Stuntmen and Dakar Rally Groupies
An ex-Special Forces Belgique ran
the Corner Pub, a massive man who had quit the military after seven years in
Africa to become a flower expert in order "to see the world." So it had become
the de facto hang out for horticulturalists, most of whom were Dutchmen. Not
everyone was allowed to make it there regular watering hole, vets, lily and
rose and orchid experts, retired bankers and oilmen, many who still wore their
crusty exterior brashness easily triggered by immaturity or drunkeness. Noble
kept quiet but Reno had found his classroom, staying cool and listening and adapting
to the quality of word exchanged in a myriad of languages. It didn't take him
long to notice the music was the best in town, which bespoke class and taste,
but also a toughness that perhaps served to deflect or obscure being called a
flower expert. But it were the Dutchmen he was most impressed with, soon
discovering that it was difficult to meet a bad-hearted Dutchman. This, he
found, created an atmosphere where the cool attracted the cool so that what was
created was something special, something powerful and profound. In the month
Noble had been in Ecuador, he had been introduced to the regulars at the Corner
Pub by the American bookseller down the street. Sometimes the combination of
people made for a memorable time.
One afternoon Noble read his Crazy
Horse and Custer book on the patio sipping a rum and coke. The whole thing
started with Crash, the cigar-smoking Californian who had reached 80 after
decades of being an actor. One never knew how exactly a conversation starts
between two strangers on a deck in Quito, but it could have had something to do
with Noble's now drooping moustache. George Custer's Civil War record was
certainly impressive but his attention was drawn to this man who looked like a
retired stuntman who called himself Crash, a splitting image of Richard
Farnsworth, complete with cigar. The topic of motorcycles came up so he asked
him if he rode.
"The last time I was on a motorcycle
I was in the desert and was riding with Marlon Brando. I wiped and scraped up
my leg pretty bad." He started to lift up his pants but stopped. "It was also
the last time. I was almost killed on one of those damn things." His goatee was
When Noble asked about Marlon Brando
he said he was an active stage actor in the fifties and had worked with Brando
and a few others.
"I used to hang out with Dennis
Hopper. Boy was he a lot of fun." Shook his head. "That was right around the
time he was in Rebel Without a Cause. I met Jimmy Dean just the once, but
Hopper sort of took off after that."
"Easy Rider was really his first
biggie wasn't it?"
"Oh yeah. Huh. That was a big film.
Funny thing about that film was. Oh shit, what's his name? You know I have such
bad recall now. What was his name who was the other actor in that one?"
"Yes, that's right. I was in Mexico
doing a film with Henry Fonda and one day he brings this script to the set,
hands it to me and says: ‘Tell me what you honestly think about the script. My
son wants to make it.' So I take it back to the motel and few days later I tell
him: ‘Who wants to watch a bunch of hippies ride motorcycles across America
taking drugs?' So I tell him I didn't like it. Huh! So much for my opinion! But
Henry agreed with me." Crash sipped his Coca-Cola and adjusted his hat.
"I'm a big Henry Fonda fan," said
Noble. "You know he was a real war hero? Him and Jimmy Stewart."
"Yes that's right. Especially Jimmy
"But the Duke never went."
"No, some were more valuable to the
war effort staying home you know."
"I like the Duke's early films in
the thirties. But Fonda's best roles were the serious ones, like Fort Apache
when he plays that colonels who's too brash and blunders into Apache land like
Custer and is massacred."
"Yep. Henry was a good actor."
"I always thought it would've been hard
being his son."
Just then Richard walked onto the
patio, swaying, disheveled and slurring.
"Crash you're here. I'm so glad
you're here." He put his hands on Crash's shoulder. "It's been a day. I'll tell
you. Let me get a beer." Slow, drunken gait, unsure on his feet.
"Been sober for fourteen years until
two weeks ago."
"He's got quite the platform."
"Yes, platform. Yes." Happy
to hear the word. "Had some recent tragedy." Noble's impression of Richard
changed. He focused on him when he sat down with his beer. The drunken slur was
laden with sadness. Maybe in his sixties, he looked like an American tourist
with the hat but without the camera.
"You have a good platform going
today," said Crash, giving Noble a wink.
"It's called drinking your
breakfast. Not too many but you know, I can't help it." Tears well up but they
all ignore it. "It's all too much you know. And I know tragedies happen in
As gentle as he could, Noble stepped
into the conversation.
"Threes, yes. From experience, but
when the third comes you should be alright for a while." He studied Noble from
behind his prescription sunglasses.
"You can count on threes and
Murphy's Law." Like a child, weak and vulnerable and unafraid to show it, the
emotion so thick it overwhelmed him.
"I had some tragedy recently and I
can't." He stopped. They are all quiet for a moment. "My daughter. My only
daughter. Jesus!" He shook his head as if trying to push out sadness from his
"It's important to grieve," said
Noble, trying to expel the knots of emotion crippling him. "Don't try and be
manly with the stiff upper lip and keep it all in. It's healthy to let it out."
Richard nodded frantically, squinted the tears out of the way and took a deep
breath. Crash smoked his cigar and sipped his coke.
"And my day! I loved my dog!" Noble
nodded, knowing the pain of losing a dog. His sobbing, while good and healthy,
marred his speech. So Noble, spurned on by Reno is thirsty for another
beverage, went into the bar for another. Sitting at the bar was an overweight
man, long hair with a moustache cut to the contours of his face. Unassuming and
alone, hair still dark but in his sixties or so, he looked at Noble lightly.
Instead of a polite nod he would usually give, Reno asserts himself.
"Now that's a moustache,"
said Reno, pulling at his own. From his size he could be Dutch or Danish, but
the moustache was international, and Noble was seeing that there was a
brotherhood among men who had the cohunes to pull one off.
"You-" he said, pointing. Heavy
"Aiming for the full waterfall."
Reno showed bluster. The man's eyes wrinkled in smoker's lines. "You a regular
"Regular? Aso. I come here
yes, usually, yes." German accent but different somehow. "Two years now. No!
One and a half year." Not lonely but eager to talk. No one liked to sit alone
at the bar. "I'm Swiss," he said, "from Switzerland." Reno never knew the word
‘Switzerland' could sound so melodic.
"I came here with a business partner
almost two years ago but my partner, the business." He shook his head. "Lost a
lot of money. No good. So I work on my own here." For some reason it didn't
feel right to ask him his occupation. Reno chatted with the Swiss because the
raw emotion of Richard made Noble feel awkward. Besides he and Crash were in
deep chat mode.
smoke," said the Swiss. "We go outside."
"Si," he said."
Outside they enjoyed a cigarette,
the Swiss sucking in the nicotine with a purpose. His name Kurt, when he spoke
his entire focus was on him. Not lonely but perhaps wanting to practice his
"Ach, these Marlborough blancas
suck," said Reno.
"I have these, many packs in my
truck, over there." He pointed across the far intersection but Reno couldn't
see any trucks. "Great truck. Would have been great when I lived in the
Philippines. Ever been there?" Of course Noble told him he hadn't, which
prompted him to describe a bit of his life there.
"You know Angles City where the
Clark Air Force Base was?" Noble awkward, thinking he should know where this
base was. Kurt told him he married a Philippina and ran a bar for six years
until he sold it soon after the US departure in 1991. Like most chance
encounters in obscure cities in odd countries one was forthright with
recounting chapters of their lives, Noble more fascinated with each new piece.
Kurt told him he worked in Saudi Arabia for Faud, the son of King Saud, in his
"He has sixty palaces all over the
country. I built the fountain system."
"Did you meet him?"
"Oh yes but I could not how do you
say? No handshake. But I met him many times. After all I was helping his
palace." The beer flowed and his English improved noticeably.
"I worked in Libya fourteen years
with Gaddafi. That was before when I was younger. Our Swiss company sis a lot
in Tripoli. I used to drive to Tunisia, cross the border to buy a case of
whiskey but was told to return over the border down south more because a guy I
knew through Gaddafi had a brother working the customs there. Worked every
time, the whiskey hidden in a hollow in the trunk covered with clothes and
"So what was Gaddafi like?"
"He was alright back then. Short.
Always talked about ‘his people' and how he wanted to give them everything they
wanted. No problems with him. Paid good and we worked hard."
As he spoke it dawned on Noble how
such an unassuming overweight man could have lived such a life, stories untold,
waiting for an excuse to share them. Face almost expressionless, nonchalant,
matter-of-fact, only lighting up like a light bulb when Reno cracked a joke.
More drinks, Crash and Richard had
left and the sun was beginning to set when another piece of his history came
"I worked in Iraq too, years ago
with Saddam Hussein." At this point Noble wasn't phased.
"Building palaces again?" Kurt had
alluded to Vietnam several times and men he knew from the war, but Noble's
assumption was that they were regulars at his bar in the Philippines.
"I did some building, yes, but also
helped him with other things. It was during the war against Iran. They had some
military camps outside Baghdad so I helped with that." Perhaps it was the drink
or maybe it was just Reno but he pressed Kurt here. He hadn't mentioned water
fountains or whiskey. Reno wanted specifics.
"Well it was a military camp and
they had some equipment from Swiss and our job was to make sure they knew how
to use it correctly."
"Like what?" Playful, light, casual,
as Reno lit up another cigarette.
"Shooting. I am good at shooting so
some of the new equipment was guns, yes." He smiled. "I used to be good but
now." His hand motioned to his pear-shaped body, form long gone and a slight
self-consciousness present. A sensitive point made after a sensitive topic
raised. Reno with a nod, nothing more, eyes glimmering at the imagery of it
all. ‘Who would have ever know,' he wanted to say but Reno, grasp firm on the
cool button, censored it.
"Did you meet him?"
"Several times, when he visited the
camps." When Kurt slowly waddled into the bar to the washroom he could only
shake his head and say to himself, ‘What a life.'
When he looked up Martina was there
on the street walking down Amazonas.
"Hey there, what's up?" she said,
buckteeth announcing themselves between her lips.
meeting you here. A bit late for a stroll down Amazonas at dusk, no?"
"Late Spanish lessons today. It's
getting a little out of control this ‘total immersion.'
"Studying too hard. Relax with a
cocktail?" A brief survey of the almost empty patio with a strange peach hue
lingering over the amphitheater of rock around Quito's perimeter.
"Sure, why not?" Sexy in black, her
cleavage too determined to remain unseen. Ease, good chemistry, no pressure
When Kurt returned she was a bit
surprised. Introductions, the Swiss factor, Noble gave a very modest overview
of what Kurt had shared with him, enough for her to be interested. But Martina
was keen on her own story and it was just a matter of time before she started
telling him about the hemp farm she ran in Canada before she was red-flagged
and pushed out of the country. When she found her groove, Reno strode to the
bar determined to keep pace and keep the rum flowing. That was when he met Alan
O'Brien, mustache half grown, accent thick with kangaroos and tumbleweeds.
Like most Australians, outgoing and
happy, tanned and healthy, with the sun lines to prove his past. He should have
known it from that face and his motorcycle jacket that he was into
motorcycling, a two-wheeled connoisseur.
"Are you riding a motorbike in Ecuador?" He had
seen so many motorbikes that he had begun to think it would be fun to ride.
"Do you ride?"
"Ah that's too bad mate. You should, it's great
fun." It occurred to Reno that indeed he should
"I'm here in South America to cover the Dakar
Motorcycle rally in January," said O'Brien. A feeling of magic and possibility
jolted through Reno, whetting his appetite and igniting something within him he
could not explain.
"No, no. I'm here just to watch it.
Thought I'd come a little early and explore a bit of this land down here. I
have a decent bike and the three most important things." Like a jester he
tilted his head with coyness.
"Ah, never thought you'd ask!" Laugh
like a Koala bear. "Three most important things in a rider's kit are a good map,
a compass and of course a good bag of weed." Jovial bluster of the unexpected,
Reno liked his style. Thus sharing a laugh, O'Brien was eager to join them
outside. And then to his amazement, O'Brien told of his motorcycle trip around
all of Australia, including the coveted Broome stretch. I suppose it wasn't so
much the story but how he told it, reliving the joy and pride of each stage of
the tour, his teeth exposed from the smile that wouldn't leave his face.
Martina bored of the motorcycle
story and departed to her homework, O'Brien shuffled out due to a previous
engagement and Kurt had left so he went to Finn McCool's for last call but Reno
decided to remain at the bar after closing hours, which was where he met some
new people, one of whom was an Argentinean named Diego. The night was not yet
over for the man from Texas.