First of a series of Baja Legends
We had just returned from a tour of the old mission in the square in the heart of the tiny pueblo of San Ignacio several years ago when I spied an elderly gent eyeing our motorbikes. Said his name was Jimmy Smith. Said he first rode down Baja way in 1953. I begged him to repeat his claim, "Did you say '53!?" "That's right. I rode a Triumph down to this town in 1953."
Sensing a story, but running out of time, we exchanged cards and then our group rode off towards the Sea of Cortez. It took me several years to actually track down Jimmy Smith after that chance meeting so long ago and even then it was only because he happens to live in an East Cape Baja town that I often fish in. Los Barrilles is a hamlet of a couple of thousand souls located on the stunning shore of the Sea of Cortez about 45 miles north of Los Cabos. Jimmy lives there along with his wife, Guadalupe. With tape recorder and digital camera in hand, I visited the old timer this August and his incredible story goes as follows. Jimmy also proudly presented me with a copy of his book, Tales from the Grinning Gargoyle. More about the book and Jimmy's special name later.
Jimmy Smith was born on July 15th, 1927, in Quail, Texas. As a youth he served in the Pacific Theatre during World War II as a Navy SeaBee. After the war he returned to Texas and became a motorcycle policeman in Lubbock. "I was too scared to steal, and too lazy to work, so I became a policeman," Jimmy recalled. Hearing that motorcycle police officers were paid twice as much in Los Angeles as in Lubbock, Jimmy shifted west and settled in Los Angeles where he very quickly became part of the LAPD two-wheel force. It was during those days that Jimmy first became known in movie-making circles, as being a motorcycle policeman he was asked to escort film companies. He was also moonlighting as a motorcycle mechanic at SirKegian Brothers in downtown LA. He was working on Indians.
"One of the guys who used to hang out there was a guy we all called 'Slats.' He rode a BMW. The first R69 I ever saw. Anyway around that time I was sent up to Saugus to be security on a movie called "Code II" with Keenan Wynne. We got hung up on the shooting schedule when the stunt man took a spill on the bike and broke his arm. The scene called for a jump across an old irrigation ditch using an old black and white Indian Chief. So they asked me if I wanted to try it. They had a cameraman lying in the bottom of a ditch. Piece of cake I told 'em. Only problem is I wasn't a member of the Screen Actors Guild. "So Keenan, he called somebody down in LA and got somebody to sign me up in a hell of a hurry. They paid me $300 bucks for that shot and that tickled me to death! "After then I was pretty well hooked up with the movie crowd in LA.
"One morning I was painting a motorcycle there in Sir Kegean's shop and a guy comes in from a studio and says, 'Hey Jim. We need 60 extras with their bikes. We're gonna make a movie up near Hollister, California. We want you to gather up all your buddies. We're paying 70 bucks a day for a rider and his bike, plus room and board.' "I said alright. I didn't have any trouble finding that many. Hell, I could've found one hundred and fifty of them. Right now. Anyway one of the first guys I hired was 'Slats,' OK? "Well 'Slats,' he went up there. Well he was just a clown on the set. He pulled one gag in a barroom that they got on film. He ad-libbed it. Instead of it being an outtake, they wrote it into the script! The cops come in and they're draggin' him out of this bar and he says 'Oh, the shame of it all. The shame of it all. I'm going to jail. Call my mother, boys. Tell her to send me a case of beer!' "That was Lee Marvin. He was 'Slats.'"
Jimmy then talked about his motorcycle injury while a LA motor cop, what little he remembers of it. He had written two citations that morning, when he started at 8am. He went to a coffee and donut shop (so they told him). The next thing he knew it was three weeks later. He remembers nothing of his crash. Seven ribs broken, sternum, right arm and right leg, plus a skull fracture. Jimmy was hospitalized for over a year. Said he almost died. Then things got interesting. When he finally was fit enough to return to work Jimmy ran into some resistance. "Wait a minute, Smith. You've got an inch and three-quarters missing from one leg. You are physically disabled. You're off the motorcycle squad for good." Jimmy asked for time to reconsider his options and took time off. At that same time he had heard of a couple of guys who had taken a wild motorcycle ride deep down into Baja. Jimmy reasoned that if he indeed was disabled he should attempt a ride down that way to see just how disabled he was! "So I went over to SirKegians and dealt them out a little cash for a 500cc Triumph Trophy model, hard tail, and I took off to Baja California to see if I was physically disabled." That was in the spring of the year and Jimmy rode to San Ignacio in three days!
According to Jimmy gasoline was not a problem because every ranch had a huge drum. It was important however to filter the gas through a felt hat, which every ranch had for that very purpose. Jimmy also noted that the course he took used mainly arroyos to head south and he did not ride up on top very often. When he arrived at San Ignacio, a tiny pueblo about two-thirds of the way between Guerrero Negro and Santa Rosalia (incidentally Jimmy notes that Guerrero Negro did not exist in those days and only sprung up when salt began to be extracted from the area commercially, which was many years later), Jimmy was quite taken with a particular senorita-love at first sight if you will. What follows now is an account of that first meeting, which appears in Jimmy's book.
Readers should note that San Ignacio is a tiny, but charming place that was obviously established because there was water there. Lots of water, and palm trees and lush vegetation. An oasis of sorts. It still looks that way today as you ride towards it after enduring hours of sandy, windy wasteland on the high plateau that makes up the center of the peninsula crossing. Readers should also note that Jimmy claims that he proposed marriage to Guadalupe 16 times, returning each year in the spring to ask for her hand and being denied each time, year after year, until... The story: "The Mexican courtship is a complex ritual indeed, incomprehensible to other cultures. The faux pas of strangers intent on committing matrimony with the village princess of an upland pueblo of Baja California are legendary. Often times penalties incurred for some social blunder can be compared to Parcheesi.
Should one omit certain necessary steps in the ritual, he is obligated to return to square one. "First off, the suitor must prove his social status. The old Spanish caste system is alive and well in these waters and strictly enforced. The village princess' regal state in these small remote pueblos is based on various factors, principally family wealth and bloodline. Assuming the target of our hero's affections has some stature in the community to present evidence that he is worthy. Apart from these requisites, the candidate must display his physical attractiveness as well as a pleasing personality. "Your reporter was totally ignorant of the above listed data when the courtship of Guadalupe Romero Lopez was initiated at San Ignacio, Baja California, in the spring of 1953. Dona Lupe will describe our first encounter: 'I was engaged in some unremembered activity in the kitchen when I heard a very loud and rude noise in the street in front of our house. Investigation revealed that some sort of humanoid had arrived at the gas pump in front of Meza's store. He was clad from head to foot in black leather. His head was covered with a white object resembling a chamber pot. He had apparently been transported on a two-wheeled conveyance that I later learned is called a motorcycle. He attempted to converse in a guttural and unintelligible language which proved to be English. 'After his failure to make himself understood, he did the most astounding thing. He sat on the concrete base of the gas pump, removed one of his boots and exhibited his bare foot. The foot was swollen and discolored. Those present concluded that he was trying to tell us he was injured. I moved nearer to examine the injury and he committed a horrible act. He winked at me!'
"The alleged chamber pot was a Bell 500 helmet that had set me back 60 bucks. I was trying to communicate that my foot had suffered severely in an altercation with a rock and a fracture was suspected. Yes, I did wink at that cute little trick, never dreaming that in the local idiom this amounted to an outright proposition. "Guero Soldado, the local expert in English and tequila, appeared after a bit and reported that no doctor was available but a local healer could perhaps be of some help. "Lodgings were found at Casa Leree, the local pension (boarding house) and the curandero was summoned. The healer applied a liberal amount of Vick's VapoRub to the ailing foot and pulled on my toes until I yelled. He sold me a bottle of bootleg mescal, locally called pecho amarillo (yellow chest) and departed. "Guero remained at my bedside and expressed his sympathy by consuming a lion's share of the liter of pecho amarillo. When the mescal supply ran out, Guero reported that he could supply more if I could supply 20 pesos. Shortly after Gueros departure, I decided I had been conned out of 20 pesos and went to sleep. This proved to be untrue. A well-nibbled bottle of pecho amarillo was present and accounted for when I awoke to the noise of a revving motorcycle engine. Suspicions that my motorcycle was being stolen proved to be unfounded. Jack Mulcahy had arrived. Like me he was traveling by bike and had been pursuing me since Ensenada.
"Jack reported that a dance was in progress nearby and expressed desire to attend. He remedied my ailing foot with a pair of codeine pain pills and a goodly supply of pecho amarillo. "We cleaned our leather riding togs, brought them up to a sheen with Brilcreeme hair oil and mounted our steeds in search of nightlife. "Our arrival at the baile (dance) created a sensation. The merrymakers insisted we bring the bikes into the dance hall where the light afforded better inspection. As the evening progressed, several young ladies present donned our helmets, mounted the motorbikes and uttered simulated engine noises much to the delight of the onlookers. The dance ended late. "The next morning the excruciating throb in my cranium was exceeded by a kindred sensation in my left foot. It seems I had spent the evening and wee hours dancing on a fractured pedal digit, resulting in a swollen and discolored foot that would not fit into a three-gallon bucket. A liberal supply of Leree's coffee and Mulcahy's codeine soon made life tolerable.
"Mulcahy's alleged fluency in the local idiom when I expressed a desire to develop an acquaintance with a certain young lady observed at Meza's gas pump the previous day. He proved to be most resourceful. He soon supplied a crutch and we set out to visit the senorita. "Here once again we will let Dona Lupe supply the narrative: 'You can imagine my horror when this same gringo appeared at my home that morning with a companion who spouted gibberish that he apparently believed to be the Spanish language. My mother invited them into the kitchen and served them coffee. I hid in a bedroom. After a long effort to communicate, they left. My mother reported that while she was not certain, she believed that he, the gringo with broken foot, had come to ask for my hand. I will not repeat my father's remarks about this development.' "Square minus five! "Mulcahy departed to the south after a couple of days, leaving me to my own adventures in San Ignacio, immobilized with a broken foot. "Around that time, lobster fishermen returned from the coast with money in their pockets. San Ignacio would be in the fiesta mode. Music was heard at all hours. The fishermen had time on their hands and much to their amusement, set out to teach the gringo the rudiments of the idiom. I could swear with the best before I conjugated my first verb. After considerable coaching, my first attempt at dialogue with my intended went somewhat askew: 'Que bonitas nalgas tiene usted!' 'What a lovely ass you have!' "Square minus 10! "
As spring waned into summer, my foot healed. I explored the fishing camps on the Pacific, the Viscaino Desert, and the Sierra San Francisco. I could detect no progress in my courtship of Guadalupe. "Diminishing finances compelled temporary abandonment of my pursuit for Senorita Romero. "I was back on station in San Ignacio in March 1954 with my pockets lined with pesos and armed with a certain linguistic ability gained at the adult education facility of the Long Beach public school system. Guadalupe was not impressed. A certain Senor Rocha had captured her attention and all her free time was spent on a park bench in the plaza gazing soulfully into Senor Rocha's eyes. "I employed various and sundry ruses to renew my imagined conquest with the result that I made a complete ass of myself. "My summer was spent murdering boll weevils in the cotton fields of west Texas from a Piper Cub. There, a new plan was formed. Since airplane pilots enjoyed a special status in Mexico, the motorcycle would be shelved and my next attack would be by aircraft! My sensational arrival at San Ignacio in a shiny new rented Cessna during the subsequent spring was noted by the entire populous save one; Guadalupe Romero Lopez. "Since Senor Rocha had ridden off into the sunset, Lupe was a free agent.
My linguistic skills had improved sufficiently at this point to give me the confidence to propose marriage without the aid of an interpreter. Her answer was one of the few words that English and Spanish have in common: No! "My parting shot was, 'Very well me love. I'll return next spring for another go.' "And I did! I returned and proposed each spring until 1968. That year her betrothed would not release his grip on her hand long enough for me to say more than hello. After 15 consecutive unsuccessful tries, the effort was abandoned. "The spring of 1969 found me with time on my hands I had recently returned from a civilian job in Vietnam and had to spend some three months outside the USA to escape income taxes. Old habits die hard. After a leisurely trip down the peninsula, I was once again in San Ignacio. "While superhuman effort was required, I concealed my delight on learning that the 1968-model suitor had ridden into the same sunset as Senor Rocha. A sinister plot was afoot. Hilda and Abel Aguilar invited me to a dinner party to celebrate my return. My assumption that this would be a quiet affair proved to be untrue. A goodly number of people, including Guadalupe, were present. Dancing followed dinner. I adopted the posture of a bored spectator until Guadalupe approached and asked, 'Will you dance with me?' "We danced in silence for a long time. 'Will you ask me to marry again this year?' she queried to my amazement. 'I think not!' said I. 'A man has his pride.' 'Very well then, I will ask. Will you marry me?' "Guadalupe and I have nine grandchildren as of this writing!"
How did he get the name the Grinning Gargoyle? Earle Stanley Gardner gave it to him after he played a dirty trick on the world famous author. Seems Gardner, a pulp mystery author of notable stature during the '50s, felt he had 'discovered' Baja and visited there often on archeological expeditions. He needed a guide and after meeting Jimmy and realizing how much Jim knew of the peninsula, hired him to help with his expeditions. Earle Stanley Gardner had a passion for Indian arrowheads and so when the following message arrived in a telegram: "ARRIVING LAS CASITAS MULEGE THURSDAY STOP EXPECT YOU TO BE THERE STOP E.S.G.", Jimmy prepared a special find for him. Enlisting the help of a local artist he gathered a couple of Indian arrowhead look-alike rocks and had his friend inscribe on several dozen of them a special phrase. Gardner arrived on time and immediately disappeared into the brushy jungle, towards the caves outside Mulege with a sizable entourage. Returning that night he gathered quite a crowd as he proudly displayed dozens of arrowheads on top of the bar at Las Casitas.
A local expert was called in to evaluate the find and while using a magnifying glass to get a close up of each arrowhead, was surprised, astonished really, to find that the phrase Made In Japan had been painted on many of the supposed ancient archeological treasures! Jimmy's treachery earned him the sack from ESG and also the name the Grinning Gargoyle of Baja, which Gardner used to refer to Jimmy after the incident, never once referring to him by his real name again. I asked Jimmy how he felt about always riding his motorcycle alone. He replied in Espanol: "Mas vale solo, que con malo companada." Better to travel alone, than in bad company. Guadalupe lives today in Las Barrilles, Baja Sur, a small fishing village on the Sea of Cortez. Jimmy has passed into Baja History, God Bless Jimmy!
Baja Racing News.com