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It was about 1960 when my friend Bob Beadle and I went on a surf trip for a few days to “local Baja,” meaning south of Baja Malibu, north of Ensenada. We departed Huntington on a Friday morning and drove along PCH. As we passed Salt Creek, we noticed the watermelon fields (today covered with houses) that sat between the highway and the beach, just before Dana Point. They looked as if they had been harvested, but a lot of melons had been left. This was too good. We pulled over and gathered a half dozen or so and drove on.
We spent the next two days camped on the bluff at K51 enjoying whatever surf there was. Early Sunday morning, we pulled camp and motored north back toward Tijuana and Plaza Monumental, known as the Bullring by the Sea. We arrived in time to find seats on the sunny side of the stands and settled in before the fights started. The crowd was largely Mexicano, with a few gringos here and there. While glancing around, we noticed that a group of well-known Windansea surfers, including Butch Van Artsdalen and Chuck Hasley, were just a few rows behind us. They were known for being rowdy. As for Bob and me, we’d each brought half a watermelon liberally soaked with tequila.
After the usual pomp and circumstance of the day’s matadors and picadors parading the ring on foot and then retreating behind the barriers, the actual fights began, with two lesser matadors preceding the main attraction. While the period’s leading bullfighting figures were from Spain, that day featured Luis Procuna, the godlike Mexican figure, a hero to his country.
His first bull went artfully for him. The second, not so well, and when he bungled the final sword plunge, the crowd rose to jeer and throw bottles, cushions, and hats, all of which came sailing into the ring as Procuna slowly walked its edge, his arms raised, humbly accepting the crowd’s displeasure. While the raucous demonstration continued, I stood and raised the watermelon half over my head, making a gesture as if I was considering throwing it into the ring. My action was met with a myriad of cries: “Throw it! Throw it!” So I did, immediately regretting that I had.
It was a two-handed launch that arced high over the heads of the crowd to shockingly explode at Procuna’s feet, splashing him with tequila-laced juice and chunks of watermelon flesh. Bob had followed suit, both melons hitting almost simultaneously, doubling the impact.
There was a shocked silence all around us. Bob quickly sat, but I remained standing, jolted by what had happened. Several people in the crowd then began shouting “He did it! He did it!” while pointing at me. I could hear the surfers from Windansea urging me to sit down, but I was frozen. Then I noticed two Mexican police officers wading toward me through the crowd.
When they reached me, they each grabbed an arm and led me out of the stands, down the stairs, and to a chain-link fence surrounding the stadium, to which I was handcuffed. Then they departed, leaving me alone and dumbfounded by my own actions. After a while, Bob appeared and asked what was happening. Suddenly, the officers showed up again and cuffed him to the fence as well. So much for his caring about what was happening to a friend…
They left us there and returned to their duties at the bullfight. In the interim, a group of young boys approached us from the other side of the fence and tried to pee on us. As we attempted to dodge their streams, the cops returned and, after watching amusedly, shooed them away. Following a period of apprehensive thoughts, the fight was finally over.
We were led to a paddy wagon and loaded into the back as the crowd exited the arena. Once inside the vehicle, we observed that it was essentially a metal box with small holes in the floor, the function of which we came to understand thanks to a drunk who was already in the box and urinating through the holes, his stream running down the floor toward our bare feet.
We spent some more time swearing and dancing to avoid piss. Then the vehicle started moving. We were being taken to jail. After about a half hour of driving through town, we stopped, were unloaded, and were escorted into what appeared to be a large cement-floored room, with an entry cubicle and booking desk behind us and a block of three locked cells facing each other.
Across from the cellblock was a low wall, on top of which was a railing that policemen would lean on occasionally to observe us, seemingly for entertainment. Occupying that area was a small man who seemed to be free to roam and whom the officers on the railing would tease and taunt from time to time. We gathered that he was a mascot of sorts, perhaps mentally impaired, and kept for their amusement.
After a while, we noticed that one of the cells was being used as a toilet and that every so often the mascot would grab an empty tin can and scoop some of the contents off the floor. He’d then throw it through the bars onto one of the inhabitants of the other cells, an action that was, of course, followed by swearing and cursing.
Once in a while, one of the officers leaning on the railing would command the mascot to take roll of the prisoners. He joyfully performed the task with great ceremony, grabbing a clipboard off a nail and announcing names to the mirth of the policeman. On the back wall of this room was a large metal door through which prisoners were led in or out. We determined that it was the gate to Hades. Through that door came the sounds of incarceration hell.
We were held in that space for the rest of the day. Just before dark, we were led into another room that appeared to be used as a court. We were told we each had been fined $25, without payment of which we must serve 15 days. Then we were brought back to the holding room.
At some point the first evening, Bob and I were advised that we had visitors. It turned out to be Butch and his girlfriend. He asked what we had been charged with and told us to give him what money we had; he would return to Windansea, collect the difference, and come back to bail us out. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any money. Bob had $8 and gave Butch $6. Butch said he’d hurry back, then left. That gave us a little hope.
Late that night, we were walked back through the metal doors into what we learned was the major cellblock, where they held the sentenced prisoners. It consisted of three rows of cells stacked against a cement wall, each row eight cells long. A gutter ran diagonally across the back of each row, from the top left corner of the first cell to the bottom right of the last, back and forth to the final cell on the bottom row. That gutter was the toilet. At the start of each row, the trough was so high that it was hard to use, and at the low end it overflowed onto the cell floor before making the turn onto the next row.
We found out that the guards used those inconveniences to punish inmates, moving them according to their behavior. In our cell, located in the middle of the floor-level cellblock, were three bunks made of wooden boards stacked against each side. Meals and drinking water, if you could call them that, were delivered three times a day. Breakfast was a cup of oatmeal soup, lunch a cup of undeterminable soup, and dinner a cup of rice with questionable gravy.
Drinking water was ladled from the same bucket that was provided to flush the trough three times a day. If you had no money, that’s all you had to drink. However, with money, you could order anything—and I mean anything—to be delivered from outside the jail. It made the jail’s policy of allowing prisoners to keep their money based on their behavior quite effective. We used the $2 Bob had kept for drinking water at 25 cents per cup.
There were four other men in our cell. We soon learned their stories—what they had done to end up there. One American, whose name I can’t remember, was living in Tijuana and claimed he had been in every major prison in the United States. He had the money to get out, but was doing the time instead, so they wouldn’t arrest him anymore. It was decided among them that we were the worst offenders of the lot, which shocked us.
The next morning, a Monday, a pair of officials from the US Embassy in Tijuana came to see who had been incarcerated over the weekend. They explained that each of us would get one call a day to notify someone of our situation. If the call wasn’t answered, that was it for the day. We spent that night, the next day, and the following morning in the cell.
About midday Wednesday, a prison guard walked up to our cell and read from a paper: “Esteban Wolfe P.” Next he read, “Roberto James B.” Because of his pronunciation, neither Bob nor I recognized that those were our names. He then read the names again, and one of the other cell occupants nudged us. “Hey,” he said. “That’s you guys!” We both sat up.
They opened the cell, took us out, and led us through the metal door back to the outer holding room. Bob’s father, a commander in the US Navy, was standing there, waiting with my father. They had already paid our fines, and we were released. Our relief was immense.
My dad’s car was parked in front of the jail. We got in and, on the way home, slowly explained how it had all occurred. Neither of our fathers seemed mad—more amused and relieved. My dad said that they had shared stories of their own youth on the drive down.
About a week later, Bob received a check for $6, along with a note of apology, from the girl Butch had been with. It turned out he had stopped at the infamous Long Bar in TJ on the way back to Windansea, gotten very drunk, and forgotten all about us. Later yet, we heard that a newspaper from the San Diego area had run an article headlined, “Hoodlum Surfers Throw Watermelon at Procuna.” The whole incident had made us heroes among our friends.
Several years later, when Bob was attending UCLA, his then-girlfriend, Susie Cruz, and a lady friend crashed a bullfight-aficionado party in nearby Beverly Hills, where the guest of honor happened to be Luis Procuna. When queried by a party attendee about what his worst moment in the ring was, he replied, “Being hit by a thrown watermelon at Plaza Monumental.”
[Illustrations by Mattieu Cossé]
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