The road to El Rosario tilts steadily towards the sea. On the outskirts of town we pedal past an adobe tin-roofed shack along a dry stream bed. It’s bone-cracking hot. A dog is stretched out in the shade of a saguaro. Slowing, the flies catch up to us. I wave them off with my baseball cap. A five-gallon plastic jug of water attached to the front rack of my Schwinn Continental is empty. We’ve been out of water for half a day.
George asks, “I wonder if they have beer in town?”
“Maybe,” I reply. “But it’ll be warm. We haven’t seen a refrigerator since Ensenada last week.”“I’m good with that.” His head droops forward as he shifts gears and leans into the last rise.
With the weight we’re carrying, every incline is an effort. A sleeping bag, ground pad, and duffle bag are bungied to his rear rack. A decrepit suitcase, sleeping bag, and gym bag are roped to mine. We have never heard the word “panniers.” We’re wearing sneakers and shorts. George is wearing a Yankees cap. He has a bushy black beard and curly hair. Tufts of chest hair bloom from the edges of his T-shirt. He’s short, muscular, compact, fit. We’ve stopped sweating. A bad sign.
“At least we don’t have twenty pounds of water to lug up this hill,” George says.
Ten weeks ago, I was in Coos Bay, Oregon studying oceanography at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, or more accurately, kind of sort of studying. In the classroom and on the water, I was an avid listener. Where I dropped off the bell curve was the follow-through; reading the assigned texts, studying for tests, that sort of thing. My final grade, C, reaffirmed my belief that I lacked an aptitude for oceanography, but in reality, I just didn’t work very hard. This was a pattern. Prior to my summer in Coos Bay, I skated by for two years at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. My biology adviser at Bates once observed that I spent more time playing midnight pool at the Student Union than understanding the wonders of cell division or photosynthesis. I wasn’t failing, but it was close.
“So, you’re dropping out?” my mother Shirley asked sharply when I broke the news to her by phone that I was taking the next semester off. There was a long pause before she admitted, “I’m just worried that you’ll never go back,” another pause. “You will go back to college, won’t you?”
I reassured her, but we both knew that I was rudderless. Although I didn’t drink daily, when I did, there was no off button. And I began early, at 14, only a few years after my father collapsed at home one summer evening while I played stickball at the local playground. He died at a time when there was pitifully little to do for an acute heart attack; no “clot busters,” bypass surgery or coronary artery stents. He never even made it to the hospital. He was 44. I stopped reading the encyclopedia and books about archeology and paleontology. I no longer dreamed about discovering a new animal, a new fossil, or a new civilization.
At the time, I didn’t consciously decide to do less than my best, it just happened. My image of my dad was stuck in time, an 11-year-old’s memories, hazy, indistinct. I knew that he was a chemical engineer and commuted from our suburban home in Cranford, New Jersey to the Montrose Chemical Company in Bayonne. From my bedroom window above the garage, I’d catch a glimpse of him backing out of our driveway before dawn. His twelve-hour days were a sacrifice, a trade-off, my mom said, for the environment he wanted his children to grow up in.
In Cranford, I played unsupervised in the woods across the street from a school playground a short walk from our house. I fished for shiners and bluegills in a stretch of the Rahway River that held an occasional brown or rainbow trout in the deeper pools. Where my dad worked was in one of the most blighted landscapes in America, a place where landfill residue was so toxic that the ground itself caught fire several years after he died.
I remember my dad pointing out the Montrose Chemical Plant from the Pulaski Skyline Drive one Sunday afternoon as he drove the family to New York City on his day off. From the elevated highway we gazed into a yellow sulfurous mist. Flames shot up from nearby refinery methane burners. Plumes of gray smoke drifted skyward from holding tanks and retaining ponds. I counted fifty-seven smokestacks before I lost count; I was at that age where you notice one and you’re compelled to count them all. But it was the smell I remember most, a moist, nauseating odor which stung my eyes and burned my throat. My mom quietly asked us to roll the back windows up.
After my dad died, my two brothers and I, each in our own uniquely damaged way, coped as best we could. My mom shielded us from her depression. Only as an adult do I realize the depth of her loss. She never remarried.
I had good friends growing up. That probably saved me.
At the top of the rise we see El Rosario, a cluster of low-slung buildings in the distance. A sliver of the Pacific is visible to the west. The macadam transitions into rutted dirt and a plume of dust fans out behind us like a rooster tail. As we coast into town, a jail is on our right. We know it’s a jail because the wall facing the street is comprised entirely of jail bars extending from floor to ceiling. One prisoner stands grasping the bars, glaring at us, close enough to shake hands. Another languishes on a wooden stool staring at the floor. The street is deserted and so we stop and look at the prisoners. I clamber off my Schwinn and put out the kickstand. The bike totters and then falls. The rope breaks and my suitcase pulls apart, strewing underwear and T-shirts and a pair of shorts onto the road. The glaring prisoner explodes into laughter. His jail-mate looks up, and grinning from ear to ear, holds his crotch, a universal sign that we are so funny he is going to piss in his pants.
George stands in front of the jail and pretends that he is putting a mug to his lips and wipes his mouth with a forearm. “Cerveza! Cerveza!” the prisoners shout. They point towards a side street and pantomime their desire that we bring them back some refreshments. I gather up my belongings, drop a pair of underwear, lean over to pick it up, drop a sock, pick it up, balance the decaying suit case on the rear rack… and the bike falls. Both of the prisoners are holding their crotches.
It is October 1973, three months before La Carretera de Benito Juarez, Baja California’s first paved road, is scheduled to open. Rumor has it that the blacktop is already finished; pavers working round the clock have extended the road northward from Cabo San Lucas and southward from Ensenada, linking up somewhere in the mythical Sierra de la Gigantica.
Of course, another rumor circulates that the road is behind schedule and fifty, maybe a hundred miles of shifting sand track lie ahead. I think about this for a moment, while sipping on the best room temperature beer to ever pass my lips. I can’t wrap my head around walking a bike for two or three days in the heat. Maybe we’ll travel at night.
George brings our empty five-gallon jugs inside the cantina and turns them upside down. A single drop stains the dirt floor. He extends his hands, palms up and hikes his shoulders. For all of his Spanish vocabulary, he can’t recall the word “agua.” The customers laugh. We receive a free beer.
Sipping on the warm beer, I’m sure that I could have stayed in Coos Bay, gotten a job on a fishing boat or worked as a dishwasher or waiter in one of the local restaurants. But I was restless and unsettled, so I bought a well-used Schwinn from another student for thirty-five dollars and pedaled south on route 101. That was the full extent of my plan. Well, not quite. Pouring over a map of the west coast and determining the distance to LA, then dividing that by how many miles I could bike in a day and the cash I had on hand, I calculated that if I spent $3 per day, I could reach Cousin Jim with $2 to spare.
On the road, I discovered that I enjoyed the solitude and challenge of the road. I kept to my simple budget. A can of baked beans was a bargain at ninety-nine cents. A jar of jam and peanut butter and a loaf of Wonder bread lasted four days. As a treat, I’d pick up a jumbo bag of M&Ms and reward myself with a handful at the end of the day as I sat around the fire. I thrived on my simple routine: Wake up, roll up my tarp and sleeping bag, eat a peanut butter sandwich, fill up my water bottle at a nearby stream or gas station, and ride.
Luckily cousin Jim accepted my collect call when I was a day out of LA. I had $1.35 left in my pocket. “Chuck! Of course, you can stay with me! I have to work the 3-11 shift at the Magic Pan tomorrow,” he shouted into the phone. “Why don’t you bike straight to the restaurant and you can eat like a king on my tab. Seriously, the food is unbelievable!” He rattled off the address in Beverly Hills. It burned into my brain.
Coming into LA that evening I weaved my way through a maze of traffic towards Beverly Hills. I was too tired to care. Sometimes I rode on the sidewalk, sometimes on the road. A policeman stopped me because my bike had no light. I walked the bike for a block before climbing back on. By the time I reached the restaurant it was nearly 10 p.m. I parked my Schwinn by the front window and looked inside. There was Jim in his tuxedo. Ushering me in, he led me to a table in the back, but not before he proudly introduced me to his staff and late-night customers. I was his cousin, he announced, and I had biked from Oregon!
“What’s next?” One of the waiters asked. “Baja?”
“Yes,” I heard myself say. “Yes, definitely.”
I slept on Cousin Jim’s couch and found a job in a nearby fish market. After 6 weeks, I bought a new set of tires for the Schwinn, a basic repair kit and bike pump, and called my friend George in New Jersey, who had survived a number of poorly outfitted winter camping trips with me in high school. Bicycling Baja seemed the right-sized challenge. Actually, for a brief time, there were three of us sleeping in Jim’s tiny apartment; George and me, and Bill Thornhill, a fellow cross-country runner from Bates College who had decided to throw in with us. When Bill unpacked his bicycle from the Los Angeles airport and reassembled it: sew-up tires, aluminum frame, reverse handlebars, we assumed nothing except that George and I would need to pedal our butts off to keep up with his racing bike. But after the fourth flat and second broken chain the first week, we knew that the bike simply wasn’t built for the long haul. The day we limped into Ensenada, 50 miles south of the border, Bill was in bad shape. His back hurt so much he couldn’t straighten up. He was frustrated, depressed, beaten down.
We lay Bill down on a bench outside a youth hostel and propped his head up on George’s duffle bag. Flexing Bill’s head seemed to trigger more spasms so we stretched him out corpse-like on the cool oak planks.
“Mind if I take a look?” A trim bifocaled, Anglo I’d noticed as we came in, squatted down, and slid a hand between Bill’s lower back and the bench. With his free hand, he reached into his front jeans pocket and pulled out a clean white golf ball and positioned it beneath the muscle spasms. He instructed Bill to take slow, deep breaths.
“That should do it, at least for now,” he said finally. “It’s a form of acupressure. You overstimulate a muscle spasm and eventually it relaxes. Golf balls work best.” He extended a hand. “Dave Newsome. I’m a D.O. I fly down here once a month from the Los Angeles and work in the mountain communities: the usual stuff, hypertension, diabetes, prenatal care.”
That night, I stayed up after George went to bed and talked with Dr. Dave. At one point, when Bill awoke again in spasms, Dr. Dave massaged his back and gave Bill a muscle relaxant. Then Dr. Dave quietly encouraged him to return to the United States on the morning bus. “Young man, you’re obviously in good shape, but your bike doesn’t belong down here. I’ll give you another muscle relaxant for the bus. You’ll be okay.”
Up till then, I’d viewed a career in medicine, if I thought about it at all, as my father’s life as a chemical engineer on steroids. I’d vowed that wherever life led me, I’d choose a path without the deadly stress, the endless commute, the chain smoking, the… I looked once more at the man across from me. I wondered, could I do Dr. Dave’s job?
It was well past midnight. Dr. Dave wanted to know something more about my father. “So, let me get this straight,” he asked, leaning forward in his chair, “You’ve told me that your dad was first generation Italian, graduates from college, right? Then off he goes to war and comes out the other side, marries your mom, has three boys, and works his butt off to become a chemical engineer.”
“He worked too hard,” I interrupted. “He worked himself to death. Never saw his family.” The statement came out harsher than I intended. Inside, I was shaking with anger, 11 years old again. My oldest brother, Rick, met me at the playground path the night my father died. He took my baseball bat from my hand and put his arm around my shoulder as we walked back to the house. “Dad’s had some kind of heart attack at the house tonight.” Then, “He’s gone, the ambulance took him away.” Then, “He didn’t make it. He died.”
The doctor considered my reaction. I felt cold, clammy. The pointer finger of my right hand trembled. I thought it was time for the good doctor to say, get a good night’s sleep, see you in the morning, but he seemed to be in no particular hurry. He cocked his head slightly to the side, and waited. Finally, “Let me ask you this about your dad, what do you think kept him going? What was his passion?”
“I… I’m not sure.” The question set me off balance. I’d never thought about my father having…passions. Then I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in years. It was a Sunday afternoon and my dad told me he had a surprise. Under one arm he toted a test tube rack, several beakers, and a Bunsen burner and motioned me to follow him into the basement. Once there, he fired up the burner on the work bench and carefully poured aliquots of sample fluids into the test tubes. He heated the tubes to a rolling boil before asking me to add a pinch of dry powder to each tube.
The tubes magically changing color that day at the precise moment he tapped them with his pencil. It was amazing. What I hadn’t remembered until now was his smile, a wide-mouthed, luminous, all-in grin. “Yes,” I said simply. “He was crazy about chemistry.”
“So maybe you remember more about your dad than you think,” Dr. Dave suggested.
“I can’t remember his face. I used to remember what he looked like, but…” I swallowed hard. I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. I exhaled, felt my finger shake again. “I’m sure each of my brothers remembers those years before he died more vividly. For me, there seems to be only a void.”
“Do you carry a picture of him?”
“No, I ripped it up. A long time ago.”
Silence. “You might think about getting another one. Here’s my dad.” The doctor opened up his wallet. A tattered, water-stained photo of an old man in a frayed, poorly fitted suit-coat stared back at me. “Mexican, well, half-Mexican anyway. Came to San Diego in the early twenties to work on the docks. Eventually, bought his own boat. Fished. Worked like a dog.”
“I remember Sunday mornings,” I said in the silence which followed. “On Sunday mornings, my mom and dad slept in. For Sunday brunch, my dad loved to cook omelets. He used to make a big deal out of flipping them. He’d flip them way up in the air and catch them in the frying pan and my mom would pretend to get mad.” I was aware that I was smiling. “He was a good cook. His dad was a chef in Cleveland; that’s where he grew up.”
“My oldest brother, Rick, told me that dad was good at fixing stuff. He could take apart a TV or toaster, lay out every screw and coil or vacuum tube on his work-bench and put it all back together. I’m all thumbs,” I said with a shrug. I looked down. “I can’t remember him teaching me any of that stuff. Maybe I was too young. Anyways, I don’t think he could say no to anything at work. He wore a lot of hats. My other brother, Steve—they say he looks the most like my dad—he says my dad streamlined the way Montrose produced some of their products. Maybe he had a few patents.”
“Sometimes when I get together with my older brothers, we talk about that last year, you know, before he died. I didn’t notice it at the time, eleven-year-old boys are pretty numb, but they say my dad looked puffy, weak. Rick beat him for the first time in tennis. Steve remembers the chain-smoking and nightly martinis. I don’t know, maybe he was drifting into a drinking problem. One night, a few months before the heart attack, my mother had a nightmare, a premonition that my dad would die.”
Outside the cantina in El Rosario, George and I linger next to our bikes as our eyes adjust to the darkness. We’ll ride out of town far enough to camp without curious eyes. In the morning we’ll make a fire, boil water for coffee, warm up a bowl of frijoles, and continue south. But first we’ve been told, we need to visit the mayor. We walk our bikes around the corner and there is the mayor’s house, the only two-story building in the town, and knock on the front door. The mayor answers.
He is delighted to see us. He wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a caricature of…him. Beneath the cartoon face is his name: Papa Espinosa, el alcade (mayor). We sit at his table and drink from painted mugs with his face grinning loudly back at us. There seems to be some sort of side business going on. We talk about many things, and George, as usual, carries the conversation. He is cross-culturally hilarious. Papa Espinosa reheats a pan of beans and we spoon the beans and tomatoes and onions into soft green wraps and eat.
Then Papa Espinosa glances at his watch and dabs his mouth with a napkin. He pushes his chair back from the table and runs his fingers through a mat of gray-black hair. Patting the Papa Espinosa caricature on his belly, he walks over to a small wooden closet. “It’s time for bed.”
I stare out the mayor’s window at the jail. I can make out their phantom outlines of the prisoners behind the blackened bars. A soft, velvety glow peeks through shuttered windows along the street. On a nearby hillside a light here a spark of light marks another adobe shack.
Papa Espinosa opens the closet and inside there is an electrical device with an insulated handle. He grins at us and pulls down the handle (it’s as long as his forearm), cuts the circuit, and the lights go out in the village. All of them. All of them except in Papa Espinosa’s house. He raises the handle and the lights flicker on. Down. Night-night.
“You will want to see the drive-in movie on your way out of our village,” Papa Espinosa says. He hides his smile but his eyes twinkle. He’s played this game before. Of course, we think, of course there is a drive-in on our way out of El Rosario, a town where there are no cars and the electricity is controlled by the mayor out of a wooden cabinet. We say our good-byes and hug the big bear of a man. He informs us that it has been a delightful evening. I give him a tattered menu I’ve kept as a memento from my meal at the Magic Pan and assure him that my cousin Jim, the manager, will repay his kindness with a wonderful meal on the house if he ever gets to Beverly Hills.
Papa Espinosa corrects me. “You mean the next time I’m in Beverly Hills.”
George slips away and returns with a baseball card of Cy Acosta, a major league baseball pitcher from Mexico. It is a wonderfully appreciated gift, and like so many things about George, totally random. Why in the world would he be carrying a baseball card of Cy Acosta?
Back on our bikes, our eyes adjust to the darkness. We hear a muffled growl. A man is slouched in a lawn chair on a rickety porch, the orange glow of his cigarette simmering, as he grabs a mound of dog by the scruff of its neck. A plump figure bustles across the dirt road. A baby cries. Overhead, the stars hang down to the horizon. We pedal along slowly, scanning the road for pot holes or debris. Ahead, we see the outline of a gray rock formation, and behind it, a soft glowing light. The road bends forward and I wonder if the moon will soon rise. We reach the top of a gentle hill and stop our bikes.
There is a drive-in theatre ahead and a John Wayne movie dances across the screen.
Horses are hitched to the speaker posts. Families sit on thick wool blankets next to the horses. Cook pots balance over smoldering fires. Village dogs pad silently from fire to fire, their noses up, tongues lolling off to one side. George points to the rocky field beyond the screen where wisps of fog float in from the Pacific. We watch as the low-lying mist fills the field and fingers into where the villagers sit. The surreal cloud settles over the blankets. The dogs fade way. The villagers stand, children are plucked up. A boy settles onto his father’s shoulders. They balance on the clouds, their figures swaying on plump, wispy, cushions of Pacific mist.
As the credits roll on the screen, we hear the clang of cook stoves and the clump of sand smothering the fires as families gather their belongings. From out of the mist, a young girl is lifted onto a horse before a woman swings over the saddle. The horse, its lower half partially obscured by the fog, clip-clops back towards El Rosario.
The screen goes dark as the drive-in empties out. We wait. Then we mount our bikes and pedal slowly into the night.
Off to our right a dog barks, then a chorus of yips and howls. George changes gears, picking up the pace. “Remember those sleeping dogs coming into town this afternoon?” his voice trails off. A dozen or more dogs burst into view. I’m slow to shift to a higher cadence and I feel a tear on my calf as the nearest dog throws itself at my bike. The Schwinn wobbles. Adrenalin pours through me as I pedal madly into the white mist.
Forget about sticking together, forget about comradery, I pedal like a maniac, eyes fixed to the road. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. I’m floating rather than biking through the fog. There is no up or down. The barking recedes. I coast and listen. I am soaked in sweat. Nothing. Where’s George? I cautiously pedal back, hyper-alert, thinking the worst.
George glides out of the mist, unbloodied, intact. We pedal along in silence. My heart is thumping. I’m soaked in sweat but feel vaguely guilty. There’s no way around it, I panicked. I look up in time to see an apparition floating towards us in the heavy fog. It is a young Mexican boy standing on the rear axle of his friend’s bicycle. The fog shrouds the bike. The two boys seem suspended in the blackness. “Buenos nochas!” they say, and disappear into the mist.
We make camp fifteen minutes out of El Rosario where a series of pale rust cliffs reach out over the road. Hiding our bikes up a barely visible game trail, we build a small fire on a ledge outcropping. I dab my calf with iodine and close the wound with a butterfly dressing. Fog fills the valley. We lie on top of our sleeping bags listening into the night. A baby moans and weeps in the underbrush beyond the fire’s light.
“Nina de la tierra,” George says, “I’ve read about it. Some kind of cricket or poisonous lizard. All I know is it ain’t no baby.” He rolls over and almost immediately begins to snore. The baby, or whatever George thinks it is, is joined by another baby. I throw a stone at the wailing. There is a pause, then behind me, a baby cries, closer. I throw another log on the fire and hold a stone in each hand as I slip into my sleeping bag. Before shutting my eyes, I recall two definitions of adventure: Fun with consequences. The second, and more accurate, raw terror recalled in tranquility.
We pack up in the morning and there is no baby in the brush. The road is up or down, rarely level. It touches the Pacific Coast then labors across the Sierra Giganticas to the Gulf of California, and then back again. We ration water. We ration food. Some days we climb so slowly in our lowest gear, a fast walker could pass us by. Reaching the top, we catch our breath and coast down hairpin turns, burning our brakes, fearful of gaining momentum on the lumbering Schwinns.
A week out of El Rosario we see dump trucks and compacters and pavers and a crew of workers where the new road morphs into Baja sand. We ask the workers—as best we can, how far before the pavement picks up again from the south? No-one seems to know, maybe 10, maybe 20 miles, no more than 50. Certainly, no more than 50.
Wagging a finger, one of the workers draws an imaginary circle around his ear, indicating we are crazy and shouts, “Bicicleta! Loco bicicleta!” Before we move on, the workers give us six hot peppers, 2 boiled eggs, and a can of Coca-Cola.
We walk the bikes, following the packed dirt and shifting sand southward. The Coca-Cola is quickly emptied after downing the hot peppers. We push forward for 30 minutes, rest, push for 30 minutes, rest. Late afternoon, an off-road truck and a Jeep outfitted with winches mounted on the front bumpers lurch around us, windows up, beeping their horns. Jerks. George and I wonder if, perhaps, we are the first bicyclists dumb enough to bike this far south into this oven.
We decide travel at night to conserve water. We are alone with our bikes. To the east, the sky is softening. The Milky Way curls overhead. The Southern Cross sits on the horizon. I take a swig of water and offer George a drink. He says he’ll wait. Where the dirt road is more firmly packed, we ride our bikes but can’t avoid the ruts. I fall, again. The rope holding my tattered suitcase to the rear rack gives way. I tie the ends together and cinch the line around my sleeping bag. The bandage over my calf dislodges and a stream of blood winds its way down into my sock.
We hear clanging in the distance and look across the valley. Lights illuminate a work crew. We pick up our pace and walk the bikes out of the desert. The crew stops their work, remove their hard hats, and inspect our bikes, want to inspect us. George inexplicably does a little dance.
There is total agreement: “Loco! Loco!”
George pulls out a half-pint bottle of tequila he bought in Tijuana and passes it around. But first we ask for water. The newly minted black macadam rolls south. We make La Paz in another week and take the ferry across the Gulf of California to Mazatlán, where we board the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad to Presidio, Texas. For another two weeks, we bike across the sweltering, rolling scrub of west Texas.
We’re running out of money. We’ve biked Baja. It’s time to go home. We befriend a family in a Winnebago at a truck stop and they lash our bikes to the back bumper. They drop us off in New Orleans where we sell the bikes before hitchhiking home to New Jersey.
George and I are in the front seat of a stranger’s van, on the Pulaski Skyline highway in New Jersey, fifteen miles from Cranford, my home town. Below us are the burning vents of the refineries. The lifeless Hackensack River winds through the post-apocalyptic inferno. The sulfurous fumes take me back to those family Sunday car rides to New York City.
In Cranford, I talk with our next-door neighbor, George Donick, as he drags a trash can to the curb. He wants me to know that my dad was kind and thoughtful, a good listener, a good neighbor. “Your dad, Frank, was a serious guy, but you know what? He had a smile that just lit up a room.” After all these years, his voice catches as he says the word, smile.
Before I return to Bates College for the winter semester—and sign up for my first chemistry class, I bump into one of my dad’s co-workers from Montrose at the local bowling alley. Gus remembers the way my dad negotiated with the unions. “Like, talk about an impossible job, getting a contract signed and making sure that nobody is screwed. He was blue collar all the way. Nobody was happy on either side. I guess that’s a good contract.”
In time, I’ve gradually filled in more of the blank spaces of my father’s life. At weddings and funerals in Cleveland, where most of my dad’s family still lives, I take my uncles and aunts aside and ask them to think back, what was my dad like as a kid? Did he really wrestle in college? What did he do in the Navy? Were they surprised he became a chemical engineer? What was it like growing up first generation Italian in East Cleveland?
And there’s more. One night, my brother Rick tells me that the year before he died in 1964, my father stayed up into the wee hours working on the blueprints for a new project, designing a plant for Montrose Chemical in Mexico. It would produce dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane—DDT, and it had to be perfect, down to the last pressure valve, the last storage tank. Rick says that my father believed in the benefits of DDT. Basic science informed him that by killing mosquitos, DDT reduced the scourge of malaria and Dengue fever. Spraying with DDT saved lives. It wasn’t God’s work, but it was close.
Building the new DDT plant in Mexico made sense for Montrose Chemical because Rachel Carson’s recently published book, Silent Spring, was transforming the way the way the public viewed pesticides. The deleterious effect of DDT on reproduction in predators such as eagles was well publicized, and concern was mounting that the chemical could harm humans as well. There was talk of an outright ban on DDT in the United States and the Montrose Chemical Company felt the heat.
As the popularity of the book soared, my dad’s superiors at Montrose Chemical asked him to defend DDT, to go on network TV and debunk Silent Spring. Montrose would challenge Rachel Carson to a debate and they had a man who knew the chemical like the back of his hand. But network TV? My dad? Rachel Carson?
He was a company man, but he hesitated. What about the science? He told Montrose that he needed a few days to decide. First, he wanted to read Silent Spring. He bought a copy and skimmed the softer generalities, and concentrated on the more serious claims. He reviewed her hypothesis, looked up the references, scribbled notations on his yellow-legal pad. Long after we went to bed, he sat in the living room, thinking. The science was valid, he decided. She was right. Then he told his boss at Montrose that he appreciated the offer, but that he couldn’t, he wouldn’t debate Rachel Carson on network TV.
He hoped they understood. They probably didn’t.
Montrose Chemical found another chemist to debate Rachel Carson. For the debate, she sat on an easy chair on the front porch of her cottage in Maine. The chemist, dressed in a white lab coat with textbooks on a shelf in the background, was filmed in his lab. The two debated DDT on a split screen before a national TV audience. The public believed Rachel Carson. It was the beginning of the end for the use of DDT in the United States.
The next year, in 1964, Rachel Carson succumbed to breast cancer, three months before my father arrived home after a long day of work, suffered a massive heart attack and died in my mother’s arms. In our family history, the two are linked together, even if they never met.
I like to think (and really, isn’t perception reality?) that reading Rachel Carson’s book transformed the way my father looked at the world. Given more time, perhaps he would have taken his passion for chemistry and turned his attention to the environment, to the world his three boys would someday inherit. He was nearly there.
Baja both cleared my mind and opened it up to new possibilities. My brothers and I eventually made peace with the trauma of our father’s death in 1964. It wasn’t easy. Losing a parent never is. We became avid birders, wild flower connoisseurs, and devoted conservationists. Following the footsteps of Dr. Dave in Baja, I became a physician. My brother, Rick, served as long-time editor for the New Jersey Audubon magazine and consults for the Nature Conservancy and other environmental organizations. Steve, a psychologist specializing in mental health services for the developmentally disabled, spent a life-time canoeing and hiking and tending to his garden before he passed on in early 2018. I treasure the memories I have of the three of us, deep in the woods, listening, observing, commenting, agreeing, or not, and then going on, following the trail over the next ridge. Now and then, I take out the picture of my father I keep in my wallet and smile at his receding hairline, the dark pencil mustache, those bookish brown eyes peering from behind heavy-framed glasses. I think of him on Sunday mornings shepherding Rick, Steve, and me into the basement for another amazing experiment. He lights the Bunsen burner, warms the tubes and adds a pinch of white powder. Then he asks us to count backwards from ten. When we reach zero the test tubes turn in the blink of eye: Black! Red! Yellow! He is grinning like a Cheshire cat. I can see that now. Baja gave me that.