*Or, How I Became a Death-Cheating Toad in Mexico and Broke the Ancient Aztec Alien Curse Put on My Family by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Lost Show Car
[This article originally appeared in Garage Magazine #16.]
In his July 1963 interview with Rod & Custom, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth
teased readers with news about a new project he had started, one he called the
Bald Eagle. “I am going to build a car that will be irresistible to women,”
said Roth. “They will want to climb on it, scratch the paint and just crawl all
That chick-magnet project was later renamed the Orbitron. In ’63 BDR was under pressure from Revell to produce another wild show car, one that would become, like the Outlaw and Beatnik Bandit and Mysterion before it, a show circuit sensation and million-selling plastic model kit. BDR pull all the stops for the effort: Working from an idea by Roth, Ed Newton drew a concept and Roth and Dirty Doug began shaping its fiberglass form in the Maywood shop. It was long and low, asymmetric, built like a UFO dragster with the driver sitting behind the axle. Like the Beatnik Bandit and Mysterion it featured a bubbletop blown at Acry Plastics, but with a spacious angel fur interior big enough to accommodate Roth and one of those girls he talked about in R&C. The previous year Ford had given Roth three new 406 crate motors, two of which went into the Mysterion; the third went into his ’55 Chevy daily. Roth chromed out the ‘55’s original 265 small block and stuffed it in the Orbitron’s engine compartment. Its centerpiece was a long tubular nosecone, jutting forward of the front wheels, containing a pod of Red-Green-Blue lights that, BDR explained, would combine into a single white beam. After getting a luscious Larry Watson blue fade paintjob, it was ready for its debut in early ’64.
By all rights the car should have been another triumph. At the time Big Daddy was King and his Rat Fink Empire was at its peak;.Roth Studios was pumping out millions of grotesque t-shirts and doodads for rebellious kids around the globe, model kit royalties were pouring in, and the Maywood shop was the undisputed center of the kustom car universe. He had just been lionized by Tom Wolfe in the bestseller Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which compared him to Salvador Dali and called his cars things like “baroque” and “Dionysian.”
Instead, the Orbitron was a flop. On the ’64-’65 show circuit, it was greeted with public indifference. Contemporary photographs show the Orbitron in the parking lot of Revell awaiting measurement for a model kit that was never released. Roth theorized the Orbitron was too similar to the Mysterion, and that he screwed up in hiding the chromed engine behind its body panels. He also blamed the Beatles, whose 1964 appearance on Ed Sullivan coincided with the Orbitron’s debut and ushered in a new wave of youth culture more attuned to electric guitars than fantasy show cars.
Whatever the reason, it was Roth’s first taste of failure. He decided to cut his losses and dump it. BDR was notoriously unsentimental about his work; legend says he once swapped seven of his show cars for a new VW Beetle. Dan Woods, who worked for Roth back in the day, says Roth once traded a Rolls Royce custom project for a pair of chrome valve covers. “He didn’t care,” says Woods. “He called all those cars ‘my mistake pile.’”
Roth may have not cared about most of his cars, but his attitude toward the Orbitron seemed to border on outright contempt. "I sold the Orbitron to some dude in Texas," he recalled in his 1995 book with Tony Thacker, and those were to be the final words he had to say about it, at least in print.
Contrary to Roth’s recollection, though, the record shows it went to Kansas, and the dude was car customizer and show promoter Darryl Starbird.
“Me and Jake [Jacobs] were putting the frame together for the Druid Princess in ‘65,” recalls Dan Woods. “The Orbitron was still at the shop, and I remember Starbird’s trailer coming to get it.”
“I think I paid Roth $700 or $800 for it,” says Starbird. “I toured it for a couple years, then I sold it in ’67 or so to a fella in Ada, Oklahoma, a car dealer I think.”
The last pictures of the Orbitron I can find were at the 1967 Wichita show, when Starbird still owned it; I know it toured at least briefly after that, because I saw it. That’s a different part of this story. But somewhere around 1970, the Oklahoma car dealer sold it and the Orbitron seemingly fell off the face of the Earth.
Over the years several Roth cars and bikes resurfaced, but the Orbitron remained (along with the Mysterion) one of the two lost grails of Rothdom. In some ways it was more elusive than the Mysterion, because the Mysterion’s chassis and running gear were eventually found. By contrast the Obitron was lost lock, stock, and barrel.
What made its disappearance more perplexing is that even the most serious Rothologists had little idea of its whereabouts. Neither Dan Woods, who worked for Roth in the 60s, nor Von Franco, who worked for him in the 80s and 90s, had leads. The modern triumvirate of hardcore Roth revivalists -- Mark Moriarity, Dave Shuten, and Fritz Schenck – had each sought the car and ended up stymied. Between them they had restored, located, or cloned many Roth cars, but the Orbitron was always the one that eluded capture. Ten years ago Moriarity took out several “Have You Seen This Car?” ads in Hemmings, and only received two responses -- both vague recollections of seeing it in Texas in the early ‘70s. The consensus was that the Orbitron was junked or destroyed, a conclusion that seemed so obvious that Shuten planned to clone the Orbitron just as he had done with the Mysterion.
Thus it came as somewhat of shock when, in September 2007, the Orbitron suddenly reappeared. The headlines screamed on car forums all across the intertubes: Roth’s Orbitron Found! Parked In Front of Mexican Sex Shop!
The news was weird and hilarious and inexplicable, and left most Roth fans giddy. For a myriad of reasons, it left me scared shitless. When Stoner called and offered me a trip to El Paso to see the Orbitron in person and write this story, I initially refused. I explained, calmly and rationally, that the Orbitron would probably try to kill me out of revenge.
“Uhhhm… okay,” said Stoner. “Revenge for what?”
“Dude, this is going to sound crazy,” I said, “but… I think I killed Ed Roth.”
“Well, not me, exactly. My family curse.”
“Seriously, man, ever time I cross paths with Roth, or a Roth car, bad shit happens.”
“Alright, so make that part of the story.”
“And if I end up dead?”
“Well,” reasoned Stoner, “if you really did kill Ed Roth, you would probably deserve it.”
After thinking about it for a minute, I realized he had a point. I booked my flight to El Paso, and my long awaited showdown with the Orbitron and Death.
On the bumpy plane ride to El Paso I thought about my first encounter with Roth and the Orbitron and the curse. It was February 1968, inside the Sioux City Auditorium, and I was a seven year old Iowa farm kid. Like my older brother, I was under the spell of the great juvenile pop monster custom car cult established by Roth, and when we learned that the Great Fink himself would be appearing at the local World of Wheels car show we begged our old man to take us.
Roth was at a booth, flanked by the Mysterion and the Orbitron, engulfed in a mob of eager acolytes. I lined up and waited patiently with my Beatnik Bandit model kit for an autograph. By that time neither car belonged to him; Roth had gravitated into the outlaw biker world and had hocked most of his holdings to finance Choppers Magazine, but he was still a big draw at car shows and commanded big personal appearances fees. I didn’t know any of that then, and it wouldn’t have mattered to me anyway. Meeting Roth was going to be as big as meeting Santa. Hell, bigger. As I neared the head of the line, I craned my neck through the forest of corduroy coats and spied the great bearded Fink, seated next to an enormous menacing elf. It was Tiny Brower.
Tiny was founder of Sioux City’s notorious El Forastero outlaw bike club, and my grandparents’ neighbor. Mom grew up poor on Sioux City’s rough Westside and my grandparents still lived there with my schizophrenic aunt. They were “Black Irish,” descendants of an ancient invasion of Spaniards to Ireland; as a result they were also superstitious and ultra-Catholic. The walls of their cramped little bungalow were a riot of crucifixes and cheap religious art, save for one ephemeral picture of a beautiful Mexican girl at a well. It was painted by Grandpa in his brief career as a failed artist, after the Army and before becoming a mean drunk. For a while he tried selling his art at the little picture framing shop he owned, with little success. One night Grandpa went on a bender and set all his pictures on fire. The mysterious Mexican girl was the only one to survive.
Their house wasn’t a pleasant place to be for a seven-year old, so whenever we visited my brother and I would ask to roam the neighborhood. “Just don’t go over by those motorcycle people,” Grandma warned us, between drags on her unfiltered Pall Mall.
“Because they’re all going to hell,” she barked. “And they’ll take you with them, that’s why.”
It was a chance we were willing to
take. My brother and I would peer over the fence at Tiny and his friends while
they worked on their choppers, attended by beer-serving beehive molls. He was a
huge dude, 6’7”, or 6’8”, 300 pounds, big enough to dwarf BDR, and Sioux City’s
undisputed One-Percenter-In-Chief. Tiny filled us with a sense of dread, and
awe, and envy. More than anything else my brother and I wanted to be like him.
So when my brother and I got to the front of the line, we gave Tiny a sheepish wave. He elbowed Roth. “Hey, I know these kids,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” said Roth, signing my model kit. “I got a couple of boys your age. Here, take a hat.” He handed us each a free hillbilly crash helmet, festooned with his rollicking trademark R.F.
As far as I was concerned at that point, Santa could go pound sand because nothing he could bring down the chimney could rival that hat, personally given to me by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth himself. My brother and I stopped to ogle the Obitron for what I assumed would be the last time.
Years later I learned how Roth and
Tiny Brower knew each other. One of Tiny’s club brothers, Dave Mann, was a
trained artist and illustrator who enjoyed painting scenes of the El Forasteros
in their natural habitat: riding, partying, living. Tiny knew Mann’s art was
good and sent a snapshot of one of his paintings to Roth. Roth loved it, and
commissioned 8 more Mann paintings to sell as 98¢ posters in his monthly car
Detail from Roth ad for the Dave Mann Forasteros posters
Today Mann’s Roth paintings are considered classics of Lowbrow style. They had titles like Tecate Run, Tijuana Jailbreak, and El Forastero Party, depicting remorseless Viking hordes of filthy outlaw bikers leaving entire cities in flame. The models for those pictures were Tiny and the El Forasteros, and perfectly conveyed that vision of hellbound evil my grandma sensed when they roared in formation past her front porch.
Not everyone appreciated the paintings, though. Hot Rod Magazine publisher Robert Peterson -- always eager to promote a clean cut image of hot rodders – was already disenchanted with Roth’s subversive style and dalliances with the outlaw biker world. When the Mann posters appeared in Roth’s monthly HRM ad, it was the last straw. Peterson censored and cancelled Roth’s remaining advertising and severed all ties with him. It was the beginning of Roth’s long downward spiral.
In the year after that first meeting with Roth, a drought wiped out my dad’s corn crop and he took a winter job at a processing plant to pay the bills. Two days before Christmas, he narrowly escaped a boiler explosion that took off a co-worker’s head. In my eight-year old catholic conscious, I couldn’t shake the thought that my Roth hat had invited Hell to Iowa.
Santa skipped our house that Christmas. I couldn’t blame him.
There are two million people in El Paso and its border twin city of Juarez, surrounded by a quarter million square miles of nothing. It’s the home of Fort Bliss, the birthplace of the Margarita, and an ideal hiding place for things you want to remain hidden.
Montezuma knew it. When Cortes first encountered the Aztecs in 1520 he was dazzled by their gleaming body plates of gold. The Aztecs called it teocuitlatl, “the excrement of the gods,” and valued it for its ability to reflect and amplify the sun. Fearing that all his holy shit would be captured by the invading Spaniards, it is said that Montezuma himself ordered the Aztec Empire’s treasures of gold hidden to the north. Rumor or not, it brought the first Europeans to El Paso. Tens of thousands of Conquistadors crossed the Rio Grande here, in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola where Montezuma’s gold was supposedly buried – vast caches of treasure so great that split a thousand ways it would make each man richer than the King himself. Cortez spent twenty years in the badlands north of El Paso looking for it, only to return to Mexico empty handed.
The US government knew it. When they wanted to keep the Manhattan nuclear project from the prying eyes of the Nazi, they stuck it in the desert north of town. On July 11, 1945 -- seven days after El Paso bartender Pancho Morales salted the brim on the first Margarita -- they detonated the first atom bomb outside Alamogordo, and nobody was the wiser until Hiroshima. Even today the classified White Sands Range is the military’s go-to secret place for testing lethal weaponry.
The hot rod gods also knew it. When they decided to hide the Orbitron from the world, they hid it here – in plain sight, in front of a Juarez sex shop. But unlike those previous treasures, the Orbitron didn’t stay lost. It was found by the guy who picks me up at my motel, Michael Lightbourn.
“Okay, seriously,” I ask, hopping into his truck, “is the sex shop story for real?”
“Completely,” he laughs. “Let’s go get burritos.”
Despite the Anglo name Lightbourn is no gringo. His English forebears came to Mexico by way of Bermuda 200 years ago, mixed with the locals, and emigrated to El Norte one generation back. His friends jokingly call him “Lightbrown.” At El Paso Jefferson High he became a hot rodder and gearhead, and it evolved into an occupation selling repop auto trim pieces manufactured in Mexico. Along the way he became an unlikely Indiana Jones, bringing back automotive treasures from south of the border, and his cell is constantly ringing with new leads. Over burritos and Tecate, Lightbourn explains how he stumbled upon the greatest hot rod find of the century.
“I’ve got people in Mexico always looking for stuff for me, mostly Mustangs and muscle cars and ‘30s Fords,” he says. “One of my guys over there started bugging me this summer about a fiberglass car he saw in Juarez, in front of a sex shop. He said, ‘man, you’ve got to see this thing, it’s really cool.’ I was like, why would I want that? I thought it was a dune buggy or something.”
“Anyway, he kept pestering me about it,” says Lightbourn. “So I gave him a disposable camera and said, ‘go take pictures.’ When I got them back from the photo lab I looked at them and said ‘holy shit… that’s the goddamn Orbitron.’”
In Juarez, people estimate that the Orbitron had languished in front of the sex shop since 1991, used as an attraction and garbage receptacle. Assuming 200 people passed by it a day, more than a million people saw it, but Lightbourn was the first to finally recognize what it was. As soon as he recovered from the shock, he headed over the bridge to strike a deal with the sex shop owner.
“I offered him five hundred bucks,” he says. “The guy got angry and says, ‘my uncle built this car thirty years ago, it’s a family heirloom, I’m never going to sell it.’”
Not wanting to contradict his story, Lightbourn left, but returned. And returned, and returned.
“Finally, he says, ‘you’re one persistent sonofabitch,’” says Lightbourn. “I said, well it’s easy to get rid of me. Just tell me how much you want. So he thinks a minute and names a price. I had the cash in my pocket.”
“I got a good deal,” he smiles. “After we shook hands, the guy asks me, ‘what do you want that car for?’ I told him I was gonna make it into a hot tub. He says, ‘really? I was thinking about doing that too!’”
After a couple of hundred-dollar handshakes with Mexican customs agents, the Orbitron was back in Los Estados Unidos and back in the headlines.
“Ready to see it?” asks Lightbourn.
I gulped down the rest of my third Tecate to bolster my nerve.
On the way to the showdown, we pass by an entrance to Fort Bliss. Millions of soldiers have passed through those gates, including a few from my family. The first was Uncle Billy Stebner, my great grandma’s brother. As a small kid Uncle Billy saw General John “Black Jack” Pershing and his 6th Cavalry parade through Sioux City on their way to Dakota Territory to quell the last of the Sioux uprisings. It left a lasting impression. Uncle Billy joined the Cavalry and ended up at Fort Bliss serving Pershing as a lieutenant. It would have been a quiet stint if not for Pancho Villa.
Villa was a Mexican bandito and revolutionary who had risen to fame by helping to overthrow the dictator Diaz at the Battle of Juarez. In 1914 Uncle Billy and his Army buddies watched the action, like a prize fight, from a railroad boxcar in El Paso. For his trouble Villa was awarded provisional governorship of Chihuahua and he quickly began confiscating every ounce of gold within the state, at gunpoint.
At first Villa was friendly with the American government, even traveling to Bliss for a photo op with Pershing. But after Woodrow Wilson threw his support behind his hated rival Carranza In 1916, Villa went ballistic. On March 9 he crossed the border into Columbus, New Mexico with a force of 1500. They called themselves Los Centauros – the Centaurs, for the half man-half horse creatures of Greek myth – and they rode into town wrapped in bandoleros, guns blazing, some riding Indian motorcycles. They seized gold and mules and burned Columbus to the ground, killing ten American soldiers and eight civilians while losing 80 of their own.
It was the first foreign attack on
U.S. soil since the War of 1812, and prompted national outrage. Wilson ordered
Pershing to pursue Villa back across the border, and Uncle Billy went along on
the ride. That so-called “Punitive Expedition” was a fool’s errand. The
Doughboys’ standard issue Harleys were no match for the Centauros’ Indians, and
the Villistas were able to slip back in among the populace. Pershing and his
force of 6,000 returned to Fort Bliss empty handed. Uncle Billy told me about
it countless times, including his bout with dysentery. Even in his 90s, he
swore he would return to Mexico and find the billions of dollars of gold Villa
hid in the hills of Chihuahua.
A few months after the Pancho Villa expedition another young man from Iowa, John Cullen, arrived at Fort Bliss. He was my Grandpa. He was an infantryman who followed Pershing to his next assignment on the battlefields of France. He fought at the Marne and returned with nightmares of trench warfare, and the memory of a girl he met in Juarez. She was the girl in the painting, his lost Mexican treasure.
The Orbitron’s new home is an unassuming warehouse in an industrial section of El Paso, red and white with wrought iron grating over the office windows. We are met there by Mark, a friend of Lightbourn’s from Dallas who is in town to retrieve a Mexican Firebird. Lightbourn hits the light switches and the halogen and neon groan to life, revealing a cavernous building filled with dusty amalgam of muscle cars and classics; Trans Ams, Mustangs, Cudas, a Herbie the Love Bug clone Lightbourn is making for his daughter.
“So where is it?” I ask, nervously.
Lightbourn grins and points to a row of cars against a side wall. Wedged in between a babyshit yellow fat fender sedan and a crumpled ’69 Chevelle wagon sits my bete noir, the Orbitron.
“Come on, let’s roll it out so you can take some pictures,” says Lightbourn.
I approached it warily, half expecting it to attack. The drag link is disconnected so the front wheels have to be turned by hand. Mark yanks and kicks at the tires to angle the steering.
“Don’t provoke it,” I warn, pushing gingerly.
We roll it to the center of the floor, and Lightbourn opens a rear rollup door for additional light from the late afternoon West Texas sun. Given its 16 year sentence as a sidewalk garbage dump it’s in reasonably good shape. Larry Watson’s blue fade paint is long gone, save for a few oxidized edges, revealing its black primer. Ed Roth may not have been the world’s greatest craftsman but he certainly didn’t skimp on fiberglass; the body is heavy and solid with minor surface cracking on a few stress points. The sharp horn-like fenders are still intact, except a missing tip on one of the rears that reveals some of Roth’s plaster. The only missing body pieces are the nosecone, which appears to have been removed with a hacksaw, and the engine cover. The missing panels reveal Roth’s hand built frame, his stubby four-link setup, the same early 265 engine that came from Roth’s Chevy, the same ‘Vette valve covers, the same chrome Strombergs, bubbled and peeling.
“They were filled with water when I got it,” says Lightbourn. “Cylinders too.”
The other major missing piece is the bubbletop. The interior is gutted and only a few shreds of angel fur remain, which appear to have been dyed dark blue at some point. The TV console and upholstery are gone and the plywood floor is warped and worn from years of exposure. But the Moon pedal remains, as does the Cragar slotted steering wheel. The shift lever is still there, but the custom knob is gone. Amazingly, three of the four hubs carry the original slotted chrome Cragars and tires, including a rotted Casler piecrust cheater slick.
Between the halogen and the reflective sunlight glare, it appears half charging bull, half alien autopsy. Is the resemblance coincidental?
Two years after the first nuke blast
at Alamagordo, eyewitnesses reported seeing a UFO go down in nearby Roswell,
New Mexico. If conspiracy buffs are to be believed, the craft contained aliens
whose cadavers were taken to a secret Air Force facility for gutting and
experimentation. Soon after, a plague of UFOs filled the skies surrounding El
Paso. Maybe they came to retrieve the bodies, or Montezuma’s gold, or revenge,
maybe they came to save us from ourselves. I personally think they came for the
Some people don’t believe it; others will tell you that UFO activity around here is nothing new, and that the Aztecs themselves came to Mexico from outer space. But to me there seems to be some sort of connection between all of it and my family curse. The facts are this: the Air Force’s secret Project Blue Book catalogs 1522 separate UFO encounters between the first Roswell incident and the disappearance of the Orbitron. Most were in the western US, more than 15% in New Mexico alone. In the midst of that extraterrestrial traffic jam, a young Air Force enlistee from Los Angeles named Ed Roth headed east to Colorado for basic training. During his 1951-2 stay in Colorado Springs, Project Blue Book notes a spate of UFO incidents:
July 9, 1952. Colorado Springs, Colo. 12:45 p.m. USAF pilot Maj. C. K. Griffin saw an object shaped like an airfoil less its trailing edge, luminous white, move slowly and erratically.
Aug. 29, 1952. Colorado Springs, Colo. 8:35 p.m. USAF pilot C. A. Magruder saw 3 objects 50 ft in diameter, 10 ft high, aluminum with red-yellow exhaust, fly in trail about 1,500 mph.
When the Air Force shipped Roth to a base in Morocco, the UFOs followed.
Sept. 9, 1952. Rabat, French Morocco. 9 p.m. USAF Intelligence civilian illustrator E. J. Colisimo saw a disc with lights along part of its circumference fly twice as fast as a T-33 jet trainer, in a slightly curved path.
March 25, 1953. Nouasseur AFB, Rabat, French Morocco. 9:23-10:15 p.m. (GMT). Majors Radin and Rend plus 1+ crew of C-47 at 5,000 ft saw white light above at 7,000 to 8,000 ft maneuvering in spiral pattern over airfield, descend and land on airbase S of runways at 9:28 p.m. visible until suddenly blinked out on the ground at about 10:15.
March 5, 1954. Nouasseur AFB, French Morocco. 7:15, 7:38, 9:55 p.m. Crews of USAF KC-97 aerial tanker planes and a C-54 transport saw 1-2 white or amber objects or lights make passes at the aircraft on collision courses as they practiced GCA landings.
Five more similar sightings occurred in North Africa during Roth’s stay there. When he returned to the States to finish his stint in South Carolina the UFOs followed again, at Shaw and Congaree and Savannah River. And then, back to Los Angeles.
Look, I’m not suggesting that Ed Roth was in communication with aliens or anything.
Okay, maybe I am.
As the afternoon drags on Lightbourn’s friends begin arriving at the back of the warehouse, one by one, bearing tributes of beer. First are Sergio and Antonio, two of Lightbourn’s Jefferson High car buddies who have a transmission shop nearby. There’s JD, another school pal, and Red Dog, Lightbourn’s cousin. The EP hot rod mafia love to party, and Friday fiesta is on. I’m still spooked by the Orbitron and the curse, so I gladly indulge each every offer of liquid courage.
“So how did the Orbitron get to Juarez?” I ask, cracking a cold one.
“Oh shit, man, it was in El Paso forever,” says Sergio. “We all saw it years ago when we were little kids, outside the bail bond office.”
Bail bond office? They are unclear on who exactly brought the Orbitron to El Paso but they estimate it arrived here circa 1972. The owner reportedly ran afoul of the law, maybe for drugs; strapped for cash, he used the Orbitron to pay off the bail bondsman and his lawyer, a guy named Sid Abraham. Abraham and the bail bondsman used it for sidewalk advertising.
When the Orbitron arrived in El Paso, I was in California on the grand vacation of my youth. We spent three weeks on the coast, taking in ever tourist attraction; Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World, the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One day my brother and I saw a motel lobby flyer for the “MovieWorld Cars of the Stars Museum” in Buena Park. After a modest amount of pleading, Dad agreed to take us.
It was a weekday afternoon so we had the run of the place. After winding through a maze of cancelled TV customs and celebrity cars, we came upon the Beatnik Bandit. It looked worn and dingy, with an unfamiliar green paint job. “Let’s get a picture,” said my dad, motioning us to duck under the velvet rope and pose next to the Bandit. “Go ahead, it’ll be okay.”
My brother and I leaned against the
Bandit’s fenders, like bookends, and waited for Dad’s Kodak’s flash. Four years
earlier I stood starstruck in Roth’s presence, but now the dilapidated Beatnik
Bandit left me sadly wondering whatever happened to him.
That same week we went to Knott’s Berry Farm where, I learned later, Roth was employed. The Choppers Magazine venture, a divorce, and a shop break-in had left him flat broke. He had sold a few of his cars to the Brucker family who owned the museum, and had taken a sign painting job at Knott’s to make ends meet. I don’t know if we crossed paths there, but the curse had returned.
On the way back to Iowa, somewhere east of Barstow, Dad spotted a dilapidated billboard along the Interstate advertising “Ghost Mining Town! Next Exit”. He was a sucker for Old West attractions and wheeled the Impala onto the exit ramp. It took twenty miles on an empty highway to get to the ghost town, which consisted of a couple of battered abandoned buildings. Dad apologized for the disappointment and we got back in the Impala. The starter spun futilely, its solenoid broken.
As we sat there baking in the August high desert sun, I don’t think I was the only one who thought we were going to die. No one said anything, though, not wanting to panic my 5-year old sister. After three hours we were rescued by a Mexican guy in a pickup.
When we finally got home to Iowa, we discovered that the corn crop had been destroyed in a hailstorm.
More vatos arrive at the warehouse, including JD’s son and his friends. Next is Luis, who arrives in a late model Crown Vic with a company door logo reading “Zaragoza, S.A.” Luis works as a bodyguard for Jorge Zaragoza, who own the largest dairy in Mexico and reportedly one of the largest hot rod fleets in the world.
“Come on clown, get a drink!” yells Antonio. He could mean anybody, so I crack another beer.
“So did Sid Abraham bring it to Juarez?” I ask.
“No, it stayed in El Paso for a couple of years after that,” says Lightbourn. “A guy named Mike Lowe bought the Orbitron from Sid, and he sold it to John Attel. Both of them tried to get it running on the street, but couldn’t. Attel’s the one who changed the carb linkage. He said it was the biggest piece of shit he ever owned.”
“It almost killed him,” chimes Sergio. “He got stuck in the bubbletop, outside in the sun.”
“He said it was kind of funny for the first 5 minutes, but he was in there for an hour,” says Lightbourn. “He tried kicking his way out and cracked the bubble. A bunch of guys had to help him break out.”
Attel’s attempts to street the Orbitron were also reportedly the cause of the missing nosecone.
“He actually got it running down the street one day, and it stalled a couple blocks from his house,” says Antonio. “They strapped a chain on the axle to tow it back, and when the chain went taut it broke the nosecone.”
“Hey clown, we can get this thing running again!” yells Red Dog. “Let’s jump start it!”
The sun is down and everyone’s half in the bag. The boys surround the Orbitron and start bouncing it on its rear spring, laughing wildly. Holy sweet virgin mother of God. They are like picadors, taunting this angry, cursed, alien bull that want to send my ass to hell. I make a sign of the cross, hoping to stave off the curse for another 10 minutes.
“Andele, dumbass, help us out!” laughs Sergio.
I ignore the probable death sentence, and stumble over to join the riotous Orbitron-bouncing.
“That’s not how you start a car, clown!” says Antonio. “You got to prime the carbs, like this!”
Antonio breaks open the tequila and pours some down the center Stromberg. Lightbourn and I pour our beers down the secondaries. More gales of laughter. I am dead, for certain. My cell phone rings, it’s Stoner.
“Sounds like you’re having a good time,” he says.
“I think I’m going to pay for it later,” I slur. “Bigtime.”
“Jesse’s got a number for you to call,” he says. “Los Centauros.”
Los Centauros are a biker club in
Juarez who share the same name and ethos as Pancho Villa’s riders. Jesse James
made their acquaintance a few years back when he rode through Mexico and Stoner
assures me they will be of invaluable assistance in accomplishing whatever the
hell it is I’m trying to do here. I call the number and introduce myself to
Centauro Daniel, who promises a party of his amigos is on its way.
Tequila and beer ensue. The more we drink the more the conversation turns to Spanish, which I don’t speak. Red Dog fishes a quarter out of his pocket and tosses it skyward.
“Call it! Call it!” he bellows.
“Heads!” answers JD.
They chase the quarter as it rolls around the shop floor. When it stops, Red Dog starts crumping wildly.
“Twenty bucks, man!”
“Double or nothing, clown!”
More coin flips, bigger stakes, more screams of laughter. Above it I hear the roar of approaching V-twins. Two big dudes with shaved heads roll into the warehouse, astride full dress Harleys. It’s Danny and Daniel, wearing their Los Centauros colors. A few minutes later Centauro Heber arrives with his beautiful wife Norma, who bears another golden bottle of tequila. She passes it to me for a ceremonial swig.
“Senor Jesse James sends his respects,” I slur, bowing slowly. As Stoner predicted, they offer their help in securing anything I need during my visit. I wonder if they know any good undertakers.
Sergio hops aboard an old orange Stingray bike, and pedals it to the rear of the warehouse. He wheels it around and points it at the Orbitron, 80 feet away, and begins pedaling furiously.
“Go clown! Go clown! Go clown!” everyone chants furiously. Sergio puts the Stingray into a skid and wipes out right beside the Orbitron, and lies on the floor giggling. Paroxysms of laughter.
“Hey borracho! Pendejo! Your turn!”
I look around and they’re pointing at me and the Stingray. I hop on the Stingray and wheel it unsteadily to the back of the warehouse.
Holy Guadalupe, here I am, careening toward a priceless, cursed piece of 20th Century abstract art with all the dispatch my tequila-impaired senses can muster. At the last possible moment I stomp on the coaster brake and leave a perfect Bezier curve of rubber on the shop floor, just inches from the Orbitron.
“Ole!” Everyone’s screaming and applauding and rolling on the floor. I take a bow. They’re all talking and laughing about something in Spanish, apparently me, and I give them a quizzical drunken look.
“Hey man, we just voted you an honorary Mexican,” says Lightbourn.
“No shit, for reals?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Your honorary Mexican name is… El Sapo.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means The Toad.”
“Because you look like that dude in American Graffiti,” he says.
I struggled to maintain my balance while they bellowed in laughter; half honored, half insulted, one hundred percent borracho. To celebrate I did something really, really stupid. I hopped into the Orbitron.
I grabbed the Cragar wheel and
shifter, pantomiming one of Roth’s monster t-shirt designs, when I realized the
enormity of my error. I remembered John Attel frying under the bubbletop like
an ant under a magnifying glass. This car had tried to kill before, and I had
given it a good reason to try again.
Thirty years passed before I encountered Roth and the curse again. It was 2001, at the World of Wheels in Chicago, and I was there with my five-year old son. When we entered the cavernous hall at McCormick place, there was a long line of mullets waiting to get an autograph from wrassler Stone Cold Steve Austin. At an adjoining table there sat a man in a top hat with a white goatee. It was Ed Roth.
Roth was sitting alone, Buddha-like, and I couldn’t believe the fact that we had him all to ourselves. After converting to Mormonism and self-imposed exile in Utah, BDR was in the midst of a full-blown renaissance. The t-shirts were selling again, the Rat Fink Reunion was drawing thousands of fans, and he was finally getting credit from the Serious Art world for his influence.
My son and I sat and talked to him for twenty minutes, alone. I mentioned our first meeting in Sioux City, and Tiny Brower. I asked him about the Mysterion and the Orbitron.
“Oh, the Mysterion’s gone,” he said. “I think the Orbitron’s somewhere in Texas.”
We had Roth sign a few items and left him to the growing crowd that started to assemble around his booth.
“Was that Santa Claus?” asked my son.
“Better,” I said. “That was Big Daddy Roth. And don’t you forget him.”
Five weeks later, Ed Roth was dead.
I sat drunk and paralyzed in the Orbitron, this black fiberglass alien sarcophagus, thinking about the curse. I wondered if it knew I had killed Roth, and whether I had passed the curse on to my son. Just then – I swear – I felt something overtaking me, a spectre of some kind. Okay, maybe it was the tequila, but I was convinced that a ghost was in there with me, taking over my soul. I clambered out and fell to the shop floor.
“Come on Sapo, let’s get out of this sausage party,” said Red Dog, lifting me up by the arm. “Before you can become a real Mexican, you got to go to the Cabaret.”
I hopped into Red Dog’s car with a few of his vatos, and we headed to the Cabaret. On the way I stuck my head out the window and screamed at a shooting star. I vaguely remember stumbling into the club, and the night evaporated into a crystaline mist of thumping bass, blacklights, and chrome.
The next morning I lied in my motel bed and had a waking dream; in it an alien stripper danced atop the Orbitron while Uncle Billy, Montezuma and Robert Oppenheimer stuffed bills in her g-string. It was interrupted by the phone.
“Hey Sapo!” barked Lightbourn. “How’s your head?”
“Been better,” I croaked.
“What you need is some menudo,” he laughed. I’ll be around in 15 minutes.”
My frayed synapses began to reassemble the memories of the night before, and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the curse had somehow allowed me to live through the night. I cautioned myself against optimism, because the day was still young. Lightbourn picked me up and we drove over to Plaza Transmissions, Sergio and Antonio’s shop, and took a few pictures of a ‘34 hot rod project inside. From there we headed to a little cocina in a strip mall a few blocks away.
“Sapo! Toad!” came the chorus as we entered. Apparently this will be my name for the duration.
Most of the crowd from last night are there, plus Gilbert and Sergio #2, two more Jefferson High gearhead alumni. “Try the menudo,” they enthuse. “Best thing going for a resaca.” Hangover cure or not, the thought of cow stomach soup is not helping my already elevated squeamishness. I decline, despite grumbles that they will rescind my Honorary Mexican privileges.
I wash down a few slugs of Tylenol with my coffee, and the conversation comes back around to the Orbitron and its first journey across the border.
“John Attel got tired of trying to get it to run, and it was pretty busted up at that point,” says Lightbourn. “The nosecone was cracked and he had thrown away the bubbletop. So around 1974 he sold it to a guy who owned a little street carnival in Juarez.”
“Yeah, they used it for a long time over there,” says Antonio. “It was in all the parades over in Juarez, too, Cinco de Mayo and Christmas, stuff like that.”
Damn, I thought. It was hard to comprehend the indignity of the Orbitron in those years; dormant but angry, in front of a Tilt-a-Whirl, serving as a photo backdrop for kiddie pictures; tugged down the street behind a parade float, like a bull being marched to the ring or a hapless victim being led to an Aztec blood sacrifice.
After the menudo joint we headed over to Sergio #2’s place, a tidy stucco house with a long, rambling backyard that leads to a secluded area containing his father’s chicken pens and Sergio #2’s collection of hoopties: a ’38 Chevy street rod, a ’42 Studebaker Commander, a ’54 Bel Air, a ’32 Tudor project. I take some pictures and crack a beer to celebrate the fact that it’s after noon, somewhere.
“So, how did it get to the sex shop?”
“The guy who owned the carnival eventually died around 1990,” explains Lightbourn. “The guy who owned the sex shop was related to him, a nephew I think. He got it in the will. By that time it must have been pretty roached out, and nobody there had any idea where it came from. ”
And there it sat for more than a decade, a sidewalk curiosity luring bypassers to browse the shop’s inventory of vibrators and lubricants.
“Come on Toad, let’s go over to Mexico so you can see the place for yourself,” Lightbourn grins.
Sergio, Mark and I pile into Lightbourn’s crewcab and we head toward the downtown bridge to Juarez. A few blocks from the bridge approach we stop at a convenience mart for provisions. Outside the mart entrance a whacked-out homeless guy is pacing, fidgeting, ranting to himself about something in Spanish.
“What the hell was he talking about?” I ask, hopping back in the truck.
“Some shit about space aliens,” says Sergio.
In August of ’74, just as the Orbitron was crossing over into Mexico, US military radar detected an object flying at 45,000 feet near the small town of Coyame in the Chihuahuan desert outside of Juarez. It suddenly dropped to 10,000 feet, and after a few minutes disappeared from the radar screens. Within an hour of the disappearance, civilian radio traffic reported a civilian plane had gone down in that same area. The next morning a Mexican search party radioed that wreckage from two planes had been spotted from the air. One was reported “circular shaped” and in one piece, although damaged. A few minutes later the Mexican military clamped radio silence on all search efforts, and refused offers of assistance by the US government.
The same day, the US Army assembled a helicopter recovery team at Fort Bliss. Low altitude US overflights indicated that both the crashed disk and the civilian aircraft had been removed from the crash sites and loaded on Mexican military trucks headed south. A second wave of US overflights spotted the convoy, halted in the desert; their radios had gone silent and the ground surrounding the trucks was littered with lifeless human bodies. When US helicopters arrived at the scene, the trucks remained but the disk -- and the bodies -- were gone.
Today Coyame is known as “the Mexican Roswell,” and conspiracy theories abound about what ever happened to the mysterious circular ship and its inhabitants. Some think it went to a secret facility in Georgia, others think it’s under control of the Mexican government. I’m not sure where it is, but I’m convinced it was the first attempt to tow the Orbitron back.
From the crest of the bridge I can see the Rio Grande. Physically, it’s a muddy concrete ditch with an extravagant name. It’s the army of uniformed agents on either side that indicate its real significance: it defines an imaginary line, separating two worlds, creating big risks and even bigger opportunities. Opportunities for treasure hunters and smugglers, for immigrants, for gringos seeking a little high-quality debauchery.
This imaginary line has long invited brutal men and rough justice. A few years after ventilating a New Mexico outlaw named William Bonney – a/k/a Billy the Kid -- Pat Garrett was appointed by Teddy Roosevelt as head U.S. Customs agent on this very spot. A lot of people suspect Garrett was killed by Jim Miller, a Texas Ranger turned cross-border outlaw, using a Colt Lightning he got from John Wesley Hardin. Hardin himself killed 44 men, including one for snoring too loud, before becoming an attorney in El Paso. He was shot dead at a craps game by El Paso lawman John Selman, after an argument over a Juarez prostitute. Selman was killed a few months later in a shootout by US Marshall George Scarborough, who in turn was shot dead by two former associates of Hardin’s during a bank robbery.
This is obviously not the place to fuck with karma, but we are. We are headed to the sex shop where the Orbitron sat all those years, and rumor has it that its previous owner now knows he let a treasure slip through his hands and is none too happy about the deal. To prepare for the final assault we stop at a Juarez mercado and buy the necessary provisions –mezcal, luchador masks, a sturdy crucifix emblazoned with the virgin of Guadeloupe. Outside the Mercado we sit down at an outdoor cantina for a ritual round of micheladas. As I sipped my drink I thought about the mission, the curse, and the last Burge to come through here - my dad.
“Greetings from the President of the United States. You have been selected by a committee of your neighbors for service in your country’s armed forces.”
Dad’s letter from Eisenhower arrived 1956. One year earlier he had packed up his ’51 Chevy Fleetline after high school graduation and headed for California, to see the sights and to work at a relative’s dairy farm outside West Covina. When he returned to the family farm in Iowa that Fall, his crewcut had grown out to greased-up Duck’s Ass -- like the kind he saw on the Mexicans in California -- and his Fleetline was lowered, with lake pipes, an Edmunds intake, and an elaborate pinstripe. Dad could never recall who striped it – “some guy in Los Angeles” – but I’ve always suspected it was Roth, who would have been just setting up shop in L.A. after his Air Force discharge. I suspect it because Grandpa’s corn dried up that year, and two days before shipping out for boot camp Dad flipped the Chevy on a gravel road and totaled it.
Dad arrived at Fort Bliss for basic in late ’56 which, according to Project Blue Book, coincided with another flurry of UFO traffic around El Paso. He ventured into Juarez four times and brought back three tattoos, a broken nose, and a case of Montezuma’s Revenge so severe that it kept him in the Bliss infirmary three days. Plus a couple of stories he didn’t tell me until I was 30, and made me promise never to repeat. I suspect he’s got a few more Juarez stories he will take to his grave. Juarez was a wild place then -- maybe wilder than it is today -- and was a hard initiation for a 19 year old hick from Iowa.
Dad spent the rest of his Army stint in Korea and returned home in late 1958. It was supposed to be temporary, because he intended to return to California for good. Instead he met a wisecracking 19-year old Irish beautician girl at the Blue Moon tavern in North Sioux City, which eventually resulted in a shotgun wedding and my big brother. Dad put away his California dream and began farming the same year I was born.
In the forty years he farmed that 640 acre patch he experienced three crop failures: in ’68, after our Sioux City encounter with Roth and the Orbitron; in ’72, after the Beatnik Bandit California trip; and in 2001, after my last fatal meeting with Roth in Chicago. That was the one that convinced my dad to hang it up and retire, and finally convinced me that Ed Roth and the Burges were knotted together in some inexplicable cosmic Aztec alien curse that doomed both of us whenever we came in contact.
At Dad’s retirement auction, most of the equipment – combines, tractors, planters -- was bought by an unfamiliar bidder with a thick Spanish accent. As he and his crewman loaded it up on flatbeds, my dad asked him where it all was going.
“Mexico,” he said. “A dairy farm in
I was thinking about one of those Juarez stories my dad told me when our waiter, Roberto, came by the table with the fourth or fifth round of Micheladas.
“Hey, Roberto,” I ask, looking around furtively, “Donde es the, um… donkey shows?”
“Sorry, senor, they all close down,” he says, shrugging apologetically. “Animal rights people complain.”
Well, that’s PETA for you. The other guys are getting bored and fidgety.
“Come on Toad, it’s time go to the sex shop,” says Lightbourn. “You drunk enough yet?”
minute, let me check with the electrocutioner.”
The street surrounding the cantina is filled with vendors offering cheap trinkets and amusements; the one I call the electrocutioner carries a device consisting of a battery with tubular metal electrodes, and offers to test your ability to withstand shock. I motion the guy over to our table.
“Let’s see what you got, amigo,” I smile, handing him five bucks.
The electrocutioner’s eyes narrow, angrily. It’s hard to tell if this guy hates his job, or loves it way too much. I grab the two metal electrodes and the electrocutioner twists the knob. At 40 volts I feel vibrations up my forearms.
“Come on, amigo, I can take more than that,” I laugh.
He gives me a silent fuck-you scowl, and starts cranking his rheostat. At 75 volts the vibrations shoot all the way up through my neck, and my hands seize up. I’m physically unable to let go of the electrodes.
“Okay, that’s enough,” I inhale. This only seems to provoke him further, and he edges the knob up more, to 85 volts. The vibrations shoot all the way up the back of my head, across my ears and face.
“No mas,” I warble, in perfect Spanish. He cuts the juice, still scowling, and I pry my fingers loose from the electrodes while the rest of the table howls in laughter.
“Let’s go, Sapo,” says Sergio. “I think you got enough of a buzz.”
En route to the sex shop we drive by the old bullfight stadium, past row after row of discount dentists and upholstery shops and streetwalkers, breathing in the diesel-perfumed air of Juarez. The boulevard grows seedier and Lightbourn threads his truck down a narrow back street. We’re only a few blocks from the sex shop, and we pull into an abandoned carwash for final preparations. Lightbourn and Sergio pull on the luchador masks, I slug back some mezcal and kiss the crucifix. Two Hail Marys later, we idle down the back street until it empties into a commercial avenue, and swing a slow left. I look out though Lightbourn’s window and see the sex shop.
It’s a boxy building with a green façade and plate glass windows, and big ‘50s era lettering reading “Baños Roma.” Another white sign reading “El Vaquero” hangs off the side. Inside, behind a wall of windows, two dudes are sitting at a desk, guarding shelves full of porn.
“Are we gonna go in?” I ask, craning my neck.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” says Lightbourn. Despite his luchador mask, the two hombres behind the glass recognize him. They stand up and shoot us the evil eye.
“Time to go,” says Lightbourn. He stomps on the throttle, and the truck’s Banks turbo whines to life.
“Wait, man, wait!” I protest. “I really, really gotta get some pictures.”
“Alright, Toad, but get ‘em quick,” says Lightbourn. He hits the brakes and drops me off curbside a couple blocks down from the sex shop, and tears off with Marky and Sergio flashing the devil’s sign in the back window.
The cumulative effect of the beer and micheladas and mezcal has left me barely able to navigate, but I work my way through a maze of alleys back to the sex shop and stake out a viewing post behind a fenced-in clump of weeds. The photos from that angle are bad, so I ease around the corner for a better view.
Fuck. Now the two dudes have spotted me, and are reaching behind the desk for something. I double-back and dart into an alley cattywampus from the sex shop, and as I glance out from behind the building I see them angrily emerging from the entrance. One dude holds a pair of binoculars; the other is holding his left arm low, behind his back, concealing what I know is a gun. They get into a Toyota truck. Two small shreds of luck: I’m undetected, and my bladder is still marginally under control. But neither is going to stay true if I stay at this spot. I begin walking quickly down the side street.
Before the end of the block it dawns on me: I have no idea where I am, other than a real shitty part of Juarez, Chihuahua, with two angry dudes looking to do me harm. The stares of the people I pass on the side street inform me that I stick out like a sore gringo thumb, and if those dudes start asking around about a scared drunk gabacho with a camera and toad glasses, it will only be a matter of time until I’m cornered.
AHA! Even in my advanced state of inebriation, I suddenly, giddily, realize I have a cell phone with Lightbourn’s number in it, and all I have to do is call him, and get directions, and… and my fucking cell phone is dead.
The panic kicks in. This is it, I think; this is where that goddamn curse finally kills me. I pinned my back against a creosote utility pole, in a ridiculous attempt to hide from fate. All of it started to flash in front of my eyes; Uncle Billy and Grandpa and Dad, Cortez and Pancho Villa, Ed Roth and the aliens. I thought about my wife, and our kids, and how she would eventually have to explain to them that their father was shot dead in a misunderstanding in front of a Juarez sex shop, and that it was all because of a demon car called the Orbitron, and that they, as a result, carry a curse that will haunt them the rest of their days.
It’s Marky, across the street, crouched down low. I’ve never been happier to see anyone in my life.
“Come on man, follow me,” he says. We run full speed down the backstreet and around a corner to where the truck is waiting. We dive in, and the acceleration slams the doors shut.
“Gracias, gracias, mil gracias,” I pant, hyperventilating.
“Ain’t no thing, clown,” says
Sergio, smacking me on the back of the head. “Us Mexicans stick together.”
During dinner we toast anything that moves. It’s at the Chaparral, a swanky joint in Juarez owned by Lightbourn’s friend Jorge Zaragoza. It shares a parking lot with another Zaragoza property, the world’s largest Krispy Kreme donut store. The food at the Chaparral is outstanding, and the walls are covered in array of mounted big game trophy heads; big glass displays along the wall contain complete stuffed lions, and crocodiles, and bears.
“Jorge shot all of those,” says Lightbourn pointing around. “That’s why he got into hot rods. It’s a lot cheaper than lion safaris in Africa.”
Before dinner is over we’re joined by Valentin, a young guy who works for Lightbourn and has arrived in his home-built Roush Mustang clone. A few minutes later we’re rejoined by Daniel and his Centauro brother Javier, who offer their services as guides.
“What do you guys think I need to see?”
“Las Fuentes,” came the chorus.
Daniel and Javier provide a
two-chopper escort to Las Fuentes, where we are stopped at the entrance gate by
a team of tuxedoed bouncers wielding flashlights. They perform a quick search
in and under the truck for booze and firearms, and wave us in. It would be
probably be unfair to call this place an “outdoor whorehouse”; it’s more a big
cruise-in parking lot where you can buy a cold beer or, if the mood strikes, a
blowjob or an around-the-world. Sort of like American Graffiti, as imagined by
Ron Jeremy. It has two long A&W
style carports, and a central building where beer-serving waiters are
stationed. Independent working girls roam from car to car, advertising their
wares, and there’s a $10-per-hour motel conveniently located at the back of the
lot for completing transactions too complicated for the front seat of a car.
On the nearside of the lot there’s a modern shelter area with an outdoor bar and table seating, where we take a perch. We order a round of beers from the waiter, and politely decline a few offers of discount erotic relief from the working girls. I notice the front half of a monster truck sticking out of the wall behind the shelter bar, with a bleached cow skull in its grille. “The guy who owns this place is really into monster trucks,” says Lightbourn, lighting a Cuban cigar. “He used to have one of the Bigfoot trucks up on the wall, but it fell off.”
“I heard it killed somebody,” says Sergio.
I thought about that poor miserable bastard, on his way to take a piss, only to get flattened by a falling bisected monster truck. I wondered if his family had some sort of parallel universe Bigfoot curse.
The Las Fuentes lot is busy, with a few nice hoopties; tuner cars, 4x4s, American muscle. Alongside our side of the lot there are a dozen or so Harleys belonging to the Jefes, another Juarez bike club friendly with Los Centauros. Daniel introduces me to the Jefes, and translates my request for pictures. A few more rounds and I’m back to the same buzz level I was earlier in the day, before the adrenaline slapped me sober.
All of a sudden the air is pierced by shouting. We look around back by the motel area and see two working girls sprinting across the asphalt, one of them carrying a pair of pants; the shouting is coming from a stocky little pantsless guy in hot pursuit. The girls split up and head for two different exits, leaving the guy cursing breathlessly in his jockey shorts. Apparently he purchased a three-way from the two putas, and flashed a payday wallet full of cash to prove he could make good on the bill. As soon as they got to the motel room, the putas laid him back on the bed, removed his pants, and bolted for the exit.
“Shit,” says the despondent dude, in Spanish. “That was my electric bill money.”
It was impossible not to laugh at the poor bastard and his predicament, and equally impossible not to feel empathy. We all chipped in a few pesos so he could at least replace the pants.
We left Las Fuentes and headed for old downtown Juarez, again with Daniel and Javier forming an escort. Along the way we passed by a big GaleriasTec store.
“Holy shit, stop, stop, alto,” I slur. The parking lot of the store is filled with an array of drag racers and street racers, surrounding a long yellow dragster that has been pulled out of its trailer. Daniel and Javier and Valentin have seen it too, and are already pulling in. A pretty big crowd is gathered there, a few doing burnouts. Along the boulevard a white and blue school bus full of Mestizos look on warily from their windows.
We get out of the truck and begin taking pictures when another guy named Javier introduces himself. He is the owner of the Sama Layuca Dragway, a quarter mile strip on the desert outskirts of Juarez. Through Daniel, he explains that the yellow dragster reigns as the fastest car in all of Mexico, and that next weekend– on Dia de los Muertos -- it will defend that title against a Pro Street Vega coming north from Ciudad Chihuahua. I’m bummed that I will have to miss it, but I’m pretty sure I know which one will win.
Pulling out of the parking lot Valentin lays a nasty long burnout with his Mustang and we continue toward old downtown Juarez. Daniel and Javier flash their Centauros badges to the bouncers directing streetside parking, and we commandeer parking slots outside Kentucky Bar. By reputation, it’s the oldest continuously operating tavern in Juarez. It opened in 1920, just as Prohibition was starting, and was named in honor of a rolling group of Kentucky boys from Fort Bliss who enjoyed ritually spending their US Army pay on this side of the border. Daniel knows the doorman, an older gentleman in a three-piece suit, and he welcomes us in deferentially despite my wobbling stance. We order rounds of tequila, and hoist it in a toast the Bluegrass State.
My third wave of tequila for the day began crashing into my second, and they both careened into the morning’s beer and micheladas; it was becoming harder and harder to speak, but for some reason I was pretty sure I could understand everybody else’s Spanish.
“It’s getting late, Sapo,” says Lightbourn. “I gotta get home, and it’s gonna take an hour to get you back over the bridge and to the motel.”
Shit. Here I am, an honorary Mexican, and now they want to smuggle me back across the border? I’ve got half a mind to report them to the INS.
“Thanks anyway dude, I think I’m gonna stay here for a while,” I grin. “I’ll catch a cab back over. Talk to you mañana.”
Outside the Kentucky bar we said goodbye to Lightbourn and Marky and Sergio. Daniel and Javier and I took a tour down the dark side streets off the main drag, illuminated only by the occasional club marquee. We walked the dark gamut, trading swigs of tequila, stopping every 50 feet or so to dialog with the working girls standing inside the shadowy doorways. They ask us if we want to fook; we ask if they know anything about the Orbitron.
After 30 minutes of research, we returned to the main drag and I hailed a cab.
“Where to, señor?”
“Everywhere,” I tell him, throwing a couple of twenties up on his seat. I was shitfaced, exhausted, and euphoric. I had somehow survived my own personal Apocalypto, cheating the gruesome death sentence I had expected ever since I landed 36 hours earlier. I am El Sapo, Honorary Mexican, the Tequila Toad King of the Aztecs, and I am alive.
Then the tequila logic strikes me: what if I actually am dead, and I just don’t realize it? I spotted an all-night taqueria and realized there was one way to find out.
“Stop, alto,” I said to the cabbie, waving my arms aimlessly. “Keep the engine running.”
In my tequila-addle mind I reasoned
that (a) if I were dead, that would make me a zombie; and, (b) if a zombie,
there would be nothing I would enjoy more than a nice warm dinner of fresh
brains. I swayed up to the taqueria counter and ordered a taco de Cabeza.
“Mmnmgm, braaaiinnns,” I mumble, trying to do my best zombie imitation. I bite down into the taco, and the acrid tasting brain goes down and mixes with the tequila and mescal and beer already occupying my gullet. A few minutes later I run into a side alley and the whole mess comes barreling right back up.
I wipe off my soulpatch with a sigh of relief: yep, I’m still alive.
“Home, James,” I tell the cabbie, pointing to the bridge.
The next morning I laid in my motel bed and had another dream. I saw the disembodied head of Ed Roth floating around the room, wearing a sombrero; it was the same image of Big Daddy that decorated my old Beatnik Bandit model kit box, the one I had him sign at the Sioux City Auditorium. He didn’t say anything, but his beaming goateed grin seemed to communicate that he was at peace, and that maybe things were finally cool between us.
Lightbourn picked me outside the motel around 9:30. He had his wife Tina and her sister Lorena with him.
“You must be El Sapo,” says Tina.
“One and the same,” I answer, lifting my cap.
We picked up Sergio and crossed back over the bridge into Juarez, and made another pass through the Mercado. Amid all the cheap t-shirts and trinkets I spotted one souvenir I couldn’t pass up: a big, fat, stuffed bullfrog.
After the Mercado we all went to an outdoor café where we met a dozen or so of the Centauros for Sunday desayuno. Daniel and Javier were there, along with Heber and Norma; Abraham, Rico, Patty and Mike, and five or six others. Most of the club were off on a memorial ride into Chihuahua as a remembrance for a recently fallen comrade, but Heber said the group here had stayed behind to give me a special sendoff.
We raised a toast to the fallen
Centauro, then formed a motorcade through the streets of Juarez. We headed out
to the old river road that runs along the Rio Grande, past sandy parks of
Sunday morning soccer games. After a half hour ride in the desert flats
southeast of town we reached our destination: the Pancho Villa memorial statue.
I think Uncle Billy would be glad to know I finally found that rascal.
While we were loading up for the drive back, Abraham noticed my stuffed toad, the one I bought at the Mercado earlier.
“Ah, this is a good thing to have,” he said. “In Mexico, the toad is good luck.”
I smiled all the way back to Juarez, where we all made a brief stop at Las Fuentes for the Sunday morning car show of the Juarez Mustang club. From there the Centauros escorted us all the way to the El Paso bridge. As we were saying our final goodbyes, Heber motioned me over.
“This is something for you to keep,” he said. He handed me a framed picture of Pancho Villa shaking hands with Black Jack Pershing, signed by all the Centauros.
Once we were back in the States we headed to the home of Lightbourn’s friend Jorge Zaragoza, who has invited us over for a garage tour. We reach a pair of massive steel gates which open silently, and drive a long winding lane up to a spacious stucco hacienda.
Zaragoza meets us at the front door, and shakes my hand warily. He is lean and mustachioed, with a look that tells you he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I’m not sure what Lightbourn has told him, but I figure I should be on my best behavior.
The garage tour is jaw-dropping. The stall closest to the house contains Zaragoza’s wife’s car, an Aztec gold ’33 Ford sedan built by Roy Brizio that was a recent Rodder’s Journal cover car. Another attached garage contains nine more cars, including a GT40, a one-of-four ’69 Trans Am convertible, an equally rare ’70 Hemi Cuda convertible, and six more Brizio hot rods. The floors of the garage are Italian marble, and the walls are decorated with vintage Vargas pinups, including several originals.
“Jorge is a just a regular guy,” jokes Lightbourn. “He digs cars and women.”
There’s a third garage away from the main house containing a collection of jukeboxes and a dozen or so additional cars; Corvettes and Vipers, old Trans Ams, a nice old woody wagon. The piece de resistance is the Jack Calori ’36 Ford custom coupe that won the Pebble Beach Concourse d’Elegance a few months ago. Zaragoza owns a few more cars that are currently out in California, including the Tom McMullen ’32 roadster.
No doubt about it, the family dairy business in Mexico has been good to Jorge Zaragoza. Which gets me to wondering: could this be the same Mexican dairyman who bought all my dad’s tractors?
“Maybe,” says Zaragoza. “We sometimes buy equipment in the States for our corn operations.”
“Senor Zaragoza,” I smile, “You’ve got good taste in machinery.”
On the way to the airport Lightbourn obliged my request to drop by the warehouse and take a few final pictures of the Orbitron. It was really a ruse, because I wanted to perform a paranormal experiment. I snapped off a few pictures then hopped in behind the wheel of the Orbitron one more time. I sat for a few minutes, silently, and didn’t have the slightest sensation of specters, or ghosts, or impending doom.
Since finding the Orbitron, Lightbourn has receive offers to buy it from around the world. He’s not sure who will finally end up with it, but one thing is certain: the Orbitron will soon be restored to its original 1964 glory. Knowing that, and knowing the long purgatory it went through, lends the car a quality of redemption and the sense that somewhere it is finally making Ed Roth happy. Maybe, like the Aztecs’ excrement of the gods, it was never meant to be found; but somehow the gods no longer seemed angry.
By then it was time to go home. We closed the warehouse doors, and I said a final goodbye to the Orbitron, and the curse.
Epilogue: The Orbitron last weekend at the Detroit Autorama, expertly restored by Dave Shuten for new owner Beau Boeckmann.