He’d sing along to Fats Domino on the record player in the living room as she put away the dishes, and when his church-choir tenor cracked at the lyric about love’s sweet melody, the clanking of plates would stop; his white hand searching for her brown hand and their fingers lazily intertwining as we watched black-and-white movies about atomic monsters; I announce to them both that I am a swashbuckling superhero with a stick for a sword, and she replies, “Hola, Zorro.”

Then there is this one that I carry inside my heart’s pocket: She waited for the doctors to leave so she could climb into his hospital bed for a few final moments.

Memories aren’t just what happened. They can also be what should or could have happened.

There will come a time when I will forget it all, everything, for good and forever. This is why I’m going to write this one story down while it’s still in my head. Memories aren’t just what happened. They can also be what should or could have happened.

I don’t have children, so you — the reader — are going to be my children, and I’m going to tell you a true story about your grandparents. I’m going to tell a story about your grandparents because your grandparents were epic heroes.

id you brush your teeth? The story will begin when I write “once upon a time.” Consider this a fair warning, so pull up the blankets and get comfy. Another warning: This is a love story, and love stories can be boring — all smooching, no punching — but there is also cool stuff like motorcycles and daring rescues and giant scorpions. Yes, giant scorpions.

The story I’m writing takes place in Texas during the summer of 1961, 125 years after the masked hero Zorro saved Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and hundreds of other freedom fighters from Santa Anna’s army at the battle of the Alamo. Later, Sam Houston wanted to name the capital of the new Republic of Texas Zorro City, but Zorro was too modest to allow that.

To this very day, whenever Texans shout “Remember the Alamo,” what they’re remembering is the bravery of a great Mexican who joined them in their fight for independence.

Because of this history, it is not out of the ordinary for an Anglo to fall in love with a Tejano in the Lone Star State. Your grandfather was a white man, and your grandmother was the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Zorro. It is good and proper to love whoever you want. I guess that is the moral of this story, and I’m not sure that the moral should come so early, but I’m sort of making this up as I go. This is the world I was taught to believe in, anyway.

Are you ready, my dears?

nce upon a time, there was a young woman named Aida. Your grandmother. Her pastimes included smoking cigarettes, shooting cans with her father’s .22 rifle, and cursing at nuns in Spanish.

Your grandmother was raised on the outskirts of El Paso, near the Rio Grande, which separates Texas from Mexico. The ghosts of conquistadores heavy with armor still search for gold in that river’s quiet brown waters.

Eventually, Aida would meet your grandfather at a professional wrestling match in Juarez, Mexico, that her father — your great-grandfather — forced her to attend because she was too much of a troublemaker to be left to her own devices.

Your grandfather’s name was Jack. He was the son of a Baptist preacher and found his way to El Paso after being discharged from the military, where he had been an army radio DJ. His family survived the Depression on biscuits and gravy, and because of that, he was used to hard times.

Jack’s first few weeks in West Texas had not gone according to plan. He lived out of his car, a beat-up old Dodge until he found a small motel room to rent. Dinner was often just doughnuts. He had two jobs — as a part-time radio DJ and a freelance emcee — but was barely making a living.

One night, before he announced a bout between his good friends Señor TNT and El Tornado, Jack spied your grandmother, scowling, in the raucous crowd surrounding the wrestling ring. Have you ever seen one of those old cartoons where hearts jump out of a character’s chest? That was Jack, your grandfather, at that moment. His mouth went dry, but he found the courage to quickly announce into the microphone that he would like the “young lady in the third row” to please see him after the match before the bell rang.

She did see him, much to his surprise. He was nervous. A motormouth. Jack tried to impress her, but Aida was hard to impress. Many had tried, many had failed. He asked for permission to call her sometime, and she coolly stared at him over her cat-eye glasses. She said yes, much to the annoyance of her father.

Your great-grandfather was a man who spent his days fixing cars, his nights drinking beer, and his weekends digging a bomb shelter so the entire family would survive a nuclear war because if civilization was going to need rebuilding, it would need Mexicans. It would take a long time for him to warm up to Jack, not because he was Anglo or older than his teenage daughter by a few years, but because Baptists don’t believe in the Virgin Mary.

And, so, the phone calls began. Jack didn’t know what to say to Aida, so he checked out a book of jokes from the library and would read her the jokes as if they were his own. The jokes were corny, but every so often, she would giggle out of pity. Their voices would dance up and down coiled phone cords as your great-grandfather and great-grandmother listened from the next room.

He’d ask her out at the end of every phone call, and she would promise she’d consider it, and, you know, she did. Your grandfather had never wooed anyone before, and it showed. So Jack started dedicating songs to Aida on the radio during the few afternoon hours when he was on the air. Being a disc jockey wasn’t necessarily a reputable way to make a buck in those days, but he loved it and… he loved her.

Aida never heard the dedications, because during those hours she was busy battling nuns who had quite enough of her constant questioning of catechism during class. This was just who she was, and the nuns knew it. They had decided that the only way to save her was plenty of toilet scrubbing. She could ponder His Word there.

Finally, one night, as Aida was talking to Jack on the phone, he asked her if she’d like to see Fats Domino perform at a small honky-tonk. She said yes and hung up, and Jack couldn’t believe his good luck. He planned the date: dinner at Furr’s (they served the best chicken-fried steak), the show, and home before her father hired bounty hunters.

Jack didn’t plan on being able to successfully talk them backstage. He also didn’t plan on Fats Domino proposing to his date. He slipped one of his many rings on her finger, and she swooned. Fats always flirted with girls this way, but Jack didn’t know that.

She was always being asked out by men, and she almost always found something better to do.

He drove Aida home shortly thereafter and noticed she still wore the ring. He couldn’t afford a jewel half that size, and Fats had these rings on every finger of his hand. Jack’s father — also your great-grandfather — had taught his son that jealousy was a sin. A small one, but a sin nonetheless. So, he was happy that your grandmother was so happy. A real-life rock-and-roll star thought she was so special that he gave her something he couldn’t.

Of course, your grandmother found Fats Domino amusing, but he was far too pleased with himself to truly hold her interest. She was always being asked out by men, and she almost always found something better to do.

After dropping Aida off, Jack sighed and decided to drive into the desert, which is something everyone knew you should never, ever do at night. Jack didn’t know this. He was still new to El Paso.

Your grandfather just wanted to clear his mind, so he rolled the windows down and turned the radio up and thought about how he could win the love of Fats Domino’s fiancée.

bet you’re wondering, “What happens next?” That’s only natural when you’re reading a story. Don’t worry, though, because everything does work out. You and I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t.

One other thing: You’re probably wondering if I’m embellishing how your grandparents fell in love, and I want to assure you I am not. This is all true. If something in this tale sounds too impossible to believe, you should absolutely believe it.

Now, back to the story, my dears.

As I previously wrote, your grandfather didn’t really know that midnight trips into the desert were a bad idea because dangerous, highly-radioactive mutants roamed the sunless desolation between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso.

Luckily for your grandfather, a famous giant-scorpion hunter was also out that night hunting, you know, giant scorpions. His name was Samson, and he had hooks for hands because he had blown them off with blasting caps as a kid.

Well, wouldn’t you know he was a fan of professional wrestling and recognized your grandfather from his driver’s license, which had fallen on the ground next to his ripped-up car. The giant scorpions had peeled it open like a sardine can. Samson did not find a body and concluded that Jack had been carried away.

El Paso is a small city, and it didn’t take long for word of Samson’s discovery to reach the saloon where your great-grandfather spent some of his nights playing cards with banditos.

I want you to know that when your grandmother heard the news, she did not panic. She was, and is, too cool for that.

She had been wondering why Jack hadn’t called her with his corny jokes so she could tell him one of her own about silly Fats Domino and his cheap costume jewelry. But when her father told her Jack was probably lost, Aida immediately announced her mission.

He forbade her to do it. His roof, his rules. “Go to your room,” he thundered.

Now, no one could overrule your great-grandfather in the house he built. No one except his mother, your — let me get this right — great-great-grandmother. She was a short, wrinkled mestiza with a tired smile who could speak to coyotes. “Let her go,” she commanded, and he obeyed.

Your great-great-grandmother then handed your grandmother the keys to her ancient motorcycle and told her to hurry. Before Aida could run out the door, she was handed more gifts. Her mother gave her the silver lighter that her brother, a war hero, had taken with him when he fought in the Pacific. Her father gave her his .22 rifle and a promise to see her soon.

There is a legend that Zorro himself had placed great zigzagging trenches of pitch and straw throughout Texas.

And with that, Aida pocketed the lighter, slung the rifle over her shoulder, and kicked the motorcycle to life. The headlight on like an electric cyclops. Wheels squealing. She flew like a comet down the road and into the city and up the nearby mountain. And this is how, for the very first time, the Great Signal of Zorro was ignited.

I swear on the love of our grandparents — two Texans from different races and religions — that this all really happened exactly as I’m writing it.

There is a legend that Zorro himself had placed great zigzagging trenches of pitch and straw throughout Texas. They were to be lit to unite the people in their hour of need. Your grandmother didn’t know if this was the people’s hour of need, but it was Jack’s, and… she loved him. With a flick of her thumb, she lit the silver lighter and used its flame to set the enormous Z-shaped signal ablaze.

Every good-hearted Texan for miles who saw the glowing “Z” on the side of the mountain dropped what they were doing to answer the call. They slid on boots, saddled horses, loaded trucks, and made their way to the signal. Your grandmother — the teenage descendent of the savior of the Alamo — stood waiting, flames flickering in the lenses of her cat-eye glasses.

Aida needed help saving her corazón, and help showed up. The first to arrive was, to her surprise, Mother Maria and Sisters Gertrude and Agnes, with baseball bats. Then Señor TNT and El Tornado. Samson, of course, with a stick of dynamite in each hook. The Comanche sent their bravest warriors with machine guns. “Wild” Rabbi Cohen and his famous bullwhip. A pair of old Texas Rangers with matching mustaches secretly married long ago by a shaman. Pecos Bill’s daughter Hannah. Three different gangs — Los Chicos Locos, Los Guapos Diablos, and Los Aztecas — also rolled up with switchblades drawn. Finally, her family. Aida’s mother with her brass knuckles, her grandmother with a .45 Colt that Poncho Villa had given her, and her father, who offered up his courage.

The plan was simple: Storm the tunnels of the largest-known scorpion nest and find your grandfather. Oh, yes, your grandfather. I almost forgot about him. The good news was he had not been torn to pieces by the giant scorpions. You probably already guessed that.

Your grandfather had been dragged deep down one of the scorpion’s tunnels, where he quickly learned that he could soothe the beasts by singing pop songs. He could keep their poisonous stingers calm belting songs like “Cupid” by Sam Cooke or Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely.” The arachnids loved Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” so much that they clicked their claws until Jack sang it again and again. It was thirsty work, but it kept him alive.

And just when Jack thought he couldn’t sing anymore — the very moment he gave up on ever seeing your grandmother again — he heard voices shouting, “Remember the Alamo!” And then he knew she had come for him. Jack inhaled deeply and, as loud as he could, sang:

I found my thrill
On Blueberry Hill
On Blueberry Hill
When I found you
The moon stood still
On Blueberry Hill
The wind in the willow played
Love’s sweet melody
But all of those vows you made
Were never to be
Though we’re apart
You’re part of me still
For you were my thrill
On Blueberry Hill

She followed his church-choir tenor through the darkness. Meanwhile, Aida’s army fought off the scorpions. Pecos Hannah lassoed monsters for Señor TNT to bodyslam. The nuns made signs of the cross before and after bringing their baseball bats down. Your great-great-grandmother joined the Comanche, and bullets flew. Jack’s voice led Aida to him, and, fingers intertwined, they ran outside.

Their first kiss was like the stick of dynamite that brought the tunnels crashing down on the scorpions.

Fats Domino played at their wedding.

And they lived happily ever after. The end. I am pretty sure that is how that works. I mean there were good days and bad, but they loved each other right up until she crawled into his hospital bed for a few final moments.

This is the true story of my parents, as I remember it, and now it is yours.

Writer/editor. CONAN, Esquire, Sirius XM. 2X James Beard Award winner. I created Humungus, a blog about movies, TV & feelings.

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