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El Centro in the Desert

Story Time: El Centro California

June 1976 and I had just taken delivery of my brand new Datsun 280-Z. I already had my plan in place; once school was out for the summer, I had a two month break from my job as school psychologist. I would head south to Florida to visit family, then working my way north than west I would make stops in N’Orleans, Galveston Texas, El Centro California then LA. I had contacted friends from home on Long Island, Randy born on the same day I was who lived across the street from my grandmother who lived on the coast of Texas, and then my cousin Dick in California and finally Terry outside of LA.

While there are stories aplenty as I drove cross country, this story is about my cousin Dick. Our lives crossed paths many times, as small children, as teens, as young adults and now in our mid-twenties, me single, he married with a child on the way done with college, me a psychologist he a Border Patrol officer. It was a grant reunion. I spent about a week with him and his wife Barbara driving up to San Diego camping out on a beach, hitting the surf in Huntington Beach, crossing the border into Tijuana just having a great time.

One afternoon he asked me if I wanted to go shoot some guns. As an active duty police officer he had to “stay current” by firing his weapon using up a box worth of ammo provided by his supply clerk. He had an extra box and and extra weapon, so he handed me a holster and gun, and he grabbed his. We jumped into his Black Chevy Silverado pickup and off the range we went. We both fired off the entire contents of our ammo and I learned a great deal about handling a weapon. But the most important thing I learned, was when it came to handguns, it wasn’t just matter of point and shoot. You had to hit your target. Dick hit his every time, most in the bullseye or next ring out. Me? I barely got one slug in the paper target. “Practice Frankie….practice,” he told me. Though I bristled when others called me by a name I gave up when I entered puberty, it was okay for Dick to use the name. It was not only a term of endearment, but a link to our New York heritage, “Hey Frankie…what’s up?”

Dick had to report for work that night and he asked me if I wanted to ride along. “Sure!” I said, “Is that allowed?” “Yeah, all we’re gonna do is cruise the drag lines on the border.” I came to find out that “cruising the drag lines” meant driving his four-wheel jeep along a four mile perimeter road just north of the Mexican border. No walls, not even a fence, just a border with a road on the Mexican side and a dirt road on the U.S. side. An agent would drive the four-mile square with four tires dragging behind. We would drive the same circuit looking for signs that some had come across, foot prints or drag marks from the brush they used to “hide” their tracks. He handed me my gun. “Uh…do I need this?” “Oh yeah, you can’t go on patrol without one.” I was wondering what the hell I got myself into.

We started out at 4:00 PM just before dark and made a number of loops. Pretty uneventful. Around midnight, close the shift change Dick spotted something on the Mexican side; brake lights. “They love to come across during shift changes,” he told me. We stopped for a while, then drove up the northern quadrant, right turn heading east, then right to head south and right again to parallel the border. About a third of the way along he stopped and jumped out. He jumped back in got on his radio and announced, “I’ve got one across the south quadrant heading across!” He then put the jeep back in gear and turned off the road to cross the center of the square. I attempted to get into my seat belt and he advised me to leave it be, “You may have to get out quickly to cover me, just hold on.” I reminded him of what a bad shot I was, and he laughed and said I could scare him at least. We bumped along with Dick holding the steering wheel with one hand and the mic for his radio in the other. Checking in with other officers who were checking the other roads to see if they came across. Continued tomorrow!

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