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With Dad at Heise Station—he was a carpenter—we were able to start the building projects the parents had planned. Dad and Uncle Ernie built a living room, a bathroom, and a couple more bedrooms—one big one for all us boys. We painted and moved in two sets of Navy-surplus bunk beds and we were all set. Rick and I, being the two oldest, got the tops, Wayne was in one bottom, but Bob wasn’t quite ready to move in with the big guys yet. He was still in his crib.

Although it was September, and I’d already started school, summertime still reigned in the Imperial Valley. You don’t know hot until you’ve spent a summer in the Valley. In 1952 we didn’t have air conditioning and wouldn’t enjoy that luxury until we bought our new house in El Centro in 1956. All we had were the “swamp coolers,” which were just big electric fans built into a box with water piped through it. They did help to make things bearable, and it was cooler in the café than it was in the rest of the building, so I did my homework at one of the café tables. We had homework in the first grade, though it was pretty easy for me since first grade in California was using the same Dick and Jane book I’d already had in my kindergarten class last year in Detroit.

One evening, a neighboring farmer came into the café with a young woman, and Auntie Honey      whispered to my mom, “That’s not his wife; it’s his girl friend. They come in about once a week, drink some beer, and rent one of the cabins out back.”

About that time, Mom noticed me listening with big ears and said, “You keep your eyes on your homework and scoot as soon as you’re finished.”

“Okay, but I wanna watch the guy with his girlfriend.”

“Shush, you!”

“Okay, okay.”

In between Dick and Jane and Sally running and Spot jumping, I watched the man and the girl sit in the booth and drink cold beer. They were laughing and having a great time, but the man looked awfully sweaty. Sweating was the usual condition for most people in the desert, but this guy had sweat pouring down his face. It didn’t seem to slow down his beer drinking, though I thought his girlfriend looked a little worried.

Just about that time, I saw him sort of jerk and drop his beer bottle onto the Formica-topped table. Then his head snapped forward, and he just smacked his face flat on the table. The bottle rolled off the table and shattered on the linoleum floor, splashing beer and broken glass, the girlfriend screamed and started babbling in Spanish, Auntie Honey yelled for Uncle Ernie, and I just sat there and watched the entire spectacle.

Uncle Ernie bent over the man in the booth, and then I saw him look up and shake his head at Mom and Auntie Honey. The guy was dead! Auntie Honey made a phone call, and pretty soon the Sheriff and an ambulance showed up and took the dead man and the girl away. Later I learned that some bees had stung the man before the two had arrived at the café. Apparently, he was allergic to the bee venom, and it killed him. Mom said they felt bad when his wife and family showed up and learned he had been with his girlfriend when he died. All in all, it was more exciting than being chased up a tree by a tarantula, but not as exciting as the fight between a couple of truck drivers.

NEXT WEEK: FISTICUFFS IN THE CAFE