When I was a boy I was low-man of the rather large Landa-cousin gang that convened on family gatherings and special occasions for mayhem and general mischief. On new years that meant lighting cuetes, firecrackers, sparklers and bottle rockets; none of the fancy roman candle stuff they had on the gringo side of the river, we had palomas, watch out.
A paloma, for the uninitiated, was gun powder madness. Getting them involved a trip to the Mercado, downtown on Guerrero street. I knew because I had seen them there, not because I had bought them; buying them was the realm of the older cousins, the ones who owned the world because they could drive (in Nuevo Laredo that meant that they were at least 13 – it was another time, another place). Palomas came in varying sizes: from the small one peso size about as big as your thumb, to the whopper five peso mega paloma that filled the palm of your hand. They looked innocuous enough: newspaper, folded into a triangle, layer after layer, thick and bound tight with tape, filled with pólvora, a small (and this is key, the smallness) fuse protruding from a tiny hole on the side of it.
Matches were a cumbersome ignition; keeping the flame live, huddling to stop the wind, burning your finger tips, cousins yelling que no se te apague, don’t let it go out! The small ember on the end of a cigarette was much more practical. Being the smallest of the Landa’s at the time, with little authority in the group, I was to hold the source of fire so the older cousins could light the fuses and run. It involved a steady hand and a healthy distrust of my cousins intentions, not that they were mean, they were dorks, and that was more dangerous.
My job then was simple and vital: keep the cigarette ready and not let it go out. You can see where I’m going, the only way to keep a lit cigarette from going out is to puff, repeatedly. I did my job well.
We had bottle rocket wars, using neighborhood cars and hedges for cover, oblivious to our mother’s warnings to not shoot them at each other and despite our fathers admonitions “no sean pendejos.” We were. We used coke bottles because the were de rigueur. The braver, more intrepid cousins lit the rocket holding it in their bare hands and waited ’till the last second when they flung it, like pitching a baseball, at their target. Fun times.
The mega palomas were my favorite bacasue it was just me and the oldest of my primos. Everyone else had run to find cover. We’d creep up to some unsuspecting neighbor’s trash can, my hand steady, my cousin lighting the fuse, dropping into the can and running for the nearest tree. The object was not to destroy the can, but to make it fly. And they flew. A boom that echoed a block away, trash can flipping in the air, a platoon of ne’er-do-well kids cheering and scurrying. We’d make it back in time for the count-down and tamales.
Not once did the cigarette go out. It was the beginning of a 15 year smoking habit that I finally kicked just before my son was born, some 20 years ago.
I’ve since moved on to the more urbane champagne, hugs and noise makers. But I can’t help, on New Years Eve, to close my eyes and be there, if just for a moment, with a band of little thrill seekers, running, conspiring, laughing, smoking.
Blessings on this new year. Un abrazao a todos y cuidado, no sean pendejos.
[Photo by Topato]