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Jack Smith

Man, as 'a shaper of the landscape,' paints a rusted iron window grille

January 15, 1987|JACK SMITH

BAJA DIARY — We drove over to Puerto Santo Tomas on Friday morning.

It is two miles over a very bad road to the port, which is nothing but a fishing camp, a collection of shacks and immobile trailers, a defunct and indescribably squalid motel and a barren store that is rarely open.

There is something mysterious about the port. It is in the Twilight Zone. It clings to a dark stony point that crumbles down to a starkly beautiful cove on the open sea, and curves protectively around a harbor in the bay.

Thirty-five small fishing boats, each with its outboard motor shipped, lay at anchor in the harbor, as restless as tethered dogs. All day long campers and pickup trucks and battered old Fords and Chevies rattle past our house going to and from the port.

But no one ever seems to be there. Where are the owners of the boats? Where are the patrons of the store? Where is its proprietor? Out on the point above the cove we saw two young American men sitting in the sun against a camper. Otherwise the port was deserted.

It looked like something described by Orwell or the late John D. MacDonald in their nightmares of a polluted paradise. Rows of shacks were pieced together from strips of plywood, sheets of cloth, car doors, cardboard and tin-plate. Their windows were unglazed, their roofs holed. Discarded pasteboard and plastic wrappings, cans and beer bottles littered the grounds. We didn't even see a dog.

At one time I had shared a fantasy about the port with Gomez. We were going to raise the money to buy it and turn it into a luxury resort. A few years ago that was tried by an American. He went broke. A month or so ago Pancho Francisco, the owner of the store and patron of the port, was killed while walking across the road in Maneadero.

There was an air of bad luck about the port. And yet the store had a new porch with an arched brick facade. I had heard that Pancho's widow, Celia, was trying to carry on.

Who knows? Perhaps someday the port will be cleaned up, the motel will be rehabilitated, the fishermen will return and the store will prosper.

And someday Gomez will repair our bathroom cabinet.

In the afternoon I walked with Suzie, our dog, down to the pebble beach. To the north of our house, between us and the point, the bay shore is a crescent. Gold sandstone cliffs rise steeply from the surf, which crashes onto a narrow pebbly beach. At low tide a strip of sand appears between the pebbles and the surf, and the surf spreads itself gently on the sand. My Airedale, Pugs, who died a couple of years ago, loved to leap and splash in this shallow foamy water.

A steep road goes down a deep barranca from the terrace to the shore. Often I find a lone pair of campers at the bottom. On one memorable day Pugs and I had walked half a mile up the beach, and on our return we surprised a couple of nude young women stretched out prone on a blanket. His muzzle dripping wet seaweed, Pugs bunched his muscles to spring on the two most salient targets of opportunity, but I grabbed his collar just in time, regretting it, and we crunched on by unnoticed.

This time a young man and woman, evidently Americans, were pitching a tent on the ground above the pebbles. I didn't envy them. There are degrees of hardship beyond which I won't go. Our cozy house with its fireplace, refrigerator and hot water was primitive enough for me.

On Saturday my wife finished scrubbing down the bathroom walls. Feeling guilty, I suppose, I got out a bucket of black paint from the back bedroom closet and painted one of the iron window grilles, using a painting glove. The grilles are ornamental, with fancy loops and spirals, and tedious to paint. Those in front of the house, on the windward side, are deeply encrusted with rust--beyond rescue. Already I am thinking of how to replace them, and what with. Gold would rust down here. While painting, I eased the tedium somewhat by listening to the Redskins drub the Bears.

Lena, the Paiges' house guest, came by. She wondered if my wife would mail a letter for her. The others were leaving, but she and Jeff, another guest, were staying another week. Also, she wondered if we had some cooking oil she could borrow. My wife gave her an unopened bottle and asked if she would mind taking back the putty knife I had borrowed from Ralph Paige.

We were neighbors. It was the kind of exchange that I suspect sustained life in frontier days, when people lived out beyond the convenience of 7-Eleven stores and the postman didn't even ring once.

That night I read "The Ascent of Man," by J. Bronowski, the scientific humanist. It is an account of creative man's rise from that prehistoric creature who was our common ancestor with the apes.

"Man is a singular creature," he says at the beginning. "He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals; so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape--he is a shaper of the landscape."

How true. Man has shaped Los Angeles. He has shaped Miami, New York City and Paris.

And he has shaped the port of Santo Tomas.

I hope that our Baja house has not littered the landscape, but enhanced it.

Only God can say.

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